The Cambodian government is committed to getting
Anlong Veng connected with the rest of the country, so the 120 km road is
being widened and buttressed against the rainy season. Right now, about 60
kms of the road are complete, and the remaining 60 kms is the old “cart
track”. We heard stories
about bulldozers being destroyed by tank mines as the new road is being
built. We also heard that both
the Save team, and the authorities, were taking security quite seriously.
Somewhere along the way we were apparently to be looked after by
government troops, hidden in the dense Cambodian forests.
In any event, the first stretch of road was easy,
although sand got in the way of any trucks that didn’t have four-wheel
drive. A friend of ours once said that the greatest threat to equality of
the sexes was toilets – and we proved it.
The men could just stand by the side of the road (not in the bushes
of course, because of the land mines) – but where were the women to go?
Ingrid and I were on this trip with Victoria, our 10
year old daughter. We’d all been in Cambodia before, but none of us had
been to the northern districts. Many of our Cambodian companions were also
first time visitors to the North. Gunnar, Sarath, Kheang and Nara were from Save the Children. The
Provincial Education Office was ably represented by Sereidy, the Pre-Primary
Chief, and by Phalla. And, the
ever present TV crew was joined by a journalist from the leading national
newspaper. These folks probably
wanted a story on us, but ended up so entranced by the issues and by the
children, that for them this was a journey of discovery, too.
Learning as we went along, it seemed the capitalist
system was alive and well. The
taxi fare from Anlong Veng to Siem Reap is about 13,000 riels (US$3), yet
the fare the other way is 20,000 riels.
Why? Because in these
newly peaceful times, people are going home to their long distant relatives
in the North. To set up
business, to teach, or simply to go home.
When we reached the old road, a couple of things
struck us the most. First,
except for a few butterflies, we saw or heard no animal for 60 kms. We also
probably saw only a half dozen people. Second, we could see the futility of
the guerilla war. Decades of
fighting, over territory that was unforgiving and unhelpful.
No water, and no infrastructure whatsoever.
Veng is at this time of year a dusty town.
It took us about 5 hours to make the 120 km trip, with a few stops on
the way to ease the aching backs. A small market has grown up there, and a
café. We heard that in the
time of the Khmer Rouge, women had to go to Thailand to buy saucepans, and
then smuggle them home. Now, the spirit of free enterprise is appearing,
albeit slowly. The ubiquitous
karaoke has also taken root in the café.
To our surprise, a picnic lunch had been arranged for
us in Ta Mok’s house. Now,
this was the man with perhaps the most recent, bloodiest reputation in the
Khmer Rouge – only taken into captivity in 1999.
Anlong Veng was his last stronghold.
It was equally bizarre that we would be sitting on the
floor eating sandwiches and rice in the room that Pol Pot, the genocidal
leader of the Khmer Rouge, was tried by his peers in 1997.
Perhaps entirely fitting were the surroundings of Ta
Mok’s villa. He obviously had
a thing about water, so artificial lakes were created around the house –
aesthetics, or good defense? Yet these lakes killed the trees.
The entire site was one of bright sunshine, and death.
Anlong Veng, we drove the 34 kms to Trapang Prasat.
The Halo Trust was hard at work clearing land mines at one point.
What amazed us was the closeness of the mines to the houses.
Families had obviously built where they could, and the mines were
less than a stone’s throw from the cooking pots. No wonder children
don’t go to school … walking 5 kilometers past mines is not a lot of
fun. We heard stories of continued mine accidents and maiming to this day.
At this point, the army appeared. Or should we say, they tried to.
A fairly jovial group of soldiers with rifles, and the accompanying
police, joined us to be sure we arrived safely in Trapang Prasat.
That is, until their jeep kept breaking down.
They had re-starting and pushing the jeep down to a fine art, so they
managed to arrive about the same time we did …
We stopped on the way at a group of three,
grass-roofed huts – one as yet uncompleted.
The children had helped build this school, and were hard at work.
Whilst we managed to break the ice, the sadness in their eyes will always be
with us. Sarath asked one 12
year old (?) what she had learnt in the years gone by.
She responded with a rote description of how to cut and set sharp
sticks to wound the enemy, and how to plant simple land mines. There was no
sense of right or wrong in her description, and no sense of logic – it was
just as things are. Her
teachers would expect her, as one of the older children, to go to the front
lines to plant these weapons.
