From the Wonderful People Who Brought You the Killing Fields

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, May 1999

From the Wonderful People Who Brought You the Killing Fields
Never Mind the Land Mines, the Kidnappings, the Chaotic Weirdness. When the Henchmen Of Cambodia Throw Down the Welcome Mat For Tourism, the Neighborly Thing To Do Is Come Calling.

Story and Photographs By
Patrick Symmes

The pill is what started it. the paranoia. the dubious notions. The sense of surrender. Round, white, sealed in foil: It was only 250 milligrams of mefloquine, but I had put it off for an hour now. It sat on the bar at the Heart of Darkness in Phnom Penh while the techno-scratch of Prodigy assaulted the house stereo, sticky ganja swirled on the monsoon breezes flowing in the door, and a collection of expats maimed the pool table. Antimalaria pills must be consumed on a full stomach (Castlemain XXXX in my case) at the same time every week (midnight Saturday in my case) and in the same way (Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village last Saturday, Heart of Darkness this). Rituals are important.

Extensive self-medication has taught me mefloquine's long list of maybes: maybe stomach upset, maybe stomach pain. Maybe nausea, maybe vomiting, maybe lightheadedness and insomnia. And maybe--or maybe not--effective armor against the hybrid strains of Cambodian malaria. Mefloquine, I have decided, may

also induce paranoia. I conclude the latter from the fact that every expat in Cambodia is on antimalarials, and every expat in Cambodia is paranoid.

"Fat lot of good that'll do where you're going," the Australian next to me says, adding a gleeful "Ha!" for emphasis. He is an aspiring photojournalist looking for rare animals, a brave kid, and totally stoned. He is of the opinion that, having signed my life over to a man I'd never met to make a motorcycle trip to a place I shouldn't go to find a tourism minister who doesn't exist, I am beyond medical help. He is deep into a practical explanation of what to do "when" I get robbed.

"Immediately lie down on the ground," he says. "Put your hands on the back of your head, and don't say anything or look at them. You speak, wham, they hit you in the head with a pistol, mate. And they really don't like you looking at them. Mostly it's police officers that'r robbin' ya, so they don't want to be seen. Just keep your head down, don't speak, and let them take whatever they want. Mostly they're not bad blokes--they usually leave you a thousand riel to get home."

He claps a nearby Cambodian on the shoulder. "This fella right here got robbed last night," he booms. "Ain't that right?" The Cambodian nods.

Phnom Penh is bad; out of Phnom Penh is worse. Other than to the ruins at Angkor, nobody goes out. There are the five--or is it ten?--million land mines. The vipers, the two kinds of cobras, the poisonous banded kraits. Also the bacteriological soup of Japanese encephalitis, typhoid, and malaria. Also the fact that the army and police have not been paid in four months and are getting hungry. Also that the roads are positively African, but with all the land mines and snakes, the first rule of travel in Cambodia is never step off the road. Also there are the Khmer Rouge. They killed roughly two million of their fellow citizens during the 1970s and, despite nominal peace, have been holed up in the Cardamom Mountains for almost 20 years.

Yet in three days, after renting a dirt bike and making a few practice runs around the nearby countryside, I will ride deep into the mountains to play tourist in Pailin, a former guerrilla stronghold my guidebook calls "perhaps the most forbidden city in the world."

My mefloquine-induced paranoia is dismissed by Wink Dulles, my guide and fixer on this journey. A dead ringer for Mel Gibson, and even shorter, Wink had dismissed my fears with a simple but eloquent argument. "It'll be cool," he told me. And so we are going.

Author of guidebooks on Southeast Asia, Wink wrote the book--well, the very fat Cambodia chapter--on what can go wrong on a trip like this. In The World's Most Dangerous Places, published by Fielding Worldwide, he detailed with encyclopedic relish the convoluted threats of this basket-case nation. Forbidden from entering Burma, arrested twice in Vietnam (where his other Fielding guidebook, Vietnam Including Cambodia and Laos, is banned), Wink is a cousin of John Foster Dulles, who was Secretary of State in the 1950s and still appears on an official Vietnamese list of enemies of the state. Unwelcome in two countries, Wink settled on a ranch in northern Thailand with his common-law wife.

