The International Writers Magazine: Last
Call for Adventure
With the Rangers of Bokor:
The Leeches await you...
Ill just wait here then? I shouted in the general
direction of where I had last seen Ranger Veriak melting into
the trees. OK, I added, as if I had a choice. Take
to Veriak, it had been six months since the Bokor Mountain rangers had
hiked up this particular trail. Now the way was completely overgrown,
and he often had to leave me alone while he went off looking for the
trail. Being left alone in the jungle, for even a few minutes, can be
terrifying. The solitude is loud, and your imagination runs away with
you. Remembering that Cambodia is still one of the most heavily mined
countries in the world, I stood perfectly still, just to be safe. But
then I remembered that if you stepped on a mine, it was already triggered,
but wouldnt explode till you had stepped off it. So, maybe I wasnt
so safe after all. I swallowed my gum. Afraid to do anything that might
upset my weight distribution, I was frozen like the Tin Man when Veriak
What are you doing? he asked, perplexed.
Oil can, I whispered.
Oil can what? he answered, in Khmer. Had he seen The Wizard
of Oz? He obviously knew the dialogue. It was yet one more mystery in
Veriak assured me, once again, that there had never been mines in this
And besides, he added, with his cheerful grin, We
already removed them all.
I was careful to step where he stepped. We had been walking since seven
thirty that morning. The last several hours I had been so exhausted
that I wasnt having fun anymore. To keep from seeming too eager,
I was careful to ask only once per hour, Are we there yet?
I glanced at my watch.
How far to the top?
Three hours, he answered, for the third time. The first
time had been four hours ago.
When we only had one hour left, for the second time, it started raining.
My guide on this quixotic adventure was Veriak, a twenty-five year old
anti-poaching ranger, who protected the forest and animals in Bokor
National Park. We had met at the ranger station that morning when Veriak
was assigned to take me up the mountain. The fee had been $20, half
of Veriaks monthly salary, so I imagine he was happy to have the
opportunity to make some extra cash. Thavrin, the representative from
my sponsor, Phnom Penh Tours, snapped a million pictures of us. I thought
it was because Veriak looked so cool in his Vietnam-era army greens
and his AK-47. These Asians and their cameras, I laughed.
But later, Thavrin told me I wanted as many photos of that ranger
as possible, in case you disappeared in the jungle.
You mean you thought he might kill me? I asked, naively.
You are probably carrying his annual salary in your wallet,
said Thavrin, gravely. Life is cheap up here.
To his credit, Veriak
didnt kill me. And, unless I greatly misread him, I believe we
bonded as friends during our endless death march to Batan. But Thavrin
had a point, and it was a reoccurring theme in Khmer society. The rangers
were one of the better paid public servants, most likely because some
of their funding came from US based NGO, Wild Aid. But, with
soldiers earning $10 a month and police officers earning $20, how could
anyone expect service from the government?
Seeing Veriak with his Vietnam surplus weapon and uniform, it was impossible
not to think of the war, and myself as an American soldier being lead
through the jungle by local forces. Playing my part to the tee, I made
all of the same mistakes the Americans made in Vietnam, except that
I never believed Nixon. Where Veriak moved silently, like an Indian
on the hunt, I made more noise than a platoon of elephants. The last
three or four months, my writing schedule had been so heavy that I wasnt
boxing, so I was severely out of shape. Also, I had spent the last eighteen
months living in Phnom Penh, so I hadnt been in the jungle for
a year and a half. Every minute I am in Phnom Penh I grow weaker
minute Veriak is in the jungle he grows stronger
I thought, quoting
the film, Apocalypse Now.
Easy living had
nearly destroyed me. I had lost my edge. Now, I had difficulty climbing
over and under obstacles, which Veriak cleared with ease. I couldnt
lift my legs high enough to go over the top. And, I couldnt bend
far enough to pass underneath. Another constant problem was my backpack.
It got hooked on everything. It wasnt enough that I
was weaker than Veriak, but I also needed, more stuff than him. It was
a Buddhist lesson in minimalism. Veriak wore only a small fanny-pack,
whereas I needed a day-bag. How out of practice I was even became evident
in the way I packed. I took too much food, and not enough water.
