Image credit: Front cover of Under the Naga Tail: A True Story of Survival, Bravery, and Escape from the Cambodian Genocide by Mae Bunseng Taing and James Taing. Used with permission of the publisher, Greenleaf Book Group.
A full night passed. The bleak dawn shone through.
The road hummed beneath the bus wheels. Light broke on the dirty, fogged windows, casting a dreary gloom. We sat tearfully silent. Some on the bus had awakened hours before. Few slept at all that night. I wiped the fog off the window glass with my palms and peered out. It was still the same endless procession of trees on both sides of the road, with no houses to be seen.
The bus cut off the highway and turned onto a shabby track. Gravel shot up, scraping the metal underneath the bus. Then the bus hit a steeper incline, lunging forward through a dark, chilling tunnel of trees. The rocking force momentarily knocked us out of our seats. Passengers were bolted awake when their heads struck the windows. The bus climbed upward with the suspension dancing up and down. Overhanging branches slapped hard against the windows and roof; and the engine of the bus pounded and roared. The emergency lights tripped on again. I knew it was near—our destination.
Thai soldiers squatted alongside the dirt road. They rose to their feet on our arrival. The bus approached the squad of soldiers until they surrounded us in front and at the sides of the vehicle. Each one had an M-16 rifle in their hand or slung over their shoulder.
“We are here,” the soldier inside the bus announced to us. “Get out of the bus.” I instantly felt paralyzed. This was the place they were going to kill us. Nobody wanted to leave.
Bang! Bang! Bang!! A soldier outside violently pounded against the metal frame with his fist and forearm. “Everybody get out! Get out now!”
The folding doors swung back and two soldiers entered the bus with hate in their eyes, yelling, “STEP OUT! STEP OUT NOW!!”
Through the windows I watched the refugees disgorging, rifles pointing them into the forests. Ming’s siblings and the rest of my family—Tai, Choa, Sihong and Sihun’s families—descended the steps with the crowd and stepped into the unknown surroundings. I lost sight of them.
Father and I were among the last few aboard. I held his arm firmly and carried our belongings with my other hand while we stepped off the bus. After we got out, the soldier searched the bus thoroughly, looking underneath the seats for anyone who may have been hiding.
Then the bus took off, the wheels stirring up water and mud. I scanned the horizon, trying to grasp what I was seeing.
The sun sat high in the sky, shining on sweeping emerald-green forests that stretched forever. The treetops seemed so low, marching on endlessly to the horizon. Far beyond, fog swirled cloud-like, floating motionless in the trees. My gaze lost itself in the remoteness of the mountains. I had expected some sign of civilization or a city, but we appeared to be on the crown of a mountain overlooking a valley.
The Thai soldiers pointed us toward the downward incline. We headed in that direction, until more Thai soldiers stopped us and one of them said, “If you have any gold, currency, or valuable possessions, drop it in the buckets for us. You won’t be needing it down there.”
His words were too ominous to accept at face value. I surveyed the area and saw an older Thai soldier holding a box of cigarettes. He seemed to have a more merciful and gentler appearance than the others, so I walked toward him and spoke in Thai: “Excuse me, sir.”
“Oh, you speak Thai.”
“Yes, a little bit. Where am I?”
“You are on top of Preah Vihear Mountain.”
“So if I get down off the mountain is Cambodia on the other side?” He would not answer my question directly, but said, “Take as much water and rice as you can carry because there is nothing down there.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Before I turned and took Father by the arm again, the old soldier asked, “Do you have any money to buy cigarettes?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any money.” Then I asked, “How am I going to get down?”
“You just follow the other people taking the path down.” He appeared frustrated that I did not have any money.
“Where are the other refugees who were sent here before?”
“Don’t worry. They are long gone.”
The words echoed in my brain: “Don’t worry. They are long gone.”
Then a man in his twenties came struggling up the slope in filthy, ragged clothing. He scavenged while he walked, picking up whatever he saw and putting it into his plastic bag. When he found some moldy rice tied inside a clear bag, he tore open the plastic and scooped his fingers in. He ate it quickly, then climbed up closer to our position.
He approached us trembling, with a look of horror in his eyes. “Are you a newcomer?” he asked with a shaky voice.
“Are there any more refugees coming?”
“I don’t know. What is it like down there?” I asked.
