Thursday, October 27, 2022

Crossing Cambodia's Great Lake and journeying into the heart of darkness

Crossing Cambodia's great lake, the Tonle Sap, on a heavily armed boat with Liz Gilliland. Siem Reap 95.

Crossing the Tonle Sap on a heavily armed boat heading into the Khmer Rouge infested marshlands '95. Just visible in front is an armoured naval patrol boat and we had fifty cal machine guns mounted in skiffs on our port n starboard sides. We were not taking chances.This was the badlands. It was also beautiful. And I had just fallen in love with Liz, featured. This was my idea of a heavenly honeymoon. Everything fascinating and terrifying about life ram-packed into a day. A gov anti Khmer Rouge unit had been accused by the UN of going rogue and kidnapping for ransom, maintaining a secret prison in the marshlands, murdering those without ransom money to pay and dining on their livers. All the usual lovely stuff. So armed up to the teeth, the gov took us across the lake and into the marshlands. The purpose was to show us that there was no secret prison ie there was no massive old colonial fortress with bars. But you didn't need that shit. Out there there was no escape. You were upriver in Col Kurtz territory. We stopped off on a nearby little island where jittery gov troops were dug in with deathly seriousness in a unprecedented disciplined manner. These guys were not messing around. And whatever went down as sun did too was real Heart of Darkness drama. Sometimes the war seemed distant, almost quaint. But not out here. That's why there were three other gun boats escorting us. Tried to interview some locals about prisons and prisoners but with gov officials and soldiers all around, we got nowhere. Adding later credibility and added horror to the report was the subsequent attack on a UN official outside his home in Phnom Penh. Assailants stole his car. With his 3 year old daughter still in the back. She was later dumped outside the royal palace. A supposed act of mercy as it was a place she would soon be found. Not so merciful was the fact they shot the toddler in the leg. This was a daughter of a man who worked for the office that produced the report about the secret prison way out on the lake. So we're now back on the lake. Starting the return journey. Feeling a bit more relaxed. Thinking this is some holiday. But despite all the colourful and panoramic vistas and the fact that we were way way way off the still to emerge tourist path, there was the incoming from the brutal backdrop of violence, war and tragedy. Fresh love and novel passion was doing a good enough job at providing Kevlar for my soul and keeping the horrors at bay. But you were not allowed to just sit and dig sunsets. Not in this show. So it was good to have company as distraction. And all of the accompanying intensity of 'foxhole romance.' And Liz was thrilled to lig along. And presumably to be with me. Hopping the helicopters and boats without question. I was being treated like a big shot. If it wasn't so comical I might have tried -and then failed - to spin it as impressive. But enough about me. The entourage on the boat stopped off at floating crocodile farms and other fishing villages. Although most of the big floating fishing villages had disappeared. The Khmer Rouge had pulled off a successful campaign to ethnically cleanse the area of Vietnamese fishing people who lived in boathouses in floating villages along the great lake. Attacks culminating in a 93 massacre of around 40 villagers led to a mass exodus down the Mekong to the Vietnamese border. There was very little sympathy forthcoming from most Cambodians at the time. The usual show. Brutality and beauty. As King Sihanouk said: "We smile but we also kill." What a day. 

Pic by me.

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