Cambodia: Illegal Border Crossing in Koh Kong

January 15th, 2009

(above: Cambodian border police)

A hot wind blew across us as we sat beneath a handmade sun shelter, joking with the soldiers. Our fixer, ex-army himself, cracked a bottle of homemade whiskey he bought for the men. All ex-Khmer Rouge, they staffed a remote border crossing with Thailand, in mountains where they’d lived for years. They passed a western-style Christmas mug of whiskey and laughed. At us. Christopher, a young writer with the Phnom Penh Post, and I politely partook and a discussed how long we’d wait and what our chances were.

At this point, I’d spent a lot of time waiting, so another couple of hours didn’t bother me. On my last trip to the nearby town of Koh Kong, I’d waited three hours at another border crossing while officials decided if I could make pictures. I was almost forced to get a signed letter from the provincial governor; it seemed no one wanted to take the responsibility of me as they deferred to higher and higher authorities. But three hours was nothing; I’d been waiting two months to document one of two raids Cambodian police were planning. The delicate politics and interests kept the date shifting. It turns out I would have waited another three months for one of those raids.

The waiting is painful. I’ve covered press events, politicians, been sniffed by bomb dogs and secret service, herded with other photographers, done the hurry-up-and-wait with the military…I’ve waited. At home, waiting on clients is a mere inconvenience. But waiting when you’re in the field, operating on your own, self doubt niggles at the confidence. I begin to question if I really know what I’m doing, if I’m following the right lead, and if I’m trying hard enough.

Christopher and I looked at each other. Neither of us knew if this would be an effective wait or if we would get our story. Or, if the happy smiles of Asian politeness would turn to annoyance. Or worse. After all, they were the border police and we were asking questions about what we were told is their economic livelihood: taxing undocumented migrants.

We hoped to report on migration into Thailand. The night before, for $70 US dollars, we’d taken a taxi from Phnom Penh. It was the kind of high-speed, fear inducing ride you just want to sleep through; we almost killed a half dozen people on the way. But the driver took half the time the bus did and went when we wanted. That morning, an hour-long skiff ride up the river almost dumped us and all our gear in the rough water. And now, we hoped to follow migrants on trails through the land mine strewn hills. There just weren’t any migrants.

Again, the self doubt.

(below: migrants waiting for the wind to die down before crossing a white-cap laden river)

We’d arrived at the border crossing following a boat similar to ours; we’d met them in the mangroves as our driver tried to wait out the wind-driven whitecaps. Our fixer, good as he was, didn’t realize these were migrants. He told us they were residents of the village. We didn’t know until they walked to the border police hut, then carried on to the border gate. it was a single, hinged pole across the dirt track.

We had yet to introduce ourselves to the border police, but as I watched the small group with their plastic bags, I made a quick decision. I ran after them. They had to be migrants.

To look less like a journalist, I had stuffed my cameras in my backpack. But now, I went down on one knee, pulled the 80-20omm out and began framing. Too far away, I got up and jogged down the dusty track. The migrants filed past the gate, then turned left into the woods. A uniformed man stepped from the shadows of the shack by the gate.

I was clearly out of place now; I didn’t know the lay of the land, I didn’t speak the language, my bag was full of cameras. I was a foreigner at a border crossing ill-equipped for my presence. And there were land mines. I retreated to our fixer and the police headquarters, to try to build rapport so we wouldn’t be shut down, like I almost was before, when I waited hours at the other border crossing. I needed their cooperation, because they were part of the story.

(below: migrants cross into Thailand)

Hours later, as we sat near the border police building, our fixer proclaimed “No more migrants today.” He joked with the border police; he seemed perpetually jovial. I wasn’t sure if it was a front, or genuinely his disposition, but so far he was indefatigable and polite to a fault. We passed the whiskey cup around again.

It was the wind, he said. It made the water too rough. Our NGO contact, who used to make the same crossing, seemed to agree but I felt the border police were a little too fervent that there were no migrants. So I changed the subject again. We talked about fishing the river. We talked about land mines. Every so often, the village loses an errant cow to a newly-emerged mine. They pointed to the tall grass waving beyond the buildings. We talked home-brew whiskey (it was made of rice). We talked about the concrete school building with no money and no regular teacher.

