Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Onboard a ferryboat crossing the Mekong River at Neak Luong
Neak Luong is a river town, a stopover for those seeking to cross the Mekong River. For travelers like me coming up Highway 1 from Saigon, this ferry town is a stopping point on my way to Phnom Penh.

The vehicle I'm riding in approaches Neak Luong, and as we cross the countryside outside town, I spot three large ponds from the roadway. The ponds are in a staggered line, surrounded by farming fields. These perfectly round ponds are much larger than similar depressions in the earth that I’ve seen before. That's because these ponds were formed years ago as bomb craters! They were formed by American B-52s.

The B-52 Stratofortress was one of the deadliest weapons of the Cold War era, a heavy bomber originally designed to carry nuclear weapons. A single jet could carry more than 100 massive 500 pound bombs. This high flying jet dropped its deadly cargo from 40,000 feet up, far too high for a pilot or bombardier to distinguish between friend or foe on the ground. This devastating weapon was built to fight World War III against cities in the Soviet Union. But here, it was unleashed on the bamboo villages and rice paddies of Cambodia.

Something that has been forgotten, after the US war in Vietnam ended in 1973, was that US bombing of Cambodia continued for months afterward. The total amount of bombs dropped here is almost beyond belief. From March of 1969 to August 15, 1973 when aerial bombing finally ended, 539,129 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia. This was 350% of the total tonnage dropped on Japan during all of World War II. For all of that tonnage, not all those bombs hit their intended targets, and these three bomb crater ponds are examples.

On August 6, 1973 the Cambodian government was fighting for its life against the Khmer Rouge. Neak Luong was an embattled garrison and ferry town, controlled by government forces. On that day, three B-52s mistakenly dropped their bomb loads directly on this government held town. 20 tons were dropped, leaving 137 people dead and 300 wounded. Most were government soldiers and their families. This deadly military blunder was exposed by New York Times reporter Sidney Shanberg, and depicted in the movie The Killing Fields. The tragic debacle that hit this town was one reason why the US bombing of Cambodia was finally halted for good only nine days later.

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Swift boats like these reached Neak Luong during the US invasion of Cambodia (Photo: Wikipedia)
I return later to Neak Luong on a hot day, and sit down with my translator for lunch. This river town has few traces of the war years visible today; the downtown that was devastated by B-52s years ago has since been rebuilt. As I look around at the locals, I notice there are many Vietnamese here. Some have migrated up from Vietnam, to open shops and businesses in town.

I'm leery of unsanitary roadside food stands, so we step into a restaurant for a rice luncheon. As it turns out, it's not very sanitary in here either. While I'm eating my meal, some kind of animal dung falls from the ceiling, and lands on my wrist. Wiping it away, I look up at the darkened, cobweb covered rafters high above. I’m not sure if that was from a rat, a bat, or a lizard. Well, at least it didn’t fall into my food.

Paying our bill, we step out into the center of town fronting the river. As Highway 1 crosses the Mekong River here, there is no bridge to bring us across. Just like during the war, the only crossing today is by ferry boat. Now and then, that makes Neak Luong a very strategic place.

Khmer travelers wait for the ferryboat
Back in 1970, as the US military invaded eastern Cambodia, US forces came all the way here to Neak Luong. Since Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces had found safe haven in Cambodia for years, the US military sought to destroy the communist bases and drive them out. American swift boats, and many other water craft (over 100 in all) reached all the way here to Neak Luong. Cruising up the Mekong River from Chau Doc in Vietnam, it took the first swift boats only an hour and a half to get here.

Once they arrived here in Neak Luong, they met little resistance. They went looking for the only ferry boat operating here then, as they suspected it of smuggling arms for the NVA. But the ferry was gone. Asking locals where it was, they revealed that the communists had scuttled the ferry in the river, trying to hide it from the Americans. They hoped to refloat it later after the US departed. The  submerged ferry boat was spotted by an airborne patrol; somehow they were able to see it through the Mekong’s dirty waters. The ferry was refloated, and then taken back to South Vietnam to deny the communists future use of it.

Decades after the war ended, there is still no bridge here. I'll be held up here in town for an extra half hour, waiting to cross by ferry. Just steps from the ferry landing, I spot an all grey stone monument made of two soldier's statues, from during the war years. But there is no plaque to explain its purpose. My translator explains, “Vietnam-Cambodia Armed Force military. They join together to kill Khmer Rouge.”

These two somber statues are facing towards Phnom Penh, as though they march there to oust the Khmer Rouge in 1978. The Khmer Rouge radicals battled the Vietnamese Army here in Neak Luong, but they didn’t hold them for long, and Khmer Rouge resistance collapsed. Maybe the Vietnamese would have captured Phnom Penh even sooner, if there had been a bridge here then to cross the Mekong. Then again, maybe the Khmer Rouge would have already blown the bridge, as had happened in the capital. 

Monument to fighters that ousted the Khmer Rouge
Oddly enough, high on a billboard overlooking this stone monument, is a picture of current dictator/Prime Minister Hun Sen, and some other 'Cambodia People's Party' leaders. 

After first fighting as a dedicated Khmer Rouge commander, he deserted them in fear, fleeing to Vietnam. 

Hun Sen later joined this Vietnamese invasion to oust his former comrades, and as a reward the Vietnamese government later helped elevate him to power.

“Hun Sen was installed by Vietnam,” a local vendor once told me. I'm not surprised by her view. Many Khmers still see Hun Sen as a Vietnamese puppet.

Finally, it's our turn to board the ferryboat. There are two running today, and ours is named “Vishnu”, after the Hindu deity. Each ferryboat is quite large; ours holds three buses, a couple of trucks, ten cars, many motorcycles, and pedestrians. Beggars and street vendors crowd the ferryboats too. When a bridge is finally built, the hordes of vendors and beggars will be the biggest losers. They mob all the buses and cars that line up waiting for the ferry, and then accompany them back forth across the river.

As we cast off and begin the crossing, I look upriver. Many businesses line the Mekong's banks, but one section is made up of flimsy shacks, built on stilts over the river. Since this is the rainy season, the river is rising. Already the water is dangerously close to the floorboards of some of these poor homes. If the river rises much higher, they could be swept away by the strong current.

Stilt houses of poor families are nearly flooded by the rising Mekong River
I ponder the future of this crossing. Having a sturdy bridge here over the Mekong is long overdue, it would increase the traffic flow from Saigon to Phnom Penh. There have been proposals floating around for years, from donors and businesses looking to build a bridge in Neak Luong.  

A recent proposal came from the Japanese government, to build a new bridge with foreign aid. But due to problems over purchasing the necessary land on the shorelines, and due to corruption problems, it didn't happen.

There will be a bridge built here someday. How long it will take before it finally becomes a reality?

(**POST STORY NOTE** - Sometime after I visited this river crossing, agreements were signed, and a bridge finally was built. I wonder how many bribes it took to pay off government officials to finally build it.)

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