Tales from Cambodia: Ruins, Bomb Craters, and the Question of Mines

Scanning the Lonely Planet Cambodia Guide a few weeks before my trip, I ran across the following passage:

.

“Do not leave the roadside in remote areas, even for the call of nature. Your limbs are more important than your modesty.”

Remote Area

Remote Area

Holy. Smoke.

To my mind, the dangers of whizzing (or just strolling) in the woods have always included:

1. Poison ivy

2. Biting and stinging insects

3. Snakes

4. Frostbite

5. Wild boars

6. People with machetes and an axe to grind

7. Quicksand

8. Rednecks

Whereas, it never crossed my mind to fear:

9. Landmines

10. Unexploded ordnance

And so it happened that on day 4 of my Cambodian Odyssey, I found myself in A Remote Area, specifically a small village north of Kompong Thom town. We stopped en route for lunch at a small park with a simple, open-air restaurant. I couldn’t help but notice this amidst the surrounding greenery:

Lion temple

Nothing much, just a 1,300-year old temple (!) that my Cambodian hosts happened to mention as an aside. As it turned out, this was Sambor Prei Kuk, a UNESCO World Heritage site that predates the Empire of Angkor.

While the chef slew for us a free-range, organic chicken, I headed excitedly toward the nearest temples, the first I’d seen in this part of the world. It was a splendid place, primeval and haunted. Every hundred meters or so, another crumbling relic, strangled by giant roots, materialized from the sun-pocked greenery.

And then, a certain passage from the Lonely Planet guide materialized in my memory. I turned back for a moment to ask my comrades hesitantly, “Um. Is it OK to walk around here?”

“They took out all the mines,” I was assured.

Somewhat becalmed, I set off toward one of the temples and was immediately joined by a miniature tour guide.

Mini Tour Guide

There wasn’t much in the way of tourist infrastructure at Sambor Prei Kuk, except for a “ticket booth” of sorts and a flock of small girls who surround the very few tourists who appear, in hopes of selling them a cheap krama. My diminutive guide had memorized a few phrases in English, including, Seventh century; Be careful, the root; Be careful, the bomb holes.

Be careful, the bomb holes.

Hm. I hadn’t realized the American bombing raids of the mid 1970s extended this far west. We were pretty much in the dead center of Cambodia, 170km or so up the highway that runs between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. (In other words, nowhere near the Vietnamese border or Ho Chi Minh Trail.) In the rainy season (writes one expat blogger whose work I enjoy), rising monsoon waters fill the craters, creating “bomb ponds” all over the area. All over the country.

Winding through the Indochinese forest, I suddenly had the starkest sense of how very little I knew about this place. About this country. About anything.

And I, the sheepish American, suddenly found myself treading very, very lightly.

Be careful, the mines, ran the nervous mantra in my head. Be careful, the unexploded ordnance.

There was actually a moment when I put my foot gingerly onto the ground and flinched momentarily. This is not a normal way to behave; and what’s worse, I realized after about 30 seconds that I had begun to follow a few paces behind my small girl-guide. Directly behind her.

There are two gigantic problems with this, one ethical, the other, logistical:

1. Did I really just, unwittingly, follow behind this little girl to see where she stepped? Was I…making sure she didn’t blow something up?

2. At three paces away, would this even make a difference in the event of…?

With horror, I realized that I had indeed, without thinking consciously about it, been walking in her footsteps. I reassured myself that I hadn’t done this to effectively turn the small girl into my own personal minesweeper, but because she surely knew where the safe path lay. That was it, of course.

Sambor Prei Kuk temple

I felt ashamed all the same and pulled up beside her, hoping we’d be OK. Hoping that karma didn’t work like this, didn’t pay back unwitting American tourists (and their small guides) with explosive karmic retribution for the sins of their fathers. If only we all—we Americans, that is—had trodden a bit more lightly in this place all those years ago, I found myself thinking. America: be careful, the rush to war.

That was about the time the one-armed man came striding out of the jungle. It was positively cinematic in its tragicomic timing: Edgy, guilt-ridden American slogs through Indochinese forest, musing about the legacy of war, UXO, and mines, the script could have read. Cue the one-armed man.

