Fear & Loathing In Cambodia
It began so innocently. My Canadian buddy, Peter, and I sat down at the Bayon Restaurant, having flown that morning from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. We started chatting with a woman from New Zealand, Fiona, who had been working for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in the east of the country helping organize that country’s first democratic
She had just returned from one of the most inaccessible, and to her eyes, most beautiful of Angkor’s temples, Banteay Srei.
This temple dates from the 12th century, in an amazing state of preservation. It was constructed entirely of
red sandstone, has fantastic bas-relief and statues, and is utterly remote. It was a long held dream of mine to visit the temples of
Angkor, one of the wonders of Southeast Asia, if not the world. This dream was about to come true; I didn’t want to miss a single
I was intently interested in what Fiona had to say. She told us she had hired a guide and ridden to the temple
on the back of his motorbike. The road, often mine laden and in terrible condition (a massive understatement), she
said that it was important to go after enough people had already traveled
on the road after sunrise, thereby detonating any newly laid mines. (At the time it seemed
reasonable enough. And hey, what are a few land mines but a minor inconvenience.) She assured us it was well worth the hassle. The clincher was that Fiona had no trouble whatsoever, having been there and back in time for lunch.
After breakfast, Peter and I rented motorbikes; Peter for the second time in his life, I for the very first. Having traveled extensively on islands where motorbike renting is de rigueur, and having seen oodles of foreigners involved in the goriest of bike accidents, I had forever forsworn motorized bikes.
Angkor was to be my inaugural biking experience. The temple complex is huge – main attractions are within an area larger than ten square miles – any means of transport other than a motorcycle was impractical. There are no mountain bikes for rent and no one I met had brought one along. We easily found some guys happy to rent us two bikes. After a quick lesson on how to shift gears, we were off to visit the largest and most famous of the temples, Angkor Wat.
At first sight we were amazed at the sheer immensity of the Wat. On closer inspection we found the temple adorned on all four sides with panel after panel of superb stone-carved bas-reliefs, recounting the epics of Khmer civilization. We were rather surprised to hear the intermittent thuds of rocket-propelled grenades going off in the distance. However, after a few hours of exploring in awe and climbing atop Angkor Wat, the distant rockets seemed mere background noise compared to the majesty before us.
Peter and I decided to stay as the temple became diffused in twilight. We headed back to Siem Reap in the gray black evening air, reveling in the images of mysterious stones.
When we returned our bikes we asked the man who had rented them to us if he could guide us to Banteay Srei. “Of course,” he replied, “I have taken so many tourists to see this temple, it’s no problem.” He warned us that the trip was long, the road bad though he was obviously happy to get the work. We arranged to meet him early the next morning.
The streets of Siem Reap are unlit, so it was rather eerie walking in pitch dark to the restaurant only a half-mile away. At dinner we met a Japanese man who had also visited Banteay Srei that same day. He had actually found it by himself on a lone motorbike. He extolled the temple’s beauty, seemed happy we would be going.
Just when it seemed that everything was going perfectly, BOOM! A very loud grenade exploded quite near the restaurant. A group of about ten French UNTAC soldiers at a nearby table immediately went into battle-ready posture, forcing the diners into the back of the restaurant, telling everyone to get under the tables. Since we were already in the back, I took my fried peanut appetizers and beer under the table and watched bemusedly as the French commander hastily overpaid the restaurant owner and headed off with the beret brigade to deal with the situation.
About four months before, the Khmer Rouge had occupied Siem Reap over the course of a night and caused considerable damage. So there was cause for concern, but certainly not before dessert. Unfortunately we had to walk home to our guesthouse through the same eerie, dark and not quite so silent road. We walked briskly.
When we arrived back at the guesthouse, we met an English bloke who was leaving for Phnom Penh the next morning. We garnered temple tips, exchanged travelers stories and finally told him of our plan to visit Banteay Srei the next day. His chatty air became somber. "Don’t go", he warned. He had heard that a group of tourists in a jeep had been hijacked on the sole road to Banteay Srei about ten days before. No one was hurt, but everything was stolen – passports, money, air tickets, cameras, bags, gear, watches, jewelry, clothes – a clean sweep. He had also heard it was beautiful, although he warned us it was dangerous, unpredictable and risky.
