When I started my trip, on through when I first got to Phnom Penh, I was on fire. I couldn’t stop writing. It came like a flood, from some damp corner of my brain, out my fingers; it came menstrually, ravenously. I couldn’t turn it off. I felt like, for every hour spent outside, I needed three hours to write everything I saw. I was exhausted, and I was in the zone.
And then, and then… Something in me closed the door.
Other doors have closed too. Or haven’t opened to begin with. I had a crap morning. I’d made an appointment to meet with the Acting Director of PADV, a leading domestic violence NGO. Domestic violence is central to the story I have to tell, though I haven’t wanted to look at it. Or rather, I’ve only been able to look at it sideways, head cocked askew, the way my brother watches TV. I’ve stolen a glance at its countenance, its cruel shadow, and I’ve quickly glanced away.
But I wrote the organization, and someone actually wrote me back and was willing to meet. And that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing here in Phnom Penh—standing in a hallway (a skinny dim hallway with a full-length mirror at the end, where I see myself and also something else, a shadow moving perhaps, though I don’t know of what), knocking on doors and waiting to see which ones open.
I woke up with a knot in my stomach and full of nervous energy. I was uptight about the meeting, self-conscious and stressed. I was dreading talking about what we were going to be talking about, something I haven’t been able to find much qualitative information on—the reality of domestic violence in Cambodia.
I never made it to the meeting.
In classic Phnom Penh fashion, I got lost. I tried to look up the address the night before, but Google Maps has proven useless for this city. I got a motobike 40 minutes before the appointment, a confused old man with deep wrinkles and busted plastic sandals.
We eventually found Street 271, but the building numbers didn’t make sense. They stuttered, jumped from 5 to 36 to 300, back to 60. Evens and odds hop-scotched across the sides of the road. Up and down the hot, dusty road, sweating in my tattoo-covering cardigan, scanning the storefronts for addresses, searching for some kind of sense, a logic, a meaning and order, finding none. Sometimes there isn’t one.
We finally found #269, but it was not an NGO. It was a dress shop. I showed the woman, sitting in her pajamas amidst the sequin-studded manequins, the name of the organization. She frowned, waved her hands in the air. I felt forlorn, a kind of panic rising up in me—but why? What for? I felt like I was going to cry.
I handed the motobike driver $2.5, far more than the ride was worth, and thanked him. I tried to call PADV; my phone died. I wove through the traffic to a call center; I got through to PADV, but then the line cut out. I used the internet, wrote them an email, idled while I waited for a reply.
I never heard back from them. I missed my appointment. I felt like I’d hit a wall, alone in the hall with only the echo of my knocking. It was an awful sound, a rhythm like a feeble heartbeat. There was a curious feeling welling up in me, a kind of black hysteria. What was this? I didn’t know; all I was sure of was that I needed to go back to my apartment.
Maybe this is it, I thought. Maybe I’ve gone as far as I can go with this project. Maybe I’m not ready, maybe it’s too much, maybe the doors are locked too tightly, maybe the silence too deafening, maybe it’s that way for a reason.
I went out later for food. I ended up wandering further than I’d meant to. I was close to the Royal Palace, decided to stop in an art gallery I’d been meaning to check out, the only independent art gallery in Cambodia, started up last year by a collective of “new generation” photographers.
The slim doorway led to a dusty stairwell. I squeezed up the narrow passage into Sa Sa Bassac‘s gallery space. The nine photographs on the wall constituted Vandy Rattana‘s The Bomb Ponds, photographic documentation of the craters left behind from American B-52 bombings.
(“In my province,” the downstairs neighbor, who translates conversations between my landlady and I, said, “many people still hate the Americans for the bombings.” He smiled sheepishly, boyishly and looked away.
In a back room, sweaty and lit by sunlight, was a table laid out with maps from Rattana’s expeditions to the bomb ponds—black-and-white line drawings circled with highlighters, neon halos and Khmer scribblings. A single typed half-sheet of paper told a story, held a key, a small sound of knocking, knocking…
From primary school to high school and even through university, the history of Cambodia has been put into silent mode for the next generation. Yet a silence created by a mighty sound is still a sound. It is a sound that has been muted.
When I was young I never knew that this sound already existed in my head and body, that gradually it would amplify if I didn’t find understanding. Perhaps others have had the same experience. I don’t know.
My parents told me that this sound stays with us forever once we are affected. They told me as long as we enjoy the sunrise and the bird’s song in the glorious early morning whilst celebrating our noble humility and forgiveness, then this sound would fade away, receeding back to where it came from.
But still I do not understand why this sound exists.
I stood in the heat, in the echoes of street, and nodded. Thank you Vandy, I thought. Thank you.
Fuck you, I love this song. And orange turtlenecks.