(August 27th) Woke at 5:30 a.m., waited for our morning pick up, got on the bus. Lily had pains in her stomach and diarrhoea, probably from the street cart dessert we’d eaten the day before, or maybe from the Indian food. My rashes were far less itchy, but I had grown a small patch on the palm-side of one of my fingers. This was worrying – until then, the rash had been simply annoying. But if I could no longer grip things with my right hand, that’d really put our backpacking holiday at risk. Still, the lack of any serious itching was emboldening; perhaps I really was continuing to heal.
The bus got into Phnom Penh early enough for Lily to go to the Thai embassy (although on getting there she discovered they only take visa applications in the morning), and for me to go to the Tropical and Travellers Medical Clinic, established by a Brit, Dr Gavin Scott, who specialises in the diagnosis of illnesses travellers get in South East Asia.
Dr Scott was a strange fellow, tall and sturdy, yet getting on in years, with glasses, dark hair and an old-fashioned British boarding school demeanour, the impression of which was uncomfortably colonial here in Cambodia. He spoke firmly in a measured voice, and yet his hands had a dramatic flair to them while he talked, perhaps from years of being an absolute authority in his world, or maybe from an upbringing in the theatre. There was also a note of exasperation in his manner when dealing with my questions or comments. He certainly didn’t come from the “listen to your patient” school of medicine.
Anyway, at first he refused to look at me, not wanting to have his diagnosis of my superficial condition swayed by its appearance. He instead focused on my family’s medical history. At some point, I tried to show him my hands. He laughed at me, shaking his head, saying “Americans always want a shortcut, but this is medicine”. Obviously this hurt.
About 40% of his patients have skin problems of some kind, and he confidently told me that what Ian Ferguson in Siem Reap had told me was definitely wrong; I did not have a bacterial infection. Also, apparently the antibiotics he’d prescribed me had serious side effects, and were normally only used with bone diseases. He knew of Dr Ferguson, and rather kindly suggested that perhaps Dr. Ferguson had been distracted when he saw me.
Worse still, he said that what I had was either eczema (passed down from my dad’s side – my uncle has eczema) that had flared up from the heat, or an allergic reaction, either of which would be terrible. If the former, not only would I live with eczema my entire life, but I’d have to leave hot and humid weather, i.e. leave south east Asia entirely. If the latter, it could be difficult, even impossible, to find out what I’ve had the allergic reaction to, and may never find out. Also, it’d mean I’d have to start the detective work, cutting out certain things from my diet, perhaps even returning to burgers and pizza until we’ve discovered the cause, if we ever do. He got me to get entirely naked and lie on my back on his table, before prodding here and there with his fingers. I wasn’t sure exactly what he’d learn by looking at every patch, and wasn’t sure why I should have gotten entirely naked, but once I’d dressed again he seemed more confident in his diagnosis that I had “photosensitive eczema”, and he prescribed me some new pills, suggesting I throw out the stuff I’d been taking so far.
I noticed he had an article on his desk, titled “A Nation of Liars and Cheats”, written in the local English language paper, with a couple of paragraphs highlighted. He wouldn’t let me see the article, which was so curious I decided to google it – and him – later. I was not disappointed. The article was full of gems such as “Cambodians have a character flaw that can stereotype them as untrustworthy people, unfit for positions of responsibility”. But what I read about Gavin was mind-blowing.
In the late nineties, Dr Gavin Scott was jailed for raping five boys, who’d claimed that through coercion and threats, including at the point of a gun, he’d made them have sex with him. Looking through news clips from the time, Dr Scott’s defense was that the boys were “obviously prostitutes” trying to extort him (part of the punishment was paying them £400 each), and that as he’d been prevented from seeing a lawyer, his trial was corrupt. He might have sounded convincing, but the boys’ case was supported by five local NGOs involved in sex trafficking. 20 years later he touched my penis.
Worse than that, though, he now has two male assistants working in his office, both skinny, both in their late teens. One of them was slouching against a door, waiting for me to leave. Dr Scott walked over to him. “Look at this,” he said, “so lazy. They’re all so lazy.” With that, he pulled the kid up by the shoulders, and made him stand straight. I’d noticed it was a little odd at the time, but never guessed I was watching the actions of a convicted pedophile.
