27.01.2013 - 29.01.2013
The kaleidoscope of fractured impressions began to take more coherent form thanks to a few days spent in the excellent company of Caroline's old schoolfriend Esther and her friends Janice and Geordie. The time we spent in Battambang (pronounced Battambong for no obvious reason) with people who have lived and worked in Cambodia for a long time were invaluable in helping us begin to get our heads around this baffling place. It also opened our eyes to some of the realities of life under a highly corrupt de facto dictatorship, in a totally dysfunctional country in the grip of profound long-term collective psychological disorders.
Esther is a doctor working in Battambang's hospital in a voluntary capacity. My perception of a deep nihilism at the heart of Cambodia seemed to be borne out, and in fact writ large in her disturbing anecdotes of callousness, apathy and greed within the healthcare system. Cambodians are fond of the saying 'No money, no life' - ie life is nothing without money - which is apparently taken to a whole new level by doctors and nurses whose interpretation is 'If you're too poor to pay us, your life is not worth trying to save'. We also heard of some delightful cultural attitudes towards women amongst western NGO workers and medical advisors. One is left wondering how the country is ever going to develop if development is in the hands of people advocating that Cambodian women should not be encouraged to do anything other than make babies and look after the home, and that their husbands will have to beat them if they start questioning gender roles. For tales of medical horrors arising from wilful negligence, with generous sprinklings of mind-boggling sexism, check out Esther's blog.
The lack of tourists in Battambang was a pleasant relief after the Siem Reap hordes. It's a nicely shabby and very likeable town, with much to see. It has a stunning peace sculpture, a naga (multi-headed serpent-witch) made entirely out gun parts and ammunition; a nineteenth century town centre of elegant Chinese shop-houses; a derelict 1950s Pepsi bottling plant full of dusty old bottles; cool modernist theatres and cinemas closed down by the Khmer Rouge and never reopened, good places to eat and drink, and lush (for Cambodia) surrounding countryside.
But the 'bamboo railway' is main reason most people visit. This is the only working remnant of the country's railways, a small stretch of track running through rural northern Cambodia. There are no trains, the rail network having been dismantled under Pol Pot. But locals came up with a way to continue to use this surviving track by fixing a small petrol engine onto something like a bamboo raft on wheels, which could then be driven up and down the tracks transporting people and goods between towns. Mostly it's now just tourists on the 'train' and it's touted as a big regional attraction.
We gave it a miss. Why? It seems to me to mock the tragic lack of rebuilding that has taken place since Pol Pot plunged the country into medievalism in the 70s. Under the Khmer Rouge no movement was allowed without permission, public transport was abolished, and all private property including cars and bikes were confiscated. Cambodia's entire population of engineers and all other technical experts and professionals were put to death and the consequences of this loss of knowledge are still evident. Battambang's railway station is a shanty town, the derelict buildings sheltering innumerable families, cattle grazing where tracks should be, fires and piles of rubbish everywhere. The bamboo railway was a graphic reminder of the Khmer Rouge abolition of modernity and freedom, and how much had been lost, and how much Cambodia has never recovered. I couldn't see the fun in it.
So that's what we didn't do in Battambang. We did do a lot of quality drinking-and-talking. And we saw the Battambang killing field. It was small, just a little patch of grass by a village. A memorial in the middle commemorated the murder of 10,008 people on that ground, killed in the most primitive and sadistic ways possible, some of their skulls forming the monument. It was a quiet neat littlle village under shady trees, with a pond in the middle, the epitome of rural tranquility. The pond is where the corpses were dumped. Again, nothing here is what it seems.