In Cambodia, the toll-takers come armed

By Elizabeth Pisani
International Herald Tribune
Friday, April 24, 1992

If your workday runs from four in the morning to dawn, I guess you have the right to a sour face. Cambodia’s professional bandits seem to think so.

No one who can afford the $45 flight would drive the 300 kilometers (180 miles) from Cambodia’s second city, Battambang, to Phnom Penh, I was told. The roads are just not safe enough. And just not comfortable enough, I thought uncharitably. But I pitched up nonetheless at the share-taxi station at 4:30 A.M., rush hour for crowded cars and trucks leaving for the capital.

Not five minutes out of town we were forced to a halt before three torches suspended in the darkness.

Near them, we saw antiquated assault rifles swaying in the night.

Our driver, looking jaunty in a military-style beret, appeared unfazed. He held out a roll of notes – 500 riel, around 60 cents. It was grabbed and we went on, relieved at having survived our brush with banditry. Until our next brush, that is, a kilometer further on.

The further from town and the closer to daylight, the more threateningly sulky the bandits became. In Cambodia, where even bureaucrats smile, such poker-faced gravity must take practice.

Many of these men are regular soldiers whose salary is $12 a month and who have not been paid for almost half a year. They, or others like them, have been fighting the vicious Khmer Rouge and other anti-government factions for 13 years, and if they now have to blow up the occasional bus or car to scare travelers into making up for lost income, well, no big deal.

Certainly none of the 22,000 United Nations peacekeepers who have started to flood the country are up here before dawn to slap their wrists.

Our driver, a regular on this route, cruised through some roadblocks, considering it more likely that we would be stripped of all we had, car included, than that we would be shot. He was still alive: as a risk analyst, so far, so good. A nifty businessman, too, building the bandit-money into the $5 cost of the trip.

Bandits, like cyanide, seem to decompose in daylight. The vacuum was instantly filled by orange-clad monks who set up shop by the side of the road (this far out of town "road" is somewhat figurative), megaphones blaring holy appeals to Buddhist travelers.

Perhaps grateful to have survived the predawn sector of the journey, the Cambodian passengers give generously.

And drivers keep track of one another through the human and natural hazards of Route 5, which runs like a dusty necklace of potholes across the cracked earth of Cambodia in the dry season. Shock absorber couldn’t take the pace? A driver close behind will have a spare in the trunk. He’ll swap it for a tire to replace his flat. No one wants to get stuck on this road as night falls.

Or off it. There are said to be seven million land mines in place in Cambodia, most of them in Battambang Province, many of them close to major roads. Think about that when you are trying to find a bush to squat behind.

There is no end to the money-making opportunities along the way. Whole villages set themselves up as road-fixers. Tiny children and old crones bent nearly in half – they form a majority in rural hamlets sucked dry by years of war and political murder. Deaf-mutes clowning around in monkey suits, oversized puppets on stilts. Is there no end to the absurd antics of those in search of a penny in the hostile Cambodian countryside? Is there no end to the need?

The writer, a free-lance journalist, contributed this account to the International Herald Tribune.

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