Saturday, October 27, 2012

Growing up in Olympic in the early 1970s

Those shots over Psah Olympic brought back so many memories. My house is on the bottom left corner, a 3-storied block my dad built in 1965.  At the time much of the area behind the apartment blocks was sparsely built on; there were knee-deep ponds here and there, criss-crossed by muddy dirt roads, and lined with houses on stilts.  In those days the roads you could drive a car on were the one that linked Wat Moha Montrey with the Chinese Embassy, and the one that runs from the Psah to the Tuol Svay Prey school.  The latter flooded regularly too anyway.  I used to fish for Trey Kranh behind my house (Tip: when fishing in Cambodian lakes use pieces of prahok for bait). The area behind Wat Moha Montrey crossed by that black sewer was a large swathe of grassy land where kids used to fly kites early in the year.  Street lighting was unknown and it was pitch-black everywhere at night except over the roads immediately around the Psah and along Sihanouk Boulevard. Under the street lights, we kids liked to fool flying bats by throwing them stones which they mistake for prey. Blind as a bat as they say.

In those days the Psah itself was just getting established.  Much of the Psah was enclosed by a metal fence.  Until 1970, the dirt road was covered with red gravel.  In a good northerly wind a fine red dust would get blown into the houses.  Guess who got the job to sweep it all back to the street? The wide asphalted area at the top of the photos is where the bus station was. Buses that came there were from the southern part of the country bringing in farm produce.  By the late 60’s at around 11 am the area was so busy that buses had to park all around the Psah wherever they could drop their cargo off.  Smaller passenger cars (usually the trusty Peugeot 404 station wagons) also plied the routes from there. Country folk would come and ask to use our bathroom because they simply didn’t know where to go when nature called urgently.

Under the tiled roofed area on the left were the meat sellers. Next to them in the open air were the fish mongers. The vegetable sellers occupied the bottom left of the photo (opposite to where I lived). From there and over to the right of the picture there were sellers of dried fish, eggs and live ducklings, then the noodle stalls, and the Vietnamese food and dessert stalls.  Finally it’s the bric a brac traders on the bottom right corner. In the early 1970's they sold anything from denim jackets to pilfered US army rations, backpacks, hammocks, uniforms - that's from where I got my first taste of tinned peanut butter and cream cheese. A Chinese circus used to provide entertainment in the grassy open air north of the roofed area.  As it was impossible to charge a fee for the show, the astute performers would first draw up a crowd with a crazy round of drums and cymbals, followed by promises of a great spectacle on offer.  After more drumming and even more hear-ye’s they would suddenly start to spruik vials of health tonics, packets of cure-alls, and the inevitable remedies for piles.  Cambodians, including the fearsome Pol Pot, were especially terrified of hemorrhoids or reuss daung baht as known in Khmer.  The real show begins only when the crowd has been sufficiently supportive of the marketing drive. The little white oblong structure on the left hand side of the bus station was where the military police were based. In the early 70’s, now and then they would catch some deserter, burglar or whatever, strip him to his underwear and bring him there. Now and then someone would throw a grenade in there too.

A bunker was set up in 1971 north of the Psah, abutting the iron fence of the Stadium. Many of us from the area around the Psah who were drafted into the militia to patrol the area at night, were also ordered to take turns guarding it. A seventeen year old by then, I had a choice between a M1 rifle, an M16 and an AK47. The AK was of course weapon of choice, but being junior I was only allowed the rifle. And so I would straddle the M1 over my bike’s handle bar, and set off for my 4-hour duty to “bamreur cheat” (serve the Nation). Instead of watching for the KR however I took the opportunity to while away with either some Emile Zola, or a translation of William Shearer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" borrowed from the Alliance Francaise.  Poorly trained as I was, I would have “bamreur cheat” poorly anyway had the KR decided to attack the Stadium which by then had become a recruitment-cum-training centre for the Republican army.

