(Written in 2006, recently revised)
Thirty years on and he knew the coast of south-west Cambodia like the back of his hand. And what a coast it was. Lush jungle covered islands of different sizes and shapes, some of them no more than big outcrops of rock, others taking minutes for our boat to pass.
On the horizon behind the islands was the mainland, wild jungle covered mountains sweeping down into long stretches of white beach lapped by aqua blue ocean.
He pointed out each island, told me its Cambodian name, and gave a short explanation about it.
See that one over there?
You could stay on that island for as long as you like, there’s plenty of water and fruit.
See that one there?….yeah its big ok, but there’s not much water on it so you know, you could only stay there a night or two.
See that one there, the one that sticks up like a building?
There’s a big reef alongside it, under the water, but you’d never put a net down there, the bottom’s real bad you know, lots of sharp rocks and potholes, tear up your net like knives…’
I met Prem on the boat which went once a day from Sihanoukville on the southern coast of Cambodia to the town of Ko Kong near the border of Thailand. The boat was a long, white, fibre-glass capsule. The passengers sat inside the capsule and looked at the scenery through a long row of windows. The only place where it was possible to be outside was on the roof – where dozens of westerners were sitting and sunning themselves – or at the front, between the captain’s cabin and the nose of the boat.
This is where Prem and I were, along with a stack of tins filled with cooking oil, two huge pink pigs lying bound inside bamboo cages and a bunch of live chickens tied together at the feet. It was a fine sunny day and there was a light wind.
Prem was a Cambodian-American who’d been visiting family in Sihanoukville for a few weeks. He was now on his way to Bangkok to pick up his flight back to America. He must have in his late fifties. He was a bit overweight, losing some hair, but his face was unwrinkled, almost boyish. He spoke fluent English but with a variable accent, which one minute sounding American and the next, Cambodian.
After making small talk for a few minutes, Prem casually announced that this was the first time he’d been in these waters since 1976, when he had fled the Khymer Rouge and gone to Thailand. By way of explanation he added:
‘The Khymer Rouge you know…they were killing everyone.’
He kept saying ‘you know’ at the beginning or end of just about every second sentence.
But as far as the Khymer Rouge went you know…no, I didn’t know.
I really didn’t know. I’d tried.
Oh yes, how I’d tried. Gleaned lots of facts from books, so many books. But no amount of facts can create an historic event, especially one like this. I had been unable to really understand it, that monstrous regime, for the simple reason that I’d never experienced it. The Khmer Rouge: a band of doctrinaire communists who had seized control of Cambodia between 1975 and ’78 and instituted a reign of terror, forcing almost the entire population to work in slave camps and murdering 3 million of them. Torturing thousands of others to death in the gruesome S21 prison. One of the most murderous regimes in history.
Now on my last day in Cambodia I was speaking to someone who had lived under the Khmer Rouge. Here was a golden opportunity I thought.
Since it was he who raised the subject of the Khmer Rouge, I naturally assumed this was something he wanted to talk about, and I was happy to oblige him.
But I was wrong about Prem wanting to talk about the Khmer Rouge. After asking a few questions on the subject and getting monosyllabic answers in return, I gave up.
I was puzzled. It seemed as if he had wanted to talk about it, but then backed away.
A few days later, on a crowded, touristy beach in Thailand, I read an article in the Bangkok Post which in the light of my experience with Prem, caught my eye. A study of Cambodian refugees living in the US and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that over a half of these people suffered from post- traumatic stress disorder and serious depression. A major reason cited for the poor mental health of the Cambodian Americans was their inability to confront their past.
‘They make no connection between horrible experiences in the past and psychological problems in the present. They don’t know about trauma. They deal with their past experiences on the basis of denial.’
It’s not that Prem didn’t want to talk about his past – he did, but only very selectively.
Before he’d fled Cambodia he’d been a fisherman and that was what we talked about for the most of the four hour trip to Ko Kong: fishing. It was a subject which I knew nothing about: I didn’t even have a bunch of facts gleaned from books to call upon.
But I was happy to ask questions and go along for the ride.
Yeah said Prem, we were passing through some of the best fishing waters in the world, no doubt about it you know. And back then in the seventies, before the Japanese and Malaysian trawlers started appearing, there’d been so many fish!
Fishing had been a calling he told me. He didn’t come from a fishing family. His family had lived inland, not near the sea. Pepper had been their life, not fish.
Pepper, we talked about pepper for a while.
