nicholas nicola etchings

Holiday in Cambodia

Below are a few excerpts from a much longer 'short story' of some fourty odd pages that will be posted in this section at a later date. The first excerpt is text to an etching entitled 'Luna Park'; it along with the other pieces have been presently gleaned from Holiday Poetry.


phonm penh, december, 1990

From the sixth floor of the Hotel Sokhali we had a grand view of Phnom Penh. We could see the hills beyond the outside of the city. We looked down onto a shanty house on the roof of the building opposite us. A lone girl, perhaps only four years old, was brushing her teeth. I shut the windows. This cuts out the noise. I walked out onto our small balcony. I was immediately reminded that the Sokhali was on a T-intersection. I looked over at the local cinema which was on the other side of the main road facing the front of the hotel. Large billboards of beautiful Indian women and macho guys adorned the front of the building. Cinema crowds continually swirled in and out of the large entrance from which came sounds that ranged from mystical rhythms to cowboy music. On either side of the cinema were flats and units filled with families. Underneath the units were shops which sold household goods, cigarettes, jewellery, food, bottled water, Russian vodka and where black-market money was also displayed behind counter windows. There were barbers, hairdressers, bakeries, stalls, cafes with televisions, restaurants and photography places with the latest Fuji technology. The one constant sound throughout the length and breadth of Phnom Penh was the blare of horns. These came from the many motor scooters and few cars which raced up an down the main road outside the Sokhali. Mingled in between these vehicles were hundreds of bicycles and cyclos, carrying goods as well as passengers, which were invariably always ringing their bells. N.G.O four wheel drives would wound their way through this traffic. I saw a tourist bus which was to me like a bubble protecting its occupants from the filth and noise of the city. Near dusk the dirt of the city would swirl up and cover everybody as the traffic became heavier and thousands of people left their daily chores to go home. Along the pavements would be children playing games which included French skipping, plastic sword fights, hoola hoops, cards and throwing whirling things into the air. Some children along with a few women would beg. One -legged soldiers could also be seen limping along the walkways or trying to rush across the roads. The cyclos, when stationary, would gather outside the Sokhali and other hotels. Many people would always be walking about and at the intersections were guard posts manned by traffic police. A lone green figure on top of a stand would direct the traffic to stop and go from the centre of these crossroads. The bicycles and cyclos would strain in neat lines waiting for the hand signal which would allow them to move on. Women wearing Peruvian style hats would cling to their husbands on the back of motor scooters. I saw a truck filled with large blocks of ice. One cyclo had his seat stacked with line after line of Coke bottles in crates. The driver could just peer over them to see where he was going. I saw before me people who were simply getting on with their lives. I had concluded that humanity is the same everywhere. I had concluded that here I Phnom Penh there was the constant spectre that these people were hostages to the machinations of international politics. I considered how there was an underlying sense of fatalism in the scenes before me. I realised these people were not in control of their futures. There was a possibility of a return to power by the Khmer Rouge. Thus I looked at a society which hovered on the fringe of a new hell. Any lingering sense of hope could easily be extinguished in such a foreboding climate. I could faintly comprehend the intrusive influence of the United States of America on the course of this country‟s history. I could see a comparism with the hard expressions I saw on some people‟s faces during the day with similar expressions I had seen on other people‟s faces in other countries such as Guatemala. Such people were puppets. (I contrasted Cambodia‟s plight with the positive scenes I had witnessed in Nicaragua. This other third world society had organised itself into popular organizations from the grassroots up to created their democracy. Until their spirits were worn down by the long drawn out contra war the Nicaraguans had maintained control of their future course). I could easily imagine a curtain of strings, as dense as the seasonal rains, stretching to the sky over Phnom Penh. The warm air of the hot day shrouded each person as the elongated shadows of the sinking sun connected together to bring in the night. There were no street lights. Light would come from the shops. Light would come from the heads of passing vehicles. The noise permeated on, indifferent to whether the world was light or dark. People‟s conversations cluttered the night sounds.


