Monday, December 26, 2016

SLIPPERY ROAD TRIP IN REMOTE CAMBODIA

It doesn't get much more remote than this
I'm riding shotgun with my faithful driver Shanghai, heading out on another road trip across northern Cambodia. We're headed to the ancient temple of Preah Vihear, which is still a conflict zone. Local news has been dominated by a recent battle there between the Cambodian Army, and the even more powerful Thailand Army. Both countries claim the old temple.

But it's far from Anlong Veng, and first I have to get there. As soon as we leave the former Khmer Rouge stronghold, the blacktop runs out, becoming bumpy dirt road. Our ride for this long haul is Shanghai's ancient rickety ’85 Toyota Corolla. Bouncing over the ruts, I ask him if we'd be better off with another vehicle.

No problem,” Shanghai says in his heavy accent. I’m not so confident. I’ve heard some of these roads are best covered only with a 4X4.

After two hours, we swing through the junction town of Sra Em, and turn north. The countryside is flat, scattered with brush and trees. This remote region is sparsely inhabited; dotted with thatched shacks and simple stilt homes. There’s neither cell phone coverage, nor electricity. This is one of the poorest provinces of Cambodia.

Soon, it starts to rain. Shanghai has already warned that if it rains, this road gets really bad. Uh oh, I will soon find out what he means.

We start swerving, and Shanghai slows down. It’s not the ruts or potholes causing problems anymore, we're on a flat stretch. But here the road is under construction, being prepped for blacktop. Now the problem is the reddish, clayish soil. When wet, it’s like driving on snow or ice! Shanghai isn't even driving very fast, and we’re sliding and fish tailing all over the road. In all my years driving on dirt roads in poor countries, I’ve never seen anything like it!

Cambodian Army soldiers slog through the muddy road
Now I'm really worried. We pass a parked convoy of government SUV’s, and a deminer's truck. They're worried about the slick roads, so they parked their four wheel drives! And we're only in a two wheel drive, decades old Toyota Corolla. Shanghai says again, “No problem!

The rain continues, and after sliding from one side to the other down the highway for a few kilometers, the government convoy of fancy SUV’s passes us. I can see that we’re not the only ones with traction problems. Even though they have 4X4's, they’re spinning wheels and sliding all over the road just as badly as we are. Finally a white SUV swerves sharply, nearly ending up in the ditch. Everyone stops for a few minutes. The driver slowly pulls back from the edge, and we continue.

Then the rain worsens. Uh oh. As Shanghai shifts gears, the Corolla stalls. Then it won’t start!

No problem,” Shanghai says again, repeating one of his few complete English phrases. With the rain still pouring down, he gets out, pops the hood, and the trunk. I breathe a sigh of relief; he’s brought a spare battery.

But my relief doesn't last long. He hooks up the spare, and turns over the engine. It doesn’t start! That extra battery isn’t powerful enough either. Now we’re really in a fix. Those other SUV's we were tailing are now long gone. We’ll be here a while. I won't make it to Preah Vihear.

Then a white pickup stops behind us. They’re Cambodian Army! Shanghai talks to them, and they agree to give us a jump start. They pull up next to us, almost hitting our car from the slick road. Out come the jumper cables, the Toyota breathe to life, and we’re off again.

Troops on a truck head for the temple
We round a hilly curve near bridge construction, to find more ruts and puddles, and soon we’re stuck in a rut.

Uh oh,” he says. We’ve had lots of 'uh ohs' today; we’re really stuck this time. But he quickly slams into reverse and guns it. The engine whines as we inch back, wheels spinning, mud spitting in front of us. Then he slams it into first, and slowly, the Corolla climbs the small hill, up and over. I clap my hands in applause. Shanghai laughs. I love this car.

Driving on we pass Cambodian soldiers lugging heavy packs trudging along in the rain. An overloaded pickup truck passes, packed with more soldiers in combat fatigues. They are all headed for the temple. We pass several Cambodian Army bases, some with buildings, others with tents. More are under construction. I see Russian, Chinese, and US made army trucks parked in makeshift shelters. We're getting close.

I spot bunkers made of dirt and logs. I wonder why they aren’t manned, until I see signs warning of landmines. Nearby trees have red marks painted on them, another common warning for mines. There is still a lot of demining needed here.

The rain reduces to a sprinkle, and Shanghai points to a far off ridge, saying, “There it is.” A tree covered ridgeline known as the Dangkrek Mountains rises off the horizon. At the highest point, 550 meters up atop a cliff, is the Preah Vihear temple.

Arriving at my destination - the Dangrek Mountains
We arrive at the village of Kor Muy near the bottom of the mountain ridge. Kor Muy doesn’t have much to offer visitors except a few simple guesthouses and primitive restaurants. It’s a ramshackle village, built in the shadow of Preah Vihear. Shanghai says this is as far as he will go; I think he's afraid of more shooting up by the temple.

We climb out of the old Corolla, to find its silver color has turned brown. Speckles of dirt and clumps of mud cover the car from one end to the other. I'm thankful; somehow, it got me here.

Since the fire fights started between the Khmers and the Thai Army, all of the tourists and many of the villagers left. Still, the village population has increased five fold, from the arrival of Cambodian Army reinforcements.

I look up at the ridgeline, and wonder if there will be more gunfire today. Should I continue on? I've come a long way to get here, and it's a long way back. 

