The three little girls followed us like flies. They circled as we walked through the dirt and dry grass, holding out scarves for us to buy.
We approached the rubble of temples, bricks strangled by a varicose of vines. Beside where we stood, busted stone sat in a pile. One of the girls pointed. “American. B-52.”
It was my first trip out to the provinces. That’s what expats call the rest of country, everything that’s not Phnom Penh, and it’s a fairly accurate distinction: it’s like there’s two Cambodias, not just the surface and the underbelly that I wrote about before, but the urban and rural.
The division goes a long way back. Before the Khmer Rouge, during the Lon Nol regime and the American bombings, the countryside suffered greatly—some million people are estimated to have died—while Phnom Penh remained a relative island of safety. When the Khmer Rouge took over, they targeted urbanites, the so-called “New People.” A mutual distrust between city- and country-dwellers lingers.
Still today, people in the countryside tend to be darker skin, pure Khmer, and largely uneducated, often living without electricity and running water. And while Phnom Penh is rapidly developing, construction cranes and billboards and the gleaming new riverside, the provinces remain fairly the same: dirt roads, thatch-roofed houses on stilts, naked children and water buffalo and chickens in the road. And a lot more of the scars of war.
We’d headed out to the Kompong Thom province, 170 km along the “highway” to Siem Reap. We were going to look at two things: the Sambor Prei Kuk pre-Angkorian temples, and bomb ponds. We found both, beside each other.
I’d contacted Rattana Vandy about his exhibit Bomb Ponds, wanting to learn more. Although he lives in Paris now, he just so happened to be back in Phnom Penh, and invited me to come along with his wife and friend on an adventure to the countryside.
The drive was long, filled with stops for cashews and pomelo and tarantulas (which are surprisingly delicious). Three hours on the road and we arrived at the temple site. It was nearly empty, aside from a straggle of locals and the few huts they’d set up, selling bottles of water and chips. The little girls were on us; even after it was obvious we weren’t going to buy anything, they followed us, poking and playing with each other. There probably wasn’t much else to do.
The temples were scattered around the shady dirt grounds. They’re pre-Angkorian, which means they were built between the 5th and 7th centuries, constructed of brick, with carvings in Sanskrit, odes to Hinduism rather than Buddhism. I hadn’t seen any temples yet, so I was easily impressed by the age, by the trees growing up and along them, like the vines were strangling the remains, trying to pull them back down into the earth.
There’d once been some 200 temples at the site; only 40ish remained. I thought of the incredible luck that any of them had survived: the years, the monsoons, the looting, the gold diggings—and the bombings.
Photographing a bomb pond/crater
Rattana had taught us how to spot bomb ponds. Unlike natural ditches, they’re perfectly circular. Because of the linear bomb-dropping pattern, they usually occur in a row, in certain intervals; you can count them out: “one, two, three…” The big ones are along the Vietnam border; the smaller ones, like these, were dropped from fighter jets and can be found all over the country. During the rainy season, they fill with water that even still, after 30+ years, has a lingering toxicity that makes it undrinkable. As it’s the end of the dry season, the bomb ponds now are just craters, sunken and waiting. They reminded me of pockmarks, the skin of a hard life—I thought back to Thailand, to its green, its rich-kid skin.
A local man lingered around us, like the little girls but with less exuberance. He began chatting with Rattana in Khmer, and wound up being our guide. He was knowledgeable, walked slowly, chiseled cheeks and a lean smile, salt-and-pepper hair swept into a comb-over, though he wasn’t balding. The lines around his eyes and mouth were thin, precise, deep and uncountable; they framed his mouth when he smiled, so that they seemed like smile lines.
He was missing an arm. There was a nub somewhere inside his worn shirt, and he tucked things under it: his cap, his cigarettes. Sometimes when he walked, a slow and pensive walk, he held onto the empty sleeve as though he were clasping his hands. There was a tenderness to the gesture so palpable you wondered if it was his phantom limb he was holding—a dead hand, ghost hand, from another life that he was still clinging to, intertwined with, in the moments when no one was looking.
He pointed out carvings and statues and explained their meaning, which then went through rounds of French and English translations. At one point, as we walked between temples, he pointed to a crater in the earth with his one arm. “American,” he said. “B-52.”
How do you be American in this? “I wasn’t born yet” doesn’t seem good enough. “My parents were against the war” doesn’t either. Because these may be ruins, but it’s still happening, in other places; it’s still happening in this place too, the echo of it. You know, intellectually, that this echo lasts a long time, but knowing it and seeing it are two different things: You can hear something a thousand times and not know it, yet if you see it with your eyes just once, you know. It’s a Khmer proverb, and it seems to be written for this place, the experience of being in this place.
I thought, briefly, of bombs falling from the sky like small black parcels; I tried to imagine the blast and the sound, the rumble and heat. I couldn’t, not really—just project what I’d seen on old newsreels, aerial footage of impersonal explosions, reverse fireworks against dense green. I thought of how much was lost—lives and limbs and ancient temples, vacant of their gods—and how much remained, that any of it remained, even as scars, on the earth and in the bodies. I thought of what still stood, what still walked, and wondered how to be American amidst all this.