Cut to American’s face, alarmed and abashed.

Thing is, I didn’t (and don’t) believe in the easy logic of karmic retribution. I doubt that the Fates deal so fairly with us as all that. I believe in the caprice of unlucky footfalls, the solidity of metal, and the terrible fact of a random universe. Sometimes, a reckoning lies in wait beneath the sodden earth for 40 years, then strikes as dumbly as a coiled viper, leaving aside questions of guilt or innocence.

And so it probably was with that unfortunate fellow in the forest, whose arm terminated where his elbow should have been. He might have been a soldier once. Or he may have simply foraged for something edible in the wrong spot of ground one rainy morning, and lost his forearm, horribly and agonizingly, for his efforts.

Nobody knows how many land mines and UXO remain in Cambodia. In the millions? Except for occasional anti-tank mine explosions (which are on the rise, thanks to the use of heavier modern farm equipment in some regions), these blasts usually don’t kill people. Anti-personnel mines were designed, sinisterly enough, to maim and terrorize. Every year, Cambodia’s buried war relics produce more amputees—now around 40,000 and counting.

Should I have been wary? Possibly. But I resolved that if this ten-year-old girl was willing to walk through the jungle unafraid, I would walk beside her. I was a transient after all, subject to the risks inherent there for a brief span; whereas Cambodians must live with the war’s legacy every day of their lives. I nodded and smiled at the one-armed man and pressed ahead, taking deep breaths.

Soon, an even smaller tour guide joined us.

Tiny scarf girl

The two walked me safely from one temple to another, ever deeper into the forest, until I realized that I wasn’t 100 percent sure how to get back. They smiled and escorted me back to the open air “restaurant,” where my free-range chicken soup awaited. Of course, I spent all the riels in my pockets buying kramas. My comrades shook their heads and grinned at me, an easy mark for scarf-girl-guides—all shy smiles and muted sadness.

I waved goodbye to the little girls and laughed at how silly I’d been—surely my UXO/mine ruminations were the products of a galloping imagination and a too-selective reading of guidebooks. After all, what did I know of this place? For me, it was all dark mystery and verdant shadows, echoes of an ancient civilization and an unfathomable conflict.

And then, a few weeks after I got home, I happened to check out this brief Wikipedia entry for Sambor Prei Kuk.

Wikipedia entry

That last sentence one more time: The area has been mined and could still contain unexploded ordnance.

Cambodia: Please. Be careful, the bombs.

scarf girls

Related: The Healing Fields (Nat’l Geo)

Related: “A Walk Through the Ruins” – A beautiful and thoughtful essay about the exact same site, with musings on the legacy of Indochina’s wars and what it means to be American in a place where so many of our bombs fell (from the blog, Lonely Girl Travels)

Bayon BuWant to see more of this Cambodia blog series? Check out one social entrepreneur’s amazing story, a tale of touristic toilet error, or some wry musings on travel and vulnerability.

Alternatively, skip all that and just look at some neat pictures.

92 thoughts on “Tales from Cambodia: Ruins, Bomb Craters, and the Question of Mines

    • Wow. Thank you! Definitely check out Lonely Girl Travels—she writes gorgeous stuff that humbles me. She’s an expat in Vietnam, but lived in Cambodia for awhile before that.

  1. It’s very beautiful and the pictures are great. Experiences like these, when you realize that even though you weren’t born at the time, past events tug at you, are very humbling.

  2. Cambodia is truly inspiring. I was only there on a pretty much unscheduled stop for three days and I would love to go back and experience more. Love your post.

  3. Pingback: Tales from Cambodia: Ruins, Bomb Craters, and the Question of Mines « daydreamer

  4. I love Cambodia! The people, the ancient temples, the history…thank you for your story and for the pictures! I saw so many of those signs to “stay on the path or you’ll get blown up”. If I’m not mistaken, it was the Khmer Rouge that planted most of the mines, right?

    • I’m no expert on this, but my impression is that the Khmer Rouge planted more of them than the other parties in the longstanding conflict that began with the Vietnamese ousting them in 1979 and continued as a civil war of sorts for many years.

