Museums, islands and moonless nights

January 20, 2019

From harrowing sites of atrocities to the sea of glowing water, Cambodia is an arresting country to visit

Museums, islands and moonless nights

After spending an afternoon and an evening reading up on Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, I had figured out only one thing: simple solutions are seductive everywhere. Pol Pot was an electronics engineer by training. Engineers are so over represented in groups espousing violent political programmes that there are books on this issue.

With these jumbled thoughts, I decided to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which is not far from the city centre. A 2USD tuk-tuk ride from the cafes along the Tonle Sap takes you to the museum.

It was originally a school which the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison and a torture centre and was one of 150 torture centres. At the entrance, the staff selling entry tickets informs you that an audio tour is available for 3USD extra. It is worth the extra money. You choose your language and follow the prompts and press pre-assigned buttons to listen to the translated stories of former inmates and the atrocities committed in the name of social reforms.

It is a harrowing experience to look at the physical remains of all the nightmares. In my mind, I kept comparing Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum with Berlin Hohenschönhausen Memorial built at the site of a notorious STASI Prison in East Berlin, a tourist attraction now. Both are harrowing places but the atrocities of Pol Pot seem harsher because of the squalor and poverty that is visible in the building. The torture rooms are preserved as they were discovered after the flight of the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh. Some classrooms were divided into tiny cells. These cells are not large enough to hold even one person comfortably but were used to hold two people at a time. It is impossible to not feel disoriented or disconcerted in this building.

In such settings, one starts wondering how can one person or group assume that they know how to "fix" a society. According to one biographer of Pol Pot, the regime abolished money, markets, private properties, schools, universities and places of worship and tried to reconstruct society from scratch, from Year Zero. The result was pure devastation which resulted in 1.5 to 3 millions deaths, approximately 25 percent of Cambodia’s existing population at the time. Thankfully, the age of coercion is over. The age of seduction is here. Now we all want to be governed and voluntarily desire to be tethered to different surveillance devices.

After this harrowing part of tourism was over, I was glad to return to the world of touristy consumerism outside the museum. There are cafes and shops aplenty. Tuk-tuks and Bajaj auto rickshaws are waiting outside. I have to move to a better, more private place. I take a tuk-tuk to the hostel, pack my things and leave for a small family-run hotel across the Tonle Sap. To reach the other side of the city, you have to cross a bridge called the Japanese Bridge. Alongside it, a new bridge is under construction. It is called the Chinese Bridge.

The Pho One Hotel, despite its 9.2/10 rating on, is unknown to the tuk-tuk driver. I should have studied the map more carefully. After some driving around in the neighbouring areas, the driver finds the hotel. I pay him a bit extra just to make him feel good. He was trying to save face while trying to find a building in his own town. The staff of the hotel are friendly and the owner and the staff speak Vietnamese, French, English, Khmer and Mandarin. For them, I am monolingual, limited to English, illiterate even in French.

Everybody is playing like children with the glowing water. Some have removed their t-shirts and are using them as sieves or traps to catch the glowing particles of the plankton. Their shirts glow for a while and then they have to repeat the gesture.

The spacious room overlooks the Tonle Sap and the afternoon sun is reflected in the shiny paint on some small ships and boats plying the water. Tonle Sap River connects the eponymous lake to the Mekong River, which originates in China and passes through Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and drains itself in the South China Sea. The Mekong has been made famous by the film Apocalypse Now, a cinematic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Interestingly, Phnom Penh has a dance club named Heart of Darkness.

After two days of lounging around and experiencing amazing local food, I decided to book a room in Otres Village, Sihanoukville. The cab, a Lexus 330, a crossover between a car and an SUV, from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, takes five hours, and goes through the Cambodian countryside. Along the way, you can see the tropical vegetation and small mountains all the way to the beach. The road is just a narrow strip with two-way traffic.

Otres Village, a small town full of Western and Chinese tourists, is six or seven kilometres away from Serendipity, the city centre of Sihanoukville. I had booked a place at Woody’s, a Canadian-owned business and perhaps the most multicultural place in the town. The entire hotel is composed of independent cottages built with European pinewood. I asked the owner why he had to import wood and why he could not use Cambodian wood. He said tropical wood is too heavy and too dense and planks are difficult to carry.

Across the road from Woody’s is the tourist information centre and the place to book a boat ride to Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. The return boat ticket is 20USD and you can take the return trip whenever you like. The speedboat to Koh Rong takes 45 minutes and is a wonderful way to experience the South China Sea.

Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, two major tropical islands and tourist destinations, offer white sandy beaches and crystal blue waters with the possibility of observing bioluminescent plankton. You must carry a big bottle of natural mosquito repellent liquid such as eucalyptus, citronella or tea tree oil. I asked the owner of Coconut Bungalows if it was possible to observe the glowing plankton. He said he would wake me up on a moonless night, which was going to happen after three nights.

The hotel has a bungalow overlooking the pristine white beach. People play board games and enjoy coconut juice drinks and relax. Masseurs are available throughout the day and tourists get massages after swimming in the ocean. The deck of the hotel has a small library. Most of the books seem to be donated by the tourists who want their cultural products to be available there. There are Swedish thriller novels in Swedish in the library. It seems Northern Europeans escape their harsh winters and bring their bestsellers with them and leave them in such tropical places.

Three nights later at 4am, the hotel owner starts waking up the people who have been asking him about the plankton. It is time to watch the plankton because it is a moonless night. The hotel owner has already instructed his staff to switch off all lights after the guests are waist-deep in the water. When the lights are switched off, he asks us to look at the water after waving our hands in it. The water glows like liquid silver.

I try to record the glow on my mobile phone but the light is too soft to register on the camera. I put away the phone on my pile of towels and sandals. Everybody is playing like children with the glowing water. Some have removed their t-shirts and are using them as sieves or traps to catch the glowing particles of the plankton. Their shirts glow for a while and then they have to repeat the gesture. To play with bioluminescent plankton is common for children growing up in the Maldives and other tropical islands. But for those who have grown up in other places, this is a once in a lifetime kind of experience.

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Later on, I found many YouTube videos showing people playing with the glowing organisms. Probably they bring very sensitive equipment to record the faint glow of algae and bacteria or there are places where it glows more intensely.

But these are questions for other trips and other destinations. For now, I am happy that I experienced nature in its most mesmerising form and in such a friendly and safe environment. It is such a primal experience to be in the sea at 4am. A sea full of glowing microscopic organisms appears to be a living being trying to develop consciousness and each glowing streak is like an electric signal passing from one synapse to another. The non-sentient beings in water are trying to achieve sentience and I am there as a witness. It is something.



Museums, islands and moonless nights