..: Seat of My Pants :..

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Pursat, Cambodia - 1996

I had been given a ride up to Pursat from Phnom Penh by an MSF team working in the area. There were plans to visit their site later in the month, documenting a Canadian doctor working out of a clinic on the Mekhong. However, the first task was to connect with a British fellow seconded to the Canadian Friends Service Committee (CFSC) working just outside town on a CIDA-funded project for those having lost limbs from landmine accidents. There was a school for children that accepted un-maimed children as well and two buildings where classes were taught in hair care and styling for women and bicycle maintenance /repair for men. This allowed the amputees to be more-or-less stationary as they worked a job and earned some income. This project was extended to those afflicted with Polio as well.

I arrived in the late afternoon and parted with the MSF staff to locate the hotel where I would stay. The Mekhong flows through town and I stayed at a rather nice place run by an elegant Cambodian woman and her daughter. The woman seemed very old world and was gracious and curious. The building itself was new as most in Pursat were, but she clearly had been brought up in Cambodia through the French period and perhaps had run a similar business under that regime. In business now for herself, I assumed, I was the only guest in perhaps 10 rooms. It was US$15/night; more than the usual US$5 I had been accustomed to in Phnom Penh and the US$1 per night in Siem Reap (‘See-em Ree-epp’).

I met with the Brit the next morning, having telephoned him from the hotel. A fellow from CFSC had come ‘round on a small motorcycle to pick me up. I learned that this ‘bike’ was the primary means of transportation for the project to outlying villages where many amputees lived. CIDA funded this project via CFSC, but the Friends conduct their projects (Central America, Southeast Asia) with a very meager budget and could not afford a second bike, let alone a car for the area. The Brit was an imposing man, large around the middle and prone to talk of the old days in India. I liked him well enough, but could not escape the creepiest of feelings that he was taking advantage of the several boys living in his compound. I had absolutely no evidence to back up my feelings, other than the lingering looks and semi-casual laying of his hands on their shoulders and arms. Normally, this could easily be construed as protective care and attention. However, this was not the feeling I got and I was not unhappy to be away from him in the end. We had lunch that day with a Danish judge, in town to teach basic law to the fledgling security forces then being deployed outside the capitol. The Khmer Rouge were still very active in the area and I was told that they often rode through the town at night picking people up in their vehicles and either dumping them later outside town, beaten, or ‘disappearing’ them altogether. I resolved to stay in my room that night, the first of two there.

The interesting thing about the judge teaching basic laws of governance was that they had to be taught at all. Cambodia had reared an entire generation lost to human civility and general governance. The French has wrested control of the Republic late in the 19th Century, only giving it up in the 1960s to an untried monarchy unable to rule. When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, they basically reverted the social fabric backwards 200 years, to the point of evacuating all urban populace and planting palm trees in the middle of streets in Phnom Penh. The Vietnamese (long time foes of Cambodians generally), marched into town in 1979, ousting the Khmer Rouge and only gave up squatters rights to the UN in 1989. So for at least 30 years, Cambodians had been under one form or another of foreign rule. Try to imagine another modern state so encumbered in recent history. The average Cambodian had little concept of normal daily life, local business transactions, or even neighbourly civility. These accepted benefits of even marginalized societies were slowly being brought back in from 1992 (the official UN governance take-over) onwards. This all being said, I found Cambodians to be extraordinarily warm and friendly – far more so than my experiences in VietNam later in the same trip. I knew there to still be a steel underbelly, however, to the people their and their interactions with the plethora of foreigners that have plagued their nation over the years. A motorcycle man (the person to whom you hire to drive you around) at Angkor Wat later told me of the time he remembered most from the Khmer. He said people were often taken off the street never to be heard from again because of perceived looks of distrust. His father was taken this way. The old man had had a stroke some years before the Khmer took power, leaving part of his face a little slumped, giving him a look of displeasure where there was none. He saw his father taken away with the words “I don’t like your frowning old man.”

