The bright red skull and crossbones sign at the trailhead are all the incentive I need to tread lightly.
Supposedly, the temples have all been swept for landmines, but the surrounding jungles are said to still contain as many as six million unexploded surprises. These signs are a dramatic reminder not to leave the dirt path.
I had been on this very spot a year before when it was covered by the jungle. Had I wandered beyond where I stand now at that time, I most assuredly would have encountered a mine.
On this, my second trip to Cambodia to photograph the Killing Fields, I have once again hired Sokhoeun as my guide, for he is reliable and has a feel for this business.
He has twice pointed into the impenetrable greenery around us and brought my focus to the tiny steel tripods that are the detonators of these little killing machines. He tells me to only step where he has. His tread is so light I cannot hear his footfalls upon the leaves.
Only two weeks before, near this very spot, and on a picnic with his family, he froze in terror as he felt cold steel poking his behind. He had sat on an anti tank mine but did not weigh enough to detonate it. He was in a “cleared” zone at the time.
Today we are far out in the jungle at a place unknown on any map. It was here that an estimated 200,000 people were executed between 1975 and 1979 under the Khmer Rouge regime.
It is only people like Sokhouen who can tell of what happened in these remote places of death.
But that is life in Cambodia. Perhaps it is the immediacy of death that makes these people so happy and among the friendliest I have ever met. Perhaps living in the poorest of nations, knowing one can be vaporized at any moment, gives one an appreciation for life.
Still, I pray that the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, whose signs abound out here, have done their job well.
At Tol Sleung, the most infamous of the Khmer Rouge interrogation centers, I wandered through rows of blood-stained cells before exiting a room piled high with skulls. At Choeung Ek, the killing field made famous by the movie of the same name, a 50 foot (15 m) glass stupa, or mound-like structure, full of skulls screams at visitors about what happened here.
Parking lots of these now famous fields are full of descendants of those left behind when members of their families went to their death. Their survival is now dependent on begging from tourists who wish to see these gruesome places. Some hold photos of their slain relatives in hopes of inspiring sympathy and generating some money.
At Som Rouong Kmong, a former monastery, there is a giant crater now grown over with young grass. It is here that 250 young monks became the first to die, followed by 3,000 civilians.
An older monk shows me his drinking cup. It is the top of his own brothers’ skull. He tells me it is his personal reminder of the past and what will happen to him one day soon.
Wherever you go in Cambodia, you will see skulls. Rather than hide the genocide of at least two million people, the Cambodians have chosen to put it center stage. They have learned from their own history and choose not to repeat it.
On the trail to the cave at Phnom Suntouk, a site where over a thousand people were hurled over a cliff to the rocks, two hundred feet (61 m) below, Sokhoeun points at a small clearing and tells me it was here that a friend had been bitten by a cobra.
When I ask if the man lived, he gives me that puzzled look that tells me I am asking an absurd question. There is no medical attention in this part of the world.
It is his matter of fact delivery of this news that chills my blood. We pass through dozens of webs with spiders the size of my fist to find the cave wall lined with skulls of those whose lives ended here. As we leave I see the dark tail of a massive cobra disappearing into the brush just ahead of us.
On our final day together, on the sun-baked road to Beng Melea, our brains are fried from the heat and my spine is warring with the springs of my seat on every bump. We are hailed to a stop by a soldier in the middle of nowhere.
He waves his AK-47 in our direction and tells Sokhoeun we must pay him $3 US dollars to continue on his road. I make it a habit never to argue with a man holding a gun, especially in a third-world jungle.
I fumble though my pockets and find a crumpled $5 bill, thinking it a cheap enough bribe for our lives. The soldier holds it up to the light as though he can tell if it is real or not, then sets down his rifle and gives me $2 US dollars in change. As we pull away, I see him smiling and waving in the rear-view mirror.
Bouncing along in a cloud of dust, I contemplate the absurdity of what we are going through. In this area, we have a 50-50 chance of being shot for no reason at all. And I know the money we just paid will go into the pocket of a local warlord while those around him continue to starve.
Sokhoeun shrugs his shoulders and smiles at me. “Cambodia,” he says, and that says it all.
If You Go
To secure a visa: Royal Embassy of Cambodia
Local Guide Bout Sokkhoeun
Siem Reap’s Angkor Star Hotel
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author and photographer who has traveled extensively in 35 countries. His journeys are mostly off the beaten path, and he frequently lives with indigenous people to record their culture. To see more of his work visit www.jamesdorsey.com.