If I wasn’t so familiar with Cambodia, I might have been afraid. Samantha, convinced that “being in the forest” would be frightening to me, asked over the phone “are you afraid?” and I assured her honestly, not at all. For starters, I wasn’t exactly “in the forest”! Listening to music on the bus I’d missed my stop thanks to my inability to read Khmer. Krong Preah Vihear is the town in the Province of Preah Vihear. Relying on Samantha who was meeting me for the weekend and traveling on the bus from Phnom Penh, which was about an hour behind mine, I had not bothered to think too much about exactly where we were going. Realising the town was now behind me, I texted her to ask where I should get off. We were confused by each other’s messages so I called her and she suggested I give the phone to someone so she could speak to them. The assistant bus driver had already been dismissive of me, and he refused to take the phone from me until I insisted. He handed it straight to the driver who continued driving as he held Samantha to his right ear. Crouched in the aisle behind him, the passengers near me who were within earshot of the conversation chortled and snorted good naturedly, pointing backwards in the general direction of my error. I shrugged my shoulders and laughed along – I am on holiday so what’s a bit of “lost in Cambodia” other than an adventure! My previous “losts” have always worked out okay so why should this one be any different. The phone was passed back to me and Samantha said “He will find a car to take you back”. Such a plan would be disastrous in my world. In Cambodia it was perfect.
Soon enough the bus stopped and the driver opened his side window, calling out to a car which appeared to have broken down in the middle of the opposite lane. Peering out, I started planning how to decline an instruction if it came my way, to get off and travel in this overloaded car of excessively happy men. The only thing going for them was the direction their vehicle was facing. Everything else was wrong. Thankfully the driver abandoned his bad idea and drove on. A short distance along he pulled over again, this time on a corner where two men approached the edge of the road, peering around the front of the bus at me, as I peered back from near the door in case I needed to jump back on against the driver’s intention. They were clearly sober and their smiles broadened as they heard the driver’s explanation of what had happened. The dismissive assistant took my bag over the road and it was passed into the hands of one of the men. Following, I waved goodbye to the amused driver, sitting down as instructed by one of the men, on a wooden bed base in the dust.
Staring at each other in affable silence, I rang Samantha who had a talk with him, then me, then him again, establishing that my only choice was to travel back to town, 27km away, by motorbike. “He will find someone to take you”. We hung up and the guy pointed to his own moto. I nodded. He took my case and perched it between his splayed-out knees on the front of the bike. I climbed on behind him, placed my laptop at his back and with my handbag slung over my shoulder, off we cruised. Preah Vihear is a province of tropical rainforests and hills, so the journey was picturesque. Unable to converse with each other, my driver did say “tik-tik”, letting me know he was driving slowly (just as well with no helmet available). I pulled my krama out of my bag and wrapped it around my head to block the sun, but even wrapped in local disguise I commanded many stares from the farmers and villagers sharing the road with us on their various vehicle contraptions. About half an hour later we pulled into Preah Vihear and I was united with Samantha.
Bus travel in Cambodia is an indelible experience which I will miss immensely. Leaving from home, Chom drops me at the station with a hug goodbye, usually with a little melancholy comment as though to ensure everything has been said in case we never see each other again. Seats are usually allocated, at least from the original station, less often from the pick-up spots en route. All kinds of people travel with children, often fathers and grandparents as well as mothers and couples. The other day as I sat down the man diagonally in front of me smiled and stared so I smiled back in reciprocal curiosity. A little while later with his seat reclined I noticed a small boy of about four years old sound asleep on his chest. A short way into the journey we stopped and a tiny boy of about three walked up the aisle, followed soon after by an elderly couple, who began calling out as the bus started to drive. Obviously panicked that their charge had been left behind, the whole bus erupted as the little guy appeared, standing on the back seat, only his head visible across the tops of the seats, clueless that he was the cause of the laughter surrounding him.
At the rural meal stops it is common for beggars with various deformities or not, to sit on the ground beside the bus door, hats held out to receive donations from travellers. The other day a young man sat down at the bus door just before the lunching passengers were due to board and I wondered why he was begging as he looked perfectly okay. One bus left and he reappeared on the ground at the door of the next. When that bus departed I noticed him limping off into the distance and thought about the health care debt I’ve been so oblivious to, despite knowing about it, and determined not to judge a beggar by it’s cover next time.
