Trekking With the Rangers of Bokor; Adventure Writer Back on an Adventure
"So I'll just wait here then?" I shouted in the general direction of where I had last seen Ranger Veriak melting into the trees. "OK," I added, as if I had a choice. "Take your time."
According to Veriak, it had been six months since the Bokor Mountain rangers had hiked up this particular trail. Now the way was completely overgrown, and he often had to leave me alone while he went off looking for the trail.
Being left alone in the jungle, for even a few minutes, can be terrifying. The solitude is loud, and your imagination runs away with you. Remembering that Cambodia is still one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, I stood perfectly still, just to be safe. But then I remembered that if you stepped on a mine, it was already triggered, but wouldn't explode till you had stepped off it. So, maybe I wasn't so safe after all. I swallowed my gum.
Afraid to do anything that might upset my weight distribution, I was frozen like the Tin Man when Veriak returned.
"What are you doing?" he asked, perplexed.
"Oil can," I whispered.
"Oil can what?" he answered, in Khmer.
Had he seen The Wizard of Oz? He obviously knew the dialogue. It was yet one more mystery in Cambodia.
Veriak assured me, once again, that there had never been mines in this particular forest.
"And besides," he added, with his cheerful grin, "We already removed them all."
I was careful to step where he stepped.
We had been walking since seven thirty that morning. The last several hours I had been so exhausted that I wasn't having fun anymore. To keep from seeming too eager, I was careful to ask only once per hour, "Are we there yet?"
I glanced at my watch. "How far to the top?"
"Three hours," he answered, for the third time. The first time had been four hours ago.
When we only had one hour left, for the second time, it started raining.
My guide on this quixotic adventure was Veriak, a twenty-five year old anti-poaching ranger, who protected the forest and animals in Bokor National Park. We had met at the ranger station that morning when Veriak was assigned to take me up the mountain. The fee had been $20, half of Veriak's monthly salary, so I imagine he was happy to have the opportunity to make some extra cash. Thavrin, the representative from my sponsor, Phnom Penh Tours, snapped a million pictures of us. I thought it was because Veriak looked so cool in his Vietnam-era army greens and his AK-47.
"These Asians and their cameras," I laughed.
But later, Thavrin told me "I wanted as many photos of that ranger as possible, in case you disappeared in the jungle."
"You mean you thought he might kill me?" I asked, naively.
"You are probably carrying his annual salary in your wallet," said Thavrin, gravely. "Life is cheap up here."
To his credit, Veriak didn't kill me. And, unless I greatly misread him, I believe we bonded as friends during our endless death march to Batan. But Thavrin had a point, and it was a reoccurring theme in Khmer society. The rangers were one of the better paid public servants, most likely because some of their funding came from US based NGO, Wild Aid. But, with soldiers earning $10 a month and police officers earning $20, how could anyone expect service from the government?
Seeing Veriak with his Vietnam surplus weapon and uniform, it was impossible not to think of the war, and myself as an American soldier being lead through the jungle by local forces. Playing my part to the tee, I made all o the same mistakes the Americans made in Vietnam, except that I never believed Nixon. Where Veriak moved silently, like an Indian on the hunt, I made more noise than a platoon of elephants. The last three or four months, my writing schedule had been so heavy that I wasn't boxing, so I was severely out of shape. Also, I had spent the last eighteen months living in Phnom Penh, so I hadn't been in the jungle for a year and a half. Every minute I am in Phnom Penh I grow weaker every minute Veriak is in the jungle he grows stronger I thought, quoting the film, Apocalypse Now.
Easy living had nearly destroyed me. I had lost my edge. Now, I had difficulty climbing over and under obstacles, which Veriak cleared with ease. I couldn't lift my legs high enough to go over the top. And, I couldn't bend far enough to pass underneath. Another constant problem was my backpack. It got hooked on everything. It wasn't enough that I was weaker than Veriak, but I also needed, more stuff than him. It was a Buddhist lesson in minimalism. Veriak wore only a small fanny-pack, whereas I needed a day-bag. How out of practice I was even became evident in the way I packed. I took too much food, and not enough water.