I'm heading up. 

(*NOTE*- This post was written several years ago when the temple conflict occurred.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

END OF A DESPOT

This simple field marks the historical end of a dictator.
I'm back in the remote border town of Choam, and I’m looking at a simple field. With green grass and a few trees, there’s a well worn path right down the middle. It’s a quiet, lonely field; I’m alone except for a few loose chickens. I head down the path, towards a small structure at the far end. 

I approach what looks like a small, strange little shelter. It is only a rusting corrugated iron roof, supported by wooden poles. Short in height, it's not much for a shelter, but one man could lie down under it comfortably. Beneath it is a pile of dirt and ashes.

A blue sign nearby states its importance, “Pol Pot Was Cremated Here”.

The man who destroyed Cambodia, the man most responsible for the genocide that killed over a million people, was burned to ashes right here in this empty field. The old communist's body was cremated in a hurry; his funeral pyre was more like that befitting a pauper. His corpse was covered by a pile of old worn out tires, discarded wood, a mattress, and set alight. There were few mourners.

A man with humble beginnings, Pol Pot, the leader of the murderous Khmer Rouge, had risen so high, only to crash and burn like Icarus.

A dedicated communist, after he took over the Khmer Rouge he traveled to Beijing where he met Mao Tse Tung. While there he witnessed the oppressive excesses of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Mao's radical policies inspired Pol Pot to be even more extreme once he seized power in 1975. Favoring the Chinese brand of communism, he later led purges to execute cadres who favored Soviet style communism promoted by the Vietnamese, whom he despised.

This small shelter marks where Pol Pot's body was unceremoniously cremated.
His power over all of Cambodia was absolute. But when he ordered the Khmer Rouge to raid Vietnamese border villages hoping to seize lost territory in 1978, he sealed his own fate. The Vietnamese Army countered by invading Cambodia, with their army rolling into Phnom Penh in a matter of days. Pol Pot fled to the jungle, where he continued to lead the Khmer Rouge for years.

I look at what remains of his cremation site. A knee high wooden fence surrounding the shelter is falling apart. Clear empty bottles have been buried upside down in the ground, making a strange glass rectangular border around the base. Bits of paper and litter are scattered about. The only thing cheerful about his memorial, (if you can call it that) are some purple and white flowers growing around it. Pol Pot finally died in 1998, shortly before the long years of war in Cambodia finally ended.

Mystery and rumors surround this despot's death. He may have died from malaria, or some other jungle disease. Since Pol Pot had been reported dead in the media many times before, Cambodians didn’t believe that he was really dead when his end finally came. It was only when a journalist’s photo showing his pale corpse was published worldwide that the truth finally hit home. One of the worst genocidal maniacs in world history was finally dead. The Khmer Rouge would never return to power, and all of Cambodia breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Pol Pot ordered the horrific genocide. 
Even the location of Pol Pot's cremation site here is suspicious. It’s within sight of the Thai border, only a quarter mile away. I remember my friend Mali that had lost a leg to a landmine, she had been his cook. Pol Pot had lived in Thailand in secret for years, while he continued to lead the Khmer Rouge trying to regain power. Did he die in Cambodia, or did he really die in Thailand? Details are murky, and witnesses are still silent today.

By the time Pol Pot's final days came, he was no longer the leader of the Khmer Rouge. His second in command, Ta Mok, 'The Butcher', had mutinied against his long time friend. Ta Mok had him tried, convicted and imprisoned in a jungle hideout. Local whispers say that Ta Mok ordered him killed afterward, maybe poisoned. The timing of his death is also curious. Pol Pot died just as the Khmer Rouge were finally losing Anlong Veng, their last major stronghold against the Cambodian Army.

At the foot of the shelter site, I find a small wooden altar, with stubs of incense sticks. There’s also a small spirit house, with more used incense left by Buddhists. How ironic! Pol Pot was not only as evil as they come, but he was also a brutal atheist. Back when he was in power, he would have ordered the execution of those that he saw practicing Buddhist rituals. That doesn't stop some Buddhists today from praying to his spirit.

A small sign nailed to the corrugated metal roof, says in Khmer: “Please Respect”. That sign was placed here due to looting. Among Cambodian Buddhists, there are those who believe Pol Pot still wields power in death, and some have dug through the dirt and ashes here, and pulled out most of his bones! Some Buddhists who took them, keep the bones for 'good luck', praying to Pol Pot to help them win the lottery! How ridiculous. A few foreign tourists have also grabbed bones from the despised communist, not for good luck, bus as macabre souvenirs.

I think back to Hanoi, where I saw Ho Chi Minh's body, displayed with honor in his mausoleum. Mao and Lenin's body are still displayed in the same morbid manner, cold corpses of old communists, whose ideology died with them. But there is no display of honor for Pol Pot. His flesh is now in ashes. He escaped justice through death, but his final indignity, is that his own bones have been scattered as gruesome souvenirs and good luck charms.

Many would say, that's the exact memorial that he deserves.



Thursday, October 27, 2016

POL POT'S JUNGLE HIDEOUT

This bunker was part of Pol Pot's jungle hideout, close to the border with Thailand
I’m looking at what used to be someone’s hidden jungle home. The owner of this remote abode in northern Cambodia was one of the 20th century's most genocidal maniacs.

