Where the Ho Chi Minh trail ends.

Keo Seima in Mondulkiri is by far and away my favorite place in Cambodia, it’s stunningly beautiful with an incredible diversity of wildlife and has almost every type of habitat found in Cambodia. This time however, I was looking for something a little bit different. A little bit of History.

For sometime now I have been researching what took place in and around Keo Seima in May and June 1970, when the US invaded Cambodia to go after the North Vietnamese bases along the border. Over the last couple of years I have trawled through thousands of pages of declassified US military documents, conducted numerous interviews with local people and both mapped and searched this rather inhospitable terrain for the locations of various places and stories that I have read about.

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Some of the various wartime sites around Seima.

Today not much remains and the most significant items were sold off for scrap metal years ago. It’s mostly just a lot of holes in the ground, either from the massive 5 year bombing campaign or the hundreds, probably thousands of bunkers blown up by the Americans during the course of their brutal 2 month search and destroy mission. While the Vietnam war has been well covered, my intention is to put together a documentary on this story, but from the perspective of the Bunong hill tribes people, who were unwittingly caught in the middle of the Cold War.

Some of the stories told by the locals are enthralling.

A 10 year old girl was looking after the families small herd of waterbuffalo when a US helicopter suddenly appeared and shot several of the buffalo as the girl ran for her life. A few days’ later US soldiers arrive at her community and apologise to the villagers, giving them some money as compensation. US dollars. The girl and her family didn’t know what to do with the dollars and put them away in a corner of their house and simply forgot about them. A few years pass and the Khmer Rouge come to the village and begin searching houses. They find the dollars and drag her off accusing the girl of being a CIA spy.

One dreadful story tells of a Bunong village completely wiped from the face of the earth by a B-52 strike. Others who were young at the time recount the wonderful sweet snacks the GI’s gave to them.

A new story I heard on this trip but have yet to record is, strangely enough, a story of love. The Americans were only in Cambodia for 2 months yet a young soldier based at Firebase Speer managed to fall in love with a Bunong girl and ended up marrying her and taking her back to America. I will have to pursue that story when I am next up there as apparently the lady concerned has recently returned to Cambodia.

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Bamboo forest along the trail.

The main task of this trip was to find some things to film, basically anything other than more holes. Two years ago I went on a trip to find an old US backpack style radio someone found and I wanted to have another try. I know the approximate area from the GPS track I took at the time, but it’s still like looking for a needle in a haystack. To make matters worse it’s the rainy season, not quite the worst possible time to be here, but not far off it. In this terrain rivers and streams can flood in minutes and you can easily find yourself cut off for hours at a time. The mud is also incredibly sticky and quite often you find yourself clambering up very steep slippery slopes, while at the same time fighting your way through dense bamboo. Leeches are also in season and you have to check yourself regularly to clean them off. Along with the leeches, swarms of mosquito’s are also obligatory and of course there are various ants, termites and other insects that will happily take a bite out of you if you give them half a chance. Even most of the plants here seem to want a piece of your flesh as you pass. Add to this 36 degree heat and humidity that must be off the charts and you start to get the picture. Still beats being in an office.

The ridge where the trail runs parallel to the border.

The ridge where the trail runs parallel to the border.

After an exhausting 2.5 hours I finally arrived at the point where I planned to start looking for the radio. Almost immediately I managed to catch the side of my boot on a sharp tree stump tearing some of the stitching. With my sole hanging off I had little choice than to slowly make my way back to the road and eventually to the Seima HQ. I was convinced the boots would fall apart as it’s very rough terrain in this spot with almost no trails, but somehow they survived. Out with the gaffer tape for day 2. Never leave home without it.

Having spent a lot of time looking at maps and knowing many of the trails here I enquired about ways to get nearer by motorbike. One of the local guides showed me the ‘correct’ moto trail to follow and I decided to have a go at it the next day. Sometimes my faith in the locals can be very misplaced.

