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
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
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."