A Man Named Nol: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We’d heard warnings from other travelers on the road. Do NOT loiter in the streets of Phnom Penh after dark. Foreigners, we were told, were prime targets for muggers. Considering the bloody history of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, and the disappearance of a few Western tourists in the 90s, we weren’t about to argue. So, what were we doing well after dusk in the Cambodian capital this particular day? Just touching down at Phnom Penh airport with enough luggage to sink a small boat and absolutely no idea which direction our hotel was, or how long it’d take to get there.

 We should have arrived six hours earlier, been refreshed and fed, had time for a quick scout around and been retreating indoors by this time of day. That had been the original plan. Instead the five of us (myself, Peter, Michelle, Jaime and Jess) spent much of the day sitting in the conspicuously empty Danang airport in Vietnam. Why did everyone else seem to know that the flight didn’t take off until well after the time noted in our itinerary?

With sustenance from a few squashed muesli bars, we arrived in Cambodia tired, hungry, and a little on edge. As usual, the five of us couldn’t fit into one taxi with all those bags. So, without thinking, we bundled into the two nearest taxis, gave the name of our hotel and took off. That’s when I realised, in my taxi, it was just Michelle and I with almost all the baggage. There we were, two slight-framed 20-somethings with four heaving backpacks. We couldn’t have appeared more inviting to the average mugger if we’d tried. Not only that, but my travel documents were with Peter in the other taxi. Rule one when travelling in a strange place: do NOT become separated from passport. Bloody marvellous.

Nol - a driver (and teacher) extraordinaire

Nol – a driver (and teacher) extraordinaire

Turns out my fears weren’t justified though. We arrived at our hotel in one piece, right behind the other taxi. Peter had already negotiated the next day’s transport with his driver. It was going to be a huge day. Instead of the 1 ¾ days we’d anticipated in Phnom Penh, we now had just one day and there was plenty we wanted to do. I had half a dozen items on my must-see list. We’d initially planned to wing it when it came to transport, but with time against us, we agreed the best way to get around was with a knowledgeable driver. Not only could Peter’s taxi driver speak English, but he offered a great deal to see all the major sights. He introduced himself as Nol, and shook hands with each of us. What immediately struck me was how beautifully groomed he was. Unlike many of the taxi drivers we’d encountered in our travels, Nol took pride in his appearance. He was a quiet, handsome man in his thirties, with kind eyes and a polite smile. His hair was neatly parted. He wore a spotless white business shirt and black trousers – both perfectly pressed. His black shoes were well-buffed. I couldn’t believe someone could look so crisp after more than 12 hours on the road, in the heat and grime of Phnom Penh. He promised to be ready at 7.00 the next morning. He also assured us, if we didn’t venture into any back alleys, we certainly would NOT have any problem with muggers – especially at the early hour of 8.00pm.

At two minutes past 7.00 the next morning, we bundled down the stairs. There waiting, in a fresh white shirt, was Nol – polishing his taxi. Turns out he’d been there for a good half hour – possibly concerned that we wouldn’t keep our word.

As I was the one with the sight-seeing agenda, and everyone else seemed willing to follow, I jumped into the passenger seat beside Nol to dish out requests. But before I could open my mouth, we were on our way. Seems Nol had his own itinerary. “Killing Fields of Choeung Ek before it gets too hot,” he announced. “Then, Tuol Sleng prison, followed by a visit to the Foreign Correspondents Club, lunch, the Silver Pagoda and markets if we have time.” I tossed my list. It sounded perfect to me.

A sticky-beak by nature, I soon found out Nol was married with three children. Their home consisted of just two rooms. While Nol drove a taxi all day, his wife worked in a clothing factory seven days a week from early in the morning to late at night. His mother-in-law looked after the children. While I expressed compassion, Nol shrugged and smiled. For him: a fait accompli. His main ambition was to ensure his children lived a better life than he.

I told him about my life in Australia, and the more we chatted, the more relaxed he became. Although he kept apologising for his English, saying his skills were poor. In actual fact, Nol’s English could not be faulted. I presumed he’d had lessons, and asked who’d taught him. He looked at me oddly, then said matter-of-factly “tourists”. He had learnt English from speaking to tourists in his taxi. I was astounded.

We suddenly arrived at the Killing Fields. Not a pretty name, but then the acts that took place here were nothing short of horrific. Nol had no interest in accompanying us to the site, but was eager for us to take a look.

