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Crossing the Cambodian Border By Mistake

One of the things I most love about Thailand is the unpredictability of the place. It is possible to go out at night for a beer-just one beer-and have an experience you will remember the rest of your life. It might be wonderful; it might be not-so-wonderful; but it will be wild, wacky, humorous, perhaps poignant, perhaps dangerous. And you might just fall in love. But it will never be ordinary. I know. It happened to me more than once.

But the time I most treasure was when I entered Cambodia by mistake. Which was not a good idea as it was during the Vietnamese occupation in the early 80’s. How does one enter Cambodia by mistake? And fall in love, almost get killed, and get hoodwinked to boot? Let me explain.

At the time, I was sharing a small wooden house in a quiet lane off Phaholyothin Road with an Australian photographer. The Aussie was somewhere on assignment and the Laotian maid next door who flirted with us over the fence had gone in for the night, so I decided, rather than swelter in the heat while swatting mosquitoes and listening to the cries of the lizards, I would go to Patpong for a beer. Just one.

I don’t remember which bar it was. It may have been the Grand Prix or the one next door but before long I got into a conversation with two friendly Scandinavians. It turned out they were newspaper journalists from Norway, I think it was, and they were planning to hire a car and driver in the morning and head off to the Thai-Cambodian border-which at that time was a dangerous nexus of Thai police, Thai army, Cambodian refugees, bandits, Cambodian Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese army. The area made the usual “no-man’s land” seem like a walk in the park on a sunny day.

I tried to tell this to my newfound Scandinavian friends but they were in Thailand on assignment and they had no choice but to get a story from the refugee camps along the border. I tried to explain that there basically was no border; and the Vietnamese army was firing on anything that moved because some of the refugees were in fact bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge (Kamen Dang) Cambodian Pol Pot communists who had killed one or two million of their own people. It was when they kept attacking Vietnam that the Vietnamese got fed up and chased them all the way to the Thai border. When shells landed inside what the Thais believed to be Thai territory, they fired back at the Vietnamese. Doing a story at that time in that place was a good way to end up having a story written about you-on the wrong page of the paper.

Nothing I said could dissuade the two intrepid journalists and, in fact, as the night progressed, they attempted to persuade me to go with them. I knew the country (somewhat) and could speak the language (somewhat), “so what do you say?”

I say, “no way in hell I would leave the peace and quiet of Olde Siam and the flirtatious, next-door Laotian maid with dark eyes and come-hither smile for the unrewarding danger of the very porous and very downright unfriendly Thai/Cambodia border.”

Unfortunately, they were buying beers, and after a few Singha and just a shot or three of Mekhong, I heard myself saying what a great adventure it would be. And so the next morning found the three of us with our car and driver heading pell-mell for Aranyaprathet, the town which was the kind of stopping off point for refugee camp visits. Hangovers-be-damned!

I believe we arrived after dark, in any case, I remember nothing of that night or in which hotel we stayed. However, the events of the next day I shall never forget.

The journalists had finished breakfast ahead of me and gone out to do whatever journalists do. By the time I exited the hotel, they were heading back toward me. Now, however, they had someone with them. But not just someone. She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. Almond eyes, a gorgeous mane of raven-black hair cascading to her waist, the grace of an antelope, the allure of a goddess, and the half-shy/half knowing gaze of the Asian woman.

I could also tell she was Cambodian. This I knew from the beautiful, impossibly full lips. Yes, Virginia, lips like those do not exist only on Cambodian Buddha statues and frescoes; some of the living, breathing women of Cambodia have them. Here in the West, women could achieve such labial perfection only by several injections of collagen, but she…had…it!

When they approached me, the journalists introduced us and she lowered her head slightly and smiled up at me. I responded by saying something not unlike Jackie Gleason in the “Honeymooners”: “Humahumahumahuma.”

We spoke in English because it turned out she had fled Cambodia and now lived in Australia. She had got word that her mother may have made it out of Cambodia in the latest wave of refugees and could we in some way help her persuade the Thai police and the Thai army to allow her into the camp at Ban Tap Prik to search for her mother.

Well, two thoughts went through my head so fast it was almost simultaneous. The Thai police and army were incredibly busy and had their hands full with Cambodian refugees, the bloodthirsty Cambodian communists and the Vietnamese army-and they weren’t about to allow a Cambodian from the Thai side of the border to enter and muck about in the camp. Second, she was absolutely gorgeous and whatever she wanted me to do was exactly what I would do. In fact, if she had said she would sleep with me that night and all I had to do was to torture and kill the two Norwegian blokes, well, let’s just say, their newspaper would have been hiring. But I figured even if the Thais said no she would be suitably grateful to the man who did his best to reunite her with her mother.

So off we went-or, rather, off I went, to attempt to plead her case with the Thais. I waiied them and used every bit of whatever polite Thai I might have picked up from Dr. Chalao Chaiyaratana’s English School in the late 60’s to explain the situation and allakazam! They said yes! She could go in and look for her mother!

I gave her the wonderful news and she looked into my eyes with the adoration of one who

(at least so I interpreted the look) would be suitably grateful when the time was right. You understand, I was not stupid. I knew the journalists, like journalists everywhere, wanted to make use of people. They probably couldn’t have cared less whether she found her mother; they wanted her to interpret for them when they interviewed the refugees. Her goal was also clear: she wanted to find her mother. My goal was definitely clear: I wanted to find a way to her bed. And so, each in pursuit of his or her own goal, into the refugee camp we ventured

My first impression was how dark the hundreds of Cambodians staring at us were. It reminded me of my travels in India. No, they were not that dark, but darker than the city Thais, certainly. And how they stared. Silently. Expectantly. And in the midst of them were those lying on the ground being treated by Thai and Cambodian nurses. Those with IV bottles dangling from the tamarind tree branches above; those too weak to brush away the flies from their eyes and mouths; those obviously more dead than alive. And as we walked toward those dying of malnutrition, disease and the wounds of battle, I noticed men throwing the bodies of men and women over a fence where they were rapidly piling up.

