November 29, 1991. 4:30 AM at Bangkok’s huge new Don Muang airport. Very few people about. Nor were there many vehicles on the usually traffic-jammed road as we came out here in the warm and, for me, delightfully steamy darkness—I love all this rank humidity—past high-rise condominiums and exotic shopping plazas with electric lights outlining their Corinthian columns and other post-modern excrescences. At the empty check-in counters a gentle, tall, pale young Cambodian speaking with a West Coast accent asked if I was going to Phnom Penh. I’m not at my most talkative at this unearthly hour but it became so obvious that he was longing for some human contact that I was soon won over—all ears as he poured out his story.
He had flown in from LA four or five hours ago and had been wandering around the deserted terminal buildings in a mounting nervous frenzy. When only a child he had escaped from or had somehow been got out of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and had grown up among other refugees in California (there are said to be nearly 200,000 of them there, which may seem a fairly large community until it is compared with the million or more who perished in the killing fields). Until six weeks ago—after the treaty was signed in Paris—he did not know that his father and mother were still alive; nor did they know he had survived. Now he was going to see them and the siblings born after he escaped. His hands trembled as he brought out a wad of well-thumbed photographs he had received a week ago of the family he couldn’t remember. How old was he? He didn’t know the year, let alone the month or day of his birth.
I was embarrassed—ashamed really—to have to tell him that the reason for my journey was just to visit Angkor and see the remains of ancient Khmer architecture and sculpture. I had missed my chance in the 1960s, I told him, before he was born. And I had first gone to Thailand mainly in order to see the Khmer temples near the Cambodian border there. I didn’t add that I was seizing the opportunity quickly, before Cambodia is flooded with package tours or reverts to civil war—the most likely alternatives for the future so far as I can see.
We took off finally after dawn had come up—like thunder. It really does that, here as in Burma. And it illuminated through the already rising heat haze the alarmingly perilous golf course laid out between the main runways, though there were as yet no plus-foured Thai golfers or their caddies on the greens. As we flew south-east it was easy to spot the frontier between deforested Thailand and still jungle-covered Cambodia—how long will that last? Almost as soon as we touched down at Phnom Penh’s tiny airport a huge, newly painted and …