Big Bertha

This is the sixteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about riding up to a militarised temple.  Its style is in the present tense as it was originally written eight years ago.  I thought it would make a nice change of pace as a stand-alone entry, a Big Bertha blast from the past, without any banal reflections from the other end of my twenties.

I unfold the wet, deteriorating map of Cambodia onto the makeshift plank table and anchor it down with a mug of steaming leaf tea, spilling a little in the process. The map gets a little soggier, but is at least prevented from flapping in the lakeside wind. Athy eyes me quizzically and shakes her head as she blends fruit into juice. Athy is the domineering matron of the Lazy Fish guesthouse, my temporary (and her permanent) home in Phnom Penh; a space of conflicting culture. She is old – at least fifty – and that means she lived through the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation. I want to bring this up but never do.

“You check out? Always you are going!” she cackles, slightly bitterly.
Adam and I had rolled into Phnom Penh the night before, well after midnight, exhausted and  filthy from our jungle ruminations in the Cardamom Mountains. This is the third time we have descended upon the Lazy Fish guesthouse in such a manner, always returning from our methodical explorations of Cambodia’s corners to this fragrant bungalow, nestled on rotting stilts above the filthy Boeng Kak, a foulwater lake being desultorily filled in with sand to make room for the plusher, staler forms of accommodation Chinese developers supposedly prefer.

“Yes, but we’ll be back! You have the best guesthouse in Boeng Kak,” I respond, quite pleased with my rhyming compliment.

Athy grunts and chops a banana. Once my departure has been confirmed she loses interest in me and yells in Khmer at one of her staff. He scampers from a hammock-induced doze across the open veranda. The plank floor flexes and vibrates dangerously. I sip my tea and wonder how much he gets paid. It is peaceful poring over the map, listening to the whooshing of the Chinese sand being pumped under my feet. Deciding on an initial route is important, but as most of the roads in Cambodia are unmapped, improvisation always supersedes preparation.

Today is an exciting day – Adam and I are riding to Prasat Preah Vihear. We have impulsively decided to visit the heavily disputed 11th century mountain temple on the insistence of a bald English man we met in a grease-pot bike shop in Koh Kong.

“There’s nothing there, nothing!” he had exclaimed – not marvellous incentive for sightseeing. But he wasn’t referring to the beauty of the place; rather the very real danger of bullets, mines, conflict. He was answering his fellow Western thrill-seekers with another excuse to tempt fate. We knew Preah Vihear had been the centre of fighting for over six months and visiting would be risky. Located on the Cambodia-Thailand border, both countries lay sovereign claim to the ancient structure and are in a perpetual military stand-off. Thai and Khmer soldiers are being periodically killed in skirmishes; a few Thai in their Kevlar and helmets, a few more Khmer with their silk krama scarves and tattoos. The hostilities have worsened in the past year, but the old man convinces us it’s safe. What can I say? We are receptive.

The trip takes longer than we expect. We spend a night in Sisophon, a dust-swept crossroads, to drink and regenerate our vigour. We visit several temples along the route – wounded but not forgotten, obscurely hidden down tiny paths behind villages, whetting our appetites. They are glorious and awe-inspiring, but a single slithering python doesn’t quite have the same presence as an embattled squadron of the military. We’re after action; the incongruity of modern warfare in ancient places. Preah Vihear is attaining mythical proportions as we joke and hypothesise about what we will find there, clunking along pot-holed roads, dodging chickens, weasels, children.

We arrive at Prasat Preah Vihear on the cusp of sunset. The Dângrêk Mountains gaze at us ominously, a formidable natural border, miniaturising us in an instant. High, high above, a speck of rock is almost visible, defiantly exhibiting over the Cambodian plains.

“Danana! We made it!” I shout to Adam over the whirring 4-stroke, slamming my bike into third gear to mount yet another wood-plank bridge.

He coasts along, nods, face unrecognisable from nine hours of caking dust. We have pushed ourselves today, nearly to the limits of human exhaustion – over 400 kilometres travelling through inhospitable terrain, not a sealed road in sight, with only wildfires, mine fields and Pol Pot’s ashes for company.

My motorbike is running low on fuel, and I have emptied all my Fanta bottles, but I judge there is enough left in the tank to reach the settlement at the base of the mountains. After all, the bike has already led me through four weeks of highway terror, mountain clefts, jungle paths and river crossings. By now I am truly in love with the beast. We understand each other. No mountain is unsurpassable, no minefield unnavigable, no Wat unreachable. Sometimes, when Adam isn’t looking, I hug the bike, being careful not to burn myself in the process.

Adam and I splutter into the market town at the base of the mountains. It resembles other markets in the north-west, but with a definite military presence. Soldiers are lazing, stumbling drunk or drinking, AK47s slung nonchalantly over shoulders, yelling, laughing. As usual, we are the only westerners in sight, and are appropriately gawked at – I feel a little uneasy, like we are a dangerous anomaly, rather than a mere curiosity, but I convince myself the mood is still merry. Adam and I hustle over to an aromatic petrol seller and fill up.