the killing fields

A man took me on the back of his scooter to the killing fields. This particular day they were officially closed, however, he knew the local guards. For a small amount of money they undid the lock to the swinging gate. I saw the patchwork of group graves on the bushy plain where hundreds of people had been buried. I gazed at the skulls of fifteen year old children which were encased in a high glass tower of skulls built in memory to the deaths of „75 to‟78.I read on an outside notice foreigners were also killed. I saw a photograph of a young bearded man from the N.S.W. south coast. Yet, I had expected to see the gravesites of many thousands. I saw before me the evidence of an amoral universe. Here, in this land of secrets, where there had been secret bombings and a secret genocide. I was uncertain of the truth of the deaths at my feet. I have no reason not to believe the skeletons in the earth below me were placed there by the Khmer Rouge. However, it has been said amongst the million people killed in the Democratic Kampuchea many had died from unavoidable starvation. It is said tribal groups, which were only within a minimal sphere of influence of the Khmer Rouge leadership, had committed their own revengeful massacres. It has been said lives were saved by the Khmer Rouge by forcing the population to leave the cities to work the rice fields. It has been said the genocide figures in the Democratic Kampuchea were exaggerated by the Americans as evidence to justify their own bloody incursion against communism in Indochina. I feel the present government would use these deaths to justify a prolonged hold on power. Thus, the memory of this genocide is used to the advantage of the main power players. I wonder if only the people who lived through this suffering care what happened? However, I do believe the Khmer Rouge are murderers. However, I do believe the American bombing was murderous. I turn to the man who brought me here and tell him I find it hard to believe his fellow Khmers could be so cruel. He agrees.



"I was amazed when the veterinarian on the day we were leaving told me that Phnom Penh had a serious rabies problem. "Every dog has probably got it and nothing‟s being done…I was working in Nicaragua before coming here and the U.S. are screwing around here the same way they are over in Central America." The veterinarian placed his feet up on the seat in front of him. He was also catching the plane to Vientane and it looked as if it would be a long wait. We had arrived early due to the insistence of the Government Tourist Office who had their guide taking us to the airport first thing this morning. However, unbeknown to him the two college boys and Tes were hitching a ride with us. Unlike the day before when he had conversed with us while waiting for our flight to Ankor Wat our guide left us as soon as he saw we were in the waiting lounge. "The Chinese supply the KR with their military hardware. Have you heard of U.S. AID?" I shook my head. "It‟s the United States International Development Aid Agency – over here it‟s based in Bangkok. It you ring up the Director," the veterinarian grinned, "he‟ll tell you how they supply the KR with their infrastructure through the camps on the Thai border…you know, things like roads, food supplies…it‟s all payback on Vietnam." He mentioned mines… "there‟s people who have designed those things which look like toy frogs etc. so when a child picks one up…" Yesterday I had seen a six year old child, missing a leg, slowly hobbling down the road outside the Sokhali supported by his two crutches. Within two weeks I would become familiar with the term 'collateral damage.' Human beings turning into human particles. There is method in the madness. leaving ankor wat We were ready for our flight back and T.T. and the other guide were waiting for us outside the hotel. Julia had earlier handed T.T. two American dollars. This was the leftover of the money we had originally budgeted for the photographic payment. Yet as the van drove towards the airport we both felt we could have given T.T a larger bonus, especially when T.T. showed us the mound wall he would be spending the night. "The people in the villages live in their houses during the day but if they are scared of attacks they come back to the town at dusk. The people are safe because the government offices in the town are the main targets for the Khmer Rouge." "These people are so downtrodden." sighs Julia.     We reached the airport and as we sat in the waiting room I walked over to a window and called out to T.T. who was sitting beside the van on the far side of the road. I eventually caught his attention and T.T. walked quickly towards me and passed the guard standing near the window. I shook T.T‟s hand and he smiled and said thank you as I slipped him the extra money.


on the road to bayon

During the morning drive to Bayon I had also been struck by the sight of a large army truck. The vehicle was overflowing with government soldiers which also had a heavy machine-gun nestled on top of the cabin. It was a classic image which reminded me we were experiencing a pleasant tourist day in a war zone. Those men could have been going to their deaths but such a thought, in the relative comfort of our spacious van, seemed too unreal to take seriously.


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