We would be hiking to the top of Bokor Mountain, where we would be sleeping
at the ranger station overnight. According to Veriak, the trip should
have taken four hours. So, I had planned one liter of water per hour,
or four liters. But, what I hadnt reckoned with was that the four-hour
figure had been at Veriaks normal pace. With me along, the trip
wound up taking nearly nine hours. We were the original odd couple,
proof of why the US only managed a tie-score in the war. During the
seven years that Veriak had been a ranger for the Cambodian conservation
project, trained by Wild Aid, I had been sitting at a desk. But,
even without the training, Veriak would still have known his way around
these woods. He was born in the area, and the local people still had
a real connection with the land. Before coming to Cambodia, I had interviewed
Chris Clerenos, a former trainer for Wild Aid in Cambodia, who
had learned his skills in the Forced Ranger, the US Marine Corps special-forces.
thing I didnt have to teach these guys was bush craft, said
Chris. They knew more about medicinal and edible pants than I
would ever know. When we were patrolling through the jungle, they would
stop and grab something to eat or cure an illness.
I had seen the same with hill tribes when I was living in a kickboxing
camp in the jungle, in Thailand. The young boxers were being trained
not only in fighting and Buddhism, but also in horsemanship, as they
were being groomed to serve in the armys drug-interdiction force
on the Myanmar border. They had been barefoot 90% of their life, so
boot camp was a school to teach them how to wear shoes. During Muay
Thai practice, the boys would disappear into the jungle and come back
with natural foods they had found. Where I needed copious amounts of
gear to survive in the jungle, all they needed was a big machete for
even need a machete, just his AK-47. Along the way, he picked wild dragon
fruit. The first batch was too sour. But later, he found some which
he claimed was sweet. I had learned in the monastery that westerners
just werent capable of ingesting jungle fruit. It was too bitter
and had a texture similar to mahogany. But Veriak ate with gusto. He
filled his pack, so he could share with the others when we reached the
The first part of the trip had been an easy, pleasant walk through the
Cambodian countryside. Veriak stopped to ask a local boy about the path
ahead. The boy was a textbook example of a culture in transition. He
was wearing a sarong and a T-shirt, displaying a popular Korean cartoon
character. He told us the road we wanted was under water. So, we changed
course, entering the forest under a canopy of green trees, following
a landscape which sloped gently upwards. At this point it didnt
feel like an adventure. Farmers driving ox carts smiled at the foreigner
as we passed. But soon, the visible trail disappeared and we entered
the jungle proper. The way became difficult. It was the rainy season,
and rivers had sprung up where none existed before. At our first water
crossing Veriak tentatively set one foot way out in front, like a Polish
mine detector. Its OK, he told me.
Veriak had almost no English, so we were speaking Khmer. Although not
fluent, my Khmer was OK for normal conversation. And, I felt we were
getting to know each other. But I was frustrated because I couldnt
ask deeper questions about his life as a ranger. I stepped in the water
beside him. We took one more step, and sank almost to our armpits in
the smelly mud. Veriak and I laughed. Khmers love slapstick humor, especially
when it is real.
self: Put camera in backpack.
Having survived the water, we continued up the mountain through very
dense undergrowth. Again, I was amazed that Veriak didnt carry
a machete. I had to go on my belly under obstacles which he leapt over
lithely. If there had been an ambush, Id have been trapped, helpless,
like a tortoise on his back.
Along the trail,
Veriak called a halt because he had seen a snake with its head up, ready
to strike. Without Veriaks eagle eyes looking out for me, I would
have been dead in a minute. Even with him pointing, I couldnt
see the deadly viper. The bush-craft these rangers possessed was impressive.
The ability to spot a poisonous snake is a protection mechanism inborn
in people who live close to the earth. The inability to spot poisonous
snakes is the result of what scientists call the stupid gene. I obviously
had it. And I would pass it on to my children, making them stupid as
well. If Veriak hadnt stopped me, I would have died in an act
of Darwinism designed to breed out those traits which made humans unable
to survive in a natural habitat. Having a guide with me was artificially
tampering with the survival of the human race as a whole. Although he
probably didnt know it, Veriak was a genetic engineer, creating
a race of city-dwellers, incapable of surviving in the jungle.
Animals are designed to survive in their own environment. Dolphins dont
do well in the Sahara. So, arguably I possessed those skills necessary
for survival in an urban setting. I wondered how Veriak would do on
Wall Street. Probably better than me, or I wouldnt be here in
the jungle, walking on poisonous snakes. We city people have lost the
basic skills which nature endowed us with.
When we stopped
for lunch, the difference between East and West was even more apparent.
