Marching Toward the Inferno (Cont.)
The oxcart convoy took us through a few rural villages which were separated from one another by spans of rice fields. As darkness fell we arrived in a village where a few men, presumably village’s officials, were directing the oxcart traffic. One man carried a torch which appeared to be made from a few small sticks of woods held together in his hand. The wooden torch burned amazingly well as if it had been dipped in gasoline. As the man raised his torch to identify our oxcart’s driver, I could see the oily substances oozing on the sticks along the edge of the flame. It appeared that the village’s officials were looking for oxcart drivers who were members of their village being sent to fetch us. They would direct each driver to take us to be left at such and such home. Those drivers whom they couldn’t identify, they would let them go on. As our oxcart’s driver was being directed to take us to one of the villager’s homes, my parents inquired about Aunt Muoy’s oxcart, if it was also from the village where we would be lodging? The village’s officials confirmed our inquiry as they directed the driver to take Aunt Muoy, her husband, Kun, and their belongings to another villager’s home. Thus, under the cover of darkness, we parted company from Aunt Muoy and her husband at that point.
Our oxcart came to a stop in front of a fairly large house built on stilts. There were a few water buffalos being kept under the house, as it was a common practice for farmers to use the ground under their homes as shelters for farm animals. As soon as we arrived in front of the house, a middle-aged couple, presumably the home owners, with torches in their hands came down to greet and welcome us into their home as if we were their long lost relatives. The couple told us to bring our belongings upstairs as they held up the torches to illuminate the staircase. One corner of the house had been neatly arranged for us as sleeping quarters. It appeared that our hosts had been prepared and properly choreographed by Khmer Rouge officials to provide hospitality for us. There was a small metal container flickering with flame inside, sitting in the middle of the house. The container was some sort of a homemade open fireplace that served as lighting for the house as well as keeping the inhabitants warm during cooler times. After we settled down, our hosts spent a few minutes to chat with us, telling us what to do should our needs, especially our bodily biological functions, arise. They told us to light up the sticks lying next to the stove to use as torches to find our way to the outhouse, which was located in the backyard behind the house, should we need to go use it during the night. As soon as the burning wood, which was the subject of our curiosity since our arrival in the village, was mentioned, my father took the opportunity to ask our hosts what kind of wood it was. Our hosts told us that those burning woods were cut off from a kind of pine tree called Srall which was grown deep in the jungle.
That night, perhaps due to our fatigue from a long day of traveling, we slept rather well. The morning arrived with the sounds of rooster’s crowing. Our hosts got up early to prepare breakfast for us which consisted of porridge and smoked dried fish, Trey Ngeat. As we emerged outside to survey our surrounding, we were greeted by our neighbors who appeared to be as much curious about the way we looked and acted as we were about them. Our hosts, Om Son and his wife Om Po, introduced us to their neighbors and, at the same time, gave us a sort of an orientation on how villagers conducted their daily routines as farmers. Most of our hosts’ neighbors were related to one another. The families living in the houses next door, both to the left and to the right of our house, were Om Po’s cousin and sibling respectively, while the ones living in the house across the street were her parents. There was a well in front of her parents’ house where the ten or so families who lived nearby would come to draw the water for consumption. During our initial interaction with our hosts and neighbors, we learned that the village in which we were was called Ponlear Chey. It was located on a dirt path along the Staung River about six miles off National Highway 6 in Kompong Thom province. According to our host villagers, we learned that there were many more settlements along the Staung River going upstream northward all the way to the Dangrek Mountain’s escarpment. While we were interacting with our hosts, my parents took the opportunity to inquire about Aunt Muoy’s and her husband’s whereabouts and, to their relief, learned that they were being lodged with a family who lived near the end of the village about 20 houses away from us.
Our hosts, Om Son and Om Po, had five children, two girls and three boys, ranging in ages from 1 to 12 years old. The oldest child, a girl named Pon, was about my age. The next one, a boy named Oss, was 10, followed by another girl named Kne, who was 8, and the two youngest children, Phal who was 5, and the toddler, Pheung. Among the five children, Kne was the most rambunctious and difficult fellow for us to get along with, especially, Buntha and I, who were her peers. She became my nemesis and tormentor throughout those trying years of our sojourn in her home. I sometimes got into serious quarrels with her stemming from her hyperactive behavior and my frequently running out of patience. Thanks in part to the cool headedness of her parents, especially, Om Son, I was reprieved from getting into serious trouble. One particular incident with Kne that I would never forget for the rest of my life was an unintentional injury I inflicted on her. The episode started with her picking hot pieces of rocky soil from the fireplace to throw at Buntha and me while the three of us were home alone. After telling her to stop doing so failed, I grabbed Buntha’s hand and ran downstairs to get away from her. In her stubborn hyperactive impulse, Kne continued to pursue us downstairs like cat and mouse. Her persistent bullying finally shattered my patience. In one of the silliest lapses of judgment on my part, I picked up a semi-dried mango seed which was discarded nearby and throw it at her. The mango seed hit her right in the face just above her left eye. She screamed at the top of her lungs, in pain. In a panic, I grabbed Buntha’s hand and ran to hide behind a bamboo thicket in the backyard. From our hiding place, I heard Om Po ran from across the street to inquire what had happened. Kne told her mother, Om Po, her version of the story. At that moment, my instinct kicked in and I realized that I should come out to confront my predicament head on. I grabbed Buntha’s hand and walked back to the house surreptitiously. Standing downstairs, I said my apology to Om Po and pathetically told the full story of the incident. Om Po was blind with rage at that point. In response to my apologetic story, she threatened me with gouging out one of my eyes should my stupid action cause her daughter, Kne, to lose one side of her eyesight.
