After spending the morning stepping over bones and scraps of clothes
that poked out of the grounds of the Killing Fields, Elise was happy
to accept Arun’s invitation to his house for lunch. Even as she traced
her transparent reflection in the glass stupa that was stuffed with
more than 8,000 skulls (classified by age and gender), the rumbling of
her stomach had been an embarrassing reminder that although she was
here to understand why people, and by extension herself, had suffered
unfairly, her base human needs—food, shelter, clothing—demanded to be
He was waiting for her at his scooter, polishing the plastic and
chrome with a blue bandana. He held the scooter steady for her to
“How far to your house?” Elise placed her sandals on the tiny metal
extensions at the base of the scooter.
“Not far,” he answered vaguely. He climbed on the bike, allowed her a
moment to circle her hands around him.
“What did you do before you were a driver?”
“After the Khmer Rouge, I was an orphan,” Arun said. “I sold postcards.”
“My parents are dead, too,” Elise said.
“They were very old?”
“My father died when I was a baby. My mother almost two years ago.”
“In America? How can that be? Your country is rich and powerful.”
“Your country was rich and powerful once.”
“Long time ago.” Arun searched the sky, then the ground as if the
answer might be written there. “Shit happens, as you Americans say.”
He started the scooter. “Time to eat. You must be hungry.”
The road to Arun’s house was little more than a one lane clearing with
dust and rocks and crater-sized holes. Elise knew that walking would
have been faster and more comfortable, but instead she tightened her
hold on Arun’s waist and closed her eyes to keep the dust from
He wore a pale blue, long-sleeve, button-down shirt with a polo player
sewn on the front pocket, the collar and cuffs frayed to a dingy
white. Yesterday, when Elise first saw him wiping his already shiny
scooter in front of the guest house she was checking into, he had worn
that same shirt. That night he had driven her to the Silver Pagoda, a
glittering and majestic monument that mocked the poverty around them.
She guessed he would be wearing that shirt again the next morning. He
was to take her to the boat she would ride down the Tongle Sap River
to Siem Reap, which housed the temples of Angkor Wat. He had already
warned her that those boats were not safe and might capsize from being
overloaded. He suggested that she fly instead—he knew of someone who
could sell her a ticket. She told him that she would take her chances
with the boat.
The scooter sputtered to a stop in front of a group of women and
children gathered around an ancient TV that was housed under a rickety
wood and tin structure stacked with bottles of soft drinks and faded
canned goods. The women were wrapped in sarongs, their dark hair
coiled low on their necks. They touched their children’s shoulders,
who then ran toward Elise with their eyes large and palms open. She
took a stack of riels out of her money pouch and passed out single
bills, worth only a few cents.
“Dollar, please,” one of the oldest asked, holding out her hand. As
soon as Elise shook her head and tucked the riels back in her pouch,
they ran back to the TV, their arms raised with their bills tight in
Arun led her along a dirt pathway past a row of simple bamboo and
concrete homes. He stopped in front of a square building where a young
woman was scooping water out of the well in front of their house. She,
too, wore a sarong and was as beautiful as the other young Cambodian
women Elise had seen. Also outside was a concrete stove and grill,
where two large pots and a cluster of small fish hissed from the fire
crackling underneath. After they greeted each other with a few soft
words, Arun’s wife went back to the stove, and he gestured for Elise
to follow him inside.
The room was dark and cool and suddenly still. Arun unbuttoned his
shirt and hung it on a nail jutting out of the wall next to a white
shirt identical in cut. A small infant boy, naked and curled, slept on
a straw mat while a young girl fanned his face. Although the girl’s
eyes were downcast, Elise could feel the girl’s focus was on her.
Arun’s wife entered and turned on an electric fan plugged into an
extension cord that ran out of the house to a generator.
He showed Elise the two framed pictures resting on a plank of wood
that sat atop a pile of stacked stones. One was of him, his wife, and
their infant son. The three of them, solemnly huddled into the center
of the frame, looked more like siblings than parents and child. Elise
smoothed her hand over her back pocket, where she kept the half photo
of her father taken not long before he’d died.
The other picture was of Arun and an older western man with reddish
hair and a large stomach that made him look pregnant. “He is my German
friend. He paid for this house. Five hundred dollars.”