We stopped beside two young girls lying side by side. They were not emaciated or wounded but seemed to have been felled by a combination of hunger and disease and the madness of the Cambodian communist leaders. For these two teenagers were typical of the rank-and-file of the Khmer Rouge. Both were very pretty and both stared up at the Cambodian woman from Australia. Finally, one of them spoke to her. I asked her what the girl said. She said they wanted to know why she hadn’t cut her hair short as Pol Pot had ordered. And that showed clearly the limited parameters of their world. Nothing existed outside of the framework of Pol Pot’s bloodthirsty plan for Cambodia. And if Pol Pot told these and a million other teenagers to kill, then that is what they would do.

The woman began interpreting for the journalists. I had remembered to bring some candy for situations such as this. And I placed a pack of M&M’s into the right hand of each girl. They looked over at the packet and then at me. It was then I realized they were too weak to open them. I stooped beside them, opened the packages and poured the candy into their palms. They placed some slowly into their mouths.

We moved on to a Thai nurse who was busy brushing a swarm of persistent flies out of the mouth of a woman in her 30’s. The woman’s eyes were open but she seemed near death. I asked the nurse if she thought the woman would be all right. She said, “I don’t think so.”

And it went on. At some point-the reason escapes me-I left the three of them and began walking. I assumed I was in Thailand heading toward the Thai army. As I walked, I passed a line of Khmer Rouge fighters. I felt a brief frisson of fear course down my back. These were the real thing. Middle-aged men who did the fighting and the killing. Around their necks were the familiar krama, checkered red-and- white scarves. The cold smiles. I suddenly understood the phrase, “the smile on the face of the tiger.” And I walked on. Still they came into the camp. Finally, at one point, one of the Khmer Rouge men turned to me as he walked by. He must have spoken in Thai because I don’t speak Cambodian. He said, “Antarai (danger).”

I said something like, “What danger? The Thai army is up there at the treeline.”

He spat as if in derision of the Thai army. “That is the Vietnamese army,” he said.

After a few seconds of realizing how close I had come to capture or death, I turned and walked back in the direction of the camp. To this day, I wonder at the irony of being saved from the Vietnamese by a soldier of the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge. I sometimes wonder if, whatever his crimes, he had gained Buddhist merit in saving me.

I walked past an area of Cambodian children, no doubt orphaned by the war, and in a bit of Thai and a lot of gestures, we talked. They produced some drawings they had done of Angkor Wat and village scenes and gave them to me. I had nothing left to give them. Then I remembered a Cambodian go go dancer on Bangkok’s Patpong Road had taught me to sing some lines of “Tell Laura I Love Her” in Cambodian. And so, much to the delight of the children, I serenaded them. Here, in the midst of poverty, disease, danger, the fighting and the dying, I sang of young Laura’s heartache of losing her beloved Tommy in a stock car race accident and of her eternal love for him—a ballad from the America of the late (and innocent) 50’s. A time when no one knew where Cambodia was. A time when one death could still mean so much; in stark contrast to those millions of Cambodians dying of disease, hunger and methodical beatings dying unknown and unserenaded.

Eventually, I moved on in search of the Cambodian lady and my newfound Norwegian friends. I found the two journalists looking over their notes. I asked them where the Cambodian woman was.

“Oh, she’s gone,” one of them said. Without looking up from his notebook.

“Gone? What do you mean gone? Did she find her mother?”

Both of them began chuckling. “She’s from Australia, all right. But she’s a journalist who was sent up by a newspaper to get the refugee story. There was no mother. That was just her cover story she made up to get into the camp.”

Needless to say, I was dumbfounded. Had this been an early silent Charlie Chaplin-type movie, the caption here would have read: “Sexist gets his Comeuppance.” She had used my lust for her the way an experienced combatant uses an opponent’s aggressiveness and strength to execute a judo throw. And Cambodians being the world’s most innocent people, if she could trick me, anybody could.

From that moment on, until we got back to Bangkok, the journalists and I argued about whether or not her cover story was “very professionally done” as they said, or “a heinous lie,” as I contended. We had about reached Bangkok when I finally became convinced they were correct.

I suppose the only crime of a journalist is not to get the story. And she hadn’t really harmed anything except my ego.

While I had been in the camp, the urge to do something had been overwhelming and I did manage to get an address from a Thai nurse where people could send money directly. This information I managed to get into a Bangkok hotel magazine. I can only hope it did some good.

Still, for years I felt pangs of guilt. While there had been the dead and dying all around me, I had been captivated by and interested in the charms of a beautiful Cambodian woman. How callous could I be? And then years later I read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Jailbird. In it he posed this question: “And what is flirtatiousness but an argument that life must go on and on and on?”

And I thought, Yes! That is exactly it. When helpless in the face of death and the dying, flirtatiousness is itself a denial against giving up. Against giving in. Against capitulation A way of not allowing Death to have a final victory.

Still, even now, a few times a year, I wake in the early morning darkness and think, “She used me! That Cambodian chick used me!”

Dean Barrett

Dean Barrett is an author, playwright and master sinologist.