The river that empties into the ocean
I RAISED MY HAND against the piercing sun and squinted into the brush.
I wasn’t sure what I looking for. Building foundations? Scorched earth? Beaten dirt roads? Any sign of the people who’d once inhabited the empty expanse of grass before me.
I’d known two of them. They’d lived here, thirty years ago, in the overgrown, abandoned field I was now tromping through. Behind me, the mountain range that constituted the de facto Thai-Cambodian border stood big and black; before me, snatches of a cheerful, sunny beach.
I was looking for the remains of Mai Rut, a refugee camp for Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge. Wedged on a slice of land so thin I could barely see it on a map, Mai Rut was a place that hadn’t existed for decades. Even then, it’d only been a place for a handful of years, and even then, only a clump of tents and makeshift streets. It hadn’t been one of the big, notorious camps, situated along Cambodia’s northern border, with rampant smuggling and rape and murder. Even in its existence, Mai Rut had barely registered as a place.
But it was the first place the parents of my childhood best friend, Lynn, had come to when they’d escaped Cambodia. It was the place Lynn’s older brother Sam was born, and it was the place they’d all waited for their new, American lives to begin.
It was swampy-hot. I was an hour from the nearest city and I couldn’t see anything but grass.
I paused in a scrappy clump of shade. I unscrewed the cap of my plastic bottle and took a sip of water warm as tea.
In the woods, the cicadas started to scream. Behind me, I felt the mountains looming.
It had started with the photograph: small, black-and-white, edged by an off-white frame. Against a plain wall stood four people: two adults, wearing modest shirts and slacks and serious expressions, and two little girls, with matching short haircuts and penetrating black eyes. In the arms of the adult woman, an infant’s head poked out of a blanket.
Sam had pulled the photo out of the brown manila folder in which he kept important documents from his childhood. He handed it to me, pointed to the infant in the woman’s arms: “That’s me.”
We were in the study of Sam’s townhouse, one in a seeming never-ending maze of lower-middle-class housing developments that radiate out from the inner Bay Area and into the brown grass of the Central Valley. He and his sister Lynn, my best friend growing up, had moved out there after their parents’ death. “I just want a boring life,” Lynn had told me then.
I’d driven out from Oakland to talk with them about the old days. I’d gotten lost in the wide roads of suburbia—streets with names like “Mariposa Road,” “Mariposa Lane,” “Mariposa Drive.” I’d arrived late and could tell they were tired.
They’d never done it, they said—never gotten together and talked about their childhoods, their parents’ stories or their parents’ death, a murder-suicide that was the end of a long road of domestic violence. The ten-year anniversary had just passed, and it was the first time, Lynn told me, that they’d called each other on the day—“just to say, you know, we were thinking of each other.”
I looked at the photo. I immediately recognized Lynn and Sam’s mother Lu. She was thinner in the photograph than the woman I’d known—she wore less stylish clothes and one of those forced “Now, smile” expressions, instead of her signature vibrant grin. But her shoulders were back and she looked squarely at the camera, so that she seemed sturdy and tough, how I remembered her.
Lynn and Sam’s dad Seng looked like the small, tense man I’d known. His face was half-shadowed and I couldn’t really see his eyes—he seemed to be squinting at something behind the camera. It was hard to look at him, just like it’d been in real life. His hair was carefully combed.
I looked at the two other girls in the photo. They had dark skin and broad noses, pure Khmer features that Lu and Seng, both mixed Chinese, didn’t share. “Who are those girls?” I asked Sam.
He shrugged. “They were orphans, I think. Or maybe they just said they were orphans,” he corrected. “My parents said they were their daughters so they could come to the US with us.”
I let out an astonished laugh. “But they look nothing like your parents.”
“So whatever happened to them?” I asked, placing the photo back down.
Sam blinked at me. “I don’t know,” he answered, as though it had never occurred to him to ask.
I flipped the photo over—in simple block handwriting, the words “Mai Rut, 1980.”
Lynn didn’t say much. She sat on the couch and stared at the carpet, lips drawn into a vague and pleasant smile.
On a rattling old bus that gasped out air-conditioning, I turned up my headphones and tried to block out the karaoke videos blaring from the TV, which was held to the ceiling by a spider web of rope. I stared out the frilly lace curtain at the Cambodian landscape as we traveled from Phnom Penh to the Thai border.
