When visiting a country such as Cambodia, an abundance of lists, articles and websites have been written describing “avoidance measures” that should be followed. What I mean by avoidance measures are the places, people and foods to avoid if you want to stay healthy – and alive.
Travel websites issue warnings about pickpockets and avian flu, child beggars and crumbling staircases at temple sites (indeed, a Chinese tourist was rendered unconscious when he tumbled at Beng Mealea moments before I arrived). Foreign embassy guidelines advise their citizens to avoid traveling “along the Cambodia-Thai border in the area of the Preah Vihear temple because of a border dispute between the two countries.” (Read: live gunfire has been exchanged). Consular offices release warnings about the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border (when crossing over from or to Thailand) because of the rampant gambling, prostitution and corruption of the immigration police. Traveler postings remind you – ye, fellow traveler – not to walk around the cities alone at night, and to avoid drinking water with ice – since the ice may have been made from Mekong River water.
Chief among the well-publicized warnings, however, are those about dangers unique to this corner of South East Asia: Millions of active landmines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance) are still buried underground, thanks to the Khmer Rouge regime. MAG (Mines Advisory Group), a neutral and impartial humanitarian organisation clearing the remnants of conflict for the benefit of communities worldwide, claims that Cambodia is one of the most heavily mine and unexploded ordnance contaminated countries in the world. Bomb-dropping sorties, primarily directed into the northwestern part of Cambodia, were conducted incessantly during the 1970s. Mines, grenades, shells and rockets continue to be discovered near temple sites, schools, farmers’ fields and alongside major thoroughfares, maiming (if not murdering) hundreds of unwitting citizens. A little girl, probably not more than six years old, and hospitalized in the same ward as I, became one of those victims when she mistakenly stepped on a landmine.
As if landmines and UXOs weren’t enough, the spectre of malaria hangs over this region as well; a virulent disease that claims untold lives every year.
I heard and read and heeded the warnings. Going against the very grain of my curious ways, in this instance I knew well enough to stay on roads and follow well-worn tracks. To get a better view, I clambered up crumbling temple structures only if a guard nearby kept watch. And though I carried anti-malarial medication, I figured my chances of contracting the disease were low since I’d adopted the ‘long-sleeve’ approach. So I opted to keep the pills sealed up in my medical kit.
Pickpockets, beggars, scam artists and sleazy tuk-tuk drivers, I figured I could deal with those potential demons. Landmines, UXOs, malaria – of these too I knew and kept my wits about me. But not a single source – no guidebooks, guest house, no bus drivers or fellow travelers – ever gave me the one piece of information that would have made all the difference: to beware of the bridges.