Cambodian tourist Min Chan Tokla feels lucky to be alive after living through the worst earthquake to hit Nepal in nearly a century
Min Chan Tokla believes his life was saved by two things: a sore knee and a tardy horse.
On April 25, the Cambodian 22-year-old was one week into what should have been the holiday of a lifetime: three months of trekking in Nepal. He had just reached the village of Kyangin Gompa at the far end of the Langtang Valley – a settlement at an altitude of 3,870 metres, home to 200 families, a Tibetan monastery and a yak cheese factory popular with visitors.
Two days walking to reach the village had left him with an aching knee, meaning he was forced to delay the 1,000-metre climb up to the next camp. Stuck in a hotel with no TV or internet, he decided to rent a horse for the day. He was told he’d have to wait for a while as they were currently fully booked.
At 11:45am, he wandered down to the stables to see whether the horse was at last ready.
At 11:56am, the most powerful earthquake recorded in Nepal in 81 years struck. Tokla’s hotel – made out of piled mountain stones – could not withstand the impact. Much of it crumbled. “If I had stayed there, I would have died from the stones falling on me,” the shaken but talkative student said via phone from the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu on Thursday. “I was the one-in-a-million who was lucky with my life.”
Tokla told of how, as the earthquake struck, a guide seized him and pulled him into a small wooden house. Through the billowing snow that cascaded down from the surrounding mountains, he saw those outside trying desperately to grab hold of loved ones and dive for cover. Many were hit on their heads and limbs by objects thrown through the air.
The Langtang valley starts 64 kilometres north of Kathmandu, close to the epicentre of the 7.8-magnitude quake that ripped through the country killing more than 6,204 people at the last count, and injuring more than 11,000.
Eyewitness accounts suggest 90 per cent of all buildings in the valley have been damaged by the quake and subsequent avalanches, with one resident telling The New York Times that it felt like “the hills all came down”. Damage to roads – which can take hours to negotiate in the best of conditions – and the scarcity of rescue helicopters mean the full extent of the impact is not yet known.
After the earthquake, with no way of communicating with the outside world, Tokla says it was his two local guides who ensured his survival. After a night spent waiting for the snow to clear, they led him out of Kyangin Gompa on foot, leaving behind six dead and many more injured in the village, including the husband of an Indian woman that Tokla had met on his trip up the valley.
The eight-kilometre road down to the larger Langtang village was obscured by snow, and the group was fearful of more rocks falling. “I saw a lot of dead bodies of people and animals, all covered in snow. I had no words to say,” he recalled.
“I just continued walking and met more people who needed help – both locals and foreign tourists.”
Tokla spent three nights in Langtang, while those with serious injuries were airlifted off the mountain. The guides took food from the houses of those who died to feed the group. Tokla cried and could not sleep. “The ground was always shaking and the weather was so cold,” he explained.
Tokla, who was travelling in Nepal by himself in between leaving school in Siem Reap and going to study at Pannasastra University, felt very far from home. He recalled how his mother had not wanted him to undertake the trip. “I felt as if I was
going to die, and I thought that maybe I was crazy to come here because if I die then I want to die near the people I love.”
After three nights, he was rescued from the valley by a private helicopter. He had to pay $1,000 for the 15-minute trip, and competition for seats was fierce. “My guides told me to go, but they didn’t come with me because it cost a lot of money,” he said, adding that the two men had since safely descended to Kathmandu.
Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Koy Koung yesterday said the ministry had been alerted by the German Embassy in Nepal that Tokla had been taken to safety. He said he was not aware of any other Cambodian nationals in Nepal during the earthquake, but that getting information was hard because Cambodia had no embassy in the country.
“Cambodia’s embassy in India is trying to find out more, but as of now we don’t have any more information,” he said. “Some people travel there privately so we don’t have any information about them.”
However, at least one other Cambodian national was caught up in the earthquake: Khoun “Dyna” Sopheak, 35. Unlike Tokla, Sopheak was living in Kathmandu when the earthquake struck. He was on the ninth month of a year-long secondment from the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media (CCIM), working on outreach projects in villages around Nepal.
“I heard a sound like bombing, and my apartment started to shake,” he told Post Weekend yesterday, having flown back to Cambodia the previous day. Sopheak initially tried to shelter under his living room table, then decided it was better to try and escape from the third floor flat.
“I thought that I had died. I couldn’t stay up straight, I fell down the stairs twice,” he recalled. “Then I closed my eyes and ran. When I was about 100 metres away from my apartment, I realised that I was still alive.”
Sopheak said that it had been hard to know where to turn for help. “Other nationalities got support from their government, like food and a place to stay. For me, as a Cambodian, there was no support,” he said. “Along with some other people, we tried to find food for ourselves and a place to stay.”
Until his flight out of Kathmandu, Sopheak sheltered in a tent with Nepalese families, sleeping in a chair to make space for those with children on the floor.
“We couldn’t sleep because we were always listening out for the sound of disaster,” he said. In the days following the quake, over 100 aftershocks have disrupted the fragile recovery, including a 6.7 magnitude tremor on last Sunday.
According to Sopheak, two or three other Cambodian nationals had been in Nepal at the time of the earthquake. “But I heard they are now safe in Cambodia,” he said.
Sopheak said he was not sure if he would return to Nepal to see out the final three months of his contract.
“It will take a long time to rebuild the infrastructure, and a long time for people to feel good again,” he said. “It would be hard for me to go back and see people in each village so unhappy.”
Tokla, who is scheduled to leave Kathmandu today, said he had found the drastic change in atmosphere in Nepal equally upsetting. “I kept on thinking about what it was like before the disaster – people were so happy and welcoming, with the children running around on their way to school,” he said, adding that people had often mistaken his Cambodian features for Nepalese and would strike up conversations with him in the street. “They were so kind and helpful – always smiling.”
He said his time in the capital had revealed devastation of a different kind but of a similar magnitude to that witnessed in the mountains. “In the city it wasn’t the snow that did the damage, but old buildings that collapsed and killed many people living inside,” he said.
He described the past week as “like a bad dream”.
“I never experienced the Khmer Rouge regime, but this tragedy was so bad for me that I started to dream about it,” he said. “I spent a lot of money to take this trip, just to meet with this event.”