When it’s time for the bus to leave, the driver honks his horn and starts to move slowly out of the dusty parking area. Passengers saunter out, doors opening and closing for each of them, as a stream of people continually and casually embark the moving bus until everyone is back on board and the driver can finally accelerate. Waiting for my own bus, I observed a man on crutches with a very high amputated left leg, a mother with her shining wet naked baby in arms obviously appearing from the bathroom, children and adults, all board the ambling bus as it graduated slowly towards the road before taking off. Small boys dressed in khaki fatigues, girls in floral pyjamas, an Islamic guy in kulfi with a long thin beard and ankle length wrap-around skirt, are just some of the ordinary sights at one bus stop in Kompong Thom a few days ago.
Arriving home yesterday the tuk tuk drivers, desperate to find a customer during the low season, were queued at the station alongside the motodups. One of my friends was first to “tag” me through the window in the sharpest eyes competition. Disembarking, I shook hands with a couple of the runners up, uttering “sorry” as they reassured me “it’s okay” and headed off to search elsewhere for today’s sustenance. One of them is very thin, Chom says because he has children to feed so he avoids eating as much as possible. I wished he’d had the sharpest eyes so I could have helped out. It’s not easy knowing their stories, really.
After almost two years in Cambodia, it was only during my weekend in Preah Vihear that I discovered bowng dea dre brawmar (egg and fish omelette) which Samantha ordered at dinner on Satrday night. Utterly delicious, she assured me I could find it at the local market so today I ventured out in search of my newfound favourite meal for breakfast. As I left home one of the girls called out “bowng dea drey brawmar! Say it clearly!“. Entering the restaurant Samantha told me would have it, the waiter shouted out indecipherable words with “Anglais” thrown in the middle somewhere. Soon enough an English menu was presented to me, inducing slight offence because “I can speak Khmer”! Having practised bowng dea dre brawmar for 48+ hours, I asked if they served it (“Mean bowng dea drey brawmar?”). Ot mean (no!)! In disappointment, I ordered breakfast of pork and rice instead (served with the traidtional small bowl of stock and a dish of pickled cucumber).
During breakfast various passers-by kept me distracted. A woman with a large flat plate balanced on her head calling out the name of the food hovering over her like a halo. A tiny child inside a homemade wheelbarrow pushed by Mum out collecting recyclables in the busy streets. An elderly woman with a crooked leg and a sack on her back competing for the same recyclables. A family of five on a moto, dropping three children to school in their crisp white and blue uniforms. Three monks appeared at the doorway avoiding eye contact with everyone and waited while the waitress returned with cash for each of their orange bags before bowing to their blessing chant. Ready for the bill, I waved to the waiter who wasn’t prepared to even risk that much communication and travelled via a table to collect pen and paper, where he wrote 6000 for me. Breakfast for US$1.50. That’s another thing I’m going to miss terribly!
Walking to Central Market on my continued bowng dea drey brawmar search, a woman with goroet (massive grapefruits) sitting in a basket on the seat of her bicycle shouted “sister” at me in the hope of making a sale. Heading to my “usual” market guy, I tried to explain that I’d already eaten breakfast which turned into a bit of a farce until we both agreed to abandon the conversation and start again. I then asked, “mean bowng dea drey brawmar?” Mean! Okay! See you tomorrow for breakfast! Okay! That’s breakfast for the duration of my remaining couple of months, sorted.
These are just some of the many sights, sounds and interactions I need to try and record as my departure becomes imminent. Adele sings this amazing song, some of the lyrics of which describe the feeling of my pending farewell.
Adele – Hiding My Heart Away
This is how the story went
I met someone by accident
Who blew me away. Blew me away
It was in the darkest of my days
When you took my sorrow and you took my pain
And buried them away. You buried them away
Dropped you off at the train station, put a kiss on top of your head
And watched you away. And watched you away
Then I went on home to my skyscrapers and neon lights and waiting papers
That I call home. I call that home…..
I woke up feeling heavy hearted, I’m going back to where I started
The morning rain, the morning rain
And though I wish that you were here
On that same old road that brought me here
It’s calling me home, it’s calling me home……..