It was roughly the same route that, three decades ago, people had walked to escape: at first by day, then, closer to the border, by night. I’d read stories, in memoirs and old news reports: fees paid in gold to guides who’d later abandoned people; attacks by Khmer Rouge soldiers and Vietnamese soldiers and bandits dressed up as soldiers; jungles littered with landmines and tigers and the bodies of those already surrendered to hunger and exhaustion.
Beside me, a teenage boy stared rapt at the karaoke video, gently mouthing words as they lit up at the bottom of the screen.
Officially—or at least in the eye of history—the war ended in 1979. Most popular accounts of the Khmer Rouge end when the Vietnamese came in to occupy the country, the regime crumbled and work camps dispersed.
But the Khmer Rouge existed in Cambodia through the 1990s. Fighting between forces continued during this time, with civilians pouring over the Thai border in search of safety. In 1979 and 1980, the first waves of refugees emerged from the dark, jungle-covered mountains that separated Cambodia from more Westernized Thailand. Aside from top Khmer Rouge officials, they were the first Cambodians the world had seen in four years.
In a dimly lit multimedia archive center in Phnom Penh, I’d watched footage of these Cambodians from old newsreels. The newsreels had been mostly in French, and I’d only been able to fish out stray words: “famine,” “famille,” “désespéré,” “tragique.” The reels showed scenes of thatched roofs and blue tents, mud and dirt, women carrying bundles of sticks on their heads.
Every newscast included at least one shot of children with thin limbs and swollen bellies, peering at the camera with dirty fingers in their mouths. One showed a teenage boy with a dangling nub beneath his shoulder where an arm used to be. Another showed a teenage girl with an eye swollen shut. The camera panned down to the sleeping infant in her arm; a fly landed on its cheek.
Another, longer newscast began with a gaunt woman. She sat on the ground, moaning and rocking in the dirt. A pair of hands placed a blanket over her shoulders. She collapsed beside a corpse—“mort,” the French newscaster said.
The camera panned out to reveal a whole expanse of people dying on bamboo mats in the shade. Their dull eyes stared out. Men laid a blanket over a makeshift stretcher; a pair of feet poked out when they carried the stretcher off into the field. Everyone wore the same stunned, shell-shocked expression—even, it seemed to me, the Western doctors and aid workers.
The newscast was filmed in 1979, the year the first wave of refugees crossed the Thai border. During the nearly four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1976 to 1979, no one had known what had really been going on in Cambodia. A few grainy propaganda films had leaked out, showing smiling workers depositing endless baskets of dirt onto makeshift dams. But scenes like this had been the first real indication that something horrible had been happening during the country’s isolation.
I thought of the photograph from Mai Rut.
It was strange to think that among these people had been my friends’ parents: the parents I’d later carpool with to middle school; the parents who’d bring pork buns from Chinatown to swim meets; who’d install their own skylight in the kitchen, cut a hole in the roof and wave through it, exclaiming, “Look, we’re on the roof!”
I’d known them only in the American incarnation of their lives, everything pre-Khmer-Rouge sealed up, shut out, only scraps of stories and freeze-frame images leaking out: Seng dragging Lu through a waist-deep river in the middle of a monsoon when she was too tired to walk, swollen with pregnancy and malnutrition.
In the bus, at every river we passed, I’d brush the lace curtain aside and squint: Was it that river?
On the TV screen, a beautiful, light-skinned girl sobbed over her scoundrel boyfriend. In a fit of passion, she slit her wrists. The blood leaked out from under the bathroom door; the boyfriend banged and the singer reached a falsetto crescendo. A cigarette logo spun in the corner of the screen.
The boy beside me leaned forward and let out a small sigh.
The Thai town of Trat was a small, working-class slab of cement that was nothing to write home about. But it was the closest big town from the Cambodian border, and the closest base to Mai Rut.
I took a room in a cheap guesthouse in the three-block backpacker ghetto, and proceeded to wander around, asking every guesthouse keeper and travel agent I saw where I could hire a tour guide.
“Someone with a motorbike,” I suggested, “who knows the history of the area.”
They looked at me like I was crazy.
