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Cambodia

A Bone to a Swimming Hole

It had been nearly three hours since the pair left Battambang. They might have arrived sooner had the foreigner not stopped so many times to take photographs or talk to somebody. Neither man cared about the time, both were just doing their jobs. And both found driving through the verdant rice fields of Battambang province to be far preferable to most other kinds of work. It was late July and the rainy season had been generous this year, the countryside flashing in electric green. The terrible flooding that would cause so much misery was still two months away.

The two arrived at the village of Kamping Puoy. They crossed over the dam, pulling up at some tables on the opposite side, a place where one could sit in the shade, have a cold drink, and take a rest before moving on to other things. Nearby several urchins stood watching the pair's arrival. They approached the two, dirty palms outstretched in optimism. The foreigner growled at them, "I know people your age who slog through garbage dumps for less money than you make standing there with your hands out." The foreigner's companion, a young man from Battambang by the name of Boon Ton saw no reason to translate the foreigner's outburst. He didn't understand all the words anyway and the tone seemed self-evident enough. With a long look, the puzzled and slightly nervous children cautiously moved away. They weren't sure whether to be angry or perhaps feel pity for the man.

Boon Ton made his living by driving and guiding foreigners around Battambang province on his motorbike. He had been driving this foreigner around for two days. He met him, as he meets most of his customers, at the boat landing on the north end of Battambang town where the speedboats arrive each morning from Siem Reap. Boon Ton had learned to speak English quite well and had learned in detail the history of his province and his country. He learned all the sites that a foreigner might want to see - the temples, the statues, the various hills, and whatever historical significance was attached to each place. He'd work for as little as six dollars a day, but often foreigners would give him ten dollars or more and buy him a nice lunch on top of that. Boon Ton appreciated their kindness and always tried to give the best service. He enjoyed his work, even if he sometimes sat idle for a week between customers. Recently, business was improving, more tourists were visiting Battambang and venturing into the countryside. They used to worry a lot about safety but not so much now. Boon Ton was pleased for that.

In learning the local history, it was especially important to be familiar with the events relating to the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge were always of interest to the foreigners and Battambang province had plenty of history. Killing fields, hilltop battles, dams, prisons, compounds, destroyed temples - Battambang had them all. And the foreigners often requested to see these sites and tell Boon Ton their own thoughts and feelings as they toured the province. Many had already visited the country's two most famous Khmer Rouge-related sites, the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh. After Angkor Wat, that's what all the foreigners came to see.

Carrying two cameras, one of which was the most expensive Boon Ton had ever seen, this foreigner could take more photos in fifteen minutes than most of his customers took in a day, in two days, even. Pictures of children, of villages, of everyday life. And he talked with the people he photographed, especially the teenagers. He asked them about their futures, their feelings about their country, their education, family, and so on. It was exhausting translating for him, but the foreigner seemed genuinely interested in learning about Cambodian society, so Boon Ton was happy to make the effort. And the foreigner paid well.

Boon Ton had already forgotten the foreigner's name, but it didn't seem to matter. The foreigners so often forgot his name, too. And he was quite sure this one had, for it was always "Hey!" followed by whatever it was the foreigner wanted. 

---

Yesterday, Boon Ton was surprised to learn that this foreigner knew nearly as much as he did about his country's history and politics. Though Boon Ton had plenty to teach him about the details of Battambang which the foreigner was eager to learn, the foreigner spoke knowledgably about the political situation of Cambodia and offered well-informed opinions. Not that Boon Ton agreed with all those opinions, but he was still flattered that the foreigner took such an interest in his country. Joined by another motorbike driver, the three had had a lively conversation about Cambodian politics and history over lunch.

Boon Ton was surprised again when, in discussing the Khmer Rouge during that lunch, the foreigner offered that he had just been to Anlong Veng, the final Khmer Rouge stronghold, had been on the Dangrek Escarpment, saw Pol Pot's last house, Ta Mok's abode, even Pol Pot's cremation site. Then the foreigner produced a broken piece of porcelain, claiming it to be a piece of Pol Pot's toilet. Boon Ton saw no reason to doubt the story, and besides which, he found it rather funny. Later that evening Boon Ton told his friend's about his customer and the piece of Pol Pot's toilet he was carrying around in his bag. Everybody laughed. That's about all Pol Pot merited these days. Every leader had his throne and a piece of his toilet was just as good as a piece of the man. 

