A visit to Pailin, former Khmer Rouge capital, near the Thai border, in the year 2000.
Cambodia’s Frontier Casinos
You can blame Prince Chakrapong for a lot of things, like being involved in a bizarre coup d'etat that failed, but you have to admit that the man knows how to chose pleasant and pretty hostesses for his Royal Phnom Penh Airlines.
Miss S. Linet, aboard our Chinese version of the Antonov-24 dispenses her services to the twenty three passengers with a smile so charming that I forget about the tires. As we were boarding the plane, an early Friday morning at Pochentong Airport, near Phnom Penh, Bill, noticing a frown on my face, asks me: Are these balding tires bothering you?
Yes they do. They look ready to disintegrate. If an exploding tire can bring down the Concorde, I don't see why it would not transform the aging machine we are about to board into a pile of debris. Us included.
We are flying to Battambang, by way of Siam Reap. Royal Phnom Penh Airlines is a new Khmero-Thai enterprise. I don’t believe that the company owns more than one plane and six tires. The president is one of King Sihanouk's sons, Prince Norodom Chakrapong. Former pilot, former resistance chief, former economic adviser of the ruling Cambodian People‘s Party (the ex-communists), former troublemaker. I have always liked him.
The last time we met, shortly after Prime Minister Hun Sen allowed him to return to Cambodia after his coup attempt, he told me that he was now "trop vieux pour encore faire des betises". Too old to make mischief.
I'm not sure how to categorize his personal airline. "The plane shakes like an old man", a princess complained to me a few days ago in Phnom Penh at the Topaz restaurant over a plate of Pat Thai. I was expecting the worst. Miss S.Linet helps a lot to make this trip a pleasant surprise.
She and her colleague, no less pretty (but I fail to catch her name), constantly bring the passengers drinks, cakes and candies. And before we took off, a cup of apple juice, as if we were in some fancy business class.
In the air, we are soon gratified by the classic Soviet plane smoke invasion. This is air conditioning at its crudest. The system sends burst of icy clouds through the plane, and I can barely see Bill, sitting in the other row.
For American artist photographer Bill Burke and I this is a true revival. Like the old days when we were roaming socialist Cambodia together, he with his funny black and white Polaroid camera and a bucket of chemicals for the negatives (yes, it was a Polaroid with negatives), me, the journalist, with my nasty questions about the Communist Party and its internal disputes. We were constantly reminded of the correct line by people who were not sure what they were talking about. We had lots of fun. I learned much from Bill's way to look at people and buildings. In many ways, our eyes and ears complemented each other.
The landing in Siam Reap is super smooth. I guess the pilots have strong instructions to spare these poor tires from any extra pressure. We are allowed to walk around the tarmac. Ah! the pleasure of flying these little airlines in countries where security is at best telling you to hold onto the seat in front of you if your seat belt is broken.
We watch the arrival of a similar Chinese copy of the Antonov, from President Airlines, another funny company with few planes and many balding tires.
During the short flight between Siem Reap and Battambang, Ms Linet explains that she lives in Phnom Penh with her mother and sister “near the New Market”, and apologizes for her poor English. I tell her, sincerely, not too worry. She is doing fine. Bill agrees.
Khuon is with us too. Really like old times, when Luon Kim Khuon was our watcher, the man from the Foreign Ministry sent to supervise our activities. He was supposed to make sure we were not asking wrong questions, and even more important that we were not given wrong answers. Khuon was too honest to play the game. He gave us the official line, and then would always add: but I don't think it is true…He became a trusted friend.
His cousin is waiting for us at Battambang airport. She found us a pick up truck to go to Pailin. We decide to stop first at the Monorom hotel, for breakfast and to book a room for the day of our return.
Surprise! The Monorom has changed name. We meet the new patron, a pleasant and quiet Cambodian man in his early fifties. He speaks good English and elegant French. Yes, the hotel has been taken over by a group of businessmen, and he is one of them, he explains. He invites us to have a look at the rooms. They look much better, much cleaner. And the price is the same as last year: Ten dollars.
After breakfast we indulge in four and half-hour of road torture. There is no more than 70 Km from Battambang to Pailin. Sixty of which are sheer torments. Bill decides to stand outside, to take pictures. I sit in front, Khuon commutes between back and front. We have also an armed bodyguard with us. His AK-47 looks pretty rusty to me. It goes with bald tires. The driver does not seem to be worried by the state of the road. He moves at walking speed between holes, huge puddles of muddy water, and the leftover of the ancient road.