Until 1973 while the battle raged around Phnom Penh's perimeters, I used to climb up at night to the flat roof of our apartment block to watch US planes drop their bombs. In the distance you could see sudden flashes of huge explosions against the night sky, and the soil churned up. Seconds later anything loose would rattle like in an earthquake, and you could feel the air displaced by the explosions literally blowing on your face.  One morning on a day in August 1973 when the US Congress stopped all aerial support for their Khmer allies, I watched a Phantom F4 doing a few dive bombing passes somewhere beyond the undulating roof of the Russian hospital. At quieter times the odd AC47 gunship could be heard circling and spraying death down below with red tracing bullets.  One night in late 1971 a huge explosion rocked Borei Keila to the north of our Psah, followed by hundreds of other explosions that lasted for a few days.  Earlier some military genius had the bright idea of turning Borei Keila into a munitions depot not that far from the council of ministers, the US attaché’s office, the army headquarters, and the finance ministry.  The whole place was so badly guarded anyway that once someone was able to fire a 107mm rocket point blank at the council of ministers from one of those remorques that you pedal from the back and which is used to transport blocks of ice from the market.

Anyway, back to our Psah. The fun part was Saturday nights when the area to the top right hand corner was choc full of food vendors. I used to go there for the pong tear kaun (hard boiled duck eggs nearing their hatching time), or sach ko aing, and an obligatory copy of the Nokor Thom Daily Sunday edition. Editor Soth Polin, cartoonist Ung Bun Heang, and poet Mao Ayuth spared no effort protesting the destruction of our society and lampooning the corrupt military elite.  That was also when Ros Sereysothea’s strident Chnam Aun Dop Bpram Mouy offered urban youth a thrilling escape of sorts from the torment of the time.  Some Khmericans baptized the song’s flat tinny sound as “garage” rock. Didn’t they know it was war bloody war and that the singers couldn’t afford a decent sound studio to do a decent recording? Normal Khmers have never ever seen a garage in their lives anyway until some of them ended up years later in Lowell MA or Long Beach CA. You get the gist.

Back again to our Psah.  Now and then the KR would surprise us with a volley of 122mm Russian rockets with their tell-tale whirring noise. When they ran out of those the KR followed up with Chinese 107mm rockets. Not as scary but still noisy. Kids of my age would dare each other to be the first to run up to the roof and find out from the fire that followed the whereabouts of  the rockets that had landed, and shout down the news to cowering adults below. I vividly recall one that landed with a sudden bang somewhere behind our house while I was studying logarithms. I have never forgotten the log rules ever since. By 1974 as the perimeters of the city shrunk under the KR onslaught, the stadium had become a heliport, and we watched those (Bell UH-1) Iroquois come & go like the Psah’s buses in more peaceful time. I could go on with the human misery that enveloped the Psah, the masses of refugees who slept anywhere in it's open spaces, fossicking the rubbish site for scraps; thatched huts on every inch of spare dirt, around the Stadium, under the water tower, every where in the Wat; and this old man whose hut I biked past and who was playing his Tro Khmer at dusk. As if it was yesterday.

The next time I set my eyes on my home again was early 1993, a few months before the UN elections.  After the initial shock at the sight of this huge cemented monstrosity, I was thrilled to discover on the other hand that my house hadn’t changed at all.  Its iron doors, windows, and front railings were all still in their original coat of paint - the very same one my dad and I painted our house with.  The new occupant saw my heavy eyes and understood as I run my hand over those doors. How I missed my dad, and my brother, and the old man with the ashen face and the sound of his heart breaking Tro Khmer. And my Psah.

The top photo is the abandoned Olympic Market in 1979.
The second shows Phnom Penh residents sheltering from a Khmer Rouge rocket attack on February 11th 1974, it was taken by Françoise Demulder.
The picture of the sandbagged bunker in Phnom Penh in 1970 was taken by Dianne Sherman.
The following pphoto shows a Douglas AC47 gunship firing, and the following is an F4 Phantom.
The next picture shows a busy Monivong Boulevard in early 1975, and the final picture is the grounds of Olympic Stadium serving as a refugee camp in 1974.

This piece was originally posted as a comment on this 2010 post: Olympic Stadium 1979 and 2010 . The author kindly rewrote it adding extra details. Many thanks to for his outstanding contribution.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Boueng Tumpun - late 1970s

This picture shows troops from the NADK Division 703 Animal Husbandry Unit which was based around Boueng Tumpun in the late 1970s. The division was better known for guarding the notorious S21 or Tuol Sleng Prison. It looks like a moment of happiness, but although conditions were not as harsh at Boueng Tumpun as they were at the prisons the unit worked at, they were tough and troops suffered severe hardships while working there. The troops in the picture are wearing wrist watches which were generally a sign of high rank.

The picture comes from the excellent DCCAM book "Victims and Perpetrators."