What was once a solid military compound, has greatly deteriorated. Looking at the ruins, I can tell from the remaining foundations that there were four brick buildings. Only one has a couple of walls still standing. There are short, twin concrete water towers. Remains of a grey brick security wall no longer keep anyone out. Most of the rest of this important compound has been torn down, and carted away. Bricks were sold as scrap, or used for building elsewhere. 

This ruined home belonged to Pol Pot, the undisputed leader of the murderous Khmer Rouge.

Now that the megalomaniac that lived here is gone, nature is taking over again. Weeds creep up through cracks in the foundations. The wind blows leaves and dirt across broken tiles. Saplings are growing on the untrimmed lawn.

Pol Pot, genocidal Khmer Rouge leader
There is only one structure here that is nearly intact; an old bunker near the edge of the mountain ridge. 

I climb atop the red brick shelter, and peer through the young brush. I have a commanding view of this land east of Choam. This house in Cambodia looks like nothing now, but it still has a great view over the vast plain far below.

His real name was 'Saloth Sar', and he was born in a village near Kompong Thom in 1925. At one time he worked as a carpenter. Ironic that he worked in a building trade, since he went on to lead the destruction of his own country.

In his student years, he went to study in France. It was there that he was introduced to radical communism (just like Ho Chi Minh before him.) Although the communist party in Cambodia was first founded and led by other Khmers, Pol Pot later took over the party in 1963, when few had ever heard of him.

As I look around his former compound, I find it rather small for such a powerful leader. Did Pol Pot actually spend much time here? Much like the celebrated home of Ho Chi Minh that I saw in Hanoi, and the cave home of Kaysone that I saw in Laos, the number of nights that Pol Pot actually slept here is disputed. 
2 Army guards helped push-start our car

This remote compound wasn’t even built until after 1978, when the Vietnamese Army drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh and out into the jungles. The reason that Pol Pot had a house built for him here, was the proximity to the Thai border. Whenever a Vietnamese or Cambodian Army offensive threatened to capture the Khmer Rouge leadership, they simply fled to safety out of reach in Thailand, only a few kilometers north.

There are two unarmed soldiers guarding this infamous house. I approach the sargeant in charge, a short soldier with a boyish face. 

Where are you from?” I ask.

Siem Reap Province,” he answers.

Were you Khmer Rouge?” I inquire.

No, I Hun Sen Army,” he says proudly. There’s no question where his allegiances lie. The other soldier wearing a tee shirt also says his loyalty is to Hun Sen. Apparently the Hun Sen government doesn’t trust the former Khmer Rouge soldiers that live down the road to guard the house of Pol Pot. That's not surprising. They were once 'comrades', until Hun Sen defected to Pol Pot's sworn enemy, the Vietnamese.


The lowest level below is now occupied by snakes
With the soldiers watching, I check out the bunker. The doors are gone, looted long ago. Two small entrances lead into the bunker's lower basement, where nature’s debris has taken root, along with a few animals. I peer down into the shadows, and hear some rustling movement in the debris.

Snakes down there,” my guide Shanghai says. Somehow, it's fitting that Pol Pot’s bunker has become a snake pit.

We shake hands with the lonely soldiers, and say goodbye. We climb into Shanghai's car, only to discover that the battery is dead.

The two helpful 'Hun Sen' soldiers and I give it a push start, Shanghai's old vehicle sputters to life, and we’re on our way out. 

As we leave the genocidal leader's house in our rear view mirror, I’m thankful that I don’t have to spend a night out here in the jungle.

Most of the compound was looted; 2 old water towers remain


Thursday, September 29, 2016

BEHEADED STATUES OF DISGRACED ARMY

One of the few paved highways in Cambodia
I'm on a rare road today, a Cambodian highway, paved, smooth, and brand new. This used to be nothing more than a bumpy dirt road laced with landmines. Somewhere near here my friend Mali stepped on a landmine and lost her leg. We're about 70 miles north of Angkor Wat, in what was dangerous Khmer Rouge turf, one of their last holdout zones.

The roadside here used to be dotted with intimidating war refuse: abandoned Khmer Rouge tanks. Late in the war, when the communists had an old unfixable Chinese tank, they just pushed it to the side of this road, and pointed the turret south towards the enemy. That gave them an instant armored bunker, useful for keeping the Cambodian Army away. Those menacing metal hulks were left there for years.

Thankfully those metal monstrosities are gone, and after the peace agreement, foreign funding built this modern two lane highway. If the Khmer Rouge ever rebels in this area again, it will be much easier, and quicker, for the government to rush federal troops here on this new blacktop road. Even better, this national highway has a more beneficial use: commerce. With this road going all the way to the Thai border crossing, there is increased trade, and an improving peacetime economy.

Cruising north, I see a long ridge stretching across the horizon. These are the Dangkrek Mountains, a long mountain chain stretching from northwest Cambodia, all the way east to the ancient temple of Preah Vihear, and beyond. Beyond that mountain ridge, is Thailand.

Monument to radical Khmer Rouge, surrounded by spirit houses
The flat road starts to curve, and we start climbing the first set of hills. Coming up the Sa Ngam Pass, the road splits, as it rounds a large boulder. Carved into the boulder itself, is the last monument left to the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Or what’s left of it anyway. There are two small soldier like statues, and both have been decapitated. One has lost a hand, an arm, and both legs. A taller statue of a Khmer woman has lost both arms. She still balances a stone food bundle on top of her now faceless head.