From my overstuffed backpack, I produced a veritable feast: pate, pudding,
potted meat, coffee, and chocolate. Veriak had a huge bag of white rice
and a small bag of something else, probably meat or vegetables.
All Veriak he needed was a little cold rice and rat meat, I thought,
quoting my favorite film again.
was indigenous to the region. It was exactly what he would have eaten
if he had been home with his wife and child. My food, on the other hand,
was as foreign as I was. I had bought it at a small grocery store in
town, the previous night. The architecture of the colonial buildings
had been very French, with large stone balconies, and tremendous, shuttered
windows. It had probably been a quaint little town during the colonial
period. But like everything else in the country, years of civil war
and poverty had turned the entire town a weathered shade of gray. Today,
the town was four times the size it had been during the French occupation.
And, I wondered what sort of Frenchman chose to leave France and live
in a tiny village, in the middle of the jungle, in Cambodia?
The architecture wasnt the only remnant of the French. The grocery
store carried coffee, Nutella, pate, anchovies and bread, all items
introduced by the French. There was no deodorant anywhere to be found,
and the shopkeepers dog was pregnant. Yes, a Frenchman has
been here, I thought to myself.
After lunch, the
terrain got worse. There were several water-crossings, and in at least
two of them, we were forced to swim. In places, the current was really
strong, and it reminded me of my favorite adventure sport, river tracing.
The only difference was, this was real. We had no specialized equipment,
no safety, and no backup. A slip here could have meant disaster. I kept
having mental images of myself, with a broken leg, hearing Veriak say,
I will be back tomorrow with help.
To allay my fears, I tried to concentrate on the one subject every New
Yorker loves, fashion. In all of my adventures, I always experiment
with local gear. Since I am generally operating in under-developed countries,
it is safe to make two assumptions; first, that the average monthly
income is less than my hourly wage back home; and second, that none
of the locals has heard of North Face or Eddy Bauer. Since
they have been surviving in this environment for centuries, I would
have to believe that they know how to survive, and for less money.
piece of gear on this trip was a pair of Thai army jungle boots, which
I had purchased in Chiang Mai for 80 Baht (less than $2.50). They were
like high top sneakers with rubber bottoms and canvas above, similar
to Chuck Tailor basketball shoes. If I were reviewing them for a magazine,
I would say that their overall performance was good. They were excellent
for wading through a slow moving river, and very good when we were mired
in mud up to our thighs. But they had no traction at all over slippery
Veriak was wearing some kind of plastic slip-on shoes; one step above
the Uncle Ho sandals worn by the Vietcong, which were made from old
car tires. They seemed to get good traction on the wet rock. He wore
them without socks, so they were easy to slip on and off. He would take
them off before climbing a tree. No socks was also more hygienic, and
would prevent jungle rot. It was tempting not to wear socks, but that
also meant more leeches. We were both covered in them, but Veriak was
particularly hard hit on his ankles and between his toes, because he
had no socks. The jungle was crawling with the bloodthirsty beggars.
By the end of the day, I had picked about twenty of the awful beasts
off of me, mostly off my legs and hands.
A huge red patch
would suddenly appear on your thighs, soaking through your pants, like
you had been shot. This was where a leech had attached itself to you
under your clothes, gorged itself till swollen, and then exploded. The
whole process happened without you knowing about it. Sometimes you would
feel some little prickling or a little discomfort. You would drop your
pants, and check for leeches, but not see anything. But mere moments
later, there would be a huge leech where none had been before. The leeches
were extremely small, and difficult to see, but they would swell very
You brush off the leeches, and they leave behind evil looking hickies.
Where Veriak was able to cross the streams, skipping from stone to stone,
I had to jump in the water and walk across on the bottom. At one crossing,
the water was deep and moving so fast I could just barely make headway.
To keep from being washed over a low falls, I had been following along
a rock wall. But, at the breach, the current was too strong. There was
nothing to hold on to, and nothing to climb onto to escape the current.
Giving up on walking, I tried to swim across. As soon as my feet left
the bottom, I felt the current pushing me towards the breach and over
the side. I swam as hard as I could. Suddenly, I was doing vector mathematics
in my head. For each six inches I moved forward, I moved two feet closer
to the edge. So, how many six-inch units could I move forward before
I was swept away? Quick calculations told me it was about even. Just
as I reached the other side, the current got me, and started to take
me down. I forgot to carry the two! I shouted, realizing
the error I had made in my computations.
around under the water, I grabbed hold of a slippery rock. But, I was
just slightly too far off to be able to grab the foliage growing on
the opposing bank. Veriak tried reaching out his hand, but it was just
out of reach.