His family had owned a few acres of pepper trees and he and his mother, father, brother and sister had worked on the big French pepper plantations from time to time to make ends meet. Best pepper in the world is grown here in the south of Cambodia he said. I wasn’t a pepper expert, but the pepper I had tasted at the restaurants on the tourist beach in Sihanoukville had indeed been very tasty. It made me realise that like coffee beans, there were different kinds of pepper corns.
As a kid Prem had always dreamt of being a fisherman. When he was a teenager he started going out with other fishermen in their boats and learning how to use nets and crab pots and lines. He saved his money and got a loan from his father and bought a small boat. His brother became his assistant. Within a couple of years he had paid the boat off and was making good money. He became a sort of family success story.
It was easy even for a small boat to bring back heaps of fish. You put the net down, pulled it up, and it was full of fish. That’s the way it was then you know.
He didn’t have a big boat, only a small one he said. As we spoke, an open, painted wooden boat heaped up with nets and floats putt- putted by, its sunburned owner at the tiller.
Prem pointed at it and said: ‘bit like that one you know.’
Yeah, he’d been lucky he said, being a fisherman. Escaping Cambodia had been simple: you went out on your boat and didn’t come back. For thousands of others though, it hadn’t been simple at all. Escaping had meant a long and dangerous journey overland, through jungles and across mountains and rivers and minefields, running the risk of malaria, starvation, wild animals, and patrols. Many people made it, but many didn’t.
It was after his mother and father and brother and sister died you know that he decided to leave. (Died? How did they die, Prem? I didn’t bother asking, I accepted it as a passing fact).
Sihanoukville was a different place then. A small town, only one wharf for ships, everything else was pepper tree plantations, bananas, jungles. No hotels, no container terminals. There were lots of uninhabited bays that today are full of tourists. You could get in and out of that coast dead easy.
Half way into the trip, the boat tied up at the jetty of an island inhabited by fishermen.
The island was shaped like the conical hat worn by the people working in rice paddies. It was a mass of rich green jungle. At the perimeter were shacks on stilts, the water lapping under them. Back in the jungle, the orange, high angled roof of a Buddhist Wat could be seen protruding above the green. At a grey, weathered, wooden wharf, a bevy of girls dressed in cotton pyjamas, with bare feet and round metal trays on their heads, awaited us. On their trays were piles of fruit, sweets, cigarettes and dried fish. As nimble as acrobats, they sprang from the wharf on to the boat as it docked and swarmed downstairs into the capsule to ply the passengers with their wares.
A group of wiry, brown men in shorts jumped on to the front of the boat and lifted the tins of oil and the pigs and chickens on to the wharf. Prem and I spent our time on the seaward side of the boat looking down into the water. It was as clear as glass. About two metres below was pink plastic bag drifting aimlessly like a jellyfish. Another few metres beneath the plastic bag was a big school of fish with horizontal black and white stripes lazily swimming above a reef. It was like we were looking into a big aquarium.
But the ocean on this coast wasn’t always so tranquil. The last time I had done this boat trip (in the opposite direction), it had been impossible to go outside. Everyone had had to stay in their seats. You couldn’t even seeing anything outside the windows. There’d been a strong wind and a big swell. I’d spent the four hour trip having to endure awful Cambodian karaoke films.
Yeah, he’d run into bad weather too, Prem said. They – he and three others – had got away on a rainy night, no moon, no starlight. After a few hours they knew they were safe, leastways from the Khmer Rouge. Then the rain turned into a full blown storm. All night they battled to keep their tiny boat afloat. At first light on the following morning, they greeted the day gripped by fear. The cruel faces of the Khmer Rouge’s child soldiers were replaced with the heartless faces of cresting waves, as endless and unrelenting as a terra cotta army. They pulled into a bay of an island and waited for the storm to pass. They ran out of water and there was no water on the island. The storm lasted two days. Those two days were the longest two days in his life. They’d escaped the man-made lunacy of the Khmer Rouge only to confront another kind of lunacy on a pristine tropical island.
The storm subsided. They set off again. They stopped at another island to get water. Two days later they arrived in Thailand. They were put into one of the enormous refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodia border. Bad things happened in those camps. The Thais pocketed the money from the UN meant for the refugees. The Cambodians, many of them sick and traumatised, suffered further hells at the hands of their Thai ‘rescuers’. But Prem survived and after six months, got permission to immigrate to America.