What to do
Peter and I pow-wowed before sleeping. We had met two different people who had been there that day and had heard one second-hand bad story. We decided to go with the flow, and the flow was telling us we had to wake up very early. Needless to say, my dreams were filled with fields of lurking mines and scenes from Rambo movies.
We awoke at 6:00 am. It was cold, gray and raining. After a quick breakfast at the Bayon Restaurant next door, we met our guide. He had his bike; Peter and I would each drive the same bikes we had rented from him the day before. It was still drizzling. We headed off in spite of the elements.
Always prepared, I had a great lightweight Columbia shell, silk T-shirt and my trusty Mao hat, so I was relatively well protected from the cold and wet. Peter had on a T-shirt, no jacket and a cotton scarf. Within minutes he was drenched. We spent about an hour trudging through the puddles and gravel into the main temple complex. We arrived at our first stop on the way to Banteay Srei. Ta Prohm was the only temple that was left exactly as the French archeologists had found it when Angkor was re-discovered in the late 1860’s.
Because of our early start and the rain, we were the first visitors of the day. We were greeted by a one-armed, machine gun toting, teenage Cambodian, one of several soldiers guarding the temple. Our new chaperone served as a grisly reminder of the horrors of the recent past. Huge gnarly trees devouring solid stone in thick fecund jungle set the tone. Ta Prohm is a witness to the power of time over mankind’s architectural ambitions and proof positive that thick trunked trees will one day rule the earth. Wandering through the ruins in the morning mist we came upon wall after stone wall serving as flowerpots for hundred foot potted monsters. The trees literally grew out of the cracks of once solid rock in a most bizarre display of landscaping.
Towards Banteay Srei
Mounting our motorbikes, we went towards Banteay Srei. After thirty minutes we passed through Pradap, a small village that seemed to be sinking into the mud. Little did I realize we were sinking, not the village. The non-stop rain of the previous night had turned our quaint little dirt road into a quaint little mud river. If that wasn’t enough, our quaint little mud river had been mined so frequently and thoroughly during the latest civil wars, all that was left were huge pot holes, one after another, filled with brown sludge. The only way to make forward progress was to swerve around each mine pit in an unending “serpentine” formation. Having had only one day to practice, not being fond of mud fondue for lunch, I erred on the side of caution. I admit I was driving about as fast as an RV on a winding mountain road.
Peter and the guide rose to the occasion, accelerating as much as possible without wiping out and maximizing their mud intake. At one point, we came upon a mine puddle so huge there appeared to be no way around. Our fearless guide and Peter revved up their engines, lurched forward, made it halfway through the pit, stalled, fell over, got completely soaked and had to push their bikes to the other shore. I snickered. There had to be an easier and drier way. I backtracked about twenty feet, found a path through some bewildered Cambodian’s front jungle, and in no time met my comrades as they disappeared into the next curve.
The only other event of note during our two-hour motor trudging ordeal was the minefield warning signs. My faithful companions were long out of sight when I came upon row after row of these pretty little red signs with a skull and crossbones in the center. On top were lots of swirly Khmer script. Below the skull was written, Danger! Mines! I assumed this meant there were mines in the fields around the road and not on the road itself. Then again, maybe not. What could I do? My “friends” were way ahead of me, nowhere to run. In my efforts to avoid causing any unnecessary sonic booms, I managed to crash into a two-foot hole in the path, stalling the bike and gouging my ass. The road kept branching off and becoming more and more nebulous, but I managed to follow the tire tracks.
I arrived at Banteay Srei about ten minutes after Peter and our guide. I finally had a chance to gaze at the object of all this fuss. No joke – it was totally gaga. Constructed entirely of red sandstone in a most perfect symmetrical layout, the temple was like a jewel of the jungle. As we began to walk through a long series of stone doorways to the main temple, we witnessed stories being told within the rocks – tiny figurines carved in superb detail.