  5. This is beautiful and a bit heartbreaking. I nearly skipped over it, thinking it was another photo travel blog. I’m so glad I visited so I could be touched by the story. And the incredibly poignant photos. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Pingback: Tales from Cambodia: Ruins, Bomb Craters, and the Question of Mines « Fro's search…

  7. I would love to go to Cambodia, especially to see the temples. Your story was very captivating and pictures inspiring. Bombs are very scary, its shame they exist.

  8. Excellent read . . . Thank you for sharing! I will leave for a round the world trip in a week and a half, possibly going to Cambodia via Thailand (where I am flying in from Australia). I’ll also be blogging about it . . .

    http://aroundtheworldwithblade.wordpress.com

    I have a question – if I do decide to travel to Cambodia overland, I am concerned about crime there. Per the U.S. State Department, crime is an issue there. Conversely, other areas in SE Asia, I am also going to, e.g., Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, and the aforementioned Thailand – the State department indicates crime isn’t a problem . . . What’s been your experience/opinion?

    Again, great post . . . Steve :-)

    • Hi Steve,

      I flew into Phnom Penh, so I didn’t have to contend with the difficulties of crossing a border. I don’t know any more than you do about that, unfortunately—only what I’ve read and what people have told me. I found that traveling in the Cambodian countryside seemed perfectly safe; there are lots of buses that run between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, for example, and also from Saigon to PP. But the Thai border and the area near the border…hm. I really don’t know.

      I wonder if if would be easier to come from the Vietnam side? I have the sense that that border crossing is a little bit smoother.

      • Thank you for the response. I have a friend (American business professor in Vietnam) that is meeting me in Bangkok and although my time is limited in SE Asia, I do want to stop in Cambodia. We shall see . . . Again, I love your writing!

  9. I wasn’t aware that our troops made it over to Cambodia. Ignorantly, I am the student of a poor public school and our history books ended at WW2 (Yes, I graduated in the late ’90s). I thought the mines were from Cambodia’s various wars?

    • You’re right—the mines are from Cambodia’s wars of the 70s and after. The unexploded ordnance is from the US bombing campaign of the early 1970. US ground troops were never officially in Cambodia, as far as I know; but then, I don’t think the US bombing campaign there was particularly official, either. I’m no expert.

  10. The US dropped a quarter million cluster bombs in Cambodia. The type of cluster bomb dropped was usually an anti-personnel bomb. One cluster bomb is a hollow shell with two or more than 2,000 bomblets contained inside it.

    But the US dropped more bombs on primitive villages in Northeast Laos than it did in all of World War II.

    I fought in Vietnam in 1966. Out of high school, I joined the US Marines and while in boot camp, the Gulf of Tonkin incident (August 2, 1964), that turned out to be another presidential lie like the one that started the Iraq War under G. W. Bush, launched the US into a full-scale war in Vietnam that would kill about 50,000 American troops and more than a million noncombatants in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and that is not counting the troops that were killed on the other side.

    Right out of boot camp, I was sent to Vietnam. Years later as the war dragged on, American soldiers that refused to go went to military prisons. US soldiers sign contracts that take away many liberties that Americans are born with. Until that uniform comes off legally, American troops must follow the US presidents orders and the orders of the US Congress. Those that do not obey orders, may serve years in federal prisons.

    I came back from Vietnam with a bomb in my brain called PTSD.

    In 2008, the United Nations negotiated and adopted the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Since then, 108 countries have signed this agreement to never use cluster weapons under any circumstances. The United States is one of the countries that refuses to sign.

    • Hi Lloyd,

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and perspective. I’m so sorry to hear of what you’ve endured. Thanks also for adding more information to what little I’ve offered. I was a toddler then and am certainly no expert on the era. Best wishes to you, K

  11. Excellent post and pictures, I was in Cambodia this time last year and I think that it is impossible to leave the country without feeling touched by the incredible ancient ruins, their devastating history but most importantly the people, can’t wait to read more from you.

