Couped up in Cambodia

A coastal resort seemed the perfect place for a long weekend away from Phnom Penh last July -- until civil war shut down the country. Rosemary Berkeley remembers the right place at the wrong time.


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Rosemary Berkeley
July 17, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Timing in life is everything. I first heard that in high school, from Patty MacVicar, who was giving me the lowdown on the art of kissing. No one had tried to kiss me yet, but I was hoping someone -- specifically Danny Fitzgibbons -- soon would. Patty, who'd gone well beyond kissing, considered herself impossibly sophisticated compared to me. She concluded her instructions with, "And for God's sake, open your mouth when he's kissing you."

"How do I know when to open it?" I asked.

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She shot me a you-are-never-going-to-be-a-popular-girl look, but it seemed like a good question to me. Do I open my mouth as he heads towards me (open wide, here comes the plane)? Do I spring it open as soon as I feel his lips? Do I wait until his tongue gives me a sign of some sort?

My timing was off then, and it's not much better now that I've grown up and figured out how to kiss boys. Last July, my timing was so off that I was caught up in a coup d'itat. It wasn't my fault, really. Up until the night before the coup, the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, where I was living, was reassuring U.S. citizens that, while they should avoid crowds, political gatherings and certain streets, there was no real danger, despite growing acrimony between Cambodia's two prime ministers. Word within the expatriate community in Phnom Penh was that Cambodia had been through enough in the recent past and that foreign investment in the country had brought with it some assurance of stability.

My boyfriend, Chris, and I were living in Phnom Penh and we really, really needed to get away. Phnom Penh in July is like Paris in August or Buffalo in January -- that is to say, not the place to be. We wanted to get to a coast, to put our backs to the country for a while and stare out at an ocean. It was the weekend, a long one at that since American organizations were closed on Monday to observe the Fourth of July. After learning from security organizations that the road to the coast was clear, we decided on Friday night to take a bus the next day to a little town called Kompong Som, about four hours away.

That night, Chris put on his favorite new CD, a compilation of surf classics purchased from the local market bootlegger. I sang along with the Beach Boys while I packed. Let's go surfin' now. I pulled my overnight bag out from under the bed. Everybody's learnin' how. Threw it across the room to let the bugs inside know that their lease had expired. Come on a safari with me. Put in a couple of bathing suits and a pair of cutoffs. I took a big swig from my let-the-weekend-begin gin and tonic and added a short dress from Bali, a couple of T-shirts and a black skirt. On top went my so-called makeup bag, which is about as streamlined as it can be and still be a girl's: shampoo, contact lens stuff, toothbrush and paste, sunblock and a brush. I discovered that I had a Power Bar in there from my last trip back to the States several months before. I decided I didn't want the extra weight and took it out.

"I'm packed," I yelled to Chris. He came into the room with some shorts and T-shirts and threw them into my bag.

"Bringin' the board?" I asked. Chris is a mondo surfer.

"Yeah, baby."

We then did a little happy dance -- twisting to the theme music from "Hawaii Five-O" (by the Ventures, in case you're trying to figure it out) because we were kind of young and very in love and we were going to the beach.



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Think back to movies or old newsreels you've seen of people fleeing. That's what Phnom Penh looks like from about 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day: people heading for the city limits, having just received orders to evacuate. Buffeted by world events for the last three decades and abused by leaders ranging from the merely crooked to the truly mad, Cambodians are no strangers to waking up and finding that their world has once again been turned upside down. In 1975, when Pol Pot came to power, he ordered his army, the Khmer Rouge, to evacuate all of Phnom Penh. Every family was forced from its home, every hospital emptied, every school and place of business shut down. Everyone -- monks and teachers and guys who worked on cars and women who sold bread -- was sent marching to the countryside so that forced labor and the destruction of all things Western could begin.

Life in Phnom Penh takes place on the streets, not in living rooms. If a Cambodian is not out on the street -- gossiping or working or eating or selling -- he or she is walking purposefully, or riding a Chinese-made bicycle, or cruising along on a Honda motorbike, or pedaling a cyclo. So it seemed strange on Saturday morning that the streets weren't quite as insanely bustling as usual. Oh, a stranger to the city would still stand paralyzed with fear at the prospect of trying to traverse Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, but I remember thinking that the usual hustle that makes an Asian city an Asian city was missing.

What was odder still was that our bus was not full. The driver even let Chris bring his surfboard on without argument. What's more, we and a handful of other passengers set off on schedule. If you've spent even a day in the third world, you know that it's practically a law of nature that buses do not leave on time. We should have known then that something was very, very wrong. But as I say, my timing was off. Unaware of the impending calamity, I was in a festive mood. "Let's just sing beach songs all weekend, " I said to Chris, feeling very light, very Zelda Fitzgerald -- crazy and amusing. "You know we're goin' to Surf City, gonna have some fun," Chris responded.

