Cambodia By The Seat Of Our Pants

In the Deli Lamma café on Lamma Island, Hong Kong, there used to be a picture of a young couple, looking at each other in the flush of romance. On the left was a suntanned young man in his mid-twenties, dressed in a white shirt, and with long curly hair tied back in a ponytail, looking down at a dark-haired girl of a similar age, who is in turn looking up at him. It wasn’t a gooey, posed photo, but a natural snapshot of a young couple enjoying an exciting lifestyle. They were one time residents of Lamma, who then moved on to a new chapter managing a restaurant in Sihnoukville, Cambodia. On April 11, 1994 the car in which they were travelling between the capital Phnom Penh and their new home was hijacked by the Khmer Rouge. The following day they, and another western friend who was travelling with them, were executed.

In a bar that most will recall for its hedonism that picture was a sobering reminder of life’s uncertainty, and how no one is immune to the whims of fate.

Not that any of this was on our minds as myself, and two good friends, Brendan Murray and Gerry Ritchie, made our way from our homes in Hong Kong to Cambodia. One of our best mates, Dave Fields, was working in Phnom Penh renovating the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia on Sisowath Quay, so it seemed like an opportune moment to visit a new country. It proved to be a trip where I think we sailed as close to the wind as we could without anything actually going horribly wrong.

It was late January 1998, about six months after a bloody coup in which co-premier Hun Sen ousted the other co-premier (and prince) Norodom Ranariddh. As Dave drove us into the city from the airport there were still the shells of burnt out tanks brooding by the roadside. The whole country had an edge to it which made it feel like the wild west. Dangerous and exciting. Lawlessness and unpredictable. Everything about Cambodia was a thrill – those burnt out tanks, us bombing around Phnom Penh on the back of the ubiquitous motorbikes, the joints openly on sale in the Russian market, and night clubs where drugs and prostitution were not so much open as de riguer. It felt like a city and a country where everything is for sale, where everything – including life – is cheap, and where everything goes. Even the expats appeared a little unhinged.

That sense of danger was compounded by the country’s tragic past. A short drive from Phnom Penh are the ‘killing fields’ of Cheong Ek, a succession of sunken grassy hollows, marked with grim signs declaring how many corpses were found therein. ‘Mass grave of 450 victims’. And the memorial, with its glass case containing row upon row upon row of battered human skulls. This was all in sharp contract to the beautiful green countryside surrounding the killing fields, with the sound of children whooping with delight as they threw themselves into a nearby river. In the city, along an otherwise quiet and rather nondescript city street, sits an old school building which became a Khmer Rouge detention and torture centre, Tuol Sleng. On a grassy lawn that was once a children’s playground stands a gallows, from which suspended bodies were barbarically tortured. As many as 20,000 prisoners were murdered there. The experience of Cambodia’s past rendered even the most verbose and jovial of us speechless with horror and desperation. And a heightened sense of mortality.

The killing fields at Cheong Ek

The killing fields at Cheong Ek

We also visited the stunning temples of Angkor – at a time when there were very few tourists around – and as we sat on a hilltop watching the sun set across the miles and miles of jungle I couldn’t stop thinking how Pol Pot, the architect of the horror this country had gone through – and with the kidnapping of westerners still taking place as recently as four years before, arguably still going through – was still out there somewhere. My skin prickled at the thought.

After a few days in Phnom Penh – which, it has to be said, has its delights alongside its gruesome history – we decided to go down to Sihanoukville, a resort town 4-5 hours drive down Route 4, and home to Cambodia’s best-known beaches. Dave had arranged a car and driver to get us there. Just the day before, myself and Bren had read an advisory notice from the US Embassy, dated as recently as December 1997, which warned people travelling on Highway 4 to Sihanoukville of recent hi-jacking’s and robberies and advising people to travel in convoys of two to three vehicles.

