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Going for a stroll down Route 10

Going for a stroll down Route 10

T he road between Pailin and Battambang is one of the most heavily-mined places on

the planet. Arnaud Roux went for a walk there. (A hike not recommended for

readers to try themselves.)

IT'S 5.30 in the morning - the crying of babies and crowing of roosters gently wake

the people sleeping in a little bamboo house.

As the woman of the house lights a fire to cook rice, men climb slowly from their

hammocks and pull down their mosquito nets.

It's cold here in the hamlet of O Ta Vao - just a couple of kilometers east of the

former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin - and difficult to get out from under the

blanket. As a timid sun rises, the landscape slowly materializes - forest all round

dominated by several mountains shrouded in mist.

To the east, the little Phnom Chrouk (Pig Mountain), to the west the massive Phnom

Khieuv (Blue Mountain), said to be rich in both gems and land mines.

Nen, the master of this place now dressed in his new Royal Cambodian Armed Forces

(RCAF) uniform, stops playing with his youngest daughter and invites his guests to

share breakfast.

Nen, now 36, became a soldier with the Khmer Rouge at the age of ten. More recently

he served with Division 415 near Pailin under the command of Ee Chhean.

Nen knows Route 10 well. Very well, hope his guests, as they ponder their imminent

trip from here along Route 10 to Battambang.

But first there is breakfast. Nen and his guests - Hok, Chhay and Vudth, all soldiers

from Battambang, and Heng, a Phnom Penh policeman - sit down for a meal of rice and

prahok (fish paste).

The four went to Pailin to "visit" - Hok's brother is a friend of Nen's

- after the former KR base was opened to the outside world. They left with imported

Thai goods and, of course, gems.

The mood is relaxed. No-one seems to be in a hurry to start the day's walk - it's

eight o'clock before the signal to depart is given.

Some check their backpacks while others take time to savor a last glass of rice

wine, curiously dyed red, to nourish them for the trip.

"Dteuv!" (let's go!), declares Nen. The children of the house receive some

Thai baht coins as a good-bye present, and the group move quickly from the house.

The men walk in single file along a narrow path with Nen bringing up the rear. He

doesn't carry a gun or any equipment. Wearing flip flops and with no shirt under

his new RCAF jacket, he seems to be going for a short stroll.

Hok, a government soldier for years, is wearing a KR uniform, complete with Chinese-made

cap and shoes. Why? "It's convenient for the jungle and if the renegade Khmer

Rouge can wear our uniform, I can wear their's," he replies.

The group move through tall grass past several houses to a point on the O Ta Vao

river which is marked by a destroyed bridge. There they meet a dirt road widened

by excavators working a gem mine close by - Route 10. The journey begins.

At a bend just along the way, two women suddenly appear and stop the men. One has

bright eyes but seems to be weak. Without hesitation she explains to Vudth that she

has malaria - she has heard he has some medicine and says she wants some.

After a short conversation Vudth opens his bulging backpack and pulls out a box.

Pills and Thai bank notes change hands and the band of men set off again.

A few hundred meters on three men hurry from behind to join the group. One carries

rice in his krama. The others are dressed in a combination of RCAF and KR uniforms

and share an M- 16 rifle between them. They say they are going to a place in the

forest ahead.

Very quickly, the path becomes narrow - no more than 30 or 40 centimeters wide -

and the jungle thicker. The ground is slippery and the path broken by puddles and

vines and tree roots. The air is muggy and the walkers are drenched with sweat.

Hok, who marches at the head of the column reminds the others jokingly what they

know already: "Don't walk outside the path."

Years of warfare has left the jungle on either side richly sown with land mines.

This is a path which tolerates no mistakes.

Along the way are reminders of the conflict: unexploded mortar rounds, rusty AK-47

magazines and ammunition, an old Russian machine gun and at one point, the track

of a disabled tank.

The soldiers walk quickly, with little talk. Nen seems to be in his element, not

even stopping to drink. The others occasionally stop to scoop water from muddy ponds

(said to be poisoned by the KR during the last dry season offensive).

The path continues to follow the course of what was once a major road - recognizable

now only by the slightly shorter vegetation and, at one point, a single old road

sign. Rusted away, its message has long since been lost.

Sometimes, the men make detours into the jungle where they cross streams and swamps

which rise up to their waists. Occasionally they come across an abandoned object,

like a military backpack. But they don't touch them, wary of grenades set up as booby

traps.

But recently the path has been cleared - numerous holes revealing the previous resting

places of land mines, now removed. Elsewhere, craters show where mines have claimed

victims.

From time to time small groups of armed and silent soldiers pass the group heading

toward Pailin. Nen stops at the frame of a destroyed Russian truck with "Roboh

Nen" (belongs to Nen) written on the rusty metal. That's Nen's business: salvaging

scrap metal from the forest.

After four hours of walking, Nen, Hok and the others arrive at a former KR camp consisting

of tents, a wooden cabin and a radio installation. A few soldiers are resting here

among an impressive stock of weapons and other instruments of war.

Here, the walkers take 30 minutes for lunch - more rice and prahok - before continuing

with several armed newcomers wearing KR uniforms. But Nen stays behind - he has some

work to do, more metal to find.

The mementos of war continue - at a bend in the track one of the soldiers reveals

a booby trap of bamboo stakes embedded in a tree. Along the way the walkers come

across several former government positions - scattered around the earth and timber

bunkers lie RCAF ration tins, "Sardines with tomato sauce" printed on their

sides.

After another one-and-a-half hours of walking following their lunch, the hikers encounter

a hundred meters of deep mud before arriving at Sour Sdie (hello), the first permanent

RCAF position.

As they pass the remains of a war-trashed pagoda, they are startled by shooting.

No cause for alarm - just soldiers hunting birds.

They have walked for a total of five-and-a-half hours - covering 15km. Suddenly,

the track becomes something like a normal, but muddy, road. Battambang is 65 kilometers

away. As Hok greets some friends, seven or eight motos appear. The rest of the trip

can be done the easy way: in three hours, they'll be home.

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