Khmer Rouge country
Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
80Trip End Apr 08, 2006
We travelled for an hour past Phnom Sampeau before stopping stopping at a small town called Treng to get some gasoline and breakfast. It was now 7:30am, and the one restaurant in town was almost full of men watching a chinese kung fu movie dubbed in Khmer. Some of them were obviously former Khmer Rouge soldiers. They were easy to pick, with their blank, judging stares and red kramas wrapped around their necks. We sat at the back of the restaurant to eat our noodle soup, which was a good thing as I didn't gather too much attention, apart from the aforementioned stares from one old man sitting at the back of the restaurant.
Soon afterwards, we turned off the main highway and rode out to a nice spot on the banks of the Stung Sangker river, at the foot of some attractive mountains. My guide Onion informed me that the mountains that were covered in trees were also covered in landmines. "If there were no landmines on the hill, the Khmer Rouge cut down all the trees to sell to the Thais," he informed me. I'd try to keep that in mind next time I went bushwalking in the area.
The area we stopped at was very peaceful, and we spent about 45 minutes resting on some rocks in the river and under a bamboo thatch shelter. There were only about 20 people around, and noone seemed put out by the fact there was a foreigner there at the early hour. The site was interesting in that some money had obviously been spent on it to develop it as a sort of picnic spot for Khmers. This was evident by the stairs leading down the the river, and numerous statues of animals and people everywhere. There were also about fifty huts of the type we sheltered in.
We were on the road again at 9:45am, and from here it was a non stop, 48km, hour and a half ride to Pailin. The region had that really remote feel to it, similar to Mondulkiri and Preah Vihear provinces, with the only sign of human habitation the red "Danger! Mines!" signs that lined the road in parts. The first sign we'd reached civilization again was a Khmer Rouge village pointed out to me at the foot of some spectacular mountains. Further on, the pagoda of Wat Phnom Yat on a hill near central Pailin came into view. We were there, approximately 5 hours after leaving Battambang.
I got off the moto at the stairs leading up Phnom Yat to the temple, and upon removing my helmet I was met with another blank stare from an old Khmer man with a red checked krama around his neck. There was no turning back now, I was in former Khmer Rouge heartland!
The temple was quite interesting and colourful. Not the most spectacular I'd seen, and not the least. What was most thought provoking was the fact that such a deeply religious place had prospered in a town of 40000, 70% of which were Khmer Rouge. In the four years of Democratic Kampuchea, they'd systematically executed monks and destroyed pagodas. Obviously, they'd either left those old beliefs behind, or, the ordinary Khmer minority had some say in the rebuilding of the town. At the top of the hill was a century old stupa, as well as amazing views over the Chhuor Phnom Kravanh mountain range.
After leaving the small hill, we rode around the city for a few minutes, checking out some monuments, the buddhist institute, and Khieu Samphan's run down villa. I was under the impression that he and Ieng Sary (second and third in command to Pol Pot) still resided in Pailin, but apparently they'd long since relocated over the border into Thailand. There are some places the arm of international law just can't (or won't) reach.
We stopped at restaurant near Pailin's central market, and as at breakfast, the place was full of men watching a kung fu movie. These guys were even more obviously former KR soldiers, and as soon as I walked in they all averted their gaze from the screen to check me out. The KR cadre looks I'd read all about, deep eyes full of hate and blank, emotionless stares were fully evident here, and after a minute or so they all simultaneously turned their heads back to the TV screen. Ironically, the restaurant was unable to serve us rice (what kind of Khmer restaurant doesn't serve rice can I ask?), so we moved onto a Chinese place around the corner.
The town itself had a quiet, wild west feel to it. It was small, unlike Tbeng Meanchey, with paved roads. It wasn't spread out, like Sen Monorom, but rather very compact, with a number of small rises like Sihanoukville. There seemed to be nothing of any interest in the town, and Onion informed me that this was the reason why foreigners never came out here. That was why I was being met with stares from EVERYONE.
After lunch, Onion took me out to see what Pailin was also famous for, it's gemstones. As we left the city and turned onto a poorly maintained road through some reasonably dense forest, Onion turned to me and said in a slightly nervous tone, "Oohhhh. Everyone here is Khmer Rouge." I promptly responded by asking if he'd ever been out here, to which he replied no, but a taxi driver had told him we could see people looking for gemstones in a river out this way. Great! What had seemed like a reliable guide suddenly proved to be not so reliable at all.