The main temple was surrounded by a moat, thankfully filled with grass. The main buildings were decorated with life size bas-reliefs, mostly of shivaesque women imbued with majesty and beauty. As with most of Angkor’s temples, the majority of the statues had been stolen, but here, several remained completely intact, guarding the temples with stony patience. One of the buildings, which had a sloping roof, even had a small grass lawn growing on it. There were no crowds – in fact, Peter and I were quite alone. Here, more than at the main temple complex, the intermittent thumps of rocket-propelled grenades sounded louder and nearer. We had the feeling we were where few travelers had gone before.
At noon we headed back. Peter and the guide resumed their previous formation, zooming hundreds of feet ahead while I puttered alone, carefully avoiding bottomless puddles and un-exploded mines.
Stopped by bandits
I turned a corner and there was Peter, standing in the middle of the road, looking incredulous. “What happened?" Four soldiers, two with large weapons had popped out of the jungle. The guide bolted. Peter crashed. At first Peter thought they were trying to protect him from enemy attack until two of them grabbed his bike and glided into the jungle, while the other two (the ones with guns) tried to grab his day pack. With true Canadian bravery Peter handed over some pocket money, but refused to give up his bag – with passport, camera and money inside.
The bandits were nervous, headed into the green abyss. Moments later I arrived. What to do? Option one: play Rambo and chase the thieves into the jungle. Option two: scream for help and look stupid since there was no one to hear our screams. Option three: rapidly drive two hours back down the road and never look back. Option four: stall for time. Being the calm, cool and collected type, also known as being indecisive, I beckoned Peter onto the back of my bike, and headed for the nearest help, a couple of local houses about a hundred feet down the road.
As soon as we arrived and got off my bike, they were telling us what happened instead of us telling them. So you got robbed by some banditos a ways back – what else is new. I reasoned with Peter: the guide rented us these bikes and we rented him to help us. True, he bolted at the scene of the crime; logic dictates he must come back, if not for us then at least for the bikes. Hurry up and wait.
Report the incident
Our new Cambodian friends told us we must report the incident to the Cambodian commander at the nearest base several kilometers in the direction we had just come. Neither of us was eager to volunteer. They sent a ten-year-old on a bicycle to make the report. We sat and waited. Fifteen minutes later a local soldier arrived, announced he had seen our bike and its escort in the jungle. He insisted the soldiers were Khmer Rouge, they carried the obvious badge – Chinese daypacks. (No wonder they were so anxious to get a real daypack). We waited. Where could that guide be!
Finally we heard the roar of motors. What should come up the road but an UNTAC convoy consisting of two Toyota land cruisers and two jeeps filled with Dutch soldiers. We stuck out our thumbs; they stopped. We told them our story; they took Peter in one of the land cruisers to report the incident to the Cambodian commander at the base up the road. (assuming the ten year old hadn’t gotten there first). I remained with the bike, prepared to actualize option four: wait.
After chatting with the UNTAC observers from Malaysia, China and India about the general state of Cambodia’s new democracy, we heard that old, now familiar sound – the whoosh of a speeding incoming projectile, this time with a friend in tow. Kaboom one – pause – kaboom two. We hit the deck as two rocket-propelled grenades rudely flew over our heads and exploded a couple hundred feet from our position. The Dutch soldiers immediately went berserk, intently patrolling the road with their guns ready to fire and gazing fixedly into the jungle. The Cambodians didn’t blink, having seen enough grenades to make their explosions seem completely boring. The children giggled and continued to play (tourist and robber, I imagine).
Peter and the land cruiser finally reappeared. Apparently, after they had told the story to the commander, he insisted his men rescue the bike, claiming the robbers could never cross the nearby river, and would not dare use the road. To show them who was boss, he had ordered two rocket grenades be shot in our general direction, to scare the thieves. It worked, but it was we who were frightened. Luckily their aim wasn’t so good, (or was it). It was time to stop waiting and start going back.
Just as we got back and out to inspect the damage, who should appear but our intrepid guide with two other gun toting buddies, one hour and forty-five minutes since the ambush. Where had our guide gone? He claimed he had left to get help at the village of Pradapwhich, over 45 minutes away. He had returned with some friends. We took this as a lame excuse; a few feet away were locals with guns, only too happy to lend a hand.
