• MADEN, CAMBODIA

    Living in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge

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A picture taken at Maden’s place, on his old tuk-tuk

Your brand new Lonely Planet is never going to mention this place, nor will any travel book.

It’s a godforsaken village 20 kilometres away from Angkor Wat, surrounded by pristine countryside and free-roaming buffaloes. The only option to spend the night here is to sleep at Maden’s house.

Don’t get surprised if locals stare at you as if you were a rare animal wearing Western clothes – tourists don’t really come here.

And back to Maden, the owner of this charming Airbnb – don’t get deceived.
He seems an ordinary Cambodian man in his forties, just like any other. But he is not.

In fact, everybody in the village shows a special respect to him and treats him as a leader.

Needless to say, Maden’s life was nothing close to ordinary.

This is Maden’s story.

The lucky baby

“I was born in a prison in Prey Veng province – when, I am not sureMy mum says it was in 1979. My brother says it was 1978. As for me, I don’t really care. I can choose my own birthday every year, and that works pretty well for me”, and then he laughs, his eyes bursting into joy.

It was during the Khmer Rouge regime, the radical communist movement that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Guilty of genocide, they killed about 3 million souls – their own flesh and blood.

One day the Organisation saw Maden’s father picking some sugar cane from his own garden. However, according to the Khmer Rouge, his garden was not his garden anymore: it belonged to the Organisation. So, technically, taking food from there meant stealing, even if it was growing in front of his house.
The punishment? Death.

“My father was the real hero. He just wanted to feed his family, because they were hungry. But now they had to run away not to be killed.”

They fled in the night – a long and fearful journey on a four-wheeled cart, pulled by oxen. Sometimes they would stop in some potato plantations to hide and eat.

“I believe they were protected by the spirits and the sacred things of the world.”

They reached Prey Veng province safe, but harmony wouldn’t last for long: Maden’s mother got caught and jailed to prison with her three children. And she was also pregnant with Maden.

“She was in line to be executed, but they spared her because of her pregnancy. At night she would hear people being interrogated and tortured.”

When Maden was born his brothers put burning ash on his belly button as antibiotics. He wouldn’t stop screaming, day and night, locked up in that cell. Eventually the guards got very annoyed and got rid of them.

“We got released because of all the noise I was making. For the second time, I saved my mother’s life. That’s why I was named… the lucky baby.”

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A old picture of Maden

Childhood

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In January 1979 the Khmer Rouge got defeated – and the broad smiles of Cambodian people came back.
The infrastructures were very damaged, and there were not enough engineers to work on it. Not enough professors, not enough doctors.
Plus, some of the defeated Khmer Rouge were still hiding in the jungle, and they occasionally came out to steal in the villages.

Meanwhile, our lucky baby was spending his childhood in the Kampong Cham Province, the home of tobacco plantations.
His days in the village were a great adventure, running in the jungle, swimming in the river with the other children – but the treasure hunting they used to play was quite an unusual one.

“We used to dive into the Mekong river to find old missile shells. Then we would come up and show them around, proud of our discoveries. We would also ran into piles of weapons and clothes from the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Dead bodies were no surprise to us. They smelled. But we were children, and everything was a game: old missiles could become toys, and a war could be a playground…”

In the evening, Maden and his family used to sit all together on a mattress to have dinner.

“That was my favourite moment. My grandparents would tell us their sad memories from the French colonial times, stories of struggle for survival. I listened in silence: I didn’t want to miss a thing.”

And then it came – as it always does – the day when a young boy wants to fly away.

“Mum”, Maden said, “it’s time for me to go to the city and find a job, earn some money.”

“But Maden, my son, you are too young to quit school” – said his mum, who was in fact a teacher – “remember, education is a tool, nobody can take it away from you. People with no education are blind.”

“But mum, you just can’t focus on studying when you don’t have what to eat”, he would answer, “I can barely sleep at night because my stomach is always churning. And I know my brothers can’t sleep either.”

Decision was made. He was going to Phnom Penh.

On his last day, his family and his friends accompanied him to the port, where many double-deck wooden boats were about to leave all the way to the big capital, loaded with tobacco – and people finding their place among the tobacco, with mattresses and hammocks. How long was it going to take, they couldn’t tell. It depended on three factors: how old was the boat engine, how many robberies they would face on the way, and… how lucky they were.

