Out of Cambodia: To stay alive, drive flat out and steer clear of the Khmer Rouge

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The Independent Online
SIHANOUKVILLE - The road to Sihanoukville is straight, hot and dangerous. The taxi-drivers who carry Cambodians from Phnom Penh to the southern port city for the equivalent of pounds 2.50 put their foot to the floor on the long, lonely stretches between towns. The six or seven passengers they have crammed in their aged Toyotas peer nervously at the tree- line on both sides of the road, looking for the first sign of a Khmer Rouge ambush.

It was on the road to Sihanoukville on 11 April that two young Britons, Dominic Chappell and Tina Dominy, and an Australian, Kellie Wilkinson, were stopped by the Khmer Rouge and taken hostage. They have still not been released and Western embassies in Phnom Penh warned foreigners not to travel on the road - Route No 4 - without a military escort.

Indo-China's roads have always been dangerous - ever since very poor men have had guns while the very rich have driven cars they could shoot at. And, as Graham Greene wrote in The Quiet American in the 1950s, it is a simple rule of survival never to drive on the road later than mid-afternoon. By four o'clock the traffic has already dwindled to the odd car making a dash for the safety of a town; the farmers and woodcutters who throng the road in the morning have all suddenly disappeared.

About an hour after we started the 135-mile run our car was stopped at a bridge by two government soldiers, one with a rocket- launcher over his shoulder. But it was still early, neither was drunk nor particularly threatening, and for 1,000 riels (30p) we proceeded on our way. On an average salary of about pounds 15 a month, which is often paid several months late, soliciting 'donations' from passing cars is just a way of making ends meet for many soldiers.

But the drunk, the mean or the greedy may fire a few rounds at a car first in order to intimidate the occupants.

Seventy-five miles out from Phnom Penh, near a place called Kompong Selay, the Khmer Rouge were waiting. We discovered this only later when we arrived in Sihanoukville and talked to the local military. A taxi about 20 minutes in front of us was stopped by a band of the guerrillas, driven off the road and the occupants force- marched into the trees. The car behind them saw what was happening and did a quick U-turn. All the captives were Cambodian, and with luck they would be released the same day; if not, a ransom demand would be made, and their relatives would somehow have to scrape together the money.

Rich people - often senior government officials or one of the 2,000 generals in Cambodia's ludicrously top-heavy army - travel in convoys with a pick-up truck carrying soldiers as bodyguards.

Their Mercedes, with tinted windows, speed through villages, splashing the locals from rain puddles. Ta Ney, 95 miles from Phnom Penh, is the village near where the two Britons and the Australian were kidnapped two months ago.

Bushes and tall grass fringe the road, and the dense forest where the Khmer Rouge guerrillas hide comes down close to the highway. The police say this is the worst stretch for ambushes. Everyone speeds up here, with the resulting danger of accident.

Finally the sea comes into view, the road curves round past the harbour where ships offload their goods and we are in the town of Sihanoukville. 'You were afraid not to finish this journey, no?' asked the driver with a winning Cambodian smile. 'I am not afraid.' And from under his seat he pulled out a photograph of himself standing with Khmer Rouge guerrillas in their tell-tale Chinese uniforms. The road to Sihanoukville has many dangers.

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