Surviving the Killing Fields – 3 Meals in Phnom Penh

What was shit and what was dirt and what was burial ground blended unnervingly as you clomped through the grubby snakeweed and terraced plots of cultivated earth surrounding the mud walled shacks spackled under the cemetery footbridge. 

You crouched as you entered the unlit structure. Dust clouds slipped out like whispers from under your shoes. Stepping hard onto the cardboard floor-mat you waited for your eyes to adjust. They never did. They were busy rewriting 40 years of human experience that told you humans didn’t live like this.

You squinted through narrow beams of light back towards the cemetery. Outside, on the bald spurs of broken down motorbikes kids played Pokemon.

A tail of heat poured from a makeshift burner inside, curving off into the violet light of the nearby refineries that sheltered the city’s eyes from this gash of molten earth. That’s when it hit you.

This was somebody’s kitchen.

Family members emerged from nooks like coal miners. Faces entering view from shadows as if being composed by an erasure shading black negative space into patches of humanity. The walls held a structure more like scaffolding than furniture. Everything was edged and unsoft. You sensed fratricide occurred nearby. 

It was much later when you realized it wasn’t just the uncertain topsoil that brought you pause standing in that desolate place. It was the unknowns of your own life, the kaleidoscopes of its circles, the choices and false starts that brought you there…..perhaps in some recollection of that day, it was then you were reborn. 

As a volunteer translated the fathers explanation for the misfortune that had landed his family at this station of hades’ cross, you tried to strike a pose that displayed no judgment. While you fidgeted, one of the staff leaned in close so only you could hear. You felt his hot breath on your neck before he spoke. They don’t want to be living here, he whispered. As if sharing a secret recipe. You nodded.

With one of your shoes resting atop a snaggy palette, it occurred to you that cemeteries were the world’s first social media platform. A parade of stone slabs loudly demarcating the lives of those who had once lived among us.

Afterwards you had lunch. 

Earlier in the day, a 20 minutes tuk-tuk ride from the cemetery, eggs and toast had been served to you by sex workers rescued from the field.

The young girls were armed with kilowatt smiles and eyeballs like porch lights. They sat on the hard tile floor crafting origami. Morphing small figurines from colored paper. They tried to help you with your efforts, but your fingers felt fat and fumbly by comparison. Bend this here. Fold that there. 

But nothing you did seemed beautiful enough. 

The hosts served tea after breakfast and a few girls giggled. Being the only male in the room felt conspicuous. More conspicuous than your skin color. Made you want to hide. You tried not to stare as you copied their movements. They need positive experiences like this with men, you were told by the staff. It can’t be only females who treat them well. Someone asked why all the servers in the adjacent restaurant were male. You were informed they too had been rescued from the same industry as the girls.

In the cemetery, after lunch, you had asked your chaperone for a good place to find a stiff drink. You asked this while dodging rabied mongrels with arthritic backs and small chickens whose necks would soon be snapped because they held no meat. 

Drink? Here? His eyeballs seemed to say in response, widening around large pupils. No, no. Not here. Tonight. You said. Then, making a big circle with your arms as accompaniment, added. After all this. 

The flash of ribs nearby caught your attention as the staff answered you. The most visible part of the living graveyard’s anatomy was bones. 

A movie theater? You returned your gaze to the staff and repeated his suggestion skeptically.

The real selling point, he said, while nodding confirmation, were the pours.

You looked up a review online:

The Flicks Community Movie House is the only independent, fully licensed art house cinema in Phnom Penh, which offers movies in a comfortable air conditioned room. It is located in an original wooden Cambodian house featuring a unique bar, funky paraphernalia and a leafy outside terrace. Its movie room seats 32 people where you can enjoy movies for $4 a pop, with a drink, snacks and homemade fresh popcorn.

Back in Phnom Penh that evening you made your way down from your guesthouse towards the theater. You walked on the root riddled sidewalks past the street stalls and the flame trees. This town had an edge to it. A “not quite there quality”. To the construction. To the tourism industry. To its general legality. You could make eye contact while walking around, but you didn’t stare. It wasn’t a place you wanted to drop your wallet. 