“Why you want to go there?” the older man at Pop Guesthouse asked, eying me carefully.
“I’m working on a project,” I said vaguely. “My friend was born there.”
He shook his head. “Nothing there. Nothing to see.” It was the same answer I’d gotten from everyone else.
I paused a moment, then shrugged, thanked him and turned to walk away.
He sighed and waved me back. Reaching into a desk drawer, he pulled out a map and spread it across the table. The paper was creased and his hands were cracked.
“This,” he stabbed with a thick fingernail, “Mai Rood.” It was spelled differently, but sounded the same. “But nothing to see there.” He waved his hand as though to shoo away any questions.
“But here,” he slid his finger up the spindle of coast, “Khao Lan. There is a museum for the refugee.”
“A museum? Really?”
He nodded. “For the Queen. She make a refugee camp for the Cambodian.” He explained how to get there by local transit, wrote the name in Thai on a scrap of paper.
I folded the scrap of paper, put it in my pocket. I looked up at him and ventured, “Did you live here then?”
“You were a little boy?” I asked. His thin gray hair told me he was much older than 40.
“No, I was 18!”
“No!” I exclaimed, smiling. (Flattery gets you everywhere.) I paused. “Do you remember it?”
He nodded again. “Yes, I work on the border then. In my uncle’s orchard.” He pointed to a place right along the black line of border.
“There?” I traced my finger alongside the line. “Did you see a lot of people coming in?”
“Yes. A lot of people come through the orchard at night.”
He stopped there.
We stood in silence. “Most of the camps were up here, right?” I pointed to Cambodia’s northern border.
He nodded again. “Yes, but here”—the gray beside Mai Rut—“not so many landmines. So it’s better.” He paused again, another muggy silence. “Mai Rood, it’s a fishing town. Big town.” I nodded, waiting. “Many Cambodians live there now,” he added briefly.
“Yes. Here too,” he pointed at the ground. “Trat too.”
“People from the camps? They stayed?”
He nodded again. We stood another moment. “Okay,” he folded up his map and smiled.
That was it; we were done talking.
I wondered for a moment if he’d ever even told the whole story.
The teenage girls clutched beach towels and cell phones, stood in a small circle and giggled. They looked at me. “Mu-ze-um?” one of them carefully repeated.
The word rippled between them, until a pair of dark eyes lit up. “Museum!”
I nodded vigorously.
They pointed down a path.
I couldn’t see where it led.
“Thank you!” I said.
“Thank you, thank you!” they repeated and giggled.
I’d taken a forty-minute ride in the back of a pickup truck—the local form of public transit—in search of the museum the man in Trat had told me about. I’d been relieved when the girls had gotten off at the same stop, a military checkpoint at a crossroads—I’d figured they had a better chance of speaking English than anyone else.
The Khao Lan Museum was an uninspired mass of cement and glass that rose from the jungle near the Thai highway. A metal gate was padlocked over the entrance. I checked my watch: 12:30. Lunchtime.
I sighed and began to wander around the empty grounds—a carless parking lot and dirt paths cut in the tall grass. Insects whined from inside the woods.
I came to a field sprinkled with dead grass, cement building foundations and English-language signs: “Recreation facility,” “Hospital.” These were the remains of Khao Lan.
Khao Lan had been a camp of some 90,000 people, established by the Queen of Thailand. It’d been a few kilometers north of Mai Rut, and there was a lot more left than I’d expected. Yet still, the grass had grown up so much that if there hadn’t been markers I could have easily missed it.
I walked along beaten earth that must once have been a road. I wondered what I’d hoped to find—some sort of proof, maybe, physical evidence.
I recounted what I knew of Lynn mother’s life, before Mai Rut: she’d been married to a teacher. Her family was wealthy, and as part of her dowry, she’d been given a tuk-tuk business. She ran it herself. She had two children; she’d told my mom once that she and her first husband had never fought.
I knew he’d been killed early on, and that later the children had starved, or had died of disease, in the camps. I remembered Lynn wondering about them, her half-brother and sister—what they’d looked like and how old they would have been, if they would have been nice to her or mean, the way older siblings can be.
Lu had been tied to a tree once for three days, for stealing food, and she’d never forgotten that—“You know, I steal once. I a thief.”