We would be hiking to the top of Bokor Mountain, where we would be sleeping at the ranger station overnight. According to Veriak, the trip should have taken four hours. So, I had planned one liter of water per hour, or four liters. But, what I hadn't reckoned with was that the four-hour figure had been at Veriak's normal pace. With me along, the trip wound up taking nearly nine hours. We were the original odd couple, proof of why the US only managed a tie-score in the war. During the seven years that Veriak had been a ranger for the Cambodian conservation project, trained by Wild Aid, I had been sitting at a desk. But, even without the training, Veriak would still have known his way around these woods. He was born in the area, and the local people still had a real connection with the land.
Before coming to Cambodia, I had interviewed Chris Clerenos, a former trainer for Wild Aid in Cambodia, who had learned his skills in the Forced Ranger, the US Marine Corps special-forces.
"One thing I didn't have to teach these guys was bush craft," said Chris. "They knew more about medicinal and edible pants than I would ever know. When we were patrolling through the jungle, they would stop and grab something to eat or cure an illness."
I had seen the same with hill tribes when I was living in a kickboxing camp in the jungle, in Thailand. The young boxers were being trained not only in fighting and Buddhism, but also in horsemanship, as they were being groomed to serve in the army's drug-interdiction force on the Myanmar border. They had been barefoot 90% of their life, so boot camp was a school to teach them how to wear shoes. During Muay Thai practice, the boys would disappear into the jungle and come back with natural foods they had found. Where I needed copious amounts of gear to survive in the jungle, all they needed was a big machete for cutting food.
Veriak didn't even need a machete, just his AK-47. Along the way, he picked wild dragon fruit. The first batch was too sour. But later, he found some which he claimed was sweet. I had learned in the monastery that westerners just weren't capable of ingesting jungle fruit. It was too bitter and had a texture similar to mahogany. But Veriak ate with gusto. He filled his pack, so he could share with the others when we reached the ranger station.
The first part of the trip had been an easy, pleasant walk through the Cambodian countryside. Veriak stopped to ask a local boy about the path ahead. The boy was a textbook example of a culture in transition. He was wearing a sarong and a T-shirt, displaying a popular Korean cartoon character. He told us the road we wanted was under water. So, we changed course, entering the forest under a canopy of green trees, following a landscape which sloped gently upwards. At this point it didn't feel like an adventure. Farmers driving ox carts smiled at the foreigner as we passed. But soon, the visible trail disappeared and we entered the jungle proper. The way became difficult. It was the rainy season, and rivers had sprung up where none existed before.
At our first water crossing Veriak tentatively set one foot way out in front, like a Polish mine detector.
"It's OK," he told me.
Veriak had almost no English, so we were speaking Khmer. Although not fluent, my Khmer was OK for normal conversation. And, I felt we were getting to know each other. But I was frustrated because I couldn't ask deeper questions about his life as a ranger.
I stepped in the water beside him. We took one more step, and sank almost to our armpits in the smelly mud. Veriak and I laughed. Khmers love slapstick humor, especially when it is real.
Note to self: Put camera in backpack.
Having survived the water, we continued up the mountain through very dense undergrowth. Again, I was amazed that Veriak didn't carry a machete. I had to go on my belly under obstacles which he leapt over lithely. If there had been an ambush, I'd have been trapped, helpless, like a tortoise on his back.
Along the trail, Veriak called a halt because he had seen a snake with its head up, ready to strike. Without Veriak's eagle eyes looking out for me, I would have been dead in a minute. Even with him pointing, I couldn't see the deadly viper. The bush-craft these rangers possessed was impressive. The ability to spot a poisonous snake is a protection mechanism inborn in people who live close to the earth. The inability to spot poisonous snakes is the result of what scientists call the stupid gene. I obviously had it. And I would pass it on to my children, making them stupid as well. If Veriak hadn't stopped me, I would have died in an act of Darwinism designed to breed out those traits which made humans unable to survive in a natural habitat. Having a guide with me was artificially tampering with the survival of the human race as a whole. Although he probably didn't know it, Veriak was a genetic engineer, creating a race of city-dwellers, incapable of surviving in the jungle.
Animals are designed to survive in their own environment. Dolphins don't do well in the Sahara. So, arguably I possessed those skills necessary for survival in an urban setting. I wondered how Veriak would do on Wall Street.
Probably better than me, or I wouldn't be here in the jungle, walking on poisonous snakes. We city people have lost the basic skills which nature endowed us with.
When we stopped for lunch, the difference between east and west was even more apparent. From my overstuffed backpack, I produced a veritable feast: pate, pudding, potted meat, coffee, and chocolate. Veriak had a huge bag of white rice and a small bag of something else, probably meat or vegetables.
All Veriak he needed was a little cold rice and rat meat, I thought, quoting my favorite film again.
Veriak's food was indigenous to the region. It was exactly what he would have eaten if he had been home with his wife and child. My food, on the other hand, was as foreign as I was. I had bought it at a small grocery store in town, the previous night. The architecture of the colonial buildings had been very French, with large stone balconies, and tremendous, shuttered windows. It had probably been a quaint little town during the colonial period. But like everything else in the country, years of civil war and poverty had turned the entire town a weathered shade of gray. Today, the town was four times the size it had been during the French occupation. And, I wondered what sort of Frenchman chose to leave France and live in a tiny village, in the middle of the jungle, in Cambodia?
The architecture wasn't the only remnant of the French. The grocery store carried coffee, Nutella, pate, anchovies and bread, all items introduced by the French. There was no deodorant anywhere to be found, and the shopkeeper's dog was pregnant.
"Yes, a Frenchman has been here," I thought to myself.
After lunch, the terrain got worse. There were several water-crossings, and in at least two of them, we were forced to swim. In places, the current was really strong, and it reminded me of my favorite adventure sport, river tracing. The only difference was, this was real. We had no specialized equipment, no safety, and no backup. A slip here could have meant disaster. I kept having mental images of myself, with a broken leg, hearing Veriak say, I will be back tomorrow with help.
To allay my fears, I tried to concentrate on the one subject every New Yorker loves, fashion. In all of my adventures, I always experiment with local gear. Since I am generally operating in under-developed countries, it is safe to make two assumptions; first, that the average monthly income is less than my hourly wage back home; and second, that none of the locals has heard of North Face or Eddy Bauer. Since they have been surviving in this environment for centuries, I would have to believe that they know how to survive, and for less money.
My experimental piece of gear on this trip was a pair of Thai army jungle boots, which I had purchased in Chiang Mai for 80 Baht (less than $2.50). They were like high top sneakers with rubber bottoms and canvas above, similar to Chuck Tailor basketball shoes. If I were reviewing them for a magazine, I would say that their overall performance was good. They were excellent for wading through a slow moving river, and very good when we were mired in mud up to our thighs. But they had no traction at all over slippery wet rock.
Veriak was wearing some kind of plastic slip-on shoes; one step above the Uncle Ho sandals worn by the Vietcong, which were made from old car tires. They seemed to get good traction on the wet rock. He wore them without socks, so they were easy to slip on and off. He would take them off before climbing a tree. No socks was also more hygienic, and would prevent jungle rot. It was tempting not to wear socks, but that also meant more leeches. We were both covered in them, but Veriak was particularly hard hit on his ankles and between his toes, because he had no socks. The jungle was crawling with the bloodthirsty beggars. By the end of the day, I had picked about twenty of the awful beasts off of me, mostly off my legs and hands.
A huge red patch would suddenly appear on your thighs, soaking through your pants, like you had been shot. This was where a leech had attached itself to you under your clothes, gorged itself till swollen, and then exploded. The whole process happened without you knowing about it. Sometimes you would feel some little prickling or a little discomfort. You would drop your pants, and check for leeches, but not see anything. But mere moments later, there would be a huge leech where none had been before. The leeches were extremely small, and difficult to see, but they would swell very quickly.
You brush off the leeches, and they leave behind evil looking hickies.
Where Veriak was able to cross the streams, skipping from stone to stone, I had to jump in the water and walk across on the bottom. At one crossing, the water was deep and moving so fast I could just barely make headway. To keep from being washed over a low falls, I had been following along a rock wall. But, at the breach, the current was too strong. There was nothing to hold on to, and nothing to climb onto to escape the current. Giving up on walking, I tried to swim across. As soon as my feet left the bottom, I felt the current pushing me towards the breach and over the side. I swam as hard as I could. Suddenly, I was doing vector mathematics in my head. For each six inches I moved forward, I moved two feet closer to the edge. So, how many six-inch units could I move forward before I was swept away? Quick calculations told me it was about even. Just as I reached the other side, the current got me, and started to take me down. "I forgot to carry the two!" I shouted, realizing the error I had made in my computations.
Frantically reaching around under the water, I grabbed hold of a slippery rock. But, I was just slightly too far off to be able to grab the foliage growing on the opposing bank. Veriak tried reaching out his hand, but it was just out of reach.
Looking for something to lengthen his grip, the best Veriak could come up with in short order, was his AK-47. He pointed the 8mm barrel of the deadly weapon at me, and yelled in Khmer, "Take it!" Did he mean for me to commit suicide rather than be drowned?
I wanted to wag my finger in his face and give him a dressing down, lecturing him about firearm safety. But as soon as I let go with one hand, the current peeled me off the stone, and I was headed for the falls. Eagerly, I grabbed the end of the weapon with my teeth. OK, no, actually I grabbed it with my hand. But I was thinking, maybe Veriak's idea hadn't been so bad after all. I thought back to lessons our mothers had taught us. As far as I could remember there was no specific prohibition against swimming with firearms. I mean, it wasn't like we were running with scissors.
Sweet intentions can often be a bit intimidating.
Amazingly, although I was wet head to toe, I had managed to keep the backpack above water. A quick check said that my phone, wallet, camera, and notebook were all fine. The non-biodegradable plastic bags from the grocery store had done their job, thus proving that another word for environmentally unfriendly is waterproof.
In addition to saving hundreds of dollars by wearing local shoes, you can also save money by buying a cheap backpack at the local Cambodian market. For about three dollars, you can get a counterfeit North Face daypack. The pack won't be waterproof, but you could protect your gear with free plastic bags, that you get from the grocery store. Your North Face will be affordable, convenient, waterproof, and best of all, fashionable. And, if your pack gets shredded while you are in the jungle, no worries, just throw it away and buy a new one.
About half way up the mountain, we found some beautiful caves, with rock faces of about twenty-five meters, which I think would have been appropriate for rock climbing. I was so tired, however, that I couldn't be bothered to take off my pack and get my camera. I also couldn't be bothered to look for water. So, I would ask Veriak to hand me a bottle from my pack. When I had finished drinking, he would stow the half empty bottle until I needed it again. Just past the caves, when I asked for water, Veriak handed me a bottle, saying "This is the last one." His words rang final, like a cell door slamming home. I was trapped on the mountain with no water. If we were half way there, this meant that we still had four hours to go. Luckily, I still had enough food for three days.
Often Veriak would leave to go off and look for the trail. The jungle was so dense that when he had taken two steps, he was completely invisible. I had read about dishonest guides who took refugees to the Thai border during and after the Pol Pot regime. A favorite trick was to walk people into exhaustion, then run off and leave them in the jungle overnight. By the next day, they would be completely defenseless. Then, the guides would come back and rob them.
Step one was completed. I was exhausted. Step two; he had left me alone, but he didn't have to wait till morning, I was already defenseless.
"I'll give you my ATM card now," I told Veriak. "But I won't tell you the pin number till we get back to Phnom Penh."
He just smiled, having no idea what an ATM card was.
On the one hand, you could say that Cambodia wasn't ready for adventure tourism. There was no information available, no English speaking guides, no trails, and no facilities. But, on the other hand, this was real adventure. You are traveling through real jungle, led by a real ranger who lives by his wits in the wild. This was not like trekking in Thailand or Malaysia where you would meet three groups on the way up, and two more on the way down. There should have been a sign at the bottom of the mountain which read, NO JAPANESE OR GERMAN SPOKEN HERE.
Cambodia has wild, untamed jungle, which very few outsiders have experienced. You could be the first on your block to trek Bokor.
Even the remote places of the Earth are no longer remote. My phone rang. It was my office calling.
"How far are you from the top?" asked a very concerned Thavrin. He had been clever enough and realistic enough to ride a motorcycle to the top, and was now at the ranger station, waiting for me.
"I don't know."
"How long till you get here?"
"I don't know that either."
"But where are you?"
"I am in the freaking jungle! Or did you miss that part of this morning's meeting?" I shouted, loosing my patience.
"When will you arrive?"
"I don't know where I am, or where I am going. So, how could I possibly know how long it will take me to get there?"
"What does Veriak say?"
"He told me two more hours, but I think he is lying to me."
"Hand the phone to Veriak," demanded Thavrin.
While they talked, I picked leeches off my body, and collected them in a jar, in case I needed a transfusion later.
I was so thirsty, but I dared not finish my final bottle of water. I cursed myself for being so stupid. Switching into survival mode, I remembered that I had read a story about a guy, lost in the desert, who survived by drinking his own urine.
Drinking my own urine? Gross!
I handed an empty bottle to Veriak. "Here, fill this."
The jungle was beautiful, but it could also be depressing, because you couldn't see the sun. The dense undergrowth was very claustrophobic. When we finally burst out of the bush, the reality of the sky and the natural world exploded in a riot of colors which were not green. My spirits soared. Actually, let's put that statement in perspective. In the bowels of the jungle, my spirit had been so low, that now that we were out, my spirits were just even with the ground. But it was still an improvement.
Veriak told me that we only had one kilometer to go, and this time, I trusted his estimation. The terrain was flat, but still a bit tough going because of the thigh deep carpet of weeds. I finally decided that the Thai army shoes had been a mistake. They gave very little ankle support, and only lightly protected the toes. I had painfully smashed the large toe on my left foot while we were crossing a river, and I just knew it was bleeding. Now, every time I stepped on a rock, which was every time I stepped, pain shot through me like a diamond bullet.
I had picked up a walking stick, just after lunch; and thank God! Because without it, I couldn't have done some of the more difficult water crossings, where leaning on the pole had been like having a safety line to support me. But now, I was hanging on my walking stick like some decrepit old geezer. Unable to walk upright, I was all hunched over, and belonged on the left side of Darwin's Walk of Man.
When I knew in my bones we were only twenty minutes away from the end of this torture, all I wanted to do was finish. Hours earlier, I had blocked the pain by tuning out everything around me. Now, I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. But, suddenly, Veriak stopped walking. He turned, and asked me something very complicated in Khmer. I was so tired that I couldn't summon up the energy to listen. So, I really wasn't sure what he was saying. It was clearly something about my plans for the next day. The rain was coming down, and even standing still, I felt my body shaking, as my muscles twitching involuntarily.
This wasn't the time or place to be making plans for tomorrow. When I got tired like this, I hated people talking to me in other languages. First, I didn't want anyone talking to me at all. But then, by talking to me in Khmer, he was forcing me to think, and that was just too painful at that moment.
"At jule day, at jule, at jule. I don't understand," I said, waving my hand dismissively. But, Veriak tried again, rephrasing his question. I couldn't imagine there was anything we needed to discuss right then. As far as I understood our plan, he was leading me to a place where I could take a shower, eat, sleep, and drink gallons of water. I saw no reason to alter those plans.
"At jule, at jule... Knyom jang oui dau nyam bei, moet duk, dei dek. I just want to eat, shower, and sleep. Dau. Go," I said, taking a step. I thought he would start moving. But instead, he just stood there, staring at me as if he didn't understand what I wanted. But what was there to understand? We were walking before. And now, I wanted to keep walking.
"Dau, dau, dau!" I said in Khmer, and walked towards him. But, once again, he remained stationary.
An adrenaline surge of anger exploded inside of me, and I rose to my full height.
"Freaking go! You moron!" I screamed, launching myself at him uncertain if I was actually going to hit him. I was completely insane with fatigue and the situation could have turned ugly.
Veriak hugged his AK-47 like a teddy bear and cowered away from me.
"DAU! GO!" I screamed, till my throat was raw.
Veriak led the way.
My brain was too thick to think at the time. But later, the best I could come up with was that Veriak got $20 a day for leading me, so he wanted to make sure that if I were going back down the next day, he wanted to be the one to take me. But I was too tired to make that decision right then. I just wanted to go home. Veriak stopping me on the trail was like trying to take food away from a starving dog.
Later, when I had calmed down, and rested, I told Thavrin what had happened, and that I felt a little badly about how I had treated Veriak. I also felt a little stupid. I mean after all, Veriak was probably stronger than me, and he had a gun.
"Veriak told me about what had happened. He said he was very scared of you." Thavrin laughed. "You know, with your beard, and your size being bigger than most people, it is a little scary when you get angry."
If I were Veriak I would have run off and left me on the trail to die of exposure. I called Veriak to the side and gave him a five-dollar tip.
Finally, across a field, I could see the ancient French casino and behind it, the age-old Catholic church. The path led around a bend, and there was the ranger station built in what had once been a luxury hotel.
We had arrived. I would have dropped on my knees and kissed the ground, but I knew that I wouldn't be able to get up again.
"You look like crap," said Thavrin, by way of greeting. He was kicked back, drinking a beer and watching boxing on TV with the rangers.
"You were supposed to be looking after me," I said, through my fatigue, sounding like Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront. "What if I died of exhaustion? I bet you didn't even have a plan to get my body back down the mountain."
Thavrin was sizing up his motorcycle, obviously contemplating if my corpse would fit on the back.
"If I do die, I want my nephew to have this watch," I said.
"It's plastic," said Thavrin, disapprovingly.
Thavrin handed me a change of clothes and some groceries he had brought up from town. He sat on his motorcycle, and started the engine.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"I am going to go sleep in a four star hotel in town," he answered.
"And I am sleeping here with the rangers?" I asked, disappointed.
Thavrin just nodded.
"Do they have hot water in the shower?"
"They have water."
"Close enough," I said.
"Do you want to hike down tomorrow?"
"I never want to hike again."
"I thought so," laughed Thavrin. "In fact, I already arranged a driver for you. He will pick you up at two tomorrow."
"And what should I do in the meantime?"
"You can hang out with the rangers tonight. Tomorrow they will take you on a tour of the casino and the whole French complex."
"Fine," I said. "As long as I don't have to go back into the jungle."
A young ranger led me to my room. It was a huge double room in a building which had obviously been a luxury hotel during the French colonial days. But now, it had fallen into serious disrepair and felt a bit more like a concrete bunker. There was electricity, the boy told me, but it wouldn't be on until six o'clock. There was also running water in the shower, but only cold. There was, however, a western style toilet. The rangers had some food to sell me if I needed it, including dry noodles, coffee, water, and coke.
The food Thavrin had brought was enough for several days. I had a number of Snickers bars, cans of anchovies, two loaves of bread, Nutella, potted meat, coffee, and hot chocolate. The first priority was to shower and pick the leeches off of my body. It was actually cold on the mountaintop, the first time I had experienced cold since coming to Cambodia. It was a refreshing change from the pervasive heat I had grown accustomed to.
After my brisk shower, I dressed. In town the night before, thank God, I had had the foresight to buy a long-sleeved sweatshirt. In my home, in Taiwan, it was cold enough in winter that we would have to wear a light jacket or sweater, especially on the motorcycle. But in Cambodia, it was always bloody debilitatingly hot, even in winter. Before coming up here, I realized I no longer owned any long sleeved garments at all
I curled up on the bed with all of the covers, and read by flashlight. It was nice. It had been nearly eighteen months since my last outdoor adventure, and it felt good to be an adventurer again. The one thing I really liked about these adventures was the solitude. I loved the satisfaction of being exhausted, of having washed and eaten, and just relaxing on the bed and reading. If this were Thailand or even Taiwan or China, I would know that tomorrow I would get up and do it again, and continue for a week or so. And, I would probably get a lot of reading done before it was over. But this was Cambodia, and I was on a paid contract. This feeling would only last till two o'clock tomorrow when the driver would come for me. I wondered if my days of real adventure were over.
This pause gave me time to reflect. I was happy with the writing I had done on this trip. In fact, it was some of the best writing I had ever done. It was informed and deep and meaningful. But, I had also felt that I was being excluded from most of the experiences. In most of the stories in this book, I had been a spectator, behind the camera, not in front, as I was used to. But as far as adventure went, with the exception of this Khmer Rouge death march up Bokor Mountain, this was the tamest adventure book I had ever done. It didn't compare to crossing the Taklamakan Desert by rickshaw, for example. Something else nagged me. As much as I lamented not being on that type of adventure, I kind of liked eating, and having money, and an apartment, and cable TV, and having all of these things on top of the four star accommodations. Had I outgrown the sleeping-in-the-dirt style adventures? Did that matter? This new direction in my writing was certainly more saleable. These stories were getting picked up by magazines who never even looked at me before. But was that what I wanted? They liked my new stories because they sounded like every other travel writer's. Other than losing my temper with Veriak today, I hadn't done anything even remotely Antonio-esque.
