A flood of memories from Cambodia in the early 1970s

Two days ago my hot water tank developed a leak that flooded the storage area under the stairs. After getting the, “ooo that’s bad news”, from the plumber over the phone, I organised for a new hot water heater to be installed the next morning and got down to the business of mopping up and clearing out all the camping equipment and various other junk from under the stairs.

I have a general rule about accumulating junk I try to adhere to; if I’m surprised about coming across something that I haven’t seen for years and haven’t missed it, it goes in the garbage. So I threw out an old turntable with a ceramic cartridge and a Nakamichi cassette player (they used to be considered the best). All of the camping gear gets used, so there was no culling there, but then I came across an old model aeroplane made from the detritus of war in Cambodia back in the early 1970s.

A real memory trigger

All of a sudden like a pin ball machine, my mind started to light up with a flood of memories. I knew instantly that I still valued what many people would consider a pile of junk. It was all covered with dust so I cleaned it off as best I could and I’ve put in my living room where I can look at it again.  I wondered why I hadn’t had it out on display. Then I remembered that up until recently, I didn’t have any where I could put it without it getting more damaged.

I bought the model plane in a small town called Takeo, while I was doing some hitch hiking by air. The plane was made by a soldier called Kong Chuon (he wrote his name on it), and he’d called it a Dara X Supersonic.

Kong Chuon in Takeo

The fuselage is mostly made of M16 stripper clips and loaders. The Bombs are made from .50 calibre bullets and rounds from AK47s (all emptied of course). Stuck on right wing of the aircraft is a little scrap of paper with a hand written anti communist slogan which says;

“The bomb can negotiate with the VC for the peace in South East Asia”

I carted this model plane around with me for over ten years in my backpack as I wandered around various countries. I always thought the plane was pretty cool and it was my intention that I’d put it on display when I finally settled down. After years of moving around, jammed into a pack the poor old model has taken a beating.

I remember the day I bought the model. I didn’t have any English teaching work on that day, I so I hitch hiked out to the airport and then walked out onto the tarmac to ask  pilots for a lift. I did this quite often, because of the war it wasn’t possible to travel by road as the government only controlled the towns and the rest of the country was in the hands of the very dangerous Khmer Rouge. It was the only way I could afford to see the country I was making so little money at the time, I was literally starving.

As I was asking around, I met a one armed American guy on vacation from his job in Saigon who was doing the same thing as me. We hit it off, so we hung out for the day cadging lifts all over Cambodia.

Apparently my new found friend (who for convenience sake I will call Sam, because I’ve long forgotten his name) lost his arm because he was kicked so hard during a football game. Sam came from Colorado and the things he missed the most, living in Asia were Coors beer and Dr Pepper. Sam just raved on about Dr Pepper (which at that time I hadn’t tried) and how good it was. As for Coors, I was informed that they made it from “pure mountain spring water” and Sam assured me that if I ever went to the States that I wouldn’t be disappointed with his favourite beer.

My travelling companion was mobbed by children in Svey Reng

It was Sam who suggested that I buy the model plane. He explained that they were very popular with the G.Is stationed in Vietnam and he bought a few of them to take back home as presents. For me at the time, the $2.50 that I paid for the plane was a real extravagance. I was ashamed to tell Sam why I couldn’t buy more of them, especially when he kept urging me to because they were so cool and so cheap.

Now as I look at my beat up little plane I can’t help but wonder what ever happened to Kong Choun and all the little kids in the photos above. I suspect that that many of them either had a very hard time or came to a bad end. I always have these feelings when I look at my old photos that I took in Cambodia.

I often wonder about the fate all the Cambodian people whose images I have.

On a lighter note, several years later, I went to the US and of course I was very keen to try Dr Pepper and Coors.

The verdict; Dr Pepper tastes like stale marzipan and is just horrible. I guess it’s one of those things you have to grow up with. A bit like Vegemite which so many Aussies rave on about (disgusting, salty rubbish). As for Coors, it’s just so bland that I can’t imagine why anyone would bother with it.

As I was looking through my old negatives to illustrate this article, I came across a few other photos of people in Cambodia that I’ll post over the next couple of days.

7 thoughts on “A flood of memories from Cambodia in the early 1970s”

  1. This airplane falls in my “Art is Where You Find It” series. Taking the empty shells and casings of war and making it into an airplane…slogan or not, I understand why you carried it with you for 10 years in your backpack.

  2. I’ve always found is interesting that art seems to happen in war. I was first introduced to it by a friend who had a couple of 75mm shells from the trenches of the First World War. They were intricacy carved and hammered and made into flower vases. Since then, I’ve been on the look out for more. The best I’ve seen so far was just outside of Bastogne, Belgium. On the outskirts of town, near a canal, there’s a towering sculpture make up of bits of American and German tanks. They’ve been carved up, welded together and stacked into an amazing looking piece.

    Things like your little stripper clip jet are important reminders, not only of war and its brutality, but also of human ingenuity in using what is at hand to create. Great stuff.

    On a side note, do you remember how Sam used his camera? With no right arm, using the shutter release must have been a bear!

    -Turkish Prawn

  3. Oh, I love this – both the artefact and the story.

    A few years ago I came across a similar reuse of war material that TP mentiones, only this one was from the Bosnian war. Sarajevo was famous for artisans that would produce those ornamented copper plates, vases, coffee pots and the like that you come accross in teh Orient. Only this time, the souvenir “vase” was brase from the anti-aircraft gun. The ornamented sign Sarajevo on it made me shiver. You have a much more aesthetic piece, but then again, a more direct connection to that war.

  4. Our mind of course immediately goes for the people but do you ever also wonder how many of these palnes might still around, how many were lugged across the continents like yours, where they ended and all of that…

  5. Pat

    The creative spirit is an amazing thing.


    I can remember seeing things made from WWII artillery shells when I was a kid, but the those things have become less common as I’ve gotten older.

    Sam used to use his stump to steady the camera and his good arm to do the rest. He was fiercely independent and he would brusquely brush aside any attempt to help him. Respect!


    When I go through Sarajevo I’ll keep my eye out for such things. It would be an interesting project to try any find other people who had such planes and to record their stories.

  6. Oy, what’s that you say about Vegemite? I LOVE the stuff. Have it at work AND at home. You are 100% correct, however, when it comes to Dr Pepper. There’s an American toothpaste called Pepsodent that I tried on holiday when I was a wee small Epicurienne and to my tastebuds, Dr Pepper tastes exactly like it. If I ever want to drink toothpaste, I will certainly buy Dr Pepper. As for Coors, I tried it once and it tasted like beer-flavoured water. But more importantly, how ever did you get a plane made of artillery parts and bullets through customs between countries?

  7. Epic

    Vegemite is an acquired taste. I left Australia to travel for 11 years and in all that time I didn’t eat it once. I loved vegemite when I was a kid but when I came back to Oz it was like trying it for the first time again and I hated it and I haven’t touched it since. Lamb had the same effect on me. I just couldn’t stand the smell anymore and it’s taken me about 20 years to start eating it again.

    I bet Pepsodent tastes better than Dencorub. I’ll have to write about how I accidently put some of that stuff on my tooth brush. Ruined my whole day.

    As for the plane with the bullets, it always went into the cargo hold and I haven’t taken it through customs since 1985. I’d hate to think about trying to do that these days.

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