Once in a while the street has totally collapsed. We have to go around, through people's garden. The villagers are smart, and they know something about free enterprise. They block the way to their garden with a trunk in a hole. It is only removed if you pay a little tax.
We stop somewhere between Pailin and Battambang. Maybe we should just stay here and die peacefully, I tell Bill. He comes close to agreeing.
When we enter the Pailin zone, the road changes. The torture is over. This is former Khmer Rouge territory: they were criminals but better soldiers and better road builders than their Khmer brothers frm the Phnom Penh pro Vietnamese regime.
One more stop to take some pictures. Left and right of the road the same red sign: danger mines!
It reminds me that a few months ago I bought a similar marker from the land mine museum in Siem Reap. The "curator" --it was truly a jungle museum-- a former soldier and deminer wanted his little museum to serve as a reminder of the dangers of weapons in general and mines in particular. A few weeks later after our visit, he was arrested for the “illegal sales of smuggled weapons“! Or so they say, because the army soon decided to open its own museum, and no free entrance this time.
Mines are truly the curse of Cambodia.
Pailin is now a forgotten place. Before 1975, it enjoyed the status of a busy border town, an important crossroad between Thailand and Cambodia. It was ruby country and a smuggler’s paradise. Money was flowing in. Then from 1979 until 1989 it was more or less abandoned, a useless collections of ruins, while fighting was mostly taking place in the nearby Phnom (hills) Malai; digging for precious stones went on full speed again with Thai blessing to the point that rubies are becoming a rarity. Khmer Rouge soldiers took over Pailin in 1989 and made it their "provisional" capital. Its political value was purely symbolic.
A couple of years later the Khmer Rouge allowed government troops to capture Pailin. But only for a few weeks. Just enough time to give the generals of the Cambodian Army a chance to loot everything in sight and make fools of themselves. Then the Khmer Rouge, attacking from the surrounding hills, forced the same generals to run away. The Khmer rouge recaptured Pailin in no time. And kept it until Ieng Sary, one of the Khmer Rouge most important leaders, and the military commanders of Malai and Pailin defected to the government in 1996.
I have been to Pailin twice in the recent past. Last time was with a military adviser to the United Nations. This was to meet recent Khmer Rouge defectors Chan Youran, Im Sopheap and Kor Bun Heng. I knew them all in the eighties and early nineties, from numerous meetings at the UN in New York, in Thailand, in Jakarta and later in Cambodia. These were Khmer Rouge you could more or less talk to. They did not automatically lie to you. I found out that most of what Kor Bun Heng told me over the years had been true.
Major JW and myself had arrived in Pailin in the early morning and met Y Chhien and Ieng Vuth, the two new bosses of Pailin. Y Chhien was the military commander of Khmer Rouge Division 415 and Ieng Vuth is the son of Ieng Sary. Y Chhien, the unofficial mayor of Pailin was sporting an impressive new gold watch. He was also building a new residence, fit for a king. He explained, with tears in his voice, how much Pailin and nearby Samlaut were in urgent need of medical assistance. I kept looking at his gold watch.
Ieng Vuth, who has the demeanor of a modest bank employee in gray clothes, told us the story of the last days of the KR.
When I explained that I knew the three defectors, they agreed to contact them. Soon, we were instructed to go to the Thai border, and wait at the Cambodian custom office.
The border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand, some 15 km from Pailin city, has the traditional atmosphere of wild west border towns. A bustling market, full of smuggled products, though looking guys casually handling a vast range of personal artillery, young ladies in search of consolation and a big green wall.
I walked around the big wall. A gentleman dressed in black fatigues, his scrutinizing eyes hidden behind reflective sunglasses and armed with an enormous pistol, looked at me in surprise.
Sawasdi Krap, I said, in Thai, instinctively knowing this gentleman was from across the border. OK, he replied. Go in but no picture.
What I found behind the green wall --an ecological touch?-- was a jungle casino, in full activity. It had obviously taken very little time to transform ex radical communists into aspiring capitalists. They understood the greed game like old pros.
I liked the croupiers, many of them former Khmer Rouge soldiers, in black tie and Ho Chi Min sandals. The customers were all Thai, their hands full of big bills, playing for serious money while their kids were chasing each other under the tables. Soft drinks were free of charge.
