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Tired Soles and Khmer Rouge Memories

By: Sam Campbell Posted: January-01-2008 in
Sam Campbell

When the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital victorious in 1975, emptied the cities and sent almost the entire population the fields in a disastrous attempt to create an agrarian utopia, the ultra-Maoists virtually sealed the country off from the outside world. That meant the people had to use what they could find to fashion their everyday needs.

The manufacture of shoes from the vehicle tyres became a potent symbol of the new agrarian society Pol Pot forced on Cambodia.

One of the more infamous engineering triumphs of this period was the tough and enduring shoes, fashioned from the tires of abandoned vehicles. These so-called 'Pol Pot sandals' can still be found on the feet of veteran former soldiers in far-flung former Khmer Rouge border strongholds, as well as those who work in thick jungle, as they remain unmatched in practicality, durability, and price.

Although just a curiosity for today's tourists, the mere sight of this ingenious footwear conjures bitter memories of death and deprivation for many ordinary Cambodians, but under the Khmer Rouge, ownership of any type of mechanical or electronic item, including cars, was seen as opulent and decadent, and they were scavenged and cannibalized to create more down-to-earth commodities.

The manufacture of shoes from the vehicle tyres became a potent symbol of the new agrarian society Pol Pot forced on Cambodia. Some were more equal than others however; says former Khmer Rouge group leader, Tep Kry, 46. She remembers a factory churning out the shoes on the edge of the capital. High ranking commanders had shoes made from more prestigious cars, such as Mercedes, she recalls, while lowly cadres had to make do with coarse footwear made from the tyres of trucks.

"You could tell the rank of a person immediately by the thickness and quality of their shoes," she said in a recent interview at her home in Kandal province. But few people enjoyed the luxury of living in Phnom Penh during the regime, which was finally overthrown by Vietnamese-backed forces in 1979, and the shoes were often crafted by hand in the provinces. Laol Un Lin, 50, still crafts 'Pol Pot sandals' in the garden of his house in eastern Kampong Cham province, and clearly recalls the deprivations that led to their invention.

"In the Pol Pot era we had no factories, no money, no manufactured goods, not even markets," said Laol. "We had to make do with what we had, which was very little."

Hard wearing and suitable for any terrain, the best sandals are made from truck tyres. The soles come from the thick tyre tops, while the flexible straps are cut from the thinner tyre walls or inner tubes.

The only tool required is a strong blade able to cut the tough rubber. A blueprint for the sole is cut onto paper (though pieces of rubber or wood were used in the Pol Pot period) and then, with the help of his son, Laol saws through the thick tyre. After trimming the edges, the sole is pierced and the thin flexible straps threaded through. The ends are doubled over and stapled or heat sealed to anchor them in place. These ends also help grip in mud, as do the tyre's original treads.

"These shoes can be made in any size," explained Laol. "The thick soled ones are extremely strong and will last ten years or more." Laol, once a soldier himself, learned his trade from guerrillas battling in the dense forests of the region. He understands why they are still known as 'Ho Chi Minh sandals' in neighbouring Vietnam, and he sees the irony in how they were so avidly adopted by the Khmer Rouge, who viewed the Vietnamese as their bitterest rivals.

"Soldiers from Vietnam first wore these shoes," he said. "We saw how strong the shoes were and how little we needed to make them. Soon everyone was wearing them." During the troubled times, cobbling was Laol's main trade. "I have made at least 4000 pairs of these shoes in my life," he said.

Peace saw radical changes to the Cambodian economy. Foreign goods returned to the markets and people had money to buy them. 'Pol Pot sandals' quickly fell out of favour as people struggled to forget everything related to the brutal regime which left up to 2 million Cambodians dead.

"Modern shoes [like plastic flip-flops] are lighter and more comfortable," explained Laol. "People want to be fashionable and to forget the past."

Moto-taxi driver Som Nang, 46, said the traumatic associations of forced labour were the main factor in the declining popularity of the shoes.

The sandals "are the best shoes money can buy, far stronger and more durable than modern shoes. I will never wear them though, because they remind me of the bad times in Cambodia," he said.

Today, Laol rarely plies his old trade, and he is glad of it.

"Cambodia is a different country to before," he smiled. "Now I own orchards and a truck. I am proud to say one of my sons has been to university in Phnom Penh and my daughter is in America. My life is so much better and my children have opportunities I never had."

"If I have to go in the forest, I wear my old shoes," said Laol. "They are much better than the wooden ones from my father's time. I used to hear him coming from far away - klak, klak, klak," he laughed. But soon Laol's skills may soon be like the sounds of his father's shoes - echoes from the past.


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