“The dead are everywhere. People lost their lives from stepping on landmines. There is no water or food. The conditions are grave. There is no way out. I’ve been looking, but there is none. Is there food up there?”
“Yes. Lots of people left it behind.” He looked up and saw the Thai soldiers.
The second my eyes strayed away I heard a gunshot. I threw a sideways glance and saw his body tumbling down the hill. There was blood on his shirt. He plunged forty feet, rolling, and collided with a tree stump. His crime was searching for food.
Four Thai soldiers stomped over to us and fired three shots into the air. One of them shouted, “Hurry up and get down!! Or I will shoot you all down. All of you guys!”
“Move faster!” I told Father. “Move faster! They will kill us!”
We needed to keep moving, even though I didn’t see the rest of my family. I pulled his hand and escaped downhill between the thick wall of trees on both sides. My other arm flailed about, blocking the tree branches and thick bushes grabbing at my face. Staying up there was suicidal, but the same was true for going down. I was afraid we would fall into a minefield. One false step and we could end up dead. Although he had trouble keeping up, Father knew the danger and forced himself to match my stride.
On the flight down the mountain, we came to a stop on a cliff face. I looked over the edge of the bluff, where crumbs of loose earth broke away and rolled down the eight-foot drop.
“Find another way to get down,” Father said. “I can’t climb this.”
“No, Ba. We have to. Otherwise they are going to gun us down here.” I tossed my belongings of rice and his clothes sack over the precipice. I grabbed a fistful of vines streaming down the cliff and painstakingly rappelled off the sharp side.
When I landed on my feet, I held on to the vines and sprung onto a large rock that gave me height to reach halfway back up. “Lower yourself and put your feet on my shoulders,” I said. Father gently eased his old body down, sliding into a sitting position. He grasped his legs and stretched them over the edge.
“Take your time,” I told him. While I kept hold of the vines for support, he tentatively slid off and stepped onto my shoulders. I got off the rock and bent my knees so he would be level with the rock to stand on it.
Soon after Father gained his footing, gunshots from somewhere close by burst forth again. “Ba. Keep moving from the murder!”
“I’m very tired. I can’t go on.”
“We have to keep moving. Once we get to the next landing, then we can rest.”
The next plateau was not as high. Like a rock climber, I held the little rocks sticking out and felt my way down, stepping on anything my feet could reach. Then I touched something foreign with my foot. It was soft, cold, and spiny, kind of sharp. I did not know what it was. I firmly stepped on it, and heard something crack and break. It was not ground. I could not see where I stepped because there was too much vegetation.
But once I reached the base of the little plateau, I saw it: a body slumped over, dead. It was a man in his fifties in a long-sleeved buttoned-up shirt and gray pants. I had stepped on his rib cage.
I immediately pressed my hands together and bowed forward. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to step on you. I didn’t know. Please forgive me.”
I was afraid I might have angered the spirit because I had invaded its resting spot and its peace in the afterlife. My people believe spirits wander around the body for a period of time after death and should be left undisturbed.
I helped Father get down, directing him away from the corpse, and breathed with relief when he was finally on solid ground. He untied the rubber band around the rice packets from the kind Chinese woman and offered some to me. He regarded me for a moment, then stretched out his hand and brushed my head. “You’re so young,” he said in a terribly sad tone. “Why have you endured so much misery? I thought we had made it after we escaped from Cambodia. But it’s happening all over again. The Thai made it clear why they dumped us here. No one else would do this to other humans. We’re here to be slaughtered. They want us to clear the landmines.”
I had no response for that. It was so horrible I didn’t dare speak of it.
This excerpt of Under the Naga Tail: A True Story of Survival, Bravery, and Escape from the Cambodian Genocide by Mae Bunseng Taing and James Taing is provided with permission from the authors and Greenleaf Book Group. For more information and to access retail links, please visit underthenagatail.com.
Click here to read Tobias Lentz’s interview with James Taing about Under the Naga Tail.
Mae Bunseng Taing is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. He was featured in the HAAPI Film Festival award-winning documentary Ghost Mountain, released in 2019. This is his first book and memoir.
James Taing is the son of Mae Bunseng Taing and the founder of the Preah Vihear Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for preserving the history of refugee rescue in Cambodia and the greater French Indochina region in the 1970s.