Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Phnom Penh - from a different perspective

We took Aki Ra’s uncle with us to Phnom Penh last week. He hadn’t seen the city since he was fighting there as a Khmer Rouge soldier during the war. He lives right along Highway 6, the main road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. From his village it’s about 90 miles to the capital. It might have been 90 light years.

The last itme he was in Phnom Penh, the city was deserted and the Vietnamese were shelling it.

We had to take a car to get to PP since all the buses were full, we didn’t want to spend the money to fly and Aki Ra wanted to take his uncle and show him the changes since the war.

Now there is a story that Aki Ra tells about he and his uncle that happened during the war:

Aki Ra spent his early years fighting with the Khmer Rouge. Then he was captured by the Vietnamese after they invaded in 1978. He at first thought he’d be able to go home. But the Vietnamese had other ideas. They pretty much offered him a place in their army or a bullet. Aki Ra said he only had to think about that for a nanosecond.

During one battle he was firing his AK47 over a log at the Khmer Rouge on the other side of the field when he recognized one of the KR soldiers shooting back at him…his uncle. Now Aki Ra is a very good shot. I’ve seen him shoot a sparrow out of a tree with one shot at 50 meters. But that day he couldn’t hit a barn door. He shot in the air, he shot in the dirt, and he shot over the enemy’s heads. One of the Vietnamese officers saw what was happening and came over to him to find how come one of their best shots couldn’t hit squat that day. Aki Ra told hem he was sick so they sent him to the rear to see a doctor. His uncle had no idea he’d been fighting Aki Ra until the war was over and they met up near Siem Reap. They both think its hysterical.

Aki Ra and I got talking one day about the war. I asked him how difficult it was to have fought for the Khmer Rouge and then to have to fight against them. He must have had a lot of friends in the KR? He said ‘oh, that was no problem. We saw each other all the time.’ When I asked him to explain that he said that the Vietnamese used to send the Khmer soldiers into the jungle to hunt. The troops on both sides lived off the land. They sent the Khmers for a variety of reasons. Of course, many of them knew the countryside well. But if anyone was going to get caught in an ambush, a booby-trap or a minefield, it might as well be the Khmers, and not the Vietnamese.

Anyway, he explained, as though it were as common as going to Starbucks, that when they went out to hunt food, the Khmers hunted together. I mean ALL the Khmers, the ones who fought for the KR and the ones who fought for the Vietnamese. Aki Ra said, ‘we all knew each other. We’d grown up together. We were friends. So we’d help each other hunt. Then we split the food and go back to our camps. Then next day we try and kill each other.”

How do you put your arms around something like that?

Well, we took Aki Ra’s uncle to Phnom Penh. We ditched the car and got a tuk tuk and headed for a hotel that Aki Ra likes, right on the waterfront. Boy was it nice. A/C, hot water, a balcony overlooking the river, color TV. And it was only $28 a night. Pretty neat. We ate dinner at the Peking Restaurant near the new market, a place Aki Ra likes a lot. Excellent food and no berangs (foreigners). Just the kind of place I like to frequent. I bagged it early and Aki Ra and his uncle went out to see the big city.

The next morning we had a 6:30 meeting after which I go a chance to talk to his uncle about his impressions of Phnom Penh during the war and now. They were very to the point. ‘It’s noisy and it smells.’ Yep, that’s right. It does.

More from the jungle as news breaks.

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