Part Five: Artists, Pringles, and Fish in the Streets
On Sunday, November 19, we visited Svay Pithoubandith, a woodcarver, at his home in Phnom Penh. Like most Cambodian houses, it is built on stilts. He works beneath the house, on a low wooden workbench. In front of the house there is a crude tablesaw, its blade attached by a long belt to a gasoline-powered motor. It's the only machine in sight. On the workbench, there is a heavy blue vise. The chisels and gouges that he uses are hardened steel shafts, with no handles of any kind. A few blocks of wood of varying lengths are used as mallets. On the bench are the products of these simple tools: several intricate busts of apsaras, and a flat panel with a partially carved apsara framed by lotus-leaf scrollwork. Apsaras, goddess-like female dancers, are a common feature of classical Khmer architecture. The apsaras, however, are not the most impressive piece. Sitting atop the bench is the most stunningly detailed woodcarving I have ever seen: A model of Angkor Wat. I ask how long it took to carve. Seven hours a day, says Svay, for three months. And it still isn't finished. He shows me the plans. What is on the bench is only the center portion of the temple. There are two more walls that will surround the central towers. Does he have a buyer for the piece? No, he says. Originally the American embassy had expressed an interest in buying it. But that was before Hun Sen's 1997 coup; Svay says that in the wake of the coup, some of the embassy staff was withdrawn, and when a new ambassador was appointed, the new staff was not interested in the carving. Svay is talking to groups in Chicago and Lowell, Massachusetts, and may be able to come to the US to do commissions for Cambodian groups in those cities.
Later in the day I take some time to read the Phnom Penh Post. It is the edition for November 10-23, 2000. Some of the articles provide a telling glimpse into Cambodia today:
- Prostitution may be decriminalized and regulated by the government.
- A six-year-old child in Kampong Cham was killed by a convoy of diplomatic vehicles. The convoy did not stop. Police refused to disclose details of the incident, and the child's parents do not know where the diplomats were from.
- A Buddhist activist in Kampong Thom was murdered, and local monks say that the assailants are linked to a development firm that is in a land grab attempt in the area. The firm is led by Ly Kam Say and several senior provinical government officials. Say is the former Kampong Svay District Governor.
- Eleven youths drowned in a river in Prey Veng after their boat sank.
- Police in Pailin are offering differing versions of a October rocket attack on the compound of the Pailin governor's residence; some sources say that the attack was a warning from disgruntled business partners, but police now claim that the rocket was fired accidently by a drunken bodyguard.
- The Council for the Development of Cambodia reports that foreign investment in Cambodia for the first nine months of the year 2000 was the lowest in six years.
There is one additional item in the Post that did not seem important at the time: "Phnom Penh municipal police are investigating the distribution on October 26 of more than 200 leaflets allegedly produced by the shadowy 'Cambodian Freedom Fighters' dissident organization. The leaflets called for a general uprising against the Government..." On November 24, that small item would suddenly seem much more significant.
As I type these notes, there are some geckoes on the ceiling above me, and twice they shit on the keyboard of my Toshiba laptop.
Life in Cambodia has its own odd rhythyms. On the advice of our doctor, we don't let our children bathe in tap water: we fill a large plastic wash basin with either Ozone drinking water, or with water that has been boiled. Anna seems to find the process vaguely amusing; Sean seems to find it slightly annoying. It seems like an unnecessary precaution to me, but the thought of contending with a sick child 10,000 miles from home is enough to persuade me to err on the side of caution. I'm reminded of a joking comment made by a doctor friend many years ago, before my first trip to Cambodia: "Don't drink the water, don't eat the food, and don't breathe the air." Of course, on that trip I became horribly ill. Served me right for having breathed the air.
On Monday, we visit a friend's mother, not far from the Olympic Stadium. Her son-in-law picks us up at home. On the way there, turning onto a small dirt side street near his house, he stops the car suddenly and climbs out. From the back seat, I can't tell why he has stopped. He walks around to the front of the car and bends down to pick something up from the road. It's a live fish, similar to an eel, nearly a foot long. Bad luck for whoever lost it, good luck for us.
The son-in-law is a member of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, the party of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The CPP is far and away the dominant political force in Cambodia. It has established a dismal human rights record, and corruption is rampant. As we're eating lunch, the son-in-law tells us that there has been unrest within the CPP recently. The party, he says, is wracked by a three-way split. One faction supports Hun Sen. Another supports Chea Sim, the president of the National Assembly and longtime leader of the Party. The third faction supports former premier Heng Samrin. For now, Hun Sen has the loyalty of the soldiers, and in Cambodia, arms equal power.
On Tuesday, November 21, we spend much of the day shopping in preparation for the next day, when we will host two parties: a bon (memorial ceremony) for Srey's father, who disappeared in 1977, and a birthday party for Anna, who will be 5. One of our stops is the Olympic Market. As we are going inside, I notice the wares of one of the vendors near the door: cooked silkworms and tarantulas. Not quite the snack food of my dreams. Incredibly, while we're in the market, I hear someone shout, "Srey! Bruce!" I turn around to see Om Chanbo, one of our friends from Chicago. Chanbo had travelled with me when I first went to Cambodia in 1991. She had been in Cambodia for a few weeks, and was staying not far from the Olympic Market.
At home in the afternoon, my nephew Buthea takes my son Sean out for a motorcycle ride. When they return, Sean is happily seated in front of Buthea, eating a Pringle. I start laughing, not so much from the sheer strangeness, but simply from the fact that it is an image that I never would have thought could belong in my life. I picture myself at age eighty, bald and absent-minded, looking back, remembering my son as he is now: a two-year-old, sitting on a motorcycle in Cambodia, eating Pringles Potato Chips.
This article contains nine parts:
Part 1: The Quarter-Ton World Tour
Part 2: "I See Cambodia!"
Part 3: To Kompong Som and Back
Part 4: Angkor, Snakes, and Khmer Krahom
· Part 5: Artists, Pringles, and Fish in the Streets ·
Part 6: Two Parties
Part 7: "There has been sporadic shooting throughout the night..."
Part 8: Goodbyes
Part 9: Travelers and Conquerors
Beauty and Darkness: Travel Section
Between Barbie and Murder: Cambodia, 2005
Cambodia, April - May 2000
Holiday in Cambodia
Phnom Penh, June 1996
Farther than Wisconsin: Cambodia, 1991