Our plan is to rent two dirt bikes and ride into the Cardamom Mountains to find the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, whose main arm announced early last year to local journalists that it was now accepting outsiders in its Pailin stronghold. Only Cambodia could produce a joke as unfunny as a Khmer Rouge tourism offensive, but there it was: They claimed they would appoint a minister of tourism and opened their doors to the Westerners they had only recently stopped kidnapping. I was going with mixed motives. I felt a journalistic obligation to take the pulse of a nation unexpectedly emerging from its grave, but I also wanted a thrill; I wanted to see some ragged edge of life, to glimpse the Southeast Asia behind the headlines. To many Western travelers like me, the allure of danger zones is undeniable. I wanted to measure the character of my fellow vultures, to know if we were fools for believing there was something to be gained in a place of so much loss.

This plan was not quite as idiotic as it sounded. Much has changed in Cambodia over the last several years. It is still brutally poor, but as Cambodians proudly tell you, their country is seeing its best times in three decades. There is an economy, albeit a primitive one. The government is weak but increasingly stable. Tourism to Angkor is booming, hotels and restaurants are cheap, and anyone in search of authenticity will find grim buckets of it. The gritty capital is a shell filled with squatters and beggars, but trips up the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers unveil a countryside out of an Orientalist's fantasy: slow-moving water buffalo, electric-green rice paddies, saffron-robed monks. The shooting is over, major roads have been cleared of mines, and backpackers from Australia and French flaneurson post-colonial nostalgia trips are probing the interior again, bragging in the capital about who went where first.

But all the joys of adventure travel in Cambodia are of the queasy, that-can't-really-be-true kind. Travel here straddles the smudged line between the blackly ridiculous and the revoltingly tragic: You can spend a morning at a gun range outside Phnom Penh, firing something called a "shoot airplane gun" and blowing up water buffalo with grenade launchers ($15 for the grenade; the bovines start around $75). Then you can spend the afternoon stepping on teeth at the killing fields or touring the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. Of the 16,000 people who passed through this building when it was Security Prison 21, only seven survived.

The book (Conrad's Heart of Darkness) has become the bar, and the movie (The Killing Fields) has become the merchandising opportunity. (Pay $2 to tour the killing fields; then buy a danger¡mines T-shirt.) Tourism here feels somehow profane, like traipsing through 1948 Poland with a beer in hand.

Sitting in the Heart of Darkness on my first night in Cambodia, I add "KR minister of tourism" to a kind of mental tally I continually update. In the positive column, Pol Pot is dead and the KR have "defected" to the government by making a kind of treaty. The last guerrilla holdout--the one-legged fanatic known as Uncle Mok--has been carted off to jail in Phnom Penh. Two years have gone by since the last kidnapping and killing of foreigners, one and a half years since a coup brought a kind of terrorized stability. In the negative column, the treaty's basic stipulation is, you leave us alone, we'll leave you alone. Positive column: The KR are weak and afraid of prosecution for war crimes. Negative column: They still have 2,000 of their most hardened troops, plus vast profits from illegal logging and gem smuggling, and many of the same leaders as when they killed those maybe two million. Positive column: They aren't expecting us.

On balance, 250 milligrams of mefloquine seems quite irrelevant. I choke the pill down.


"UP AND DOWN LIKE A WHORE'S KNICKERS," THE IRISHMAN SAYS of the road out of Phnom Penh. He is standing beside it in the middle of nowhere--nowhere here being only 60 miles from the capital--supervising a crew of 700 Cambodians digging a trench for a fiber optic line. The telecom project is part of the slim economic recovery largely funded by French and Japanese corporations and international aid agencies. Every now and then one of the workers is blown up by a mine, but Cambodians need jobs and so they keep digging. The Irishman's rude metaphor for the road politely conceals the truth: It is a nightmare of clay, dusty when dry and slick when wet, pocked with craters. It is also Cambodia's major roadway, running 180 miles from the capital to the second-largest city, Battambang.

