It was August 1996, and I was working in the country for several months as a reporter for one of the news wire services.
Cambodia was an big international news story at the time.
The Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths by starvation and torture of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians during their brief rule in the seventies, were still fighting from heavily fortified jungle bases. The government was an unstable coalition of two parties who’d been at each other’s throats for the better part of a decade and whose main interests were settling historical scores and making money.
Journalists took part in a series of visits to various provinces organized by both parties in an effort show off how many Khmer Rouge had defected to their side.
The first of these was organized by the Cambodian People’s Party, the dominant Coalition partner, in control of the country during the eighties. We were told to assemble early one morning at Phnom Penh’s airport, next to a huge Russian helicopter the army used for supply runs. We waited in the baking sun for several hours until the Russian pilots, who had a reputation as notorious drinkers, turned up. As predicted, they were unsteady on their feet after the previous night’s vodka binge.
We flew for hours over an endless expanse of dense, arriving in a small village. A collection of old men and young boys, many missing limbs, stood in ragged formation in a clearing in the village. Nearby, lay a collection of ancient, rusty machine guns and rifles. Hardly the well armed, battled hardened veterans we were told to expect.
After a series of speeches we all piled back into the helicopter, along with several dozen heavily armed Cambodian men of unknown allegiance. The helicopter veered towards the ground and felt like it was going to crash, but pulled up at the last minute.
Within minutes the chopper had flown into a tropical storm. Inside, I clung to whatever I could as the craft was buffeted by rain and wind. We landed in a small clearing that had been hacked out of incredibly dense jungle and our heavily armed guests disembarked, then continued our journey.
This experience encapsulated a number of lessons about working as a journalist in Cambodia I tired to inject into my crime novel, Ghost Money, which is set in that country in the mid-nineties. Never believe anything you were told and give up any hope of being able to get to the bottom of a story.
I was too caught up in the day to day reporting of events and trying to make a living as a freelance journalist to put much of a dent in the book. That didn’t come until nearly a decade later, when one day I sat down and started reading through some old notes.
Using the skeleton of the plot I developed in the mid-nineties, the basic plot of Ghost Money, a private investigator searching for a lost businessman amidst the chaos of the Khmer Rouge split, came quickly.
I drew heavily on my time as a journalist in the nineties and my reading of Cambodian history. I did quite a bit of on the ground research for parts of the book, especially in and around Battambang, a large city near Cambodia’s border with Thailand, and Pailin, Ing Sary’s former strong hold. Both of these locations feature heavily in the second half of Ghost Money. I also spent quite a bit of time just hanging out and talking to people, especially the locals, picking up nuances and colour whenever I could.
Ghost Money is a crime story, but it’s also about the politics of Cambodia the broken country that was Cambodia in the nineties, about what happens to people who are trapped in the cracks between two periods of history, the choice they make, what they have to do to survive.
Andrew Nette is a writer, film buff and pulp scholar based in Melbourne, Australia. He is one of the editors of Crime Factory, publishers of e-books as well as print books. His short fiction has appeared in a number of on-line and print publications. Ghost Money, his debut novel, is released through Snubnose Press. His blog, http://www.pulpcurry.com explores crime film and literature, particularly from Asia and Australia.