In no mood to argue Peter and I continued our ride in the air conditioned land cruiser. We watched in awe as the vehicle traversed hole after water-filled hole head like it was the most natural of road hazards. The ride back was considerably more comfortable than the ride there. We learned from the UNTAC squad about various horrors that had occurred on this stretch of road, which they regularly patrolled. We were dropped at the main temple area and spent the rest of the afternoon visiting a large ruin called Preah Khan – all in a day’s sightseeing.
It wasn’t until we had returned home and were finishing our dinner that the pressure tactics began. The guide and his buddies asked Peter how much he was going to pay for the stolen bike. Questions were relentless: how much money do you have, how much do you think the bike was worth, when do we get paid. Peter insisted the bike might be found; this basically put them of. We paid for our bike rental, even for our "guide" services.
By then every traveler and Cambodian within several square miles had heard about the two white guys, so we spent the rest of the evening telling and retelling our story to every traveler who wanted to hear the details.
Peter awoke with a temperature. As soon as we headed for breakfast, the guide and his buddies were waiting. They followed us, directing their badgering at Peter. We needed a mediator, and quickly. After breakfast we re-told our experience to an Indian officer. The Indian thought Peter should pay something. He sent the guide and company to bring proof of ownership with a receipt showing the cost of the bike. We were escorted to a French liaison officer to whom we re-explained our story for the zillionth time.
The French had been designated the official liaisons with the Cambodians, being the former colonial power, most Cambodian officials spoke French. We explained our escapade in both English and French. The French officer was more sympathetic to our plight and felt the incident was not our fault. We asked him to contact the Cambodian commander who had said he would rescue the bike. He promised to try.
Meanwhile, he decided we had to make statements at the Cambodian police headquarters. Off we went. We wrote a statement cataloging all the events of the day, while the guide wrote his own statement. The bizarre thing was that the guide showed up in full Cambodian police uniform, claimed he was also a policeman on the side. How this was going to help his case when it was a fact he had bolted at the first sign of trouble. It was further decided we would reconvene at 4:00 pm for a final decision. We were excused.
Since Peter was flying back to Phnom Penh the next day, we tried to rent bikes, thinking no one would rent us bikes since everyone knew about our tale of woe. Miraculously the first two local men we spoke with were more than happy for our business. (Perhaps this is a reflection of the rather sorry state of the Cambodian economy.) We played passengers; the bike owners did the driving.
We rode to the huge Angkor Thom complex which contains the Bayon, a temple with 172 huge hand-carved stone faces of Avalokitesvara. We climbed a large burial mountain, got lost in a stone storybook maze and took tons of pictures. Peter was still feeling quite sick, but did amazingly well scaling large boulders and climbing steep temple steps. He was concerned though, that we not arrive late for our afternoon appointment. We left early and were back at police headquarters before 4:00 pm.
The entire cast was assembled: the Indian officer, the French liaison officer, the guide, the bike owner, several of the bike owner’s friends, a few police officers, Peter, myself and two new faces – chief French liaison officer and the representative for the chief of Cambodian police, a thin, sixty-ish soft-spoken man.
It was reported that the Cambodian commander had been contacted, that he had found a bike, but the it wasn’t the bike Peter had been riding. The bike owner produced an official paper proving he was the owner, that he had purchased said bike. Once again we told our story to enlighten the new participants. We said we had rented the bikes in good faith, that the guide had insisted he had taken many tourists to Banteay Srei before, and repeated that it was no problem. We also reminded everyone that when the ambush occurred, the guide bolted from the scene of the crime, didn’t show up for almost two hours. The guide explained that he was worried that if the attackers had seen his face, they would find him and kill him. Everyone shrugged and accepted this as the sad truth. After years of being terrorized by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia did not have a recent past filled with respect for life – human or otherwise.
