A high-pitched voice, apparently amplified by radio, filled the evening air as my cyclo-pousse driver pedaled slowly through residential streets of Phnom Penh. The voice faded as we left that block, but reverberated in the next block, and the next.
“Qui ça?” I asked in my rusty French, looking over my shoulder. Who could that be?
He leaned down. “C’est Monseigneur.”
Of course! Norodom Sihanouk. Prince and then King Sihanouk, strictly speaking, but he had a few years earlier abdicated (in favor of his father) and had a constituent assembly create a constitutional monarchy, making him its first prime minister. By the time I arrived, he had decided to be head of state. But no one called him by any of those titles: In Khmer he was Samdech, but for Cambodians with any command of French he was universally spoken of (and to) as Monseigneur.
As my introductory tour of Phnom Penh continued, we were never entirely out of reach of that piercing voice. “Toute le monde écoute?” I asked. Did everyone in the whole damned city tune in when Sihanouk took to the radio?
“Oui, certainement,” my driver answered.
I would in time learn that he often spoke for an hour or more, exhorting his people or his National Assembly to build a better nation, offering health tips, on one occasion even reading a long Israeli tract on how to promote tourism. Each declamation, a radio official would tell me, was re-broadcast at least once, and — if it was important — twice. He couldn’t remember any speech that had been deemed unimportant.
It was my second evening in Cambodia, in September of 1966. I had arrived and initially checked into a downtown Chinese-run hotel – a hôtel commerçant – suggested by the friend who had made my coming possible. I’d just begun unpacking when the room door opened and a woman, not young but well-endowed, barged in. She asked – I was too flustered to remember how she put it – whether I wanted her services. When I said “No, merçi,” she smiled and left, murmuring something like “maybe later.”
I spent the night there – being sure the door was locked – but looked around the next morning, and discovered that the Hotel Le Royal, the country’s premier accommodation, had attic “student rooms,” not air-conditioned, that were within my budget. I signed up and headed back downtown for my suitcase. There were only occasionally taxicabs lined up outside the hotel awaiting fares, but there were always several cyclo-pousses, the most common form of hired transportation. I took the first one who pedaled up to the door and had him wait at the downtown hotel while I collected my stuff and checked out.
When I stepped out that evening, the same man hurried to the Hôtel le Royale door to offer his services. I managed to convey that I just wanted to cycle through the city to get a sense of it. (My freshman-college French was stilted and halting in the first few weeks, but by the time I left Cambodia five months later I was tolerably proficient.)
The cyclo-pousse was a bicycle whose front end was a two-wheeled cart, with a seat wide enough for two, passengers’ feet as exposed as bumpers. Most of them had a plastic roof and front closure that could be deployed (not unlike an American convertible, but not nearly so sophisticated) to keep passengers reasonably dry – but not the men pedaling behind.
This was a balmy, dry evening. A few blocks from the hotel, my driver leaned over my shoulder: Would I like him to find me a Chinese woman?
I shook my head. He pedaled on a few yards, and leaned in again: A Vietnamese woman?
I shook him off again, but he persisted. A Cambodian woman? Amused that this was so obviously a third-choice option, but beginning to be annoyed, I shook my head decisively.
He pedaled on in silence – we had not yet reached the residential blocks where Monseigneur was holding forth – and leaned in once more: Would I like a boy?
If nothing else, my first two days told me that many of the foreigners who came to Cambodia, for whatever other reason, must welcome the pleasures of the flesh.
Not, by the way, American visitors. I was at the moment the only American in the country. Sihanouk, annoyed by the way the Vietnam War slopped over the border from time to time, had broken off diplomatic relations some 16 months before my arrival. (He also, I would learn, hoped to assuage the parliamentary left-wingers who called themselves the Khmer Rouge. Only after Sihanouk was deposed did the Cambodian Reds abandon parliamentary changes to begin their rampage and killing fields.)
I was an Alicia Patterson Fellow, to spend half a year in Cambodia and the second half in Romania. My principal assignment was exploring the impact of current politics versus centuries-old animosities in determining how decisions were made in governing and developing major rivers (the Mekong and the Danube) when the riparians were ideological adversaries.
I won a visa with the help of a Quaker pacifist friend who had recently run an international seminar in Cambodia, who volunteered to write on my behalf. On my third day, I cycloed (with the same man pedaling) across the city to Sihanouk’s offices. His personal aide, a young man with excellent English, suggested I come back with a formal letter outlining all the agencies and places I wanted to visit.
