Veteran journalists reminisce about their 'golden days' in Cambodia | Connect Asia

Veteran journalists reminisce about their 'golden days' in Cambodia

Veteran journalists reminisce about their 'golden days' in Cambodia

Updated 12 February 2013, 16:16 AEDT

Whether they were adventurous, hedonistic, heroic or just plain foolish, names like Tim Page, Neil Davis and Michael Herr have become synonymous with the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia.

A reunion in Phnom Penh last week brought back together some of these veteran newsmen, for whom the experiences of war and the years they shared in Indochina have forged friendships lasting more than four decades.

Many were in town to attend the funeral of a towering figure in Cambodia's history - the former King Norodom Sihanouk.

They also came to honour and pay tribute to the lives of friends and colleagues killed during those wars years, at the unveiling of a memorial in their name.

Presenter: Claire Slattery, Phnom Penh correspondent

Speakers: James Pringle, former Southeast Asian Bureau Chief at Reuters; Don North, former NBC Indochina war correspondent; Tim Page, former freelance photographer

JAMES PRINGLE: They were the best years of my life really. As I mentioned last night there was a lot of hardship and there was a lot of danger when one's friends and colleagues were getting killed but there was another side to it too. It was tremendous. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive and to be young was very heaven" I think that's Keats who said that…

DON NORTH: They were golden days, they were marvellous days and I look back on them very favourably and very warmly, except for some of the missing opportunities I had and missed. But generally they were very wonderful times and that really explains why I came back at this time to try to recapture that feeling.

SLATTERY: Reunions happen for many reasons - but in Phnom Penh last week, the funeral of a former king brought a bunch of self-proclaimed "hacks" back together again.

Some of the journalists, photographers and cameramen who covered the Indochina wars of the 1960s and 70s returned to their former stomping ground to attend the funeral of Norodom Sihanouk.

Cambodia's former king and founder of the country's independence was an old friend for some, and for many, often a major player in their stories.

Don North worked in Indochina as a correspondent for NBC.

He first came to Cambodia in 1964 to work on a German documentary about then-Prince Sihanouk.

DON NORTH: … So they dropped me and an Indian crew in Phnom Penh and we linked up with Sihanouk and spent every day with him for about a month travelling all over Cambodia. Basically greeting and schmoozing with politicians friends and what not - building his base. And he was great fun to be with. He loved journalists, he loved to be interviewed and he even tried to direct my documentary… On the last day I was with him was in Kampong Cham and he gave out medals to the mayor and the dog catcher and other local politicians and then when he was finished he found he had three medals left over so he called me over and said "Mr Don, here is a medal for friendship to my country" and there's a picture of me getting a medal from Sihanouk in 1964 we were both young in those days.

SLATTERY: James Pringle worked in Indochina as Reuters' Southeast Asian bureau chief on and off from 1966 to 71.

JAMES PRINGLE: instead of just talking about things like the Vietnam war I wanted to see them first hand. So I asked Reuters if they could send me...

SLATTERY: One of the best-known names of that era, photographer Tim Page made his name freelancing for news services such as UPI and AFP.

He first came to Asia from Europe at age 20, untrained and inexperienced.

TIM PAGE: I drove overland in a Volkswagen Combie in 1962 and got as far as Lahore…

SLATTERY:These newsmen have now each clocked up decades covering conflicts in dozens of countries from Cuba to Israel.

But many of them started out their illustrious careers in Vietnam and Cambodia, and their fondness for that time is bittersweet. James Pringle -

JAMES PRINGLE: Well it was beautiful in Saigon and Phnom Penh you know after you filed your story coming in from the field you filed your story then you could go out and have a normal life - beautiful restaurants, beautiful girls you know it was amazing it was blissful almost, but you had to get up at four o'clock the next morning and take a helicopter out into the field again in Saigon or go down the roads here.

TIM PAGE: I suppose it was the golden age of journalism I can't think of another epoch where the power of the magazine which was usurped by television newspapers are almost dead, when you could get a 16-page spread into Life Magazine and a cover. That just does not exist. More's the pity… And probably I'm being a bit of a braggart; the reportage from Vietnam helped to change the course of history. It was awareness of the anti-war movement - I don't think you'll ever see photography at that level again.

