Moto Madness in Cambodia

"Mister, where you go? You take moto? Lady, moto?"

We hear these words 30 to 40 times per day. There are no taxicabs or local buses in Cambodia, so if we want a ride somewhere we have to clamber onto the back of a small motorcycle with a baseball-capped driver. It is not difficult to find these guys. We are, in fact, stalked by them.

When we walk down the street, they pull up one after the other.

"Why you walking? You take moto!"

As soon as we step out of a hotel or restaurant, they drive up in a swarm, demanding to know our itinerary, then trying to convince us that our destination is unreachable without their help. Most of the time they are stretching the truth.

"You go to Silver Pagoda? Oh, very far. You take moto!"

The pagoda, on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, is not far, about a quarter mile. It supposedly is one of the few places where the "brilliance and richness of Cambodian civilization can still be viewed," according to our brochure. Its floor is covered with 5,000 pure silver tiles, its staircase chiseled from Italian marble, and its Buddha image studded with 9,854 diamonds. Yet most of the floor is hidden beneath cheap throw rugs; the few tiles that are visible appear to be scotch-taped together. And we'll have to take the brochure's word about the diamonds, because we sure didn't see any.

"What kind of splendour is this?" we thought. Just then, a huge gust of wind blew in, knocking over the lotus bud, whiskey, and cigarette offerings placed at the Buddha's feet. He must have heard us mocking him!

"Where you go? Wat Phnom? It's raining. You take moto!"

It's only sprinkling, and Wat (temple) Phnom is just up the road, so we walk, no moto. We must go to make amends to Buddha.

There is a particularly active shrine on site dedicated to the genie Preah Chau. Worshippers place slabs of meat and eggs into the statue's mouth and light red candles in front. A monkey sits nearby and tries to steal the offerings. A woman rolls up a newspaper and swats him. The offerings are safe. Buddha and his friends are happy.

"Sir, lady, where you go? Killing Fields? It's hot. You take moto!"

Yes, it is hot - and far - so we take a moto.

The radically Communist Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975. Their goal: to turn Cambodia into a peasant-run farming cooperative. They blew up the central bank and abolished money. They shut down all the schools and made everyone go out to the fields to work. The halted postal service and flights to other countries. And they killed at least 2 million people for crimes like having a high school or college education, speaking a foreign language, being a doctor or teacher, or having a relative charged with any of the above.

The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, were meticulous documenters of their victims. They numbered each prisoner and photographed him or her upon arrival. Sometimes they photographed the prisoner after he'd been tortured or killed. These pictures now hang at Tuol Sleng, a school the KR converted to a detention center at the edge of Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge took the Tuol Sleng prisoners 10 miles outside the city, to a field in Choeung Ek, to dispose of them in mass graves. Killing Fields like this exist throughout Cambodia. At Choeung Ek, 17,000 men, women, and children lost their lives. The remains of more than 8,000 have been unearthed and their skulls placed in a memorial stupa in the midst of what are now lush green fields dotted with white cows.

The mass killings stopped in 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was ousted, but by that time they had unleashed a nightmare than wiped out close to one-fifth of the country's population.

"Where you go? I'm poor. You take moto!"

We traveled south to Cambodia's only seaside town, Sihanoukville. We took a bus to there (remarkably smooth ride), but used motos locally, as the town is spread out.

Spent a day with LePine and Wheat Ball, two of the many children who roam the beach selling snacks from large round trays balanced on their head. We collected mussels from the shore for LePine's dinner, cut up straws to make squeak sounds, and laughed along as the kids sang out their new name for Eric - MonkeyChicken - over and over.

We visited nearby Ream National Park, where we hoped to see eagles, monkeys, and dolphins in the pristine jungle forest and its waters. Our trek to Meditation Mountain took us through thick jungle underbrush that the ranger hacked away with his hand. Our return from Meditation Mountain took us through water buffalo herds and rural villages that presented a different type of underbrush - frisbee-sized buffalo droppings.

Buffalo aren't the only ones using the great outdoors as their throne. We surprised a young boy with our arrival. He reached up for the nearest leaf, gave a swipe, pulled up his shorts, then dashed away. If we hadn't seen him, we wouldn't have believed a kid so small could have left something that large behind.

With that image, we'll leave you.

Aug 7 - 14, 2002

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