Looking for something to lengthen his grip, the best Veriak could come
up with in short order, was his AK-47. He pointed the 8mm barrel of
the deadly weapon at me, and yelled in Khmer, Take it! Did
he mean for me to commit suicide rather than be drowned?
I wanted to wag
my finger in his face and give him a dressing down, lecturing him about
firearm safety. But as soon as I let go with one hand, the current peeled
me off the stone, and I was headed for the falls. Eagerly, I grabbed
the end of the weapon with my teeth. OK, no, actually I grabbed it with
my hand. But I was thinking, maybe Veriaks idea hadnt been
so bad after all. I thought back to lessons our mothers had taught us.
As far as I could remember there was no specific prohibition against
swimming with firearms. I mean, it wasnt like we were running
Sweet intentions can often be a bit intimidating.
I was wet head to toe, I had managed to keep the backpack above water. A
quick check said that my phone, wallet, camera, and notebook were all
fine. The non-biodegradable plastic bags from the grocery store had
done their job, thus proving that another word for environmentally unfriendly
In addition to saving hundreds of dollars by wearing local shoes, you
can also save money by buying a cheap backpack at the local Cambodian
market. For about three dollars, you can get a counterfeit North
Face daypack. The pack wont be waterproof, but you could protect
your gear with free plastic bags, that you get from the grocery store.
Your North Face will be affordable, convenient, waterproof, and
best of all, fashionable. And, if your pack gets shredded while you
are in the jungle, no worries, just throw it away and buy a new one.
About half way up
the mountain, we found some beautiful caves, with rock faces of about
twenty-five meters, which I think would have been appropriate for rock
climbing. I was so tired, however, that I couldnt be bothered
to take off my pack and get my camera. I also couldnt be bothered
to look for water. So, I would ask Veriak to hand me a bottle from my
pack. When I had finished drinking, he would stow the half empty bottle
until I needed it again. Just past the caves, when I asked for water,
Veriak handed me a bottle, saying This is the last one.
His words rang final, like a cell door slamming home. I was trapped
on the mountain with no water. If we were half way there, this meant
that we still had four hours to go. Luckily, I still had enough food
for three days.
Often Veriak would leave to go off and look for the trail. The jungle
was so dense that when he had taken two steps, he was completely invisible.
I had read about dishonest guides who took refugees to the Thai border
during and after the Pol Pot regime. A favorite trick was to walk people
into exhaustion, then run off and leave them in the jungle overnight.
By the next day, they would be completely defenseless. Then, the guides
would come back and rob them. Step one was completed. I was exhausted.
Step two; he had left me alone, but he didnt have to wait till
morning, I was already defenseless.
Ill give you my ATM card now, I told Veriak. But
I wont tell you the pin number till we get back to Phnom Penh.
He just smiled, having no idea what an ATM card was. On the one hand,
you could say that Cambodia wasnt ready for adventure tourism.
There was no information available, no English speaking guides, no trails,
and no facilities. But, on the other hand, this was real adventure.
You are traveling through real jungle, led by a real ranger who lives
by his wits in the wild. This was not like trekking in Thailand or Malaysia
where you would meet three groups on the way up, and two more on the
way down. There should have been a sign at the bottom of the mountain
which read, NO JAPANESE OR GERMAN SPOKEN HERE.
Cambodia has wild,
untamed jungle, which very few outsiders have experienced. You could
be the first on your block to trek Bokor.
Even the remote places of the Earth are no longer remote. My phone rang.
It was my office calling. How far are you from the top?
asked a very concerned Thavrin. He had been clever enough and realistic
enough to ride a motorcycle to the top, and was now at the ranger station,
waiting for me.
I dont know.
How long till you get here?
I dont know that either.
But where are you?
I am in the freaking jungle! Or did you miss that part of this
mornings meeting? I shouted, loosing my patience.
When will you arrive?
I dont know where I am, or where I am going. So, how could
I possibly know how long it will take me to get there?
What does Veriak say?
He told me two more hours, but I think he is lying to me.
Hand the phone to Veriak, demanded Thavrin.
With pleasure. While they talked, I picked leeches off my
body, and collected them in a jar, in case I needed a transfusion later.
I was so thirsty, but I dared not finish my final bottle of water. I
cursed myself for being so stupid. Switching into survival mode, I remembered
that I had read a story about a guy, lost in the desert, who survived
by drinking his own urine.
my own urine? Gross!
