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A Journey Through the Heart of Cambodia (1999)

by David R. Metraux

Much has been written about the current state of affairs in Cambodia, which is slowly reentering the international scene after three decades of murder, corruption, and destruction. When I visited Cambodia in mid-1999 I was immediately intrigued by this small country's impressive culture and history and to this day I remain attached to a place for which I feel a convoluted mixture of sadness, pity, excitement, and respect. I intended to write an article on the current state of life in Cambodia, a land mired in poverty, ruled by a heavy-handed authoritarian, and hopelessly littered with unexploded ordnance and land mines. However, such a commentary could fill a book and in my opinion would not give an accurate reflection of the situation in contemporary Cambodia. Instead, I would like to share with you a singular experience that may give an insight into this tiny country that has captured a large part of my heart.

Having recently experienced the awe-inspiring ruins of Angkor near Siem Reap in the northern section of Cambodia, my fellow adventurers and I packed up our belongings and contemplated how we were going to get back to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia over 300km away. We made initial the journey to Siem Reap on the roof of a speedboat that whisked us up the mighty Tonle Sap River, past sites ranging from anchored gunboats from the fighting that occurred over the past thirty years to entire floating villages that swished and swayed with the force of our wake. Much to our dismay, we were unable to again take the 6 hour boat trip, so we researched alternative routes and found three other options: train, military helicopter (yes, the army transported tourists in their spare time), or truck. Well, it turned out the train was banned to foreigners (the Khmer Rouge had a bad habit of blowing them up) and the military was presumably out fighting that day, so we were going to make the long, arduous journey on the back up a pickup, and retrospectively that was the best possible choice we could have made.

Early that April morning our truck, a small 4x4 pickup, arrived at our guest house to retrieve the six of us and, much to our surprise, there were already four Cambodian occupants: the driver (who's maddening propensity to use the horn was still a secret), two females dressed in their Sunday best, and a male in his early 30's who oddly enough had a motorcycle helmet with him. We just smiled and nodded (such things seemed routine after a week in this crazy country) and the ten of us squeezed onto the truck and began our journey south. As we made our way out of the town with its quasi-paved roads, we began to get settled in for the long journey. The road was relatively smooth, the driver was calm and collected, and the atmosphere was such that we were even contemplating taking a nice long nap. Well, after three minutes of such comfort we left the town limits and again entered the wonderfully insane driving conditions that accompany a developing nation. The dirt road consisted mainly of potholes which seemingly were having a contest to see which could be the biggest (I think it was a tie) and our driver, while avoiding the most cavernous potholes, seemed to have a knack of hitting the gaping ones, which had the ability to toss us 3-6 inches in the air every 30 seconds or so. It was now that the male Cambodian put on his crash helmet. He must have been on this trip before…

After a while, these painful jolts, by now taking their toll on our bodies and sanity, began to serve a better purpose, as they began to break the ice (as well as our tailbones) between the three Cambodians and myself and two of my companions, who were riding along with me in the back. The Cambodians were beginning to laugh at our displeasure, as they wisely chose seats in the front of the bed near the cab, which had much less bounce. This initial exchange was the beginning of a long "conversation" between us that lasted for many hours. Consisting of many gestures and sounds, we were able to make out what they were trying to tell us and hopefully were able to reciprocate. One of my favorite memories was when my friend Matt and I exchanged introductions with them, which eventually turned into an English-Khmer lesson. We pointed to many different objects along the roadside and exchanged our respective names for them. While for the life of me I cannot recall how to say "ox" in Khmer, I do feel that this exchange as important and meaningful as any English conversation I've ever had.

