A month in Phnom Penh and I’m finally leaving the city. I need a new visa, and I was planning to come to the Thai border anyway, to search for the remains of a refugee camp—as though the land could hold stories, or bits of stories; as though it could tell them and I’d be able to hear it.
I look out at the rumbly pavement, the lumbering trucks, the dusty shoulder and the green, green beyond. I don’t see any traces. I see thatched roofs and hammocks between the trees; I see bone-white cows laying in the dirt and houses perched on stilts like skinny legs. I see roadside petrol stands and carts of rubble with young boys sitting atop the heap, staring back through the window at me. I see palms reflected in still water.
Where did the people walk? Somewhere, once, there were paths, and this land saw it, was it. I’m along the Southeast of Cambodia, heading into the Thailand’s Trat Province. It wasn’t one of the main avenues for escape to Thailand—those were in the north—but enough people came this way for there to have been two refugee camps, from what I’ve been able to learn. And I see no traces of their journey.
How quickly, I think, the land swallows human traces. I think of the images of saw I Phnom Penh after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, a little less than four years after having been evacuated: it was rubble, crumble, weeds growing tall and stoplights swinging silent. It was surprising how quickly the earth could undo things.
I think of the accounts of refugees I’ve read. The danger was immense, especially for people already physically weakened by years of starvation and overwork. I think of Vietnamese soldiers, fake Khmer Rouge soldiers, Thai bandits, sleeping landmines—all that people risked to walk through this place that I’m gliding through, plexiglass and air-conditioning. And isn’t that the truth of it?—all I can know of it the warp in the window, the transparent reflection of my own face obscuring the landscape that once held answers, that maybe still does, maybe has its own recurrent dreams, of footsteps marching.
I think this as we climb through the Cardamom Mountains, bus heavy and wheezing. We arrive at the Thai border, our gaggle of Westerners clucking at the Immigration window. (Isn’t this the truth of it?) I buy a coffee; we pile into a different mini-bus and move away from Cambodia and deeper into Thailand.
And it’s different, very different, in a way that surprises me. Borders are usually blurry to me, cultures overlapping like a Venn Diagram. But this one, the contrasts seems stark.
It’s not just that everyone’s driving on the British side of the road, not just that the cars are all newer and shinier. The green is greener in Thailand, I think. There’s no trash on the sides of the road. The electrical wires extend in an orderly fashion, don’t tangle like dreadlocks. There’s more road signs, and they’re crisper, brighter, perkier.
After a month in Cambodia’s capital and five hours chugging through its countryside, Thailand strikes me as wealthy, lavishly wealthy—but something else too. Calm? Peaceful? Something emanates through the lushness, which seems unexplainably lusher than Cambodia. It reminds me of rich kid’s skin, how it seems to glow—how when I was young I learned to spot rich kids by their skin, and I remembering asking my Dad once, “Why do rich kids’ skin glow like that?” and he said, “Access to good health care.” And that made sense, logically, but still didn’t explain all of the glow, or why me and my friends didn’t have it.
And to me, Thailand glows in that way—gleams, even. I stare out at it, the ease and grace it permeates. I want to call it an innocence, but I don’t think it’s that. It’s a stability, I think, perhaps the result of having not been at war, wars. Is this the landscape of peace, of a place that’s managed to never be under the hold of imperialism, that’s maintained a precious degree (or illusion, depending on who you ask) of neutrality?
In comparison to Thailand, I begin to wonder if Cambodia’s landscape does bear wounds, bear a kind of witness—dulled and muted and hard to notice once your eyes have become adjusted to it, like a silhouette of mountains against the night’s sky. Will I be able to see it better when I cross back, the other direction?—what I have easily, automatically normalized.
I stare out the window, searching.