The Killing Fields

When I was a young lad I used to enjoy visiting my grandparents Tom and Halina in their cosy, white weatherboard home in suburban Mitcham. Walking Tom and Hal’s well behaved dalmation Basil around the park one twilight, I recall crossing the path of an unfamiliar bloke with jet black, shoulder length hair, a slim frame and distinct appearance of a foreigner. I’m not sure how Tom and Hal got chatting to Larry - probably a passing comment, a glance of the eye, a good natured neighbourly gesture. Larry was Cambodian, which meant little to me at that age except I knew wasn’t from Mitcham and probably not Ringwood either. I remember that he was a really friendly bloke, choc full of good humour, that he omitted the vibe of a genuine, lovely person. As we chatted more to Larry we were amazed that he had no real idea how old he was, no concept of his birthday whatsoever. We began to be entranced by Larry’s heartbreaking story. In 1975, Revolutionary Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army wrested control of Cambodia, installing one of the most horrible, inhumanly gruesome dictatorial regimes in history. With bitter irony, the nation was renamed ‘Democratic Kampuchea’, the date was rolled back to ‘year zero’, and anyone deemed by the Khmer Rouge to be against their macabre revolution were brutally tortured and systematically murdered. Many in Larry’s family were massacred in cold blood by the Khmer Rouge. As a young boy Larry lived through ‘year zero’ and eventually managed to flee to Australia, though I can’t recall how he managed to avoid the same fate as his family, or arrive so far way from his past. The image of this lone, wandering Cambodian man searching for himself and his roots along a winding shrapnel bike track in the deep Eastern suburbs of Melbourne never left my memory…

After bidding farewell to glorious Prabang and cementing my place in the Spicy Laos hostel Hall of Fame, I made like Indiana Jones and boarded a dubious looking MA60 airplane, complete with external rotors and no credible guarantee of making it to the next airport. In my Indy-Boxset-enlivened imagination I envisioned scooting along a torn, fire charred papyrus montage map depicting a birds eye view of Laos on a directional red line earmarked for Vientiane, just as John Williams-esque trumpets heralded my valiant return to the capital.

It was nice to be back in Vientiane, but a case of ‘been there done that’. Plus, a new adventure was calling. The next night I boarded the strangest bus I’ve ever come across, a sleeper night bus decked out with duel-tier bunk beds, with leg compartments best suited to a four foot three Laos man and not a six foot something Westerner. The view outside my window of a sprawling electric storm in the sky was enough to rockabye me to sleep, despite the adverse leg suffocation.I woke the next morning in the southern Laos town of Pakse, bleary, sore and hampered by a completely numb left ass cheek, the price you pay for sleeping in a midget’s bed. I tagged along with new mates Toby and Laura, an English couple who were plunging headfirst in Cambodia along the same vague route as me.

If Laos is the chilled out, uber-Zen older sibling, then Cambodia is certainly the wild, rebellious, battle hardened younger brother. At first, Cambodia and I didn’t see eye to eye. Our northern border crossing was not terribly easy nor well-frequented, and the single form of transport from the checkpoint to the next town was in a white Toyota Camry run by a shifty prick called ‘Mr T’. Replete in off white polyester safari suit, Mr T was a dead ringer for a Cambodian Lawrence Fishburne. With no more US currency to pay for Mr T’s substandard and well overpriced sojourn to Kompong Cham seven hours away, we were forced to hand over our passports to this bastard until we came across an ATM. Though apprehensive that I no longer held power over my own passport, I was forced to laugh when the driver of our deluxe Camry sat wedged on the glove box between me and another passenger, his foot barely able to reach the accelerator. With roughly 14 other English and American travellers equally disillusioned with our transport predicament, we boarded a couple of ridiculously tiny mini-buses, one painted bright yellow like the bus from ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. With luggage roughly strapped to the back of the van, billowing out an open boot door, our ailing wagon very nearly tipped over in a mudpit detour roughly halfway to Phnom Penh. Thankfully, we got the hell out of that pain ride earlier than everyone else, hitting up Kompong Cham’s corner pub and a good night’s rest as the others endured another 3 hours south to the capital.