  12. Reblogged this on vienaqui and commented:
    I was intrigued and taken by the raw beauty of this place . The photos are captivating and also so compelling and it is sad at the same time to think that there is such a tragic history behind this place

  13. Cambodia is one of my favorite places to visit in South East Asia with such a rich history and general hospitable people it is an attractive travel destination and I was there a few months ago. However Cambodia has a very tragic and not that distant history with the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot through the 70s, This was a brutal dictator ship that practiced more ethnic killings and political oppression per capita than any other dictatorial regime in history, just visit Toul Sleng or the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh to see an ever present reminder of this brutal and tragic time in the history of Cambodia. On my last visit I went to the Beng Malae ruins about 90KM outside of Siem Reap (one of my favorite on the trip) and had one of the land mine victims as my guide, she had lost one of her legs to an anti-personnel mine.

    Not only did this time leave many scars on the land and the people and has left Cambodia the most heavily mined country in the world. There are even still some pockets of Khmer Rouge through out the country but they are small and in limited areas.

    That said I would like to bring up another issue with your young guide. Many tourists take pity on these young guides and either pay them for tours or buy their little trinkets thinking this will help the child and her/his family. But in truth it is bad for the child as the parents will see a greater opportunity to earn by putting the child out to sell to the tourists and keep them out of school, but in the long run this does much more damage as it just adds another uneducated person to an already very under educated population. It would be best if you and other tourists avoided buying from these children, instead try to buy from the parents.

    Just my two cents

    -erik

    • Hi Erik,

      Good point. That question of kid-beggars and sellers is one that I thought long and hard about before I ever left home; whenever I was in Phnom Penh, I did as you suggest—smiled at the kids and moved on. And I probably shouldn’t have bought from the girls; it plagued me, and I honestly wasn’t sure what to do. So I ended up buying. I do get the issues you raise, and struggled with them, and found it very difficult to know from situation to situation how to handle things. It was so easy to tell myself not to give people money before I left, and so very hard to stick to my guns when faced with actual people.

      And yes, I did go to Tuol Sleng. It was a far more horrific experience that I had expected, and that’ll be the subject of a future post. I had by then read a pretty good stack of memoirs and histories of the Khmer Rouge era, so I felt that I “knew” what I’d be seeing at Tuol Sleng. But no amount of information can prepare you for standing in those rooms, as you apparently know.

      By the way, have you read any of the memoirs, by both Cambodians and expats? “The Gate” by Francois Bizot was one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read, and I also highly recommend the following (if you haven’t already read them):

      Memoirs:
      First, They Killed My Father -Loung Ung
      When Broken GLass Floate -Chanrithy Him
      Survival in the Killing Fields -Hiang Ngor
      Stay Alive, My Son -Pin Yathay
      River of Time -Jon Swain

      History:
      When the War Was Over -Elizabeth Becker (This is an amazing piece of work that covers Cmabodian history from the 50s through the war and after. Becker actually interviewed Pol Pot at one point. Thorough and extraordinary.)

      • I have not gotten around to reading anything on the history of Cambodia though it is defiantly on my to read list. Thank you for the book suggestions I will add them to my reading list (which is rather long at the moment).

        I am guilty of buying from the children both in Cambodia and many other places around the world and I used to think I was helping ensure they would have something to eat. It was not until my recent trip to Cambodia when my guide explained to me how buying from the children may have an immediate benefit to them and their family but it has a much more drastic long term negative effect.

        I really enjoyed your post and look forward to reading more.

        Erik

  14. First of all I congradulate u for the great post & FP. On my trip to Cambodia for the first time in my life I had a heavy feeling of heart broken while traveling. I felt so bad and did not know how to explain, I was down and felt my energy drained.. It is really a shame of humanity how Cambodians r left alone w/their unfortunate future… Thx for bringing all that into words and sharing on your blog. I can see u re well deserved to be on FP. Have a nice day!

  15. I visited Angkor Wat about a year and a half ago. I too had little tour guides. In Siem Reap, I saw street bands composed of men missing limbs thanks to mines who were playing to survive–or worse, to provide for their families. I was humbled and horrified. I loved this place, and these people. Thanks for writing. I’m now following!

  16. Pingback: Tales from Cambodia: Ruins, Bomb Craters, and the Question of Mines | Elize's blog

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