“Preah Vihear? Ki-lo-met?” I fumble in English. The seller smiles and nods.

“Pram pi ki-lo-met!”

Great. Six kilometres is ten minutes. We’ve got a killer temple sunset coming up (the photos will be great) followed by sleep, sweet sleep… I pay the seller and turn to Adam. He is staring upwards towards the dim summit prosaically, murky fragmented reflections in his spectacles. He always was a stoic. Two firm kick-starts, a few competitive revs, and I am chasing the sunset trail, hooting. The soldiers are bemused by the spectacle. What better way to spend your R&R than by goggling at the Other – that’s why I’m here, after all.

After a few minutes the market dwindles, the wooden shacks regress to sugar palms and we eventually arrive at a kind of improvised barracks. A large number of Khmer soldiers are concentrated in the area, squatting in the shade, milling about in bunkers, huts and tents. There are two sandbag dugouts with heavy machine guns installed, pointing up the looming Dângrêk range. Three soldiers are standing in the middle of the road, blocking our entrance to the Holy Grail, guns on their fronts. Adam and I kill our engines and dismount. As we do so, the craziest of the three points at us and yells.

“NO!”

He is sweating profusely – not unusual in Cambodia’s climate – but he appears to be far slimier than his comrades. He has no sign of rank or authority, so I am initially reluctant to accept his decree. Adam is silent, paralysed next to me, confronted by the profuse weaponry. It dawns on me that he has probably never been this close to people with arms before. Joking is one thing.

“Sok-sabay,” I clumsily greet the person of perspiration. He narrows his soaked eyelids, with an accompanying moist sound effect.

“NO!” he yells again. I see smiles on some of the other soldiers’ faces, but my negative friend isn’t playing. The sky gets darker by the second.

“We want to go up Dângrêk, Preah Vihear,” I motion upwards, point to the motorbikes, to the sun. Some soldiers nod, but most have at least one hand on their weapons.

“No, finish, no,” my antagonist asserts. English is obviously not the game, and my Khmer is horrible, so I attempt a new tact, admittedly my last resort in bilingual relations – physical clowning. I point to the machine gun nest and mime shooting.

“Br-br-br-br, Thailand!”

Is there fighting preventing ascension? All the soldiers find my display hilarious – except for the ring-leader.

“No, no Thailand,” he maintains. So maybe there’s no fighting. Why can’t we go up? I try the pity card. I drop to my knees, do the Wai and moan pathetically.

“Please, we’ve been riding all day, we’re exhausted, we look and feel like shit, we just want to see the temple, the sunset …” I peter off. My physical begging raises more cackles – maybe the majority are on my side by now – but I still fail to ingratiate myself with the perspiratory elitist. I roll into the foetal position and swear. Guffaws.

“No,” the boss shakes his head. He then confers with his (much happier, much more reasonable) colleagues in Khmer. I take this as an encouraging sign and stand up to receive their deliberations in a more dignified manner.

He turns to me and holds up seven fingers. I mime sleeping. He nods. 7AM! He grins. He grins! Our sunset dream is defeated, but I don’t care – tomorrow’s sunrise beckons, and after this awry encounter it doesn’t seem too punishing to eat, curl up and drift off, dreaming of ancient civilizations, AK47s and petrol in Fanta bottles.

Riding up the mountain in the early mist is surreal. Light pierces the fog and illuminates the odd lonely, loaded machine gun nest bordering the winding mountain road, their turrets pointing over forested valleys into Thailand. We see rocket launchers idling against trees, not a soldier in sight. Adam could crack at any second and blow me up in an instant. He doesn’t. This is what friendship is about. Occasionally we pass groups of soldiers doing exercises, but they are few and far between.

Arriving at the summit and glimpsing Prasat Preah Vihear is a defining moment. The human joy of gaining altitude is matched by our feelings of a deserved reward; and as we explore, by the rough, Spartan enormity of the temple itself. The military are present, along the temple causeways and up to the edge of the cliffs, smoking, listening to the radio and gazing out at the punishing Cambodian plains. Some of them draw water from a millennia-old baray (reservoir), Khmer doing what Khmer have done, a thousand years of evolution and divergence deteriorating into the depths. Splash.

The temple is spectacular: chiselled stone, lush vegetation, surreal proliferations of bullet holes, and a defiant, nation-building statement on a giant twenty-metre placard, drawn tight over a section of the temple towards Thailand and the rest of the world.

“PROUD TO BE KHMER,” it says, in capital bold red English type. I would be proud too.

Yet there is something so sad here. Like nearly all of Cambodia, I just don’t know how to take it.