In three years in the 1970s, as the Khmer Rouge tried to enforce an agrarian utopia on Cambodia’s people, at least 17,000 men, women and children were killed and crudely buried here. The first thing that greeted us was a collection of 8000 human skulls arranged according to age and sex. Some had bullet holes, many had smashed teeth, and others looked as though half their heads had been caved in. They’d come from the scores of mass graves that dotted the area. Some of the graves had been exhumed, and a guide (whose entire family had been killed during Pol Pot’s reign) took us on a tour. As he delivered horrifying statistics, there also were signs which gave graphic details of gruesome executions. One sign I’ll never forget pointed out a tree against which hundreds of babies and toddlers were bashed and murdered as their traumatized mothers watched. On the ground, scraps of clothes and bits of bone, fragments of former lives that were now part of the dust….and that I was now walking on. It seemed so terribly wrong.

We returned to the taxi shell-shocked. Peter and Michelle were uncharacteristically sombre; Jamie was even quieter than usual; Jess was in tears and I wasn’t far from it.

I assumed front seat status again and tentatively asked Nol whether he knew anyone who’d died there. “My family,” he responded without flinching. Turns out his parents were both school teachers; young and bright. Nol wasn’t with them the day they were taken away. He’d been off playing with friends in another place.

Tuol Sleng Museum was our next stop – no less horrific a place than Choeung Ek. Pol Pot’s forces turned this ordinary high school into a prison and torture centre – the notorious S-21. In room after room, there were descriptions of what devastating events took place. There were also black and white photos of every person held – thousands of images – lining the walls from ceiling to floor. It was profoundly depressing, and some of our group – overcome by the scenes – bailed out early. I, on the other hand, became enraged at the injustice and made sure I visited each room as though I owed it to every person who was imprisoned there.

Again Nol chose to stay outside. He knew some of the people whose photos were on those walls. He’d lived through enough horror and didn’t need to re-visit.

Lunch was meant to be at the Foreign Correspondents Club – a place I’d been looking forward to visiting. But after such an intense morning, its opulence disturbed me. In a country where most people are pitifully poor, here was a place where westerners flaunted their wealth. It didn’t sit well. We instead opted for a bite at a roadside eatery.

The day was quickly ticking by – no time for both the Royal Palace and the markets in the afternoon – it was one or the other. Understandably, my companions wanted to go somewhere light-hearted – somewhere they didn’t have to think. The markets won outright. And of course, Nol knew where the best of them were.

The markets were stiflingly hot, but had the most magnificent silk I’d ever seen – in scarves, clothes, sheets: reams and reams of jewel-coloured cloth. Scores of women stall holders and their children were stuffed beneath a very low corrugated iron roof. The humidity was unbelievable. I got an ice block and sat outside to wait as the others searched for souvenirs.

 That’s when I noticed a man hunched and bent, as thin as a reed. His head was so disfigured he’d barely be able to eat, let alone speak. It was as though his face had melted onto his chest. His eye sockets stretched to his cheeks. There was no distinguishable nose to speak of and his mouth was permanently ajar. 

He was the victim of a landmine. While the threat of Pol Pot had gone, his deadly legacy lived on in the thousands of landmines sprinkled across hillsides, rice fields, and forests.

As this man walked by, his own people turned away. Soon he shuffled past me, not even looking up as he thrust his beggar’s hat in my direction. I emptied my purse of change. It didn’t amount to much, maybe three US dollars, so I shrugged an apology. He responded by grasping my hand in both of his, and looking directly at me, as tears brimmed in his eyes.

As he went on his way, Nol sidled up next to me and said “landmine” as way of explanation. I nodded as Nol went on to tell me that the man, like many others, had been in the army and worked as a landmine clearer. Obviously he had been one of the unlucky ones. He wasn’t killed but was so severely maimed he’d lost his job – his life. There was no worker’s compensation, no medical assistance, no welfare for people like him. He’d even become a liability to his family – another mouth to feed. So this man was left to wander the streets, horribly injured, without hope for a home or income, relying on hand-outs and scrounging for food…and I’d given him a paltry three bucks. 

We were all quiet on the way back to the hotel… tired and overwhelmed. Our brains were buzzing – trying to comprehend everything we’d learnt that day.  We found it hard to say goodbye to our driver extraordinaire. To his embarrassment, we ended up paying much more than his requested fee.

It may sound as though we had a day from hell, and in some ways it was. Nol wanted to educate some young Aussies who really knew nothing of hardship, about another kind of world. He did so without judgment or resentment. As well as learning a history that occurred within our lifetime, our biggest lesson was this: despite trauma and repression, people can emerge with dignity, strength and hope. All of us came away a little less selfish, a little more compassionate, and much, much wiser.  And it’s all thanks to a man named Nol.


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