You kind of liked it. 

While a Hollywood film felt like a jagged pill after the day’s itinerary, you treated recommendations from locals like legal tender when abroad.  So you scoured the listings for something appropriate to bookend your day. 

Surviving The Killing Fields one mans searing account of a countries descent into hell.

That would do.

You walked up to the second floor and ordered a vodka soda. The cashier filled a medium sized plastic cup with three big ice cubes and placed it in front of you. Then, with a small smile, he grabbed the vodka bottle from the shelf on the wall behind him and put it next to the cup. “Stiff pours” you remembered your tipster saying. You waited. Eventually you touched the bottle, felt the cool slender glass neck. Unsure what to do, you picked it up. Felt it’s weight. Then, finally, sensing no interruption – you tipped the bottle and started to pour. You filled the cup godlessly full, put the cap back on the bottle, and feeling a bit like a bandit, ducked under the red velvet curtains into the theater.

Halfway through the film and fullway drunk, a kid in Pol Pots Killing Fields caught your eye. He was about the same age as the one you’d met earlier that day at the clean water project. That is where, clustered on a dun-colored hillside, you’d had dinner.

You used your hands to dip sticky rice into laab while the students watched eagerly for your reaction to its ferocious heat. Behind them the wood frames of the school buckled under the drafty doors and the screenless windows buzzed with scrub flies. The clean water installation was the only configuration on the premises that looked vaguely modern. It was the main attraction for the visit.

The lesson plan that afternoon was teaching hand washing to the students. Basic hygiene. Afterwards kids from neighboring villages joined the students for recess on the barren earth that held no play structures. The main attraction shifted from clean water to you, the sweaty gringo. 

You took a photo of one of the kids you bonded with. He couldn’t have been over four years old and hung to your back like a sucker fish. You played with the other kids but he wouldn’t let you go. Like a scared puppy afraid of the labradors at the dog park. He was on your shoe laces looking up in the photo you took. Pleading with trusting eyes. Straight out of National Geographic, is what you thought at the time.  That’s when you saw something you hadn’t noticed before. 

You deleted the photo forever. 

That child was dressed identically to the one depicted running for his life in Pol Pots killing fields. Both were nearly naked. Both bore the scars from the red sash of  the Khmer Rouge. You wondered how you hadn’t noticed his lack of attire earlier in the afternoon. You couldn’t shake the image from your head. The kid reaching up at you. As if you were some kind of hope. Scabs on his cheeks.  Rashes on his shins. Tiny penis hanging out from under his shirt. 

In the air conditioned theater your mind returned to the families living in the cemetery. Visiting the dead is not necessarily a morbid thing, you thought. But helping the living ……… 

You rattled the ice around your empty cup as the boy ran straight into a land mine.

Where – The Flicks Community Movie Theater, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
When –  AirCon is especially divine from March-June.
What to Order – Something with liquor. Self-serve.

  4 comments for “Surviving the Killing Fields – 3 Meals in Phnom Penh

  1. May 4, 2023 at 8:00 pm

    Masterful. Intense. I’m gonna need a “godless pour” after reading…


  2. Adam James
    May 7, 2023 at 9:27 pm

    Is this still open? Trip advisor says the movie theatre has closed down so not sure if this story is recounting a trip from a former time. Great read.. thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 8, 2023 at 2:42 pm

      Thanks for reading!

      And you are correct. Sadly, the Flicks is now closed. The pandemic wasn’t kind to small independent theaters.
      Thankfully Phnom Penh is the type of city where plenty of other unique establishments abound.
      Probably not many with its pours though.


      • Adam James
        May 8, 2023 at 10:51 pm

        Thanks for the update mate.

        Absolutely loved your article on waiting for Supermao in Laos and hoping to ride into Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng from North Thailand during my trip in July as a result of it.

        Happy travels brother!

        Liked by 1 person

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