Holiday in Cambodia


Creative Writing

Monday 24 April 1975

The army have surrounded the streets of Phnom Penh. The city has been thrown into complete chaos. City workers, cars, bicycles, traders, military, monks, young and old, have headed south, out of the city. The air is thick with smoke, explosions can be heard from the outskirts of the city. The fall of the Lon Nol government had been a bloody victory for the Khmer Rouge rebels. The hospitals are full of Lon Nol soldiers and civilians, blown to bits by American bombs. The nurses abandon blood red corridors and stained sheets in order to administer morphine injections to those who look like they might survive the night. The surrender of the government forces came as a relief to all of us, after years of corruption and suffering. The brothels and gambling houses lay empty, their doors wide open, windows smashed and anything of value, burnt or stolen. An end of government betrayal came with a high price on its head. The new communist regime demanded an end to Capitalism. This included all schools, hospitals, nightclubs, prostitution, gambling, material possessions and cities. Angka – whoever that may be- would provide. There would be no more markets, no more food stalls, no books, no stationery, no cars, no buses, no need for money and no need for clocks- you awoke to daylight and slept when you were finished in the fields. Capitalist professions were to become a thing of the past, if I was sick, then god help me, if I was hungry, Angka will feed me. The Khmer Rouge had an answer for every problem, a punishment for every crime and a job for every able bodied worker. Those that did not fit into this manifesto were removed. Doctors, teachers, monks and foreigners, became the first targets. Hospitals in the city were emptied, patients left to die on the operating table and doctors taken away for questioning. 

In the panic that ensued with the takeover, the rich fled in every direction. Those that could not face a life in the countryside, committed suicide before the soldiers took everything they had. I have followed the politics of Kampuchea closely, teaching in the University since 1969, my graduation became the bond that would save my volatile relationship with my father. It’s never easy being the eldest son in the family and my father’s instincts were that he had a failure on his hands. Koy and Heng, my younger brothers have been the apple in my father’s eye, ever since they became medical students. Now, none of this will matter. Teacher, tailor, we will all become farmers, whether we like it or not. 

Tuesday 25 April 1975         

The reality of the new regime has become a nightmare. Dead bodies litter the streets, scooters lying abandoned, cars ablaze and possessions strewn all over the boulevard. The Khmer soldiers are young, but the jungle has changed them, taken away their innocence and replaced it with a cold military heart. My brothers managed to escape, only minutes before the Khmer Rouge invaded the hospitals, systematically executing doctors and officials. The killing has been going on for many years now, but most of us believed we would never have to deal with it in the city. As if we had some sort of protective shield, sheltering us from this evil. I made my way over to my father’s house as soon as the troops ordered the evacuation. The news of my brother’s safety, is the only hope I have got at the moment. They have headed for Battambang, north- west of the province, under the guise of carpenters from the city. From there they plan to head for Thailand, the only place not affected by communism. There were still pick-up trucks leaving every hour for the north, up until this morning. Those unfortunate enough to face the journey today, faced a long walk. Thousands were left with no choice but to join a mass exodus of bodies clutching their valuables. Families hauled tents and containers of rice into an uncertain world of dust and a dry, burning heat. I looked across Boeng Snor, once the red –light district, a haven for the rich and famous, and through the shimmering heat, an army of refugees marched like ants, all heading in the same direction. No idea of what the future holds …  just a vague promise of land to clear and farm. I left with my mother and father. The Mekhong river welcomed city exiles, as huge cargo boats pulled out of the shore, destined to take Khmer families back to their home provinces. I lay on the deck, watching the colours in the sky change in to an orange fire. Sweat ran down my back and I flinched, sending a crippling shock down my spine. What made us believe in these young soldiers so much? Had we really been living in such hard times, that we would flee our cities and leave our jobs? The obedience shown was almost hypnotic, like a wind-up toy, just needing a little push.