The atmosphere was relaxed and I felt we could’ve finished the bottle and bought another (for $1 US dollar) while we waited. Maybe we could’ve bought more snack-ems from the store, introducing a little more cash to the local economy; the police were paid a pittance to man the forlorn post.

We talked about partying with the Thai soldiers–occasionally, out of uniform, the men cross the border to visit each other’s quarters. After I’d photographed the departing migrants, we’d established a rapport with the Cambodians and ascertained we could traverse the border without visas.

Across the gate we had met a patrol of young Thai soldiers. They were armed and smartly dressed; the Cambodians, by comparison, were disheveled and their weapons, if they had any, were out of sight. The Thai were observing a smoldering patch of bamboo forest. The day before they’d hosed down a fire without leaving the oil-and-gravel road; between 30 and 40 land mines had detonated in the heat, reaffirming the warnings that the forest, with its rabbit-warren of migrant trails, was stuffed full of deadly ordnance. They took video of everything, especially us.

(below: Thai soldiers on patrol)

We found that even the Thai were reluctant to talk about the migrants. A couple of children approached their sandbag-fortified border post and the captain had their bags searched. “Sometimes they carry drugs,” he said, implying the children were mules. Of more interest to me was his disclosure that these were Cambodian children living in Thailand. Their parents worked in nearby Klong Yai, but schooled in the dusty border village we’d just come from. The parents wanted their children to maintain the Khmer language and culture, even if they were living in Thailand. And so they passed fairly freely between the countries.

To me, it reinforced my sense that in spite of all the political inter-country doings, what happened in the backwoods border towns was very, very local. Policy was one thing, real life something completely different.

(below: Thai soldiers search school children)

The wind didn’t seem to be dying down much and the afternoon was getting on. Our boat driver clearly wanted to go and the jokes with the police were wearing thin. I still wanted to push for some images on the migrant trails, but all signs pointed toward leaving. There would be no guide, and there were no more migrants that day. The few frames I’d made early that morning were the only ones I’d make. Feeling unsatisfied, the self doubt niggling again, I agreed to depart.

It wasn’t until the next day that I better understood the complexity of our border crossing. Accompanied by our NGO guide, we were interviewing a couple of migrants in a dusty shack as they described what they experienced when working in Thailand, how much it cost them, and risks they’d both heard of and experienced first hand. It also put us in a difficult position.

Smuggling, trafficking and exploitation are staple industries for this region and people don’t like their business meddled with. Were we jeopardizing these migrants by interviewing them? What about the border police? If we reported that they were taking bribes, as everyone suggested, would they be punished? Would they seek revenge on the people who’d talked? What about our NGO counterparts?

A few years earlier, a foreign media team had worked in one of the Thai border towns and interviewed an undocumented migrant. Shortly thereafter, he was found dead in the harbor. Murdered. They can’t say why, but the possibility of a connection seems apparent. The NGO’s won’t even go to the docks; they meet with migrants in privacy to protect their informants and themselves. No one wants to draw the wrath of the traffickers, because its worth big money. And yet, how can you tell a story if you don’t have anyone to tell it?

(below: migrant Puty discusses his work situation)

The NGO told us they were heading into Thailand in two days, to do some of those discreet interviews and we were welcome to come along. But they didn’t know about photographs, and they strongly advised against going near any industry or down by the docks.

It was tempting, but I couldn’t legally get our fixer across the border and back. We could go back via the migrant trails, hiring our own smuggler, but I didn’t want to risk getting caught for I knew all too well what might happen to him. We might have found another translator fluent in Thai, Khmer, and English but with such short notice my experience suggested no.

Yet, for me, it was a moot point. In 36 hours I was due to fly home, and in another 36 hours catch a flight to Guatemala. Again, I wanted to push and take a chance on the unknown, in hopes of getting a better story. But I also knew, if I missed that flight, there was a stronger chance I would no longer have a relationship. I wanted Lu and I wanted to see Guatemala; missing the flight was unacceptable. And so, the risk and reward weighed, I decided no more waiting. We left.

(below: one last image of the coastal plain)

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