From Siem Reap, I went by bus to Cambodia’s second city, Battambang. The roads were quite bad during most of the long trip, and we stopped for lunch in a town with the intruiging sounding name of Sisophon, where young kids sold the most delicious mangos I’ve ever tasted.
Battambang means “disappearing stick", named after a powerful stick used by legendary Khmer king Ta Dambong Kranhoung, to achieve and maintain power in the Battambang area. You wouldn’t say it’s Cambodia’s second city, it has more of a small town feel about it, with the central market and small shops and cafes located near the Sanker river. In the evenings, the streets are deserted, the dark sky filled with stars.
I went for a tour around the countryside on a motorbike with a nice guide called Thon, a little over thirty years old. We drove over extremely dusty roads to Phnom Sampeou, or Boat Hill, named for its shape. As we were walking up the hill, Thon started telling me about his childhood here. How he was seperated from his parents at the age of 5, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and put in a large camp with 500 other children, not far from Phnom Sampeou. He told me about the famine, how they received a littlebit of rice once a day if they were lucky. His sister, age 10, was so hungry that she stole a banana. For this, she was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Less than half of the 500 children in the camp survived.
We reached the top of the hill, offering a spectacular view of the surrounding plains and the small hills in the distance. Thon explained that there are still many landmines in this area, even though a large clearing effort has been underway for quite some time now. I thought of the groups of men and women I had seen near the temples of Angkor, who had lost limbs because of those landmines, and were now performing traditional Cambodian music, asking for a small donation.
Standing at the top of Phnom Sampeou, we walked to the horrible sites of the “Killing Caves". Thon explained how, back then, he had seen groups of 20 to 30 people, men, women and children, being marched up the hill every day, never to return. They were thrown from great height into the caves, or beaten to death. There are now small shrines, with the skeletal remains of the victims, inside the caves.
During a surge in fighting, Thon, still a young child, fled the camp, aided by a couple who took him as one of their own children, as they ran through the jungle for several days, to the relative safety near the Thai border. Miraculously, he met his mother underway, and although he didn’t recognise her, she recognised her son, and took him into her arms. Although the couple wanted to take Thon into the refugee camps, and eventually to the United States, his mother wouldn’t hear of it. Now, Thon still sees the couple, who aided his escape, as his second parents, and they regularly visit him from the US.
Back in his home village, he was conscripted into the army when he was 16, to fight the remaining Khmer Rouge elements, alongside the Vietnamese army with their Russian tanks and heavy artillery. Thon imitated the sounds of bullets whizzing by and mortar shells exploding, as he told about his comrades dying around him, about how he prayed to Buddha to give him strength, how he wore his krama (traditional scarf) for protection.
Thon narrated everything with half a smile, as to indicate I shouldn’t be put off by this, as if that was then and now we live in a different age. Sometimes, he would go quiet and his smile disappeared. Then he would point some beautiful flowers out to me, growing near one of the caves. Thon still lives in his home village, and plants and harvests rice for most of the year, on several hectares of farmland in and around his village. In the dry season, he shows tourists like me around on the back of his motorbike, going through the beautiful countryside that is his home.
In the end of the afternoon, we drove on, through small villages, where people would stop what they’re doing and look at the foreigner. Children came running out of their houses and yell “hello!” or “bye bye!” to me. Most houses were simple huts, made from bamboo or wood, sometimes with small reservoirs of muddy brown water nearby. Occasionally, we would drive through herds of cows or buffaloes, being herded by a young kid. We drove alongside the wide Sangker river for a while, where people were bathing, washing clothes, or allowing their buffaloes to drink. Even then, people would look up at the sound of the motorbike, and wave.
Towards the end of our journey, we reached a small train track, now only used by a tiny bamboo train, assembled in front of your eyes within five minutes. It is used by locals to haul all kinds of goods from village to village, and for tourists who wish to experience a ride. Although the engine is tiny, the ‘train’ reaches speeds up to 80 kph, as you sit out in the open on mats on the small bamboo surface. As the landscape was whizzing by, I watched the sun set over the brown acres, and soon dusk changed everything into a dark blue colour.
Dusty, tired, but grateful, I eventually arrived at my hotel, and thanked Thon. After a shower and dinner, I spent some time on the rooftop of the hotel, where, laying in a hammock, I watched the skies filled with stars, and counted the many bright shooting stars. I thought about my experiences of this day, but inevitably thought about Thon’s personal history. It seems that every Cambodian I meet, of my age or above, has a story to tell of their own horrible experiences, of the deaths in their family or circle of friends, during Cambodia’s dark times. But going through the rebuilt villages and cities, meeting the very friendly people, seeing how babies and young children are now brought up in a country at peace, is a testament to the resiliance of the Cambodian people, and gives hope for the future.
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