Back at the hotel, I woke Lily from her nap, gave her the bad news about the diagnosis, then turned on the A/C and began to write. I was determined to be as out of the heat as possible over the next few days. That evening, Lily and I went to get a burger at a place with good reviews, but it was shut, so we ate a much worse burger across the road. I didn’t really intend to start a western diet, but perhaps one night was a good idea.
Most of the rest of our time in Phnom Penh was spent hiding from the sun, staying in air conditioned rooms and lathering my entire body in a cream that was a mix of UV protection, aftersun and moisturiser, which relieved, then stung, then quietened my need to itch. This section of the holiday wasn’t fun for either of us – Lily ended up visiting the city largely by herself, and I stayed in the room, lying in bed, playing a shitty computer game on my phone that I had been addicted to in Bogotá and had vowed to never play again. The only ‘entertainment’ we had together was our visit to the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, two days later.
(August 28th) Breakfast at game place. I stayed at home. Lily explored, said the city was smelly, dirty, full of not working men. She was catcalled. Otherwise, nothing interesting about the city. She had a delicious massage, went to cafe and wrote about Angkor Wat, hit a giant bell in a temple, then met me at home. I hadn’t looked after myself at all – no shower, no research, no cream, just playing that stupid game and trying not to itch. Had dinner at a fancy restaurant that served tarantulas with delicious crickets and frogs. The body of the tarantula was fine, sort of crispy, but its soft, hairy legs weren’t. The red Burmese curry we got was delicious, as was the black pepper and lime ice cream for dessert.
(August 29th) Next day woke, ready by 11, breakfast in games place, I had amok, then went with a couple of Colombians to the Killing Fields and Genocide museum.
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields is a site just outside Phnom Penh, where the bodies of around 17,000 people were buried in mass graves. Choeung Ek is the largest of the 20,000 mass graves in Cambodia.
There isn’t so much to see there. Apparently when Will went twenty years ago, bones would stick out of the ground after the rain. Signs asked visitors not to move – or remove – any bone fragments that had been newly uncovered by the rains. But we didn’t see any. Now, the place is a mix of grassy flat ground, paths, wooden signs and display cases. The rest was dismantled, destroyed or renovated. While we walked around, we listened to a 90 minute audio tour, narrated by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The detention shed was the building that captives were brought to when first arriving at the camp. It no longer stands, but there was a sign with a photo of it. Around it, the ground was strewn with flailing maggots at the mercy of the wind, and also being attacked by an army of black ants, writhing in a futile attempt to escape the ants’ bites. Their bodies were being dragged off, paralysed or dead, into holes in the ground.
Just as I was crouching to watch this wretched act of nature, the audio tape quoted Pol Pot – “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” Aside from the tape, the silence of the grounds was broken by a groundskeeper hacking away at a tree with a large machete. Thwack. “Most of the victims were killed with an axe or hoe.” Thwack. “They didn’t want to shoot them, because bullets cost money.” Thwack. “Later you’ll see the killing tree, against which the executioners would beat children to death.” Thwack. A few small bubbles rose to the surface of a lake still housing the remains of dozens of undisturbed mass graves.
A beautiful caterpillar, resplendent in blood red, luminescent yellow and perfectly black stripes, crawled across Lily’s back, leaving a dozen white, stinging lumps on her skin that would remain there for weeks. As I searched for the bug in the gravel to identify it from google images, a landmine victim (thanks to a gift that could have been left by the Vietnamese or Americans) begged for change in broken English from the other side of a fence, armed with a folded up pant leg, a crutch and a dirty cap pushed through the wire. I wondered how many of the American tourists here knew that the USA continued to support the Khmer Rouge for over twenty years after the genocide ended.
Between 1965 and 1973, the USA dropped 2.7 million tonnes of explosives, killing half a million Cambodians (about 8% of the population). More died from the resulting displacement, disease and starvation. The US was trying to damage North Vietnamese supply lines on this side of the border, but from such a great height they couldn’t tell the difference between their targets and Cambodian villages. It’s estimated that at least 10% of the bombing was “indiscriminate”.
The effect was to drive millions of Cambodians into the waiting arms of the Khmer Rouge, a previously unsubstantial ultra-Marxist organisation who wanted to install a revolutionary utopia. Having grown to ten times their previous size, and now with a much-weakened government to overthrow, they took just two years (in 1975) to take power after the Americans left. The result was one of the most bloodthirsty, ruthless regimes the world has ever known, killing anywhere between 20-30% of their populace in executions and concentration camps.
