Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Sunrise over Bokor Mountain, a former battleground in Cambodia
Morning has come early, and I'm up before sunrise with the rest of my trekking group. Our Cambodian guide Tri has arranged a truck from the nearby Buddhist monastery to give us a lift, saving us a day long hike down the mountain we climbed yesterday. 

We ready our backpacks in the cool darkness, until the sun peeks over the eastern hills. Clouds hang low just above the range, leaving a long line of orange sunlight across the horizon, giving the appearance of a far off forest fire.

Soon the truck pulls up, and we climb on the back. The truck kicks into gear, and we are off down the dirt road. The sun gradually brightens the landscape as we descend the mountain switchbacks.

As we make our descent, I chat with our guide Tri. I learn that he has a fascinating story of survival!

Like most Khmers, Tri is small in stature, but lean and toned. His hair is black, though his slight beard stubble has touches of grey. With wrinkles round the eyes, his skin is tanned, from so much time backpacking up the mountain with foreigners like me. 

My war veteran guide Tri, a true survivor
He has a youthful air about him; and I tell him he seems younger than his 51 years. But he doesn’t agree.

“All the girls tell me, you old!“ He says. “You old man!” We both laugh.

Tri's youth had been promising. He attended university in Phnom Penh, studying French and Khmer language. As a youth he was one of the fastest runners in his class. No wonder he was able to walk so fast up the mountain with us. As a trekking guide he leads foreigners like me up and down the mountain, again and again. He’s a strong little man. His running ability also happened to save his life during the war.

“I had hard life,” Tri tells me. Like everyone else in Cambodia, the war brought tragedy to his family. Tri's father was a captain in Lon Nol’s army, so after the war ended his family was eventually targeted by the Khmer Rouge. His parents, his sister and Tri were arrested by 10 Khmer Rouge soldiers in Sihanoukville. Their hands were tied, and they were blindfolded. They were then led away to be executed.

After they were marched into countryside, he heard a gunshot. He pushed up his blindfold, to see that they had just killed his mother. Shocked, he also saw that there were no longer 10 soldiers surrounding them. “I look,” Tri told me, “I see only two young soldier.”

His odds had improved. Tri bolted, and ran for his life into the forest, where he hid in the thick brush. He returned later, to find the rest of his family dead.

With nowhere to go, Tri hid in the forest, living off the land. He occasionally was sick, from eating inedible leaves and fruit. But he still managed to survive, living the hermit's life for over a year.

Tri cleared hundreds of landmines from this ghost town atop Bokor Mountain
Then the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia, and he finally emerged from the forest. He joined their allied Cambodian army to fight the Khmer Rouge communists. “I was angry,” he says. That’s understandable, given what they did to his family.

For years, Tri fought the Khmer Rouge. Through a combination of rough English and pantomime, he showed me how they used to target the Chinese made tanks used by the radicals. As a tank approached their position, he would have one of his soldiers run across in front of the tank. When the tank turned to follow him, Tri fired a rocket propelled grenade launcher, hitting the tank in it’s more vulnerable side. He talked of dropping bombs into tanks, and making homemade grenades, and booby traps out of Coca-Cola cans.

Tri was injured a couple times, including from a small landmine. He tells me that when it happened, he dived to the side when it exploded. Somehow he didn't lose his foot. He showed me some scars on his lower leg, and he tells me, “My leg, it’s ok!”

As he was a good soldier with some education, Tri became an officer, and went to Hanoi to train for one year. After returning, he rose to the Cambodian Army’s equivalent rank of captain, commanding 200 soldiers.

Tri stayed in the Army for 12 years, but he grew tired of war. He tells me that he left the army, because he came to believe that the Vietnamese just wanted the Cambodians to kill other Cambodians.

He soon found a more productive job for his skills. He became a deminer for United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). He even cleared  landmines and unexploded ordinance from the ghost town atop Bokor Mountain, which we were leaving now. He had worked the old French hill station for months, with a demining crew of 50 men.

I asked Tri, “How many mines did you clear up here?”

He thought it over. “Many. 400, maybe 500,” he said. That's a lot of dangerous explosives to handle.

Eventually the funding for demining ran out, and his UNTAC demining crew was disbanded. Since then Tri has lived mostly in Kampot, where our truck is heading now.

Tri the survivor has done pretty well for himself, under the circumstances. He now has a family with five children. Two of his kids are now working adults, so his burden is not so heavy these days. Tri is very much in demand as a guide, especially to climb Bokor Mountain. After we arrive back in town, Tri will spend the evening with his family. Then tomorrow morning, he'll be rested and ready to climb the mountain once again. He's so fit, he could almost run to the top if he wanted. 

Less than two hours later I’m back in Kampot. I bid goodbye to my amazing guide Tri. By afternoon, I’m back on the road out of town.

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