I flew from Phnom Pen to Ban Loeng to see the jungles.
Which shows you how little I knew about the far east of Cambodia.
Mind you, in 2007, there was far less information available about that part of the country than today.
Only a few tourists went there.
The whole thing started in Phnom Pen.
In other words, it was because of a big city that I got on a flight to a remote part of Cambodia in search of the jungles.
Normally speaking, big cities don’t interest me much, but in Phnom Pen I found something which did interest me – the apartment blocks which in 2007 still defined the skyline of that city and made it for me, quite unique. I’d not seen anything like them elsewhere in Asia or for that matter, the developing world.
The apartments were made from a sort of white, glazed concrete and arranged in a horizontal, ‘layer cake’ arrangement three or four stories high. At each level there was one connecting balcony between the apartments; the connected balconies were horizontally fluted to allow a free flow of air. There was a similar grid of horizontal air vents above the door and windows of each apartment. These lines of air vents were a defining characteristic of the apartment blocks and they were an immensely practical feature in a hot humid climate.
At regular intervals there were two or three vertical bars of white glistening concrete running from the top balcony to the bottom one, as a form of embellishment. At the street corners, the apartment blocks did not form a right angle but instead, curved around in a semi-circle. At the ground level of each apartment block, there were shops and restaurants and stores.
In Phnom Pen’s apartment blocks I detected the aura of modernity, even though they were obviously old. The way in which these ‘layer cake’ apartment blocks gave the urban landscape of Phnom Pen a regular, consistent pattern was unmistakable evidence of someone having built a city with a vision – a plan – and this was absolutely exceptional for a city in a developing country where (Bangkok comes to mind here) the urban skyline reflects the free market let loose, with all its capacity for chaos, ugliness, and crassness.
I wondered when these apartment blocks were built and by whom.
A few searches at a local internet café turned up the outlines of a remarkable story. How could apartment blocks have a story?
Yet they did, a story as compelling, as tragic, as the story of the Cambodian people.
In the late 1950’s/early 1960’s, two men – Prince Norodom Sihanouk and a young Cambodian architect named Van Molyvann – set out to build a city like no other. From a sleepy provincial town of ramshackle wooden houses, a new city appeared. But there was more involved than the creation of new architectural forms which one day would establish Van Molyvann as a great architect. During the 1960’s, Phnom Pen became the scene of a cultural and intellectual flowering the likes of which has never been seen anywhere else in Asia; music, live theatre, writing, painting – flourished. Every account left to us by survivors who had witnessed those years tells the same story: Phnom Pen was one of the most remarkable cities on the planet: a bustling cosmopolitan city where many different cultures met and ideas flourished. It was in this setting that apartment blocks which I saw and admired so many years later, were built. They expressed the spirit of a new nation creating a new identity after a century of French colonialism.
But out in the jungles of Eastern Cambodia, Evil was brewing.
A war broke out between the U.S. and the Vietnamese communists. The U.S. Air Force began bombing the jungles of Eastern Cambodia, which the Vietnamese Communists were using as a base. But the bombing killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodian peasant farmers. Some estimates put it at over a million. ‘Collateral damage’ the American military called that.
Out of the American blitz bombing of Eastern Cambodia, a terrible new virus mutated called the Khymer Rouge.
In May, 1975, the Vandals marched into Phnom Pen.
Within days, it was emptied of all its people.
Sihanouk was imprisoned in his palace and Van Molyvann fled the country.
The artists, actors, writers and intellectuals were the first to be executed.
In the following years, millions of others would follow them to the grave. The murder of Phnom Pen was richly symbolic for the murder of a people. It was the first step in the genocide of a nation. And the remarkable thing is, it all began out in the jungles.
Which is why I went there.
To try and understand.
The timeless work of brilliant Cambodian architect Van Molyvann; in the 1960’s, he and Prince Norodom Sihanouk set out to build a new city and new nation.
(photos of Phnom Pen’s apartment blocks taken in 2007)
Incredible but true: out there in the jungles was where the tragedy of Phom Pen began.
It was here where, during the 1960’s, that the small group of people who later formed the core of Khmer Rouge lived for years – before suddenly appearing out of the woodwork, so to speak, marching into the Phnom Pen, and unleashing upon the people of Cambodia, one of the greatest acts of genocide ever committed.
The story of how a small band of Marxist fundamentalists developed their ideology whilst living deep in the jungles was one which fascinated me. There was nothing remotely like it in the history of Marxism. Marxist revolutionaries identified with ‘the masses’, those masses being the working class or the peasantry.
In the Khmer Rouge was the first and only example of Marxists who identified with an indigenous people.
A people living next to nature.
What a bizarre scene: a small group of Marxist intellectuals – educated in Paris – steeped in high ideas, living in the wilderness with a tribal people called the ‘Loeng’. Living like aesthetes in primeval jungles filled with wild animals, dangerous reptiles and insects; in sweltering heat and stifling humidity; residing in thatch huts and following the ways of their pre-industrial allies.
In the way of life of the Loeng, the Maoist fanatics saw their ideal society right in front of them: the Loeng knew nothing about the evils of the modern world. They shared everything; there was no private property, no possessions, no consumerism, no money, no individualism: it was one for all and all for one. There, in the jungles, Evil gestated as the Paris educated ideologues rubbed shoulders with a people who hunted with cross bows and blow pipes and hadn’t discovered agriculture. Out in the jungles of Eastern Cambodia – Ratnakiri Province, to be exact – the Khmer Rouge fell under the spell of the Noble Savage: the simple life of Man in his natural state in a natural world, a pre-capitalist idyll before the Fall, before modernity invaded that world bringing with it greed, selfishness and materialism.
Living amongst the Loeng and steeped in the ideas of Chairman Mao, the Khymer Rouge forged their own revolutionary theology. Maoism metamorphosed into a utopian vision based on an indigenous people. In this new version of the communist ideal, cities and towns represented the downfall of the human race. It was in cities and towns where human beings had fallen prey to greed and exploitation, money and consumerism, class inequality and egotism.
The first task of the revolution was to eradicate the towns and cities. Only then would the way be clear to build a truly egalitarian society, where everything was shared: a peasant based communist society based on the values of the Loeng.
The first target of the Khymer Rouge was Phnom Phen.
It was here that Evil was concentrated: Cambodia’s educated middle classes, its intellectuals and artists and, large populations of foreigners including the hated Vietnamese and westerners. It was the city of Sihanouk and Vann Molyvann: a city which had embraced modernity and urbanism like no other Asian city before or since.
Modernity and urbanism: Satan for the Maoist aesthetes inspired by life in the jungles of Eastern Cambodia.
In order to build utopia, Phnom Phen had to be destroyed.
What a strange, perverse idea: that the destruction of Phnom Pen began in the jungles of Eastern Cambodia.
I went out there with the idea of getting a bit closer to that strange and perverse reality.
I discovered a strange and perverse reality alright, but not the one I’d had in mind.
The Khymer Rouge enter Phnom Pen as victors in April, 1975.
Within hours, everyone was forced to leave. A week later, Phnom Pen became an abandoned city…