‘Bot sadam,’ I said, making my voice nasal and sticking my right hand out of the tuk-tuk. ‘Tini bot chwein.’ The new ride-hailing apps hadn’t yet arrived in Cambodia, so I had to direct the tuk-tuk driver at each turn, right here and left here, to get us across the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to my meeting at the Ministry of Commerce. ‘Indeeya?’ he said, smiling in the rear-view mirror. ‘Khmai la-aw ’ – ‘Your Khmer is good.’
Cambodia was a rare country where I felt welcomed as an Indian, not derided as an immigrant, or regarded with suspicion as a foreigner with strange ways. Cambodian and Indian sailors had for centuries ridden the twice-annual monsoon winds between these countries, trading goods, gods and languages. Some Cambodian people, to me, even looked like my cousins.
‘Khnyom rien khmai, bong,’ I said. Brother, I’m learning Khmer. I hadn’t yet learned how to say that I found the language difficult, although its alphabet mirrored that of Hindi and reminded me of my childhood ABCs in the old tune I had memorised, ka kha ga gha na . . . p pha ba bha ma. The words for ‘stop here’ were appropriately curt: ‘Chhop tini,’ I said at the ministry gates.
A secretary let me into the minister’s vast office, appointed in white and beige. ‘Somto Mé?’ a man said, sticking his head past the door. In Khmer, which is close to the ancient Indian language Pali, once spoken by the Buddha, mé was the word for ‘mother’. I raised my eyebrows at the minister. ‘My ministry staff call me Mother,’ he said in English. It turned out that ‘mother’, in Khmer, was synonymous with ‘boss’, and many of the men who ran Cambodia were addressed as women.
Minister Pan looked at me nervously, I suspected because of the news that had been announced on the radio just two hours before, on that morning in June 2017. But he digressed, telling me that Cambodian men in traditional households handed over their salaries to their wives, who returned a smaller amount back to the husbands as monthly pocket money. Houses and land in Cambodia were inherited by daughters.
The minister was a digital pioneer of the Khmer language. Digressing more, he told me that Khmer’s complexity, and the main difficulty in learning it, lay in its vowels. Khmer has about twenty-eight vowels and vowel combinations, called diphthongs, as well as about seventeen independent vowels, which I struggled with. I couldn’t pronounce the oeu in kroeung – for ‘curry’ – and the aw in kdaw – for ‘hot’ – well enough to make myself understood in the markets and found myself running through those vowels’ every possible variation, hoping vendors would eventually understand.
‘The election results,’ I said, gently alluding to the breaking news. Minister Pan evaded the subject a third time. He was trained as a computer engineer, he said, and had encoded Khmer’s subtle variations into ASCII, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, the global data standard. ‘Khmer uses five layers of written symbols, two above and two below each consonant, to denote its vowels, but the American coding system only allowed for three layers, one above and below each consonant, as is needed by Latin languages. I solved the problem of fitting Cambodian complexity into Western simplicity.’
Finally, I mustered the courage to ask him directly about the morning’s news. I waited. Minister Pan, and all of Cambodia’s ruling party, were in trouble. Communal election results had been announced. Once a French protectorate, Cambodia was still organised into communes, districts and provinces, and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) had grabbed 2,000 extra communes, out of about 11,500 nationwide, from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The opposition had taken control of nearly half of Cambodia.
It was widely believed among human rights activists and the political opposition that Hun Sen had stolen the 2013 election from his CNRP rival Sam Rainsy. After that crime, Hun Sen had burnished his credentials, insisting it was he who had saved Cambodia from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and who had made Cambodia prosperous during his three-decade rule, warning that if he were ousted, ‘rivers of blood’ would flow. But two successive election results had now confirmed his waning popularity.
‘Have you looked at the Phnom Penh skyline?’ Minister Pan asked me in response, pride in his voice, gesturing towards the window, avoiding a deeper conversation about the difficult news. He glanced at his watch, and stood. I had travelled across the city and the minister had fobbed me off.
