Waking up in a backstreet guesthouse run by Cambodian gangsters isn’t as bad as you would expect. One of their number, a small, heavily tattooed teenager, knocked on my door at 8am to ask if I wanted any breakfast and they turned out to be pretty decent cooks. While I was eating in the guesthouse’s modest café, another of the boys approached and introduced himself as Jay. He offered to take me on a sightseeing tour of Siem Riep and the nearby Angkor Wat ruins. Angkor Wat was very much on my to-do list. The sprawling, ornate ruined complex hacked out of the jungle once served as the administrative and religious centre of the Khmer empire that controlled most of Southeast Asia and for sheer visual impact is said to only be rivalled by India’s Taj Mahal and Peru’s Machu Picchu. First though, I wanted to check out another stop off on the tourist trail Jay suggested – the Siem Reip war museum.
I had read quite a lot about the conflict that ripped across Cambodia from the early 70s to the mid-90s and in particular the role of the infamous Khmer Rouge. The bloody-minded, ultra-communist group gathered support from among the Khmer rural poor amid the fury generated by the USA’s policy of sprinkling Cambodia and various other Southeast Asian countries with generous amounts of explosives as part of its war in neighbouring Vietnam. The Americans backed the corrupt, ineffectual Lon Nol regime that was in power at the time and the Khmer Rouge, buoyed by swelled ranks and weapons from Vietnam, Russia and China, toppled Lon Nol’s forces and captured the capital Phnom Penh in 1975. The KR idealised national self-reliance and a simplistic, classless rural lifestyle. They set about realising their agrarian utopia by forcing all city and town dwellers into the country where they were pressed into labour camps. What followed was one of the most horrific genocidal massacres in recorded history as the KR began to see enemies everywhere. They murdered around one million people with many more succumbing to overwork and lack of food. They were eventually ran out by the Vietnamese, but the Khmer people still bare the scars of this terrible period in their recent history.
Myself and Jay cut across dusty Siem Reip on the back of his moped and despite the fact that he and his crew had been ripping me of ever since I left Bangkok, I couldn’t help but like the guy. He fancied himself as a playboy and he spent most of the journey chatting about the various lonely foreign women he had comforted, some of whom he said, still sent him money every month. His situation was exactly the same as the Thai scenario in which Thai bargirls cop off with foreign men who, upon returning home, subsidise their ‘girlfriends’ in the hope it will keep them out of the bars and the clutches of other men – only with the gender roles reversed.
What we found at our destination was not so much a museum, but a battered collection of munitions, arms, tanks and artillery left over from the conflict. Jay waited outside with the moped while Sam, a 30-something Khmer Rouge survivor, took me around the displays and told me his story. Practically every member of his family had been killed by the Khmer Rouge in one way or another while he was a small child, and he had, on several occasions, witnessed their deaths.
“I was too small to pick them up or hug them so I just watched while they died,” he said. Sam’s uncle was the only other survivor in his family and he was determined to spend his life fighting the regime. Sam, still little more than a child, would tag along after him from one battlefield to another. Sam held up a mutilated right hand and explained that when he was 13 he picked up a fuse from a land mine. He also had a deep scar along the side of his eye from the shrapnel burst. He was lucky to be alive, he said.
The stacks of muddy rocket launchers, stricken artillery pieces and piles of AK47s were interesting, but what Sam had to say added a bit of humanity to the normal, detached curiosity you get when hearing about a distant, nasty event. I felt quite uncomfortable when he encouraged me to pose with various guns that had killed God knows how many people, but I went along with his routine.
I felt sorry for the guy – his job was to retell that story and relive those experiences for every punter that walked through the museum gates. The weapons were rusting away as the country outside attempted to move on from its nightmarish past, but Sam was stuck there among the skeletons with the war still raging and his family still dying around him.
© Rob Carry. All rights reserved by the author.