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Expat Watching Amid the Ruins

Cover of Off the Rails in Phnom Penh Off the Rails in Phnom Penh by Amit Gilboa
Asia Books, 1998

Ignore the blurb on the cover: Amit Gilboa's Off the Rails in Phnom Penh is not "Like a gonzo from Hunter S. Thompson!"

It's a good thing, too, since Hunter S. Thompson probably isn't the person you'd want explaining the dynamics of a devastated society.

Gilboa's book takes us into the world of expatriates living in Phnom Penh in the 1990s. The presence of Thompson's name on the cover will lead would-be readers to believe that Off the Rails is another too-hip, too-knowing tell-all about how fun decadence is. But mercifully, that's not what it is: Instead, Gilboa has written a surprisingly thoughtful examination of misfits and amoral adventurers, revelling in an atmosphere of malevolence and hedonism.

Having worked as a journalist in Vietnam, Gilboa likely believed that he was well-prepared for Phnom Penh. But Phnom Penh isn't Ho Chi Minh City. Gilboa describes his first awareness of the vast differences between the two countries at an outpost along the Khmer-Viet border:

"The scripts on the buildings provide another study in contrasts. Vietnamese is written in Roman characters, with a lot of accent symbols around the vowels indicating pronunciation and tone. It is practical and, for the Westerner, the Roman characters make it relatively easy to learn. But with all those accent marks crawling around, it can hardly be described as beautiful.

"Across the no man's land, I see the text on the Cambodian gate. The Khmer letters are rendered in flowing lines with mysterious, beckoning curves. My impression of the script is that it is ancient and noble. It looks to me as much an excuse to paint as a way to communicate."

While the expats are clearly the focus of the book, Gilboa does a fine job illuminating the city that serves as the backdrop for his story. The descriptions of the political madness of Cambodia in the Nineties are dead-on. The UN, Hun Sen, Ranarridh... no one escapes without being skewered. Gilboa is at his best as he writes eloquently of the absurd role of the UN in bringing "democracy" to Cambodia:

"The elections were held in July 1993. FUNCINPEC, the Royalists led by the King's son, Prince Norodom Ranaridh, won a plurality. Together with the Buddhist anti-Communists, they had a majority. Still, the CPP refused to relinquish power. Because they, the losers of the elections, controlled most of the newly integrated army, the only way to truly enforce the results would have been for all the UN peacekeepers to leave the brothels and bars and go into the streets to fight."

Fighting - at least, fighting for democracy - wasn't exactly the forte of most of the UN contingent. Gilboa quotes a foreign resident who lived in Cambodia throughout the UNTAC period:

"UNTAC personnel were given a hundred and forty-five dollars a day for living expenses - in a country where the average income is about a hundred and twenty a year. The worst were the Bulgarians, or as they were know the 'Vulgarians.' Even with their huge allowances they had a habit of bringing whores to the hotel and then not paying them in the morning. The managers used to get really pissed off with having to deal with these angry taxi-girls."

It should be duly noted that many UNTAC personnel served with honor in Cambodia, risking - and in some cases losing - their lives to try to help the Cambodians. But many others seemed determined to squander whatever respect their colleagues earned. Some UNTAC personnel spent so much time with prostitutes that "It got so bad that headquarters issued a directive asking UNTAC personnel to stop parking the UN vehicles in front of brothels all the time."

UNTAC, of course, arrived late, showing up when the country had already been decimated by decades of conflict. Gilboa sums up much of the country's sorry history with a single, succinct sentence: "[A] simplified view of Cambodian history is one of the factions selling out slices of sovereignty for power over other Khmers."

Again and again, the "other Khmers" have found themselves trod upon, or forgotten altogether.

Most of the foreigners Gilboa describes are similarly indifferent to the Khmer. Cambodia is unimportant in itself; for them, the appeal is the pervasive lawlessness. Gilboa's book is really about these foreigners, and not the Khmer; but unlike his subjects, Gilboa does seems genuinely interested in and concerned about the fate of the country.

Present in Cambodia during the 1997 coup, he watches government soldiers looting homes near the airport:

"A couple of trucks roll by loaded with refrigerators, motorbikes, fans, anything that wasn't nailed down.... An APC lumbers by with several fans strapped on behind its huge roof-mounted machine gun...

"The Khmers have a saying that when elephants fight, only ants die. Here, I am watching one of the elephants scooping up what little possessions the ants have. The ants can only stand and watch, and hope that they will have better luck in their next lives."

And the expats? Gilboa sums up their perspective as he discusses one expat's life between stints in Cambodia: "Australia is not Steve's home, nor was Viet Nam. For his forseeable future, 'home' is to be a series of continuous adventures." Adventures? Depradations might have been a better word. One expat's brother sends him a scathing letter: "Find your soul again... Don't imagine that being 'in a different culture' exonerates you in any manner from the acts which you described."

Gilboa is, for the most part, non-judgemental. His aim is to illuminate, and not to excuse. So exactly how much light does he shed? How accurate is the book? There are very minor inaccuracies here and there (The Royal Palace doesn't have a central tower with four faces!), but for the most part Gilboa's words ring true.

Off the Rails in Phnom Penh is recommended reading for anyone interested in Cambodia today, or the Third World in general. Would-be readers should be warned, however, that the book is graphic and sexually explicit. It's not for the faint of heart. But then, neither is Phnom Penh.

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