The new French liaison officer dwelt on other facts. We had rented the bikes in an informal arrangement without any written contracts. The guide should have known full well of the numerous “incidents” perpetrated against tourists, UNTAC personelle and local Cambodians on that remote stretch of road. If the owner of the bikes and the guide wanted to rent bikes and bring tourists to Banteay Srei, fine. But don’t expect payment when something goes wrong. He was adamant. Peter owed nothing.
The guide did not like this line of reasoning. He retorted with a theoretical statement. "If tourists are allowed to visit Angkor, rent motor bikes, visit temples, get ambushed, have their bikes stolen and not pay for the stolen bikes, the Cambodian people will want to kill the tourists.” Peter and I were shocked. We had a feeling we were being threatened. This made the chief French liaison officer all the more resolute. "There will be no threats and no foul play." He said he would personally take Peter under U.N. protection if necessary and deliver him to the plane for Phnom Penh the next morning.
The Cambodian second in command was silent. He seemed keen on avoiding any sort of decision, refused to do more than nod and mumble. The first French officer whispered to us that this would have been settled long before if the chief of police were present, apparently they had an excellent relationship. The second in command, however, was intent on not creating waves. He refused to take sides, or make any decision. The guide continued to insist that Peter pay. The French chief insisted Peter not pay. This was going nowhere.
The Cambodian officers went on the porch; the French followed and laid out the terms. Peter would not pay. The U.N. would not take him under their custody, but they would meet him at the airport the next morning to be sure he safely boarded the plane.
Peter was spent; I was anxious. Unlike Peter, I had another full day before returning to Phnom Penh. I might be a target for some unhappy Cambodian. I expressed my concern to the chief French officer in the parking lot. He understood my dilemma, but assured me he had made it clear to the local entourage there was to be no further funny business. The officer gave me his name and local address and told me to let him know if I had any trouble.
Exhausted from the high jinx hearing, Peter and I returned to the guesthouse. To our amazement, nothing had been settled in the eyes of the guides and owner. They reappeared and continued to demand some sort of payment. Peter finally relented. He promised to give them one hundred dollars for a ride and safe passage to the airport, payable upon arrival at the airport. Peter retired to nurse his cold; I headed straight to the Bayon restaurant. Every backpacker wanted to hear the continuing saga of the stolen bike and UNTAC mediation.
The next morning Peter awoke early, said his good-byes and headed off to the airport with his entourage. I rented a bike from the previous day’s bike owners, actually went off without a driver and spent the day visiting the Bakong temple in the Roluos group and revisiting my favorite temple, the Bayon, communing for five straight hours with two Cambodian kids on and around those 172 icily smiling faces of Avalokitesvara. To my pleasant surprise, I had a most enjoyable last day. No problem.
That evening at a near-by guesthouse, I overheard a Cambodian kid recalling the events of that morning at the airport. He said that Peter had agreed to give them one hundred dollars but had actually paid out two hundred dollars once they arrived. Personally, I find this hard to believe. If Peter had enough guts to hold back his daypack from two heavily armed Khmer Rouge, I doubt he would have forked over an extra hundred to a few unarmed locals. On the other hand, the past several days had taught me to expect the unexpected. In Cambodia, ANYTHING can happen.
Postscript: In August of 1994, I returned to visit Angkor for a second time. I learned that the road to Banteay Srei had been temporarily closed to tourists because of continued banditry. I met a French de-mining expert who had recently spent several weeks at Banteay Srei, uncovering several mines. He told me these mines were found from several inches to three feet from the inner path which leads to the center of the temple. He said the mines were not newly laid, they were old mines. I had been informed that the temples were mine free. This meant that when Peter and I had visited Banteay Srei, we were in danger of stepping on a landmine. Being ambushed was bad enough, imagine having your leg blown to bits. Judging by the incredible number of amputees I saw in Cambodia, human tragedies caused by mines are too common.
Final Postscript: On January 15, 1995 a professor from the University of Texas and her husband were visiting Banteay Srei in a car driven by a Cambodian guide. Some Khmer Rouge fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the car. Both the professor and the guide were killed; the husband was seriously injured. The Cambodian government proclaimed that tourists were henceforth prohibited from entering the entire area surrounding Banteay Srei.