The police came looking for me today

Trip Start Oct 31, 2012
Trip End Dec 12, 2012

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Sunday, December 2, 2012

Yesterday, when I was reading the various newspapers and web portals over breakfast, I read about the over-the-top Christmas lights the US Embassy had adorned itself with; the general consensus is that it is tacky. If I go by the embassy, I will stop by and see for myself. Like yesterday, I again read while having breakfast, but stick to the visitors guides put out by different tourist boards.

Like all cities in the world, the different establishments try to outdo one another to lure the tourists to their businesses. The restaurants offer up Cambodian tapas -- tapas are small plates in Spain, which seems to be the current fusion rage in the city. Restaurants using only organic products are also popping up, and are rather quite good. Tortillas are used in many of the items on menus, and are identified as such. While I am no foodie, I do have to give credit to one publication for being honest about its entry for one of the many eating establishments in the city. In its recommendation about the Russian Market, it states, "There are some good local food and drink stands in the middle of the market for the hygenically advernturous."

As for the bars, they are very suggestive by name; I doubt even the James Bond series would utilize some of the names for its characters. Each place claims to have the best bar hostesses, and one bar states that if you are lonely, bored, and/or hungry, you can satisfy any and all of your needs at this one establishment. Since last night was Saturday, the big thing to do after visiting a bar is to head out to the "Heart of Darkness," a very popular, if (in)famous, nightclub that is a must-see and -do for foreigners. Some other foreigners invited me to go with them, but I wasn't in the least bit curious, so passed up their offers. According to what I had previously read and been told, it is a huge nightclub where everything goes, and is well attended by all walks of Cambodian life; it runs every night from 6 pm to 6 am. The few pictures I saw of the joint rather turned me off.

I don't know why it is, but in Asia, like Latin America, drag shows are extremely popular. In Asia, they call them ladyboys, in Latin America, transvestis. Regardless of what you call them, they don't interest me, but are a hit with least when they are traveling, though the story may be/probably is different when they are back in their home countries. Many bars offer up such shows for those that are interested.

Since none of those interest me, I stick to my guidebook, and today my itinerary includes the beautiful French-designed post office; Wat Phnom, which is where the city was founded by some rich lady who claims to have found a Buddha statue there, and was divinely told to build a shrine in its honor, all of this happening hundreds of years ago, the art deco designed Central Market, which offers up good to the local citizen; the Russian Market, which was given this name by the locals in the 1980s when the Russians moved into the city en masse -- they are still here for some reason, and it can't be just for the girls, and where all kinds of goods can be had, and is a popular place for souvenirs; the Raffles Hotel, part of the luxury chain of hotels in SE Asia that were built in the early 1920s -- like its Siem Reap counterpart, it celebrates the most famous people who stayed there, and Jackie O is the most prominent image that it shown, her image dominates a montage of other famous people, like Charlie Chaplin, and is the only woman included; and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum.

I had plans to visit both Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields Memorial, which is located about 10 miles outside the city, but after a visit to Toul Sleng, I decided not to.

The country of Cambodia seems to have always suffered from violence. When it's not being attacked by foreign invaders, it seems to fill the gap with violence against itself. In the 1960s, with the French gone, a civil war was bubbling. One group overthrew the king, ruled over parts of the country, but were unable to do so in other parts, which were dominated by the Khmer Rouge, so a continuous war was waged between the two. Then you had Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who decided they wanted to get involved and bomb the hell out of the country to root out any Vietcong who might be hiding out in this country. With so many factions involved, it is amazing that anyone survived the violence from all sides. After the American withdrew, the war returned to the original two, with the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, overthrowing the recognized government. At first the people thought the Khmer Rouge would be a blessing to the country, but were soon to find out differently.

When the Khmer Rouge took power as avowed communists, it decided to redefine society. They killed intellectuals, educated people, people who were suspected of being against them, people in the arts, people who they claim supported the French or the US (including those in mixed marriages), and just about everyone else they didn't like, which included their own members. The government decided that the best thing for the country was to return it to an agrarian society, as they tried to do and failed in China, so made everyone move to the countryside to farm and support the government.

At the time of the reign of terror, over 3 million people lived in Phnom Penh, yet everyone was forced to abandon the city. There is a documentary that shows what Phnom Penh was like after all 3 million residents were forced out of the city. It was really eerie to watch footage of a huge city void of any life, just empty buildings and streets sitting abandoned, while the residents were relocated around the country into back breaking farming. In the end, about 25% of the population was killed by the regime, only to be overthrown itself by the Vietnamese army.

Prior to it being used as a detention center, Toul Sleng was nothing more than a regular high school. The classrooms were then turned into prisons and torture rooms. Today, the place serves as a genocide museum to show the barbarity of the party, and a tribute to those who passed through the doors, with very, very few to survive. The torture chambers are still there for you to see, rooms contain nothing more than pictures of people who passed through those doors, which is to give a face to the victims, and even includes a section dedicated to foreigners who were also detained and killed. The Killing Fields Memorial is where they did mass executions, then buried the victims in mass graves, which are still visible when walking around the site. The museum was enough for me, so I decided not to go to the memorial.

