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 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 didinterest 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…
The flight to Ban Loeng was in a small, Russian-made twin prop plane.
It took me across Eastern Cambodia. I was expecting to see some wild country. Instead, what I saw was a scene of destruction: a barren, arid landscape, devoid of life.
Here and there I saw the remains of forests, trees dead and lying on the ground like corpses on a battlefield. In other places I saw fires and plumes of smoke rising into the air. The illegal logging industry, run by Chinese criminals, had removed thousands of square kilometres of forests. No doubt the corrupt government in Phnom Pen (headed by Hun Sen, a former member of the Khmer Rouge turned ‘democrat’), had been paid-off.
So I should have expected it I suppose, but it took me by surprise alright – the dust, I mean.
It was March, and there were still a few months to go before the monsoon. It was hot and the soil, once held together by trees and plants, was a fine powder: a dark, red, powder.
The small plane skidded to a halt on an unsealed airstrip, leaving behind it a long thick plume of red dust. Initially, I was amused by the sight of that long plume of dust settling back on to the runway.
Within a short space of time, my amusement turned to horror.
Several main roads intersected in Ban Loeng. None of them were sealed. And none of the roads in Ban Loeng itself were sealed either. Anything which moved along these roads, be it a Honda or a truck, a car or a four- wheel drive, a person or an ox or a dog, stirred up a thick, billowing, cloud of red dust. And everything in Ban Loeng was covered in this red dust: the shops and houses, the signs, the electricity posts and wires, the trees – even the public billboard featuring a large hand painted image of Cambodia’s national symbol, Norodom Sihanouk and his wife, Monique.
From the second story of my hotel I looked out over the town and saw a mass of corrugated iron roofs – dark red, not from rust, but instead, dust.
The whole town covered with a thick layer of red.
The hot dry air was sometimes so thick with dust that visibility extended no more than a hundred meters or so.
Did the people who live here, I wondered, get used to the dust and after a while, no longer see it?
My introduction to town life was memorable.
I went to a large, busy restaurant.
It was a big wide place with a low ceiling and lots of wooden support posts. On the support posts were the trophy heads of wild animals killed in times gone by when there were still jungles around: deer like creatures with horns and bulging eyes.
There were heavy wooden tables and at each of them sat a big group of locals.
Many of the people in Ratnakiri province were not Cambodians or ‘Khmers’ as they were known, but instead belonged to one or another local tribe including the Loeng. But this wasn’t obvious because they had given up wearing their tribal clothing and ‘modernised’. The benefits of modernisation weren’t apparent. From different areas of the ceiling were suspended T.V.’s – five in all. People sat in front of the TV showing the programme they wanted to watch.
On the TV sets there were: Chinese Kung Fu movies, American Big Time wrestling, Indian Bollywood movies, European football, and a Thai soap.
The noise was almost deafening.
I plonked myself down in the area where there was a large group of people gathered around the TV which showed a Thai soap. I tuned in. Two young women, who I presume were arguing over a man, started abusing each other. They must have been the worst actors I ever saw; they could have learnt something from the American wrestling. Their faces remained impassive, like masks of stone. There was not the slightest trace of emotion. Only from the looks on the faces of the people watching the TV was it possible to see that this was a tense scene: people sat there at their tables, mesmerised.
On the way back to my hotel I passed a large group of unemployed young men playing billiards under a roof supported by posts and open on all sides. Billiards was very popular. The felt on the tables was red with dust and the balls didn’t click, they fizzed. Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, I saw people and shops and stalls – everything and anything – covered in a thick layer of red.
Breathing dust all day every day could not have been very good for the health. It wasn’t coincidental that there was a surfeit of pharmacies – and also, shops selling strong drink. Cough medicines and permanent inebriation was probably a good way to get by.
Even a short walk outside my hotel was enough to see me covered from head to foot in dust and the dust, as I discovered, was hard to get rid of. There was a whole ritual involved with leaving and departing my hotel room. I’d come back from a trip outside covered from head to foot in red, slip into the bathroom – thankfully next to the door – take off my ‘dust clothes’ and place them in a corner, take a shower – and then put on my clean ‘room clothes’. Any kind of excursion outside, never mind how small, necessitated putting on my ‘dust’ clothes and on returning, going through the process of ‘de-dusting’.
Six kilometres outside Ban Loeng was the national park.
My plan was to spend some time in the jungle and get a feeling of what life had been like for the members of the Khmer Rouge – and of course, the Loeng.
I went out there on the back of a Honda Motor bike. The road was busy and the dust was so thick it was like smoke. I was amazed that my driver could see his way. At an intersection we came to, there was a big statue of two tribal people, the woman with a wicker basket on her back and the man with a cross-bow in his hands. I don’t need to mention that they were red coloured.
Inside the park there was jungle and a volcanic lake and near the lake, a hill tribe museum and some examples of hill tribe houses on stilts. You could arrange to visit a village. Somehow, I didn’t have much interest in that. It seemed pretty contrived; something akin to the hill tribe tours in the north of Thailand. I had nothing against it. I mean if these survivors of the original indigenous peoples could make a living from tourism, then it was a good thing; anything was better than ending up in Ban Loeng breathing dust, drinking, and falling under the spell of the TV.
Out here they had a chance of preserving some vestige of their identity, although it was difficult to work out what that meant now. The jungles, the jungles which had once covered all of eastern Cambodia, which had once been the abode of all sorts of wild animals – and which had been the birth place of their language and the culture and their way of life and their identity – had disappeared.
How were they to live their ‘traditional way of life’ now other than dressing in traditional clothing, living in huts and smiling for the tourists?
I was content to wander around the lake and find a spot in the surrounding undergrowth and sit and read (a book about the life of Norodom Sihanouk) and luxuriate in being in a dust free environment. All around me were trees and creepers and thickets of bamboo.
The water in the lake was clear.
I could see fish.
On the flight back to Phnom Pen, I didn’t even bother looking out the window. I was glad to be away from the dust.
My thoughts in any case were elsewhere.
I’d gone in search of an idea, an image and in the process, ignored reality.
Did I really think that after 30 years, the jungles would still be there?
Ah, the jungles!
My trip to Ban Loeng had been a dead-end, a failure, a necessary one probably. I realised I had to go back to square one. Shorn of my illusions, I returned to Phnom Pen to admire the architecture of Van Molyvann’s apartment blocks – and ponder the story of the rise and fall of a once unique and beautiful city.