Thursday, September 29, 2016


One of the few paved highways in Cambodia
I'm on a rare road today, a Cambodian highway, paved, smooth, and brand new. This used to be nothing more than a bumpy dirt road laced with landmines. Somewhere near here my friend Mali stepped on a landmine and lost her leg. We're about 70 miles north of Angkor Wat, in what was dangerous Khmer Rouge turf, one of their last holdout zones.

The roadside here used to be dotted with intimidating war refuse: abandoned Khmer Rouge tanks. Late in the war, when the communists had an old unfixable Chinese tank, they just pushed it to the side of this road, and pointed the turret south towards the enemy. That gave them an instant armored bunker, useful for keeping the Cambodian Army away. Those menacing metal hulks were left there for years.

Thankfully those metal monstrosities are gone, and after the peace agreement, foreign funding built this modern two lane highway. If the Khmer Rouge ever rebels in this area again, it will be much easier, and quicker, for the government to rush federal troops here on this new blacktop road. Even better, this national highway has a more beneficial use: commerce. With this road going all the way to the Thai border crossing, there is increased trade, and an improving peacetime economy.

Cruising north, I see a long ridge stretching across the horizon. These are the Dangkrek Mountains, a long mountain chain stretching from northwest Cambodia, all the way east to the ancient temple of Preah Vihear, and beyond. Beyond that mountain ridge, is Thailand.

Monument to radical Khmer Rouge, surrounded by spirit houses
The flat road starts to curve, and we start climbing the first set of hills. Coming up the Sa Ngam Pass, the road splits, as it rounds a large boulder. Carved into the boulder itself, is the last monument left to the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Or what’s left of it anyway. There are two small soldier like statues, and both have been decapitated. One has lost a hand, an arm, and both legs. A taller statue of a Khmer woman has lost both arms. She still balances a stone food bundle on top of her now faceless head.

Thai (people) do this. Take to Thailand and sell,” explains my driver Shanghai. Maybe that's true, but it’s also possible that poor Khmers chopped off the heads and sold them, as happened at Angkor Wat. Or maybe Khmers did it out of revenge, for all the murders that the communists committed.

Examining the smallest, legless torso wearing military gear, it appears that this was a statue of a child soldier. The extremist Khmer Rouge had no ethical problem with turning innocent children into murderous soldiers. They thought their young minds were more ‘pure’, and more accepting of radical communism. They believed that most adults, had been ‘poisoned’ by exposure to the old regime.

Two beheaded statues of fighters
In contrast to the dark stone of the ruined statues, the monument is surrounded Buddhist spirit houses on pedestals, made of many colors. There are so many, they nearly block the statues from view. Thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers died fighting the Vietnamese and Cambodian armies. Given there murderous history, there never has been, nor will there ever be, an official memorial to their dead soldiers. The remains of these old communist carvings have become a memorial to them, by default. With no graves or headstones to pray over, these spirit houses and incense were left here by their mourning Buddhist families.

Continuing on we drive through the border town of Choam, and turn off the highway. Up ahead, the road is closed. Cheap red and white fencing blocks the road. It's spooky; there's nobody in sight.

That the new border crossing, but no use,” Shanghai tells me. The crossing is closed today, due to ongoing border disputes. “The Thai build on Cambodia land. Now big problem with Cambodia and Thailand.” My driver goes on to explain how Thailand is taking a little more Cambodian land each day. In Pol Pot’s time, the border was further away. Apparently the Thais respected the Khmer Rouge more than they respect the current Cambodian government.

Moving down side roads, we pass small shops and shacks. Then we take a garbage strewn road east out of town. The garbage thins out, tuning into a bumpy rural road. We're not traveling far, but Shanghai has to drive slowly to make his way over this rutted, potholed road. Going up the small hills, his old car strains for traction on the reddish dirt.

The border crossing to Thailand is closed
Shanghai explains, “Since last year, road more bad.” Rural roads here are rarely maintained. As the kilometers go on, we pass shacks and Khmer farm houses. A few settlers are clearing land for planting. We come to a picturesque field, a wide open space, bordered by lush jungle. It’s a prime location for a homestead or farmer’s field, but its unplanted.

There’s a small red sign right in the middle of the field, with a skull and crossbones. This is no 'Pirates of the Caribbean' joke. What that sign means, is that this whole lovely looking field of several acres, is one big minefield. Until somebody comes up with a couple thousand dollars to clear it safely, this prime field will remain uninhabited.

Since this was one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds, this whole mountain ridge was heavily mined. That makes this part of Cambodia a very dangerous place to settle. Along the bumpy road, I see numerous signs posted by demining organizations. One sign reads, Humanitarian Mine Clearance, Minefield cleared by CMAC, Police Batallion Headquarters”.

Passing shacks, I note a few soldiers lounging about. Many of these men are also ex-Khmer Rouge, now wearing Cambodian Army uniforms. As part of the peace agreement that ended the war, some men kept their territory, changed uniforms, and became part of the Cambodian Army. Many of these shacks belong to them and their families. It is a difficult place to homestead though. With many thousands of mines still buried in this area, there is little agricultural land available to turn these ex-soldiers into farmers.