I handed an empty bottle to Veriak. Here, fill this.
The jungle was beautiful,
but it could also be depressing, because you couldnt see the sun.
The dense undergrowth was very claustrophobic. When we finally burst
out of the bush, the reality of the sky and the natural world exploded
in a riot of colors which were not green. My spirits soared. Actually,
lets put that statement in perspective. In the bowels of the jungle,
my spirit had been so low, that now that we were out, my spirits were
just even with the ground. But it was still an improvement.
Veriak told me that we only had one kilometer to go, and this time,
I trusted his estimation. The terrain was flat, but still a bit tough
going because of the thigh deep carpet of weeds. I finally decided that
the Thai army shoes had been a mistake. They gave very little ankle
support, and only lightly protected the toes. I had painfully smashed
the large toe on my left foot while we were crossing a river, and I
just knew it was bleeding. Now, every time I stepped on a rock, which
was every time I stepped, pain shot through me like a diamond bullet.
I had picked up
a walking stick, just after lunch; and thank God! Because without it,
I couldnt have done some of the more difficult water crossings,
where leaning on the pole had been like having a safety line to support
me. But now, I was hanging on my walking stick like some decrepit old
geezer. Unable to walk upright, I was all hunched over, and belonged
on the left side of Darwins Walk of Man.
When I knew in my bones we were only twenty minutes away from the end
of this torture, all I wanted to do was finish. Hours earlier, I had
blocked the pain by tuning out everything around me. Now, I just concentrated
on putting one foot in front of the other. But, suddenly, Veriak stopped
walking. He turned, and asked me something very complicated in Khmer.
I was so tired that I couldnt summon up the energy to listen.
So, I really wasnt sure what he was saying. It was clearly something
about my plans for the next day. The rain was coming down, and even
standing still, I felt my body shaking, as my muscles twitching involuntarily.
the time or place to be making plans for tomorrow. When I got tired
like this, I hated people talking to me in other languages. First, I
didnt want anyone talking to me at all. But then, by talking to
me in Khmer, he was forcing me to think, and that was just too painful
at that moment.
At jule day, at jule, at jule. I dont understand, I
said, waving my hand dismissively. But, Veriak tried again, rephrasing
his question. I couldnt imagine there was anything we needed to
discuss right then. As far as I understood our plan, he was leading
me to a place where I could take a shower, eat, sleep, and drink gallons
of water. I saw no reason to alter those plans.
At jule, at
. Knyom jang oui dau nyam bei, moet duk, dei dek. I just want
to eat, shower, and sleep. Dau. Go, I said, taking a step. I thought
he would start moving. But instead, he just stood there, staring at
me as if he didnt understand what I wanted. But what was there
to understand? We were walking before. And now, I wanted to keep walking.
Dau, dau, dau! I said in Khmer, and walked towards him.
But, once again, he remained stationary. An adrenaline surge of anger
exploded inside of me, and I rose to my full height. Freaking
go! You moron! I screamed, launching myself at him uncertain if
I was actually going to hit him. I was completely insane with fatigue
and the situation could have turned ugly. Veriak hugged his AK-47 like
a teddy bear and cowered away from me.
DAU! GO! I screamed, till my throat was raw. Veriak led
My brain was too thick to think at the time. But later, the best I could
come up with was that Veriak got $20 a day for leading me, so he wanted
to make sure that if I were going back down the next day, he wanted
to be the one to take me. But I was too tired to make that decision
right then. I just wanted to go home. Veriak stopping me on the trail
was like trying to take food away from a starving dog.
Later, when I had
calmed down, and rested, I told Thavrin what had happened, and that
I felt a little badly about how I had treated Veriak. I also felt a
little stupid. I mean after all, Veriak was probably stronger than me,
and he had a gun.
Veriak told me about what had happened. He said he was very scared
of you. Thavrin laughed. You know, with your beard, and
your size being bigger than most people, it is a little scary when you
get angry. If I were Veriak I would have run off and left me on
the trail to die of exposure. I called Veriak to the side and gave him
a five-dollar tip. Finally, across a field, I could see the ancient
French casino and behind it, the age-old Catholic church. The path led
around a bend, and there was the ranger station built in what had once
been a luxury hotel.
We had arrived.
I would have dropped on my knees and kissed the ground, but I knew that
I wouldnt be able to get up again.