“The engine of the boat was louder and louder, and the horns were telling us it was time to go. My heart wouldn’t stop pounding: I was leaving behind my people, my hometown, my childhood. Everything I knew was there. And yet, off I went…”

“But we were children, and everything was a game: old missiles could become toys, a war could become a playground…”

Life in the city

And here was Phnom Penh, the chaotic capital city of Cambodia, miles away from his little village.

“It was big, so so big, with lots of people buzzing everywhere. Everybody seemed in a hurry, no time to say hello, no time to smile at each other…”

Maden found a job as housekeeper for a wealthy Chinese-Cambodian couple: cooking, washing, cleaning, doing shopping.

“That was the very first time I met rich people in my life, and I soon reached the conclusion that rich people scream a lot, especially when they are not satisfied. Rich people also have many demands and needs. Which includes running after them with a umbrella when they walk in the sun!” – he laughs.

“The food I was eating at their place – that was very good food. But it was not accompanied by the kind words of my mum. The lady was always looking down on me, treating me as her slave. I had to wash her underwear all the time. That’s when I told my self I would never want a wife in my life.”

Soon Maden found a new job: this time he was going to be a night vendor – yes, one of those men who walk throughout the city selling noodle soups on a mobile cart.

“I turned into a street boy. I could only afford to live in an illegal place, packed with drunkards, prostitutes, and criminals. I became friend with them. Very often the government would set a fire there, because they wanted us to leave. But we had nowhere to go. In that hidden dark world, you could be killed for a pair of shoes.”

At night, Maden craved for sleep, looking at the windows of the colonial houses, imagining who was sleeping behind. And yet there he was, walking 20 kilometres per night with other cake vendors and sandwich vendors.

“I also knew many prostitutes, and it was not difficult to get one of them: I just had to give them some food in exchange. One noodle soup in the evening, two noodle soups in the late night… They started to call me Ta Kut Teave, Noodles grandfather…”

“Now, let me tell you that none of us wanted to live that way, as none of the young girls wanted to work in a brothel. We all like living in harmony. But war had swept everything away, included our beautiful Khmer culture and tradition. In that moment of my life it was hard to be a good person…”

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“In that moment of my life, I admit, it was hard to be a good person.”

Maden

Slave on a boat – Human trafficking

“Human trafficking. Tears and blood, to serve fresh prawns in a restaurant somewhere.”

Maden
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Now, this is how it went.
Maden went back home. But of course his struggle, his hunger for life and happiness wouldn’t just end there. He talked with his friends Tha and Kosal, and together they decided to go and seek for fortune at the Thai border, where there were many opportunities to find a job.

Heading towards the coastal city of Sihanoukville, they were already running out of money. They met a middle-aged man. He said to be a policeman.
“I can find a good job in Thailand for you, on a boat. I can help you to cross the border illegally too” – he said.

Maden and his friends accepted with no hesitation. In Cambodia it all worked like that: connections, acquaintances.

“We went to his house. The policeman and his wife offered us lots of delicious food and a huge comfortable bed: we had never stayed in such a place. Tha and Kosal fell asleep straight away, but I couldn’t – I couldn’t stop asking myself why that man would be so nice to three strangers”, says Maden.

The next morning they took a boat to Thailand, passing through several checkpoints where they were asked to stay in silence. Tha and Kosal were happy and relieved, but Maden couldn’t relax. Everything felt suspicious to him.

After few hours on the sea, they reached a harbour with stilt-houses and huts with metal roofs. They were in Thailand.
The boat driver silently walked them to some apartments.

“When we entered, we found dozens of men squeezed like sardines in a room. We had fallen into the trap: it was human trafficking. I have to admit it was not much surprise to me. I had learned to be ready to accept anything in life: good and bad things.”

“Most of the men there were farmers with big muscles and rough skin. They kept us locked inside that dark apartment for 5 or 6 months. We were like animals. We had no fan. We slept one next to each other, and there was no way get away from our smell. We had one shared bathroom for 100 people. Eventually, we lost track of time. Sometimes we didn’t know if it was day or night anymore.”

And then, after 5 or 6 months, somebody came to the apartment, got them out, and assigned them to some large fishing boats. He was on the same boat with his friends Tha and Kosal.

“We were slaves, simple as that. Some of us were Cambodian, some of us were Thai – and the Thai used to take drugs to get more strength. But that was making them extremely aggressive towards us Cambodian. Once one of them literally stepped on my head while I was cleaning the fish.”

Two years went by, and Maden and his friends had no idea about how long more would it take for them to be released – if they were ever going to be.