Thai (people) do this. Take to Thailand and sell,” explains my driver Shanghai. Maybe that's true, but it’s also possible that poor Khmers chopped off the heads and sold them, as happened at Angkor Wat. Or maybe Khmers did it out of revenge, for all the murders that the communists committed.

Examining the smallest, legless torso wearing military gear, it appears that this was a statue of a child soldier. The extremist Khmer Rouge had no ethical problem with turning innocent children into murderous soldiers. They thought their young minds were more ‘pure’, and more accepting of radical communism. They believed that most adults, had been ‘poisoned’ by exposure to the old regime.

Two beheaded statues of fighters
In contrast to the dark stone of the ruined statues, the monument is surrounded Buddhist spirit houses on pedestals, made of many colors. There are so many, they nearly block the statues from view. Thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers died fighting the Vietnamese and Cambodian armies. Given there murderous history, there never has been, nor will there ever be, an official memorial to their dead soldiers. The remains of these old communist carvings have become a memorial to them, by default. With no graves or headstones to pray over, these spirit houses and incense were left here by their mourning Buddhist families.

Continuing on we drive through the border town of Choam, and turn off the highway. Up ahead, the road is closed. Cheap red and white fencing blocks the road. It's spooky; there's nobody in sight.

That the new border crossing, but no use,” Shanghai tells me. The crossing is closed today, due to ongoing border disputes. “The Thai build on Cambodia land. Now big problem with Cambodia and Thailand.” My driver goes on to explain how Thailand is taking a little more Cambodian land each day. In Pol Pot’s time, the border was further away. Apparently the Thais respected the Khmer Rouge more than they respect the current Cambodian government.

Moving down side roads, we pass small shops and shacks. Then we take a garbage strewn road east out of town. The garbage thins out, tuning into a bumpy rural road. We're not traveling far, but Shanghai has to drive slowly to make his way over this rutted, potholed road. Going up the small hills, his old car strains for traction on the reddish dirt.

The border crossing to Thailand is closed
Shanghai explains, “Since last year, road more bad.” Rural roads here are rarely maintained. As the kilometers go on, we pass shacks and Khmer farm houses. A few settlers are clearing land for planting. We come to a picturesque field, a wide open space, bordered by lush jungle. It’s a prime location for a homestead or farmer’s field, but its unplanted.

There’s a small red sign right in the middle of the field, with a skull and crossbones. This is no 'Pirates of the Caribbean' joke. What that sign means, is that this whole lovely looking field of several acres, is one big minefield. Until somebody comes up with a couple thousand dollars to clear it safely, this prime field will remain uninhabited.

Since this was one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds, this whole mountain ridge was heavily mined. That makes this part of Cambodia a very dangerous place to settle. Along the bumpy road, I see numerous signs posted by demining organizations. One sign reads, Humanitarian Mine Clearance, Minefield cleared by CMAC, Police Batallion Headquarters”.

Passing shacks, I note a few soldiers lounging about. Many of these men are also ex-Khmer Rouge, now wearing Cambodian Army uniforms. As part of the peace agreement that ended the war, some men kept their territory, changed uniforms, and became part of the Cambodian Army. Many of these shacks belong to them and their families. It is a difficult place to homestead though. With many thousands of mines still buried in this area, there is little agricultural land available to turn these ex-soldiers into farmers. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

WAR CRIMINAL'S HOME

Gaudy murals are on the walls of the war criminal's home
I'm in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold town of Anlong Veng, and I'm entering the most important house in town. This home once belonged to a man born as “Chit Choeun”. He is better known to the world by his nom de guerre: “Ta Mok”. His victims had another name for him: “The Butcher”.

This house is not that of a simple communist. It's a big compound, two big cinder block houses sitting on a hill. In a poor place like Cambodia, that makes this place something like a mansion.

I walk up the stairs, and enter the home of one of the world's worst war criminals, who ordered thousands killed. There’s no furniture in his house; it's all been looted. But the floor tiles show that Ta Mok could afford luxuries that few other Cambodians could.

Looking at the walls, I’m surprised to see big, gaudy murals! They depict the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear. Another shows a jungle scene with animals. As for the artist's skill, it looks as though a high school art student painted them. I wonder if Ta Mok ever realized, that the reason he couldn’t find a competent artist, was because he and his Khmer Rouge goons had already killed them all.

Ta Mok's looted lair is atop a hill in Anlong Veng
I walk up to the next level, and find another wall painting; a large, detailed map of Cambodia. Ta Mok may have planned his military operations here. The corner of the room opens up to a balcony, so I step out for a look. His home overlooks a lake; old Ta Mok had the best view in town.

This shallow lake wasn't always here, it was created by a dam built during the years of forced labor under the Khmer Rouge. This recently made artificial lake that surrounds his house, has killed all the trees. At this time of year it’s not even a lake, it's more of a swamp. Add environmental destruction to Ta Mok's list of crimes.

Across the water on a dry section by the swampy lake, is what appears to be an outhouse. I heard this used to be Pol Pot’s Anlong Veng residence. That small structure is all that remains, the rest was looted, including the bricks.