But then the foreigner produced another item from his bag, a small greyish-white hard sliver about an inch long. "I showed you Pol Pot's toilet. Now, I show you Pol Pot."
Boon Ton looked surprised, "Pol Pot?"
"When I was at the cremation site a soldier reached into the pile of ash and removed this. He said it was a piece of bone from Pol Pot."
"He sold it to you?"
"No. He offered it to me for free but I didn't want to take it. But he told me, 'No, you've been here. You take this and show it to people. Pol Pot is dead. Show them this so they know.' So I took it, but I don't feel so good about it."
Boon Ton thought for a moment. He held the bone fragment in his hand, fingering it, turning it over. He made a fist, holding the bone inside. He smiled. "Pol Pot is dead. I believe. Today, I am happy. I know he is dead. You did right to take this bone. Yes, show people."
The other motorbike driver agreed, "I believe this bone is real. He is dead. I will tell my wife. I will sleep well tonight."
"May I?" and Boon Ton jerked his head in the direction of a group of six adults crowded around a fruit vendor. The foreigner nodded. Boon Ton walked over and showed them the bone. There was a lot of chatter and excitement from the group as they each took turns holding the relic, examining it from every angle. Some looked over to the foreigner and smiled. Boon Ton returned, "Yes, we are happy today."

After lunch, they climbed to the top of Phnom Sampeau. In a small cave at the summit is a memorial to Khmer Rouge victims, a collection of bones of executed people gathered from the floor of the cave. There was a group of teenagers there, all born after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. They marveled at the bone, eager and curious. Pol Pot didn't have the same significance to them as he did to their parents, they never lived those years. One child remarked, "that man kill my grandfather." Several others nodded their heads in agreement, "my two uncles," said another. One child, while holding the bone, turned and pointed to the pile of victims' bones nearby as if to draw a comparison. He said something, but Boon Ton did not translate.

That night with his friends, Boon Ton would save the story of the bone until after he told the story of the toilet. Filled with laughter at the thought of Pol Pot and his toilet, they listened in silence to Boon Ton tell of the foreigner with the piece of Pol Pot. They'd smile. They'd reflect. Someone thought it ironic that a piece of Pol Pot was in the hands of a foreigner and commented to that effect. The group discussed it for a minute and decided that it was alright. Maybe better that way. More people might see it. And they shared another glass of whisky, smoked another cigarette. A toilet, a bone, a bottle of whisky, friends. Everyone was content and slept well that night.

---

The dam at Kamping Puoy is one of the few Khmer Rouge-era dams that has outlived the regime. Most dams were never completed. Whether by sabotage or incompetent design, there is little to show for the efforts of so many people who built the dams under brutal conditions well documented already.

Boon Ton told his customer of this dam, but like most things he wanted to tell his customer, he found the foreigner already knew. He knew about the dams and irrigation projects of the Khmer Rouge. He knew that thousands had died building this dam and he knew that thousands of bodies were said to be buried in the very cement they were now walking upon, their skeletons as integral to the structure as the cement itself.

On one side of the dam is a large lake, while on the other side a few dozen swimmers were enjoying the water of the canal that extends in a straight line all the way to the horizon. The dam is popular with the locals, who in that grandest of Khmer traditions, come in droves on weekends to enjoy a family picnic mixed with a bit of swimming.

Today was a weekday and considerably less crowded as a result. The two descended the stairway below the dam emerging on a walkway that followed alongside the canal where the many swimmers, their ages ranging from 5 to 50, were splashing and clowning about, the happiest of smiles on all. The usual assortment of "hellos", "where you come froms" and "bye-byes" followed the pair, all spoken for the benefit of the foreigner.

