Vietnam veterans make good life for themselves in Cambodia
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The scent of burning marijuana mixes with the pungent odors from food push carts and garbage piles.
Scantily clad women lure tourists to bars that offer ice-cold beer to stave off the steamy heat.
Cambodia has come a long way since the brutal Khmer Rouge massacred more than 1 million people in the infamous “killing fields” in the 1970s. Yet it also remains a nation rooted in the past, a land of friendly locals and immense cultural beauty with darkness and debauchery lurking beneath the surface.
Phnom Penh, its capital, is a place where the business of survival never sleeps — panhandlers carrying babies meander in a seemingly endless parade, motorized rickshaw drivers offer cheap rides at all hours, fast-talking children peddle homemade wares, and nearly every price is dirt cheap — and negotiable.
In many ways, it’s frozen in time, reminiscent of Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War.
For a handful of American Vietnam veterans who left a little piece of themselves behind during the ferocious jungle war and say they were vilified when they went back to the states, Phnom Penh has become home.
“The war was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Andy Richards, 65, said as he sat in a bar booth, swirling wine in a glass. “I’ve had three open-heart surgeries.”
Richards, a bar manager with a handlebar mustache and sunbaked skin, generally attributes his heart problems to the war. He is warm, friendly and easygoing.
“I like Cambodia,” said Richards, who arrived in 2002. “I like the lack of rules. There’s more personal freedoms here than anywhere else. It’s inexpensive. The people are very nice.”
The Madison, Wis., native joined the Army in 1968 at 18 because he expected to be drafted. He spent a short time in the storied 82nd Airborne Division but disliked it because it was “too spit-shined.” He transferred to the 101st Airborne and headed for Vietnam’s jungles.
Richards went from a paratrooper to a bandana-wearing grunt, like something out of the 1986 film “Platoon.” He and his fellow soldiers spent time in the most northern part of South Vietnam, the region with the highest concentration of North Vietnamese Army forces. They operated near Khe Sanh, in the highlands, and made forays into the demilitarized zone.
Richards left the Army and Vietnam behind in April 1971 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin. He worked at small local newspapers but battled the bottle and his anger for years.
“They considered us whiners,” Richards said of his return stateside. “We were a pariah.”
In 1999, at the prodding of a friend, he went back to Vietnam to “release the ghosts.”
“I was scared,” Richards said. “I was apprehensive. But after my first day in Saigon, I was talking with ex-NVA, telling war stories. I got that monkey off my back. It was the best thing for me.”
In southern Vietnam, Richards got the thanks he never received at home. They were kind to him; they shook his hand and thanked him for trying to help them. He then traveled to Thailand and Laos.
After briefly returning to the U.S., Richards went back to Southeast Asia for good in November 1999, living first in Thailand, then Vietnam and Cambodia, where he decided to put down roots. After years of searching, he had found a home.
John Muller, 66, from Seattle, told a similar tale. He joined the Army in 1969 and spent the next year in Vietnam.
“I wish I’d never gone,” he said. “It was a real waste of lives and a huge expense.”
After the war, he returned to the States and, like Richards, went to school, earning a political science degree. He, too, felt that he and his fellow veterans were treated like criminals, and, after several jobs, he decided to leave for good as well.
Muller had visited Southeast Asia several times beginning in 1976 and returned there to live 10 years later.
“I wanted to come back and do something good,” he said. “That’s my whole motive for why I’m out here.”
Muller, who runs a private security company, said his legacy has been working with the Cambodian government to regulate the industry, taking guns off the streets and providing jobs to ex-troops.
“It’s easy to work here,” Muller said. “There is a lot of opportunity. It’s easy for me to get around and do business.”
For legendary and eccentric photographer Al Rockoff — portrayed by John Malkovich in the Academy Award-winning film “The Killing Fields,” which he derides — his continued work in Cambodia is the next chapter in a love affair that began when he was an Army combat photographer in Vietnam.
Rockoff was known to go to extreme lengths to get his iconic images that today adorn the walls of the U.S. Embassy and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh. He said he once died on the table after a piece of shrapnel pierced his heart while taking pictures at the front as the Khmer Rouge advanced through the countryside. A Swedish surgeon saved him.
He splits his time between Florida and his adopted country, and can still be seen riding around Phnom Penh on the back of a moped, camera in hand, snapping pictures of the colorful people he encounters.
“This country has opportunity like Thailand did 20 to 30 years after World War II,” he said. “It has a good nightlife … The police deal with people all right. I’m getting back to where I left off in the Army. I want to show people what’s going on.”
Richards, Muller and Rockoff belong to a small club. While Thailand has many Air Force and Army veterans living there, and Vietnam has a growing number, Cambodia still has few.
Richards said Phnom Penh draws him partially because it is a big city with a small-city feel, and has become almost “cosmopolitan” in recent years. Rockoff likened its charm to Monaco.
Yet, despite all the growth and development, which was inevitable as Cambodia came out of the dark Khmer Rouge period in the early ‘90s, the men say their adopted country will never lose its luster.
“I will stay here,” Richards said. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else. This is the end of the road, dude.”