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Recollections of the way things were

Recollections of the way things were

S ue Downie spent eight years reporting on Cambodia, and six years living in

Phnom Penh, the last as media adviser to the Cambodian government. Now she is leaving

to obtain a masters degree at Monash University, Melbourne. Here are some of her

memories of Cambodia.

In April 1990, Sue Downie became the first Western correspondent resident in Phnom

Penh since 1975, reporting for UPI, and later the BBC, NPR and Radio Australia. The

author of "Babymaking: The Technology and Ethics" and the travelogue "Down

Highway One: Journeys Through Vietnam and Cambodia", she is quoted in recent

publications on Cambodia (not to mention the novel "Cut Out" where a character

vaguely resembling her appears sitting in a Monorom Hotel room wearing nothing but

a $50,000 double-strand of pearls and a string of press passes.)

Early Days

The first time I came to Cambodia, in August 1988, I was almost expelled and was

told I would not be allowed to return.

I had arrived by bus from Ho Chi Minh City at the end of my Highway One trip (2,500km

from the China border, down through Vietnam to Phnom Penh).

I had to return to Hong Kong and the only flight out of Phnom Penh was the next day.

Wanting at least a glimpse of Phnom Penh, I hired a cyclo at 5:30 the next morning

and rode around the city.

I returned to my hotel and found that the senior Australian in town had been summoned

to the Foreign Ministry and told in the strongest terms that Sue Downie's behavior

was "unacceptable" - she had arrived by bus, had taken a cyclo (journalists

were supposed to hire black Vulga's with frilly white curtains on the back window)

and she was only staying one night!

Armed with the obligatory bottle of Scotch, I went to the Ministry's Press Department

and after several cups of green tea, agreed to stay one week.

I then raced out to the airport to ask someone going to Bangkok to send a message

to Hong Kong.

At that time, there were only three international phone lines out of Cambodia (one

each via Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh and Moscow), and only two flights a week, via Ho Chi

Minh and Vientiane - we now have 140 international flights a week.

Until 1989, Westerners were not allowed to visit Cambodian homes, nor go out of Phnom

Penh without permission, and they had to live and work in three government-approved

hotels - the Samaki (now Le Royal), Monorom and White (Pailin).

They washed their dishes in the bathroom sink, and visitors sat on beds.

The only "luxury" was breakfast on the Monorom rooftop - fluffy omelets,

hot bread rolls and fresh orange juice - one of the great losses in the "modernization"

of Phnom Penh.

There were no Western cinemas, only abandoned parks and playgrounds, and only a handful

of shops and restaurants frequented by Westerners. This, plus a 9pm curfew and the

fact that most aid workers were workaholics - they seemed to live, sleep and eat

Cambodia - meant Phnom Penh social life was somewhat gloomy.

One highlight was the 1989 Australia vs the Rest of the World cricket match, played

one Sunday on a sandy pitch beside the Mekong, about 15km upstream from the Cambodiana

(which was then a derelict shell with cows grazing in the surrounding fields). The

pitch was probably near where the massive Hang Neak Restaurant now stands.


Rules for reporting in the early days were also restrictive - visiting journalists

had to work with a Press Department guide/interpreter, we had to put formal requests

for all interviews, we were not allowed out of Phnom Penh without permission and

were not allowed near the frontline.

Before OTC (now Telstra) put in the international telephone satellite in November

1990, I used to send reports out of Phnom Penh via anyone going to Bangkok, from

where they would be faxed to various destinations.

There was never any suggestion that our reports be vetted before sending, but Westerners

were monitored by the Interior Ministry, and we were often blatantly followed by

motodrivers, presumably on the ministry payroll. The first house I lived in, on Street

222, happened to belong to Interior vice-Minister Sin Sen's driver. When I moved

into the UPI house on Street 200, moto surveillance increased and I was told the

chief of the spy department lived opposite. A few days ago, I was having lunch in

the home of a friend from the Interior Ministry, when his wife said, "We used

to live opposite you"!

When I first moved to Street 200, every time I heard a car, I rushed to the window,

assuming it was a friend coming to visit, so rare were cars.

And, just for the record, when the international phone was connected to UPI in April

1991 - before corruption became rampant - it cost $120, compared with up to $3,000

shortly after.

My first interview with Hun Sen was four hours in April 1989 when he talked for the

first time about his private life and how he lost his eye, and said he would not

"ride in the same boat" with Funcinpec, BLDP or the Khmer Rouge.

But one of my most memorable encounters with the then-PM was at Boengkak Restaurant,

which in those days was small and so poorly lit you couldn't see people at the next

table. I was having dinner with journalist Tom Fawthrop when a Khmer man came over.

I thought, this guy is familiar. He sat down and started talking about the peace

process. Then I realized it was Hun Sen without glasses - speaking English!