After only a few hours Wink and I are excruciatingly butt-sore. Our dirt bikes are ghastly, $7-a-day jokes that shed pieces as we progress. We wear scarves and goggles to keep the pervasive red dust from choking and blinding us, but when Wink is lightly rear-ended by a car it becomes clear that the main danger we face is the Cambodian driver. The only traffic laws are the laws of physics: We lurch up and down, dodging the surprisingly dense traffic heading both ways in either lane. The typical Cambodian vehicle is a scooter bearing multiple passengers; the typical car, a white Toyota Camry, stolen in Thailand, with 200,000 miles, nine passengers, no shocks, and the steering wheel on the wrong side, which creates some problems when passing. Once in a while there is a truck or a cart pulled by water buffalo. The countryside is flat as a dance floor, dotted with palm trees, low huts, and children fishing in muddy ponds. Their parents hoe and plant in batik sarongs; an old, gentle Southeast Asia lurks behind the bloody recent history.

It is a hopeful scene, but placing too much trust in Cambodia's appearance can be fatal. From 1991 to 1993 the United Nations poured money and 22,000 people into Cambodia in an effort to end decades of fighting. The UN-sponsored elections put a coalition government in power, and tourism began to pick up. Then in 1997 the three-way government broke apart. By chance Ted Koppel was in Cambodia during the coup, and a panicky ABC turned to Wink for help arranging an evacuation flight. Over the years, some Westerners weren't so lucky. In 1994, the Khmer Rouge kidnapped and later killed three backpackers--a Brit, an Australian, and a Frenchman--on the train from the capital to the southern beaches. The next year bandits seized and executed an American nurse near Angkor, and in early 1996 a British demining technician and his translator were taken from the road to Battambang--the same road we are about to travel. Neither has been seen since.

As part of their last offensive, the Khmer Rouge shelled Battambang heavily, and as we wheel into the city the next day, after a night in the village of Pursat, some fine noodles by the river, and another gruesome five hours of dodging bottomed-out Camrys and bomb craters, the closeness of war is evident. Cambodia's second city is a low dump with a few rotting colonial buildings and a branch of the Mines Advisory Group. Its members work without body armor (one officer today is wearing a sarong and a cigarette), and I've seen better metal detectors at the beach; last year a man in the squad lost three fingers and an eye to a 72 Bravo. When we ask about the roads, a sergeant tells us that while there are "many" mines between here and Pailin, the road itself is clear. "Side of road not clear," he says. "Road OK, side of road not OK."

Our hotel is one of the comfortable ones constructed during the glory days of the UN occupation. There is a staff of 25, one other guest, and a sign on the back of the room door that advises me, do not allow to bring the explodes and weapons into the room. Wink and I head out to the town's main bar, where the floor show is a rock band treading the increasingly familiar line between comedy and tragedy. Eventually Wink cannot stand it and charges the stage. He plugs in an electric guitar, waves at the keyboardist to join in, and launches into a long blues riff, growling out "Yeah!" and "Baby!" every so often. He's quite good, especially by Cambodian standards. By the second song he has filled the dance floor.

Watching him, I can't shake my dread of tomorrow's trip to Pailin. Wink has thrown in the idea that, along with finding the alleged minister of tourism and gleaning what we can about Pailin's safety, our visit should also include an interview with Ieng Sary, one of the century's ranking madmen, the intellectual author of the Khmer Rouge terror, and the official who orchestrated Pailin's uneasy peace with the government. Known in the anonymous hierarchy of the movement as Brother No. 3 (though I find myself thinking of him as Butcher No. 3), Ieng Sary doesn't come into the sunlight much, so it would be a scoop.

We use a Thai cell phone number (go ahead, 011-66-1-217-1617) to call Brother No. 3 at home. His son, Ieng Vouth, answers and in good English tells us that we cannot interview his father because he is ill, as the various disgraced Khmer Rouge leaders often are when journalists call.

"Don't come," he says, and hangs up.

There are two kinds of magic in Cambodia, a young Cambodian warns me the next morning in Battambang. There is weak magic and there is strong magic, he says, pantomiming the difference between the two with agitated hand gestures involving bullets and triggers and guns. If you have weak magic, he says, either the gun aims the wrong way or the bullets go around you. But if you have strong magic, your enemies can't even draw.

I ask which kind of magic I have. He looks confused. Obviously I haven't understood the point of the story. "Foreigner have no magic," he says.