I leaned back and gazed out at the Cambodian countryside, an emerald sea of beauty dotted with rice paddies, yoked oxen, people snoozing in hammocks and naked kids playing in streams. It was a peaceful scene, one that I knew was deceiving. If countries got together in Vegas and gambled the way people do, Cambodia would be among the losers. Many Cambodians attribute their country's recent bloody history to bad luck. It's as good an explanation as any. The country was carpet-bombed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, starved and worked to death by Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror and then invaded by the Vietnamese. In the early '90s, the United Nations stepped in and spent an estimated $3 billion to $4 billion -- yes, billion -- in Cambodia to ensure free and fair elections.

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A new prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was elected. At which point one of his opponents, a former Khmer Rouge soldier named Hun Sen, threatened civil war if he was kept out of government. King Sihanouk, Cambodia's monarch, responded by making Hun Sen a co-prime minister, thus subverting the will of the people and ensuring that the government would be nothing more than a two-headed monster, perpetually at war with itself.

Normal life continued for about six hours after the bus ride. We got to
Kompong Som and checked into what passes for a luxury hotel. We strolled
across the street to the beach, which one shares with white cows and child
vendors. The kids come running at you as soon as your foot hits the sand,
hellbent on charming you or harassing you into buying some of the boiled
quail eggs they balance on trays on their heads. (Why, yes, being on a beach
always sets up a craving in me for boiled eggs.) Anyway, the waves weren't
great, but the water was a tonic and the air was clear and I became happily
engrossed in a three-pound autobiography of Georgia O'Keefe for a couple of
hours. It was for Georgia that I'd forsaken the Power Bar, my running
shoes and a pair of jeans when packing.

After we'd eaten our share of eggs and damaged our skin a bit, we returned
to the hotel. Chris got into the shower and I availed myself of one of the
perks in our $35/night room: the television. I switched through a couple
of unspeakably bad Japanese soap operas, then came to CNN. At first I didn't realize it was CNN, because the camera was showing a street in Phnom Penh,
a street right near our house. Then the reporter's voice said, "This is the
scene from a hotel room here in Cambodia's capital. Once known as the Pearl
of the Orient, today this city is under siege. There's fighting on the
streets and many residents have fled the city. At the moment, the situation
is such that we are unable to leave our hotel."

"Chris, we're on TV," I yelled, wondering as I heard the sound of my voice
how it was that it came out sounding like a shark had me by the leg. Chris
came racing from the shower, lathered up thoroughly enough to star in a
commercial for some new bath product: Lather a Go Go or something. The
reporter was explaining that Hun Sen's troops had attacked those of the prince, and
that the situation was grave. He was predicting an all-out fight for power.

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Though friends in the States think me adventurous by virtue of the fact that
I've lived abroad for long periods of time, I am by no means a brave person.
I'm just an American woman with a liberal arts degree best used outside of
the United States, a person who enjoys living in cultures where afternoon naps are
the norm. Not only am I not brave, I'm the giggly-when-nervous type, the
kind of person who needs to be slapped across the face in order to bring me
back to my senses. Chris got to see that at least a dozen times over the
next several days. I was nervous, I was giggly and we were trapped.

And I am ashamed to say this, but from almost the first moment that we
realized that we were in a serious situation, I became obsessed with clothing. More specifically, with the clothing I hadn't brought. "These poor people
are screwed," Chris said, looking at the screen.

"Chris," I said, "the only thing I brought for shoes is one pair of
sandals."

"How could the embassies have been so wrong?" Chris wondered.

"What if we have to run? Chris, I can't run in these sandals."

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"I wonder if the market is still open. We need to get some food," Chris
said.

I placed my hands on his shoulders and said, "Do you think I could get a
pair of sneakers in my size there?"

The news from the market vendors was as grim as their faces. A doctor friend
in Phnom Penh had told me that any Cambodian over the age of 25 -- that is,
anyone old enough to remember Pol Pot times -- probably suffers from at least
a mild form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. I wondered how the Cambodian
people could stand this latest tear in the gossamer-thin fabric of peace.
They relayed the news to us in short, resigned sentences. The only road
back to Phnom Penh, they said, was closed. The fighting would spread, they
told us. Stay inside, one woman said.

As we bought crackers and peanut butter, I thought about how I never eat
peanut butter in my everyday life, but how it now seemed like the thing to
have. Despite being an asthmatic, I seriously considered buying cigarettes.
What if I had to go before a firing squad, or face hours of being
interrogated? Wouldn't I want a cigarette for that? Didn't cigarettes become an accepted currency during times of political unrest?

