Australian lawyer Billy Tai describes his five years of human rights work in Cambodia as having many fingers in many pies. Before he leaves the capital, he sat down with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon to talk about the places that have shaped his experience in Phnom Penh.
Boeung Kak Lake
There are places in Phnom Penh that hit me every time I go, and Boeung Kak Lake is one of those areas. Not necessarily the village and the areas around it, but the lake itself. I remember doing my first drive across the lake on this dirt road in 2013 when they’d just filled it in. Having been here not for the whole saga but certainly, coming in late from 2011 onwards, 2012 was when the BK15 were at the height of their notoriety or their fame. That first time I was driving a motorbike on top of what just used to be water, it was a very strange surreal moment. Two years ago, someone put up an artificial soccer field with turf. It was sort of hilarious – bang in the middle of where there used to be a lake, and even that recreation area is looking sort of entrenched and all the buildings are coming up around it. For me, Boeung Kak epitomises everything about Cambodian development: about what can be done when you have a government that is essentially colluding with developers and strong interest groups.
Ferry across the Mekong
During the dry season, I would take a mountain bike. You can cross the ferry at NagaWorld [casino] and then turn south and you go on past these mango fields, banana fields, lemongrass fields and you go all the way down 25 kilometres. And you pop back on the next ferry down and you come back on the Vietnamese highway and you get this nice 50-km loop. As soon as you cross the ferry, I think you’re appreciating what the lack of a bridge does to hinder development. It’s something that really hits you. You cross the ferry and immediately it’s village life. Five years ago, when I first started doing this, there weren’t even power lines beyond the immediate vicinity of the ferry port.
The ECCC (Khmer Rouge tribunal)
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is a fascinating institution for all the wrong reasons. To put it bluntly – it’s this thing of what not to do in international criminal law. I worked [for seven months] with civil party lawyers and civil parties [victims who participate in proceedings] and I continue to have engagement with them. These [people] are usually the last to be considered; they’re the afterthought, they’re add-ons in this institution that needs them because the ECCC touts victim participation as such an innovative thing in international criminal law, yet they treat them incredibly poorly. That it’s 16 kilometres away from Phnom Penh and takes an hour to get to, and they bus in pre-approved visitors, and [it’s] built inside the premises of a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces compound has a fascinating symbolism of what it is and what it isn’t. I can’t say it’s a favourite place, but it’s one of my most significant.
Phnom Penh’s alleyways
I love to go around them for a walk or on my moto very randomly. It’s one of those areas expats tend not to go into or explore. Especially around O’Russey Market, where you’ve just got these little gaps between buildings and this incredible amount of life going on in these little alleyways, some of them barely the width to fit a moto. My point here is to see a Phnom Penh that we don’t normally get to see, especially as a Western expat, and I refer to myself as a Westerner in this narrative in which we see a Phnom Penh that is very different from when we walk around BKK [or] Tuol Tompoung. To duck into these alleyways, you almost feel intrusive; people have no aircons, so they don’t shut their doors, and you walk through these alleyways and you see right into their houses. I remember growing up in Taiwan in the late ’70s, early ’80s and it reminds me a little of that.
Xiao-Xiao and other street-side seafood eateries
One of those places I would always go to is a Chinese restaurant called Xiao-Xiao on the corner of Street 208 and Monivong. I think it’s quite fashionable to get into veganism at the moment and not killing animals. I’m not that way inclined, but [here] they tend to kill the food when you order, so it’s always pretty fresh. Touch wood: in five years that I’ve been eating in these restaurants, I’ve never [been sick]. They don’t do much with [the seafood] – they either eat it fresh or chuck it on the barbie or steam it. We are going back to that, in a way, in the West… where people are going back to processing food less. This shows what you can do when you don’t faff around with your food too much, when you get a really fresh food product and just do something really simple.