"We're on the road to nowhere..."
I rode, blue pick-up truck bouncing, through the lush green and muggy grey of a Thai highway. I was squeezed between a bucket of paint, a woman’s groceries and the soft squirming limbs of two small children. Men stood on rice stacks on the back of the trailer, clutching the grating as the breeze moved through their hair.
I was on the local “taxi,” domed trucks with wooden benches in the back, and I was on something of a mission—an anti-mission to find an anti-place, a futile mission to find the What’s Left of a transient moment, blue tents and barbed wire, where babies were born and fates were written in the dusty earth.
So it was more than a visa run. I’d come to the Trat province to find the remains of Mai Rut, a Cambodian refugee camp where my friends’ parents had escaped to, where one of my friends was born. I knew it was a somewhat fruitless endeavor; refugee camps are purposefully made from temporal materials. Still, I wanted to see it, or as close as it I could come to. It was an inbetween point, a turning point, where lives were changed. There’d be little left to find, and that was, I supposed, part of the point.
I’d gotten into the town of Trat the night before, still startled by the disparity between Thailand and Cambodia. I found the backpacker area, got a cheap room in a cute guesthouse. I’d proceeded to wander around, asking every guesthouse keeper and travel agent about where I could hire a tour guide. They looked at me like I was crazy. It was the one time I was ready to throw down some money to hire someone who knew the area, and I was getting nowhere.
“Why you want to go there?” the man at Pop Guesthouse asked, eying me carefully.
“I’m working on a project. My friend was born there.”
He shook his head. “There’s nothing there. Nothing to see.” It was the same answer I’d gotten from everyone else, but it felt like he was holding back. I paused a moment, then shrugged, said thanks anyway, and continued on.
I rounded a corner, to the block behind. After walking a bit, the same man poked his head out of a doorway. “Oh, hello again,” I smiled, confused as to how he’d gotten there.
He waved me over. He spread a map out on a table, pointed. “This Mai Rood,” he pointed. It was spelled differently, but sounded the same. “But nothing to see there.” He paused. “But here, Khao Lan,” his finger moved up the green spindle of coast, “there is a museum for the refugee.”
“A museum?” I asked, amazed.
He nodded. “For the Queen. She make the refugee camp for Cambodians.” He explained how to get there, wrote the name in Thai for me in my notebook.
I sensed my moment of opportunity.
“Did you live here then?”
“You were a little boy?” I asked.
“No, I was 18!”
“No!” I exclaimed, smiling. (Flattery gets you everywhere.) I paused. “Do you remember it?”
He nodded again. “Yes, I work on the border then. In my uncle’s orchard.” He pointed to a place right along the black line.
“There? Did you see a lot of people coming in?”
“Yes. A lot of people come through the orchard.” He stopped there. I tried to imagine it, to hold some kind of image of what that must have looked, been like—the first foreign eyes to see these people straggle out of four years of unthinkable misery.
We stood there in silence. “Most of the camps were up here, right?” I pointed to the Northern border.
He nodded again. “Yes, but here, not so many landmines. So it’s better.” He paused again, another muggy silence. “The people here, they come from Battambang, this way,” he drags his finger across the dim yellow of Cambodia’s eastern edge along the map. I nodded.
“Mai Rood, it’s a fishing town. Big town.” I nodded, waiting. “Many Cambodians live there,” he added briefly.
“Yes. Here too,” he pointed at the ground. “Trat too.”
“People from the camps? They stayed?”
He nodded again. We stood another moment. “Maybe I have picture somewhere. Maybe you want to see it.”
My eyes widened. “Definitely!”
“I have map too. I go look and bring it to your guesthouse. You stay—” and he named my guesthouse.
“Yeah,” I responded, amazed. What was this guy, the hospitality ninja?
“I see you earlier.” He paused. “Okay,” he folded up his map and smiled. That was it; we were done talking.
Of course I wanted to know more. Of course he knew more, more he wasn’t saying. But who was I to ask, to push? I’d already gotten far more than I otherwise would have.
I thought about the time it would take to coax the whole story out. I wondered for a moment if he’d ever even told it. Why should he, now, there, with me, a Western girl wandered in from the street? It would take months, I decided—at least that, and I don’t have that now. But if I really want to do this project, and really want to do it right, that’s what it’s going to take.
But for now I had all I was going to get. And it was a helluva lot more than I’d come with.