That day, Buntha and I stayed quietly in the backyard until early evening when we crept back upstairs to wait for our mother’s return from work in anticipation of either scolding or punishment from her upon learning of my out of character behavior. But, to our utmost surprise, Om Po did not bring up the incident to either my mother or her husband, Om Son. Despite the obvious swelling on Kne’s left eyebrow, nobody seemed to care to inquire what had happened to her. It was as if Kne deserved it; or it was no big deal for Kne to have a black eye. Though the incident appeared trivial, it could nevertheless have a serious consequence on our lives as new people, for it had happened in the last quarter of 1977. At that time, new people in Ponlear Chey village were being rounded up and executed. All that was needed for us to be taken away for execution was a word from our hosts that we were not fit to live among them. I remember during that worrisome period, my mother explicitly warned us to never do anything that might displease our hosts or any other base people in general for the sake of our safety.
The people of Ponlear Chey were probably direct descendants of the Angkorian Khmer population whose settlements stretched from the Korat’s plateau which is now the Issan region of Thailand, to the southern part of Battambang province, Cambodia, with Siem Reap province, and Angkor stood in the middle as the cultural center. One common bond among the people who settled along this corridor was the Khmer language spoken with a distinct dialect and accent which sometimes left other Khmer speakers searching for proper or equivalent meanings in amusement. Beside the primitive lifestyles such as using wood to burn as torches or as illuminating light at home at night and a lacquer-sealing basket to scoop water from the well, there were a number of odd and strange things that we needed to learn in order to readjust our lives to fit into yet another alien way of life on top of the Khmer Rouge’s utopian society. The first order of businesses for all of us, new people, who had been dropped off in almost every house in the village, was to quickly learn the village’s way of life. A quick survey of the materials being used around the houses and in the village revealed that we were being sent back in time to live in fourteenth or fifteenth century Cambodia. Because of the lack of materials, such as metal and plastic, which might have resulted from the civil war and the isolation of the village, people in Ponlear Chey mostly used wood and vines to forge some farm tools and household utensils. One of these marvelous utensils which impressed me the most was the water bucket called Kruos. It was made from bamboo skins weaved neatly in the shape of a rice measurement container called Tao. As a matter of fact, the two products looked identical except that Kruos had a lacquered coating over its skin to keep water from leaking out. Another indication of our traveling back in time to 15th century Cambodia was the way villagers dressed themselves. Perhaps due to the civil war which cut off access to commodities, many people in the village walked around barefoot and had few clothes to cover themselves. Most men used a piece of cloth called Kansaeng or Krama to wrap around the lower half of their bodies while leaving the upper half bare. As for the women folks, usually married women with children, they used a piece of cloth called Sampot to wrap around the lower half of their body and the Krama to wrap around and cover their bosoms. What was even more amazing to me was that people still used the ancient method to produce yarn from raw cotton. I remembered one day I saw our host, Om Po, bring out a small bag of cotton and a tiny homemade spinning wheel. She laid out a homemade mat, which was made from a plant leaves called Rumchek , right in the middle of the house and began to process the raw cotton into yarn. She used an instrument which looked like a bow to break the cotton fibers into individual strains and piled them up in a basket container. Afterwards, she set up the spinning wheel and began to twist the cotton fibers into yarn. Once all the cotton fibers had been spun into yarn, she brought out a tiny loom which looked nothing like the loom I had seen before and proceeded to weave the yarn into a small blanket. It has been more than 30 years now since I witnessed this rudimentary weaving, but I still remember vividly that Om Po tied one end of the yarn around her waist as she proceeded to weave that small blanket. What surprised me the most about this extraordinary scene was that 30 years later when I was doing research to write a book called The Cambodian Royal Chronicle (Vantage Press, 2009), I stumbled upon a report by a Chinese envoy named Chou Ta-Kuan who had visited Cambodia in 1297. His report, entitled The Customs of Cambodia, described the exact scene I had witnessed in this Cambodian village of Ponlear Chey as a teenager.
(To Be Continued)
Om Po and the author, during their reunion in 2011 under the very house described in the story