Further north by the Thai border, Ta Mok had another home. Most of his buildings there had been looted and torn down too, leaving only foundations. Only a strange, one room wood and concrete building remains there. Also looted, the doors and even the floor were gone. Graffiti in several languages lines the walls. The largest lettering said, “TA MOK, ASSASSIN DE L’HISTOIRE”. (Ta Mok, assassin of history.) The only resident still living in that house was a stray dog.

View from Ta Mok's window has 'Pol Pot's outhouse' at center
Here in Anlong Veng, I walk into one of the Butcher's empty bedrooms. POW! I smack my head on a low doorway. Sometimes, it's not good to be tall. This house was built specifically for Ta Mok, apparently he was short. I wonder if he had a Napolean complex.

There's nothing else to see in his looted house, so I walk out into the yard. There’s a constant ring of cowbells, as loose cattle are roaming the grounds. I walk over to a garage area. There are two tiger cages in here. Given his nickname, I wonder what Ta Mok kept in these cages, tigers, or people. Out in the yard, is a Chinese made police wagon. The engine and front wheels are gone, but the prisoner compartment on the back is still intact. It’s painted a sinister black. The bars on the windows are slightly bent. Were these bars bent by the hands of desperate prisoners, sent to their deaths by Ta Mok?

Ta Mok was a hardened communist, but I still wonder, what drove him to murder so many of his own people? He had lost a leg in combat in 1970, did that turn him even more violent? (I've noted a sick trend of lost body parts among Khmer Rouge leaders. Duch, the warden of the S-21 torture center, had lost a thumb. The current deputy governor of Anlong Veng Province, he had lost an arm. Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister/dictator, he lost an eye. Did losing body parts bring out the evil in these men?)

In the late 1990's, the noose finally began to close around the Khmer Rouge. The end of the long war drew near, and the last major town they held in Cambodia was Anlong Veng. As such, Ta Mok was the last major Khmer Rouge leader arrested for war crimes; he was finally captured in 1999 in Thailand just across the border. Even bribery couldn't save him anymore.

Truck used for transporting unfortunate prisoners during the Khmer Rouge genocide era
Leaving the Butcher's home, I walk down the highway to the town cemetery, where I find a pile of rubble. This is where Ta Mok's story ends. He died in prison in 2006, denying his victims the satisfaction of a trial, and his body was brought here to Anlong Veng. 

I'm looking at his former gravesite, a pile of red bricks, white pillars, and concrete. Given Cambodia’s current poverty, his tomb was fairly elaborate and expensive. 

If this memorial was torn down by angry survivors, or by families of his victims, that would be understandable. But it wasn't. Unfortunately, his tomb was torn down to make room for a larger, more elaborate, expensive gravesite. They are totally redoing the Butcher's mausoleum!

This new memorial to a monster is supposedly being paid for by Ta Mok's extended family; they still live in town. They own three better than average homes out by the main highway. It seems his family managed to keep some of their patriarch’s ill gotten wealth after the peace agreement.

Genocidal Ta Mok's 'new' tomb under construction


Despite the fact that he ordered the execution of Buddhist monks, and the destruction of Buddhist pagodas, Ta Mok's mausoleum is being built in Buddhist Khmer style. Images of the Buddha, nagas, and elephants are all beneath the layered rooftops. Inside, a large concrete slab covers his grave. 

It’s an elaborate, ironic mausoleum. Back during his days as a communist general, Ta Mok would have ordered the execution of anyone who would have built a Buddhist memorial, such as this one that is being built for him here! It's as if Ta Mok's family is trying to rewrite history.

As I watch, Khmer workmen clamber up the scaffolding, and work on the roof. Still under construction, the edifice is merely a bland grey cement color. It should be painted red, for the blood of all the innocents that he ordered murdered.


Laborers build a Buddhist mausoleum for a radical communist!




But whatever color it is painted, the paint job probably won’t last. Once the mausoleum is completed, it probably won’t be long before spray paint covers this 'glorious' mausoleum with graffiti strewn condemnations. 

In Ta Mok's case, those condemnations are well deserved. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

KHMER ROUGE COUNTRY

Dusty Anlong Veng, former base of Khmer Rouge radicals
I'm walking through a town full of battle hardened men. Many of them now wear uniforms of the current Cambodian Army, but in truth they are all Ex-Khmer Rouge fighters. The giveaway: some still wear the red and white scarves long used by the radical communist movement.

I'm in Anlong Veng, in the extreme north of Cambodia, and I do mean extreme. These men were tough fighters; they held out battling the government army for years. They finally made peace, when they were integrated en masse into the regular army, the very army they had been fighting. With the war ending, this allowed them to stay in their territory, and still have a job.

As I walk down the dusty streets, the town's Khmer men stare at me stoically. Some of them look at me rather threateningly. Throwing them off guard, I smile at them and wave. Their cold stares quickly turn to smiles, and they wave back. The local women in this former red town are even less defensive. I only look in their direction, and most ladies smile straight away. Though the war is over, few white westerners ever come here. The few foreigners that do come to this town, are Thai traders from across the nearby border.

Gasoline is sold in old Johnny Walker whiskey bottles
There’s not much infrastructure here in Anlong Veng. Most roads here are rutted and unpaved. Dust raised by passing trucks causes a higher than usual rate of respiratory infections among the local populace. Looking around, I see no tall buildings in town. The largest structure on the horizon is a cell phone tower. Even though Anlong Veng is poor, they still manage to have mobile phone coverage.

