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.”
To my mind, the dangers of whizzing (or just strolling) in the woods have always included:
1. Poison ivy
2. Biting and stinging insects
5. Wild boars
6. People with machetes and an axe to grind
Whereas, it never crossed my mind to fear:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
That last sentence one more time: The area has been mined and could still contain unexploded ordnance.
Cambodia: Please. Be careful, the bombs.
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)
Alternatively, skip all that and just look at some neat pictures.