Mai Rut. Mai Rood. You couldn’t even be sure of the name, and you sure as hell couldn’t be sure of the history. But it existed, that was the important part, and I was going to find it.
I sat on the back of a motorbike and scanned the landscape. The town of Mai Rut was 5km from the main highway, and there’d actually been a motorbike driver, waiting on the platform in the shade for someone like me to set off a blue pick-up truck. Thailand was otherwise devoid of motorbike drivers; although a break from the constant barrage of “La-dee, moto-bike!” was refreshing, I kept finding myself needing a motorbike and finding none. But one appeared just when I needed it, and I suppose that’s how Thailand worked for me, how I’ll come to think of those three days spent along the border.
I’d seen footage of Mai Rut, at the Bophana Audiovisual Center, from an old French newsreel. I could piece together bits and pieces, stray words, but mostly it was a study in the visual, squinting at the screen and trying to memorize every little bit of earth. I knew I’d later try and find the place, what was left of the place, and this was the best clue I was going to get. (It was silly, but I kept scanning the faces too, as though I’d happen to see the two people I knew in the crowd, as though that would be a clue too.)
And now I was there, or whizzing through there, and there was nothing but trees and grass and the odd clearing. We moved too fast; I didn’t know how to tell the motorbike driver what I was looking for, or even to slow down, so I just let him drive, let us move through the landscape of lost stories.
He left me off at the end of the road, where earth gave way to water and boats bobbed and nets hung, flies buzzing over sheets of fish and the smell of fish, fish, drying in the sun. Houses stood on stilts and streets of cement had been made. This was the town, not the remains of the camp, which must have been somewhere outside of the town, fenced off by barbed wire the camera kept focusing on and off of, a beat-you-over-the-head kind of metaphor but a metaphor nonetheless, in a newsreel, which I could appreciate. This was not it, but it was the closest I was going to get.
Mai Rood was a quiet little fishing town with not a lot going on. People sat in doorways. Children ran naked, grinned and disappeared. Women sat cutting fish, and men reeled in the nets from painted wooden boats. Dogs sniffed at the sand, littered and muddy; a man picked at the wounds that covered his body, little scabs that spoke of disease and something else, a language I didn’t understand.
I looked at the faces—many of them were Khmer, obviously Khmer. There’s a brown to pure Khmer skin, while Thai has more of a yellow glow. I thought of what the man at the guesthouse in Trat had told me, how a lot of the Cambodian refugees had stayed once their camps had closed, resettled in Thailand.
Like him, there were stories trapped in these people—or rather, trapped in the incommunicable space between me and them. They held answers, and if I could have sat with them, listened to them, I could have pieced together an approximation of another story, trapped in a different incommunicable space, the one between live and death—the story I had come to understand.
In the picture my friends have from Mai Rut, there’s my friend, a newborn in his mother’s arms. His mother looks like the woman I knew, strong and sturdy and alive, and his father like the man I knew, small and frail and dark. Beside them were two little girls who looked nothing like my friends’ parents—different features, much too dark-skinned.
“Who are these girls?”
“Some girls that came over with us. They were orphans. Or their parents said they were orphans. so they could come to the US. Or maybe my parents said they were their kids too.”
“But they look nothing like you guys.”
He shrugged. “So what happened to them?” I ask.
Shrugged again. “They probably had family here already, and met up with them once we got here.”
“Have you ever tried to find them?”
“No,” he answered kind of far-away, as though the thought had never occurred to him.
And I thought of that picture and wondered if I had it, if I could show it to these people, even without a common language, and if anyone would have known or remembered. I wondered what the hell that would accomplish anyway, other than confirming that it had all actually happened. I wondered what the hell I was even doing there, what I was looking for, what any of it was, let alone what it meant.
Closest thing to a remnant I found: Red Cross symbol on a lamppost back along the main highway