In 2017, I arrived in Cambodia to report on its transition away from the West and liberal values such as free speech and democracy, for the New York Review of Books. I investigated how Cambodia was now drawing closer to its neighbour, authoritarian China. East Asia was growing faster than anywhere on Earth, and in return for new prosperity, supported by China, Cambodia’s government forced a silence – a harmony, as government propaganda had it – upon its citizens. I was learning Khmer in part because the Khmer Rouge had systematically decimated Cambodia’s intelligentsia, killing an estimated 2 million people, targeting those who spoke a foreign language, in particular. A Cambodian friend’s parents had told him that Khmer Rouge cadres tricked potential targets into speaking French by walking up to them and exclaiming, ‘Bonjour!’ The effect could be felt forty years later, and helped explain why I met so few English or French speakers on the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s bustling, cosmopolitan capital. In a country increasingly repressed, I learned Khmer so I could listen in on the hushed conversations in bars, in the Vietnamese yellow-pancake restaurants, and in food markets.
‘Bai roi kaw sup,’ – 390 – was all I had to tell the tuk-tuk driver whom I hailed on the street, his carriage drawn by a Honda Cub motorcycle. The numbers in Khmer were easier to pronounce, and 390 was my street number, the only instruction I needed to give.
My apartment was situated just off the city centre, in an area called Boeng Keng Kong Bai, near an old school that had been turned into a grim genocide memorial visited mainly by tourists. But such landmarks were unnecessary: my street number was sufficient to navigate Phnom Penh’s grid street system, a Cartesian urban plan designed by the French. Streets running east–west were even-numbered, and those running north–south were odd-numbered. A pair of even- and odd-numbered streets denoted an intersection.
The street numbers decreased as we drove east from the ministry, until we arrived at moi roi pram, Street 105, known colloquially as the ‘shit canal,’ for the open sewer that ran along it and into the southern Boeung Toumpun lake. We turned south. I lived about twenty metres from the canal, where it intersected with street 390. On some nights, the monsoon rains stirred the canal’s waters, and I smelled its odour.
Three months after the communal elections, in September 2017, a dozen Cambodian radio stations, including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, as well as the prominent newspaper the Cambodia Daily, were shut down. ‘Descent into Outright Dictatorship,’ yelled the front page of the final edition of the Daily, one of the country’s two independent English-language papers. A new edition of the second independent paper, the Phnom Penh Post, was bought out a few months later by an ally of Hun Sen, its once-critical pages carrying honeyed flattery of the government.
A journalist friend, Mech Dara, lost his job twice, having reported for each of those two newspapers. We sat at a Khmer restaurant, eating bai, white rice, with mahchou youn, a tamarind sour soup with lotus stems, while I helped him apply for jobs. On the restaurant’s speakers, radio stations played the legendary Sinn Sisamouth’s love songs, and then modern Cambodian death metal. Silence had descended about whom the regime arrested or evicted, and whose land it stole for lucrative housing developments. The non-profit Global Witness had, the year before, reported on Hun Sen’s family’s involvement in criminal activities such as a 41 billion heroin-trafficking operation and illegal land grabs on such a large scale that they amounted to ‘crimes against humanity’. Several international watchdogs listed Cambodia as among the world’s most corrupt and least free countries, while Hun Sen insisted that his only source of income was his prime-ministerial US $1150 monthly salary. The government expanded its high-tech military surveillance unit, which, rumour had it, was powerful enough to listen in on phone conversations and track anonymous Facebook posts. The government was building a ‘National Internet Gateway’ to channel all of Cambodia’s internet traffic through a single point, where everyone’s words would be monitored.
Hun Sen wanted his voice to sound across Cambodia without dissent.
Local activists responded to the imposed silence by expressing dissent through colour. ‘Black Monday’ became a weekly ritual in Phnom Penh. From my balcony I watched Cambodian police patrol the streets in their pickup trucks, stopping to question and sometimes arrest anyone who wore black. The Interior Ministry spokesman called the protesters ‘drunk with human rights’, and the police, unable to formally charge them with a crime, often released them shortly after the arrest, which was used as an intimidation tactic. Hun Sen banned protests in which people were all dressed in the same colour. He said, ‘It does not matter what colour you are.’
The trade-off that Minister Pan had pointed to on Phnom Penh’s skyline – economic opportunities for people who stayed out of politics – were manifest in the soundscapes on my street. These were the sounds of construction and renovation: money poured in from China to build high-rises that blocked off the horizon and the precious view from my balcony of the sunset’s last moments. Even people like my neighbours, including my landlady, took up home improvement as a hobby. They smashed up old tiles and cut new tiles with power saws, working on their balconies and in the open street, sending up plumes of fine dust, to which I was allergic.