“We were always on that boat, day after day, with nothing else than the ocean around. I remember we used to see many planes flying above us. We dreamed about where they were going, and we would even bet on that – ‘that aircraft is going to New York!’ , ‘No! It’s going to London!'”

“During the night it was all dark, and yet I could see so many lights out there, coming from other fishing boats just like ours, with men just like me. The ocean felt like a floating city of trapped souls. Human trafficking. Tears and blood to serve fresh prawns in a restaurant somewhere. Funny.”

It was no secret that the boss really liked Maden among all the slaves – he treated him in a different way, the kind of way that shows a great amount of respect and admiration.
It was an ordinary afternoon when he approached Maden and asked him if he missed home.
“Of course I miss home”, Maden answered, puzzled.
And then the boss said something unexpected.
“Maden, I know I can trust you. You are a Khmer, like me. The blood that runs in your vein is just like mine. I see you as a brother.”

And then he started to whisper, so that nobody except Maden could hear.
“Maden, this boat is going to Malaysia. None of you will ever have the chance to go back. It will stay there. But I want to help you to run away.”

Maden burst into tears.

“Tomorrow morning the boat will be anchored at the harbour in Pattaya to do some final maintenance before leaving to Malaysia. I will be the one on guard on the deck, after sunrise. Maden, be ready, escape. I will pretend I don’t see you. Swim.”

Maden was speechless and grateful. But he couldn’t get away without his friends Tha and Kosal. They had promised they would stick together, no matter what.

“I can’t go without them”, he told his boss.

His boss was reluctant at first, but then after few hours he went back to Maden, and said he could bring Tha and Kosal too.
And then, he gave him 150 Thai Baths wrapped in a plastic bag, so that they wouldn’t get wet with the water.

Maden burst into tears again.

“Don’t cry, brother. Real men never cry”, whispered his boss.
But then, one second after he had said that, he started to cry himself.

“Good luck my brother, may all the good spirits protect you.”

“Pai Pi, pai pi, pai pi!” That’s all they said to the taxi driver in Pattaya: go now, go now.
After two years of slavery they were free – and they were on land.

“But we didn’t know anything about Thailand, nor how to get to Cambodia. Eventually, we decided to walk towards East. We walked for two weeks, all day long. If we were hungry, we would steal coconuts and fruits from the plantations. If we were sleepy, we would cut banana leaves and put them together as a mattress. Until the night police found us – but when they heard our story, they offered to drive us to the Cambodian border.”

Maden and his friends reached Phnom Penh – and it was such a strange, overwhelming feeling.
Maden was planning to find his brother Tola, but all he knew was that he was living in a Buddhist temple in Kai Kam Pleng – or so he was, at least two years before.
But Phnom Penh is a big city and it’s not easy to find a man there.
Worries and fears are not the answer. I need to trust in spirits. They will show me the way to him” – he told himself.

He walked around the temple area all day, barefoot – and after many hours, he saw him. Tola was right there.
“It was simply magic”,
recalls Maden.

The second person he went to see was his mother – the one that never wanted him to leave.
“Maden, my son! I thought you had died. You are always the son that makes me worried, Maden”, she said into tears.

Today – Airbnb host

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A man can transform into different men, and live different lives.
Maden went from being a simple boy living in a village, to a night vendor, to a wood trafficker, to a slave.
And it wasn’t over yet.
After his experience, he decided to move to a Buddhist temple in the city, as the accommodation was free of charge.
But he always kept that particular ability to think out of the box.

“I wanted to learn English. Every morning I would walk 20 kilometres just to get to the school by lunch time. But I had no money to pay the fee – and yet, again, I really wanted to learn English. So I used to eavesdrop what the teacher was saying from a hidden window. And believe it or not – I learned a lot.”

So much so that one day he was asked to become English teacher.

“I remember my colleagues kept asking me where did I graduate – and I remember me being ashamed to tell them the truth.”

After that, Maden kept living different lives, just like a phoenix rising from the ashes every time.
He joined the Army, and then the military police: Yellow Unit, ID number 152. And then he became a tour guide in the jungle, where he lived in contact with indigenous people – and fought malaria four times too.

“Today, I run a family Airbnb in the rural area of Siem Reap to make ends meet. Hopefully my kids will be able to go to University, as my mother wanted for me.
I still don’t know how old I am. When they ask me if I am angry with the bad people I have met along the way, I say no – if you don’t get rid of rage, it will never end.
I still love my life, all of it. Life is a gift, and being a human is the best luck.
I have always known this in my heart. And I have never lost hope in good spirits.”

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