The bus Saigon to Phnom Penh gave us a nice ride – enough leg room, stops every two hours (but toilet on the bus just in case you wanted to use the smallest toilet in the history of the world), great scenery, working aircon, part of the time four seats between the three of us, good “tripnic,” easy driver going smooth and slow, easy border crossing – all good.
We got a tuk-tuk to Samnang’s house near the Psar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market) and then we were on the small street that used to be dirt, used to be full of flies, used to carry the stench of blood and raw meat from the “wet” market two blocks from the house, but now is paved and now has no wet market. Samnang came out to greet us – a great relief as he’s been unwell for several years; then Sokhom, also a relief as she’s had some serious health issues in the past year. Back up the steep stairs (mother cat and four kittens ensconced on the landing at the second floor) to the third floor room where we’d stayed before, back to our little place in Phnom Penh, a city that 30 years ago was a ghost town, empty of all but a few returning people stumbling into the ruins of a deserted city, and now full of people, full and for me, because I wasn’t there (just a shore where some found refuge) it’s like it all never happened. Streets full, shops busy, people, tuk-tuks, motos, cars, trucks, fewer beggars than five, even two years ago, fewer children grubbing in the garbage, Phnom Penh.
David gave me this gift: Downpour
We settled into the pattern from several years ago – breakfast (like the other meals, prepared by Juedi, a cook among cooks), then walk to the Russian Market or go somewhere else like the Okay Guesthouse for a bus ticket to Battambang or the National Museum, then lunch, another walk with my wife like the Energizer Bunny go go go, dinner with Chanmony (Mony), Sophea, Leslie, David, Juedi, Samnang, playing games with the mangosteens – good times. Photo above: On a tuk-tuk
The third day I took a bus to Battambang to visit Lance and Chharvy – another hypnotic bus ride. All SE Asian buses have a video monitor playing too loud music, movies, etc. At first it was pretty good Khmer music, but later, not so good, and another world unfolding … a policeman standing in the street reading a newspaper as he sort of directs traffic … bumpy road, stopping to pick up more passengers, the bus filling
with passengers, stopping to get air in the tires … and as we get to the outskirts of town, more and more traditional wood homes and women wearing sarongs and krama … a few horrific but small slums of thatched and cardboard walled houses standing in layers of garbage and unimaginably filthy water … the driver’s assistant passing out little black plastic bags for people who might be feeling queasy from the rocking/rolling ride … stopping along the way in villages and small towns to pick up more passengers and the people getting on now are country folk, smelling of hard
work (sweet summer sweat), smoke, fish and I’m inhaling it like it’s life itself and iPod perfect: and it stones me to my soul … fields dotted with palms stretching away across space and time. Photo: Inside the Russian Market
Is this the people’s bus? Did we just stop at the bus stop where the women walked to a nearby fence-line among the bushes and the men walked to a further place, all of us urinating on the ground – except a couple of men (the cads) using the closer area and on the way back from the further place I pass the actual toilets (latrines) and no doubt, the bushes were better. It's 9:50am. Photo: Bus stop food
It’s harvest time, people working in the fields, unhusked rice spread out on plastic squares in front of homes. We pass a wreck – a truck with the front end badly smashed and then another truck with a man slumped over the steering wheel. Off in the distance a low mountain with pagoda spires white and gold. Photo: Drying the rice
Almost all the houses I see now are made of unpainted, weathered wood, galvanized roofs, a few tile roofs, some houses of thatched walls and roof, some with bougainvillea in amazing cascades of magenta, pink, red, all the yards are dirt, water buffalo, banana trees, kilns, ducks, huge water jugs, TV antennas, bus horn blatting, creamy yellow stucco schools built in a U with shaded courtyard/playground, stores open to the highway (really a two lane tarmac) between the twolargest cities in Cambodia, gas for sale in recycled liter bottles anywhere from 5-12 bottles at any one stand, trucks and wagons (some ox-drawn) loaded with great bags of rice. Photo: The girls who take care of the latrine
At the next stop the little girl latrine attendant asks me for my ballpoint pen. I give her a princely (or princessly) 500 Riel note (about 12.5 cents) and she thanks me, a silent and deliberate somphea.
Hammocks slung under houses, spirit houses, ponds with water lilies, lotus, the video is the awfulest variety show, the 4 year-old Chinese girl up and across from me staring at the heavily made-up woman across from me, cafes in towns, one table open-air pool halls with dirt floors, Kompong Chhnang, Kratie, Pursat, nameless places. Cambodia. Photo: Canal outside of Battambang. Photo below: road outside Battambang
Yesterday I saw a Rolls Royce parked in Phnom Penh and on the dashboard two gold-encrusted general’s hats and I thought, who wouldn’t like to fight a war against an army with generals who ride around in Rolls and live in palaces.
Battambang was good. Like everywhere else we’ve seen, more prosperous than before. We were hanging out in Chharvy’s internet café and Lance was playing his guitar and I couldn’t place the tune – just that it was very hip, then, of course, Visions of Johanna. Some of his expat friends came for dinner sitting at a table on the sidewalk in front of the cafe,
smoking Cambodian cigarettes, telling stories of fevers, parasites, and the like, and one man, thin with frequent cough talking of the older days, 25 years ago, Aeroflot flights, DC-3s and dirt runways, all of which I dug hearing as I’m ever more appreciative of reminiscing, even when not my own. Photo below: Wat Ek Phnom, Lance, beggar
In the morning I had curry and bread from the White Rose – ahh. Then we took a tuk-tuk along a winding riverside countryside road to Wat Ek Phnom, a collapsing 11th Century ruin with a drooling, mentally retarded boy scampering on hands and withered legs along with us.
On the way back to town we stopped at a Pepsi bottling plant, deserted since the war, a little eerie … riding on through 100s of school children, shady road, old houses, and back into Battambang where I waited along with a Japanese backpacker, a monk, and a glue-sniffing street kid for the bus back to Phnom Penh. Same bus same deal coming and going and back to the house after 6. Photo above: Woman in Phnom Penh
The great meals, the walks continued, along with good conversations with David and Samnang. One night we had my internet friend Henning and his girlfriend Ment over for dinner.
We thought the plan was to have pretty much what was on the café menu – not hardly. We had rice, chicken with cashews and mild dry chilis, luc lac, raw beef salad, amok (fish curry), red curry (chicken) with baguettes, Tiger beer, green(!) Fanta – what a feast! Henning and Leslie got on very well and a good time was had by all. Photo: Samnang and David
Tuesday morning after breakfast David took off for Cali – it was an emotional goodbye for Samnang and Sokhom, knowing as they did that it might be a last goodbye. After lunch with Than and Juedi, Leslie and I left for Bangkok – a difficult parting, for the same reasons as the morning.