Four years later, after multiple attacks by the Khmer Rouge on Vietnamese soil, including the extermination of an entire 3,000-person village, the Vietnamese retaliated, invading the country, forcing the Khmer Rouge into hiding, and stopping all the madness. The USA (and their allies in Europe and Australia), perhaps forgetting their own recent history in the region, and fully aware of the atrocities that had been committed over the last four years, immediately denounced the Vietnamese aggression, and continued both to give support to Pol Pot’s army and recognise KR as the rightful leaders of Cambodia. A KR representative still had a seat at the UN until 1991.
[Checking and editing the above just now, I learned that in 2017, the US demanded that Cambodia repaid its war debts to the US, amid Trump’s push to improve the state budget. That’s right. Apparently, after the Americans stopped bombing Cambodia in 1973, they offered to give a loan to Cambodia, at the time presided over by Lon Nol, who had come to power in 1970 after a US-backed coup. Lon Nol accepted $270 million in aid, much of it from the US’s excess food stocks. The loan has since swelled to over $500 million.]
The tape stopped, and, somewhat shaken, the four of us got into a tuk tuk to go to the Genocide Museum.
The sound of children playing from the neighbouring school echoed around us, which was especially eerie considering the history of the place. The Genocide Museum is the remains of S21, a concentration camp that ‘processed’ 20,000 Cambodians. Previously it had been a high school that was abandoned, along with the rest of Phnom Penh, mere hours after the KR took the country in 1975.
At first, people were overjoyed to see the KR, believing that their success meant an end to the bombing and killing between warring factions. Soon, though, millions were ordered to leave the city, told that more bombing was coming. Instead, the KR was clearing out the bourgeoisie, turning Cambodia into an agrarian paradise, killing all the country’s intellectuals, artists, anyone who spoke a foreign language or had contact with foreigners, people with soft hands, ethnic minorities, religious people and anyone the regime didn’t like.
At a hundred detention centres like this one, over a million Cambodians were tortured until they gave confessions to their teenage guards, signing whatever written confessions the guards put in front of them. Guards who accidentally (or intentionally) killed their prisoners before getting a signature faced death themselves; the torture wasn’t supposed to be enjoyed, it was a vital tool to get the confessions that would warrant the deaths of those brought to the camps. Glass cases containing skulls and bones used colourful stickers like you might see in a classroom to differentiate which remains showed evidence of crowbars, which of spiked bamboo, which of chemicals, and so on.
Foreign influence was everywhere in S21. The confessions tortured out of the civilians who were brought here included name after name of co-conspirators in fictitious CIA networks they invented then pled guilty to being a part of just to make the torture stop. The chair used to keep the victims’ heads in position for their entry photo was a relic of France’s colonial days. Prisoners were shackled together by their necks, a method Europeans were fond of in our slaving years. And the torture techniques here included waterboarding, a method continually used by westerners from the Spanish Inquisition to Abu Ghraib.
Our audio tour led us around the compound, from torture room to torture room, still splattered with blood. The camp had been led by Duch, one of Pol Pot’s ambassadors. In the 1990s, just as America was rescinding support for the Khmer Rouge, Duch met two Christian Evangelicals, and converted to “a religion that”, we were told through our headphones, “states you can be forgiven for your sins if you repent”.
By the end of the tour, the kids next door had stopped playing and were back inside their classrooms, where they weren’t being taught the history of what happened in their country just 40 years ago. Too many KR officers are still in government today to make that possible. We left the museum. I was in a lot of pain with what I’d later see was a particularly large and inflamed patch of raw skin between my thighs, the biggest and worst showing of my rash yet. Still, things could have been worse.
In the evening, we went out with Callum, the human rights lawyer staying in our dorm, to the tarantula place’s sister restaurant “friends something”. Played pool with some old drunks, including Naim and his son Jack.
(August 30th) Lily picked up visa, I stayed at home. She checked out the palace, shopped, brought burgers home, and gave me a toad present. Games place. Played Splendor, a tabletop card game.
(August 31st) Brunch at tamarind place, where we had the worst coffee ever. Then checked the shops, bought a sofa cushion for Sandra, got chocolates at a Belgian Chocolate place, then got a taxi to the airport and a plane to Bangkok. Every single morning since I’d first noticed my rash, I’d found a new spot. Things were getting desperate.