Hart Fellow 2003-04
Something Decayed and Rotten
I am beginning to feel that most of my stories and letters from Cambodia begin with me
sitting on the back of a moped, bouncing along a dirt road in the midst of idyllic scenery and
peaceful stilt houses. This one finds me gripping the seat with sore and reddened palms,
receiving yet another spine jarring reminder of why Cambodia, along with Mozambique and
Congo, has been deemed by many to have the worst roads in the world.
Indeed during some stretches I periodically had to get off and walk, or take detours through
surrounding fields or people's yards. At times I found myself wishing I could consult a
dictionary to determine exactly what characteristics a strip of countryside must have in order
to actually qualify as a road.
I was making my way with a friend slowly and painfully to Samlot, a village that will send
shivers down any Cambodian's spine. It's a place associated with the rise of the Khmer
Rouge and was a major stronghold of the guerrilla group until 1998. It is safe now, but many
are still afraid to go there.
As the road got progressively worse, the scenery changed as well. Instead of the flat and
now golden rice fields sprinkled with coconut and sugar palms which surround Battambang,
we were now in the foothills of the remote Cardamom Mountains, an area where tigers still
roam freely. As always in Cambodia, my attention was of necessity fixed on the road
directly ahead, intent on bracing for every hump, dip and crater before it came. My curiosity
at the new surroundings was strong, however, and I kept stealing furtive glances around me
to take in the scenery.
The steep hills were covered with lush green forest. The trees shot up vertically to quite a
height before attempting to spread out their branches above the trees around them. The
resulting image was of a dense and wild rainforest, with multiple canopies cascading down
the hillsides. Tangled vines twisted up tree trunks and hung from branches, while exotic
looking epiphytes grew high up, in any nook and cranny they could find.
I was thinking how much fun it would be were it possible to explore some of the forest,
when, as we came around a hill, the panorama changed abruptly. The whole hillside and
valley had been clear-cut. Only a few crooked and branchless trunks of dead trees were left
jutting skyward like ominous, bony fingers. Stumps littered the hillside and a few fallen trees
remained. After the untouched forested hillsides I had been traversing, this was a
disconcerting, but not wholly unexpected sight. I had heard about how prized some of