After photographing that day at the schools in Pursat, I returned in the evening to the hotel and up to my room. I was woken sometime after midnight by popcorn popping outside my window. I had been in night markets in several places in Southeast Asia and it seemed Pursat had one too. I wasn’t hungry and lay there listening to the periodic sound. It occurred to me that I didn’t hear any other night-market noises however, not the least of which was the usual blaring music. I peeked out the edge of the window, lifting the corner of the chintz and peering out into the darkness. Instead of a popcorn machine, I saw a jeep with three men in fatigues and flashes from their AK47s as they drunkenly fired at stars right outside my window. I very carefully set the chintz back against the window, realizing I was instantly sweating. It actually ran down into my eyes.

The next morning, everything was normal and fine. It was a beautiful day and the Brit agreed the men were probably Khmer Rouge regulars not yet brought into the government fold as yet. The western and eastern provinces were slowing having their Khmer Rouge soldiers enticed into deserting and joining the regular army of the government. This was a clever plan of the prime minister. The co-prime minister, actually. There were two elected to serve the nation jointly, one from the old Khmer regime and one from the opposition ushered in under the UN. Not long after the fledgling government was instituted, Hun Sen a former Khmer Rouge cadre, forcibly evicted the second PM , who fled for his life to Paris. Hun Sen, it turns out has extensive business interests in the northwest regions of Cambodia; mineral rights, to be specific. In an extraordinary coincidence, northwest Cambodia is home to some of the largest Ruby and Sapphire mines in the world. Odd that. Hun Sen is still in power to this day.

I did some more photography outside town with a polio victim who was operating a bike repair shop under a thatched roof without walls to support 17 children. Yep, 17. I saw a Canadian Flag on his tool kit and the Brit mentioned that CFSC loaned people money to buy these kits at no interest and trained them, and then the newly-trained repairmen slowly paid-back the cost of the kits over time, the money going back into a joint kitty to provide interest-free loans for others. The system worked extremely well, with people paying back their loans at a much faster rate than CFSC intended. That evening on returning to the hotel, I struck up a conversation with two Irish fellows working in Pursat on an Irish aid project. They managed to talk me into a game (or five) of poker in a small cantina next to the hotel. Soon, it began raining in a stupendous torrent – and I mean a stupendous torrent. The drops hit the tin roof of the cantina with such a deafening pounding that even shouting at each other was pointless. We were soon hoarse and just sat and drank beer and played on.

Soon, we observed the Mekhong wasn’t as far away as it had seemed earlier. I saw the proprietress giving us worried looks like she wanted to close up for the night. But jeezuz the Irish can drink and they kept ordering beer after beer while I nursed my second of the evening over the whole time. Eventually, I could stand the woman’s worried looks no longer and I begged off to bed. The river was lapping at my feet inside the Cantina as I left, but one beer does me in and I was asleep on my feet.

The next morning I awoke to silence. There were no trucks or cars running in the street outside, no beeps or honks as normal. I was returning to Phnom Penh that day to meet with contacts and begin the second phase of the trip to the region by planning for VietNam. I also had to meet with my partner travelling with me. She’d be concerned if I just didn’t show after a trip to that part of Cambodia and maybe worry about herself sitting alone in Phnom Penh.

The hotel woman was standing near the door to the street, arms clutched to her chest. I looked past her to a street filled with water – waist deep to some people wading through it. Ulp. Were there any vehicles travelling back to the capitol that day, I asked, already dreading the answer. She shook her head slowly and pointed to a row of huge transport trucks at the side of the main road leading out of town. Their drivers were slung in hammocks beside the truck bodies and, as the line parked uphill somewhat out of the flood-waters, in hammocks underneath their trucks. Cambodians knew better than an increasingly panicky Canadian how best to deal with adversity –go to sleep for a bit. Very Buddhist indeed. Its interesting how a goal that isn’t all that important at first, becoming desperately so when one is confronted by natural disaster. In very short order I had convinced myself that I just had to get to Phnom Penh, come hell or high water I thought with no hint of irony.

