“Where you from? Where are you going? Why you walk?” Five tuk-tuk drivers yelled to me outside of my hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, holding their arms out wide as if greeting a long lost friend.
I remember Phnom Penh mainly through its tuk-tuk drivers. There was the one at the end of the road, in a checkered blue and white shirt, who told my friends and I he loved us every time we walked by. I love you, I still love you, I love you again.
There was the one who told us the Palace was closed and walked the whole way there with us when we didn’t believe him. There was the one who raced his friend while we were in the backseat, the city rushing by in flashes of color and Khmer trash talking.
I never knew, or don’t now remember, most of their names.
The drivers in front of my hotel began guessing where we were from, and they agreed within themselves it was probably Australia. The loudest among them was shorter than the rest, his shiny black hair in a bowl cut, probably in his mid 20s. Although I never knew his real name (he said it was too long to tell us) among my travel companions we referred to him as “Hungry Laundry,” the two services he always asked us about after we declined a ride. Hungry? Laundry? Hungry? He directed us to a laundry place next to the guesthouse, and recommended going across the street for lunch. I told him that we were American and asked where they were from, motioning to all his friends still gathered behind him.
They all laughed at the question. He smirked and said, “Guess.”
He laughed in surprise and one of the men behind him laughed and slapped him on the back.
They all had three places they assumed tourists were going: the Russian Market; the Prison Museum (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), a former high school used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison and torture center; and The Killing Fields, just outside of Phnom Penh, where over a million people were killed and buried during the Khmer Rouge regime, now a memorial. The enthusiastic question of “Killing Fields?” every hundred feet is at first a jarring juxtaposition to a trip out to dinner, a cause for deep conversation. Images of the places I had visited ran through my head, the memorial stupa, filled with skulls, the killing tree, where children had been beaten to death, the man with one leg who stuck his hand through the holes in the fence around the memorial, begging for my money. These things all lay underneath the casual calls of the drivers. But I quickly got used to waving these men away, saying I had already been to The Killing Fields, no need to go again, thank you and have a good night.
The strange thing about history in Phnom Penh is that it does not seem to be history at all. Our guide at the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum had lived through the Khmer Rouge Regime, and he told us about his sister, who had fled to Baltimore after the Khmer Rouge had killed her husband, and he told us she never wanted to come back. “Some Cambodians,” he said, “they can stay in old houses. Some have to. But she, too hard, too much memory. She say she will never come back.”
Walking out of the museum, just outside the building of the prison, I noticed a tiny old man selling books.
“You can take a picture,” our guide said, explaining that this was one of the few survivors of the prison, selling the book he had written. I smiled and said no thank you, trying to hide my bewilderment, trying not to say what is he doing here, and as I walked by, the old man smiled and pointed to the room where he had been imprisoned. It was a stall about half the size of a horse’s, and as I looked at it, he handed me a business card. Mr. Chum Mey (Victim in Tuol Sleng Prison), Victims Association of Democratic Kampuchea, Association Director.
I walked back to the hotel, declining rides the whole way. They wanted to take me to the market, to the prison, to the killing fields. They wanted to know who I was and where I was going. They wanted to take me there.
Back in front of my hotel, Hungry spotted me and looked up from his card game. “Hey America! Where am I from?”
I yelled Australia before closing the door, and he laughed as he clapped his hands together. “Correct, correct!”
Have you visited Cambodia? What was your experience?
By Devin Cleary.