IT IS FEAR, NOT MAGIC, THAT IMPROVES THE ROAD TO PAILIN. AFTER A few hours, the dirt begins to smooth out, losing its bumps, potholes, and washboards in testimony to how few cars come this way. The people in villages confirm this by staring. We pass marked minefields and unmarked ones too, as we were warned by the demining team. An armored personnel carrier lies dead by the side of the road. I dismount and inspect it--a neat hole in one side where the KR shot a rocket-propelled grenade into it. There are fewer and fewer huts, and as we begin climbing into the Cardamoms the first ruinous bridges appear, chaotic scraps of metal and wood thrown over deep ravines.

There have been checkpoints all along, but following Wink's instructions I have driven through them all with a fat grin and an open throttle. Now we come to the border between government territory and what is in effect still Khmer Rouge country, despite the treaty. A dozen soldiers are blocking the road. They order us off the bikes and indicate that we should "sign in." Wink converses in Thai with the sergeant in charge, who obviously wants money. Wink tells him we have $5. With a smile, the sergeant calls him a liar. Somehow we bluff our way through, grinning, saying "yes, of course" and "good-bye," and walking slowly toward the bikes.

Half an hour later we stop to relieve ourselves. "Whatever you do," Wink says, "do not step off the road." We stretch our legs, check for oncoming traffic--nothing--and wander to discreetly separated stretches of the shoulder. I stand on the last set of tire tracks and am staring into space when I notice a big antitank mine right in front of me. Olive drab and utterly fatal, it was probably left as a warning that the field is filled with mines. Wink comes over. The mine is only about three strides away.

"I wouldn't walk over there and pick that up if you paid me one million dollars," he says, lighting a cigarette. (Three days from now, two farmers and a pair of water buffalo will be killed by a mine about six feet off this road.)

I am still in first gear when a five-foot-long snake shoots out of the bushes, toward my front wheel. I briefly consider and reject the notion of throwing the bike to the right and crashing into the minefield. Instead I jam on the brakes, nearly going over the handlebars. My front wheel misses the snake's tail by inches.

"Christ," Wink shouts as he pulls up. "Did you see that? That was a krait."


MY FRAYED NERVES STRETCH TIGHTER AS WE APPROACH PAILIN. At an unmarked fork in the road a glowering KR soldier in a Mao cap cradles an ax and eyes us with unconcealed disgust. Foreigners were once worth as much as $10,000 apiece to anyone who captured one. Now we're just big uncashable checks.

"Pailin?" I ask, pointing to the right. He ignores the question. We go right anyway and roll hesitantly up the main street in second gear, shopkeepers and kids turning to gawk as we pass two-story houses and furniture shops. Because of its proximity to Thailand--just 20 kilometers from the border--Pailin is not only an ideal refuge for war criminals and defeated guerrillas, but also a prosperous center for the smuggling of gems and lumber. We turn left and stop at the central market, a tent bazaar stuffed with food stalls, sneaker vendors, and emerald traders. Resting on the bikes, we collect hundreds of empty stares, neither hostile nor welcoming.

"Everybody in the place is KR," Wink says.

"Everybody except us," I correct him.

The town's guesthouse is two stories of cinderblock occupied by a passel of Thai smugglers with topo maps. We check in and then ride back down the main street to a restaurant where Wink orders us some delicious flat noodles with water buffalo and exchanges information with the matron in market Thai. As she speaks, a fat man in an orange polo shirt on a motorcycle--that is to say, a rich man in Cambodia--pulls up, orders a beer, and begins to sing karaoke. More men join him, encouraging his singing. I am in a state of advanced mefloquine paranoia now and conclude that he is spying on us. We label him Agent Orange.

Across the road, about a hundred KR soldiers are sitting on their haunches, watching a volleyball game. They wear bits and pieces of uniforms, sometimes with the new "government" shoulder patches they were issued after the peace treaty, sometimes not. Most are shirtless, and several of them have amazing scars. The game is played barefoot, four on four, and both teams are calling reverse sets with decoys, pump-faking spikes, and deploying the vertical stuff with discipline. I work up my nerve, join the crowd, and take a few pictures.