It was clear that a fundamental precept of the project
we are embarking on is correct – these children have learned significant
life skills, and they must be respected for that.
Their future education needs to build from this base. But there is a
huge vacuum, both in traditional learning and in social/ethical
One wonders what could happen if these children could
leap frog, and jump straight into the Internet era?
We need to explore this idea.
we entered Trapang, we noticed the small clinic.
We were welcomed at the District Office, a new building yet with
little furniture. The District Governor was also the previous Khmer Rouge
commander. Save the Children
had helped by building a school, and we visited that. Trapang has over 50%
of the kids going to school (better than Anlong Veng), if only for a few
years, and the economy is becoming rather entrepreneurial.
Not too far away as the crow flies, but totally
impossible to get to from the Cambodian side (due to mines) is the temple of
Preah Vihear. By all accounts the complex is as important as Angkor, if
smaller. Perhaps one day Trapang Prasat will be known to the world just as
Siem Reap is today .. but that is years away.
Walking around the village, we learnt that until 1998
the Khmer Rouge soldiers and their families had largely been “nomadic”
for security reasons. So the possibility of setting up a real home and small
farm was a true joy. We talked
with many of the locals, and couldn’t help noticing that the children,
whilst well nourished, had a variety of ailments.
The clinic tried to help, and vaccines were available.
But some ailments were out of reach.
One old soldier told us he had never had his picture
taken, so we promised to get a complete set to him and his family. None of
the soldiers really even knew the name Pol Pot. The District Governor had
never met Ta Mok, although he did see him drive past a couple of times, he
said. Instructions came via a
system of radios.
Dinner was in Trapang’s only restaurant – a
venture recently opened by a businessman from Siem Reap. Cambodian soups are
wonderful, and we knew full well that the hospitality was special, and
expensive to the District.
we got to talk to the Governor, and to some extent get to know him, it
seemed clear that his heart was very much into providing for his people.
At one time he commanded about 1,000 soldiers, yet today he rides
around on his moped, and is obviously well regarded by the population.
Victoria made the best observation – at breakfast the next day he
was told by a young waitress in no uncertain terms to wait for the guests
before he could have his morning rice …. not something you’d expect if
fear was in the air.
Anyway, we are skipping ahead. We set up camp in the District office, and the generator was
kept on especially for us. Sleep was difficult, due to the heat, but humor
also played its role. At some
strange time in the morning, three shadowy figures appeared at the open
window frame. Trying to “stay
cool”, Ingrid and I decided they were our bodyguard, complete with
Kalashnikov rifles. They seemed
to be interested in how we slept, but eventually they got bored, and slung
their hammocks outside the window.
early, it was time to move on. Driving
back to Anlong Veng seemed quite quick, but we were still late.
Ta Mok had built a two storey school in Anlong, for about 200 children.
But there were no books and no furniture. Save the Children had
equipped it. Next to the
original building, the Cambodian government was building another, one storey
structure – the “Hun Sen School”.
This was needed, as the school currently had 826 pupils, and is
grossly overcrowded. Families
and children alike are desperately keen for education.
The children had lined up for us, waiting patiently
for over an hour – very embarrassing to us, but a sincere mark of
appreciation for Save the Children by the kids. The teachers all seemed
dedicated, but many were ex Khmer Rouge with little formal education and no
teacher training. They were
weary. A class was going on inside the school where an “expert”
teacher was teaching children, and other teachers were learning and taking
copious notes. We all made speeches, and moved on.
Downstairs the kids had a play break.
Gunnar thought it would be good to hand out some of Save’s
magazines – the only “entertainment” reading possible in the school.
There was almost a mini-riot, as kids were desperate for the magazines.
What a contrast with the developed world of privilege
and expectation, multi media and instant communication.
We later met with the District Governor of Anlong
Veng, and his senior staff. It
is fair to say the chemistry between us all did not develop as well as in
Trapang Prasat – too formal, too bureaucratic.
We must give it time.
So, we needed to get back onto the road – to Siem
Reap, home of international tourism and grand hotels.
contrast will never leave us.
In fact, a few days later, we were being driven from
the Le Royal in Phnom Penh (a wonderful hotel) in an air-conditioned,
stretch BMW. Classical music
was in the CD player. There was
almost no noise coming from outside of the car.
But we could see the people, and their daily struggle.
We could see the children.