You look like crap, said Thavrin, by way of greeting. He
was kicked back, drinking a beer and watching boxing on TV with the
You were supposed to be looking after me, I said, through
my fatigue, sounding like Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront. What
if I died of exhaustion? I bet you didnt even have a plan to get
my body back down the mountain.
Thavrin was sizing up his motorcycle, obviously contemplating if my
corpse would fit on the back.
If I do die, I want my nephew to have this watch, I said.
Its plastic, said Thavrin, disapprovingly.
Thavrin handed me a change of clothes and some groceries he had brought
up from town. He sat on his motorcycle, and started the engine.
Where are you going? I asked.
I am going to go sleep in a four star hotel in town, he
And I am sleeping here with the rangers? I asked, disappointed.
Thavrin just nodded.
Do they have hot water in the shower?
They have water.
Close enough, I said.
Do you want to hike down tomorrow?
I never want to hike again.
I thought so, laughed Thavrin. In fact, I already
arranged a driver for you. He will pick you up at two tomorrow.
And what should I do in the meantime?
You can hang out with the rangers tonight. Tomorrow they will
take you on a tour of the casino and the whole French complex.
Fine, I said. As long as I dont have to go back
into the jungle.
A young ranger led me to my room. It was a huge double room in a building
which had obviously been a luxury hotel during the French colonial days.
But now, it had fallen into serious disrepair and felt a bit more like
a concrete bunker. There was electricity, the boy told me, but it wouldnt
be on until six oclock. There was also running water in the shower,
but only cold. There was, however, a western style toilet. The rangers
had some food to sell me if I needed it, including dry noodles, coffee,
water, and coke.
The food Thavrin
had brought was enough for several days. I had a number of Snickers
bars, cans of anchovies, two loaves of bread, Nutella, potted meat,
coffee, and hot chocolate. The first priority was to shower and pick
the leeches off of my body. It was actually cold on the mountaintop,
the first time I had experienced cold since coming to Cambodia. It was
a refreshing change from the pervasive heat I had grown accustomed to.
After my brisk shower, I dressed. In town the night before, thank God,
I had had the foresight to buy a long-sleeved sweatshirt. In my home,
in Taiwan, it was cold enough in winter that we would have to wear a
light jacket or sweater, especially on the motorcycle. But in Cambodia,
it was always bloody debilitatingly hot, even in winter. Before coming
up here, I realized I no longer owned any long sleeved garments at all
I curled up on the
bed with all of the covers, and read by flashlight. It was nice. It
had been nearly eighteen months since my last outdoor adventure, and
it felt good to be an adventurer again. The one thing I really liked
about these adventures was the solitude. I loved the satisfaction of
being exhausted, of having washed and eaten, and just relaxing on the
bed and reading. If this were Thailand or even Taiwan or China, I would
know that tomorrow I would get up and do it again, and continue for
a week or so. And, I would probably get a lot of reading done before
it was over. But this was Cambodia, and I was on a paid contract. This
feeling would only last till two oclock tomorrow when the driver
would come for me. I wondered if my days of real adventure were over.
This pause gave me time to reflect. I was happy with the writing I had
done on this trip. In fact, it was some of the best writing I had ever
done. It was informed and deep and meaningful. But, I had also felt
that I was being excluded from most of the experiences. In most of the
stories in this book, I had been a spectator, behind the camera, not
in front, as I was used to. But as far as adventure went, with the exception
of this Khmer Rouge death march up Bokor Mountain, this was the tamest
adventure book I had ever done. It didnt compare to crossing the
Taklamakan Desert by rickshaw, for example. Something else nagged me.
As much as I lamented not being on that type of adventure, I kind of
liked eating, and having money, and an apartment, and cable TV, and
having all of these things on top of the four star accommodations. Had
I outgrown the sleeping-in-the-dirt style adventures? Did that matter?
This new direction in my writing was certainly more saleable. These
stories were getting picked up by magazines who never even looked at
me before. But was that what I wanted? They liked my new stories because
they sounded like every other travel writers. Other than losing
my temper with Veriak today, I hadnt done anything even remotely
I was fearing the
future. Having complete sponsorship for a travel book had been my dream.
But it was a double-edged sword. I was expected to write good things
about Cambodia. But I generally didnt feel good things about Cambodia
anymore. The personal side of this trip, the part that I had to delete
from my articles was that this trip through Cambodia was like when a
married couple that is having problems goesaway together to save the
relationship. It was my last ditch effort to maintain the marriage.