The following days were a crash course in Cambodian life. With the poms in tow, we bussed up to the town of Siem Reap to check out the amazingly vast and intricate ancient temples of ‘Angkor Wat’. Initially a tad wary of immersing myself in another bout of Bangkok-esque chaos, we soon burned back own south to the capital Phnom Penh, discovering it to be an unexpectedly manoueverable and chilled out city despite the moments of craziness. It was mental, but still relaxed – a paradoxical capital city if ever there was one. We chilled at the ‘Smile’ guesthouse around the Lakeside region, a gritty yet vibrant neck of town where you run a gauntlet of shady touts determined to sell you hard drugs, sexy massages and rides from there to anywhere. Only once did I walk this gauntlet without once being asked for ‘smoke, smoke’ or ‘tuk tuk’ - a phenomena unheard of around these parts.

We set out to get as much out of Phnom Penh as we could, using a full day to check out the sights and smells and all the capital city had to offer. Sopha, our tuk tuk driver took us around various nooks of the city, the first stop a clandestine shooting range 18km out of town. For prices ranging from US $40 to $100 you could fire a menu of weaponary including a Kalishnokov, M16, M1 Carbine, Uzi, Tommy Gun and, if you’d had a hard day and really needed to get your angst out, a Grenade Launcher. For an additional US $15 you could purchase a live duck and blow the shit out of that as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if that wasn’t the only variety of animal on the price list. Anything goes in Cambodia. We chose not to fire any guns, nor grenade launch any poultry. In thick rains, Sopha drove us back into the direction of town, to a couple of destinations that will never leave my memory…

The Khmer Rouge revolution began in Phnom Penh where they seized all government buildings and set up headquarters for their regime. Under the noses of an older ‘rural’ population favoured by the Khmer Rouge, millions of city dwelling ‘newer’ peoples - intellectuals and middle class types – were systematically imprisoned and tortured, deemed enemies by Pol Pot’s deranged Communist dream. Most were held in the grim Stung Treng S-21 prison in Phnom Penh before being shipped off to be massacred in the killing fields on the outskirts of town. Both s-21 and the Killing fields yielded a profoundly horrible feeling on this sombre tourist. I stood there in sheer disbelief at what happened on that green grass and the deep, watery pits before me during those grim late 1970’s afternoons. I heard the screams and the painful shrieks in my mind. It refused to let me get past the knowledge that millions of innocent, intelligent, beautiful Cambodia men, women and young, helpless children were slaughtered like animals right there before my very eyes. Worse than animals. It was brutal, absolutely horrific and it knocked me back. For the days that followed I couldn’t comprehend how human beings could possibly imagine such barbarism, let alone act upon it, destroying so many lives and a proud society of people in the process. Surely these people are not human. They can’t be. On the ride home I looked around at the people going about their daily lives. The shirtless, smoking men, talking, hammering nails and driving their motos…the women cooking and attending to stalls and their children….young, innocent boys and girls, playing and laughing. They all represented the same faces that I saw staring back at me at that morbid prison. Those terrified, marginalised eyes staring back from the past. It could have been any of those people on the street around me. People just like them. People like Larry.
Larry’s family.

That night I remembered Larry and wondered ever happened to him. I wondered whether he found himself some direction on that bike track in early-90’s Mitcham…whether he settled in to a suburban Melbourne life or moved on to dream a new dream in some other part of the world. The experience of the killing fields in one afternoon was a shock my system. For someone like Larry, so intensely close to the brutality, the pain and spine chilling horror…Jesus…I can’t fathom how hard it must have been to forget, to move on from all that. I hope he found his happiness; hope he found himself. And I wonder if he ever found out just how old he really was.

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