“It’s not the same thing,” I’d heard my mother say. “It doesn’t count if you’re starving.”
But Lu had shaken her head, and said again, “I steal.”
Everything else was blank, never told. “Someday,” she’d told my mom, “I want to tell my story.” But she never had; her story had died with her, on a December night in a little yellow house in East Oakland.
A hot wind rustled the grass. I walked over to the crumbled remains of a building foundation, and sat on the cement.
I knew even less about Lynn’s father, mostly because the facts were always different each time I heard them. He’d run a jewelry business, and had owned a Mercedes. Or he was in Lon Nol’s army, a lieutenant maybe. He might have lied about his age to be in the army, said he was ten years younger than he was.
He’d had a wife, but she didn’t die—they’d divorced before the war. As a kid I hadn’t thought to question how they’d managed to get divorced in traditional Cambodian society. He’d had a daughter as well, but she’d died before the war. Sometimes it was because her husband had killed her, sometimes it was because she’d killed herself, and once it was because Lynn’s dad had killed her.
He’d said he was a tuk-tuk driver to survive the camps.
As a child, he’d seemed small and frail to me, compared to my own strapping American father, not like someone you should be afraid of. But I’d never liked talking to him, could never really look him in the eye. Lynn had hated him—though now, she’d told me in her brother’s townhouse that night, she can’t remember why.
“It’s because of what he did to Mom and me,” Sam had said softly, avoiding her eyes. “Because of the abuse.”
Lynn had shaken her head slowly. “But I don’t remember any it,” she answered just as quietly.
As kids we’d avoided Seng. I remember him mostly as a thin dark shadow moving around the edges of the rooms.
I stared out at the field, a littering of evidence as minimal as the scraps of stories I knew.
When the museum’s gates reopened, I slid my shoes off, bowed at an incense-smoldering altar and entered. I was the only person there.
The museum was more of a tribute to the Queen than a chronicling of the refugees’ experiences. Photographs of a glamorous white-skinned woman walking through a city of tents wearing a linen suit, a floppy sun hat and Jackie-O sunglasses. Photographs of the Queen crouched beside the thin and sick—swollen bellies and hungry-dull eyes—with a look of practiced concern. Photographs of her sitting before a group of children, an opened book in her hands, the caption: “The children listened rapt, the words of the Queen forever imprinted in their minds.”
The museum’s main exhibits were three life-size scenes of wax Cambodian figures, caricatures of grief carved into their faces. They reminded me of the Wax Museum on Fisherman’s Wharf, or of the wildlife dioramas my friend restores for the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
The first diorama depicted the refugees coming across the border. A jungle was painted on the wall, with faces and bodies peering through the foliage. The wax refugees looked the skinniest and most haggard in that one. Other scenes depicted varying elements of camp life: cooking pots of rice, a white woman holding a stethoscope to the chest of a small wax infant. The dark Cambodian bodies grew plumper, more solid in each diorama.
Some artifacts were displayed under a glass case: a spoon, a cooking pot, scraps of clothing—dented tin and frayed fabric.
I circled the room, reread the placards, stared at the wax figures.
I tucked some crumbled bills into the donation box, slid my shoes back on, and stepped out into the heat.
It was a thirty-minute wait in a plastic chair in the shade for the next pick-up truck down the highway. The Thai guards at the checkpoint insisted I sit. I looked at their crisp uniforms and white gloves, the healthy glow to their skin; I watched the new cars whiz down the evenly paved highway.
This was not Cambodia.
The ride to Mai Rut was only ten minutes. I crawled out of the truck bed at a crossroads, and hitched a motorbike to town. On the back of a bike I squinted the dirt out of my contacts and searched for Mai Rut.
I wanted to tell the driver to slow down. I wanted to tell him what I was looking for—not the town Mai Rut, but the camp, which had been outside the town. Somewhere, I wasn’t sure where, in the expanse of grass that stretched coastward.
There had been one French newscast from Mai Rut. I’d watched it over and over—the sandy expanses, scattered with grass and tents; people picking up plastic bags of food rations; a close-up of the barbed wire fence encircling the camp; the big black mountains behind. Laundry hanging, a Red Cross sign swinging, another close-up of the barbed wire.
