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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



I live in the Thai village of Ta Phraya, twenty kilometres or so from Site 2. It is as close to the camp as foreigners are permitted to live. For some of us expats Ta Phraya is a haven, though many choose to live in Aranyaprathet, a larger town further from Site 2.

Rice fields surround the village. The farmers who live in small houses on stilts in the simple streets of unpaved roads shelter their animals under the house at night then bring the buffalo to their fields by day. I rent a small, raw-timber Thai house and revel in the sound of geckos, the smell of rain on rice fields and vistas of intense wet-season green.

My neighbours awaken at the first crowing of a rooster: already the Buddhist monks walk silently through the town, begging bowls held before them, saffron robes brilliant against weathered houses and shuttered shops.

As soon as the light is strong enough the town is ready for the busyness of the day. The metal door of a roofed area known as the ‘Barang Shop’ rolls up and goods that the barang might want to buy are on display: long-life milk, coffee, mosquito coils, prickly heat powder, tea bags, very rarely, butter, very, very rarely, bread; overseas air letters, toilet paper. Toilet paper is popular with better-off Thai customers too, displayed in a hand-carved timber holder in the middle of the meal table it is used as serviettes. The Barang Shop is the place for the expats to meet, to organise the day before the early morning journey to the camp, or to buy a cool drink in the evening before going home.

I welcome any chance of evening mass. Especially during the most hazardous times, many volunteers and workers of any faith or no faith gather in a house rented by priests of the Jesuit Refugee Service. There is a small room with a low table for an altar, a simple setting for this ritual. The book of scripture is open. We sit around the table on cushions on the floor silently recalling the day that has been. Together we listen to the scripture; in the Eucharist we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. As the orange glow of tropical sunset dims, the light of a candle already flickering on the table seamlessly replaces it.

‘Jesus said, “Heal the broken-hearted, set the prisoners free”.’ It is simple and clear. We have spent our day with the heartbroken; those with no choices. There is no dogma, no rhetoric. Familiar words break the silence after a day of struggling with longings and doubts. There is one sure thing: Jesus’ choice was to take the side of the most oppressed, to join with them.

Night-life in downtown Ta Phraya is simple: a cool dipper-shower, fresh light clothes, a good slathering of mosquito repellent and a meal with friends.

Near the main street is a popular roadside wok where noodle dishes and rice dishes are stir-fried to order. On request they can be topped with a fried egg or two. Here there are tin tables and tin stools. Around the corner is a small cafe known as the ‘Chicken Curry’ in honor of its signature meal. Customers sit on plastic chairs and eat at plastic tables. Out of town, too far to walk, is the one we call the Golden Buffalo. Here the guests sit on chairs of jungle timber, at carved tables hand crafted and polished. The Golden Buffalo serves what the menu describes as steak.

My friends favour the roadside wok. We dine under the stars when there is need to talk about the happenings of the day. The meal begins with cool drinks: iced lime juice with sugar and salt in a ratio measured to counteract dehydration, then beer, coke or soda water. Individual orders are tossed in the wok. Hot fat spits, the flames flare. Often there is laughter; if the day has been weighted with tragedy there is grief. We remember our friends in the camp who cannot share the support that we offer to each other.

On one such night we begin to plan for a session of training in Ta Phraya. We write a proposal for the Cambodians of the Centre for Healing and some of their colleagues to be permitted to leave the camp for ‘study’. The ‘study’ would involve a small group of border Khmer coming to Ta Phraya for a weekend. This could be repeated at different times for different groups. The plan is submitted and astoundingly it is approved.

Six Cambodians, four men and two women, competent and creative leaders, refugees though called illegal immigrants, are given permission to study outside of the camp for a few days.

They show their passes to the Thai guards then leave Site 2 in the back of the COERR Ute. Once outside the barbed wire they are in a countryside that is impoverished but free. Rice fields, coconut palms, pigs, chickens, small clusters of Thai houses, Thai mothers-fathers-children piled together on family motorbikes.

In the back of the Ute Thavy, Phaly, Soeun, Sok Thim and Nee note each detail. Their children in the camp have never seen such sights, have never even smelled the growing rice. Their talk starts with ‘If only …’, and ‘I wish …’

Bora, the youngest, the one not yet married, does not join this talk. He wants to tell me what he remembers, scrunching his face as he begins. He was the only member of his family to survive the Khmer Rouge times, as far as he knows. He recalls sitting on an ox cart travelling north, feeling that he was alone in the world, wanting to get far away from the place of his suffering. He was still very young at this time.

I watch him as he speaks. His face, always mobile, has lost its playful expression and has collapsed into furrows, his shoulders are hunched. As we sit crammed together in the back of the Ute I can picture him as a boy, legs dangling over the edge of the cart. He tells me that after they had all travelled for a long time he began to notice that the man beside him, an ‘older man’ of about forty years, was quietly sobbing.