The elite’s teenage children drove Bentleys without licence plates, hardly looking up at the road as they texted their friends, knowing they couldn’t be arrested even if they ran over a pedestrian. When I showed up at a bank four streets from my house to open a checking account, a bodyguard stood by an automated cash machine in the lobby for an hour, feeding the machine from bundles of hundred-dollar bills, each crisp bill swallowed by the machine with a sip.
After shutting down Cambodia’s media, the government targeted human rights organisations, dissolving the US-based National Democratic Institute and warning other ‘terrorist’ non-profits against trying to ‘topple’ the government. I invited a friend, a prominent human rights and youth activist who’d lost her job, to dinner of amok, fish steamed in a banana leaf. She told me her now-unemployed activist friends had taken up driving motodops, motorcycle taxis, and selling handbags on Facebook channels. Her parents had seized on her lack of income to pressure her into marriage. ‘Two gunshots still echo as the government takes down the last of us,’ she said.
Those two shots instantly killed Kem Ley, a leading Cambodian radio host and Hun Sen critic. They were fired, execution-style, shortly before 9 a.m. on 10 July 2016, at a Caltex petrol station a couple of blocks from my house. Cambodians filled Phnom Penh’s streets for one of the country’s last mass protests, screaming slogans against the police penning them in. Government officials who attended Kem Ley’s funeral left money as a mark of respect but did not write their names in the official funeral register, so as not to leave a trace of their presence.
At Kem’s murder trial in March 2017, I watched as the judges giggled, filling the courtroom with their gleeful impunity, hiding their faces behind large black folders. They accepted the accused’s name as ‘Chuop Samlap’, which farcically meant ‘meet to kill’, and was very unlikely to be his real name, and listened to the man’s surprisingly detailed confession to having killed Kem Ley over an unpaid debt of $300, an implausibly small amount over which to risk a lengthy prison term. The trial lasted only half a day. The prosecution lawyer, suddenly not needing to prove the accused’s guilt, after his ready confession, could only play up the farce during his cross-examination. ‘You must’ve had a hard time at school,’ he told the alleged killer, ‘growing up with such a name.’ The court sentenced Chuop Samlap to life in prison, and the case was closed. No government officials were implicated in Ley’s killing. The trial became a show of government power, of how the authorities could eliminate their critics with impunity.
In November 2017, the opposition party CNRP was officially dissolved by Cambodian courts, turning the country’s 2018 parliamentary elections into a de facto one-party vote. The CNRP’s figurehead, Sam Rainsy, had fled to France in 2016, for a second time, after accusing Hun Sen of killing Kem Ley, and realising that he was in danger of arrest or assassination. And he was right: his successor, Kem Sokha, was arrested and accused of treason. A hundred and eighteen members of the CNRP, once elected by people in constituencies across the country, were banned from politics for five years. A few months after Cambodia’s communal election results had been announced buoying the opposition, in June 2017, the country’s fledgling democracy was finished.
From my bronze-painted balcony, I chronicled the sounds of Phnom Penh’s private industry. Pursuing prosperity was apolitical, and it became a popular endeavour, even among the young Cambodian activists who had once campaigned for human rights. The screeches of power saws travelled across the streets from far away, their frequencies warped by the echoes on buildings and blending into a metallic cacophony. I purchased a pair of protective earmuffs like those used by construction workers, in order to write, and wore silicone earplugs to sleep, to defend against the building noise that started at 7 a.m.
Construction stopped each evening at about 5 p.m., when it got dark and the sounds of rush-hour traffic rose, and it also stopped every day at lunchtime, around noon. Workers then took leisure in games of street chess, their wooden pieces knocking on wooden boards, the players and spectators crying out in unison when someone made a surprising move. Street carts attached to cheap Chinese motorcycles brought the workers food, their speakers blaring numpang kdaw kdaw, for ‘hot hot bread’, or num kroch for the fried balls of dough filled with mung beans served with a sweet sauce. Coconut sellers who couldn’t afford speakers screamed out ‘Doung!’