We continued on for ten minutes, before reaching a village and turning down another short road. Despite wearing a helmet, the villages could tell I was a foreigner by the bare skin of my arms, so I was still met with constant stares. The road ended at a short shallow stream and at the waters edge were three guys, all heavily tattooed, with round baskets. They were sifting through dirt searching for gemstones. I got off the bike and removed my helmet, at which one of them turned around. He barely raised an eyelid. Deep eyes, and scraggy facial hair complemented another emotionless face. These guys were as wild as they came in Cambodia. Onion explained that we'd come to see them searching for gemstones, at which one of the guys told him that foreigners never came out to these parts. Never not as in occasionally, but never as in never! One of the men soon produced a small, glittering blue gemstone that they'd found earlier in the day. It would fetch quite a bit in Phnom Penh's central market.
Before long it started to rain, so we took shelter in another guys hut. These were as small and poorly constructed as any huts I'd seen anywhere in the country. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say it was the poorest village I'd seen. The old man didn't seem to mind us being there, and he showed me three stones in his personal collection. I couldn't help but wonder what this man did during the reign of Democratic Kampuchea. Maybe he killed someone. Maybe he killed ten people, or a hundred. Or maybe he was a village chief, responsible for the execution of thousands. I started feeling a little uneasy, and from somewhere in the back of my mind, the thought that I was at a place so remote that I could be eaten and noone would ever know entered my mind! I wanted out!
But the rain persisted. I could see by the look on Onion's face that he wasn't too comfortable either. As the downpur continued, a middle aged lady and three children came to the hut. The kids didn't shout "hello!" like the others around Battambang, but instead stood right next to me and stared, with the same blank looks as the adults. I was told they'd never seen a foreigner in the flesh before. The woman said that I looked very strange for a foreigner. "Had I coloured my hair?" she asked Onion, to which he replied no when I told him. The woman thought that all foreigners had blonde hair. I couldn't believe what I was hearing! These people had been driven to the region following the Vietnamese occupancy in the 80's, and had never left. It probably wasn't so far fetched to presume that even the adults had only seen a handleful of foreigners in person before. Then I looked back at the kids. Everything I'd read about KR cadres being brainwashed with crap about foreigners being CIA and wanting to invade Cambodia came back to me, and I wondered what their parents had told them about people like me. Obviously, the war had ended almost eight years earlier, but despite being disarmed, values certainly remained. It had stopped raining. We left.
We put some more gasoline in the tank when we reached Pailin, and the lady who served us was another very unfriendly example of the regions population. Once on the road, Onion said to me "Oh she's Khmer Rouge too! Not nice at all!". For an hour or so I was lost in my thoughts, looking at the stunning mountain range as we retraced our tracks back to Battambang. Everything I'd read seemed a little clearer now. Sure, the Khmer Rouge were the same race, but they were different in some way. What made them like that? After all, they were peasants like 80% of the rest of the population. And the majority of them rate as the friendliest people I've ever met anywhere in the world. I guess there are no answers to some questions.
It was a long, dusty, bumpy, two and a half hour 60km ride back up the highway to a town called Snuoeng, which we passed through earlier in the day. An Angkor era temple lay right on the side of the road, in the middle of the town, and I had to check it out. I was pretty relieved when the small temple came into site, and we turned off the highway just before it to go around a contemporary pagoda that lay behind it. Here lay three more temples, similar to the ones I'd seen at Sambor Prei Kuk. I got off the bike, totally exhausted, hoping to take a few photos before getting back on the bike to reach Phnom Sampeau by sunset. Unfortunately, this was another place frequented by very few foreigners, and as soon as the locals saw me they all came running over. After my incident in the village near Pailin, the last thing I wanted was to be the object of everyone's attention again! Nevertheless, I had a twenty minute conversation with them (including a group of christians, who seemed very eager to convert me) before taking some nice colourful shots of the temples. Despite being small and in a ruinous state, there were some fantastic carvings on them.
The final stop was at Phnom Sampeau, the mountain I'd visited in June with my three English friends, Laura, Hester and Zee. I jumped off the bike and literally ran up the stairs in order to catch the sunset from atop the mountain. I didn't make it all the way, but I still found a fantastic spot with a clear, unobstructed view of the bright, red sun sinking like a stone in water behind the Chhuor Phnom Kravanh mountains near Pailin. It was stunning, in fact, one of the best I've seen all year. I used the last of the light to visit the pagoda on top of the mountain (which I missed in June), before meeting Onion back at the base of the mountain. It was a bumpy thirty minute ride in pitch black darkness back to Battambang, where I slumped on my bed completely exhausted. It was one of the biggest days of riding and siteseeing I'd had all year, and it revealed yet another thing about the country that I'd yet to experience. One thing was for certain though - one visit to Pailin is enough!