Elise surveyed the concrete square dwelling, admiring its compact
utility. “It’s nice.”
Arun shrugged. “It is enough for us.” He said something to the girl,
but she didn’t look up or change the rhythm of her fanning.
“That’s my niece. She lives with us. I pay for her school.”
“That’s kind of you.”
“If I don’t pay she can’t go.”
Arun’s wife came in with plates of rice, broiled fish, sprigs of green
plants, and sliced limes. The fish were small, and Elise picked the
bones with the tines of her fork, while Arun ate his fish whole.
The wife lifted the baby and pressed him to her chest while she
watched them eat. Arun and his wife spoke to each other in low, even
tones, without rancor or hostility, and Elise felt calmed by the
steady, quiet rhythm. She wondered if they had reached a place of
peace or just necessary detachment, borne out of unbearable loss and
After thanking them for the meal, she took a photo of the family with
her camera, promising to send a copy to the guesthouse for Arun to
pick up sometime in the unknown future.
Next was the Genocide Museum, a secondary school building converted
into a place of torture under Pol Pot’s regime. Now tourists could
walk through the concrete rooms adorned only with the vestiges of that
past—bare mattresses on metal springs, dried blood stained on the
floors, electric prods, chains, and whips hanging from bare walls.
Between the torture instruments hung black and white framed
photographs of the victims, their bodies electrocuted until they were
only charred outlines on stained beds. Most of the posted explanations
were in Khmer only, for reasons unclear to Elise. Few Cambodians could
afford the one dollar admission fee, and besides, Elise thought, why
would they pay to see something they had lived? When she had offered
to pay for Arun to come into the museum, he refused, saying he had
seen it all before, but that he hadn’t been to Angkor Wat yet, and
hoped to do that someday.
It was the sparseness of the place, the lack of detailed explanations,
the bloodstains, the torture implements ready for use that felt to her
that this had all happened yesterday and would again tomorrow. One
wall of the museum was lined with hundreds of photos of the victims,
headshots of them before their death, like a high school yearbook
where the photographer had forgotten to remind them to smile. Another
wall was populated with victims’ skulls that mapped the shape of
Outside, the sun was strong, and Elise walked by the children tossing
a volleyball toward Arun, who was wiping his scooter with a folded
handkerchief. By the time she reached the scooter, the children had
surrounded them again. They ran in packs, barefoot and in tattered
clothes, some asking for candy or money, others selling postcards. The
older ones edged their way up front, spreading the pictures of the
temples at Angkor Wat like pages from a catalogue.
“Ma’am, you buy postcard.”
“Just one.” She chose a picture of a houseboat on the Siem Reap and
paid for it. More children had gathered now, dropping postcards on her
lap, surrounding her with pictures of the ancient Khmer temples. She
shook her head and refused to meet their eyes. She hoped Arun would
shoo them away, but he did nothing. Finally he started the scooter,
and the children dispersed as quickly as they had gathered.
Through the window near her table at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club,
Elise watched the people on the street below crawling, squatting,
weaving, and strolling. Some balanced baskets on their heads, while
others cradled children or guns with their free hands.
“Best sunset in Asia.”
A clean-cut man in his early thirties with an American accent was
standing next to her.
“No more seats,” he said, sitting at her table. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” she said, before taking a sip of her gin and tonic.
He waved to the bar, and a young Japanese man in dreadlocks and a Bob
Marley T-shirt walked over with two Angkor beers and set them on the
“This is Haruki. I’m William.” They raised their beers expectantly
until Elise clinked her drink with theirs. They then took long draws,
tipping the bottoms toward the ceiling. William said something in
Japanese to Haruki, and the two laughed.
“First time here?”
Elise nodded. “I got in last night.”
“Thought I hadn’t seen you here before,” William said.
A Rolling Stones CD blared from speakers on the ceiling. A few men in
trousers and button-down shirts sat on the stools at the bar. The
tables were full of tourists and well-to-do locals drinking bottled
beers and mixed drinks. The bar had a faded, wood-paneled colonial
look that made the place feel more decadent than it really was. Haruki
took out a pack of Marlboros from his jeans pocket and gestured to
Elise. She shook her head. He pulled a lighter out of the pack and lit
his cigarette, turning his head away from William as he exhaled the
smoke from his mouth.