And now I was there, or whizzing through there, and there was nothing but trees and grass and the occasional clearing.
The motorbike driver left me with a smile and a shrug where the road ended and the docks began, in the middle of Mai Rut. The field behind me gave way to water, boats bobbing and nets hanging. Flies twitched over sheets of fish, drying in the sun. Houses stood on stilts beside streets of cement plank.
This was the town Mai Rut, or Mai Rood, and not the remains of the camp. It was a quiet village without a lot going on. People sat in doorways. Children ran naked, grinned and disappeared. Women sat cutting fish, and men reeled in the nets from painted wooden boats. Dogs sniffed at the sand, littered and muddy. A man sat in his open-air living room and picked at the wounds that covered his body, little pink scabs over sharp bones.
I stopped for a bowl of soup, sat under an awning amid the buzzing insects and curious, darting faces of children. Without words for my questions, I smiled and watched.
This is where it began, I thought. I was in the physical space where the unknowns ended and the facts began. It was the slice of land between the Cambodian life which none of us had known, and the American life which we’d all lived like a movie we’d walked in on half-way. That movie had ended in a double funeral, and I was still trying to figure out why.
I looked down the cement dock, watched a motorbike approach and rumble past.
I wasn’t any closer to understanding any of it.
“Hello!” a little boy exclaimed. He threw the word out like a toy ball.
“Hello,” I repeated, and waved.
Back along the highway, I waited for a blue pick-up to take me back to Trat. I put my hands along my forehead like a visor, and stared down the road, snaking the contour of the mountains’ shadowed ridge.
And there I finally saw a sign—not a definite sign but a maybe sign, which was the closest I came to evidence of the existence of Mai Rut camp: a hand-painted Red Cross symbol on an old lamppost.
A week later, I got a comment on a blog post about my search for Mai Rut:
“I lived and worked in Mai Rut Camp from Dec. 1979 to Oct. 1981. The remnants of the camp still exist. I paid the site a visit in 09… If you want to know more of the history of the place, give me a holler.”
I got the comment when I was back in Phnom Penh, but I wrote to Bill anyway. He’d been an aid worker at the camp, he wrote, where he’d fallen in love with one of the refugees. He and Noy were still married, and living in Siem Reap.
I was going to Siem Reap that week, for Khmer New Year.
The town was boiling and dead—the height of the hot season and most of the stores closed for the holiday. I met Bill and Noy at the last café open on an otherwise-shuttered block. On its leafy terrace we sat under fans and ordered iced coffee. The waitresses moved languidly through the heat. After they served us they went inside, slouched in chairs and stared out at the empty street. We were the only customers.
Bill was gray-haired and sun-spotted, his Americanness evidenced by the optimistic, gap-toothed smile that flashed beneath his moustache. Noy was quiet, though she’d lived in the States long enough to be fluent in English; she had skin of crushed silk and eyebrows that arched gently above the frame of her eyeglasses.
They started by telling me the basics: Mai Rut was a smaller camp, off the radar, which was good, Bill said, because it was only mortared once. Back then, the town of Mai Rut was only a few stilted houses along a beach, and the camp had started as a few tents for some thousand people. It had eventually swelled to several thousand, with its own mail system and kitchens and craft centers.
Bill had been part of a Christian organization, his official role to live in the camp to oversee its functions. But in reality, it was to minimize corrupt shenanigans. “You do that,” Bill told me, “pretty much just by being a Westerner.”
Bill did most of the talking, telling the kind of back-in-the-day stories that old men relish. There was plenty of material: a drunken Thai military colonel, a murdered administrator, the shady exploits of some of Thai soldiers.
“There were still Khmer Rouge, in the mountains. They’d sneak into the camp at night and try to recruit people. They’d say things like, ‘We found your family, they need you, you must come back.’”
“Of course it was a lie. And people knew it was a lie, but there was always the hope, you know. And they were scared—if they didn’t go back with the soldiers, maybe they’d kill their families. You just didn’t know, and they exploited that.
“So people would go, and there’d be no food in those mountains, and there’d be landmines. Sometimes they’d make it back to camp in really bad shape. Other times,” he shrugged, “we wouldn’t see them again.”
Noy looked off and said nothing.
