You’re apt to hear this from other Westerners as you travel throughout Southeast Asia; you arrive in Phnom Penh and you’re apt to agree. A friendly, welcoming, almost shy demeanor, so vastly different from the brashness of their Vietnamese neighbors—it’s entracing, in a way, and a part of you falls in love with it, with the endlessly smiling faces, the hands pressed together and the small bow, say, when you pay your tab at a restaurant.
“How could they have possibly killed each other?” you hear people ask. “It’s amazing to think the Khmer Rouge could have occurred in a place like this, where the people are just so nice.” And as you graze the surface—stroll along the riverside, say, or stop for a coffee at a shady little street stall—it’s easy to wonder the same thing.
But you stay here a little while and you begin to see things—shadows that move like stray dogs, so that you think they’re stray dogs, until you look closer and realize: no, no, that’s something else. And it’s like there’s two Cambodias—the one you see on the surface, during daylight hours, and the other, some strange Other, of darkness and violence and short skirts sitting outside neon nightclubs, and weird, weird shit you couldn’t possibly ever understand.
“It’s out there,” Rachel said, nodding. “And all you need to do is scratch the surface—” she flicked her finger in the air “—and you see it.”
Flipping through the two English-language newspapers, you catch glimpses, between the black newsprint that smudges onto your fingertips in the heat. Western pedafiles, human traffikers, drug busts. You read a story about a local military captain being punished for using his gun “anarchically”, shooting it recklessly into a crowd of people. Because no one died, he doesn’t face any criminal charges. Instead, his head is shaved and he’s forced to go a military detention center, what sounds like a work camp, where he scrubs toilets and collects rubbish. He’ll be forced to work until “his attitude changes, then he’ll be set free.”
You read another article, about the murder/rape of a 25-year-old girl in a village in the Cham province. She’d been scratched, maimed, her vagina set ablaze. And yet it’s what the article mentions in passing, without further explaination, as though it were a given, that you find most disturbing. “Even in a time when every week brings fresh news of a horrific assault on a woman or child, the brutality of Lim Kim’s death stands out.” It’s determined that the attacker must be married, because otherwise he would have just married the victim after raping her and wouldn’t have had to kill her. “Something made him unable to be responsible for his actions,” the local police had determined. The reporter had gone on to interview villagers; they reported being “scared of the ghost of the body, but most of all the attacker”—as though it were perfectly normal to be scared of the murderer girl’s ghost, but not of an attacker.
Tim’s telling you the lead-in to some story, some hapless night. It took place at the first Western nightclub in Phnom Penh, where prostitution isn’t the worst of the city’s nightclubs, but certainly still present. “It’s called Heart of Darkness—”
“Wait,” you stop him. “Are you fucking serious? The first Western nightclub in the city is called ‘Heart of Darkness’?”
He nods and you laugh, because what is there else to do in the face of such a blatant metaphor—if you wrote in a book, you say, it’d be over-the-top symbolism. But here it is, in real life, staring you in the face, and there’s nothing to do but shake your head and laugh.
“You should always take a taxi at night,” Patricia tells you at the club, giving you the number of a taxi service. “The police clock off at 9. So sometimes, the moto or tuk-tuk driver will call a friend, and there’ll be someone waiting at your apartment with a gun to rob you. The taxi costs more, but it’s better.”
You program the taxi number into your phone.
You’re having dinner with Susan and she mentions in passing that the number of mob killings are down. “Mob killings?” you ask. “Oh, yes,” and she tells you about the phenomenon of mobs of people spontaneously beating and stoning accused theives to death. “It was really bad seven or so years ago, several a month. They came under pressure from the UN to get a handle on it. It’s pretty rare in Phnom Penh now, but it still happens in the provinces.”
“A girl was double raped earlier this week,” Tom tells you, “and her attackers only had to pay a $125 restitution. The case didn’t even go to court.”
“We’ve secured scholarships for several kids to go back to school,” Romi tells you when you visit Tiny Toones.
“Are the school fees very high?” you ask.
“No,” she sighs, “it’s the bribes that really add up.”
“Yes, the teacher bribes. They don’t always call it that, but it’s like this: the teacher photocopies a lesson. They say, ‘I paid for this photocopy, so you must pay me.’ If you don’t, you don’t get the lesson, you can’t take the test, you can’t pass the class. So it’s like this. But,” she shurgs and looks out at the shaded lot of squealing children, “this is Cambodia, and this is how it is.”
You nod. You’ve given up trying to wrap your head around it, trying to fit it into some compartment of Western understanding.
But it doesn’t feel bipolar; it doesn’t feel like a contradiction, or like it’s at odds with itself. You feel, on an intuitive, unnameable level, that it’s two sides of the same coin—that it’s born from the same place, the beauty and grace and warmth, and the violence and corruption and darkness—born from the same mystery down there at the center, and not so far from the surface.
You think of Elliott Smith. Which is embarrassing and ridiculous, but you think of him anyway—of the beautiful ballads, the immense tenderness, the way you cried across the Atlantic when his song came on your iPod and the news of the death was fresh, an another lifetime that’s not so long ago sometimes, not as far as you’d like to think. And you think of people asking, “Man, how could he write such beautiful songs and fucking stab himself in the chest?”
And you’d always thought, “That’s how.” And you think of it now, though you’re not sure why, though it’s not at all the same thing—though you laugh at your silly, silly gut for telling you it is.