I wonder whether this was uncomfortable for a child or whether perhaps it was companionable to be with an older stranger who suffered too. The memory remains with him, both the silent grief and the words that were eventually spoken, ‘Boy, what is your name?’ He repeats these words, they are still important to him. ‘Boy, what is your name?’

In the man’s home village in Battambang Province the man and the boy climbed down from the cart together. The man’s small daughter was still alive; nobody else in the family had survived. Bora tells me that he stayed with them for a time then seized another opportunity to go ahead through the minefields to the border. We sit together in silent thought for the rest of the journey.

On the main street of Ta Phraya we walk past the dusty shops, past the bus stops, to the other end of town. There is no longer any thought of a formal workshop. This rapid immersion into ordinary life, and the chance to talk about it, is more than enough.

Soeun, a city man educated in Phnom Penh, can name the make of each car and truck parked at the side of the road. Before the Khmer Rouge he had an important role in a petrol company. He has not forgotten.

Phaly pauses at the entrance of the ‘Beauty Shop’, intrigued by the buzz of Thai voices, women’s gossip. Local women sit around waiting to have their hair washed, cut, curled and dyed and their fingernails and toenails painted. Posters around the plywood walls depict in vivid colour the treatments that are on offer. There is a bamboo bench where the one being shampooed lies on her back gazing at the sagging, rain-stained cardboard ceiling, her head suspended over a plastic dish. Expert hands massage her temples and scalp and rinse off the lavender-scented suds with dipper after dipper of water. Much more water than a whole family in Site 2 would have for a day. Phaly understands massage. She understands attractiveness and the routines to achieve it. She carries her beauty consciously, her shoulder length curly hair, her rounded features and ready smile. ‘Dohj knia sroh!k Khmai,’ she says with satisfaction. It is just like Cambodia.

The early-morning Thai market bustles with life, purposeful, ordinary and carefree. Our Cambodian friends, though they are natural leaders among their people in the camp, stand awkwardly. Beams of light filter from high in the roof: sunlight falls upon fruit, vegetables, eggs, rice, poultry, meat and fish. Such abundance, such over-abundance, of food. Usable fruit and vegetable scraps are trodden under foot, even rice grains are spilled a little. Vendors shout their wares, buyers bargain. I wonder whether our friends have noticed the small tins of fish intended as food for the needy but finding their way to the Ta Phraya market: the Japanese flag on the label, the English lettering, ‘Gift from Japan’.

Hens squawk in bamboo cages, fish swim in buckets. I remember that these Cambodians are all hungry. The smell of the food stalls around the perimeter of the market space pulls like a magnet. They choose noodle soup and rice soup rich with chicken or pork, fragrant with spices, sold in transparent plastic bags, held carefully like intravenous drips in a hospital. We go home. Sheltered inside the house they are ready to eat their fill. There is no restriction.

Sitting on a straw mat spread on the floor they eat seriously without words until the food is finished. In the privacy of this place where doors can close, where walls are strong, where conversations cannot be overheard, they tell stories never told, give opinions never uttered, in the camp. Here there is an easy stream of talk.

Nee looks around the room. ‘In the camp I feel as if I am living under the edge of the roof of someone else’s house.’ He talks of the checkpoint between the north and the south of the camp where, on Sunday, when there are usually no barang to observe what is happening, Thai guards require the Cambodians to crouch down in order to pass through. The guards look for small excuses to beat them with rods. One Cambodian has the cuff of his shirt turned up unevenly, another has not crouched down low enough, soon enough. They are hauled out of the line to be beaten. Nee tells of dignity being drained away, of women and men being driven to fearfulness and then ridiculed for letting those feelings show.

Sitting at ease – as people do in the house of a friend, comfortable in this room with cushions on the floor, curtains at the windows, and pictures on the walls – they start to tell stories of Khmer Rouge times.

As the conversation begins they seem to be saying things that they want the barang to know. They tell of ‘Pol Pot days’, of working in the fields from early morning until late night, desperate with hunger and numb with fear, numb to the point of following orders with blind obedience. They talk of staying just barely alive on a diet of watery rice soup, obsessed with getting something into their stomachs, of chewing grass in desperation until their stool looked like the stool of animals.

Sok Thim says that their captors thought of them as animals. Thavy says that they knew they must obey everything without thought in order to stay alive. There was no decision that they were free to make. Nee talks of his night-blindness; it was the result of malnutrition. If the Khmer Rouge noticed it he would have been killed like a useless animal. Those who could no longer work were battered to death. When the mobile youth team was led out to work in the darkness before dawn and when they returned from work at night Nee could not see at all. His friend held a stick for him to grasp; he was led as one would lead a dog. There was no dignity left.

