Spots of Time

February 24, 2004

The Road to Cambodia

The road to Cambodia is full of pot holes - huge gaping voids. More dirt than rock, more outback than highway, its roads rival those of the poorest African countries and rank among the worst in the world. The dry dusty red powder that blankets the roadways is constantly circulated by passing carts, bikes, trucks and cars - coating the surrounding vegetation like rust-colored spray paint and making it difficult to keep anything clean.

Despite the relatively straight stretches of road, drivers navigate like drunk men, swerving and swaying from side to side, right side and left, in an effort to keep axels intact and tires inflated. Their cars or bikes or trucks are their livelihood - a broken axel is more than the loss of a vehicle - it means the difference between having money for food and not having it.

In our ten day journey through Cambodia, Sasha and I spent four of them traveling on what passes for the country's roads. You can see a lot from the road.

The road to Cambodia is void of more than just asphalt and concrete. It is a void of human souls. A war torn country, its people are scattered like a thousand puzzle pieces, with half of them missing or broken. Everywhere you go you see men and women with missing limbs - victims of still buried land mines. Every family has a story about a missing sister, brother, cousin, uncle, or mother - a genocide to rival that of the Jews in Europe, yet few know more than loose details.

The road to Cambodia is like a trip through time. Air-conditioned Toyota Camry "taxis" pass men transporting squealing pigs on motorbikes, trucks piled high with watermelons, bags of rice or laborers, and two-wheeled wooden oxcarts reminiscent of the Middle Ages, strapped to miniature horses driven by young men sitting on bales of hay.

The road to Cambodia passes through the ancient temples of Ankor, a civilization of ancient wonder, whose million inhabitants far surpassed the population of London during the same time period. A civilization that rivals any of the Ancient Wonders of the World, yet was missing from the Greek's ethnocentric list of locals. A piece of history that somehow managed to withstand sacking from the Siamese and Burmese empires, as well as the more recent Khmer Rouge.

The road to Cambodia is lined with fuel stops - thought not the kind a Westerner would recognize. Rows of two-liter bottles, rescued from Coke, Sprite and Johnny Walker Black line the streets, and fill the tanks of motorbikes whisking tourists from temple to temple, site to site. Dollars are the currency of choice and every shop keeper and stand owner has a tale of woe to share with you, hoping you will buy from them. The sad part is, the tales are all real and all too plentiful.

The road to Cambodia is lined with the signs of political parties - Sam Rainey, Cambodia People's Party, and Democratic People's Republic. A casual visitor might imagine a country embracing democracy, a country trying to get on their feet after years of civil war and strife. But front page pictures in the newspaper show the current leaders - men formerly associated with the Khmer Rouge, the military force that, under the leadership of Pol Pot, massacred millions of Cambodian men, women and children. How can a new world begin when the old world never had to answer for its crimes? And, continues to rule, full of smiles but short on memory?

The road to Cambodia if full of people missing arms and legs, missing parents and children, missing husbands and wives. I see it through the eyes of a white wealthy stranger, someone who has never had to endure civil war, poverty, or fear that my neighbors might sell me out to the authorities (whoever they happen to be at the time). I see it also as a friend of a Cambodian refugee, a now US-citizen who fled her war-torn land as a child, never to return. A kindred spirit, a woman who shares my birthday and my love of travel, I always wondered why she never came back, why she never talks about her experience or that of her family. In every female face at Tuol Sleng genocide museum I saw what could have been hers - and in every story told I wondered. I think maybe I understand - when you have been to hell and back there is no reason to make a return journey.

The road to Cambodia is full of faces - most of which I will never remember. Yet, one stands out. The border town child, her face full of smiles, despite the fact that I did not buy from her. Instead I talked to her and her friend - some in English, some in Thai and all in smiles. As we were about to leave, she tapped on the window of the mini bus and beckoned for me to open it. When I did she took my wrist and put on a pink woven bracelet. I protested, but she said, "no charge for you." She smiled and said, "When you come back - I will remember you." I almost cried as the bus pulled away.

I'm sorry to admit that her name is already a memory, and her face is fading fast. Yet somehow I know, I will always remember her, too.