They walked a few hundred meters beyond most of the swimmers, sitting down on the bank at the edge of the canal. Here, three naked boys jumped, shrieked, and splashed each other, while a pair of fully-clothed girls were content to lie in the water, only their heads breaking the water's surface.

The foreigner diddled with his camera but didn't take any photographs. Boon Ton silently wondered why. "Let them get used to me and get used to the camera, then I'll take some photographs," the foreigner said, as if reading Boon Ton's mind. Ten minutes later he took some photos of the girls, but not the boys. "No clothes, no photos," the foreigner said.

In time the two girls came closer. "Ask them if I can take some close-ups," the foreigner asked Boon Ton.
"Close-ups?" Boon Ton didn't understand.
"Ask if they'll come a little closer."
One girl of about 12 who looked more Vietnamese than Khmer nodded her head and walked up to the two men. The foreigner began talking to the girl and Boon Ton translated for him.
"What's your name?"
"Yuen," she said.
"As in Vietnamese?" the foreigner asked.
"Yes," replied Boon Ton, "we use that word for Vietnamese."
"Yes, I know, it means barbarian, not a very nice name, is it?"
Boon Ton only smiled.
The foreigner turned to the girl with the insult for a name, "do you swim here often?"
"Everyday."
"Do you go to school?"
She shook her head. Boon Ton noticed that the foreigner took this information as if he'd heard it many times before.
"How about your friends? Do any of them go to school?"
"Some," then Yuen added, "we like to come here. It's better. No school."
Boon Ton noticed again that the foreigner expressed no reaction.

The foreigner took several more pictures and they talked. Several of Yuen's friends approached, joining the conversation. The girls began quizzing the foreigner with the standard questions, his name, his country, his age, his family, his work. The Khmer Rouge, the toilet, the bone, they were not part of the conversation. Boon Ton had noticed that the foreigner didn't easily reveal the existence of either relic. The foreigner then approached Yuen and snapped several photos very close to her face. The camera seemed as big as Yuen's head. Yuen was unfazed.

The foreigner turned to Boon Ton. "I got one or two really good shots. Does this girl have an address?"
"A what?" Boon Ton asked.
"An address. A house number. I want to send her a photo. She's been a good model."
"You can send them to me, I'll bring them to her." Boon Ton offered.
The foreigner knew what the chances were of that ever happening.
"I think an address is better. What's her full name?"
"Name is Yuen."
"Right, they call her Yuen, Vietnamese, sure. What's her full name, her real name?"
Boon Ton talked to the girl for a moment.
"Yuen. That's her name."
"Okay, okay. What's her house number?"
Boon Ton and Yuen talked some more.
"No number."
"Everybody has a number."
"Sure. Everybody that pays for one."
Boon Ton and Yuen talked some more.
"She lives with her brother, not far. But no number."
"Wow, okay, no number. I'll bring a photo next time I'm in the area." He knew that finding people when you have a photograph to go by is an easy thing in Cambodia. People don't move around much and they know their neighbors well. He'd remember that if he ever felt the need to hide somewhere. Pol Pot and his compatriots, they could hide. They lived on a cliff surrounded with mines. The rest of us aren't so privileged. We can be found.

Boon Ton and the foreigner left the group by the canal, saying 'goodbye' to all. Yuen waved goodbye to her new foreign friend. With the foreigner out of sight, she quickly put out of her mind any thoughts of ever seeing a photograph or him again. She looked at her friends and without a word they dove back in the water, pursuing the pleasures of the moment. 

Boon Ton started the motorbike, he and the foreigner would return to Phnom Sampeau and have lunch at one of the restaurants at the base of the mountain. Perhaps they'd eat at the same place as yesterday where the foreigner produced the piece of toilet and bone. Leaving Kamping Puoy they passed a line of small ramshackle structures. Houses only by the broadest of definitions. "Yuen said she lives in one of these houses," Boon Ton said. The foreigner looked at the houses, nope, no house numbers here. One good gust of wind and there might not even be a house left to number. They were houses that stood as hardly more than skeletons of a home and it was doubtful any had a toilet.

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.