In my first book about Cambodia, Letters from the Penh, I had
said such judgmental and insensitive things, picking on a people plagued
with poverty and a lack of education. I was setting myself up to be
on the wrong side of a David and Goliath confrontation where I was bound
to lose in the court of public appeal.
This trip was about rediscovering the Khmers. And so far, it was working.
Thavrin and Samban were two of the most intelligent and well-informed
people I had ever worked with, in any country. Variak and his younger
brother, who I called Aun, had become easy friends. I had
returned to my original verdict about Cambodia, a year and a half earlier,
before I had become so jaded. The Khmers were good people, trapped in
a desperate situation. And, who are we to judge? We dont know
how we would react if faced with the same levels of poverty and corruption.
The next morning,
after I had eaten a huge breakfast from my pack, an older ranger came
to take me on a tour of the grounds, which were constructed around a
small, but picturesque lake. Our first stop was at the old French casino.
It was now overgrown and burned out, as it was slowly being reclaimed
by the jungle. With very little glass left in the windows, the casino
was a model of decadence in decline. It must have been good to be French,
back in the colonial era. Imagine the elegant parties they must have
had, dancing on the then manicured lawn, in the hot tropical night.
And, I bet they had great coffee.
Inside of the casino, the ballroom was immense, with a huge fireplace
in one wall. I am told that in all of Cambodia, there are no existing
photos of what the casino looked like in its prime. They were all destroyed
by the Khmer Rouge. There is, however, hope that the there may be some
in France. As a result, you have to use your imagination to create the
opulent images of French colonial power. The walls, probably once covered
in gilt and fashionable stucco, were now covered with moss and mold,
like the French themselves. From the second story balcony, there was
a breathtaking view of the lush green valley, which spread out for miles
below. Across the complex was the lonely little Catholic Church. A mist,
blowing in from the jungle looked very eerie.
of the casino, the ballroom was immense, with a huge fireplace in
one wall. I am told that in all of Cambodia, there are no existing
photos of what the casino looked like in its prime. They were all
destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. There is, however, hope that the there
may be some in France. As a result, you have to use your imagination
to create the opulent images of French colonial power.
The walls, probably
once covered in gilt and fashionable stucco, were now covered with moss
and mold, like the French themselves. From the second story balcony,
there was a breathtaking view of the lush green valley, which spread
out for miles below. Across the complex was the lonely little Catholic
Church. A mist, blowing in from the jungle looked very eerie.
The next stop was the old Catholic church, which was like a religious
Dhien Bien Phu, caught between the excesses of the colonial casino life
and a changing political tide. Parallel to the Saturday night parties,
which raged in the casino, and Sunday morning mass, said in the church,
the unstoppable flow of history would eventually bring the empire to
an end, and later, the country to its knees.
Inside of the church, I could still feel the faith of stone, sleeping,
but waiting for what? Cambodia needs faith and prayer now.
I wondered. The church was tiny, but so special and picturesque. The
altar was made of stone, as was the basin for the holy water. What happened
here? Who had worshipped here? Who was the priest?
The spiritual quiet
of the holy granite was disrupted by the voluminous graffiti, the most
of any building I had seen in Cambodia. Most of the slogans were written
by Australian tourists. Would they do that to a church in their own
country? One of them read, So-and-so was here from West Samoa. As much
as I hate to see any graffiti at all, West Samoans should be allowed
to graffiti anything they wanted. There arent too many of them,
and even if they all came to Cambodia on the same day, it just wouldnt
be that much graffiti.
Outside the buildings, there were stone balconies built into the hilltop
all around. From an observation point behind the church, I could trace
with my eyes where the jungle gave way to a blue sea. A few lazy boats
made their way along the coast, before disappearing into the mist.
If there was one
thing the French knew, it was aesthetics. I could not have thought of
a more beautiful place to build a retreat.
From the Catholic church, it was a short walk to the Buddhist temple,
which was constructed of red brick. According to the head monk, the
original temple was built in 1924, but had been closed during the Khmer
Rouge time. This one had only reopened in 2000. The head monk told me
that the Khmer Rouge had been here until 1980, but there were no more
mines, thanks to the hard working people at CMAG (Cambodian Mine Action
Group). When I asked what he had done during the KR time, his light-hearted
answer was, I was a farmer, like everyone else. After the
liberation, he became an Ajan, a teacher of monks. In the glory days
of the empire, both temple and church were open. But now, only the temple
survives. The French were long gone, but the Khmers live on. My guide,
Luke Hon, was forty-one years old. He had been a soldier from 1985 to
2000, when he became a ranger. He was now a group leader.
