The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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Bangkok, Thailand: 27 September (I think!) 1968

Dear Everybody~

After 7 wonderful days in Siem Reap (1 out for Battambang), I departed 25 Sept about 8 am. Siem Reap turned out to be one of the cheapest places I’ve been—7 days, most meals at the Hotel all for $35.00—one of the first times I’ve actually achieved living for $5.00/day! Despite the intense tourist flow (at its lowest ebb in September, thank goodness) Siem Reap is very little spoilt: the relaxed rural atmosphere pervades the town in spite of all the hullaballoo of tourism. Most of the hotels are out of town a bit, which doubtless has something to do with it. But I’ve never relaxed so well as I did here, and I truly hated to leave. As is customary, I wrote a letter to Prince Sihanouk praising the country and the people (and indirectly, him): it was not empty praise, for my 20-day 2800 km tour of Cambodia was a most pleasant & memorable experience.

Seeing Cambodia in its relatively pristine beauty (especially after witnessing the mess in VN, and now that I’ve arrived in Bangkok) makes me feel Sihanouk is right in not wanting his country occupied by Americans. As for its (Cambodia) being a “haven for the VC” I see no evidence to support this, and indeed, much to the contrary. In the provinces near the border the National Police & Army keep things under pretty close watch: I went through a number of these check-points (where the police, astonished by my appearance, were nonetheless unfailingly kind and helpful).

Returning to Siem Reap from Battambang I got a chance to assist a family having trouble with their Corvair (Chevy) automobile—that silly fan-belt arrangement. Getting them on their way eased my conscience, since every time I stopped to rest my machine or myself in Cambodia, someone invariably stopped to make sure I was not broken down & in need of help. This sort of friendliness is all too rare in the world, and it was most refreshing!

BACKSTORY: The folks with the Corvair had passed me at a high rate of speed, nearly blasting me off the highway with the electric-air horn everyone seemed to have in those days. Anywhere else, I have given them the finger, but as I was a guest… Anyway, somewhat further on I began to smell something “hot”: I check the bike carefully, and nothing was wrong, but as I continued on, the smell became more and more noticeable. Presently, as I came around a corner, there it was: the Corvair with its rear boot open, and lots of smoke emanating from it. The Corvair rear-engine Chevy had a fan-belt that ran over four pulleys so it could turn 90º, and it was always a source of trouble on those cars. When the belt wore out or flipped off, the air-cooled engine quickly overheated. I pulled up behind the stricken car just in time to prevent the owner from pouring a bucket of water on the engine (which would surely have cracked something critical by cooling it too rapidly). Using only sign-language, I made it clear he should wait until the engine had cooled naturally before putting on a new belt (which he had). I stayed with it until I could put my hand on the engine without getting burned, then went on my way. Before long I was overtaken, again with a blast of the air-horn, but this time with much waving and many smiles.

Well, as I said, I departed Siem Reap regretfully about 8, and got to Sisiphon & a bit beyond before encountering the first storm. I could have out-run it, except that the road was in poor shape in many spots, so suddenly I was right IN it; stopped at a check-point where I was graciously received—given the only chair in the hut and a beer. The storm passed on, and after about ½ hour I was able to proceed the remaining short distance to the “frontier”. Formalities there took about 10 minutes on the Cambodian side, and about 1½ hrs on the Thailand side; meanwhile more rain.

BACKSTORY: When the rain hit, I pulled up under a large tree to seek whatever shelter it offered, quite unaware that nearby there was a bivouac of Cambodian soldiers. They had a semi-permanent set-up of tents over wooden platforms. There were perhaps a dozen of them, and they traipsed out to greet me, all smiles: I suppose very little in the way of anything happened out there, since the road led to a closed border, so my appearance must have “made their day”. They gave me their “place of honor”, and the first Singha beer I ever drank. Conversation was greatly limited, but as was the case everywhere, they were polite and charming. Once the rain stopped, I went on my way, probably leaving them to discuss my incursion for many days. Who knows? I may have been the subject of an “Official Report”!

(This letter will be continued with the Thailand portion of this blog, yet to come)


The three weeks I spent touring Cambodia were some of the best weeks of my life up to that point, and they rate high in my all-time list as well. I was treated with respect, kindness, and warmth without fail wherever I went in that lovely country, and of course, seeing and poking around in the temples at Angkor was an unforgettable experience.

Cambodia was a country at peace. Granted, the Khmers and the Thais and the Laos and the Viets have been at each other through the ages, but the borders in place when I was there were generally respected (the border with Thailand was closed, although I did cross it). One feature of Cambodia then was that there was no poverty and no begging and no thievery: none! I met a couple touring from Holland, who went off on a bus tour of several days’ duration and realized too late they had l left an expensive camera at the restaurant they’d eaten in the night before leaving. Just on a chance that the camera had been found, they returned to the restaurant when they got back to Phnom Penh, and found the camera exactly where they had left it, untouched! They were greatly impressed!

I mentioned earlier the State magazine; in the english edition I found letters published, written to Norodom Sihanouk. These were from travelers who commented on whatever they had seen while in Cambodia. So, one of the last things I did before departing Siem Reap was to write my own note to the Head of State, telling him how favorably impressed I was with Cambodia. Whether the letter was published I will never know, but to my surprise, I received a reply from Mr. Sihanouk, send through diplomatic pouch to the UN and mailed from New York!

Later on, I sent him a copy of the general letter I wrote to “all”, relating my trip, and received another reply from Mr. Sihanouk. His reply makes it clear he had read the letter in some detail.

January Letter from Sihanouk

Sihanouk's first reply

October letter from Sihanouk

Sihanouk's second reply

Following my trip through SE Asia, I wound up working in Australia for a while (as will be recounted in due course); upon my return to the US in mid 1970, I was appalled to see on the TV places I had been in Cambodia being bombed to smithereens when “tricky dick” Nixon widened the already-doomed Vietnam war into Cambodia. Once again, I wrote to Mr. Sihanouk expressing my shock and regret over what had transpired: I addressed the letter simply to “Norodom Sihanouk, Peking, China”, as I had learned he had retreated there. Without a more specific address, I expected no reply, but to my surprise, he answered the letter by telegram!

“Please accept my thanks for your friendly letter stop cordial consideration”

The destabilization of Cambodia brought about by Nixon’s illegal incursion into a sovereign nation should have brought impeachment, but it did not. And the rest, as they say, is “history”—a horrible history, as it turned out, for whom no one has ever really been called to account. The wonderful Cambodia I found in 1968 no longer exists, although the monuments at Angkor do.

Angkor booklet

Guide to Angkor I used while there

NOTE TO READER(S): I will be away for several weeks on a trip to Pennsylvania and back. I will resume blogging when I am back home in San Francisco. Thailand was my next adventure.



Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Posted in Cambodia

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