Later, the Major and I met the three Khmer Rouge defectors. They hugged me as if I was an old comrade. They were impressed by the presence of an officer from the UN. At least these three aging were not criminals. They had joined the movement as idealist leftists. I could, to a degree, identify with their early hopes but not with what followed. Now, they had nothing left. I gave them the pile of newspapers and magazines I brought with me. They told us that Khieu Samphan was looking for a way out. That was two years ago…
Since we are going to spend the night in town, Bill, Khuon and I go strait to the new hotel, near the central market of Pailin. It is a typical Cambodian hotel, build by people who know little about hospitality lodging. Charm is kept at a minimum. The young receptionist wakes up, smiles, say yes we have rooms.
“And there is a Karaoke, a restaurant and a massage parlor, very good, you enjoy. “
There are two kinds of rooms: big bed and no window, for $ 11 and two beds plus windows for $17. With our tight budget we end up in the big bed-no window room. It is not very cheerful, but we measure our luck when later that day we visit the Pailin hotel.
From a safe distance it looks good. Especially the large garden surrounding the impressive house. As we get closer, the strange feeling that we are about to enter a haunted manor creeps in. The hotel is a big block of concrete, and dates from the late sixties. We can not find the entrance. The place seems abandoned. The sun goes down, the obscurity races against the last and useless efforts of the day.
Finally Khuon discovers somebody who looks like a veteran of many wars. Soon a younger man in military fatigues appears.
Is the hotel open? I ask.
Yes, reply the veteran.
Can we visit?
Khuon looks at me with concern. Bill does not seem eager to enter the sinister building either.
Downstairs there is a derelict reception desk and a large hall, empty and dusty. The color scheme is simple and effective: gray on gray.
Who owns this…hotel, I inquire.
Khuon translates. Ieng Sary, says the old man.
Ieng Sary, brother number two, the master of the Khmer Rouge’s foreign ministry, one of the top members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. The man who told me in 1979 that yes, about 30,000 people had been killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. "Killed by Vietnamese agents, it was terrible, Monsieur". We were sitting in the Indonesian salon of the UN building, in NY, William Shawcross and I. Ieng Sary had probably detected the shadow of a doubt on our face because he added: "You don't thing that we, Khmers, could have hurt any other Khmer, that we could have touché a aucun cheveux from our brothers and sisters". He looked ready to cry at this sad thought. Ieng Sary!
That explains the feel of the place, the general style of this hotel which, in no time, could be transformed into a detention center.
The rooms upstairs are already like bare cells. Basic, very basic. And dreary. Steel furniture. One chair. Dark. Not even a table on which to write a last confession!
How much for the night? I ask.
Five dollars replies the old man. He does not seem that anxious for customers. We thank him profusely for the experience, and leave.
As we have a quick lunch at the open-air hotel restaurant a gentleman accompanied by a rather pretty lady takes over the table next to ours. The man wears a very funny pair of glasses. It looks more like a mask from Star Trek than reading glasses. Such is my ignorance of gemstones that I do realize these are tools of the trade, his trade: rubies. We are the only guests at the hotel; we are probably the only potential buyers in town. Pailin is a small town. Everybody knows we are here. Soon the man and his wife are trying to sell us rubies. They will follow us until, at the market, we finally make very clear that we have no money and no desire to buy stones.
The market is full of third rate Thai products. And tons of medicine. Cambodians love to pop in pills, it has become a national pastime. Any color, anything. They wonder why they are still sick, so they swallow more pills. Most country "pharmacists" are housewives. They don't have a minimal knowledge of what they sell. We check some dates. A lot of these pills are completely out of date. Maybe that's better.
I go fetch Im Sopheap and his wife for dinner. He lives in a modest little wooden house, on the outskirts of Pailin. While a student in Paris he went back to Cambodia in 1976. To join the revolution, to take part in the edification of a bright future. He is one of the lucky ones. They didn't kill him. He worked at the Foreign Ministry under Ieng Sary. Later, during the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia, in the eighties, Im Sopheap went to Cairo as ambassador of Democratic Cambodia. He was also accredited to a few other countries and his main job was to make sure that these countries would always vote in favor of the yearly pro Democratic Kampuchea resolution at the UN.
Dinner is at the hotel restaurant. It is the only remotely fancy place in town. Tables, napkins, clean glasses, and relatively edible food. Not good though. The fried chicken, mostly skin and bones, reminds us of the old days, when chicken were as thin as people. It was a vicious circle.