There is, of course, the wonderful non-fiction book and award-winning movie "The Killing Fields," that recounts the story of a New York Times war reporter looking for his translator and friend, who had been sent to the killing fields -- there are tons of them all over the country -- and was lucky enough to find him alive. There is another movie, though I don't recall the name, that tells the plight of locals who took refuge in the French embassy. The Khmer Rouge gave the French embassy the ultimatum: either turn the locals over to them -- this included spouses married to French people, or they would storm the embassy and kill everyone. The French turned over the locals, who were killed, the French were kicked out of the country, and their embassy was destroyed.

The irony of it all is that while intellectuals were the first group to be targeted and killled by the Khmer Rouge, their leaders themselves were not only intellectuals, but the most brilliant ones at that, as most of them had won coveted scholarships from the French government to attend college at the most exclusive universities in France!

While at the Toul Sleng Museum, amidst the photos of victims, original documents -- the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records on what they did, displays of skeletons, torture machines, and such, I was most taken aback by a conversation one of the tour guides was having with his group; I was in the same room as them while he was telling his own personal story. It wasn't about his own hardships of forced labor, trying to stay alive, being hungry all the time, or knowing the status of other family members that caught my attention, it is his life in the present.

After telling his group about how he was reunited with his mother, someone asked him if she were still alive. Yes, he said, she is alive and well, living in the US. And thanks to the US, she has a newly functioning heart, hip, and other body parts.

As he recounted, his aunt, who is living in the US, tried sponsoring her move to the US. But they found the easiest way for her to get here was to get her, in her old age and ill health, married off. And so she did. Even though she wasn't a citizen, but married to an American (I wondered how much it cost her), spoke no English, had no technical skills, was elderly, and in poor health, she had the right to receive full and immediate medical treatment for all her ills, even though she hadn't contributed to the system. The Australians were pleased and proud of her. Good move, they said. One woman said that it couldn't have worked out better, since the US has the best medical treatment of any kind. I just wonder if they would have felt the same had she been in Australia instead, where health care is also first rate and, like the US, immigration and race are issues that keep bubbling up.

I was rather surprised that the guide would be so open and honest, as the US government could strip her of her residency and deport her back for falsification of sworn documents. But, come on, who really believes that an elderly, infirmed lady, would really find love with an American this late in life? Call me a cynic, but...

So now the story of me and the police. After a day of touring, I had decided to call it quits because it was nearing dark and I was hungry. As I was crossing in the direction of the US Embassy, I decided to make a detour to see the decorations for myself. The lights weren't on, but it was easy to see what they had up. Rudolph was nowhere to be seen, nor was Santa's sleigh. Instead, Santa was driving a tuk-tuk, with the presents in the back, among other images. And so I snapped, and snapped, only to have some local tell me you couldn't take pictures of the embassy. He then grabbed my arm, and tried to detain me. I told him to let go, I jerked my arm away, and he tried grabbing my arm again, telling me to wait. I told him no. As I walked away, he pulled out some sign hidden by the guard's shack that said no pictures were to be taken of the embassy. I told him, as I was walking away, that if the US Embassy didn't want pictures taken, then it should put its signs in a visible manner for all to see. And so I kept walking. I thought that was the end of the incident, but it wasn't.

Hungry, I stopped at a restaurant to grab a bite to eat. When I exited, and got a tuk-tuk to drive me back to my hotel, the police appeared and prevented him from doing so, and me from leaving. The cop wanted to know why I was taking pictures, and I told him why. He wanted to know why I didn't stop when first told to do so, and I told him because the guy who grabbed me neither spoke much English (which you think he would be able to do if he worked for the US Embassy), he wasn't dressed up in any way, no official clothing, and couldn't prove himself. I didn't know if he was just trying to shake me down.

The cop then asked for my ID. I told him I wasn't going to give it to him, just as I wasn't going to give him my camera when he asked for it. I had read, and been warned by others, that it was a common scam for police to stop tourists, claim they made some offense, ask for their passports, then, when handed over, they sped off with it on their motorcycles, or demanded large sums of money to get it back. He pulled out a small camera from his pocket and asked to take a picture of my personal information, which I showed to him, and he did. After I refused to hand him my camera, he wanted the chip, I told him no as well. He then stood over me and demanded that I delete all pictures, when I told him no, he then said only the ones taken of the embassy, which I complied.

I then turned the tables on him and asked for his identification, telling him I had no proof that he was legitimate or setting me up. He complied, but couldn't write his name out in Roman script, so the tuk-tuk driver did it for him with phonetic spelling. I told him I was going to report this incident to the US Embassy to see if he were legitimate, which I plan to do when I return home with both his name and ID number.

In hindsight, when the first guy tried to detain me, I should have marched him to the security gate at the entrance of the embassy and settled the matter there. It would have ended everything, or at least while I was in the presence of the US embassy official, who knows what could have awaited me around the corner.

When I told other people about this incident, they just shook their heads and said it was another stupid example and policy of the US government. If it doesn't want its Christmas lights to be photographed, then it shouldn't hang them up, they said, while offering up other impressions as well. I have to agree. After that, all I wanted to do was go back to my hotel. Thankfully, I would be leaving Cambodia the next day, but I did wonder if I will be pulled aside at the airport.
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