Ba Kham and Beyond

Whereas in Vietnam and Laos stories and memories of the Ho Chi Minh Trail are abundant, in Cambodia the situation is very different. Although several fingers of the Trail crept their way through this ‘neutral’ country during the Vietnam War, almost no trace of it survives. And finding anyone with any real knowledge of the Trail here is nigh on impossible. Wanting to see if I could dig up any clues, I hired a translator in Ban Lung, Ratanakiri Province, and headed east for a few days.

With Cambodian New Year a week away, even finding a translator proved difficult. New Year (Chaul Chnam Thmey) is a huge three day celebration which spills out into the weeks before and after it, and already half the country had packed their bags and returned home to their families. Finally I did find someone, a 32 year old Khmer whom I shall call Mr D.  Mr D spoke good English with a cockney accent and had been a guide in the Ban Lung area for ten years.

Mr D turned up at my guesthouse at 8 am on Sunday morning on a hired 125-cc Honda Wave moped. He looked at my bike disdainfully and asked, ‘Where you get your bike from?’ Clearly unimpressed by my response he replied; ‘Your friend in Hanoi no good – why he not get you better bike?’ Biting my tongue I nodded towards his moped and asked if it was any good. ‘Better than yours’ he replied, lighting a cigarette, without a hint of humour in his voice. If he carried on like this, we were not going to enjoy a harmonious relationship.

Mr D knew nothing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, so before we set off I showed him my old Trail maps and explained what I was looking for. A main branch of the Trail in Cambodia had run west to east, from Stung Treng across to the Vietnamese border, cutting through Ratanakiri province. The map was thin on clues, but a place called Ba Kham, around 60 km to the east of Ban Lung, where we were now, seemed to be a prominent hub. Looking on Google Earth the night before, I’d found a village near the Vietnamese border with the same name. There was no mention of it on the internet, and I had no idea if we’d find anything at all there, but I wanted to go there and search for clues.

We rode due east out of Ban Lung on the new tarmac Highway 78.  Dark, uniform lines of  rubber trees marched towards the horizon in all directions. Not a trace of original jungle remained. Where the road turned north to Ba Kham we stopped at a Vietnamese restaurant where an old man was noisily sucking on some pork and rice. Mr D asked him if he knew anything about the Trail. He shook his head and spat some gristle on the floor, barely even bothering to look at us.

A few km after we’d turned north I squealed Panther to a halt. Bomb craters! The field to the right of the dirt road was pock-marked with those familiar holes. I felt like a hound who’d suddenly picked up the scent of their prey, nose to the ground, tail wagging. ‘Look, bomb craters!’ I said excitedly to Mr D, ‘That’s a sure fire sign we’re on the Trail.’ Amongst the craters was a ramshackle wooden house, and two teenage boys sawing at an old truck engine. ‘Let’s go and ask those people if they know anything’. Reluctantly, Mr D approached the boys, asking them about the craters. They didn’t know anything but their father, who was currently relieving himself in the bushes, might do. We waited for ten minutes in the hot sun, watching the boys as they sawed, until a small man appeared from behind some cashew trees in a pair of grimy underpants. His black hair was matted with dust and dirt, and his hands covered in engine oil. Mr D asked him about the craters. ‘Yes, they are from American bombs’ he said. He went on to tell us that the road we were on was indeed the Trail, but as he was very young at the time, he didn’t remember anything. ‘We did find the crashed remains of a US helicopter over there’ he pointed to beyond the cashew trees, ‘about ten years ago, but we sold everything. There’s nothing left now’. I pressed him for details as much as I could, but nothing was forthcoming. It seemed amazing that these people lived among at least ten large bomb craters but knew so little about how and why they were there.

Continuing north, we stopped for lunch in a scrappy town where we ate fly-blown rice and fish soup for lunch. The family who owned the restaurant were watching a dubbed Thai film at full volume. Above the din of the television, Mr D proceeded to tell me how awful and depressing his life was. His father had died of illness seven years previously, and two of his siblings had also died. He never saw his mother or remaining brother. He spat the words out with bitterness and anger. ‘My family were too poor to send me to school, so I was only educated for three years. I wish I hadn’t been born to such a poor family’. It wasn’t the most joyous of luncheons.

More bomb craters signalled our arrival in Ba Kham, a rubbish-strewn village of about thirty stilted wooden huts on the banks of the beautiful Tonle San river. It seemed the whole village were washing and playing in the shallows. A thin, grey-haired, one-eyed man walked up the steep bank to greet us and the three of us squatted in the shade of a tree as Mr D explained what we were looking for. As we talked, a gaggle of curious children gathered round to listen. ‘Oh, I don’t know’ said the old man, ‘I’m only 56, I’m not old enough to remember all that. And I didn’t live in this village then, I lived on the other side of the village in the jungle’. He pointed north, over the wide, rushing waters of the river into Virachey National Park. It seemed odd he didn’t remember anything – in 1970, at the height of the US bombing of the region, he would have been 13. Surely he’d remember such a momentous incident in local history? I asked him if he remembered the bombs and planes. ‘Ooooh yes’ he whistled and shook his head ‘I remember the planes. All the villagers fled into the jungle’. He then looked suspiciously at me and said ‘Why are you asking all these questions? It’s making me nervous. Why don’t you ask that old man down there, he might know more’. He waved a gnarled hand towards the river, where a skeletal figure was slowly washing his pots and pans, and with that he got up and walked away. I wondered if his dislike of being asked questions was anything to do with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

The gold-toothed Jarai
The gold-toothed Jarai

As we waited under the tree for the skeletal figure to finish his washing, another man came and talked to us, asking what we wanted. He was the village chief, and told us this was a Jarai village. The Jarai are a minority people who mainly live in the mountainous areas of Vietnam, with only small numbers of them living in this far north eastern corner of Cambodia.  The chief, a very small, very dark skinned man, didn’t know how old he was, but thought he was about 54. ‘No, I don’t remember anything about the war or the bombs’, he told me, somewhat unbelievably   As he left Mr D turned to me ‘These people are so stupid, they’re like children. They’re so ignorant, they don’t know anything. Their Khmer language is terrible, I’d get more sense out of a four year old Khmer child’. I was shocked by his racist outburst, but it was something I would hear from him again and again over the next few days.

