The face is too cheery for the words that just came out of his mouth. On the other side of a desk that feels more like a school table we’re informed that if we buy our visa at the border we might not make the bus. What he’s saying with inappropriate glee is that if you don’t give me the money you are lost in Thailand and you can’t go anywhere. We’re caught in a scam and it’s game on. Ice glazes our facades, despite being stuck in this one we’re no doe-eyed suckers and this victory is all they’re gonna get. Suitably wary we see no option but to fork over the money but we’re not happy and not going to get taken any more than we already have.
It’s a delicate dance this one, we aren’t certain where exactly we are; they just want money and we just want our bus ride. Through numerous changes of ‘guides’ a simple process of stamp the passport and get back on the bus turns into a sea of sharks circling, waiting for a limb to stick out of the cage. None are on offer. Through unscheduled information stops on a public bench to unnecessary transfers from one guide to another we manage to play the game and more or less win; we’ve been on this trip for too long to be taken easily. In truth it results that apart from wasted time they took from us about 300 baht which is around $12AUD; a huge amount of fuss for so little reward. Or did we just keep our limbs in the cage?
With mixed feelings we stamp the passport and it’s goodbye Thailand, Cambodia here we come. Scams are inevitable in this part of the world, more importantly it’s about knowing when you’re being scammed and minimising the damage. In this respect we’re not sure if we should declare victory for getting away with the minimum loss or defeat at being caught in the first place. With a formidable network of people involved and giving up just 12 bucks we’re leaning on the side of victory as our few hours bus trip turns into an all day cold-war standoff.
The scam remains on the other side of the border, now hot night air fans our sticky skin as we rattle past flashy hotels in the back of a tuk-tuk. We’re in Siem Reap, Cambodia which to me looks like an upstart Las Vegas plonked in the guts of an economically struggling Asian nation; not a great immediate impressions I must say. With this gentrified polish all around me a tune tickles the back of my mind, from many years ago a song that seems too clear to be calling from that far back: The Dead Kennedy’s (DK’s) punk anthem ‘Holiday in Cambodia‘. Not my style of music nowadays but undoubtedly typical of the band; political, conscientious, intelligent and provocative. The Killing Fields is the term synonymous with Cambodia’s recent history, the song Holiday in Cambodia rains down accusation on the cushioned middle class masses: stop whining and feeling hard done by, take a reality check with a holiday in Cambodia.
After learning much about China’s recent history it’s no great surprise that the the despot Saloth Sar (known as Pol Pot) and his Khmer Rouge party were supported and thrust to power on the back of Chinese support. Much of my history study has faded into the same recesses of my mind that the DK’s occupy but a few remaining snippets are dragged to the fore along with a chorus that repeats like the hard edged poxy hotels that sing by. Cambodia is a small country and in 1976, one year before I was born, Pol Pot presided over a dictatorship that in the next three years would wipe out approximately 25% of this small countries population, approximately two of eight million Cambodians. Take a minute on that thought; 1 in every four people.
Pol Pot’s life spans a greater story but this killing spree wound down largely in 1979; ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ was released in 1980 as a reference to the privileged world on the possible hardships of humanity; Cambodia sadly was the obvious choice. Clips of the verses solidify slowly in my mind, the terror that seems so long ago forms on the discordant vocal stylings of a 70’s punk band who saw the disaster for what it was while Kenny Rogers was trivially singing about the coward of the county and Blondie was whining ‘Call Me’. The words of that DK’s song come to mind in snippets I can only barely piece together, I internally sing along:
Play ethnicky jazz
To parade your snazz
On your five grand stereo
Braggin’ that you know
How the n*****s feel cold
And the slums got so much soul….
Now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need, my son:
Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul.
As much as Cambodia remains a lasting image of my upbringing it has returned to consciousness in my adult life, Cambodia refuses to be a little forgotten country to me. In 1976, the same year Pol Pot launched into four years of death, Cambodia introduced a life into the world, in Battambang just a little west of here. A boy named Cheav was just one life created to counter the vast number of lives taken away. He was one of the lucky 75% to survive, I say lucky but no one was really lucky in Cambodia at that time; imagine defining lucky by simply being alive. Cheav was lucky though, he stepped foot in Australia in 1983 and after spending time in the notorious Villawood detention centre, luck finally began to take a more complex definition; luckily.
Cheav now drives the technology behind a cutting-edge marketing and print business and his three kids have no idea about his once narrow version of the word luck. The business is my business and from Battambang to Sydney through the Khmer Rouge and via Villawood this one time refugee brings luck to all those who are lucky enough to see that smile that understands the meaning of being lucky. He never offers much about his early years, a smile always seems a better option to him and even though he’s not shy I never push the point. There’s a story there even though he sings another song nowadays and just like the Qantas ad he now ‘Calls Australia Home’.
The clipped hedges and tiled pathways of Siem Reap are the Olivia Newton John case wrapped around the DK’s cassette; along with Ethiopia, Cambodia is the failed state my childhood remembers. There’s many reasons we travel; near the top is to experience and see new things, learn more of our world. I grew up being the person the DK’s mocked as they sang about Cheav, on whom I now so greatly rely and hold so much love for. We’re not just riding to our hostel, we’re riding to live out some words penned in 1980 now so long overdue; what we’ve needed all along and are now about to have is: a holiday in Cambodia.