In America he got a job working on a fishing trawler. Very different to being a fisherman in Cambodia! It was like working in a factory. It wasn’t fishing or what he in any case called fishing. Computers, radars, electric winches. After a couple of years he figured he might as well work in a real factory – it was safer (electric winch can rip your arm off before you know it, he’d seen it happen) – it was less subject to the whims of the seasons. He moved to a town where there were a lot of other Cambodians and started work in a tyre factory. Good job. Boring maybe. Sit on his arse all day watching tyres sail by on a conveyor belt.
Everything went well. He got married, had children, bought a house.
On the weekends he always went fishing. With a rod. Bought a little aluminium boat. Sometimes he went fishing with his son. He named all the American fish he had caught with an evident degree of pride. It meant nothing to me.
Somehow he missed his life as a youthful fisherman in the days before the Khmer Rouge. ‘I was you know poor as dirt but I was happy. Yeah in those days there was so many fish. You didn’t need a big boat to catch lots of them´.
The pigs and chickens and tins of oil gone, in their place came a stack of big dried fish, each one bound up in a parcel with string and newspaper. From one end of each parcel protruded a tail and from the other, the tip of a head.
‘Yellow fin’ he said.
He seemed to think that by giving this fish an English instead of a Cambodian name, I would recognise it. The only ‘yellow fin’ that sprung to my mind was the name of an Australian white wine and on second thoughts it wasn’t actually ‘yellow fin’ but ‘yellow tail’.
‘Beautiful fish’ he said, and went on to describe the kind of waters it preferred and how big the schools got and what a splendid fish it was to eat.
The boat sounded its horn, the girls with their trays on their heads jumped back on to the wharf, and we continued the trip. We passed more splendid islands and coast. The sun sank and the light grew softer. The ocean turned a dark shade of green-blue. All of a sudden the day seemed to have aged.
Did I like crabs?
As a matter of fact I hated crabs.
His obvious enthusiasm for them however warned me to say that I didn’t mind them.
Crabs in America were really expensive you know. In the market in Sihanoukville they cost nothing. During his stay he’d eaten lots of crabs. Everything was cheap in Sihanoukville you know especially compared to America. Yeah you could live in this country cheap. Very cheap. He was planning on retiring here with his wife in another five years. Lots of Cambodians of his generation had similar plans he said.
In Sihanoukville, he’d looked up his relatives or what was left of them. No one of his age was still around. Been murdered or died early from the hardships of those years. The younger members of his family were glad to see him (you bet, an American citizen with a job. Rich man). He had bought some land a few kilometres back from the coast. He and his wife would arrange to have a house built there and live there when he retired.
He was looking forward to that.
How lonely he must have felt in America. It was an archetypal immigrant story: you left your country in search of a better life and you found it but then, after finding it, you felt sort of hollow, lost. I’d seen shops and restaurants in Vietnam run by Australian-Vietnamese. When I thought of some of the tacky suburbs in Melbourne and Sydney, I could see why an immigrant might be prone to feelings of loss and alienation, of not belonging.
But then, was the ‘home country’ really home?
I’d met more than a few immigrants who had spent a good part of their lives going back and forth from Australia to their country of origin, pursued by feelings of restlessness, never able to really find home and instead, settling for a life of having two home countries.
Prem was caught up in this immigrant schizophrenia. Perhaps he was particularly vulnerable to the complaint given his past and a possible case of traumatic stress disorder.
He had kids and grandkids. He talked about them with all the emotions of a proud father and grandfather. His children he said were huge, physically much bigger than most Cambodians. He couldn’t understand it. Maybe the food he said, all that protein or something. None of them had had the time (or sufficient interest, I suspected) to visit Cambodia. I didn’t ask him about his wife who’d evidently also decided to stay in America.
Questions on my part started rapidly piling up, silently inside my head.
Would he and his wife really find home in a country which was very different to what it was during the pre-Khmer Rouge era?
The one question which I did ask him was: What would he do with his days, with his children and grandchildren and Cambodian friends all back in America?
The answer was as simple as it was effortless: buy a boat and travel these beautiful waters and do some fishing. He’d fled his homeland long ago but left behind some powerful illusions. He was hell bent on reclaiming them.
I could only hope for him that he wouldn’t end up one day having to return to America, disillusioned and with nowhere left to go.
Photos of people in the S21 ‘interrogation centre’ tortured to death by the Khmer Rouge
The Khymer Rouge, see also / The Jungles – Part 1