Eventually skeletor finished his washing and crept up the river bank, squatting down beside us. He studied me with rheumy eyes and smiled, revealing a mouth crammed with gold, bejewelled teeth.  A surprising display of wealth in such poor surrounds. Again he gave us the same answer ‘Oh, I don’t know, I can’t remember, it was far too long ago. Anyway, I was living in the jungle on the other side of the river then’. And with that he closed the book of his mind, unfolded his emaciated legs and wandered off.  For whatever reason, the people here either really didn’t remember anything (unlikely) or were unwilling to unlock their memories. It could have arisen from a a suspicion of outsiders, or  been related to what happened during the Khmer Rouge. It could also have been something to do with the fact some Jarai (in Vietnam anyway) allied with the Americans in the war against the Vietnamese. Whatever the reasons, aside from confirming that Ba Kham was bombed, we weren’t going to extract any more Trail stories from here. We waved to the children and rode away.

I’d heard rumours that parts of the Trail wound their way through Virachey National Park, on the other side of the river. The Viet Cong had allegedly had a training camp here and the jungle had once been riddled with a spiders web of Trails leading to the Vietnamese border. ‘I know someone in a village not far over the river into the park’ said Mr D, ‘let’s go there and see if they know anything.’ We crossed the river and rode north into the park, following a dirt road through recently deforested jungle. Although Virachey is one of Cambodia’s last bits of virgin rainforest, there are – very sadly – large amounts of illegal logging going on here. An all too familiar story here in South East Asia.

As the sun dipped low in the sky, we arrived at the village, Ket; a dusty, rubbish-infested dive of a place. Everything was coated in a film of red dust, and the children’s faces were red with dirt. Never have I seen anywhere with so much rubbish. The single road through the middle was piled with plastic bags, bottles, tins and rotting vegetable matter. I watched as a boy downed a sugar cane juice and threw the plastic cup into the festering gutter. Mangy dogs and fat pigs mingled with the children. Mr D went off to find his friend, only to return saying he was no longer living here, but he’d found a family who had said we could put our hammocks up behind their house. Since this turned out to be amongst piles of rubbish and next to a generator, it wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.

The main street of Ket
The main street of Ket

I was shaken out of my hammock at 6 am the next morning by  Mr D. ‘It’s raining, get up!’ I scrambled out, bleary eyed, and yanked my hammock down, rushing under some tarpaulin. Within two minutes the skies unleashed the most incredible deluge, and we sat and watched the red earth turn to slime, and rivers of water engulf the road. Once it had subsided, we went in search of the village chief. Like Ba Kham, this was a Jarai village, but  in the last ten years it had been taken over by an influx of lowland Khmers who’d moved here to work in the rubber plantations. The Jarai had been pushed to the margins, to a settlement behind the mephitic main strip.

We found the village chief sitting in a large wooden house in the centre of the village. He introduced himself as Jamien and said he’d be happy to talk to us, and yes, he knew lots about the Trail. He was a small, light-skinned man who looked far younger than his 70 years, despite an emergent goitre on his neck. ‘The Trail went right through this village’ he said, pointing towards the main road. ‘The Vietnamese used to walk through here carrying guns and ammunition. Later on they brought trucks, with rice, medicine, clothes, ammunition and guns’. I asked him what the villagers thought of the intrusion of war into their lives, and what their relationship was to the Vietnamese. His answers were confusing. On the one hand he said that the villagers, including him, had helped the Vietnamese build the Trail and wanted to help them in their war against the American enemy. Yet on the other hand he said the Vietnamese soldiers had sometimes stolen food from their fields and raped the Jarai women. It didn’t make sense and I wondered how much was being lost in translation. At times Jamien would talk animatedly, and I would ask Mr D what he was saying. ‘Oh, he’s just saying more information, nothing important’, he’d reply, yawning.

Jamien the Jarai chief
Jamien the Jarai chief

We talked to Jamien for over an hour and he told us about life during the bombing, and how the villagers would flee into the jungle, or hide in holes.  When they were working in the fields during the day the Jarai would cover their backs with foliage to try and camouflage themselves from the probing eyes of  American planes. At one point he pulled up his trouser leg and showed us  deep scarring on his knee, from where he’d been hit in the leg by shrapnel.

Before we left, I asked Jamien what he thought of all the logging and deforestation here. His face changed and he hung his head sadly. ‘I’m very angry about our rainforest being cut down, now our ancestors have gone. We tried to protest against it happening but we were powerless, no one would listen. Now it’s gone for ever.’ His sadness was tangible, and I left feeling unbearably sad about the fate of the Jarai.

With that Mr D and I got on our bikes and rode south out of Virachey. Next on the agenda was Lumphat.

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