Book review: The Gods Drink Whiskey

The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha, by Stephen T. Asma (2005). See it at

Before I left the U.S. to go traveling in Cambodia this summer, I searched and asked around for recommendations for non-history books, not travel guidebooks, about Cambodia. A lot of titles came my way, but nothing seemed suitable for reading on buses and boats, at bedtime in third-rate hotels, etc. A novel would have been acceptable, if it promised me the real flavor of the country, but I couldn’t find one that seemed right.

I’m not sure exactly how this book came to my attention, but I’m very glad it did. It not only suited me perfectly while I was experiencing Cambodia for two weeks in May; I liked it so much I read it twice. I’m prepared to recommend it to anyone who is thinking about going to Cambodia.

Stephen T. Asma is an American college professor who was invited to the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to teach a philosophy of Buddhism course to graduate students there. And if you wonder how and why a non-Asian, American guy got into a position of teaching Buddhism to Asians in a Buddhist country — well, suffice to say that after you have read the book, you’ll probably feel fine about that.

The cover blurbs on this book are very misleading. They say it’s a “hippie road trip” and make it sound rollicking and irreverent, with an emphasis on pizza topped with marijuana. Such a pizza is consumed, yes — but in the company of a Sri Lankan traveler who challenges Asma with a head-pounding dissertation on Buddhist beliefs that I read four times. The pizza? Not nearly as interesting as the exploration of karma and rebirth.

Here and there, Asma’s very personal approach might have been smoothed out a bit by a firmer editor, but for the most part, his opinions humanize the story and ground it in the experience of a man who is mostly open-minded about other cultures and humble enough to know he doesn’t know them. That’s not to say Asma is an altogether humble person. (His opinions might offend someone who thinks Christian missionaries are doing good work in countries such as Cambodia, for example.) But what impressed me a lot — especially on second reading — was how a guy with a Ph.D. in philosophy doesn’t presume to fully understand the very thing he teaches. His ability to really see, and really hear, the people he met in Cambodia was in some ways a gate that allowed me to see more, and hear more, than I could have without his help.

The book manages to explore the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, the present-day sex trade, Western pop culture, the relative innocence of young Cambodian adults (Asma’s students), crime and gangsterism, religious hegemony, and the mystifying pantheistic practices of Buddhism in Cambodia — all in a deceptively casual, non-academic manner. (My favorite: How Asma’s students reacted to a visit by Maha Ghosananda, and the backstory, set in the bloodiest days of the Khmer Rouge.)

The oddest thing about my experience reading this book was that when I came to the end the first time through, I felt kind of let down. I was sitting on a bus traveling from Kompong Cham to Kampot, with seven days remaining in a 15-day trip. I had a book about Angkor in my backpack, but instead of taking it out, I started paging through The Gods Drink Whiskey again. I was thinking the book had not been what I had expected, but for each topic my mind tossed out (Buddhism, Khmer Rouge, the character of the Cambodian people, economic development, etc.), I realized that Asma had, in fact, written about that. So I began to think that maybe jet lag (or culture shock) had clouded my brain in the first few days of reading, and I decided to just start on page one and read it straight through again. (This is NOT something I do often at all, by the way.)

Well, that turned out to be a wonderful decision. On my second reading, I felt as though Asma’s book and the country and I were all in perfect sync with one another, and we danced in a threesome that felt natural and right. I’m not saying I saw everything the same way as Asma did, but I understood what he wrote and I appreciated how he viewed what he saw. He helped me hear the rhythm of Cambodia more clearly than I could have on my own. When I felt sad to be leaving Phnom Penh in the middle of my 15th day, I had Asma to thank, in part.


Cambodia and the Killing Fields

Yesterday I watched two films — the documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, and the feature The Killing Fields (1984). I rented both DVDs from Netflix.

S21, and The Killing Fields

Two videos: S21, and The Killing Fields

Yeah, this was not fun, popcorn-munching movie time. But what happened — what often happens when I travel — was that I got exposed to things I knew very little about, while I was in Cambodia. Like going to Dachau while I was staying in Munich, going to the Khmer Rouge torture prison called S-21 (Tuol Sleng) and Choeung Ek while I was in Phnom Penh seemed … well … necessary.

The DVD of this documentary about S-21 is for sale in just about every video store in Cambodia. I tried to make sure to get an NTSC version so I could watch it back home in the United States, but even though the $2 DVD I bought said “NTSC” on the back cover, when I put it into my DVD player, I got a message that it was PAL format and would not play. Bummer. (Yeah, $2 wasted.) So I put it into my Netflix queue.

It’s a rather remarkable video, and as someone who watched a big stack of feature-length documentaries last year (part of doing my job), I can assure you it is unusual. If you are a fan of innovative documentary video, you owe it to yourself to watch this.

Cambodian director Rithy Panh (relocated to France in 1980) gathered together two of the 12 survivors of S-21 (out of 17,000 prisoners held there, only 12 ever emerged alive) and several prison guards, along with some other prison workers, and took them to the empty prison (formerly a high school in Phnom Penh). There, they talk. In eerily flat, monotone voices, the guards describe their deathly work, carried out when they were young teenagers or, at most, in their early 20s.

They walk up and down the corridors of S-21, playing out their former roles. They are as robotic as factory workers on an assembly line.