So we travelled in a convoy…of one. And half way down the road the car broke down. We sat uncertain for a moment and nothing was said. The driver and his mate got out and started tinkering with the engine, although it was quite apparent that their mechanical knowledge was as good as mine, and I couldn’t even drive a car, let alone fix one. And as we had previously noticed them looking confusedly at a map before we advised them that it was upside down, our confidence in them was not high. Bren and Gerry (so nearly a world famous brand of ice-cream) got out, got some drinks from a roadside shack, and started having a bit of craic with the locals, clearly unconcerned about anything. Myself and Dave however were looking anxiously up and down the road, waiting to see what would happen next. It remained unspoken but in my mind this was the scenario in which their colleagues drive up, armed with old but fully functioning automatic weapons, and we’re whisked off into the unknown never to be seen again. I could see that picture hanging in the Deli.

And indeed, twenty rather anxious minutes later a van with heavily tinted windows and originally headed in the opposite direction stopped and pulled up in front of us. Three Cambodians got out, and approached our drivers.

They then helped to fix the engine, continued on their way, and we were back on the road, Bren and Gerry still seemingly oblivious to what danger we may, or may not, have been in. As we continued south Dave and I sat pensively and tried not to let on that we’d been worried in the first place.

In Sihanoukville we went to a nightclub where the drug-fuelled clientele were letting off fireworks…indoors. It was an accident waiting to happen. And then we lost Dave.

We each had our hired motorbike and driver and as we left one bar to head for another Dave’s driver stalled his bike and got left behind. Myself, Gerry and Bren puttered off into the night, and duly reached the next bar. But no Dave. Again, I could see this as the point at which things go horribly wrong. This is how it happens. This is how someone so easily disappears.

Myself, Brendan Murray and Dave Fields in a club in Sihanoukville.

Myself, Brendan Murray and Dave Fields in a club in Sihanoukville.

We had a beer, and waited, but still no Dave. Again, Bren and Gerry seemed utterly unconcerned but my fear factor was racing, and we sent my driver off to try and find him. We sat outside and waited. And waited. After thirty interminable minutes Dave eventually turned up. His driver seemed to be the runt of the litter so when he stalled his bike the other drivers laughed and didn’t wait. He spoke no English, and Dave no Khmer, so the driver had then taken Dave to where he assumed all western blokes want to go, a row of extremely seedy shacks-cum-brothels. Eventually Dave managed to convince him that he wasn’t after an under-aged girl, and somehow managed to steer him back to the bar.

Then we went scuba diving, not that Cambodia is renowned for its diving; and rightly so. It didn’t bode well when the boat’s captain and dive-master was liberally tucking into the beers we’d brought aboard, but when he said he wasn’t coming into the water with us, it became distinctly uncomfortable. We all had our dive certificates – not that we were ever asked to show them – but none of us had ever entered the water without an instructor and weren’t too comfortable doing so now. But we jumped in anyway, had a dive around for a while, saw absolutely nothing of interest whatsoever, and then promptly lost each other. When I returned to the boat, the dive-master didn’t seem unduly concerned that I’d lost the others, and suggested I jump back in by myself and make the most of the air still in my tank. Which is breaking the number one rule of never diving without a buddy. If his previous actions were questionable, this was downright irresponsible.

Three went out...and three came back.

Three went out…and three came back.

We emerged unscathed, still laughing and joking, but about six months later the same dive operator was rumoured to have lost another group of divers; lost completely that is, as in missing, as in gone.

Throughout that trip to Cambodia we appeared to flirt with danger but I honestly don’t know if we were ever genuinely at risk, or how close we came to real trouble. I suspect my imagination, fuelled by the rawness of Cambodia at the time, heightened the menace. It still stands out as one of the most rewarding and entertaining trips experienced, and Cambodia remains an utterly beguiling country, which I’ve visited twice since and will undoubtedly visit again. That image from the Deli serves not to discourage, but to be grateful for what we have done, and to cherish what opportunities we still have.

Leave a Reply