We met up with two friends from Phnom Penh, Barbara, an American, and Emily, a
Filipina. Both had lived in Cambodia for a long time. I looked into
their bag: peanut butter and crackers. Cigarettes for Emily. I joked with
them about wishing I had sneakers. Emily said, "Well, you never know with
this place. It's a crazy country. Bad karma." I handed Chris a carton of
Marlboros and headed off to look at the men's shoes.

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I'm not really a group person, but even I know that, in a crisis, it's best
not to hole up in one's room with a lot of peanut butter and a carton of
cigarettes. There were about 30 expatriates now marooned in Kompong Som.
While the Cambodians closed up the market and hurried home, we found each
other and organized a meeting. A Frenchman from the United Nations took charge, asking
us to write down our names, nationalities and addresses on a clipboard -- the
universal symbol of authority -- that he'd brought with him. He promised to
pass our names on to his superiors. I looked at the clipboard when it
reached me and was touched at the sight of the names, the thought of the
families -- in Korea, France, Australia, Poland, Austria -- that
would now be full of worry for their crazy loved ones in Cambodia.

Discussions centered on what our options were. Try to convoy back to Phnom
Penh once the road was re-opened? Wait for rescue helicopters that were
rumored to be a possibility? Investigate the idea of chartering a Thai
fishing boat to take us to Thailand?

The Frenchman, Jean-Pierre was his name, suggested we continue to meet a
couple of times a day. I thought he made a lot of sense for a man wearing
teeny-tiny white corduroy shorts.

That night, several of us ate at a neighborhood restaurant, where my
thoughts again turned to fashion. Next time I'm in a coup, I thought, I'm
bringing a belt, and maybe even elasticized waist shorts. Edgy as I was, I
felt like I was burning calories faster than an adolescent boy in need of
Ritalin. Food was already becoming harder to get. Our Vietnamese fish soup
was a gray pool of stray fish parts. I longed for my Power Bar.

Talk turned to books, and Emily and I discovered that we'd both recently
read the same one. It had gone into disturbing detail about the treatment
Vietnamese boat people received in the hands of Thai pirates. "I'm not
getting on a Thai fishing boat," Emily said.

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"Why not?" Chris asked.

"Listen, I read the book, too," I said. "Thai pirates are the worst."

Chris looked like he'd sell me for a bottle of rum. "When did you become an
expert on pirates? You've never even met a pirate."

Emily and I looked at each other. The book had detailed robberies, rapes
and possible cannibalism. We were in silent agreement: no Thai fishing
boat for us.


The next morning, Jean-Pierre, his shorts whiter than ever, had news. The
prince had left the country and was on his way to Paris. Then he said, "Eet
iz finis. He will lose." Someone pointed out that the prince's troops were
still fighting. The Frenchman shook his head. "Eet iz like Gen. George
Patton said." He then looked at us, the Americans, as if expecting that we
could quote Patton on command. We shrugged our shoulders, so
Jean-Pierre went on. "An army iz like a strand of spaghetti. Eet cannot
be pushed. Eet must be pulled." Everyone seemed to consider that for a
moment. Then one of the Australian kids in the group, a leather-skinned,
heavily pierced backpacker who I thought was too stoned to know what was
actually going on around him, said, "Well, mate, that's either really
profound or really stupid."

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The meeting ended on that ambiguous note. I walked across the street to the
beach with Barbara. We tried to ignore the egg-pushing kids and looked at
the water. "Wanna go for a swim?" I asked her.

"You know, it's funny, but I have no desire to put my bathing suit on," she
said.

I knew what she meant. Truckloads of soldiers were arriving in town, and my
instinct was to stay as clothed as possible. It seemed dumb to be
displaying cleavage or a little thigh when there were lots of power-drunk
armed men around. We agreed that our situation felt a little like "Gilligan's Island," and that the best look for a coup was the down-to-earth practicality of,
say, Mary Ann, rather than the womanly glamour of Ginger.

It turned out that Jean-Pierre was right. The prince's army, minus its
leader/spaghetti puller, retreated. By Tuesday, Hun Sen's forces were in
control of the capital. On Wednesday, word came that the road to Phnom
Penh was re-opened. Those expatriates with cars made plans to convoy back.
The rest of us would take the first bus out.

The Cambodians who ran the hotel where we'd been staying were adamant in
maintaining that we were making a mistake. They insisted we not get on the
bus, telling us that there were bandit soldiers along the route back to the
city, that we were sure to be robbed, or worse.

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But we'd been marooned for five days, we were almost out of money and
definitely low on nerve. Thailand and Australia had ordered all of their
citizens evacuated from Cambodia. If there was to be an evacuation of
Americans, we certainly didn't want to miss it.

