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. Ban Loeng was a town in those days.
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, I cannot say that big cities 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.
These 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, forming a long horizontal wall of concrete. 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; I’d not seen anything like them elsewhere in Asia or for that matter, the developing world.
Another feature which interested me was that each apartment was set back into the block, which created a shaded balcony area and ensured that the sun rarely shone directly into the apartment, especially during the hottest hours of the day.
Another unique characteristic of Phnom Pen’s apartment blocks was the feeling of modernity they exuded even though they were obviously old. 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.
What interested me above all was the way these ‘layer cake’ apartment blocks gave the urban landscape of Phnom Pen a regular, consistent pattern which 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 commercial buildings and apartment blocks come in all different sizes and shapes; where 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, one which I wanted to know more about.
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 – this against the background of new apartment blocks built to accommodate the steady stream of people moving into Phnom Pen from the countryside.
Then came the Vietnam War and the American blitz bombing of Eastern Cambodia.
Out of this maelstrom a terrible new virus mutated called the Khymer Rouge. The Khymer Rouge hated cities; they hated culture, they hated history – and most of all, they hated Phnom Pen.
In May, 1975, the Vandals marched into Phnom Pen. Within days, the city 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.
(photos of Phnom Pen taken in 2007)
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.
Pol Pot and his fellow Cambodian Maoists – who later became known as the Khmer Rouge – first came to the attention of Sihanouk’s police because of their commitment to violent revolution; democracy and free elections were a sham. The Maoists were rounded up, tortured and imprisoned. When they were freed, they banded together – and fled into the jungles of Ratnakiri province in the north-east of the country. They wanted to get as far away as possible from Phnom Pen and every vestige of organised authority.
They couldn’t have chosen a better place. The reach of the Sihanouk government was at best, tenuous out in eastern Cambodia. The roads were few and impassable during the monsoon. The whole area was covered in dense jungle; it was gigantic wilderness area and had been since time immemorial. But it was one thing to flee into the jungles, it was another thing to survive there.
What did a small group of intellectuals, steeped in high ideas, know about finding food, water and shelter in a wilderness?
Absolutely nothing – but they had a stroke of luck in befriending one of the largest ethnic groups in the area named the ‘Loeng’. The Khmer Rouge couldn’t have survived without them. They lived like aesthetes in primeval jungles filled with wild animals, dangerous reptiles and insects; in sweltering heat and stifling humidity; they lived in thatch huts and followed the ways of their Stone Age 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.
It’s a bizarre scene: a group of Paris educated ideologues rubbing shoulders with a people who hunted with cross bows and blow pipes and hadn’t discovered agriculture. Out in the jungles of Ratnakiri, the Khmer Rouge fall 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.
Which I why I went there: to get 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…