Remnants Of The Khmer Rouge
By Kirsten Noelle Hubbard
The minibus trip from Bangkok to
the border was four muggy hours long; so the subsequent
hustle through the exit and entry offices was a blessed
opportunity for leg stretching. It was also our first
chance to glimpse examples of the disparity existing
between Cambodia and Thailand. Twenty-five years after
the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the bruises still remained.
All around us, people with
ragged holes in their clothing dragged along their
wares in wooden carts. Over the side of a bridge topped
by rusty barbed wire, we watched barefoot children
play in a garbage-filled ravine. A boy led his blind
mother from tourist to tourist, palm outstretched.
It didn’t take long to realize that Thailand was iced
Western, sugar-sweet frosting when compared with Cambodia.
After a huckster tried to wrangle
us out of a third of our money by offering under three
thousand riel for each American dollar (it’s a much
worse deal than it sounds, especially considering
Cambodians prefer American dollars), we were dropped
off in front of an old, rickety van which was to serve
as our prison cell for the next eight hours. We clambered
in with the rest of the backpackers. The hot still
air was nauseating. I eagerly waited for the van to
start, because I assumed movement would bring air
circulation, When the driver, a weathered man in his
forties, finally started the engine, I closed my eyes
Those first few moments were smooth
going, and then the bouncing began. The knocks ranged
from uncomfortable vibrations to skull-cracking bangs
that left everyone shrieking and groaning. One traitorous
notch of my spine jabbed into a hard spot on the seat
no matter how I shifted. It was too hot to close the
window, but too dusty to leave it open. I was soon
coated in fine red dust that eventually became a paste
when it mulled with my sweat. As a result of their
effort to lessen the jarring impact of the road, my
perma-tense muscles seized and burned.
The entire stretch of country we
crossed was water-laden. Water in lilied pools spiky
with pink flowers, or in still dim ponds, or in furred
checkers of golden-green rice paddies. Every hut was
built over a pond. Some were hiked up on stilts, with
rickety staircases leading up to the floor.
Beneath overhanging trees, children
swam naked in the shady water. Women flocked with
children and held peaked hats to their heads against
the wind. Seal-slick toddlers bathed in jugs. Older
boys play-fought while smaller ones watched. Farmers
hung exhaustedly in hammocks like sacks of grain.
Among dangling bunches of bananas and cans of American
soda, merchants patiently peddled their meager wares.
After several hours the van pulled
off the road. We stopped in front of a large roadside
eatery with open walls and bamboo tables. I tumbled
out of the van and discovered I’d lost my land legs.
My limbs seemed interminably long, my joints turned
All menu prices were quoted in American
dollars, the preferred currency in Cambodia, and so
it was easy to see how much the kitchen was overcharging.
I wasn’t delighted about paying three dollars for
a bowl of glorified Ramen noodles I could buy in Thailand
for seventy-five cents, but I wasn’t about to complain.
Halfway through our meal, a Cambodian
man who had been riding with us approached my table.
He was squat, with a plump, sun-worn face and a wiry
moustache. After several weeks in Southeast Asia we
were wary of small-talking strangers, and so it was
no surprise when he began fanning out a display of
dog-eared guesthouse brochures. I sighed.
I was a captive audience, and he
proceeded to share his life story. His name was Beebee,
and he made this journey once a week, staying over
one night at the border. He complained that he couldn't
sleep well without his wife and their three-year-old
I enjoyed his way of speaking English;
he had a warm lighthearted air. I asked him why he
wasn’t devoting much energy to selling his guest houses;
and he mentioned that he wasn’t the owner; just the
tuk-tuk driver; and he received commissions for harvesting
“Do you know Pol Pot?” Beebee asked
out of the blue.
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