We go out twice a month, and stay one week in the station. It
is a hard life. If we see illegal logging or poaching, we make arrests.
I asked him if anyone had ever been shot. Yes, but long ago. That
doesnt happen as much now. These days, the poachers use traps.
So, there is no one there when we discover them. But I have been shot
at a lot.
Luke Hon told me
about the training and funding from Wild Aid. Apparently, what
I thought was a new hotel, being constructed next to the building where
I had slept, was actually a new ranger station, paid for by Wild
Back in my room, I was talking with Veriaks brother, who I just
called Aun; little brother. He was nineteen, and very excited to be
a ranger and follow in his older brothers footsteps. I opened
a candy bar for him, and we talked like friends. My Khmer was not good
enough for interviews, but if a friend was kind and patient, we could
communicate in Khmer well enough for me to get my stories. Aun said
that he didnt have a girlfriend, but he liked Asian girls better
than foreigners. Specifically, he said that he liked Chinese, Japanese,
and Khmer all the same. I like Japanese girls best, I told
him. Because they are as beautiful as the other Asian women, but
they have more money.
We both laughed.
Even at his young age, and although he was exceptionally fit, Aun complained
about how difficult the rangers life was. Out on patrol, they
carried about 30kgs of gear. This included food, water, AK-47, magazine,
15 rounds, machete, GPS, maps, and a camera. Each team was composed
of 3 to 5 men. From the way he described his work, it sounded
as if the modern ranger used his camera more often than his gun. According
to Aun, when they stumbled on an abandoned logging camp or traps, they
photographed everything, to be used as evidence later. With all of the
training and hardship, a ranger could only look forward to a salary
of $40 per month. Supervisors get $50. He told me cheerfully.
Since I had enough food for two life times, I gave my surplus to Aun.
Cambodia has been
the center of all of the action in South East Asia, but more as an observer
and victim, than as a main actor. During the Vietnam conflict, the American
military intervention in Cambodia was called Operation Sideshow. The
name was fitting. Thirty years later, Cambodia was still the eternal
Operation Sideshow, with giant neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, gobbling
up the headlines and the acreage. Cambodia was South East Asias
New Jersey, which Benjamin Franklin had once dubbed the candle lit at
both ends. In this Indochina, where Chinese and Indian cultures met,
Cambodia was destined to rise to mediocrity.
The Motorcycle finally arrived to take me down the mountain, but the
adventure was not yet over. The road was the worst I had ever seen in
my life - completely broken - and in places it was very much like The
Snufalufagus. You needed to use your imagination to see it.
I was thinking,
If this mountain were located at a tourist attraction in America,
the personal injury lawyers would get rich.
Two miles an hour seemed like a breakneck speed. The Moto driver apologized
for the lack of speed. When I go alone, I can do it in an hour
and a half. But with a passenger, it would take about two to two
and half hours to cover the six or eight kilometers. Hair-raising and
scary, I wanted to get off and walk. I cursed the fact that I wasnt
in a car. But, when we met a car, a big SUV, I realized we were much
better off. While we were in danger of coming off the bike, the SUV
was in danger of going off the side. The road was just barely wide enough
to accommodate the slow crawling vehicles. But, with the road washed
out in places, due to an exceptionally heavy rainy season, there was
often no room at all.
Finally, after I
had aged several years, we came around a bend, and suddenly I saw the
single most beautiful view of the ocean I had ever seen. The end was
near. We were only a few hundred meters up now. And there below me was
a peaceful valley, which ran to the ocean. Shades of blue and pale green
blended with the mist, which was still rolling in from the sea. Once
again, I wasnt sure where the sky ended and the ocean began.
We took a break, so I could snap some photos. As I saddled up again,
I thought. I would be continuing on my journey to discover the Khmers.
But the relaxed tour of the top of Bokor with Luke Hon, and the quiet
hours of friendly conversation I had spent in the company of Veriaks
little brother had been some of the most pleasant experiences I had
had in Cambodia. Who couldnt love these people and
this country? For a brief moment I envied Veriak and the other rangers
who would get to remain in the camp, going on their rotations through
the pristine, unspoiled jungle. But then I remembered the leeches. And,
I was glad that I was going to a hotel.
© Antonio Graceffo April 2006
Paddle Around Hong Kong
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