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.)
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
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
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
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.