Saturday, May 28, 2016


At this 'gas station' our fuel comes from a plastic bottle
I'm far off the tourist trail, in a tuk-tuk traveling down a dusty dirt road in Cambodia. I'm south of the city of Battambang, in what used to be dangerous, hard core Khmer Rouge territory. A roadside sign directs us towards Kamping Poi, where my wise local guide Sok is taking me. Approaching a small shop on this bumpy road, our driver pulls inn.

We need gas, but there’s no petrol pump at this shop. Instead, a Khmer woman with a towel over her head walks out of the door, carrying a plastic bottle that looks like orange soda. She dumps the entirety in the gas tank. Apparently this passes for gasoline around here. This little hole-in-the-wall is an odd place to shop, but Sok walks inside to buy a few things. I don't know it yet, but his purchases will later surprise me, and make me feel guilty about this whole trip.

We resume and drive ahead through poor farming villages, stopping on a wide dirt road. Getting out, I see trees on both sides. To one side through the greenery, is a vast lake, Kamping Poi. It's huge. Other than Tonle Sap Lake, this is the largest I've seen in Cambodia. But this isn’t a natural lake. It's a reservoir, created by the hated Khmer Rouge regime, with a very high human cost.

The road is atop a dike, built by slave labor. Thousands died.
“They build Kamping Poi by hand,” Sok tells me. “No machine.” The dike which created this reservoir, was built with slave labor between 1975 – 1978.

I look at this unnatural dam we're standing on, and it's huge. “They fill this,” Sok says motioning to the immense dike, “eight kilometers (long).”

Life for the unfortunate Khmers who were forced to work here as slave labor, was nothing but never ending back breaking work. Conditions were abominable. “Work six am to six pm,” Sok says. “They smell like animal after three to four days. Over there river. Every five day or seven day, they let people have bath.”

With such a low level of hygiene, combined with overwork and scant food, many of the Khmers that suffered here didn’t survive. As many as 10,000 people died working on Kamping Poi from the slave labor conditions.

An unknown Khmer Rouge forced labor site. Thousands died from overwork and starvation.
“They die of diarrhea, they die of starvation, they die of fever here,” Sok tells me.

Since the Khmer Rouge were obsessed with collective farming, the Kamping Poi reservoir was built to improve irrigation for the surrounding rice paddies. “5,000 hectares of rice field over there,” Sok points out to me. So two people died for each hectare of irrigation? What insanity.

The Khmer Rouge destroyed so much in Cambodia. This dike is one of the few things they built that still survives today. But as with everything else those communist maniacs did, it was only built by destroying many lives in the process.

We walk to another part of the dike, overlooking a concrete sluiceway. The flood gates here are lined up one after the other, to control the reservoir water levels. After the Khmer Rouge were forced from power this section collapsed. It was only rebuilt with foreign aid a few years ago. I’ll bet nobody died rebuilding this.

Once the site of brutal tragedy, the scenic reservoir is now a site for weekend picnics
Walking back along the shoreline, I find simple thatch shelters with hammocks hanging inside. They're empty today, but on weekends folks from Battambang who can afford it, drive here to picnic and enjoy the scenery. It’s hard to believe that a place that was built at the cost of so many lives, has become a place of relaxation and fun for families. But such is Cambodia.

I peer out over the vast waters of the reservoir, and one side of the lake appears to have many bright green islands, which are curiously dotted with pink. These are not actually islands, but enormous bunches of lily pads. The pink dots I see are flowers.

Also out on the water, are several small boats filled with Khmers on holiday. At this point I learn, that this reservoir is a very sad place for Sok. His son died here. He didn’t die here from the Khmer Rouge years, but afterward. His son came here one day, and went out boating. He fell into the water, and didn’t know how to swim. Sok doesn’t like going to Kamping Poi, but he came today because I wanted to come here.

A wave of guilt washes over me. Now I feel like a heel for having him bring me here. I've brought Sok back to one of the saddest places that he knows.

Still, Sok is making the most of his visit. Since we've traveled all the way here from Battambang, he planned on leaving a Buddhist offering for his departed son. Now I know why Sok went into that roadside shop earlier today. While our tuk-tuk got gas, he went inside to buy food for his offering. He explains his gifts for his son: “He like coconut, he like sugar, he like noodle.” His son's favorite foods, Sok bought them all.

My translator and guide Sok
We drive further on atop this dike of sadness, and stop. I stay near the tuk-tuk to give Sok his privacy. He walks through the brush and down the slope, pausing to pray and leave his offering for his son at the lake’s edge. His devotion is touching.

I've seen all I needed to at Kamping Poi, and soon we're back on the long dirt road, headed towards the highway. Along the way we pass a long forested ridge, known as 'Crocodile Mountain'. It’s well named; the outline of the ridge looks much like the horizontal reptile. Some of the very first Khmer Rouge attacks took place in Battambang Province way back in 1968, and they continued to fight trying to hold this mountain well into the 1990's. Who would have thought that the war here would be going on for three long decades?

Sok tells me that there was a lot of see-saw fighting in villages along this road, especially during harvest time. “1995, have lot of fighting here between government and Khmer Rouge,” he tells me. “In morning, government come fighting, get rice. In evening, Khmer Rouge fighting, get rice.”

Those who were wounded here had a long, deadly trip ahead of them, as medical care in these villages was non-existent. “No ambulance,” Sok says. “Then, the wounded take eight hour (to) get to Battambang. Then no road. They go in hammock, or oxcart. Sometime die.”

As we travel slowly on this bumpy dirt road, I see some local farmers lounging outside their shack homes. Many of these men are ex-Khmer Rouge fighters. Back during the war, they would have killed or kidnapped any westerners they found, so I'm wondering if any of these men might still pose a threat to me. But Sok says not to worry.

“Here no problem. If you here 8 pm, (when it’s dark) your motorbike broken, they help you,” Sok reassures me. “They give you dinner. They take you back to Battambang. Good people.”

Sok (at right) views the lake atop the repaired flood gates
“Now peace everywhere. No problem,” Sok continues. Given that Sok lost many family members to the Khmer Rouge genocide, I'm surprised he shows no anger towards them. “Khmer Rouge people, normal people, we combine. Live together, no problem. Take away communist (communism), simple people.” I imagine that his Buddhist faith has something to do with his attitude.

We finally reach the dirt 'highway'. Bumping along in the tuk-tuk, we pass a roadside billboard with Khmer writing showing an M-16 rifle that's been cut in half. Sok tells me it's for a disarmament campaign. After the war ended, they needed to get all those deadly weapons away from ex-Khmer Rouge.

“All the guns turn in now,” Sok says to me at first, but then he thinks better of it. “Some bad people still have (guns),” Sok says, “they hide.” I quiz Sok to clarify who 'they' are, and he's referring to bandits.

Sok told me earlier that it was now safe here in the evening, and yet, some 'bad people' here still have machine guns?

With this news, I'm glad we're on our way out of here. I'm glad we'll be back in Battambang before it gets dark.

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