Since this was a Khmer Rouge holdout for so many years, the economy in this part of the country lags behind the rest of Cambodia. I spot a World Food Program 4X4; with all the poverty here, they still support nutrition programs in the province. A small tractor chugs by behind; it hauls a wooden cart loaded with palm fronds.

Sitting on shelving by the roadside, are bottles of Johnny Walker Black and Johnny Walker Red. But the liquid inside, is green. These bottles are not filled with whiskey at all, they’re filled with gasoline. With no petrol station in town, this is how some shops make extra money here.

Billboard teaches children to beware of old landmines, and not to use grenades for fishing
In a country full of memorials, the town's only roundabout surrounds one of the strangest looking monuments I’ve ever seen. It consists of a bright golden deer, golden nagas, (mythical snakes) and a golden bird. In the center of them: a pyramid. The golden inscription in Khmer translates as, “This monument was donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen.” Oh really?? Somehow, I don’t think that the old dictator donated the money for this monument out of his personal savings.

As a former rebel base mired in poverty, Anlong Veng's ex-communists hope to make some money here by drawing more tourists. A large billboard in town  promotes a non-existent Khmer Rouge museum. This is the work of Nhem En, former photographer of the notorious S-21 prison, a.k.a the Tuol Sleng torture center.

His portraits of S-21 prisoners are the most memorable visual reminders of the Khmer Rouge victims. “The world should thank me for my work,” the deluded former commie photographer said in a documentary titled, “The Conscience of Nhem En.” 

Bizarre monument installed by the dictator
Of course he downplays the fact that he himself was Khmer Rouge. He dubiously claims that he never witnessed the cruelties of the Khmer Rouge. He must have been the world’s first deaf and blind photographer, since abuse and torture were daily occurrences in the prison.

Nhem En has attempted to explain his museum idea, “We don’t praise the Khmer rouge, but we will preserve the history of the Khmer Rouge.” This tourist attraction would not be a public museum, it would be owned by Nhem En himself. But the word in town is that he has had very few donors or investors. Apparently the ex-communist knows little about fund raising. Hopefully, this ill themed museum will never be built. That would be akin to building a museum for the Nazis.

Another nearby billboard has a more important message targeting children. Using tiger and rabbit cartoon characters, it cautions children not to play with unexploded munitions left over from the war, as explosives are all over this province. They remind them not to uproot minefield signs, and I remember my friend Mali, who lost a leg to a landmine outside of town here. The sign also reminds children not to use grenades for fishing.

Strolling down the main street, I enter the, “HUN SEN ANLONG VENG PRIMARY SCHOOL”.  I chuckle at the self-serving title. It’s as if Hun Sen is still trying to create a new cult of personality. This used to be, ‘Ta Mok School’, named after one of Hun Sen's former comrades. Ta Mok was one of the biggest butchers of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Ruins of an ancient Buddhist temple, destroyed by Ta Mok's Khmer Rouge thugs
School is done for the day, and passing some students lounging on motorbikes, I walk out back. Here I find a strange looking pile of large red and grey rocks. Looking closer, I see they are bricks, some with carved designs.

Then it dawns on me. These carved bricks are many centuries old. This was once an ancient Angkor temple. Now it’s not even a ruin, it's just a pile of rubble.

Wanting to learn more of what happened here, I enter a nearby thatched rooftop  restaurant for students. I order a drink from a woman wearing a blue and white Khmer scarf wrapped around her head. As she hands me my soda, I ask who destroyed the temple.

Broken blocks are all that remain of the Buddhist temple
“Ta Mok,” she answers bluntly. 

Why did he destroy it?” I ask, trying to find some reason for the senseless act. This time there's no reply. She’s not going to discuss a sensitive local issue with a strange foreigner. Whatever answer she might have told me, it still would have been insufficient. 

Nobody can explain the logic of madmen. The Khmer Rouge were extremists; much like the Taliban that destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Khmer Rouge had no respect for Buddhist religious sites.

Unlike the other picturesque temples of Angkor, it's unlikely that this small temple will be restored anytime soon.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

STRANGE TRAIN

Riding the bizarre 'norry' train in Cambodia
I’m riding the rails in Cambodia, and this is unlike any train I’ve ever ridden in my entire life.

I’m sitting out in the open, and the wind is in my hair. I’m riding on a miniature flatcar and locomotive, all built into one. Much of this bizarre flatcar is made of bamboo; it's only about the size of a king size bed! Behind me, the ‘engineer’ mans the engine, which is about the size of a motor from a lawnmower. This is one strange train.

This train is known locally as a norry, a makeshift mini-train. It’s also known as the 'bamboo train', and it just may be the smallest functioning commercial train in existence.

It’s 240 kilometers to Phnom Penh,” says my trusty guide Sok, as we chug along on old tracks just south of Battambang. We pass an old village train station. Like the original train system, it was originally built by the French colonials. There are no passengers waiting today, there haven’t been for years. The real trains stopped running 10 years ago. Service was slow, and it took a lengthy 12 hours to travel all the way to Phnom Penh. Trains occasionally derailed.

I look down as we cross a wooden train trestle, a rarity these days. Few train trestles anywhere in the world are still made of wood. I wonder how much support the beams still have left in them, as the wood is deteriorating in the tropical heat.