The guests rest in the heat of the day and are invited to take a dipper shower with abundant water. They emerge through the back door of the house one by one fresh and relaxed, the men with kramas wrapped around them from waist to knees, Phaly and Thavy with hair shampooed and conditioned, faces creamed, sarongs tied neatly from under their arm pits. They have washed their clothes and draped them over trees to dry in the sunshine.

Phaly says, ‘During Khmer Rouge times I would try to spread a krama on the ground, place the family’s dish of watery soup on it and a wild flower beside it.’ I can well believe it. Even here, dressed only in a sarong, she is gracious and elegant.

Soeun, the first man from the shower, pours cool drinks, adds some chips of ice from the ice bin and joins me outside in the shade. He is ready to talk politics and guesses I am interested to learn. We are about the same age. But our lives, lived parallel in time, have been vastly different. ‘Soeun, I’m wondering about when you first came to the border,’ I say.

He looks thoughtfully down at his drink, clinks the ice in the glass and hesitates. His hair is still plastered wet against his head from the shower; he is a man on holiday, watching the hens squawking and scratching in the yard. He points to a huge tree across the way, recognising. ‘That is a soup tree,’ he says, then settles down to tell what he knows.

The first refugees fled to the border of Thailand at the same time as the Vietnamese ‘liberating army’ from the south moved north in their offensive against the Khmer Rouge. From the beginning those who fled ahead of the fighting were a mixed group clustered at first on the Cambodian side of the border, later on the Thai side.

I notice Soeun’s soft-spoken poise. He is explaining this in his second or probably third language. I imagine the contribution he would make if he lived in a place where his leadership could flourish. We are enjoying the chance of being free to talk. It is as though we have all met socially for the first time.

He tells me that among the early ones to reach the border were Khmer Rouge who simply wanted to get away from the Vietnamese army. Some of the early-comers were given refuge in the USA. The possibility of refuge in a third country lasted only for a very brief time; after that, those who crossed the border in this area were called ‘illegal immigrants’. Disciplined Khmer Rouge soldiers took to the jungle-clad mountains, especially around Palin. They bided their time and mounted skirmishes against the Vietnamese army.

We refill our glasses and offer drinks and ice to the others relaxing in the shade.

Followers of Prince Sihanouk clung to the hope that the royal kingdom could be established again. Many made their way to the border to set up royalist encampments. Their leaders were also ready to mount resistance to the Vietnamese. They chose a French acronym and formed the FUNCINPEC army.

‘What about you, Soeun?’ I ask.

Cool and at ease, Soeun gestures with his hands, rattling the ice in his glass, shaping my understanding. Many educated Cambodians, Phaly and himself among them, wanted to work for a different Cambodia. They knew of democracy and they feared communism of any kind. They also clustered close to the Thai Border. From their encampments, and from those who joined with them, resistance leaders were trained. They developed the KPNLF, Khmer People’s National Liberation Front.

The three younger men have come from the house slick with shower water. They squat on their heels in the shade, within hearing of Soeun. His experience is different from theirs. They listen.

They all know that KPNLF, FUNCINPEC and the Khmer Rouge, three very different factions, are supported by the USA and other Western nations. I know that this ill-matched group is recognised by the United Nations as ‘Democratic Kampuchea’; it occupies the seat for Cambodia at the UN headquarters in New York. ‘This worries me Soeun,’ I say. He nods and tells me that refugees who stumble into the camp of one of these factions are automatically counted as supporting the faction that controls the camp.

We all know that the luckiest refugees, or those able to pay competent guides, stumble across the border adjacent to the only UNHCR camp, Khao I Dang. This camp is never attacked by any of the warring factions. At Khao I Dang you can be safe and there could be a chance to be settled in a third country if you are too afraid to return to Cambodia.

Late in the afternoon, when Ta Phraya begins to cool, the guests decide to walk along the south track to a hill outside the village. There will be a view across into Cambodia. They have all lost their awkwardness; they are striding confidently between the rice fields, first smiling and then laughing.

They stand on the rise, Cambodia spread in front of them. The laughter stops. There is silence.

Sok Thim speaks first. ‘The spirit of our people has survived but it has become very low. Too much oppression for too long. I remember seeing an old woman of our people kneeling right down in the dust in front of a barang, begging for help. She was shaking all over. That night I could see her in my mind still. Tears came to my eyes. We lack everything that people need. We want to build our country; we need to build the spirit of the people first.’

They are bunched together now, looking at their country. Nee says, ‘I ask myself why I feel this humiliation even more than in Khmer Rouge times. I think that I am emerging from numbness and beginning to feel.’

It is later in the same week. I cycle through the camp, carrying a field radio as I am required to do. I hear a message: staff at the COERR hospital need urgent backup because a crazy man is hacking down the bamboo walls of the hospital with an axe. When I arrive Soeun is crouched in the dirt beside the agitated patient, stroking him gently, speaking softly, and pouring soothing water over him as the monks do. Nee is beside him. The axe is out of sight of the patient, behind Nee’s back.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy