It was a good time to be in Cambodia — Angelina Jolie was strutting around Angkor Wat as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft and a band of insurgents was shooting up the capital, Phnom Penh. Both events I missed, squandering a real opportunity to sharpen my journalistic teeth. But I did keep up with the rumor mill, as it relentlessly disseminated hearsay via the usual assortment of expats that populate desperate countries such as Cambodia.
By all accounts Angelina Jolie did exude an aura of invincible beauty, as you would of course expect from the thespian chosen to play Lara Croft — that front-loaded action woman from the Tomb Raider computer game. I just wonder if she needed to be digitally enhanced at all.
Eight killed, fourteen wounded, and hundreds arrested without warrants is not so amusing; but the way it all happened does make for a funny story.
A few days before the shootout, I arrived in Cambodia, at a desperate town in the south west corner of the county, on the coast, just over the border from Thailand. Roadless, charmless, and more or less foodless, this jungle town didn’t fill me with much excitement for the rest of the county. I checked in at the least dirty hotel and filled my belly on rice gruel from the stinking market, tumbling haphazardly through a putrid ditch in the centre of town. The food didn’t kill me; and due to the fact that I slipped back into my hotel before dark, neither could the locals.
Encamped in my hotel was a travelling circus from the capital, complete with performing monkeys, midgets, and fire-eaters. They spilled from room to room, but seemed to prefer living in the corridors, lying intertwined on the hardened earth floors, sleeping and gambling between performances which infrequently took place outside, in front of that putrid market.
One of the midgets was particularly friendly, and I made a real effort to communicate with him, until I realized that his other physical affliction was his inability to speak. His occasional grunts were not, as I had at first suspected, articulated in the Khmer language. And my opinion of the midget quickly deteriorated when a fellow guest graphically described to me one of the midget’s tricks in the circus outside. Part of the show was apparently devoted to hawking a bottled elixir, a potion so powerful that it could cure anything, even the broken legs of a chicken. My friend the midget had the enviable job of snapping with his bare hands the legs of the unfortunate bird, which he then force fed with a bottle of the miraculous concoction. The crippled, squawking creature was then goaded into further steps by its tormentor. Dumbfounded by such a profound miracle, the Khmers reacted in a mad scramble to buy as many bottles as they could afford.
Meanwhile in the capital, Richard Kiri Kim, an exiled Cambodian living in California and professed leader of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, was assembling a crack team of urban terrorists to take on the might of the Royal Khmer Army — his chosen command centre being a seedy karaoke bar in one of the city’s many red-light districts.
I previously misused the word hotel to describe my accommodation for the night, although the owner also shamelessly uses the word on the sign outside. The rooms all had partition walls that ended a few inches beneath the ceiling, presumably for ventilation purposes, although I quickly learned to take nothing for granted here. One guest’s fun becomes another’s disturbance. I awoke early the next morning to the sound of a local whore haggling over the recompense for her previous night’s work. ‘Ten dollars for one, twenty for the two of you’, she flatly demanded. But the two lads who had smuggled her into their room were having none of it — ‘We agreed on ten, you bitch’ — and thought they would be helped by the proprietor of the hotel, who had just barged into the room to see what all of the fuss was about. But, seeing dollar signs, he quickly sided with the whore and demanded more money for the room that had been taken for two but occupied by three. I left them to it and fled.
How do you get away from a town that has neither roads nor railways? Look for a boat. I looked and found one. A rather nice one in fact, sleek, narrow hulled, and light; perfect for cruising up the big estuary on which this town had been thrown down. The problem was that we didn’t go up the calm estuary, but headed instead out into the windy high seas, where the waves were big and the vessel seemed even smaller. I tried not to listen to the American next to me who was recounting stories of previous accidents on this very sea route, but instead tried to concentrate on the kung-fu movie flickering on the grainy screen at the front of the packed cabin. That proved too difficult to do as we rolled almost ninety degrees on our bow-to-stern axis, so I pushed my way out and went on deck, figuring that I had much more of a chance of survival when the boat finally failed to right itself after a roll.
I, however, had underestimated the seafaring skills of our captain, who at least knew enough to keep the bow pointing head-on into the waves, even if he was stupid enough to take a river-boat full of hundreds of people out into the ocean in a gale. We arrived safely.
Meanwhile back in the capital, some of Kiri Kim’s men had rented a small house near the railway station, telling the neighbours that they were construction workers, newly arrived in the city. They stocked their lair with AK47s and waited.
The boat docked in a grubby port, which had been ruined by decades of neglect and ignorance; the word spillage aptly described the scene.
I nodded to the skipper, pleased with his day’s work, grabbed my bag, and went ashore. I was hardly off the flimsy gangplank when a horde of yelling moped drivers (moto-dops), all eager to drive me the few kilometers into the town, started pulling me in different directions. I told them to “…bloody well leave me alone…”; I had to check in with the immigration.
Cambodian immigration points pop up all over the country in seemingly random places, and appear to have nothing at all to do with border control. They are simply a crude attempt to relieve foreigners of their hard currency. This ‘immigration office’ (a plank between two boxes for a bench and a stained desk) shared a dilapidated shack with the ferry company’s ticket outlet. Two slobs in tight uniforms, pretending to be official, misspelled my name in a ledger, before demanding an immigration tax. I apologized for only having travelers checks and a credit card and handed over a few grubby notes in the local denomination, whereupon they turned their attention to their next potential victim — a rather timid Swedish girl, who had bundles of hard currency.
Back outside, I was quickly turned upon by the mob of moped drivers as they resumed their attempt to tear off my limbs. They all seemed to have completely forgotten that I had just told the to “…bloody well leave me alone…” I pushed through them and marched towards a pair of heavy iron gates, assuming they signified the port’s exit. Just as the last of them had finally given up tailing me, I saw another of their number stretched completely horizontally on the saddle of his bike and resting his sleeping head on the handle bars, presumably taking a late afternoon nap. (Why he hadn’t used the ground was beyond my comprehension.) Anyway, I woke him up and asked him to drive me into town. He re-positioned his baseball cap on the top of his head, smiled with dollar signs in his eyes, and agreed. I took a dollar out of my pocket and told him that I knew the fare. Off we drove.
That night I lodged with a Chinese-Khmer family and their pets — lizards, ghekos, roaches, bed bugs, mice, and rats. The bed bugs gave me permanent souvenirs in the way of lumpy, red scars; but the other animals were pretty friendly.
As I lay in bed that night, trying to fall asleep to the blast of a Khmer soap opera on the family’s TV, far to the north, Kiri Kim’s men were busy making last minute preparations for their assault on the capital; preparations that included getting horribly drunk at another karaoke bar and forcing nearby homeless moped drivers to join their number.
At 1:30 am on November 24th (half an hour late) just as my unfriendly bedbugs were beginning their first foray across my delicate white skin, Kiri Kim’s band of desperados struck the Phnom Penh Railway Station with a barrage of small-arms fire. The station guards were fast asleep, partly due to the somewhat relaxed Khmer work ethic and partly because there is nothing at all worth guarding at the railway station — unless you consider the rusting shells of two ancient locomotives to be valuable state assets. Anyway, the awoken guards offered no resistance and the attackers managed to force the armory and make off with a few more AK-47s.
The problem now was too many guns and too few freedom fighters to fire them — most of the pressed moto-dops had fled at the first sound of gunfire. All Cambodians share a bad habit: when they hear gunfire they pop up their heads to look for the shooter or, as on this night, wander out on to the street to see what’s happening. The insurgents wasted no time in pressing more innocent onlookers into their band, swelling their numbers from eight to twelve.
The first sign of a response by the Cambodian authorities was a single police vehicle, sent out to see who was disturbing the night. It was shot to bits by the rebels and the officers inside narrowly escaped with their lives by begging not to be shot.
Before heading off again into the night, one of the group, high on alcohol and his new-found power, recklessly lobbed a grenade into a Total gas station. His stupidity didn’t cause his demise and he quickly regrouped with his comrades as they marched on a nearby television and a ministry building, where they shot up the facades with more small-arms fire. At about this time their ammunition finished — curses rang out into the night where shots had just echoed. Unsure what to do next, they faded into the darkness.
Meanwhile, another band of desperados, following strict orders, descended on an army barracks. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, they fired a few rockets and shot off several rounds from their rifles. Miraculously they all escaped with their lives.
The next day I received a third-hand account of the assault from a dejected Cambodian who was squatting in line for a bus to take him to the capital. He was not relishing the thought of riding into the restless city, but for some reason his journey was unavoidable. I was thankful that it would still be a week or so before I had to join him — I just hoped that the insurrection would not spread south.
When I finally got to Phnom Penh, indirectly, along a torturous detour through Kampot (a route that looks on a map like the hind leg of a dog and left my backside feeling as if it had been kicked like a football over a stony pitch), the shooting had stopped.
I gathered up some week-old copies of Phnom Penh Post and spoke to as many witnesses as I could; I visited the Railway Station and looked around for bullet holes and shrapnel — in an attempt to piece together the story. Cambodia watchers (to borrow that ugly phrase from mediaspeak) were having a wonderful time. Who did it? Overseas Cambodians? The Vietnamese? the Government? (as an excuse to round up opponents — which it did), the CIA? I added my tuppence worth until I realized that it was a complete non event for Cambodia. In most other countries it would have been a catastrophe, an affront to life, filling citizens with fear and desperation. But here it was nothing. Just another day and another noisy night. Sure, a few people died and a lot of property was damaged, but this is Cambodia.
Six months later, far away from the chaos of Cambodia, I read a news-agency report of the trial. Kiri Kim (who, it turns out, was just a deputy in the Cambodia Freedom Fighters) wouldn’t be going back to his Californian home for a very long time.
© Paul S. Davey, 2002