S-21, by macloo, on Flickr

As they sift through files, documents, and photographs (the Khmer Rouge were scrupulous about keeping records of each prisoner taken in, each interrogation, each execution), the former guards remember out loud. Yes, I interrogated this woman. She was 19 years old. Yes, I remember this family, with their five children. All were killed. The children were taken out first. The husband and wife were separated.

Throughout, one very articulate survivor of S-21, Vann Nath, asks questions. How could you do these things? How were you indoctrinated? Did you never think of these people as fellow human beings?

The answer that emerges chills the blood: They were enemies. There was no question that they were enemies. The authorities (Angkar) never made mistakes. If someone was arrested, then that one was an enemy. It was not for us to question. Our duty was to get their confessions. There must be a confession because Angkar never made a mistake, so each one of them was an enemy.

I have no conclusions to offer, but I did have a disturbing feeling when I was watching this video, and that was a connection to Abu Ghraib and all the secret prisons operated by the CIA.

As I listened to the former S-21 guards talking, I thought about the conditions under which a person works as a guard. The conditions of any prison — especially one where the prisoners are believed to be hiding valuable information. The more I heard from the guards, the more I thought that almost anyone might act the way they acted. The alternative for them was severe punishment or even death. So how many people will stand up, in that situation, and refuse to do what they are ordered to do?

I like to think I would rather die than torture a person. But in the real situation, would I be strong enough?

Torture, by macloo, on Flickr

A few hours later, I watched The Killing Fields, with Sam Waterston as New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, and Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran, the Cambodian who worked as his interpreter and became his friend. I saw this movie when it came out, more than 20 years ago, and I’m quite sure that then I did not know exactly where Cambodia was on a map.

As a journalist and journalism educator, this movie has a special appeal for me. But it’s also quite disturbing, and this essay by British journalist Jon Swain sums up the troubling aspect:

The difference between us and the band of local journalists we hired to interpret the language, politics and culture was that they were seeing and reporting on their own country being destroyed. We, on the other hand, were reporting from the privileged position of visitors who could always bail out. For them, there could be nowhere else to go: they and their loved ones were trapped by the war and their survival was dependent on the outcome.

(Swain was in Cambodia with Pran and Schanberg. I found his memoir on the blog of Andy Brouwer.)

Mass grave, by macloo, on Flickr

Watching this movie now, I wonder how much of it I even understood in 1984. All the references to “Angkar” (the supreme authority of the Khmer Rouge) would have flown straight over my head. The passing notices of Buddhism would have been invisible to me then (e.g., Pran makes a “wai,” or praying-hands mudra, and then we see that the ruins he and Schanberg are walking through are, in fact, a destroyed Buddhist temple; Pran is bowing to a statue of the Buddha there). The beauty of the Cambodian people would have been indistinguishable, for me, from the features of any other Southeast Asian people; but yesterday, watching, I thought: The people really look Cambodian — how did they get all these Cambodians in a movie shot in the early 1980s, when Cambodia was still in chaos?

The movie was shot in Thailand and in Toronto; apparently Cambodians from a refugee camp near the Thai border participated.

Even the wart-like scene when Schanberg is in his apartment in New York, watching Richard Nixon on a Sony Betamax videotape (the VCR is almost as big as a steamer trunk), would have done little, back in 1984, to orient me — in my profound American ignorance about Southeast Asia — to the U.S.’s large contribution to the horror in Cambodia, which shares a border with what was then called South Vietnam.

1969: In an effort to destroy Communist supply routes and base camps in Cambodia, President Nixon gives the go-ahead to “Operation Breakfast.” The covert bombing of Cambodia, conducted without the knowledge of Congress or the American public, will continue for fourteen months. (Source)

Two things struck a strong chord for me — apart from the compelling personality of Dith Pran, and his terrible experiences as a peasant under the heel of the Khmer Rouge: (1) the foreign journalists in Cambodia were so utterly unaware of what was really going on outside the capital, Phnom Penh; and (2) when the KR tanks rolled into Phnom Penh on the day that the war supposedly ended, even the Cambodians there thought the worst was over.

The scenes of young boys carrying automatic rifles have become too familiar to us since then — in Africa, in South America — and movies such as Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond remind us that the horrors of the Khmer Rouge continue, carried out by other armies and so-called governments, in other places.

What does this teach us? I’m not really sure.

I’d estimate that the footage in S-21 was shot in 2001 or 2002, because the video was entered in competitions held in 2003. Only six or seven years ago. Those men, those former guards, walk free in Cambodia. They are not even elderly. Out of a population of 7 million, as many as 2 million were killed, or died from starvation, from 1975 to 1979.

As I walked and bicycled and rode in tuk-tuks and boats and buses throughout Cambodia, I marveled often at the warmth and sweetness of the people. This is a tangible thing; many visitors comment on it. (You can see it, the Cambodian character, in Haing S. Ngor’s face and body language in the early scenes of The Killing Fields.) Yet all the people my age (and older) lived through those years of terror. All of them were either guards or survivors, torturers or victims. How can it be that they smile so brilliantly, touched my hand or arm so tenderly, when they carry that inside them?

I don’t know what I might finally understand, if I ever manage to understand this.