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All in a day's work

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Veteran journalist James Pringle talks about the legacy of King Father Norodom Sihanouk,

a midnight rendezvous with the Khmer Rouge at the Hotel Crocodile, and other experiences

from a career spent on the road.

Journalist James Pringle, right, stands with General Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey in 1970 at the Battle of Pich Nil Pass -- now the heavily visited cliffside stopover on Highway 4 to Sihanoukville. The photographer was Dana Stone, who later disappeared with Sean Flynn.

Freshly dumped by his girlfriend and toiling as a cub reporter in small-town Scotland,

young James Pringle came across a certain Jack Kerouac novel and was immediately

on the road. He sold everything for a ship's passage from Liverpool to Florida and

spent the next year retracing the book's picaresque plot-line all the way into Mexico.

Years later, Pringle would be based in Buenos Aires and thinking of a different beat-all

the news coverage between Tijuana and Tierra Del Fuego. A field correspondent in

1966 Saigon, he learned how to "cover the story and stay alive at the same time"

from AP's Peter Arnett, and filed his story on the Tet Offensive under a shuddering

staircase, by the light of a match.

Previously stationed in Havana, Nairobi, Beijing and Biafra, Pringle once interviewed

Khieu Samphan on a Khmer Rouge jungle junket, met up with Ieng Sary in Peru, and

visited retired King Norodom Sihanouk at his 54-room palace outside Pyongyang.

On a life in journalism, Pringle said: "Of course one does become cynical over

years and years of watching. But one has to try to keep the faith. Not in religion,

or any political system but, one hopes, in the fundamental good of mankind. Sometimes

one can even wonder about that. There's no other job like it."

Phnom Penh resident James Pringle spoke to Charles McDermid on February 6 about king

cobras, King Sihanouk and Black Panthers.

What events that you covered affected you the most?

I was extremely affected by the fear and lack of protection of the populations in

Vietnam and Biafra and Cambodia. And I felt that the people of the world had to be

protected from those who ruled over them.

What were your first impressions of Vietnam in 1966?

I saw the worst of the Vietnam War. I've seen people napalmed in front of my eyes.

I've heard American Marines crying for their mothers as they died. It was quite emotional

to see very young Americans in the rice paddies without being sure who the enemy

was or what the mission was. I watched the American military police charge their

own embassy compound when it was occupied during the Tet Offensive. It doesn't get

any more dramatic than that.

When you traveled with Bernard Fall, who wrote of the crushing French defeat at

Dien Bien Phu, did you ever compare the American and French military experience in

Vietnam?

I met Bernard on the plane flying up to Dong Ha. He was giving a talk to American

officers there on Christmas Eve. There was a cease- fire on and the rain was pouring

down. It was cold. The GIs were asked to sing Christmas carols, but when they did

they sang: 'Jingle bells, mortar shells, VC in the grass. You can take your merry

Christmas and shove it up your ass.' But later he told me exactly what was going

to happen. We were standing by the road trying to get a lift and he pointed and said

'See that American encampment? In 2 or 3 years it will be gone.' Back then when you

talked to the US military about the French, it was like another era. The French hadn't

got their act together, but the US did. Of course, the same thing happened again.

What was your first impression of Cambodia when you arrived in 1970?

I thought it was incredibly physically beautiful. The people were charming, but fearful.

The first place we went was Kep. We saw a police station that had been under attack

from the Viet Cong and there were still unexploded B-40 rockets stuck in the doors.

A few days later we came to Phnom Penh. We stayed at the Monorom Hotel -- it's called

the Holiday Villa now. All the correspondents stayed there or at the Le Royal. I

remember being wakened by shelling and rocket fire, so I went on the roof and saw

Pochentong under attack. We drove out there in a big red Mercedes with press flags

in French and Khmer. On the route to the airport we stopped and down the road came

hundreds of Cambodians, middle class and upper middle class. I thought it was interesting

that they were wearing their best clothes and all their jewelry. In fact, they'd

picked up their precious possessions to run from the fighting.