Rail service in Cambodia deteriorated gradually, going all the way back to the war years of the 1970’s. Despite their rejection of technology, the Khmer Rouge managed to keep trains running during their repressive years of rule. After they were forced out of power, they returned to attack the trains in the 80’s and 90’s. The new government took measures to protect them. On each train, they transformed a boxcar into a rolling bunker, installing gun ports and a heavy machine gun to discourage attacks.

2 trains meet, 1 is disassembled, then reassembled, so both can pass!
Further south back in 1994, the communists hit a packed train headed to the coast. First they blew it up with mines, shot dead 9 civilians. They then took numerous hostages into the jungle, including three foreigners from France, Australia and the UK. These unfortunate three were later killed when government troops tried to rescue them.

After attacks like this, the engineers employed an old train trick to counter the use of landmines on the tracks by the Khmer Rouge. To keep the locomotives safe, they pushed two flatcars out in front of it as they traveled. If a flatcar hit a mine and blew off the tracks, the more valuable locomotive survived. That didn’t stop Khmer passengers from riding the front flatcars though. With little money, they were glad to ride these rolling mine detectors, since the tickets were cheaper!

But the war is over now, and my translator Sok and I are enjoying the breezy ride on our simple, rolling bamboo bed, I’m serenaded by the loud clackety-clack of the wheels on the rails. I’m out in the open air, and the rails are warped, so the racket is even louder than when I recently road an overnight train to Vietnam. There are wider gaps between the rails here too, making the ride sometimes jarring, but no less fun.

Sok informs me how locals use these mini-trains. “The people use (it) to move the rice to Battambang,” he says, “because we have no roads.”

As we pass rural houses, I see Sok’s point. Without road access, some houses are built right next to the rails, surrounded by flooded rice paddies. The train tracks are their only dry access into town during this time of year.

The norry train's 'engineer'
We scare birds and squirrels off the tracks along the way, and the foliage grows high, leaning over the tracks in places. If it weren’t for these norrys, the tracks would be completely overgrown. As I lie flat, I looking down below my feet. The brown, parallel train tracks stretch straight ahead to the horizon, seemingly into oblivion.

There’s a light sprinkle of rain, but I hardly notice. We’re only going about 15 mph, but the wind in my hair feels great. Some rice farmers out working the fields wave to me as we pass. I’m grinning from ear to ear. This sure beats riding the bus.

Straight ahead of us on the tracks, another norry is chugging along towards us, head on! This ought to be interesting, I think. There are no switches to pull off to the side, so something has to give.

Both engineers/drivers slow as we approach, and we coast to a stop. Apparently there are no brakes. Since the other norry has eight passengers crowding it, it’s up to us to get out of their way. So we do. We climb off, and our driver removes the drive belt, then lifts off the small Kawasaki engine. Then the other norry driver walks over, and helps my driver lift off the frame. Finally the wheels are removed, and their way is clear. Amazingly, it took less than 30 seconds. All the norry drivers know each other, and they have this dis-assembly process down to a science.

The other mini-train moves through, and the two drivers immediately reassemble our mini-train. Wheels down, frame on top, put on the motor, attach the drive belt. He winds up the pull string, yanks it to a start, and we’re off again. Still amazing me, the reassembly took less than a minute. We continue our journey towards the horizon.

I’m amazed at the ingenuity of this simple system. Cambodians may be poor, but these farmers are certainly inventive, in coming up with this strange train.

*NOTE* - Sometime after this trip to Battambang, long delayed plans to resume real train service came through, and the 'Royal Railway' company is finally running trains again in Cambodia.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

WORKED TO DEATH

At this 'gas station' our fuel comes from a plastic bottle
I'm far off the tourist trail, in a tuk-tuk traveling down a dusty dirt road in Cambodia. I'm south of the city of Battambang, in what used to be dangerous, hard core Khmer Rouge territory. A roadside sign directs us towards Kamping Poi, where my wise local guide Sok is taking me. Approaching a small shop on this bumpy road, our driver pulls inn.

We need gas, but there’s no petrol pump at this shop. Instead, a Khmer woman with a towel over her head walks out of the door, carrying a plastic bottle that looks like orange soda. She dumps the entirety in the gas tank. Apparently this passes for gasoline around here. This little hole-in-the-wall is an odd place to shop, but Sok walks inside to buy a few things. I don't know it yet, but his purchases will later surprise me, and make me feel guilty about this whole trip.

We resume and drive ahead through poor farming villages, stopping on a wide dirt road. Getting out, I see trees on both sides. To one side through the greenery, is a vast lake, Kamping Poi. It's huge. Other than Tonle Sap Lake, this is the largest I've seen in Cambodia. But this isn’t a natural lake. It's a reservoir, created by the hated Khmer Rouge regime, with a very high human cost.


The road is atop a dike, built by slave labor. Thousands died.
“They build Kamping Poi by hand,” Sok tells me. “No machine.” The dike which created this reservoir, was built with slave labor between 1975 – 1978.

I look at this unnatural dam we're standing on, and it's huge. “They fill this,” Sok says motioning to the immense dike, “eight kilometers (long).”

Life for the unfortunate Khmers who were forced to work here as slave labor, was nothing but never ending back breaking work. Conditions were abominable. “Work six am to six pm,” Sok says. “They smell like animal after three to four days. Over there river. Every five day or seven day, they let people have bath.”

