The ghosts of Phnom Penh

by Cristina Neculae (Romania)

Making a local connection Cambodia


“I booked a beach bungalow for a month in Thailand hoping I would die there, but I didn’t. So I had to come back”. I looked at him with real interest for the first time. He was tall, incredibly thin and the way he was dressed made me think of a glam rock concert. We were sitting at the only two tables outside a small coffee shop on Bassac Lane, in Phnom Penh. We both ordered breakfast and I had just told him I live in Thailand. In return, he said he has terminal cancer. “I will just die here, in Cambodia, instead. My friends promised me a Viking funeral in Sihanoukvile”. He pushed the barely touched breakfast away with his emaciated fingers and lit a cigarette. “I am not sorry, you know. I’ve lived well and even if there’s not much life left in me now, I still do stuff I like. Last night I jammed at that bar there, across the street.” I glanced at the colorful façade of the building he pointed to and said nothing. What can one say to a man that casually shares the most intimate thing about life – his death – with a perfect stranger? Maybe there’s something about this place full of hardship and misfortune that made him consider his incurable illness a less distressing way to go compared to the tragedy of his Cambodian friends. Everyone he knows lost someone in the Cambodian genocide: a brother, an uncle, a parent. And they went in barbaric ways, tortured, maimed, experimented upon, discarded in mass graves. “We think dying is just dying, but not all deaths are equal, you know. Have you been to S-21 and the Killing Fields yet?” Yes, I had, the day before. The Killing Fields is a haunting place, there are still signs warning visitors not to step on bones that may accidentally resurface. But I also come from a former communist country and we had our own version of S-21. Just that it was so long ago, it doesn’t hurt as much. “Here is different. Everything happened so recent, it’s like ghosts walk the streets with you. And the Khmer Rouge murdered nearly a quarter of the population of their own country. That’s a lot of ghosts.” He stopped abruptly and raised his right hand, spreading cigarette ash all over. He was waving at what could have been a ghost. One that seemed somewhat familiar. I had seen that stooping old man before. He was making a living out of selling trinkets to tourists in restaurants and bars. Always respectful, never bothersome, wearing his hand-me-down jacket and Fedora hat even in the clammy purgatory Phnom Penh becomes during the monsoon. He was probably a full grown adult during Pol Pot’s regime, he must have witnessed and lived things worthy of novels. Now he was quickly walking towards us and greeted my companion cordially. “Are you hungry? Here, I can’t finish my breakfast, you can have it”. The old man sat down eagerly and, without a word, started eating. There was something about his hunger, about the way he was devouring the already cold eggs, about the way that meal seemed to be the single most important thing for him at that precise moment. And then it hit me: his hunger was so alive. And it made him appear so alive. There we were: a man that had everything he wanted, but was so ravaged by disease he couldn’t enjoy a simple breakfast; another man that rode out tough times and had nothing except for being alive; and myself, a traveler. I then realized that out of the two men sitting in front of me, it wasn’t the old man that was a ghost. He had too much life left in him.