Bandit Country

THERE WAS an intrepid American girl at the hotel. She was not a member of the tourist party from Siam, but had straggled in un¬obtrusively from Tokyo, via Macao and Saigon and many other intermediary China Sea ports with remote and evocatory names. She was writing, and living on a small, carefully managed allowance and appeared never to stop travelling. One of the motives for these uneasy wanderings was her connection with the Des Moines Register, the leading newspaper of her home town. Her assignment was to look up all the Des Moines citizens she could find living in the Far East and write a chatty, human account of their doings for the benefit of the people at home. So far she had only found one exile from Des Moines in Indo-China.
She was brave and indefatigable with an appetite for regular achieve¬ment. The spirit she enshrined, with its voracity for random facts and experiences, was rather that of the late twenties than the early fifties. I came across her continually in the ruins. Guidebook in hand, waving guides aside, she tracked down all the most obscure pieces of sculpture (‘Say, have you seen Indra on a three-headed elephant?’) and the isolated temples, half-submerged in the jungle, that others overlooked. She was as pre_occupied with numerology as the Khmers themselves, checking up on the exact numbers of gods and demons and marvelling, as the great kings would have had her marvel, at the sixty-four faces of the temples containing the sixteen images and all constructed in best selected sand¬stone, with the regrettable laterite patching kept well out of sight.
Now this dauntless girl, having digested all that Angkor had to offer, had decided to go on to Siam, but had no intention of going all the way back to Saigon and flying from there by the regular route. Instead she was determined to cross country somehow or other to the Siamese border, a matter of a hundred miles or so, where she could get a train to Bangkok. There was, in fact, a road through Sisophon which joined up there with the railroad, and doubled it to the Siamese frontier town, but there were no trains on this side of the frontier owing to the presence of one or more of the five bands of Issaraks who had not yet shown signs of surrendering. Nor, according to reports, was the road safe for most of its length; but she had persuaded the French army, who were always delighted to oblige in such matters, to take her on the first military transport to go through.
I mention all this because I had to get back to Saigon fairly soon now; either to go on the trip to the Viet-Minh-occupied territory or to take up the seat I had booked on the plane to Laos, and I had learned that if I wanted to return to Pnom Penh by the safe road – the one policed by Dap Chhuon – which runs along the eastern shore of the great lake, it would mean a wait of several days for transport. But there was another way of returning more quickly, although apparently with some risk, down the west-shore road. Under some kind of sub-rosa arrangement Tes Heak ran a bus which slipped out of Siem-Reap in the early morning hours and took this route. It occurred to me that if the American girl-journalist was prepared to take the chance in a French military car, there was no reason why I should not do so under Tes Heak’s auspices, as a man with his business flair would undoubtedly have an arrangement with the bandits through whose territory we passed.

The bus to Pnom Penh stole out of the town at four in the morning. Like all Asiatic buses it was packed solidly with passengers, and only by paying nearly twice the right fare had I been able to obtain one of Tes Heak’s attractive tickets, covered in red ideographs. In the bus I was given the place of honour on the right of the driver, who was obliged to jostle me continually as he changed gear. Three distinguished citizens of Siem- Reap were squeezed in on his left and a complete row of yellow-robed bonzes sat, with cultivated impassivity of expression, immediately behind. Although vowed to lives of self-abnegation there were certain minor bourgeois affectations which they were not forbidden. One was the wearing of sun glasses, which they and all the other passengers of distinction put on as soon as the dawn came.
The passengers carried with them strings of dried fish, just as they might have carried sandwiches. These, hung up within easy reach, filled the bus with a rich, seashore tang. As soon as we were under way, one of the bonzes, bothered by his parasol, leaned over and hooked it over the windscreen. The others followed suit, leaving the driver with half his normal field of vision. He paid no attention to this handicap; in any case, it would have been unthinkable to criticise the holy men.
It was a bad thing if you were in the least mechanically minded to sit next to the driver because you couldn’t help noticing some of the things that were wrong with the car. In these countries cars are driven on relentlessly until under the strain something goes. Patched up with ingenious makeshifts they are put back on the road again where they carry on, come what may, until finally, with elliptical cylinders, worn-out bearings, burnt valves, crippled transmissions, flattened springs and shattered bodies, not another mile can be forced out of them. In the meanwhile, and until this final disintegration, their drivers handle them with confidence and verve.
In this case the engine seemed to be loose in the chassis as the control pedals jiggered about quite independent of the floorboards. The driver was obliged to hold the foot-brake off by hooking his toe under it, and to drive with one hand on the gear lever, to prevent its jumping out of gear. The steering wheel turned freely through about ninety degrees before the steering was affected, and the lights went off and on as we hurtled over the bumps. None of these inconveniences seemed to worry the driver in the least. He was a small, elderly Chinese, who conducted the bus with quiet determination. Whatever happened and however terrible the road, he drove straight on at the bus’s maximum speed – a bellowing forty-five miles an hour.

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