How was Lon Nol regarded by the Western press corps?

He struck all of us as - quite frankly - out to lunch. Because of his vagueness and

propensity for talking about what he had been told by advisors who were clearly soothsayers

and fortunetellers. The roads outside the city were very, very dangerous - more dangerous

than Vietnam. We counted people in and out by the pool at the Royal in the evenings.

At that time, the dean of the press corps was Tasmanian news cameraman Neil Davis.

He was the most daring and most resourceful.

Did you know some of the journalists that disappeared?

Sean Flynn. Once I was with him in Laos on the highway between Vientiene and Luang

Prabang in a little jeep called a minimok. It was open and I was driving - it sounds

impossible and melodramatic now - when in front of the car a huge king cobra appeared.

I was frozen so Sean grabbed the wheel and we skidded around the snake. It did strike

the car. I heard it's head crashing into the back. It was about a meter off the ground,

it's neck was extened. It meant business. We lost Sean on Highway 1 in Cambodia.

At that time the press corps was driving from Saigon to PP and the Viet Cong would

put up road blocks on parts of the road. He and another cameraman rode up to one

on motorcycles and were wearing motley clothes including parts of military uniforms.

In the end it appears they were handed over to the Khmer Rouge who later killed them.

What do you remember about the battle of Pich Nil Pass?

That's where I met General Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey. He was an inspiring leader.

He and his soldiers wore black tubes around their necks filled with rice. It was

a ferocious battle that, as I remember, Lon Nol forces won. After that he went into

the mountains. I heard they all died later in the Elephant Mountains fighting from

an armored personnel carrier in 1976.

Describe your meeting with Kheiu Samphan that was set up by the Khmer Rouge in 1980.

Six of us were called up by the Khmer Rouge and told to meet them at a strange place.

They said, 'We will pick you up at midnight at the Hotel Crocodile [in Phnom Penh].

Walk through the lobby and out the back door at midnight.' It was creepy. I felt

I was going straight into a James Bond scenario. But we did it, and there was a minibus

there. We drove through the night and as dawn broke we were on a track in the Dangrek

Mountains near Thailand. It was raining. When we reached what seemed to be the Cambodian

border, we were met by 12 Khmer Rouge carrying not AK-47s, but large golfing umbrellas.

We walked through the jungle sheltered by the umbrellas and were billeted in a wooden

hut. Then we met in a jungle clearing where the Khmer Rouge came out with a bottle

of Johnny Walker Black Label and a bucket of ice. Then, after dinner, we each had

30-minute, one-on-one sessions with Khieu Samphan.

How was the interview?

He answered all the questions and suggested that we must all join together to fight

the Vietnamese. He struck me as a cold man: precise. But a man who was very much

aware of the political realities on the ground. He was acting head of state at that

time.

How will history judge King Norodom Sihanouk's time in power?

I'm sure to his allies he can be exasperating. And no doubt he has been autocratic

in his time. But I've known Cambodia under several regimes and the Khmer Rouge: there's

no doubt that his time in power was a Golden Age. There's no doubt in my mind. How

can you look at the insanity of Lon Nol, or the crimes against humanity of the Khmer

Rouge, or the land grabbing and bullying of the present era, and say otherwise? Sihanouk's

time was the best for Cambodia in recent memory. He brought the country to peaceful

independence and keep it out of the bloody conflict in Indochina as long as he did.

What other experiences still come to mind?

For 15 days in 1971, I covered the invasion of Laos by the South Vietnamese with

the support of the US. There I witnessed one of the most crass events that I saw

in Vietnam and I watched a horrific sight. The South Vietnamese came into Laos to

pick up their wounded. As they were taking off, terrified soldiers grabbed hold of

the helicopter skids. It was at a place called Lang Vai near Ke San. I watched South

Vietnamese soldiers hanging on like monkeys underneath. Some fell when they couldn't

hold on. Then later an American captain said to me as I was looking at the dead soldiers:

"They're doing a great job of work these boys. We're proud of them."

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