Monday, January 17, 2011

Remembering Cambodia and the Work of Dith Pran

In the summer of 2006, I took a five-week tour of Southeast Asia with three college friends. Not more than two days in Bangkok, we traveled by bus to the Thai-Cambodian border, and then by taxi for the six hour ride across the "Dancing Road"* to Siem Reap, Cambodia. All our travel books explicitly, and seriously, advised travelers to not travel over the border by road, but with only two days into our trip, none of us wanted to spend the extra money on airfare, and plus, we figured, how bad can it be?

The answer to that question may be another post entirely, but as anyone who's made the trip knows, the journey is a strange and dangerous trek, that leaves you frightened, shocked, and mystified until the moment you find yourself back in the dizzy air-conditioned malls of Bangkok.

Cambodia is both the most beautiful and most tragic place I have ever experienced. The people there are suffering, but they are warm and open with their stories. They seem to smile easily despite the constant reminders of their unspeakable past and current impossible situation. When I think of Cambodia, I think of our taxi driver who shared his memories with us, I think of the laughing children we visited at the English school, the saffron draped monks passing us in the street, the massive silent faces of Bayon, and the tiered towers of Angkor appearing in the sunrise. And then I think of amputees sitting at ever corner, child-beggars holding infants in one arm while the other extends out asking for money for formula. I think of the U.S. dollar used everywhere, the Thai electricity, the French and British five star hotels, and the unusable expanding farmland littered with live mines, deadly keepsakes from of the Vietnam War, U.S. occupation, civil war, and the Khmer Rouge. There is too much feeling in Cambodia, too much to say that I find it impossible to unpack all my impressions of this strange and magical place, but still, now over four years later, it doesn't leave me.

Last night I stumbled upon the 1984 movie "The Killing Fields"* starring Sam Waterston. This movie is based on the book, The Death and Life of Dith Pran, written by New York Times war correspondent, Sydney Schanberg. It tells the story of Schanberg’s Cambodian interpreter and friend, Dith Pran, and his four year journey of survival through Pol Pot's "Year Zero."

Dith Pran in Siem Reap in 1989. Photo by Steve McCurry
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Unbelievably, Pran survived torture and starvation in countryside work camps by masking himself as an uneducated taxi driver (the Khmer Rouge ruthlessly targeted educated people infamously killing individuals who wore spectacles). By 1979 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia driving Pol Pot's forces to the Thai border and liberating the work camps. From there, Pran traveled barefoot from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and then later to the Thai-Cambodian border (again by foot), where he was finally reunited with his friend Sydney Schanberg, the only person who kept hope that Pran was alive even though it was highly unlikely. It is estimated 2 million Cambodians were murdered during Khmer Rouge four year regime; their bodies were piled into mass graves along the countryside, now known as "The Killing Fields."

In 1986, Pran became a U.S. citizen and continued to work as a New York Times photographer until his death in 2008 from pancreatic cancer. His partner and friend, Sydney Schanberg, was quoted in this NYT article, written at the time of Pran's death, saying, "I’m a very lucky man to have had Pran as my reporting partner and even luckier that we came to call each other brother...His mission with me in Cambodia was to tell the world what suffering his people were going through in a war that was never necessary. It became my mission too. My reporting could not have been done without him."

Pran could have escaped (along side his wife and children) when the U.S. evacuated its forces from the capital in April 1975, but he stayed with Schanberg in order to help him and other western correspondents tell his country's story to the rest of the world. Then, when he survived four years of Pol Pot's regime and the systematic murder of 2 million Cambodian citizens, he used his experience to spread awareness of Cambodia's modern genocide, his country's hardships, and the tragedy of individual suffering. This was his life's work.

You can read about Pran's four year nightmare, and his 1989 emotional return to Cambodia (after a 10 year exile) in his own words in the NYT article "Return to the Killing Fields."

In Pran's final NYT interview--done shortly before his death--he asked that the fight against genocide continue. "One time is too many," he said. He hoped that others would carry on what he made his life's work: “If they can do that for me my spirit will be happy."

As someone who has been touched by the beautiful people of Cambodia, I share a little bit of Dith Pran's story in order to do as he wished, continue to spread awareness of those suffering around the world.

Other books on the subject:

The Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors by Dith Pran.

When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge by Chanrithy Him

*The road to Siem Reap gets its name because it is an unpaved red clay path raised about three feet above the landscape that does not hold up well to the rainy weather. Western passengers appear to be dancing around in taxis and buses as vehicles travel over the rough terrain for multiple hours.

* "The Killing Fields" is currently on Netflix Instant Watch.


  1. That movie is one that stayed with me. Great post

  2. Thanks, Diane. I had never heard of it until I passed it in Netflix. It's an amazing story.

  3. What a trip that was. You should definitely write about that insane trip to siem reap in a 94 toyota camry! Now that was crazy.

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