Im Sopheap and his wife were diplomats, we eat as if we were at some embassy function, polite, exchanging elegant banalities.
Sopheap has already suggested that we keep serious talk for the next morning, at his house. His wife is well dressed, although I'm sure there is nothing expensive there. Her English is surprisingly good.
Later Bill and I check the massage parlor. It has obviously been abandoned long ago; maybe it never opened. The fish-tank, where girls sit waiting for customers is incredibly dirty, and stinks. It looks like it had been used as a kind of dump by the personnel of the hotel.
Our virtue is safe.
Before retiring for the night I have a semblance of conversation with the manager. She is an imposing lady, big by Cambodian standards, and she speaks bits and pieces of English, Thai and French. But what she really likes to speak is Vietnamese. It is my few words of Vietnamese that seduce her. Her eyes are moist as she reminisces about the Vietnamese soldiers, the bo doi. I imagine she had some torrid liaison with a "volunteer", when they occupied Cambodia.
She is intrigued by our little group. Three people, three nationalities, three occupations, she says. You are so different, she adds.
Quiet night. But because of the absence of windows, there is a strange feeling in the morning. Like being in jail, isolated.
Over a breakfast of rice soup, Khuon tells us he had a bad night. Plenty of nightmares, he said. A spirit came to my room during the night. I woke up, and tried to talk to him, but I hit the door. I imagined I was in Ieng Sary's hotel. It was terrifying. There were people screaming. Probably victims of the Khmer Rouge, people who had been killed there. I must say that yesterday, I was afraid that you two would decide to spend the night at Ieng Sary's hotel. I was ready to refuse…I could never do it.
We reassure Khuon. We are strange guys, but our lunacy never extended to a desire to sleep in that gray jail, in that morbid, drab building.
Bill is happy. At the market he found a big police jacket. With his kaki pants he looks like some foreign mercenary of the Cambodian Police force. We test the effect a couple of hours later, when, after driving to the Thai border, we enter the Flamingo Casino.
The Thai man in charge of filtering guests looks uncertain as to what we are. But because the managers here are Thai and not Khmer Rouge they try to placate us by being extra nice. We are shown to a table, served with plenty of food and drinks.
Is your friend a general? The manager ask me. Is he coming to inspect the place, what does he wants?
I explain that we just came for a look, not to worry. We have no bad intention, and are grateful for their cheerful welcome. While young waitresses are cleaning our table I speak in Thai to the pretty assistant manager.
I used to work in a Bank, in Thailand. But with the economic crisis, I lost my job. So I come here, everyday, for 8 hours. I don't like this job. This is a dangerous place, full of bad people. But I have no choice.
After we finish our food, I look for her, to thank her. But the manager tells me she went back home. I know it is not true, she just told me she was working today until 8 PM. The casino is going on full speed. Here too all customers are Thai, from across the border. They don't need a visa. Children and grand parents have fun their way, eating fried stir beef and drinking red and green soft drinks.
Everybody seems relieved to see us go. Bill is a bit too hard to figure for them. He is obviously not a tourist, nor a gambler. And his uniform is very intriguing.
There are now three big casinos at this border point. The market is controlled by Y Chhien. Sure Y Chhien takes money everywhere, Im Sopheap told me earlier this morning, when we had our little chat about life in Pailin. But he is under constant pressure from the Cambodian People's Party to come up with funds. And more funds. The Party needs money for the coming elections, in 2003. So every provincial or district official has been told to send money to Phnom Penh. More and more money. So they take where they can. And the population is increasingly angry and determined not to vote for the CPP. They don't understand, the leaders of the Party, that money is sometimes less important than people’ satisfaction.
Im Sopheap asks me if I could find a publisher for a biography of Khieu Samphan. It could be interesting, since Im Sopheap has been working with Khieu Samphan for so long. And he gives me a fairly critical view of the entire Khmer Rouge adventure. I have always wondered what a nice person like Sopheap had been doing with the Khmer Rouge until almost the bitter end.
We take a look at the brand new Cesar Palace, a huge creamy white structure on a hill. There is a free tax shop. Who wants to buy soap free tax? Apparently nobody.
If anything the road back to Battambang is in worse shape than yesterday.
2006 : We made it back to Battambang, to Phnom Penh, to America…or Bangkok. Bill Burke has published two remarkable photo books about his Thai and Cambodian adventures. As for Khuon he is presently the Consul General of Cambodia in Ho Chi Minh (ex Saigon). We are still good friends.