The problem is all inside your head, she said to me
The answer is easy, if you take it logically
I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free
There must be 50 ways to leave your lover
~ Paul Simon
The market town of Skun in Kampong Cham province, Cambodia, is one of my all-time favourite places in the world. It has absolutely nothing going for it. Unless you like busy, overcrowded third world markets filled with unfamiliar smells and fresh produce, including fish still wriggling in a struggle for life. Or eating at open air restaurants where pots sit atop flames contained by circular stones and meals cost 75c per person. Or watching mini vans packed so full that the frame sinks precariously close to the ground, with people on the roof and fare spilling out of the roped-open back door. Or you like to marvel at plates overbrimming with fried tarantula, fried cricket, fried red ant, fried water beetle, fried cockroach and various other fried-exotic-insect-species, sometimes carried on the head of their vendor. Or maybe to walk through puddles of brown sludge which sit stagnant for weeks on end after the slightest rain. Or to see fluorescent green rice paddies dotted with tall coconut trees and white oxen. Or breathe more dust in a day than you cumulatively breathed before in your life. With so much character, I guess it’s not surprising that this is the place where some of my most fun, hilarious and adventurous experiences seem to have taken place.
Leaving Kampong Cham was one of the hardest things to do, made easier by the fact that I will return later in the year and by the drawcard of another dance party in the red dirt of Skun, which was my first overnight stop. MSF will leave Skun soon and a few nights ago held their program-closing party. As expected, the Khmer team floated like angels around the dedicated pot plant placed centrally in the dirt area of the front yard nominated as the night’s dance floor. While their arms gracefully flowed in rhythm with their buoyant bodies, we clumsy expats followed in our dust-soaked thongs, “freestyling” in pursuit of the impossibly graceful and synchronised moves of our national colleagues. We also drank beer poured around huge blocks of ice which allowed one can to be shared amongst many plastic cups, laughed, gossiped, eyed off the gorgeous 20-something dude coordinating the sound system, and ate a delicious buffet Khmer meal of spicy salads, soups and noodles. The neighbours seemed to know when the formalities were over, appearing in their floral pyjamas and party moods carrying plates of fried duck and pork, cans of Angkor beer and plastic bags filled with ice. The “duck killer” and “pig killer” were identified amidst shocked laughter.
One young man half-danced-half-limped through the gate, seemingly already intoxicated until we learned he was lame from a moto accident, introducing himself to Bea as though he already knew her. To my query about how she knew him she replied “I don’t”. He sat down making a concerted effort to talk with her via translations from national staff sitting nearby. He then limped away, returning a few moments later with a large watermelon which he presented to her with a short speech about how grateful he was to her for coming to his country to help his people and an apology that he had nothing else to give to her. It seems he has watched her walking to and from the market, past his house, many times. I suggested that after living for a year as the only foreigner in this remote town, she is probably known by many who she thinks she’s never seen before.
The following morning I turned up at the bus station, headed for Phnom Penh. After my last visit to a bus station in Skun, I was wary and so I decided to go with another bus company. A few days earlier Chom said he’d call and book a ticket for me. He appeared to do so. When he hung up from this call he told me that “if you know the place on the road where they can pick you up, that is good”. I said I knew it and tried to describe the area. He said that I should give him the name. I didn’t know the name. Then we had other things to talk about and changed the subject. From Skun I called to ask if he’d booked my ticket? “No because you didn’t know the name of the place to pick you up and they said you can get it at the restaurant in Skun”. Okay, no problem.
A tuk tuk parked at the front door on what had been a packed dance floor a few short hours earlier. My bags were piled into the cab, I climbed in beside them, and off we putted. Pulling into the bus station I asked Tuk Tuk Madame to wait while I bought a ticket. Well, that’s what I thought I was saying. Apparently what I actually said was, can you come with me to buy a ticket. The ticket seller, identified by the fat wad of tiny-value notes in his hand, turned as TTM spoke to him and pointed towards the road. We followed his finger and watched as the bus drove right on by. Amidst a blurry haze of dust, malnourished beggars and Khmer conversation with strangers, someone said “Phnom Penh?”. Yes. A finger pointed at a car parked in front of the tuk tuk and Khmer riel was translated to “five dollar” in English. Done deal!
My bags were loaded off the tuk tuk and heaved into the back of this new-ish SUV. Treading in foreign waters I watched the driver closely. He leaned into his door to switch the ignition on. An elderly man appeared from the restaurant and climbed into the front passenger seat. The driver opened the back door and motioned me in. I sat beside the window, smiled at the young man seated beside the opposite window, and reached for my seatbelt. The driver, holding my door open, seemed to say that I shouldn’t use the seatbelt. Soon enough I shuffled over to allow two more passengers in. Four people across a seat built for three is very mild by Cambodian standards. I texted Bea to let her know I was in a car with five other people. A moment or two later I texted her again, correcting my mistake. There were six of us. My western brain was slow to recognise the extra passenger. The driver’s head was positioned excessively central to the car and he was reaching in a twisted position for the steering wheel. Wondering why, it took a few moments to notice the second head, belonging to a body positioned on his seat, between him and his door!