Wednesday 26 April 1975                                                                                                                                                                                                        As we floated up the Mekhong, I drifted off into an opiate haze. It was the first time in days that I had actually been given the chance to forget about the disruption, the panic and fear installed on thousands of people in a matter of hours. Our future was unwritten, our families torn apart, the familiar routine of shopping in a market, drinking in bars, eating in restaurants, was now a thing of the past. Our cities were gone and a new age was upon us. The words of a young mit neary, back in Phnom Penh, pushed its way into my subconscious mind, ‘Everybody is equal now! Everybody is the same! No more sompeahing! No more masters and no more servants! The wheel of history is turning! You must follow Angka’s rules!’ No-one knew who Angka was or what it represented. There were rumours that King Sihanouk, who liberated us from the French, was behind this revolution, but no-one really knew, not even the soldiers. The sun began to disappear behind wisps of cotton. Streaks of sunlight filled the sky with glorious colours. The only sound to be heard was the river as the canal boat pushed its way up stream, the gentle touch of dawn seemed to cradle the boat’s passengers, couple’s held onto one another, as if this were to be there last moment on Earth. My mother and father looked into each other’s eyes and tried to forget the uncertainty ahead. Mother  massaged the veins that mapped the top of my father’s dark , laboured hand. I prayed to Buddha to keep them safe from harm, something made me feel danger ahead. Something dark was present, something ahead that I did not want to face. The abandoned, sunken war ships, blown out of the waters by American B-52s, lay like skeletons on the banks of the river. Already rusting and only half visible above water, local children leaped of the decks, filled with the innocent joys of youth. The red flag of the Khmer Rouge had missed these children. Too young to fight their war and too weak to hold a gun. Would they live to tell our grandchildren of this momentous leap in the Kampuchean revolution?

Thursday 27 April 1975

We disembarked at Chikreng, a small village outside Siem Reap. I no longer knew of the term ‘home’. The orders were given to gather wood from the nearby forest and begin making a basic shelter. My mother and father were certainly not capable of cutting down any trees, let alone building a small shelter, so I wasted no time in heading to the forest. Not only was the land overgrown and uncultivated, this area of Kampuchea was still littered in land-mines. As I carefully approached a clearing, I heard soldiers bark orders from behind, telling us we had only a few hours to complete this task. The head of the village had called a meeting at sunrise.  Thousands of Khmer hoped for a positive outlook on their already tainted futures. I returned from the forest with four trimmed logs. Many of the men had brought sharp tools and materials for building. I had packed a first aid kit and some bedding and had to borrow a small axe to cut down the young trees. Some of those in the forest had attended my school and were only happy to help. My father held the tree stems as I tied them together with vine to make our walls, as mother quickly weaved panels of thatch for the roof. Their country upbringing was a blessing, my knowledge of building and surviving outside of the city was down to sharpening a pencil. We used plastic bags found in the forest and lined the roof, in case the rain came early. I cushioned the floor with straw and lay down the bedding I had brought from the city. I built a small cooking area with stones and left my mother and father to collect rice from the rail road station. The Khmer Rouge allocated two cans of rice per household, enough for a couple of undersized meals. As I walked out of the station, I glanced back at the corpses, scattered  along the railway track. The bodies may have been there for weeks and flies had gathered around the mouths, eyes and anuses. The skin had swollen to the point where it was bursting through the clothing that previously identified the victims. Now it was unclear as to whether the dead were soldiers or children. The air stank of death in a tropical heat. I felt sick and had to steady myself before returning back to the village. Our strict customs of burying the dead were a thing of the past. In six months, we had gone from religious and noble men, to desperate, hunted savages. How easily man sheds his armour and exposes his primal instincts in the face of death. 

Friday 28 April 1975                 

In the morning, we were directed to an old Buddhist temple a mile outside the clearing that was now resembling a slum village. The bonn was to be held in one of the many temples desecrated by Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge had forced the monks out of their wat, stripped them of their saffron robes and demanded they wear black pajamas. Those that did not comply were simply shot. The soldiers branded the monks parasites, they did not work for their food and lived off others. The stone carvings of Avalokiteshvara dated back to the ancient empire of Angkor, seven centuries ago. Now these marvellous offerings sat headless, a stark reminder of the heartless reactions of a regime hell-bent on destruction.  

The speaker was a thin man, not from the city, his arms built up on muscle only known to the rural community. He had a cold face, one that had not been loved and was desperate like a hunted wolf. Men who had worked all their life in the country were highly respected by the Khmer Rouge, and this old man had jumped on the chance of keeping his house and car if he showed devotion to Angka. He spoke of forgetting the past and moving with the future. We were to disregard capitalist professions and work on the land. Angka would provide us with the food we needed, as long as we worked for it. I wondered where my mother and father fitted into this schedule. Unable to work at their age, what were they to do? The man then warned us of traitors amongst us who cling onto capitalist fashions and mannerisms. The work ahead of us was out of my comprehension. We were to build an empire of rice on dry, barren land, clear the forests and plant vegetables. The idea was to erase the individual and create a unit of enormous strength. Looking around me, I knew this was not going to work. Some of the people had walked miles for a can of rice and without vitamins and clean water would die within the week. I was surrounded by weak, old men and women, most of the children had been enlisted into the Khmer Rouge and were fighting on the front line. As we returned to the village, the students I had met in the forest, spoke of people disappearing at night. There were no laws under the Khmer Rouge, only enemies. If my past education was exposed, I would become the enemy. People disappear, that’s all I knew. And I knew that someday, I would be one of them. 

Word Count 2,243

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