The heat the morning of our departure was, as usual, brutal. When Raymond
Chandler wrote, "The heat rolled in like a fat lady into the sauna," he
could have been describing Cambodia. Imagine you're wedged into a bus seat
made for compact Asian bodies with said fat lady perched on your knees.
Make it a steamy July day and add the smell of your own sweaty fear into the
mix. Pass the beer, indeed.

I sat across from Anna, a large Austrian woman with hair a Kool-Aid shade of
red. She owned an antique shop in Vienna and had been touring the Cambodian
countryside in search of things to ship back to Austria when the coup took
place. I was impressed by her calm throughout the last several days. When
I'd commented on that to her, she'd opened the purse that never left her
side and taken out a silver flask. "Whiskey," she'd smiled.

"Got your passport?" I asked her.

She nodded and patted her ample breast.

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"Where's your money?" I asked.

Again, the patting of the breasts.

I'd been thinking along the same lines myself. As we packed that morning, I'd slid my cash into one bra cup, my passport into the other. But then the
thought came: If the need arose, could I easily extract the passport? I
imagined nothing would quite equal the embarrassment of having to fumble
around in my bra while a teenage boy carrying an AK-47 looked on. And I
certainly didn't want some soldier boy -- however Calvin Klein slim and
appealing -- to decide to help me with such a task. So I'd spent five
minutes sitting on the bed, practicing a quick withdrawal of the passport.
I now felt pretty confident, knowing I could grab the corner of the passport
and bring it out into the open air with the smooth quickness of a
gunslinger.

The Korean woman in our group had her hair tucked up in a baseball cap. There
hadn't been any water that morning, and I was longing for that product that
sprays powder into your hair and then would have you believe it's clean.
From now on, I vowed, if there's even a chance of getting caught up in
political unrest, I'm bringing along a baseball cap. I thought back to the
times when my mother told me to bring a dime on a date in case things
started to go badly and I had to call her and ask her to get into the
Valiant with her hair in pin curls, house dress with the third button from the
top missing, and come and get me because some boy wanted to go to third base
while I preferred to go bowling. Mom, I thought, things are really going
badly.

I hated the idea of dying on a bus with Pringles scattered around me, a
half-eaten loaf of bread on my lap. Still, we loaded our backpacks with
food because we didn't know how long the trip would take.

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We'd brought along bottles of beer, too. Because we were scared and wanted
to steady our nerves. Because we welcomed the diversion of passing a bottle
around from hand to hand, mouth to mouth, cold sores be damned. I should
live so long to get a cold sore, I remember thinking.

The villagers I'd seen a few days before were hiding inside their houses.
The roads were deserted. Before we were out of town, we passed trucks full
of soldiers, some boyish and innocent, some old and ravaged, all of them
heavily armed and poker-faced.
A man with the build of a sumo wrestler sat next to our driver. At every
roadblock -- and there were many -- the driver kept the motor running as our
oversized emissary lumbered off the bus. He handed soldiers stacks of money
large enough to be someone's Monopoly winnings. Then he hustled back on
board, and we'd be off to the next roadblock.

Twice, the bribes didn't work. Twice, soldiers boarded the bus and walked
up and down the aisle and looked into our faces. I looked back at
skinny boys who carried guns that seemed too big for them. "Don't look,"
the Korean man next to me whispered.

One soldier patted down bags. Another asked to see our passports. One,
slender and shirtless, cigarette hanging from his mouth, pointed at the
Korean woman and said something in Khmer. There was some nervous rustling
while someone translated. Then the woman handed the soldier her baseball
cap. The soldier took it and smiled. Good Lord, I thought, I hope he doesn't like my shirt.

As we got closer to the city, we looked out the windows at the damage. The
term "war-torn" suddenly made sense to me: Plate glass in buildings was
shattered, metal gates in front of homes were full of rat-a-tat-tat bullet
holes, street lights were leveled, market stalls emptied.

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When the bus finally arrived at the station in Phnom Penh, distraught
Cambodian co-workers were waiting for us. "This is the end of our
democracy," one of them said. I could not think of a comforting response.

A week later, American aid workers were evacuated from Cambodia. We waited
for hours at the heavily shelled airport in lines that seemed never to move.
At last we were redirected to a gate and told to have our passports ready.
I held my magical navy-blue charm aloft as if wielding a crucifix in the
face of a vampire. "To Bangkok," the gate attendant yelled as he motioned us
forward. Yes, to Bangkok, I thought. I'm wearing my running shoes, and I'm
ready to go.


Rosemary Berkeley

Rosemary Berkeley is a freelance writer.

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