A two hour lumbering bus ride from Skun, we made it to Phnom Penh in just on an hour. Approaching Central Market the usual array of moto drivers surrounded the moving car, peering in one window at the passengers, then manouevering through traffic around to the other side, peering in from another angle to select their preferred customer. This seems to take place at all bus stops, with a coordinated tag system between moto drivers and tuk tuks. When buses pull into the smaller market towns, moto drivers literally run to the door of the bus in an apparent race, with the first to touch the bus having first dibs on their choice of passenger. At the bigger stations a more sophisticated “Hello Madame” approach is employed, with a line-up of offers from motos, tuk tuk drivers and placard-holding hotel reps. It’s an experience we don’t face in wealthy countries, where we telephone taxis or approach them in their orderly queues, with meters calculating the fare. In my culture, this passenger and fare bartering process is non existent which explains why until recenty, I found it so stressful and dreaded arriving anywhere. I now see that it’s an informally well-coordinated system between people who have no other income source, no pension, no paid holidays and who rely on the cash in hand from this work to feed themselves and their families. Perhaps the sense of desperation was the source of my stress because now that I am consciously aware of what’s going on, my stress levels have dissipated.
Saying goodbye to Kampong Cham the previous day was a mixed experience of excitement and sorrow. Drama at Phter Koma with a misbehaving teenager stole my final morning from me, but proved an interesting problem-solving experience reminiscent of times with the misbehaving Mathew a few short years ago. My boxes and bags disappeared from my room in a single convoy down the stairs and out the door, courtesy of the typical Khmer team approach. The number of jobs in need of hands always equals the number of hands that seem to materialise from nowhere. Chom’s tuk tuk was transformed from empty to piled high in the space of two minutes. A row of young staff waved us off with promises to “wait for you”, referring to my planned return.
A few detours through town included a stop at the second hand bicycle shop where Chom chose a small bike for Microphone as my way of thanking him for his help over the months. In the crowded aisle between hundreds of bikes, two young men worked simultaneously. One removed training wheels from a nearby bike and attached them to the back wheel while another attached a basket to the handlebars. The tyres were pumped and the bike was squeezed into the tuk tuk atop my gear. We delivered everything to Chom’s house, farewelling a confused Microphone who woke to the image of Dad wheeling a bike towards him after months of discussion about why he can’t have a bike yet. During more farewells, my bags were heaved between one MSF car and another amid discussions about how many staff were coming, requiring which vehicle. Soon enough we piled into the troupee and made our way south to Skun.
Anticipations of the party and knowing that I will be back in about five months helped my departure out of town, but saying goodbye is never easy. Now in Phnom Penh, Bea is joining me tonight for a final weekend before we both leave the country. Other friends are or will be here and Dara, who I farewelled at Shackville on Monday as he boarded a moto with Mum to travel to the Children’s Surgical Centre at the National Rehabilitation Centre in Kien Khleang, is a tuk tuk ride away. His amputated bone was surgically shortened two days ago and he should have a few years now, free of complications from the bone until it grows through the stump again.
Wooden slat beds are lined up in rooms housing adults and children together, all of whom have had some form of surgery in recent days. Babies and young children in visible/audible pain, some with deformities, cry intermittently while bandaged adults lie quietly. All are tended to by at least one family member, sharing the crowded beds under squeaking ceiling fans revolving at various speeds depending on their level of disrepair. I did not see a nurse or any equipment during my hour-long visit yesterday. The best on offer post-operatively for anyone in Cambodia is an intravenous line for fluids and some oral pain relief, unless you can afford to purchase the very rare supplies of parenteral analgesia, which most cannot. Dara was unhappy but his “need” for a new balloon was satisfied by the loan of my iPhone to watch music videos, so he’s okay. Mum appeared to explain that the money I’d given her to cover food and transport for the duration of this hospital stay was already spent, apparently during a single visit to the market! I didn’t plan that assistance well – it’s a lot of money to give an illiterate rural villager visiting a city without anyone to guide and advise her. Today I’m visiting again with a friend so will get more detail and try to ensure they can eat for the remainder of their time here.
All of this appears to be my final days in Cambodia for the next five months. As yet I have no onward travel plans or bookings. The Hot Season is upon us, my visa is about to expire and MSF have been unsuccessful in matching me to an assignment thanks to my limited availabiity. This once-in-a-lifetime year-long holiday has been years in the making and resisting all temptation, I must not spend it’s entirety hanging out in Cambodia. Many options are floating around in my head, amidst the hunger and need and all the small differences I could make if I wasn’t leaving. Travel is not as interesting or exciting to me now, as the rewards I can reap by being in Cambodia. But I will leave Cambodia because I feel I must, at least for a short time. When, how and where to remains to be seen.