Slowly one soldier, and then another, begins to notice me. The game comes to a halt, and the ball bounces on the ground and goes still. We all look at one another. One fellow, the one with a beautiful touch as setter, begins pointing at me and addressing the crowd. I feign indifference, but the soldiers around me begin to laugh. I rise, smile broadly, and walk back to the restaurant.

Wink is waiting with a hazy grin on his face, the result of either too much MSG or the smug satisfaction of the journey-proud. "There are only a few places that I've been that are really the edge of the world," he waxes. "This is one of them. The lost outpost of a nation."

As lost outposts go, Pailin has some amenities: Khmer pop videos, telephone shops, monster trucks, a duty-free store, even an English school whose students shyly quiz us about our travels. The town is more prosperous than the rest of the province, mostly because of its proximity to Thailand, but the local people give credit to the Khmer Rouge for a law-and-order town.

As we try to locate the minister of tourism, the language barrier crops up; we follow pointed arms to the town hall, but it's populated only by chickens. At the police station, a barren cement hut, a young border policeman speaks some English. "No minister of tourism," he says, "because no tourists here." He adds, helpfully: "You can go walking in mountains."

Aren't there mines in the mountains?

"Yes," he says, enthusiastically.

We are taking in this information when a Mitsubishi Montero rushes past. "Mr. Ieng Vouth," the policeman says, pointing at the truck. The son of Butcher No. 3. At our urging, two teenage KR soldiers jump on their scooters, race out the driveway, and catch the Montero down the road. Then all three vehicles wheel back to the station.

The Montero pulls to a halt. Ieng Vouth is wearing a striped polo shirt and dark glasses. He takes a look at us. There is a rapid exchange in Khmer, and then he throws the Montero into gear and spins out of the driveway so fast he showers rocks behind him. He is out of sight in 30 seconds. So much for the interview.

Wink is unfazed. He spends the afternoon handing out the little grinning-skull stickers sold with the Dangerous Places book. "Are you Khmer Rouge?" he asks people. "Did you ever kill anyone?" He is enjoying himself immensely.


KHMER ROUGE KARAOKE NIGHT GETS UNDER way most evenings at about seven in the Pailin casino, a sad, one-story building with a walk-through metal detector. It has just closed for the day when we arrive, so we sit down in the attached disco.

Our waiter speaks a bit of English. He is from Battambang and moved here only a few months ago, for the job. He doesn't like it. "Many bad men here," he says.

Soon they drift in. A few tough characters in military gear, and then a few more. Finally, Agent Orange enters with a large entourage.

"He is very big man," the waiter says. "He is major in Khmer Rouge."

In an hour the place has filled up with bar girls and men in flip-flops and uniforms. A few of the young ones are obviously aides to Agent Orange; they mutter into walkie-talkies while Orange and the rest tear into the hard liquor.

I lay my pill on the table. It is Saturday night again, the witching hour for self-medication. I open the foil packet and wolf down the tablet, washing its metallic taste away with beer. All day I have been picturing myself blown legless by land mines, or writhing in the grip of snake poison, or lying in a rice paddy with a Chinese pistol pressed against the back of my neck. At this point I am way beyond worrying about pills.

A disc jockey begins spinning the usual tragic Khmer pop, and different soldiers fight over the microphone and take turns singing the blues. They are all plastered, wobbling out the saccharine vocals. Fortunately there is no guitar on the premises, so Wink stays in his seat. I drink beer and watch, and after a while I decide that it might be a good idea to take a picture of karaoke night with the Khmer Rouge.

Immediately I see I've made the wrong choice. The two men I photograph notice the flash, of course, and begin seething. They glare at me, approach, shout angrily in Khmer, and then abandon the microphone and stalk back to their table.

"Let's get out of here," I tell Wink.

"Don't worry," he says. "Finish your beer."

We repeat this conversation every ten seconds for the next four minutes as I watch the far table. We never had any friends in Pailin, but now we have enemies. I'm smiling a lot; it's tense.

Then the two offended Khmer commandeer the camera. They snatch it, defiantly, and go back to their table. Wink goes over, picks up the camera, and brings it back. Most of the people in the bar are now watching the emerging confrontation, except for Agent Orange, who is facedown on his table, passed out. No one sings karaoke.

