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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia: Then and a Bit of Now

Cambodia: Then and a Bit of Now

Cambodia 1993



That's the least of your worries. If you could speak Ruskie you'd know that the crew's

gesticulations were helping to dramatize accounts of their aerobatic maneuvers during

strafing runs over the mountains of Afghanistan and not last nite's sixty-niners

with terminal Vietnamese whores in stilted bamboo huts over a swamp of fungus, faeces

and floodwaters to the North of the Boeng Kak lake.

Phnom Penh to Stung Treng in little over an hour. A ten minute stop for thirst quenchers

and tarmac theatre, laughing to myself that I'm not one of the competitors in the

rush for the bog. No time for everyone to go and it's always the ones with the worst

cases of worms-cum-dysentery that miss out and end up shitting themselves because

their quivering sphincters won't let them cover the ground as fast as the guys with

the urinary tract infections.

My scribe friend knocks back his second beer for the day. 10.12 ayem. Up again. Lean

out to shoot the wreckage of the last Xoviet U.N. chopper to crash and burn and the

blast from the rotors snatches at my Chinese hat.

Getting around Cambodia never used to be this easy.

Cambodia 1989.

Muddy-black wake-up coffee and trudge up Achar Mean under cover of a dawn, hungover-in-darkness,

before the government informers take to the streets to report on unauthorized travel.

A stomach lining of rice-porridge, Bear-Brand sweetened tea and up into the engulfing

stench of an excrement'n'spit-stained caboose as wheels roll and a shot of steam

signals the moment for dust-covered vendors to thrust their leaf-wrapped and skewered

wares into the faces leaning from disintegrating doorways.

Iron-horse relics-cum-weed-beds slide past and derring-do motor-cyclists duck and

weave under clanging boom-gates before spaces open up into paddies of green.

Up on the roof eat deep-fried baby birds that the Khmers caught and killed after

they escaped winter in the USSR washed down with the juice from too many coconuts

that curdles in your gut in the heat and makes you want to puke while trying to figure

out unfathomable Khmer card-games.

Hours pass like days and the corrugated iron roof griddles your flesh while steaming

sweat trapped under your kramar cleanses your pores with the efficiency of any Third-World-facial.

Patience abounds though and a stroll up to the loco and back provides a wealth of

photo-opportunities as we slip lethargically through the valium landscape towards

a horizon fast blackening with monsoon clouds.

Hand out cigarettes from the third packet in as many hours and snap AK-laden soldiers

casting shade over a mother and sheltering infant when I get a bug in my eye and

they offer to dig it out with a sliver of bamboo lying at my feet. No thanks. They

persevere and fearing loss of sight on this lurching spine, I walk.

The skies are turning purple faster than a prize-fighter's shiner and the last of

the hanger-onners struggle to clamber down before the first giant rain-drops explode

and evaporate on the surface beneath my feet.

Only ponchoed CPAFers weather the storm, AK's'n'RPGs littering the corrugations and

a solitary PK 7.62mm machine gun pointed Khmer-Rouge-wards as visibility is reduced

to a few hundred feet. The storm engulfs us and we grind to a halt.

Thunder-clap-spooked troops huddle with me under perished plastic and cling tighter

with each fork of lightning that stabs at the floodwaters around us, muscles tensed,

fearing the imminent roar to follow. Pelting rain cuts like nine-tails through the

sheet and snap-frozen figures in faded fatigues fire frenziedly up into the vengeful


Suck cool rain through cheap sodden Liberation fags that won't stay lit and commit

scenes to memory that I can't shoot through steamed-up lenses tucked inside dripping

shirt. Share the warmth from a flickering zippo and wait for the sun to see us on

our way.

Dusk creeps up on us curling around hills and over gullies of scrap metal, buckled

carriages lying motionless below, "Pol Pot's" doing, and fire-flies, like

scores of wandering chain-smokers, hang in our wake as we cross more water and pull

into the station. Pouthisat at nitefall, west of the Tonle Sap. Gladly accept an

offer of a camp bed and net in the local schoolmaster's office.

Voices and torches close to midnight spell trouble and the foreign-affairs department

interpreter says his boss wants to know how I got here and where is my Guide and

why aren't I in the Government guest house with all the other journalists that have

come to report on the withdrawal? But it's late and he'll wait 'til morning to get

the story. I must go with them and stay with everybody else.

Fixed breakfast and question time over a Nikon'n'Sony-Pro.-rash-blotched table with

the same advise echoing from the mouths of eavesdropping press-people. "You

should stay here like the man says and wait for the Viets to come through."

Government man balks when I say I can't afford to pay for a driver and guide though

and has a guy on a bike take me back and dump me at the train-station. Battambang-bound

and I left the mob waiting for the Vietnamese convoy that was supposed to pass through

at eight ayem.

Two hours of the same green paddies later we can see the first vehicles trundle past

on a pock-marked Route 5 and the only thing I have to offer as a parting gift to

an officer that commandeers a step-through to take me into Moung is a cheap, clogged

Chinese fountain pen which he adds to his breast pocket with a smile like he'd just

gotten another stripe.

In 'town' the welcome is rousing, and as the only barang to have made it to their

send-off party, beaming Ray-Banned provincial heads grab this token whitey, introducing

him as a VIP from the foreign press corp which brings howls of delight from the surging

crowd that spills over the entire road in an effort to see me better.

The tea keeps coming while military-police strip leaves from springy branches and

whip the legs of wide-eyed children and adults alike in an effort to keep them at

bay while local photographers click us for posterity.

They've got a whole reception planned but it's time to leave. With gifts of oranges

tied carefully into my kramar I climb onto the slow-rolling runnerboard of a Vietnamese

troop truck as it passes the roadside marquee, its laboring engine slowly but surely

drowning out the sounds of the cheering Khmers we are leaving behind. Red dust swallows

us up.

Swallows us up and shadows us all the way to Pouthisat, where the press have long

since departed, and beyond to a stretch some clicks short of Krakor.

Sky is softening into the pastels that signify the coming of night and the silhouettes

of men and vehicles in a convoy with no visible beginning or end start to melt into

the dying surrounds. Flames lick at the bases of cooking pots everywhere , huge vats

of claggy rice and pig-fat destined to be washed down with boiled paddy- water, as

hot as you can drink it to quench a thirst forged in the open over the last eight

hours with nothing but occasional sticks of sugar-cane for relief.

Noubt to do 'cept hang a hammock under the belly of a Xoviet truck and sleep fast,

the promise of a three ayem wake-up call more disturbing than the mossies. Get up

and do it all again in five hours.



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