16 front with stairs

28 renovated front stairsA shelled out Khmer Rouge era building in Kirivong, before and after renovation

The Cambodian countryside is a real delight for distance motorcycle riding. If you’re not prepared to soak up some authentic local culture then you may want to avoid spending time in the province. Recently, I packed up the toilet paper and headed to Kirivong, Takeo, the location of our pepper farm.  The first part of this story is here.

10 fruit shake

At 50 cents each, fruit shakes from the market are a requirement anywhere in Cambodia

I can’t imagine many places better than Cambodia to ride a dirt bike. Anyone who follows these things knows Cambodia has been a top destination for motorcycle tourism for a long time. The province roads and off-road trails have offered a thrilling challenge to anyone willing to tackle them. Even though the majority of roads have received a major upgrade in the last decade there is still plenty of fun to be had. I’d never ridden a bike in my life before moving to Cambodia, but even riding through a place like Koh Kong, the most scenic and varied terrain you can encounter, is no trouble for a novice like me.  In Koh Kong, the Chinese have made formal roadways out of what was once only trails in order to service the several hydro-electric dams they have built there. But don’t worry, if you want a riding challenge in Cambodia you won’t have to stray too far off the beaten trail.

2 Makeshift Well

A makeshift well on the pepper farm property. It works!

Getting to our pepper farm in Takeo is no such challenge (unless you count getting run off the highway by trucks).  But I did manage one little trek worth reporting. For the first time, I made it to the top of what I have playfully termed ‘Mt. Kirivong,’ the mountain at whose base our pepper farm sits. In the past I’d circumnavigated the base of the mountain attempting to find a trail to the top, with no success. Well, this time I had some direction. I’d been planning on taking follow-up pictures of this ‘haunted house,’ a building riddled with bullet holes sitting on top of the tallest hill in Kirivong.  It was recently renovated (more on that later). The house shares a plot with a police depot, where on this particular day children played in the dirt near a woman hanging clothes while a man was hanging… in a hammock (you won’t find an over-zealous police department in rural Cambodia). Anyway, as the children curiously stared at me the man was nice enough to point me in the direction of the hidden trail nearby which goes to the peak.

17 Police depot

View of the police depot from the haunted house with Mt. Kirivong in the background

You generally find one of two things at the top of a mountain trail in Cambodia: a Buddha shrine or a radio tower. I was greeted by the latter being guarded by a man who was surely confused by my pale-faced presence. It was a pleasant, mildly challenging ride up the mini-mountain trail, and I’m pleased to report I made it both ways without incident.  I snapped a couple photos and scratched this Kirivong activity off the to-do list. After that, it was back down the mountain to take pictures of the newly renovated haunted house.

35 outlooking mt kirivong

View from near the top of Mt. Kirivong

34 on top mt kirivong

My bike next to the radio tower atop Mt. Kirivong as a security guard evades the shot

At least since the civil war, a building riddled with bullet holes sat at the center of our village on top of a hill, at the base of the mountain. The pictures at the top of this article are the ‘before and after’ from its makeover last year. It took a long time for me to find the motivation to snap the ‘before’ photos of the eerie, desolate house on this most prime of real-estate in town. Once renovations began, however, I knew my window was closing to photograph this piece of Kirivong history.  Exactly what went down here during the Khmer Rouge era will probably be left in the minds of the ones who lived through it; but probably it won’t even be stored there.  When I asked my girlfriend’s mother about what happened in those days she said it was me who should probably be telling her.  The only thing on most people’s minds back then was survival.

13 sideview close tree

Bullet holes peppered all 4 sides

1 Bulletholes inside

Even the interior was riddled with holes

3 backside

A worker prepares renovations on top

8 bullethole 3

Many holes were several inches deep, through thick concrete walls

I’ve been reading ‘The Pol Pot Regime’ by Ben Kiernan. He opens the book with an anecdote from our favorite district in Cambodia, Kirivong, Takeo. A long time ago when borders were being redrawn by the French, a large, lower portion of Cambodia was cut out of the country and allocated to Vietnam. Over a million ethnic Khmers still live in that Vietnamese region today, people known as “Kampuchea Krom” (Krom is the Khmer word for ‘lower’ or ‘bottom’). The US government decided during its war on Vietnam that these disenfranchised people would make good allies against Vietnamese Communists. Special Kampuchea Krom infantry forces were given arms and trained by Americans to fight the Viet Cong in the south of that country.

Here is where Kiernan’s reporting gets interesting. He discovered that after the Khmer Rouge took power, one American-trained, Kampuchea Krom battalion from Vietnam made its way into Cambodia to “join common cause with the Pol Pot regime.” Some time after their warm reception in Kirivong by Khmer Rouge forces, word came from Phnom Penh leadership on what was to be done with them. In the book, Kiernan makes mention of a famous Khmer Rouge slogan, offering a glimpse into the schizophrenic nature of the genocidal Pol Pot regime, “Spare them, no profit, remove them, no loss”. The Khmer soldiers from across the border who sought solidarity with Pol Pot’s cause were ordered to be executed. And so it was, 15 minutes away from our farm in Kirivong, lured into one of the killing fields, the entire Kampuchea Krom battalion was cut down with machine guns.

The book goes on to tell of thousands of Kampuchea Krom being murdered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime on its incursions into Vietnam. This occurred in spite of KR leaders’ repeated proclamations that liberating Kampuchea Krom territory from Vietnam was part of their agenda. Why wouldn’t they create a coalition with the ethnic Khmers living in Vietnam?  Like most of those chaotic times there is little to be made of the hypocrisy except, perhaps, that people wielding unchecked power can be expected to use it, even when it’s at odds with their own best interests.

2  View from house looking down

View of the second house from the first

26 across street angle view

A second shelled out house sits at the bottom of the hill, across the street from the haunted house

The truth, dear reader, is that probably none of this historical context specifically relates to our haunted house in Kirivong. I merely offer it to you as a backdrop against which to view our little town, one which is saturated with forgotten history from merely the last 50 years. It was, in fact, one of countless Cambodian border-towns pelted during the indiscriminate American cluster bombing campaign from the late 60’s to 70’s, evidenced last year by a dud unexploded ordnance found lodged in the dirt of our neighbor’s property.  Further, Takeo City is the birthplace of Ta Mok, “The Butcher”, one of the most ruthless figures in KR seniority.  His family controlled much of the province, including Kirivong, where they wreaked havoc and staged incursions into Vietnam.  Ultimately, Vietnam reached a breaking point and retaliated in such fashion as to end the Khmer Rouge reign-of-terror altogether.

21 across street hole in floor

The floor is blown out of the house across the street

22 across street bulletholes writing

Large bullet holes everywhere

31 renovated sideview 2

Side-view of the newly renovated haunted house.

It was my suspicion that the damage to the haunted house was part of the Vietnamese retaliation against Cambodia, but word around town has it that it was indeed the work of the Khmer Rouge.  Whoever was responsible helped themselves to a smaller house sitting down the hill and across the street. It has been left dilapidated and unrepaired with, as you can see, the floor having been blown out.

11 ant soup

Ant soup in Kirivong.  Why not?

There are lots of interesting little treasures to be found all over the Cambodian countryside.  Without a doubt the greatest of them is in highest supply, the Khmers who inhabit the country.  You won’t find a more pleasant and hospitable place in the whole world.  We’re back from the province and working at Coin Cafe now. So stop by to say, “hello” and try some bulletproof coffee!  More anecdotes from the Kingdom of Wonder are forthcoming on this blog, make sure to sign up for the mailing list.