When they finally come for us, staggering over the dance floor with murder in their eyes, it is the longest five seconds of my life. We have crossed the border now, into that Cambodia which is beyond control. In that brief moment, it seems truly possible that I might be killed and that as I bleed to death on the dance floor of a karaoke palace in a pitiful town in the Cardamom Mountains, my last sight will be a mirror ball spinning overhead.

Just as they start in--I'm piling chairs between me and the pudgy sergeant who's trying to get close enough to hit me--the deejay cuts the tunes. Wink is in a face-off with a lean fellow in a white T-shirt, but when the music stops the whole bar freezes, and Agent Orange leaps up from his slumber. He sees the men threatening us and immediately rushes over and puts a stop to it. Our antagonists sulk back to their table.

Even Wink has had enough now. But our escape is blocked as Agent Orange stands over me and forces the terrified waiter to translate a long and drunken speech about international brotherhood and dutiful feelings of mutual respect. We exchange business cards with two-handed formality; his plastic card--jungle ready--identifies him as the chief of police for Pailin. During the whole speech Agent Orange holds my right hand firmly. I'm sweating and trying to let go, but we are bonding, obviously, and whenever I try to stand up Agent Orange shoves me back down into my chair. He flips between hospitality and threats once a minute--my Cambodian experience in a nutshell.

Then he says he saw us on our motorbikes. "Pursat," he says, "moto," and he enacts riding a motorcycle. "Battambang, moto." The translator explains that by pure coincidence Agent Orange was also driving from Phnom Penh to Pailin and saw us bouncing up and down. He is impressed we have come through such difficult conditions to visit his humble town.

"Pailin," Agent Orange says, "no problem." It is his only English phrase. "Pailin no problem. Pailin no problem!"

In the end I am kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge, but only to the dance floor. My hand is so sweaty he can hardly hold on to it, but Agent Orange drags me onto the floor and we spin in a slow counterclockwise circle, holding hands on the inside and using our outer hands to trace sinuous curves in the air. I'm proud to say that Agent Orange is almost as bad a traditional Khmer dancer as I am. After two minutes he walks off the floor, forcing me to keep dancing, alone, under the mirror ball. He orders his assistants to dance; reluctantly, they join me. He grabs bar girls, hauling them onto the floor, pairing up couples, culling strays, dragging Wink from a dark corner of the bar.

Like a petty dictator, Agent Orange stands in the middle, pinching the asses of passing bar girls, laughing like the petulant warlord in a martial arts film, and Wink and I spin around the dance floor slowly, surrounded by Khmer Rouge killers in flip-flops, exchanging fake smiles all around.

"Pailin no problem," Agent Orange crows at me every time I complete a revolution. "Cambodia no problem," I shout back. Finally it comes to me: Agent Orange is the Khmer Rouge minister of tourism, or at least the ambassador of goodwill.

Finally, after half an hour, he loses himself in a musical rhapsody, spinning at the center of the dance floor, his body bathed in blue and red diamonds cast off by the mirror ball overhead. Quietly, slowly, Wink and I slink out the front door.

I lock myself in my hotel room, but I don't sleep. All night I lie there, watching the mosquitoes spin overhead, and once in a while I sit up, sure that the banded krait has slipped from the drain in the bathroom floor. Partly it's the taste of the mefloquine metal that keeps me up; partly it's the fear.

But as I lie there, it sinks in that we will survive Pailin, that we will drive out of town and leave behind the Khmer Rouge, and that we will survive more days of even worse roads and even more insane drivers and even more minefields and even more snakes. Finally, drunk on Thai whiskey, Wink and I will lie on our backs at Angkor Wat at three in the morning and watch the Leonid meteor shower light the sky. Only then and there, amid 900-year-old temples crouched in the jungle, will I realize that there is no dividing the world into good and bad places, swept and unswept corners. We trouble-tourists and samplers of disaster are neither vultures nor fools but both in equal measure.

Ten Thousand Revolutions, Symmes's account of a motorcycle trip in the tracks of Che Guevara, will be published next year by Vintage Departures.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!