Travel: Around Kampong ChhnangDecember 11, 2006
A few months ago, I made a trip to Kampong Chhnang with my friend, Srey Mom, to check out the old, abandoned Chinese-built airport and some of the surrounding Khmer Rouge era infrastructure. While the massive airport, large enough to accommodate 747s, was the highlight of the trip, we happened upon a few other points of interest along the way.
1. Khmer Rouge Infrastructure
Kicked out of the airport, we found ourselves at the crossroads outside. With the gate on the opposite side of the road open and the police checkpoint deserted, we drove in for a look. The same concrete slab road split off in several directions, and we simply decided to take them at random and see what we could find.
Old grey buildings, without doors or windows, burned out and bullet sprayed, lined the road. The most interesting of these was a gigantic cylindrical building on the side of a jungle-covered slope. We parked the bike by the road and hiked up the side and found a small square door cut out of the wall. It was dark inside. Only a bit of light came down from three holes in the ceiling. But the acoustics inside were simply otherworldly. Each sound had a loud, clear, eerie echo that sounded again and again.
I experimented with making a range of sounds, fascinated by the quality of the echo, by snapping my fingers, clapping my hands, dropping chunks of concrete, and shouting. This did not intrigue Srey Mom, and she ran back down the hill when I started speaking in strange voices, convinced the echo was inhabited by some evil ghost.
2. Quarries and Rockbreakers
There was one green hill, visible everywhere in the area, with its side sheered off revealing rough grey stone. It looked so different from all the other hills in the area that we had to investigate. When we reached the base of the hill, we saw a rocky clearing and pools of water with small streams running out into the fields. Next to these pools were several huts with palm leaf roofs, brown and brittle from the burning sun, just high enough for someone to sit underneath.
We could hear the sound of pounding coming from one of these huts, so we parked the bike and hiked over for a look. There was one boy, alone in one of the huts, sitting on a slab of stone. In one hand, this boy had a bit of tough leather wrapped into a loop. With practised movements, he placed a handful of stones into the loop and then beat them with an iron hammer with a wooden handle. He banged the stones a few times, reducing them to small pieces, and then used the leather circle to drag them to the pile next to his breaking stone. He already had quite a pile of crushed stone. It looked large enough to fill a sack of rice. How long did it take to make such a pile? Ten days. How long did he work each day? Five hours. How much did he earn for such a pile? Five thousand riel. Just five hundred riel per day. How did he get the stone from the hill? Once every few months a man came with a machine and cut stone. How much was the man paid? Ten thousand riel. Twenty days work just to pay the man. Ten days work per month for himself. A total income of five thousand riel per month.
Surely there was a mistake somewhere in his calculations. He let us try his job. The hammer was heavy. I’m not a small man, and even if I were in good shape, I estimated that I’d only be able to make a ten dollars per month at this job.
Just past the Khmer Rouge infrastructure, we met an old woman collecting plants from the jungle. She was hunched down on the path up a hill arranging an armful of long slender leaves. Two young boys stood nearby, holding old water bottles filled with tea. We stopped to talk with them. The sound of cowbells rang out from unseen herd in the jungle. Two of them grazed next to us. The old lady told us that there were five or six of the cylindrical structures we”d seen before and then pointed us up the hill to a shrine. We took the bike as far as it would go, where the path trailed off to a rocky footpath up the steep slope, with vines hanging across the way, and then started hiking. There were cows everywhere. They stopped to look at you, stopped munching. Then stared. And swung there heads to the side as though to say, “Get out of here!”
Srey Mom walked warily around these slightly disconcerting cows, obviously with more intelligence than normal cows, and at length we reached a spot of level ground and spotted the shrine. It was a small, rectangular structure with a concrete base and six concrete posts supporting a wooden frame and corrugated tin roof. The base was covered in soft green moss and scattered with wilted leaves. Bowls rested on its edges with incense sticks that had burned low. And at the back was a small, simple sandstone relic. I have no idea why it was there, in such an obscure spot, with seemingly no visitors.