With such a low level of hygiene, combined with overwork and scant food, many of the Khmers that suffered here didn’t survive. As many as 10,000 people died working on Kamping Poi from the slave labor conditions.

An unknown Khmer Rouge forced labor site. Thousands died from overwork and starvation.
“They die of diarrhea, they die of starvation, they die of fever here,” Sok tells me.

Since the Khmer Rouge were obsessed with collective farming, the Kamping Poi reservoir was built to improve irrigation for the surrounding rice paddies. “5,000 hectares of rice field over there,” Sok points out to me. So two people died for each hectare of irrigation? What insanity.

The Khmer Rouge destroyed so much in Cambodia. This dike is one of the few things they built that still survives today. But as with everything else those communist maniacs did, it was only built by destroying many lives in the process.

We walk to another part of the dike, overlooking a concrete sluiceway. The flood gates here are lined up one after the other, to control the reservoir water levels. After the Khmer Rouge were forced from power this section collapsed. It was only rebuilt with foreign aid a few years ago. I’ll bet nobody died rebuilding this.

Once the site of brutal tragedy, the scenic reservoir is now a site for weekend picnics
Walking back along the shoreline, I find simple thatch shelters with hammocks hanging inside. They're empty today, but on weekends folks from Battambang who can afford it, drive here to picnic and enjoy the scenery. It’s hard to believe that a place that was built at the cost of so many lives, has become a place of relaxation and fun for families. But such is Cambodia.

I peer out over the vast waters of the reservoir, and one side of the lake appears to have many bright green islands, which are curiously dotted with pink. These are not actually islands, but enormous bunches of lily pads. The pink dots I see are flowers.

Also out on the water, are several small boats filled with Khmers on holiday. At this point I learn, that this reservoir is a very sad place for Sok. His son died here. He didn’t die here from the Khmer Rouge years, but afterward. His son came here one day, and went out boating. He fell into the water, and didn’t know how to swim. Sok doesn’t like going to Kamping Poi, but he came today because I wanted to come here.

A wave of guilt washes over me. Now I feel like a heel for having him bring me here. I've brought Sok back to one of the saddest places that he knows.

Still, Sok is making the most of his visit. Since we've traveled all the way here from Battambang, he planned on leaving a Buddhist offering for his departed son. Now I know why Sok went into that roadside shop earlier today. While our tuk-tuk got gas, he went inside to buy food for his offering. He explains his gifts for his son: “He like coconut, he like sugar, he like noodle.” His son's favorite foods, Sok bought them all.

My translator and guide Sok
We drive further on atop this dike of sadness, and stop. I stay near the tuk-tuk to give Sok his privacy. He walks through the brush and down the slope, pausing to pray and leave his offering for his son at the lake’s edge. His devotion is touching.

I've seen all I needed to at Kamping Poi, and soon we're back on the long dirt road, headed towards the highway. Along the way we pass a long forested ridge, known as 'Crocodile Mountain'. It’s well named; the outline of the ridge looks much like the horizontal reptile. Some of the very first Khmer Rouge attacks took place in Battambang Province way back in 1968, and they continued to fight trying to hold this mountain well into the 1990's. Who would have thought that the war here would be going on for three long decades?

Sok tells me that there was a lot of see-saw fighting in villages along this road, especially during harvest time. “1995, have lot of fighting here between government and Khmer Rouge,” he tells me. “In morning, government come fighting, get rice. In evening, Khmer Rouge fighting, get rice.”

Those who were wounded here had a long, deadly trip ahead of them, as medical care in these villages was non-existent. “No ambulance,” Sok says. “Then, the wounded take eight hour (to) get to Battambang. Then no road. They go in hammock, or oxcart. Sometime die.”

As we travel slowly on this bumpy dirt road, I see some local farmers lounging outside their shack homes. Many of these men are ex-Khmer Rouge fighters. Back during the war, they would have killed or kidnapped any westerners they found, so I'm wondering if any of these men might still pose a threat to me. But Sok says not to worry.

“Here no problem. If you here 8 pm, (when it’s dark) your motorbike broken, they help you,” Sok reassures me. “They give you dinner. They take you back to Battambang. Good people.”

Sok (at right) views the lake atop the repaired flood gates
“Now peace everywhere. No problem,” Sok continues. Given that Sok lost many family members to the Khmer Rouge genocide, I'm surprised he shows no anger towards them. “Khmer Rouge people, normal people, we combine. Live together, no problem. Take away communist (communism), simple people.” I imagine that his Buddhist faith has something to do with his attitude.

We finally reach the dirt 'highway'. Bumping along in the tuk-tuk, we pass a roadside billboard with Khmer writing showing an M-16 rifle that's been cut in half. Sok tells me it's for a disarmament campaign. After the war ended, they needed to get all those deadly weapons away from ex-Khmer Rouge.

“All the guns turn in now,” Sok says to me at first, but then he thinks better of it. “Some bad people still have (guns),” Sok says, “they hide.” I quiz Sok to clarify who 'they' are, and he's referring to bandits.

Sok told me earlier that it was now safe here in the evening, and yet, some 'bad people' here still have machine guns?

With this news, I'm glad we're on our way out of here. I'm glad we'll be back in Battambang before it gets dark.