Scholar Raoul Jennar joined us late, and was sitting there for several moments before

he too realized it was Hun Sen.


When I first came here, there were very few cars - some Vulgas, about five ancient

Mercedes and a handful of VW Beetles and Peugeot 404s - some motorbikes and thousands

of bicycles, all silently pedaling down Monivong Boulevard.

The first wave of private cars came from mid-1991 (most stolen in Thailand and smuggled

through Poipet after the border was officially opened) and my assistant Sous Yet

and I counted an accident on average every two days, until people realized that these

new machines had to be handled carefully.

After buying a car, I decided a trip to Kampong Som was in order. I love country

roads and was looking forward to a good run out of Phnom Penh, but the Press Department

insisted that I take one of their drivers.

I said, if you can find someone who had been driving more than 17 years and has driven

in more than 20 countries, he can drive me. They couldn't, so I headed off with three

young Cambodian would-be journalists including Seng Moch (who later worked for Asahi

Shimbun) as passengers. We were a travelling circus - with Moch telling jokes the

entire 200km.

In Kampong Som we stayed in Sihanouk's former residence, atop the hill, overlooking

Snake Island (recently renamed Naga Island for tourism reasons), and I have the honor

of having slept in the King's bed - with Moch in the nearby Queen's bed!

The first of my many trips to the northwest - which was the closest one could get

to the real war - was in 1990 and it took two days to reach Sisophon, such was the

condition of Route 5, "the dancing road".

So deep were some ruts that the four-wheel drive vehicles almost disappeared from

sight. Several bridges had been damaged by overloaded trucks or Khmer Rouge mines,

and vehicles had to wait while wooden planks were moved in line with the wheels.

Last week, I made a nostalgic return to the northwest.

This time it took only five-and-a-half hours to reach Battambang and another one-and-a-half

to Sisophon. The road was a comparative superhighway - even the stretches north and

south of Pursat town, which everyone complains about now.

In 1991, the NGO Care made a promotional film which included a clip of a convoy of

four-wheel-drives on Route 5.

Shot with a long-lens, it was incredible to see vehicles moving left and right to

avoid holes, crisscrossing each other, and going up and down through the deep ruts.

They really did look like dancers.

Last week, we passed a convoy of 30 trucks heading south with building materials

and other products, and stopping for lunch in Pursat town we could not find a place

to pull off the road as trucks were double parked both sides - a dramatic change

from 1990-91 when virtually the only trucks on Route 5 were carrying soldiers to

the frontline and Cambodian Red Cross convoys carrying rice to the northwest for

IDPs, people displaced by the fighting.

The other visual change was the number of houses along Route 5 with tiled roofs and

timber walls replacing thatch. Battambang now boasts two huge Thai-style gas stations,

new hotels, renovated parks, and an amusement park.

From my hotel, I watched Ferris wheels spin and children careening around on miniature

cars, and sarcastically asked, where is the war?

I was awakened the next morning by truckloads of soldiers issuing war cries as they

were driven through town, and a visit to the hospital is a sobering reminder that

the war is only 40km away.

Every trip to the countryside presents changes, but this time Sisophon was the real


Last Thursday night, wandering across what used to be the Untac helicopter landing

pad I couldn't believe I was in Sisophon. The area had been transformed into an amusement

park, brightly lit, with Ferris wheels, loud music and dozens of outdoor food stalls;

next door was a huge new concrete-and-tile market; across the road, the new police

headquarters; to the right of that, a children's playground; and to the left, the

new provincial headquarters in an architectural design to rival the Cambodiana Hotel.

And residents enjoy cable TV.

Wait a minute! Is this Sisophon? The dusty little horse-and-cart town, once described

by VOA as "a Government barracks"?


I've survived bouts of dengue, cholera and typhoid (in the same month), and had diarrhea

for nine months (which even specialists in Melbourne could not cure), but thankfully

no accidents.

However, during Untac, while making the BBC Assignment documentary with British journalist

William Shawcross, I started to think I was a jinx, as soon after I left a place

it was bombed or attacked: the Khmer Rouge massacre at Chnouk Tru (the Vietnamese

floating village on the south of the Tonle Sap lake), the grenade attack on the Dutch

camp in Thmar Pouk and the civpol convoy which was ambushed by the Khmer Rouge between

Ampil and Phum Ku.

While it will be a pleasant change to have regular electricity (without shocks),

hot showers and toilets that flush properly, I'm not looking forward to standing

in a queue waiting for a bus, and housekeeping - I haven't cooked or ironed my own

clothes for more than 10 years.

I won't miss spitting, dogs under the table and the dust, but I will miss breakfasts

at Calmette Restaurant, fruit shakes at Independence Monument and eggs benedict at

Deja Vu on Sundays.


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