The trip gave me an excellent first-hand look at rural life in contemporary Cambodia. The ever-worsening dirt "highway" which we were traveling is one of the country's main thoroughfares, so it serves as the main street for many towns and villages. As we passed through the smaller villages, we got an excellent snapshot of how the average Cambodian lives. Many of the homes were raised mud and wood structures on stilts, much like a young American's tree house, minus the tree of course. These houses were placed precariously near the road so you were able see into the majority of them as we rode by. Through the overly large door openings (to enable light to enter) you could see that the insides were quite small, many with only a sleeping area inside. Running water and electricity were decades away from many of the homes in these villages, as was adequate health care and steady employment. One thing that did stand out was the abundant amount of concrete cylinders that protruded from the ground. Soon we realized that these seemingly useless openings were in actuality very important, as they were wells for use by the entire village. Stenciled on the sides of these wells were names of many prominent non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross and UNICEF. Along our journey, we also passed many United Nations vehicles, along with those from almost every other charity you hear about while watching late night television. If you ever wondered where those organizations actually operate, this is the place. However, even with those charities in full-force, funds were few and far between for these villages. Some of them found creative ways to collect money. I remember one village that had a single loudspeaker blaring Khmer music while a costumed local was making some announcements. My fellow travelers weren't sure what to do, but our friend in the crash helmet threw a 100 riel note out the back of the truck and encouraged us to do so. It was really a festive scene, as the children at the checkpoint were dancing to the beat and everyone seemed to be having a genuinely good time.

While most of the major cities have been rebuilt since the end of the war, once you entered the countryside it was easy to see the lasting effects of the destruction. There are many obvious signs of the destruction, including giant craters that can be found along most main roads, especially where bridges cross. This is the single most evident reminder of the recent warfare, as I don't recall passing over many original bridges in the countryside. For many of the bridges that were destroyed (which were usually 5-10 feet long which passed irrigation canals), they simply were not replaced and a path was built off the road so the traffic simply went down the slope and up along the other side. As you passed the bridge you could usually see the remnants of the original bridge, bombed out and long since picked over for scrap. The rest of the bridges consisted of literally two planks of wood which the truck passed over. There are few sights as unnerving as looking out the back of the truck and seeing we were driving on planks not much wider than our tires. Still, we made each one without any issues, which can either be attributed to the skills of our horn-happy driver or just sheer luck.

I do recall passing over one bridge, however, that was fully intact. It was at least 15 feet long and relatively stable, but it also had an extra addition that is not normally found on western bridges. This bridge was patrolled by a young teenager, not uniformed but armed with an M16 rifle. We were traveling in an area that was not contested by any rival military faction, so I was surprised to see this guard on a main road. Other than this guard, we also encountered armed soldiers on another occasion at a random military checkpoint along the main road. We were not sure how to handle this situation as none of my fellow American travelers could communicate with the soldiers, but thankfully our friend with the crash helmet gave the soldiers a few riel and after a few more words we were again on our way.

The countryside can best be described as desolate, as most of the land was still too mined to be arable. There were times when in every direction all you could see in every direction was miles and miles of barren land, save for a few palm trees, that should have been feeding the nation. Instead, most of the land, brown and in disrepair, is now virtually useless. There were some patches close to the road that were cleared of all mines. These areas exhibited a vibrant green with farmers tending to the rice that was flourishing. Mostly, however, the land was uninhabitable.

For most of our trip, the air was filled with excitement as we were constantly passing by children playing along the road, villages with bustling activity, and people going along with their daily lives. One incident sticks out in my mind as being quite different. A few hours into our journey we were all having a good time, laughing amongst ourselves and enjoying our 'conversations', which consisted mostly of exaggerated expressions, gestures, and laughter. We all sensed the mood change as the road became eerily quiet, as the hustle and bustle we were used to vanished. Much like Dorothy entering the Haunted Forest in the Wizard of Oz, the clouds seemed to darken and we all had an eerie feeling. We soon learned why our surroundings had quieted, as along the roadside we saw what unfortunately most Cambodians have to deal with every day. The signs along the road were bright red and were emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. Along with the ominous marker was a warning repeated in Khmer and English: Danger!! Mines!! It was at this time I saw one of the saddest things I've ever seen. As we were driving through this heavily mined town, I remember seeing a child playing in the road ahead. He must have been around 5 years old and I distinctly remember wondering to myself why he didn't get out of the way. As we approached, he finally struggled up, and then proceeded to hop out of the road, as he only had one leg and one arm. If there is one thing I remember the most about Cambodia was the disturbingly large amount of citizens, ranging from young children to senior citizens, who were missing arms and legs from landmine explosions. I cannot even imagine the amount of suffering these people have to endure on a daily basis, yet they are still able to go along with their lives.