“Haruki’s been here for a few days. I’m taking him to Angkor tomorrow.”
“I’m going tomorrow, too.”
“Plane or boat?”
“Same here. Great way to travel. All that about the boats being
dangerous is a bunch of shit. Don’t believe the crap people will tell
you about ambushes and drownings. Sure they overload the boats, but
I’d say it’s about as safe as anything else here.”
“Are there snakes?”
“In the river?” William shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
If Cambodia had snakes, then certainly Thailand did as well. Perhaps a
snake had bitten her father after he’d fallen in the Kwai River, and
he had drowned accidentally after all.
William suddenly looked toward the door, as if he had seen someone he
knew, but no one came over to the table. “I guess you went to the
Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum today.”
Elise nodded and tossed her drink back. The ice slammed against her teeth.
William shook his head. “Always tough the first time. Where you staying?”
Elise told him the name of her guesthouse.
“That’s where the French stay. Expensive, too—what, twelve dollars a
night? Me and Haruki, we’re at the Rainbow. A bit of a hole, but it’s
the place to be. Rooms five dollars, lots of grass, laid-back. For
three months I’ve been living off of ramen and smoking dope in a
hammock. It’s a great life.”
Haruki was silent, watching her through slitted eyes. He said
something to William.
“He can’t speak much English,” William said. “How’d you get here?”
“I have a scooter and driver outside.”
“How much you paying?”
“Five for the evening.”
“Did he tell you it’s not so safe for you to be riding around on a
scooter this time of night? You’re a sitting duck. I bet he didn’t
tell you because he wanted his five dollars.”
“He’s a good guy. And five dollars isn’t so much.”
“That’s what he’s counting on you to think.” William glanced at
Haruki, whose face was like steel. “Hey. We’re going to the Heart in a
few. Grass is free. Tell your driver to go home. We’ll make sure you
get back okay.”
In the cab to the Heart of Darkness, they sped past the crumbling
French colonial architecture, past wandering children and frail,
squatting men, past young girls in short skirts and red lipstick, past
young boys, handsome and lean, pointing their AK-47s at anything that
She climbed the stairs to the bar, trying not to trip over the
cripples maimed from land mines, the children in their torn, dirty
clothes, everyone with their hands out.
The Heart of Darkness, run by an ex-Vietnam vet who had settled there
with his Cambodian wife, was packed with expatriates: journalists,
English teachers, NGOs, and backpackers who drank and smoked in
fleeting camaraderie. A few older men with large shirts untucked over
their spilling stomachs played pool, while miniskirted prostitutes
vacantly appraised the surroundings. William pinched some leaves out
of one of the wicker baskets on the bar and rolled a joint, nodding to
the grunge rock blaring from the speakers.
He passed the joint to Elise, where she held it briefly before
inhaling, remembering the first time she’d smoked pot—the summer she
was fourteen. She’d gone to a hill to escape the funeral of the boy
she’d secretly loved. A girl there, a classmate, had passed her joint
to her, much like William did now.
Plastic snakes and spiders of different sizes and colors hung from the
ceiling. William raised his hand and touched a green snake suspended
above them so that it bounced and jiggled on its elastic strings.
“I guess they do have snakes in Cambodia. Scared?” William asked,
looking pleased with himself.
“Not really,” Elise said as she reached up and ran her hand along the
length of the snake, which was as long as her arm.
After she’d smoked a few joints, the night started to blur. She
thought of Arun at home with his wife and baby and wondered if he was
at all worried about her out this late. She hoped he was.
The music was slowing. She watched Haruki laugh for an absurdly long
time. William filled a glass pipe and passed it to her. She held the
smoke in her lungs for as long as she could before she blew it out.
She was overwhelmed by a sudden smell and taste of incense.
“You down with ope, right?” William asked.
Elise nodded, even though it was her first time smoking opium. She
tried to regulate her breathing and stay relaxed. She stared at the
snake above her.