“Of course, this was all common knowledge. They greased the palms of the Thai soldiers to get into the camp. But one night, the Thai soldiers came to our tent and told us to come quick—they’d found men trying to sneak out of the camp to join the fighting.
“They had them all lined up against a wall, interrogating them, asking them why they wanted to leave. The men didn’t say anything.
“It was all a big show, of course—the Thai soldiers’ way of saying, ‘Look, we know there’s this problem and we’re doing something, trying to stop it.’ It was all for us, cause if Westerners observed it, then we’d say to the Red Cross people, ‘Oh, yeah, the Thai soldiers are doing a good job of stopping people from leaving the camp.’” He paused, nodded. “Lots of things like that.”
He told me how he bribed and cajoled to get Noy and her son into the part of the camp where refugees eligible for resettlement lived. (This is where Sam and Lynn’s parents were—Sam too, when he was born, and those black-eyed little girls. “Your friends’ parents, they probably knew me,” he offered, “I stood out, you know?”) He told about the palms he’d greased himself, to get Noy documents—birth certificates, a death certificate for her former husband, the kind of things the Khmer Rouge destroyed.
He laughed a big American laugh—healthy and full of white teeth—and Noy sat beside him and nodded.
I sweated under the fan.
In a quiet moment, I turned to Noy. “And how did you get to Mai Rut?”
She walked, she told me. For ten months, overland, across Cambodia—she walked at night, hid during the day, followed a crowd of desperate starving people across the ridge of her country. It was the fall of 1979, before the guides and smugglers and pillagers became commonplace.
She paid her way in gold. For months they zigzagged through those black mountains, running from mortars and soldiers, through bamboo stickers, barbed wire, tiger traps and landmines. She collected rain water in a leaf. She couldn’t take a break, couldn’t stop walking—she watched people on the trail sit down to rest and never get back up, heard them beg, “Please, help me stand back up.”
“Too many died,” she said, pinching her brows together. “Too many.”
“Oh, I’d love to go back sometime,” Bill said later. “I’ve always had this fantasy about hiking up in the ridge. I mean, I was right there, living there, in Mai Rut, for years, and I never got to go up there…”
In the space of Bill’s pause, Noy shook her head slowly. Her eyes closed, the fine web of lines deepening, “I don’t ever want to go back.”
“But,” Bill interjected cheerfully, “it’s not really a possibility. It’s still wild up there—old rusty tiger traps and a lot of unexploded ordinances.”
And he told me about the visit back he’d made in 2009. He’d scrounged around the weeds, trying to find remnants of the camp, but he’d also visited one of the hard-drinking, tough-talking Thai military officials who’d overseen the camp during his years there. The man had been smaller, withered, but still a salty old dog, and they’d reminisced about the old days of Mai Rut.
There’d been a fire some years back, the old officer had told him—a wildfire started by lightning, up along the ridge, near the border. The old officer had sat in his chair on his porch and watched the blazing. “Suddenly, he told me, all these UXOs started going off. The fire ignited them. So these explosions going off while the fire was burning,” Bill shook his head and gave a low whistle. “I guess it was quite a sight.”
I stirred the melting ice cubes in my coffee, my fingers wet from the sweat on the glass, and pictured the explosions amid the burning. Inside the café, one of the waitresses crossed and uncrossed her legs.
“Mai Rut was a great place,” Bill summed up, nodding in nostalgia. “You know, the other aid worker and I, we would go to Bangkok once a month—to shower and buy supplies and eat big meals. The rest of the time, we’d be bathing with cold water from a bucket. So it’d really feel like luxury. But, it’s funny—after a few days, we’d miss Mai Rut. We could hardly wait to get back.” He nodded again, “Yep, they were good days.”
Bill looked off and smiled. Beside him Noy looked off and smiled a different kind of smile—vague and pleasant and, more than anything it seemed, very very quiet.
“Look for river that empties into ocean / just south: north end of camp / under river—little white dots / in square pattern.”
These are the directions, written on a scrap of paper folded into my notebook, to the former camp of Mai Rut.
“In case you ever try to repeat the journey,” Bill offered when he gave them to me on the café terrace. The heat hadn’t broken and we were still the only customers.
In the dim interior, the waitresses sat in a row. They leaned their chins on their palms, stared at the street, and waited.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]