SLATTERY:The job could require journalists to take huge risks.

At least thirty-seven local and foreign reporters were killed in the Cambodian civil war of 1970 to 75 - more journalists died in those five years than in the decade of conflict in Vietnam.

Don North says war and death were everyday realities.

DON NORTH: Oh yeah there were plenty of times that I came very close to buying the farm. I think I was a reasonably careful journalist I took chances, we all took chances but I don't think I took unreasonable chances. But yeah there's always this survivors guilt. You can't help wondering on late nights in bed, how come God let me survive and took so many of my friends?

JAMES PRINGLE: We used to go every day what we called "down the road" most of us were at the Royal Hotel just here and as I mentioned it was like spitfire pilots during the second world war in Britain during the battle of Britain they counted the planes coming in and later counted them back. Well we counted the correspondents and photographers going down the road and they counted us back in again and we didn't all come back as you know, as you can see from this memorial.

SLATTERY: The memorial, unveiled at a ceremony held by the Cambodian government last week, lists the names of those reporters killed during the civil war.

It stands out the front of the now legendary Hotel Le Royal, which was home to many of the journalists of that era.

(NATSOT - start of Minister of Information reading out the list of the names of those who died, monks chanting)

James Pringle says the memorial brings mixed emotions.

JAMES PRINGLE: It's an irony in a way because this government as I mentioned last night is still run by former Khmer Rouge and it's really extraordinary it's an irony that they're the ones who helped out up a memorial like this because these people were the ones who were killing us before.

SLATTERY:But the bonds forged in war also brought those who survived closer together.

DON NORTH: We all went out and covered some very complex and dangerous combat experiences and came back to our city base and got drunk and talked about it. And we were psychiatrists to each other and helped us bear the tremendous burden of sadness and shock at what we were seeing day in and day out.

SLATTERY:The journalists have reunited many times in Vietnam, but it's only the second time such an event has been held in Cambodia.

TIM PAGE: Our ranks are thinning and greying fast. In the vein of school reunions and stuff, it's always nice to see your old mates and friends and it's an excuse to get really stoned and pissed with some righteous actually surprising - there's less wittering on about the war than that what I would imagine. I would have thought there'd be you know, not non-stop war stories but I've hardly heard one. We talk about the grandchildren. I mean it's - whoever thought we'd have grandchildren? I mean were we even going to survive? Every year we're thinning fast which is kind of a bit worrying I suppose.

DON NORTH: … so it's really been a wonderful experience being back like this and we old hacks you know about the old hacks - there are about 300 of us and mostly we communicate everyday on the internet and refight the wars and argue and whatnot and we all planned to be here - many of us for a small reunion at the time of the funeral and to pay our respects to our own fallen comrades and so that's what we've done.

SLATTERY: In his 1998 book River of Time, the former war correspondent Jon Swain writes of journalists' war stories: "Their stale, wearied refrain is "I remember when I was in Indochina…If I am guilty of a similar sin and sound too much like an old Indochina hand, I apologise. The exploitation of nostalgia is not my intention."

What's clear from speaking to these correspondents and reading the work of others, is how much the years they spent in Indochina got under their skin.

Their stories continue to captivate generations of journalists and others with their sense of romance, danger, nostalgia, sorrow and fascination.

But for Don North, recounting those times doesn't just keep the memory of his heyday alive; it also commemorates his fallen comrades and all those who lost their lives in pursuit of the truth.

DON NORTH: Some Buddhist friends of mine here had said that Buddhists believe that in this world people die twice, the first time when the earthly body gives up and the second time is when their friends forget them so this is a way of not forgetting them. I don't think we ever will forget our friends who died here and we kind of say now so many of us have already crossed the river but we hope they'll recon a good landing zone for us and pop some smoke when we start to come in.

Contact the studio

Got something to say about what you're hearing on the radio right now?

Send your texts to +61 427 72 72 72

Add the hashtag #raonair to add your tweets to the conversation.

Email us your thoughts on an issue. Messages may be used on air.