When she was fourteen she’d been in a boat with a boy who rowed across
a lake until they were shaded in leaves and hanging branches. After
they’d shared a beer, he’d leaned over and touched her lips and
breasts at the same time just as a snake fell from the branch above
them. Its black body slapped on the hot metal of the boat while its
tongue shot darts at her. Terrified, she’d jumped in the water, and
she felt then like she did now, light and weight, bright and dark, hot
and cold, all at once. She wasn’t sure if she would ever come up. When
she was underwater, she saw her father there too, except that he was
flailing, fighting to breathe. Then she felt a grip around her waist,
and she was being pulled upward to air and sun and into the boat. She
never forgave the boy for saving her.
William and Haruki sparkled near her, while the other objects faded
into silhouettes. She was floating across the room now finding her way
She wanted to tell someone to turn down the music, but she had
forgotten how to speak. She wanted to touch the greenish glow above
her, but her arms were too heavy to move.
While her body had betrayed her, her mind was clear and unimpeded. She
recalled math problems from high school that she had been unable to
solve but whose solutions were now obvious. The music resonated around
the room; its notes were reflected in the shadows of others in a
profound way that she could not articulate. She picked out the
individual harmonies and rhythms and followed them to their logical
conclusion. She closed her eyes and bobbed her head with the music, so
beautiful, so poignant, and then she was a girl again wrapped in her
bed listening to her mother play the most beautiful Beethoven. The
soundtrack of her dreams. Now she was in one of those dreams and she
could not stop smiling.
Things were making sense. Like that ubiquitous bumper sticker back in
the States that Arun had quoted: shit happens. She laughed then,
She commanded her arm to take the photo of her father out of her
shorts pocket. Her father was soft and glowing. She had not seen it
before. That her father was sending her a message through the photo.
He was smiling right at her. She smiled back at him. She kissed the
photo, then William, then Haruki, then the snake.
When she opened her eyes, the sun was out, and she was in her bed, alone.
The boat rumbled fast and loud down the river. William and Haruki were
crashed out on their backpacks down below. Elise sat on the deck
wearing a beige boat hat and sunglasses in an attempt to shield her
face from the heartless sun. She felt raw and headachy. A few girls in
bikini tops and short-shorts were sunning themselves on the corrugated
roof, eyes closed, ears stuffed with Walkman earphones. The boat sped
past the bamboo houses on stilts, fishing boats docked on the grass,
and children splashing in the water.
What would happen if she walked over to the edge of this boat and
jumped off as it sped by the bamboo huts, small dots along the river’s
edge? Would someone save her? Would she swim back? Would she let
herself drown, just so she could feel what her father had?
She unzipped her money pouch and extracted the picture of her father.
Palming the photo in her left hand, she traced its rough edges with
her index finger. With his long hair and bandanna, her father looked
carefree. The liquor bottle in his hand added to his enjoyment, just
as the woman cut out of the photo must have.
She circled her father’s face and trailed his smile, a soft curl like
Arun’s sleeping child. Last night had shown her: there were other ways
to understand him.
That evening, Elise sat with William and Haruki on one of the hills to
watch the sun set over Angkor Wat. They had met another backpacker on
the way up, a Canadian woman with unshaven legs and underarms, wearing
nose and tongue rings. The four passed a joint around in silence as
they watched the sandstone temples turn copper then deep red under the
“I just don’t understand,” the Canadian said. “How can the same
people do both? Make these monuments of incredible awe and beauty and
yet kill their own by the millions?”
“Lots of slave labor for both projects.” William spoke in Japanese to
Haruki and they laughed.
“I’m serious,” the girl said.
“I am too,” said William. “You’ve got to think about the big
picture.” He drew an expansive frame with his fingers, then patted
Haruki’s leg. “Look at the Japanese. They were enlightened once. Then
they got the brilliant idea to conquer the world. Got fried to a crisp
for their effort.”
“What the hell are you saying?” The girl’s voice was tight and high-pitched.
Elise’s mouth worked into a slow smile. “Shit happens. And then you die.”
William laughed for a long time at that one. Haruki did, too. There
was no need for translation.
And even though Elise laughed with them, she was thinking of when she
would return on the boat five days later. How Arun in his worn, blue
shirt would be waiting for her. How after that she would go to
Thailand, where it was easy to get opium. How she would pass her days
in a boat on the Kwai River. There, with only the moon and stars and
sky to save her, she'd row to her father's ghost, the heart of her own
©2010 by Sybil Baker