I was fearing the future. Having complete sponsorship for a travel book had been my dream. But it was a double-edged sword. I was expected to write good things about Cambodia. But I generally didn't feel good things about Cambodia anymore. The personal side of this trip, the part that I had to delete from my articles was that this trip through Cambodia was like when a married couple that is having problems goes away together to save the relationship. It was my last ditch effort to maintain the marriage. In my first book about Cambodia, Letters from the Penh, I had said such judgmental and insensitive things, picking on a people plagued with poverty and a lack of education. I was setting myself up to be on the wrong side of a David and Goliath confrontation where I was bound to lose in the court of public appeal.
This trip was about rediscovering the Khmers. And so far, it was working. Thavrin and Samban were two of the most intelligent and well-informed people I had ever worked with, in any country. Variak and his younger brother, who I called Aun, had become easy friends. I had returned to my original verdict about Cambodia, a year and a half earlier, before I had become so jaded. The Khmers were good people, trapped in a desperate situation. And, who are we to judge? We don't know how we would react if faced with the same levels of poverty and corruption.
The next morning, after I had eaten a huge breakfast from my pack, an older ranger came to take me on a tour of the grounds, which were constructed around a small, but picturesque lake. Our first stop was at the old French casino. It was now overgrown and burned out, as it was slowly being reclaimed by the jungle. With very little glass left in the windows, the casino was a model of decadence in decline. It must have been good to be French, back in the colonial era. Imagine the elegant parties they must have had, dancing on the then manicured lawn, in the hot tropical night. And, I bet they had great coffee.
Inside of the casino, the ballroom was immense, with a huge fireplace in one wall. I am told that in all of Cambodia, there are no existing photos of what the casino looked like in its prime. They were all destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. There is, however, hope that the there may be some in France. As a result, you have to use your imagination to create the opulent images of French colonial power. The walls, probably once covered in gilt and fashionable stucco, were now covered with moss and mold, like the French themselves. From the second story balcony, there was a breathtaking view of the lush green valley, which spread out for miles below. Across the complex was the lonely little Catholic Church. A mist, blowing in from the jungle looked very eerie.
The next stop was the old Catholic church, which was like a religious Dhien Bien Phu, caught between the excesses of the colonial casino life and a changing political tide. Parallel to the Saturday night parties, which raged in the casino, and Sunday morning mass, said in the church, the unstoppable flow of history would eventually bring the empire to an end, and later, the country to its knees.
Inside of the church, I could still feel the faith of stone, sleeping, waiting... but waiting for what? Cambodia needs faith and prayer now. I wondered. The church was tiny, but so special and picturesque. The altar was made of stone, as was the basin for the holy water. What happened here? Who had worshipped here? Who was the priest?
The spiritual quiet of the holy granite was disrupted by the voluminous graffiti, the most of any building I had seen in Cambodia. Most of the slogans were written by Australian tourists. Would they do that to a church in their own country? One of them read, So-and-so was here from West Samoa. As much as I hate to see any graffiti at all, West Samoans should be allowed to graffiti anything they wanted. There aren't too many of them, and even if they all came to Cambodia on the same day, it just wouldn't be that much graffiti.
Outside the buildings, there were stone balconies built into the hilltop all around. From an observation point behind the church, I could trace with my eyes where the jungle gave way to a blue sea. A few lazy boats made their way along the coast, before disappearing into the mist.
If there was one thing the French knew, it was aesthetics. I could not have thought of a more beautiful place to build a retreat.
From the Catholic church, it was a short walk to the Buddhist temple, which was constructed of red brick. According to the head monk, the original temple was built in 1924, but had been closed during the Khmer Rouge time. This one had only reopened in 2000. The head monk told me that the Khmer Rouge had been here until 1980, but there were no more mines, thanks to the hard working people at CMAG (Cambodian Mine Action Group). When I asked what he had done during the KR time, his light-hearted answer was, "I was a farmer, like everyone else." After the liberation, he became an Ajan, a teacher of monks.
In the glory days of the empire, both temple and church were open. But now, only the temple survives. The French were long gone, but the Khmers live on.