I did so, delivering it the next day, and then spent a nervous two days waiting for an answer. Finally, I was called back, and the aide handed back my letter. Beside each item I had listed was hand-written “D’accord” – okay. At the foot of the letter was a huge N for Norodom.
“What do I do with this?” I asked.
“Show it to anyone you want to visit or interview,” he said.
My first test of that, by pure serendipity, came a few days later. I took a boat upriver to Kompong Chom, where I had arranged to tour an agricultural cooperative the next day. Arriving early, I checked in to a little hotel, then went for a walk. There were still children in school a few blocks away; I paused to take a few notes and was accosted by a security officer who asked me to come explain myself to the principal.
I told the gentleman, in my still-limping French, about my fellowship studies. Did I have any documentation? he asked. Well, I said tentatively, I have this letter, although it doesn’t mention your school. I handed it over.
His eyes widened. “C’est l’écriture de Monseigneur!” He had somehow recognized Sihanouk’s handwriting, probably that Napoleonic N. He spent the next hour telling me all about his school and Cambodian education.
That letter became my passport. I took it everywhere, in a stiff envelope, but by the time I left it was worn and tattered.
Although Monseigneur made sure I could go wherever I wanted, I began to suspect that he or his police were keeping careful track of my wants. My cyclo-pousse driver of that first evening seemed almost always available; in my five months in Phnom Penh, there were only two others who occasionally filled in. None of the three would give me a name; my notes record them only by the number of the license plate appended to the back of the bicycle.
In my second month, I arranged a trip to study health facilities and more farm cooperatives in the western town of Battambang, close enough to Siem Reap that I decided to take a couple of leisure days to visit Angkor Wat. Much of that vast millennium-old complex was still being painstakingly pried from the jungle grasp and reconstructed, mostly under the guidance of French archaeologists. I checked into a pleasantly French-tropical hotel in the late morning and spent the rest of the day touring the temples.
The hotel had an outdoor garden restaurant, and after a quick shower I went out to order dinner and catch up notes. I’d barely gotten started when a well-dressed Cambodian came to my table. Was I alone? Might he join me? Of course, I said, glad for a chance to pick his brains.
The picking was quickly reversed. He sat down, ordered dinner, and initiated a conversation about how my day had gone. He seemed interested in every detail; the thought grew on me that his visit was not casual. The conversation was in French, and I was struggling, but I managed to find the words to ask, “You’re supposed to report on me, aren’t you?”
To my surprise, he confessed readily. He should have been here the night before, but he had a domestic crisis and missed the train. He hoped I would understand, and help him out.
I not only finished a detailed account of my first day but made a bargain with him: If he would forgo any clumsy efforts to shadow me – and enjoy, himself, a visit to the temples – I would meet him here for dinner each evening and give him a detailed accounting of my day. He must have decided I was an honest man and not a subversive: He agreed.
We both kept our sides of the bargain: I didn’t see him anywhere on each of my next two days’ wanderings, and I gave him an exhaustive accounting at dinner each evening. I had no way to tell, but I suspected that he would win praise and perhaps even promotion, back in Phnom Penh, for the thoroughness of his surveillance.
On the last two days of my stay in Cambodia, I engaged each of my three cyclo-pousse drivers to take me, one at a time, out on long trips into the countryside. I had each stop at a bucolic spot far from houses or villages, places we would not be seen or heard. I thanked each for his service, proffered a substantial tip, and – assuring them that I would soon be gone, so there could be no repercussions for honesty — asked each: Whom do you report to?
The police, each of the three said. Once a week, while a policeman took notes, each recited where I’d gone, how long I’d stayed, who if anyone had come out to see me off, how pleased I’d seemed on the way back to the hotel. One admitted receiving a modest fee for his reporting. The other two denied they’d been compensated for their surveillance but explained that the police might give them traffic tickets or even suspend their cyclo-pousse licenses if they failed to cooperate.
I was not surprised; since the friendly interviews with my Angkor Wat shadow, there had been other indications that I was under careful watch.
It wasn’t only the voice of Monseigneur that was omnipresent; his eye was on me, too.
About the Author
Retired after four decades’ prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford CT, Don Noel received his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013. He has since published more than three dozen short stories and non-fiction pieces, but has two novellas and a novel still looking for publishers. Most of his work is available at his website, www.DonONoel.com