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 all 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 next to 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, a big town and tourist draw card on the southern coast of Cambodia, to Ko Kong, a town 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 was 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. After a cloudy morning, it had turned into a fine day. 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 been in his late fifties. He was a bit overweight, losing some hair, but his face was unwrinkled, almost boyish.
The conversation with Prem had begun with him asking me if I was an American: he looked distinctly disappointed when I told him I was Australian.
His English was fluent but with a strange accent, which one minute sounded American and the next, Cambodian.
After making small talk for a few minutes, Prem casually mentioned 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’d tried. I’d visited the Chou Ek killing fields at the outskirts of Phnom Pen and the infamous S21 interrogation centre where people were tortured and beaten to death. I had gleaned lots of facts from books, so many books, but really, I had no conception of the reality of that monstrous regime.
Now on my last day in Cambodia I was speaking to someone who had. And that made me insatiably curious. Since it was he who had begun the conversation with me and furthermore by bringing up the Khymer 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 Khymer Rouge.
After asking a few questions on the subject and getting monosyllabic answers in return, I gave up.
I was puzzled.
It had seemed as if he wanted to talk about it, but then he 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 had found that over a half of them 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.’
As in Australia, Cambodian refugees had been good immigrants, working hard and getting ahead. They’d put a horrific past behind them, but there’d been a price paid for that.
In actual fact, it wasn’t that Prem didn’t want to talk about his past – he did, but only very selectively: in his own way, on his own terms.
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!
It had been a calling.
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. I had a package of locally grown pepper corns in my rucksack which I was keen to put in my pepper grinder back home.
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.
There were so many fish then you know!
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 on 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 out 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 you know. A small town, only one wharf for ships, one hotel. Everything else was pepper tree plantations, bananas, jungles. No high-rise buildings, 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 you know.
Our boat tied up at the jetty of an island community of fishermen.
The island was shaped like the conical hat worn by the farmers in their 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 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. The westerners on the roof were just as busy with their digital and video cameras sucking up images.
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 still as pond. Below the surface was a pink plastic bag drifting aimlessly, like a jellyfish. Plastic bags were the bane of Cambodia, the countryside was full of them (I once asked someone why they didn’t clear them up, and I was told: ‘when half the country’s full of mines who worries about plastic bags?). A few metres beneath the plastic bag a big school of fish appeared; they had horizontal black and white stripes and were lazily swimming above a reef. It was as if we were looking into a big aquarium.
But the ocean on this coast wasn’t always so tranquil. I had vivid memories of doing this boat trip (in the opposite direction) during a storm. It had been impossible to go outside. Everyone was forced to stay in their seats. There’d been a strong wind and a big swell. The boat had lifted and rolled and dived. Nothing was visible out the windows. I’d spent the four-hour trip in acute discomfort made worse by having to endure awful Cambodian karaoke films.
When I mentioned this incident Prem said:
‘Yeah, we ran into bad weather too..’
‘When we escaped you know.’
‘When we escaped you know.’
I didn’t delve. He talked and I listened. This is the gist of what he told me:
On a rainy night, no moon, no stars, no light, he and three others got in his boat and left. After a few hours they knew they were safe, leastways from the Khymer Rouge. But then the rain had turned into a full-blown storm. All night they battled to keep their tiny boat afloat. They couldn’t see anything. At first light the next morning, they greeted the day gripped by fear. The cruel faces of the Khymer Rouge’s child soldiers were replaced with the heartless faces of big cresting waves. They made it into the bay of an island and waited for the storm to pass. The storm lasted two days. They ran out of water. There was no water on the island.
‘Longest two days of my life you know.’
The storm broke. They set off again. They stopped at another island to get water.
A few days later they arrived in Thailand. They were placed into one of the enormous refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodia border.
‘Bad things happened in those camps you know…the Thais, they took the money from the UN which was meant for the refugees. The Cambodians, many of them were sick, many of them were …afraid…the Thais didn’t help us but they didn’t kill us either..’
Prem survived the camp. Others didn’t. After six months, he got permission to immigrate to America. In America he got a job working on a fishing trawler.
‘Different to being a fisherman in Cambodia you know. It was like working in a factory.’
No, it wasn’t fishing or what he in any case called fishing: real fishing. It was fishing done with computers, radars and electric winches. After a couple of years he figured he might as well work in a factory on the land instead of on the sea; it was a lot safer (‘electric winch can rip your arm off ….he’d seen it happen you know’). 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 my arse all day watching tyres on a conveyor belt…’
On the weekends he always went fishing – with a rod. He bought a little aluminium boat. Sometimes he went fishing with his son. He named all the American fish he had caught, he was pleased about that, but it meant nothing to me.
Life in America was good. His kids he said were huge, physically bigger than most Cambodians. He couldn’t understand it. Maybe it was the food, all that protein or something. Yeah he was doing alright but somehow he missed his old life as a fisherman in Cambodia.
‘Yeah in those days there was so many fish. You didn’t need a big boat to catch lots of them. That was real fishing you know.’
I didn’t say it, but maybe one of the reasons he was happy then was that his mother and father and brothers and sister were still alive.
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 end of a head.
‘Yellow fin’ he said.
He seemed to think that by giving this fish an English name instead of a Cambodian one, 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 low on the horizon and the light grew softer. The ocean turned a darker 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 real cheap. He was planning on retiring here with his wife in another five years or so. Lots of Cambodians of his generation had similar plans he said.
The country was returning to normal now, it was safe to go everywhere. The tourists were flocking to Cambodia. During his visit he’d tried to look up some of his relations. No one of his age was still around. He had bought some land a few kilometres back from the coast and was having a house built on it. Cost nothing in comparison with America. His niece and her family would move into the house when it was finished. He and his wife would move in when he retired.
The unstated observations on my part were rapidly piling up – silently inside my head. Alright he had some land and what was probably a very nice house. That was fine for his niece and her family. No doubt they had been very glad to see a long-lost and wealthy American relative suddenly appear. What would happen though when Prem and his wife turned up in five years to reclaim their house? How would the reception then be? What kind of favours would he be expected to hand out to his poor Cambodian relatives? Cambodia might be cheap as far as food went, but it could turn out to be quite expensive for him in other ways.
And what would he do with his days, his children and grand children and Cambodian friends all back in America?
That was one question I did ask.
He’d go fishing he said. Buy a boat and travel these beautiful waters and do some real fishing.
As far as I could see he was fooling himself.
Perhaps that’s all any of us end up doing with a life anyway.
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 and nothing left to catch.