My guide, Luke Hon, was forty-one years old. He had been a soldier from 1985 to 2000, when he became a ranger. He was now a group leader. "We go out twice a month, and stay one week in the station. It is a hard life. If we see illegal logging or poaching, we make arrests."
I asked him if anyone had ever been shot.
"Yes, but long ago. That doesn't happen as much now. These days, the poachers use traps. So, there is no one there when we discover them. But I have been shot at a lot."
Luke Hon told me about the training and funding from Wild Aid. Apparently, what I thought was a new hotel, being constructed next to the building where I had slept, was actually a new ranger station, paid for by Wild Aid.
Back in my room, I was talking with Veriak's brother, who I just called Aun; little brother. He was nineteen, and very excited to be a ranger and follow in his older brother's footsteps. I opened a candy bar for him, and we talked like friends. My Khmer was not good enough for interviews, but if a friend was kind and patient, we could communicate in Khmer well enough for me to get my stories. Aun said that he didn't have a girlfriend, but he liked Asian girls better than foreigners. Specifically, he said that he liked Chinese, Japanese, and Khmer all the same.
"I like Japanese girls best," I told him. "Because they are as beautiful as the other Asian women, but they have more money." We both laughed.
Even at his young age, and although he was exceptionally fit, Aun complained about how difficult the ranger's life was. Out on patrol, they carried about 30kgs of gear. This included food, water, AK-47, magazine, 15 rounds, machete, GPS, maps, and a camera. Each team was composed of 3 to 5 men. From the way he described his work, it sounded as if the modern ranger used his camera more often than his gun. According to Aun, when they stumbled on an abandoned logging camp or traps, they photographed everything, to be used as evidence later. With all of the training and hardship, a ranger could only look forward to a salary of $40 per month.
"Supervisors get $50." He told me cheerfully.
Since I had enough food for two life times, I gave my surplus to Aun.
Cambodia has been the center of all of the action in South East Asia, but more as an observer and victim, than as a main actor. During the Vietnam conflict, the American military intervention in Cambodia was called Operation Sideshow. The name was fitting. Thirty years later, Cambodia was still the eternal Operation Sideshow, with giant neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, gobbling up the headlines and the acreage. Cambodia was South East Asia's New Jersey, which Benjamin Franklin had once dubbed the candle lit at both ends. In this Indochina, where Chinese and Indian cultures met, Cambodia was destined to rise to mediocrity.
The Motorcycle finally arrived to take me down the mountain, but the adventure was not yet over. The road was the worst I had ever seen in my life - completely broken - and in places it was very much like The Snufalufagus. You needed to use your imagination to see it.
I was thinking, "If this mountain were located at a tourist attraction in America, the personal injury lawyers would get rich."
Two miles an hour seemed like a breakneck speed. The Moto driver apologized for the lack of speed. "When I go alone, I can do it in an hour and a half." But with a passenger, it would take about two to two and half hours to cover the six or eight kilometers. Hair-raising and scary, I wanted to get off and walk. I cursed the fact that I wasn't in a car. But, when we met a car, a big SUV, I realized we were much better off. While we were in danger of coming off the bike, the SUV was in danger of going off the side. The road was just barely wide enough to accommodate the slow crawling vehicles. But, with the road washed out in places, due to an exceptionally heavy rainy season, there was often no room at all.
Finally, after I had aged several years, we came around a bend, and suddenly I saw the single most beautiful view of the ocean I had ever seen. The end was near. We were only a few hundred meters up now. And there below me was a peaceful valley, which ran to the ocean. Shades of blue and pale green blended with the mist, which was still rolling in from the sea. Once again, I wasn't sure where the sky ended and the ocean began.
We took a break, so I could snap some photos. As I saddled up again, I thought. I would be continuing on my journey to discover the Khmers. But the relaxed tour of the top of Bokor with Luke Hon, and the quiet hours of friendly conversation I had spent in the company of Veriak's little brother had been some of the most pleasant experiences I had had in Cambodia.
Who couldn't love these people and this country?
For a brief moment I envied Veriak and the other rangers who would get to remain in the camp, going on their rotations through the pristine, unspoiled jungle. But then I remembered the leeches. And, I was glad that I was going to a hotel.