A funny thing went on a couple of weeks ago. Every night I make the trip from town (read bar), back out to Rancho El Pedro and last night, taking the shortcut past the old abandoned cemetery, the electrics on my bike died: cut out completely – nothing.
A quick restart and a few revs got her going again and I sped off along the dirt track running parallel to the graveyard’s bricked wall. Nothing too strange – the bike is an old girl and beset with electrical problems.
A fiddle of the wires and a bit of a well-placed kick and life returns. Auto-electrics, for me are akin to voodoo, and those who practice these dark arts deserve High Priest status. Animals should be slaughtered in their honour.
For a breakdown to happen once is nothing unusual, and,thenext night,on that exact corner, a mere coincidence. But the same mechanical fault, in the same spot for a third consecutive was a tad spooky.
So I began to look around the final resting place of my neighbours. You know when you pass something several times everyday and don’t really question it? Well I’ve been doing this for the best part of a year since I moved up to this area a few clicks out of the city.
When looking at my house for rent (not the most salubrious of pads, but comfortable, furnished, big garden and cheap), I was worried about the crime rate in the area. My concerns were put to rest by the prospective landlord, who told me that besides the local upholders of the law having a zero tolerance policy on ne’er-do-wells in the village, no Khmer, even the most hardened of junkie thieves, dared to step anywhere near the cemetery, because ‘Jao afraid of the ghost’.
On the rare occasions that a dop has been required after dark, drivers would physically begin to quake when directed down the bumpy track, even turning their head back to say how fearful they were.
Giving little more than a cursory glance through the bolted and rusting metal gates which guard the entrance, I always assumed that this was a place for Chinese who had passed on to the next life, my deduction based on the gravestones and small, but proudly tall pagoda type structure in the centre of the unkempt cemetery.
So several times a day and night for a year I would pass this large tract of land, oblivious to the true function- until the three-nights-in-a-trot electrical outage.
It was after a dirt-bike tear up around the mountains and jungles of Samlot district, where hidden in the jungle and along the logging tracks and former war trails, are small villages constructed entirely from wood, plastic and corrugated iron – the wild, wild west (of Cambodia), temporary and impoverished, but still for every 10 shacks there’s a phone shop.
It was in one of these dusty, non-descript communities that we stopped for a beer break and purchased several kilos of a freshly hunted (or poached) wild deer meat. Mmmm, venison, and venison is always best when illicitly procured.
The ride was long, fast and dangerous; our two Suzukis traversed hills, forded rivers, disturbed some illegal loggers and drove through a mine clearance zone – all good fun, if a little strenuous on our machines. My ignition key flew out at some point in the arse-end of nowhere, luckily a one-legged keysmith cut me another for a buck.
We stopped for a nice refreshing swim in a lunar boulder strewn river valley, about 10km after Samlot, before the bridge on the Battambang road. It felt fantastic to wash off the filth of the road in body temperature water. The bike, however, was a bitch to start, but got going with some gentle persuasion.
When I returned to the homestead, I gave my neighbour a shout and asked him if he fancied firing up the barbi and having a meal. Of course, he was delighted and got his mum busy with the herbs and spices. A couple of my mates passed by under the offer of a free dinner which wasn’t pig, chicken or cow, and we sat with the neighbour and his uncle, who was up visiting for a few days.
Over several bottles of delicious Bruntys Cider (plug), we drank, smoked and swapped stories. The uncle, impressed by the range of tattoos worn by a barang, asked if they were for luck. He didn’t need good-luck tats, he said – his heart was protected. Then he told us a little about his time in the war, fighting for the Vietnamese and Hun Sen. With thumbs up he smiled ‘Youen good!’ Misty eyed, he began to reminisce on the easy virtues of Vietnamese women he had both known and loved.
As the aroma of cooking meat and freshly picked leaves wafted into the garden, the subject shifted to ghosts, which along with marriage and eating rice seems to be one of the most popular topics amongst Khmer.
My mysterious story of the Chinese cemetery at the witching hour, three times in a row fascinated the neighbour (who speaks excellent English), and he translated it to his uncle.
‘Where do you mean?’ He asked.
‘The Chinese graves, over there’ I pointed.
‘They are not Chinese graves,’ he said. ‘Dead Vietnam soldier, Youen grave’.
Suddenly my interest was piqued. I have an avid fascination with both war and graveyards. Anyone who has visited Northern France, the WW2 military cemeteries in Italy, or the more recent places in the former Yugoslavia, will admit that these are both harrowing, yet paradoxically places of peace, with each cross or headstone representing the forgotten story of a young man breathing his last far away from where he’d call home. Arlington and Gallipoli must be the same. War, huh, what is it good for?