But many of Phnom Penh’s new high-rises, with English names like ‘Skyline’, ‘Sky Villa’ and ‘The Peak’, were empty. I walked into one of these new buildings in Boeng Keng Kong Moi, the heart of the expat district. Guards waved me towards the building’s management office, assuming I wanted to rent an apartment. But I skirted the office and walked up a wide, white-tiled staircase, my footsteps echoing in the high stairwell. The building was a shell, floor after floor unoccupied. I was told these high-rises were built to launder illicit Chinese money. The Cambodian government allowed Chinese companies to create fictitious rental receipts, pay a small tax and present the rent as legally earned revenues.
According to a French urban planning professor who gave a seminar one night near the city’s Russian Market, Phnom Penh has begun to sink under the weight of its new skyscrapers. The French had built Cambodia’s capital on the site of a former swamp, at the intersection of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. The ground beneath the city was wet and soft. The new construction had made floods more frequent. Excess waters during the rainy season used to drain into canals and empty into the city’s large lakes. But real estate in Phnom Penh had become so valuable that the wealthy, with Hun Sen’s blessing, were filling in the lakes to create valuable new land for sale. Water rising in the canals had nowhere to go. Seven blocks south of my apartment, at around buon roi hok sup, street 460, the annual monsoon swelled the shit canal and made its sewage spill over.
It needed a force majeure to stop Phnom Penh’s construction noises outside mealtimes; a torrential storm, or a global pandemic. When the monsoon bore down in sudden flash storms, the water banging on my neighbours’ tin roofs drowned out other sounds.
On Saturdays, after the rains, I smelled the wet earth and heard men sing karaoke. Their voices, broadcast on speakers so the whole street could hear, were drunk and out of tune. I recognised them as the drivers who manned the tuk-tuk stop at the intersection of streets 105 and 390, right on the shit canal. When they saw me step out of my building, often in the evening, they would pop open a can of cold Angkor beer for me. The Cambodian way of drinking was to celebrate every second sip with clinks of cans of beer, loudly cheering, ‘Eyyy!’
The tuk-tuk drivers were forced to stay home when the pandemic hit. Street 390 turned silent. The rising economy had concealed the Cambodian elite’s power and wealth grab, but now the economy stopped, exposing the country’s poorest people to destitution. The authorities resisted calls for lockdowns – word in the markets was that the government feared lockdowns would starve those Cambodians who lived day to day – until February 2021, when a superspreader club party a ten-minute drive from my home ignited a fresh wave of infections. A first lockdown was imposed. Officially, Cambodia’s death count still stood at only a few hundred. I asked to see the mortality records but they were suddenly secret, unavailable even to US Embassy epidemiologists who advised Cambodia’s government. Hun Sen appealed to China, which sent some of its earliest exports of coronavirus vaccines, precious Sinovac and Sinopharm stocks, allowing Hun Sen to again present himself as a hero and the country’s saviour.
On the morning I left Cambodia, I was woken at 5.30 a.m. by a corner shop that had just received its daily ice delivery. The shopkeeper broke the morning silence alone, as if oblivious to it, hacking his wide ice block into smaller pieces so they would fit in a cup.
‘Bot sadam,’ turn right, I said for the last time, to the driver of the four-by-four I had procured on Grab, a Singaporean-Indonesian ride-hailing app that had sharply reduced the income of Phnom Penh’s tuk-tuk drivers. I gave the directions out of habit and a sense of nostalgia for how things used to be in Cambodia’s capital, even though I no longer needed to direct the drivers who were now using maps on their smartphones. I waited in the almost empty airport hall before boarding my flight.
About two years later, in February 2023, the Cambodian government shut down the last remaining independent radio station, Voice of Democracy, funded by the New York-based Open Society Foundations, a Danish Christian organisation and other foreign donors. Hun Sen and his ministers cemented their power. My reporter friend, Mech Dara, lost his job for a third and perhaps final time, since there was nowhere left for him to work as a journalist. Phnom Penh’s Municipal Court sentenced the country’s leading opposition figure, Kem Sokha, to twenty-seven years of house arrest.
Photograph © Bloomberg via Getty Images, Taylor Weidman, A motorcycle travels past an advertisement for the Peak Cambodia mixed development project, by Sino Great Wall Co., Phnom Penh, 2018