By Ron Gluckman
Nov 25, 2019
“LOOK HERE,” SAYS MY GUIDE, Jimmy Hiem, pointing to a long mound of dirt. “Mass graves.” We’re in the lush, green hills of Kirirom National Park, a three-hour drive southeast of Phnom Penh. The air is fresh, clean, invigorating; the park offers a welcome chill, with some of the only pine trees in Cambodia. Which is why, during Cambodia’s Golden Age of the 1950s and 60s, it became a renowned retreat from the heat of Phnom Penh for the royals and the capital’s elite.
Jimmy, 46, is well versed in the history of flourishing, post-colonial Cambodia, though he is the product of a diametrically opposed era— namely, the reign of the Khmer Rouge, who took power in 1975 and were responsible for those graves and some 1.7 million others.
That year, when Jimmy was two, his family fled Cambodia to a refugee camp on the Thai border, where Jimmy’s younger sister was born. The family eventually wound up in Los Angeles where Jimmy grew up trying to find his place among the Asian immigrants in the public-housing projects. But in 2016, he was deported to Cambodia, one of about 700 former refugees expelled here from the U.S. since 2002. He now runs Zin Adventures, a tour company whose guides are all, like him, victims of the heartrending Khmer Rouge carnage who thought they’d escaped, yet are now forced to continue struggling with it— personally and intellectually—more than four decades later.
Tourism in Cambodia has long tapped its tragic past. But Zin digs deep, finding sites less seen and telling stories less known. Today, we’re going off the standard civil war–torn path but staying within its theme, swerving up wildly curving roads to tidy alpine villas whose designs encapsulate the post-colonial aesthetic of Khmer architecture blended with new modernism—and whose bullet-ridden walls are reminders that no place in the country was safe from the genocide and starvation that killed a quarter of the population, not even Kirirom, which means “mountain of joy.”
The irony is not lost on Jimmy and his fellow deportee and Zin guide, Bunthoeun Ly, who sprinkle tales of their country’s tragic past with personal details of their own expulsion from what they had hoped would be the promised land in the U.S. Like Jimmy, most of these deportees arrived in the U.S. as toddlers or, like his sister, were actually born outside Cambodia, in refugee camps. Human rights groups note that such deportations violate international law, since the refugees were never citizens of Cambodia.
We speak of their separation from families in America, and traumatic readjustment in the land of their ancestors—a land they never knew until being banished here, forever. Jimmy, who left five children in the U.S., does not sugarcoat his life there. “I got beat up a lot. There were gangs, stabbings. I joined a Cambodian gang just to protect myself from all the bullying,” he says. “I was just trying to survive.” Still, it was home, and he fought a deportation order for more than a decade before finally being sent to Cambodia.
Ly, 37, who goes by Looney, by contrast had enjoyed a middle-class existence in Long Beach, California. Though he was born in Thailand, he says, “I always thought I was American.” He served as a U.S. Marine, but never realized he needed to file residency papers to remain in the country until it was too late. Drug charges from high school curtailed his eligibility to apply as an adult and in 2016 he was deported to Cambodia. Both he and Jimmy describe unimaginably hard adjustments to their new realities, and Jimmy concedes bottoming out, wrapping himself in self-pity and yearning for his children. Nowadays, he’s focused on building a new life in his family’s homeland. “Letting go of your life in America is hard,” he says, “but you cannot live in the past.”
Zin, in fact, means “fresh” or “original” in local slang, and was formed with dual purpose: to offer unique tours from intellectually curious, native English–speaking guides, and to employ and empower returnees who are often spurned from work because of their tattoos and lack of local language skills. Jimmy’s partners are Maria Tucker, who works for international organizations in Cambodia, and Brad Gordon, who has spent decades as a legal and business consultant in Cambodia, and worked in refugee camps on the Thai border. It’s a social enterprise as well as a genuine business that offers rare opportunity; Jimmy thinks the model could be expanded to Vietnam and Laos, which have also received deportees from the U.S.
For now, Zin remains exactly as promised: fresh and utterly original. On a tour of Phnom Penh we visit idyllic sights alongside grisly reminders of the tumult that tore the country apart, narrated with esoteric insights from the guides. We visit historic churches hidden in back alleys, and houses of politicians and poets. At the 14-century Wat Phnom, Looney retells the colorful legend of the founding of the capital. Later, strolling along the waterfront, the pair debate the exact site of the original port, and detail a little-known conflict with Dutch forces in the 1600s. I lived in Cambodia for four years, and have been visiting for 25 years, but this was all new to me. And just a part of the rich history of Cambodia these Zin researchers have uncovered.
The Kirirom tour was Zin’s first, and the depth of inquiry behind it provides me new perspective on this part of the country. “We spent months putting it together, exploring and talking to local people,” Jimmy says. “We wanted to give tourists a taste of the beauty of Cambodia, but also some of the history, including the Khmer Rouge time.” The first stop is a beautiful temple at Snguon Pich. Looney tells how the old abbot stopped a potential bloodbath by standing up to Khmer Rouge and national soldiers. Guns were drawn, but when they fired, the abbot remained unharmed. “He got them to stand down,” Looney says. He also points out holes in the beautiful carved ceiling: “That’s where the Khmer Rouge hung people and tortured them.” About 1,400 were believed killed here, he says. A newer stupa offers a memorial display of bones dug up from a series of mass graves.
“This is Cambodia,” Jimmy says. “We don’t hide anything. People need to see how it was, so they understand how it is.” And who better to tell hard truths than Zin?
zinadventures.asia; one-day Kirirom Mountain tour from US$140.