A day later my bike was totally shagged with the piston rings melted from overuse and under care. It was the ride to Samlot what probably done it. Perhaps the neighbourly ‘ghosts’ had been trying to warn me.
The gate was locked, so I hopped the wall. The sign over the entrance reads (I’m informed) ‘Palace of Death’.
Monsoon season is well and truly here, the grass was lushly green and wet underfoot. A large skink, basking on a crumbling concrete headstone scuttled away inches from my sandals.
The headstones, fittingly communist era concrete, are brutally decayed, lashed by 20 seasons of of rain and cooked by summer heat. Where some turn to dust proudly upright, others lurch forward, the names and dates of who lies beneath weathered, but readable. For every marker there are a dozen more man sized humps on the earth.
Some stones have turned to dust and others deemed unworthy of a name being unknown soldiers in unmarked graves from a decade-long war of which much of the world knew nothing or cared little about. A proxy war, paid for by west and east, but a relatively minor and localized skirmish compared with the disastrous policy doctrine of the French and the USA in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Doing a quick bit of mental arithmetic whilst strolling about, I calculated there were close to 800 mounds. Some of the names etched into surviving stones (again translated for me) were Viet, some Khmer and some (again going on what I’ve been told) mixed Viet/Khmer: there was traditionally a high ethnic mix in this region. Those beneath mounds were once just common Vietnamese soldiers.
During the PRK and civil war, Battambang city was relatively calm, apart from the occasional hit and run attacks, such as the torching of the former market where Psar Thmey now stands, which is also a stone’s throw from the Palace of Death
The majority of the fighting during the civil war period took place in the mountains and forests along the border – one headstone pays tribute to fallen ‘hero’ Tap An (1955-84) from Pailin; another, Koem Mon (1963-83) and also Sen Pu who was born in 1953 and died in S’nang in 1990.
The shanty villages we’d sped through or stopped for a drink, are likely to be the sites of old camps and bases, the tracks, now legitimate ‘roads’ were hacked through the greenery as supply routes for men and supplies. Khmers, Viets, Thai mercs and possibly even western soldiers of fortune and military ‘advisors’ (on this I merely speculate), lived, fought and died in these here woods – from enemy action, accident and the curse of tropical armies – disease: malaria, dengue and dysentery. They were brought back, dead or dying to be given a stone or dumped in a fresh dug hole.
The Khmer Rouge atrocities are more than well documented, apart from the Angkor temples, it’s what Cambodia is most (in)famous for. There are countless books, films and museumsdedicated to the brutality, yet very little is known or understood about the total cluster-fuck that followed until UNTAC, and which has continued to be more than a touch complicated since.
King bad/king good/Viets good/Viets bad/Chinese good/Chinese bad/Chinese good & bad/Pol Pot bad/Pol Pot good/USA bad/USA number 1.
Cows graze between the dead; the grass is greener on that side of the wall, so the farmer must have a key. Some morning kids scramble over to kick a ball in an unused corner.
There are no signs, other than the ominous Khmer script ‘Palace of Death’ and the name of the caretaker/benefactor.
No tourists stop after the Naktadambangkragnoung (the slightly politically incorrect, from a western POV, statue guarding the entrance to town), en route to the Bamboo Train. Locals stay away. It was just me and a few inquisitive cattle.
Apart from the fear of malevolent spirits, the place is largely ignored.
Anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is a growing issue, thanks in large to politics and often propagated and regurgitated, via iPads and Facebook,by those not even born during those times when it really was a life or death situation.
Others, those who can remember both Democratic Khampuchea and the Peoples Republic have mixed feelings – liberators or oppressors. Like Marmite, love ‘em or hate ‘em, although the hate camp is by-in-large greater.
This is not my country, not my history and not my politics so can claim nothing more than an amateur interest in local history and a morbid fascination with graveyards and war deeply rooted from childhood. I like to ask questions about untold and half-told stories, which can lead to further questions and more ambiguity: nothing is ever black and white, but Cambodia is a murky perma-grey.
After 4 days, the bike was ‘repaired’, replete with a new set of rings, stator and a different carburetor.
Within 5 minutes it was giving me problems, so jungle day off adventures are on hold, for the moment.
However, I still must make the commute to work and the bars, so, when taking that shortcut, I now give a late night respectful nod to the spooks, hoping they don’t tinker with my engine, yet eternally grateful to them keeping away the thieves.