Life in the larger villages was a dramatic change from desolation of the countryside. Upon entering these large villages, a sense of euphoria overwhelmed us, as we experienced the sights and smells of small open air markets with food stalls and even roadside 'rest areas' complete with a tarp which served as a makeshift restroom, partitioning a set of trees off from the restaurant. The streets were alive with all of the splendors of a developing nation. Our truck also participated in this hustle and bustle, as we made a stop and to our surprise picked up a man with multiple bags of grain. While we were all annoyed to have to get out of the truck while it could be loaded with these bags, our annoyance soon faded as we discovered the bags made great cushions which absorbed the shocks of the road below. Needless to say, we were all very disappointed when the man (and his then-beloved grain) was dropped off a few hours later. Other notable characters on the road included the many farmers who were bringing their livestock to the market. By now we were quite used to seeing the small motorbikes (called "motos") and bicycles overwhelmed with dozens of dead (and dangling) chickens, but one sight made us "squeamish". This sight consisted of a pig, lying on its back across the back seat with its legs straight in the air. We thought nothing of this, until we passed the moto and heard loud squeals from the pig!

Eventually, we made it to the market, and our newly acquired Cambodian friends went to make a purchase while we relaxed beside the truck. After we got back on the road, the Cambodian females pulled out their purchase and began to have a snack. The ladies were munching away on some mysterious fruits and the man with the crash helmet soon joined in. We gave them all perplexing looks and upon seeing us the ladies offered us some of their fruit. We politely accepted, and then cautiously examined our gifts. The spherical fruit was the size of a ping-pong ball, but was rough, semi hairy, and had a rough skin. It was much like a large grape, only from Mars. We cautiously examined this fruit, smelled it, exchanged odd looks, and with some help from the ladies, eventually figured out how to peel this odd fruit and eat it. Feeling gracious that these travelers had shared their food with us, I tried to figure out a way to repay them. Then, it hit me that in my pack I had a small bag of jelly beans left over from an Easter care pack on of my roommates received. I gave out these semi-crushed beans, (our packs made decent cushions as well), which the three Cambodians gave odd looks. Much as we did with the fruit, they cautiously examined the beans, smelled them, and reluctantly tasted them. From the expressions of the ladies, I believe they thought they were just ok, but our friend with the crash helmet loved them and then eagerly devoured the rest of the bag. Later as I thought about this experience, I found it slightly apropos that the Cambodians were giving me healthy, delicious fruit as a gift and we were giving them, well, jelly beans. I couldn't help but draw the parallel to the explosion of American fast food into the Asian countries, which has caused the normally healthy Asian children to become obese, much like their American counterparts. Next time I go to Cambodia, I'm bringing apples...

It was on this long trip where I believe I was able to see the true face of Cambodia, much more so than the overwhelmingly beautiful Angkor temples or increasingly active capital, Phnom Penh. While normally it is unwise to make generalizations, I feel it is safe to say that the Cambodians are a kind and friendly group of people, especially considering they have been through hell and back over the past 30 years. In the past two years since my visit, peace has finally found the Cambodians and foreign tourists are again flocking to see the grand temples of Angkor. I wholeheartedly encourage you to come to Cambodia to experience their spectacularly rich culture and to see the many awe-inspiring historical sites. While traveling from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, I strongly urge you to avoid the new airline routes and take a truck instead. It'll cost you $5 and will provide you with a lifetime of memories.

David maintains a website at http://www.davidmetraux.com

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