Thursday, January 17, 2008

Six hours on the Dancing Road: "Terrifying and incredibly fun!"

A tiny pagoda is a huge reminder of what happened in this "killing field"

Seattle Times staff reporter


Editor's note: Seattle Times reporter Haley Edwards is traveling to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Syria and filing dispatches as she goes. For the jaunt around Asia, her 23-year-old friend, Stevie, is her sidekick. ("Or I will be hers; we're still working out the details," Edwards says..) In the Middle East, she'll be meeting three of her friends from college, two of whom are living in Damascus, Syria. See her dispatches below (most recent on top).

CAMBODIA — For those who are, as I was, a bit hazy on recent Cambodian history, here's the quick and dirty: During the Vietnam War, parts of Cambodia were heavily bombed by American forces. Between 1975 and 1979, a genocidal dictator named Pol Pot and his party, the Khmer Rouge, murdered between two million and three million people. In 1980, there was a massive, nationwide famine.

The first day we were in Siem Reap (the first major town you encounter on the aforementioned Dancing Road), Stevie and I visited one of the "killing fields" where Khmer Rouge soldiers murdered and buried civilians.

You think "killing fields" and you think it's going to look like Gettysburg. It doesn't. The killing fields here aren't really fields at all. They're just a few patches of dirt, interspersed with trees, about the size of a soccer field. Houses — three-walled structures made of corrugated metal and cardboard — lean into each other around the outside. Kids play in the trash heaps out in front.

One of the reasons why historians know that Khmer Rouge used this place to torture and murder people was because in 1980, they found 75 maimed and decapitated bodies that had been shoved down a well. When we arrived, there were two boys playing along the rim of that same well, balancing and goofing around. Life goes on, I guess.

The only indication that this ground was once wet with blood is a tiny pagoda, maybe 20-feet tall. It has four little stair cases on each side leading up to a plate-glass window, stretching floor to ceiling. Inside, it's full of skulls. Victims' skulls.

Our guide, Chea Bunat, told us that his father's skull is in there somewhere. He doesn't know which one. All he remembers is that one day, when he was eight years old, a bunch of men with machine guns rolled into his tiny village (Kleang Village, it's called) outside Siem Reap, and started going door to door, hauling anyone who was educated out into the street. They took Bunat's dad, who was a math teacher, but left his mom, who was a housewife. He remembers that the soldiers interrogated his mom about their neighbors. What did they do for a living? Did that guy go to school?

"And you couldn't lie, they knew everything. It was test to see if lying," Bunat says. "If lie? Then, bam." He mimes holding a machine gun, then hits himself in the forehead. "Right there on the street."

Six hours on the Dancing Road: "Terrifying and incredibly fun!"

CAMBODIA — The best way to get from Thailand to Cambodia is to take the Dancing Road, a deeply-cratered one-lane dirt road, stretching from the Thai border into the dusty expanse of northwest Cambodia.

It's named the Dancing Road for the way that people jitterbug around their cars while hurtling at top speed over potholes large enough to hide an entire cow.

It takes roughly six hours to negotiate 150 kilometers, from the border to the next biggest city, Siem Reap. But the potholes, craters, dirt moguls and ATV-style jumps (really, our bus got at least two feet of air over some of these) are hardly the biggest obstacle. Every kilometer or two, the road just ends.

There's a little orange "Detour" sign, written in the elegant Cambodian script, behind which is a 20-foot cliff. Cement drums are piled up on either side of the road at these junctures, indicating that the man-made gorges will, at some point, be filled in as drainage ditches. But, for now, they're just another reason for the bus driver to pull the e-brake, crank into a four-wheel drift and skid around a hairpin turn, all the while narrowly missing the herds of cows, auto-rickshaws ("tuk tuks"), motorcycles ("motos"), stray dogs and throngs of children in impossibly white school uniforms who crowd the sides of the road.

It's part terrifying, part incredibly fun.

Stevie and I first experienced the Dancing Road on a public bus, and, while none of the other passengers really spoke most of the time (it was nearly impossibly to hear over the deafening creaking of our 70s-era school bus), everyone on the bus leaned into the aisle and peered out the front window, just to watch the show. To scream. To pray. Sometimes, the whole bus would break into hysterical laughter after narrowly avoiding broadsiding a cow, or swerving to avoid a man on a bicycle carrying over 400 mangos in a fishing net on his back, or after the driver slammed on the brakes and all of us smushed up against the seat in front of us, our luggage skittering down the center aisles like skipping stones.

But for anyone who's ever ridden in a developing nation — or on the streets of Rome, for that matter — the Dancing Road would be old hat. It's chaotic and death-defying, sure, but it's what's on either side of the road that makes it unique to Cambodia:

Thatch houses balance on stilts (not because of floods, but to keep the home cool) as its occupants sleep in hammocks underneath.

Impossibly green rice paddies unfurl in every direction, the water flashing silver in the bright sunlight, and then end, abruptly, and the landscape turns into the dusty yellow-red of desert. Palm tree forests dot the landscape, looking like something out of Dr. Suess. Kids wear blue surgical masks with their blue-and-white school uniforms, to avoid the dust. Billboards remind children not to touch landmines. Craters from American bombs still pockmark the fields. Men with no arms, no legs and no faces beg at rest stops, their livelihoods stolen by the landmines that, 30 years later, still lie in wait in these rice fields.

"Gas stations" — old 2-liter bottles of Pepsi, filled with petrol — simmer in the sun. Ranch-style gates, the kind you might see in Texas, line the side of the road, leading to temples ("wats"), too far down the dusty paths to see.

Thirty-five men cram into the bed of a single pickup truck (really, 35 seems impossible; it's not), red-checkered cloths (a traditional Khmer cloth) wrapped around their faces.

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