Into Cambodia

THE LAND ROVER bounded westwards over the road to Cambodia. It was the only road of any length in the country open to unescorted, daytime traffic, although it had been closed for a fortnight before the day we left, ‘owing to damage caused by the weather’. We plunged through a bland and smiling landscape, animated by doll-like Vietnamese figures, and mud-caked buffaloes that ambled across the road, lowering their heads as if to charge, when it was too late. Children dangled lines from bridges, while their elders, gathered in sociable groups, groped for fish, waist-deep in liquid mud. The kites, floating over the villages, were pale ideographs against a deeper sky. There were miles of deserted rubber plantations.
It was better, said the driver, not to stop between the towers, and his method was to accelerate to about 65 m.p.h. until a tower was about two hundred yards away. He would then relax speed until we were past, and about the same distance on the other side. This confidence in the towers seemed not altogether well founded. The papers had recently published an account of an attack by one of the garrisons on a car straggling behind a convoy in which the driver was shot dead and a lady passenger’s finger was almost bitten off in an attempt to rob her of a ring. We frequendy found that ditches had been dug across the road by Viet-Minh sympa¬thisers, and subsequently filled in with loose earth. A series of such semi-obstacles taken at full-throtde was a funfair sensation, even in the Land Rover. At one point we passed a newly burned-out car from which a tracery of smoke still arose.
Cambodia. It was a place-name always accompanied in my imagination by tinkling, percussive music. Although the Vietnamese had been encroaching for centuries upon Cambodian land, there were signs of a true physical frontier at the present border. We came to a wide river; on one side was Cochin-China – which had once been Cambodia too – with the neat, busy Vietnamese, the mosaic of rice-fields and the plantations. Across the river was the Cambodia of present times, and what, too, must have been some early frontier of the ancient Khmer state, since every¬thing changed immediately. It was not only the people, but the flora and the fauna. A cultural Great Divide; a separation of continents. On one bank of the river were the ordinary forest trees, which, as amateurs of natural history, the Vietnamese would spare, if not compelled to clear them for rice-fields or plantations. The other bank bore sparse clumps of coconut palms – the first I had seen in my travels – and beyond them, a foretaste of the withered plains of India.
The bamboos and the underbrush had gone, and with them the dark-winged, purposeful butterflies of the Vietnamese forests. Here only trivial fritillaries fluttered over the white prairie grass. Great pied king¬fishers as well as the large and small blue varieties encrusted the edges of yellow pools and ditches that served no economic purpose. There were no rice-fields. Cambodians lounged inertly about the rare villages that were no more than a few squalid African huts. In one village some women with dirty, handsome faces were pouring earth into some of the worst holes in this terrible road, while a group of bonzes stood by, watching them with saintly detachment. The trim pyjamas of the Viet¬namese had given way to the dreary weeds of India; a drab, sarong-like skirt, pulled in the men’s case into the shape of breeches by bringing the waist-sash through the legs. There might be, in addition to this, a jacket of some dingy material and a rag wound round the head as a turban. It was curious to reflect that under the barrack-room discipline of their spirits, the aboriginal Mot’s – when left alone – were the best-dressed and best-housed people in Indo-China. After them came the Vietnamese, in their brisk, workaday turnout – you never saw a ragged one – and their flower-decked shacks. And last of all were these descendants of the great Khmer civilisation, who quite clearly didn’t care in the slightest how they lived or dressed.
But the Cambodians had one enormous advantage over the others. There were no plantations to be seen on this side of the river. So far, the Grendel of Colonial capitalism had been kept at bay. The Cambodians are practising Buddhists, and every man, including the King, must spend a year of his life as a mendicant novice in a Buddhist monastery. And the strength of this second of the world religions lies in the fact that it has produced a tradition, a permanent state of mind, which makes its follow¬ers neither adept as exploiters nor amenable to exploitation. The Cambodians, like the Burmese, the Laotians and others, no doubt, of the South-East Asiatic peoples, are, by their own design, poor, but supremely happy. In these rich and comparatively underpopulated countries there is no struggle for existence, and this provides the ideal atmosphere for the practice of the gentle faith in which their people have been reared.
The Vietnamese, whose Buddhism is diluted almost to the point of non-existence, has a competitive soul, is a respecter of work for its own sake, and strives to increase and multiply. As he will work hard for himself, he can be made to work hard for others, and is therefore the prey of the exploiter. There are a few uneasily conducted plantations in Cambodia, and while I was there, in fact, there was a serious revolt in one of them. But Cambodia has no surplus population and no proletariat. Every man can have as much land as he can cultivate. As far as I know no Cambodian has ever been shipped in the hulks to end his life toiling in some depopulated South Seas island.

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