Tree knows the Bokor National Park better than most. After all, he lived in the forest for two years.
“My life was not a good one,” he says. “I was born in 1958. Until I was twelve, life was good. Then Nixon bomb my country and the trouble start.”
His family were prosperous peasants. They owned their own land, and Tree went to school at the temple.
“With the bombs, we had to hide in the forest. Then the Khmer Rouge kill my family, and I live in the forest alone,” he says.
What happened, I ask. Z, sitting in the sun outside the ruined casino scoffing chocolate chip cookies, is listening hard.
“I stole a sweet potato,” he says, then expands with the air of a man who has had many, many years to contemplate the consequences of that one well-intended decision.
“It was a little outside the ground, sticking up like so,” he mimes a tiny bump. “And my parents were hungry, there was no one around, when I am walking home from the fields. So I think. I look around. And I take it. To feed my parents.”
That evening, as the family sat down to dine on their stolen repast, the Khmer Rouge arrived. “They come every evening. They like to look into the houses, to see what people eat,” he recalls.
They tied the hands of the whole family, his grandmother, his parents, his aunt, and his older sister. They blindfolded them, tied them to a pole and dragged them off to the forest “on a rope, like animals.”
“They kill the old people first. My grandmother, my aunt, my parents. The cloth slip down, and I see them lying in the hole dead. I look round. I see there are only two Khmer Rouge, young soldiers. One is busy, cut the rope that tie me to my sister. The other, take the pole to kill her.”
He mimes a pole striking the back of the skull. “When they cut my hands, I know they are busy killing my sister. So I run.”
It’s not hard to spot Cambodians who lived through the genocide and civil war. It’s not just their age, but the set of their face, the misery lines that do not disappear.
“For two years, I am in the forest. I eat poison fruits and medicinal plants. The poison make me weak but the plant give me energy. There are two kinds of poison. Poison, and kill poison. You understand?”
He learnt which plants were safe to eat by befriending a monkey and watching what it ate. For two years, he had no human contact. ”Sometimes I hear people talking,” he says. “But then I am afraid, and I hide.”
Did you not catch animals, I ask? “No. There were many animals then, no hunting, not like now. But to eat meat, I have to make fire, and a fire, the Khmer Rouge can see.”
In 1978, the Vietnamese invaded. “When the Vietnamese come, I leave the forest, and the Vietnamese catch me,” he says. “I write long, long confession, then after many months they believe me, and I fight with the Vietnamese, killing Khmer Rouge. That makes me happy, kill Khmer Rouge.”
Z looks up from his cookies. “If the Khmer Rouge weren’t giving the sweet potatoes to the people, what were they growing them for?”
Tree smiles. “We grow many things for the Khmer Rouge. Maize. Sweet potatoes. Beans. They send them to China, because the Chinese give them weapons.”
“So they were starving people so they could kill people? They were killing people to kill people? To buy tanks and guns and missiles?”
“Yes,” Tree says.
“With the Vietnamese Army, I was fighting here,” he says.
We look around Bokor Hill Station, its grand art deco buildings stripped to the bone and covered in soft orange lichen, the forest stretching away into the Elephant Mountains, lazy wafts of cloud idling across the hills.
Remembering the young monks at the temple a mile away, with the tame geese, pet parakeet and portly monkey, it seems hard to believe.
“Then they take me, make me lay landmines. For five years, I am laying landmines to kill Cambodians, to kill my people. Because you realise, maybe eighty, ninety per cent of Cambodians were Khmer Rouge? One zone against another zone, but all Khmer Rouge. This is why the trials they have now, the West, they do not understand.”
He was caught in a firefight in the forest, running from the Khmer Rouge. “Then I step on a plastic landmine, and I am in hospital for one year.”
I point at his leg. “Did you lose your leg?”
“No, no,” he explains. “With plastic landmine, you hear pffft, the valve release. Give time to move, not much time, but enough,” he mimes taking the weight off his foot and throwing himself forward.
He shows the scars. “It not so bad. Only if you stand like so,” he places his foot firmly on the ground, “You lose leg.”
He was talent spotted by the Vietnamese, who took him to Hanoi, to train him as a lawyer. “But then I realise, the Vietnamese not want to help Cambodia. They want to destroy Cambodia, make it part of Vietnam,” he says.
He came home for good, and married, had his own family, with five children of his own. He has worked as a guide in the National Park for many years.
Later, we are scrambling down the dusty streambed, Z jumping off rocks, swinging from overhanging branches, testing his weight on vines, all the while vociferously pointing out the path ahead with his latest stick.
I ask Tree about his children. “They are twenty-five, twenty-three, twenty-one, nineteen and seventeen,” he says. “The young ones are in Phnom Penh now. They good kids. Study at government university for free. They spend four years in Phnom Penh, three years at university overseas. I pay almost nothing, very little. Life is good now.”