I caste around with no luck, asking truck drivers and even the Irish who were – inexplicably – up at that early hour and about. I went back into the hotel and saw three Cambodian soldiers in the small lobby. Their Toyota pickup was outside and one of the soldiers had two lengths of lime-green plastic hose in his hand. I watched him go out and attached one end to the truck’s exhaust pipe and string it up the back with its end pointing up in the air and then do the same with the air filter intake from under the hood. I somehow nerved myself to go up and speak with him and asked for a lift back to the city. He held up his hand in the universal ‘wait a minute’ gesture and I followed him back inside. He spoke with one of the other two soldiers in the lobby – the older of the two; the younger looked like foot soldier, a corporal or something. The older man looked over at me evenly, appraising me from head to toe. I stood a little straighter. With a barely perceptible nod the green pipe soldier crooked his finger at me and I flew upstairs to retrieve my backpack and camera bag.

I met the soldiers as they were getting in the Toyota and saw that I would certainly be riding in the open bed with the corporal, and this pleased me. A ride out in the air or inside a stuffy and cramped cabin. Which would you choose? The pipe soldier came up to me and indicated the back of the truck. I am a Captain he said, the older man he indicated was a General. No word on the ‘corporal’ and so I assumed I had been right about him. It would be a three or more hour trip and the corporal never once spoke a word, but communicated instead with me via pointing and monosyllabic ‘huh’ and ‘mmm’ noises. He was just reserved, perhaps a bit shy, but every inch the proud soldier on important duty. He sat the whole time atop one corner of the truck back with his boots hooked under ropes or bed struts to balance himself on the edge, his AK47 cradled across his lap. The land around us as we pulled out of Pursat was flat flat flat, the rice paddies having been covered over completely with water, now still and reflective in the morning sun. It looked like we were driving across an enormous sheet of glass. Here and there the odd palm tree swelled up out of the glass and shimmered in the heat. Our truck made good headway through the water, thanks to the pipes the Captain had installed. It came up to mid-grill level but we never bogged in it. The Captain drove fast and water shot up, out and away from the front tires like the parting of the red sea, whooshing up like a high wake from a motorboat.

Every now and then, the corporal would bend over and touch me on the shoulder and point to the edge of the road coming up as we passed over a small bridge or other. In a flash I would see someone as we passed, rifle to shoulder and pointing it at us. “Khmer” he said the several times we passed these men. They were most likely Khmer Rouge irregulars who hadn’t yet turned themselves over to the Nation’s regular army as mentioned before. Doing so meant new clothes and steady food for the men and so many were turning themselves in over those months in droves.

We eventually reached Phnom Penh and the Captain stopped the truck downtown and asked me to get out. He had leant me his soldiers’ floppy camouflage hat because it had a tie under the chin to keep it on my head. My own had didn’t have this and would have blown off and so we traded for the trip home. As I got out of the truck as I asked him if we might trade permanently, but he averred, saying it was the uniform of a soldier. But his quick glance at the cabin where the General sat, revealed that he wished to trade too, but could not. Oh well, I sighed, I guess that’s to be expected. I shook hands with the corporal and Captain and bowed my thanks to the General who nodded briefly to me and they drove off in a cloud of dust.

I have often wondered why they took me on. I was certainly visible in the back. It was a small Toyota pickup after all and the bed wasn’t that deep. Perhaps I was meaningless as any cargo might be, or perhaps I was also some kind of insurance against attacks along the way. Maybe I’d get shot, but maybe I might also deter the Khmer from involving themselves in an international incident in the area, and allow the General to get to Phnom Penh that much more quickly. I will never know.


  • Happy birthday to Tim
    Happy birthday to Tim
    Happy birthday, dear Tim
    Happy birthday to Tim!!

    Love and great big hugs, Jen

    By Blogger Jen, at 7:08 PM  

  • Hooo Tim. Your best yet. Heart was racing with the “popcorn” part. Wonderful, wonderful story. I'm left with the image of the hotel lady arms clutching her breasts. Thank you.

    By Blogger gardengirl63, at 10:10 PM  

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