The main Ho Chi Minh Trail that runs through Seima. Still good enough to drive a car on in places.

The main Ho Chi Minh Trail that runs through Seima. Still good enough to drive a car on in places.

I didn’t get more than 1.5km off the road before it became utterly impassable and it hadn’t exactly been easy to get that far. I decided to park up and see if I could find an old trail shown on the GPS. As I headed uphill I came across a maze of small trails, some even had steps built with rocks in a few places and there were bunkers seemingly everywhere. As I reached the top I came across a large clearing next to a small stream. Checking the GPS I realised this was the location of the small hospital the Americans had found. I took some shots before heading on. Just another 300m further and I came to the main trail along a ridge. The trail here is huge, it’s as good a road as you could imagine. Even 45 years later, much of it is in excellent condition and as I discovered there is an amazing network of roads, including several ways to the border. That’s definitely one for the dry season. Although I ended up walking some 15km, in the end I still didn’t get to the area where the radio is as I ran out of time. But I did find a good trail with clear signs of motorbike traffic and decided to follow my own nose the next day. This was also a great day for wildlife spotting. Everywhere I stopped there seemed to be either Douc Langurs or Longtailed Macaques hanging about; it’s primate paradise here.

Signs of elephants at the smaller of the two hospital sites in Seima.

Signs of elephants at the smaller of the two hospital sites in Seima.

I had hired a bike in Phnom Penh (Honda Dream, not off road style as I can’t get much equipment on those) and while a road tyre is ok in the dry season, it can be very hard work in the wet, especially when you start adding 15 or 20kg of equipment. I set off early and went to where I thought the trail must start. It wasn’t too bad going at first but to get up on to the ridge you have to get through one particularly gooey stretch, about 100m long. That took about 20 minutes to get through but it was not too bad after that, it would have been really easy with the right tyres. I found more trails and it finally dawned on me that the apparent “logging trails” (marked on the GPS) left by Samling (Malaysian logging Co that left in 2002) were almost entirely built by the Vietnamese in the 50’s and 60’s. This was the Ho Chi Minh trail, or rather the end of it. I spent so much time exploring the various turn offs and working out where I wanted to try in the future, I again failed to get to the area with the radio. As with the previous day, it seemed as though there were Doucs and Macaques everywhere I stopped. By mid afternoon, with water getting low and running out of gaffer tape I headed back.

A partiicularly deep bunker I came across. Approximately four meters deep and right on the trail.

A partiicularly deep bunker I came across. Approximately four meters deep and right on the trail.

We had a fair bit of rain overnight and I decided to give off roading a miss for the day. The gaffer tape had held up pretty well but it was clear I couldn’t do much more walking. I headed up to the location of what the American’s named “Shakey’s Hill”, after a young GI who died in the initial fighting in the lead up to the capture of this place. It turned out to be the main NVA base in Cambodia with massive stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, food and even a fully equipped 500 bed hospital, right in the middle of the forest.

Rusted artillery shell on top of Shakey's Hill.

Rusted artillery shell on top of Shakey’s Hill.

I had been here before and was mainly looking to find a trail I saw on the GPS, which seemed to lead down to the site of the hospital. I doubt there is anything to see now but I would like to visit it anyway. I tried to get there previously but couldn’t find a way down, this time I did, although it will have to wait until dry season for me to try it. Another issue for me was the large number of illegal loggers I could hear in there and being on my own I was a little wary of the situation. Many of these are kids off their heads on Meth and they often carry long home made swords. Generally they all take one look at me a run, thinking I am some kind of law enforcement but it does make me a little wary when on my own.

The next day I spent most of the day entering locations into the GPS, cleaning clothes and equipment and updating the software on my drone. I also did some more exploring by bike around the villages to the north, but there’s nothing much left in this area as the forest has been cleared and most sites are now cassava fields.

To be continued in part 2. Drone Strike!

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About Allan Michaud

English Wildlife Photographer/Environmental Filmmaker based in Cambodia
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