Anth in Phnom Penh

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Apologies for the long silence. It has been a whirlwind few months leaving Phnom Penh and seeing friends and family back in Australia. My next steps are to China and beyond. Given that I have moved from PP my blog is also changing location. You can now find me at No Fixed Address where MrB and myself plan to keep you more regularly updated with our travels. Thanks for reading :o)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Siem Reap (Pchum Ben Part 2)

The second half of our Pchum Ben holiday was quite a contrast to the first. We arrived in Siem Reap early afternoon on the Wednesday. After driving round town and goggling at all the new development we found a nice guesthouse and chilled out until dinner. On the invitation of our friend Maylee dinner was at Hotel De La Paix’s restaurant Meric. It was quite the dinner – we had the Khmer set - traditional fare all served in various common household receptacles. My favourite food blogger also happened to be there at the time, so I shall refer you to him for a more eloquent description. It was a luxurious meal. I was reveling in the fact that I was eating truly Khmer food that wasn’t ‘cha bonlai’. The chefs even managed to rustle me up a sour soup without meat – this was of course not authentic, as no Khmer would dream of making it without fish, but at least it meant I got a bit of an idea of what all the fuss was about.

Our evening of comfort set the scene for the rest of our time in Siem Reap. We were much in need of unwinding and thanks to Maylee and Paul’s hospitality our wishes were granted. Our first day was spent lounging by the pool at the hotel, doing the crossword and eating ridiculous amounts of ice cream.

The following day we went to visit some of the farther out temples. Maylee and Paul decided to come along and our small road trip began at Kbal Spean. The road out was terrible, beyond Banteay Sray it turned into a potholed mess, and it took ages to cover the 50 kilometers. Kbal Spean is very different to the other Angkorian temples that I have seen, as many of the carvings and stone is underwater. Wet season is probably not the best time to go, as the many of the carvings are not easily visible under the rushing water. The 30 minute walk through the forest to the site from the carpark was lovely. It was a busy day, and people were running around everywhere, further downstream families were bathing.

On our return we stopped in at Banteay Sray. I had never been to this temple before and was amazed by the intricate carving. It is simply stunning and so much more intricate than many of the carvings I have seen in the major temples in the Angkor complex. We wandered around with the hordes of tourists, took photos and simply gaped at the detail.

That eve Mr B and I decided to put our Angkor passes to good use and visit Angkor Wat for sunset. We walked in the backway and scaled up the stairs right to the top, which I always find terrifying. Sitting in a little corner and looking out on the temples we mused about leaving Cambodia. However, it wasn’t time to say goodbye just yet, as will be in Siem Reap again in November.

The following day, we decided to go even further afield and head out to Bang Melea. This entailed us leaving Siem Reap and traveling down the road to Phnom Penh for about 20 minutes before turning down a road that led to the site. Previously access to Beng Melea had been restricted simply because of the terrible road condition, but as some enterprising businessman had come along and fixed up the road – with a toll booth, which requires one to pay each way – the temple is now much easier to access.

All up it took us around an hour to get out there. We strolled up the main walkway and climbed up some wooden stairs constructed so to enter the first inner wall of the temple. It was simply jaw dropping. Thankfully, an apsara authority guard decided to take us around and show us all the parts, because it was enormous. It had the proportions of Angkor Wat with the overgrown and lost look of Ta Prohm. We clambered over stones and walkways and through high ceilinged coridoors. Every now and then our guide would explain that we were in the east or west quarter, but after a while I found myself completely lost and just content to follow. The full beauty of the temple was not immediately apparent as we walked up the wooden steps but the more we explored the more we discovered. Most of the stone carvings were covered in moss and tumbling down, however some had levels of detail similar to Banteay Sray, particularly on the outer walls. After we finished the tour we attempted a small wander around by ourselves. We couldn’t believe how stunning it was. After a while, we decided to go back to the car as the temple was ridden with mosquitoes and head back to Siem Reap for our final night’s dinner with Maylee and Paul.

They took us to an excellent Japanese restaurant. The owner treated us to an indeterminate number of courses of fabulous food. Sake and beer were being passed around and finally when the courses ceased I was very full and satisfied. Cocktails at Linga bar followed and by the end of the evening all I was fit for was collapsing into bed.

Despite the previous evenings over indulgences we were up fairly early the next morning and cruised out of Siem Reap by a little after midday. We arrived back in Phnom Penh tired and frazzled after an even more stressful than usual leg back into town. The insane driving and traffic started earlier (around Skuon) and crescendoed as we reached the Japanese bridge. We drove slowly and calmly and made it home safely.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Adventures in another Kiri (Pchum Ben 2006 part one)

In a brave move, we decided to spend our Pchum Ben in a ‘Kiri. Our previous Pchum Ben in Ratanakiri had been somewhat of a challenging adventure (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, and yes the number of parts are positively related to the amount of difficulties encountered). This Pchum Ben though, things were going to be different. Firstly, our traveling companion in the other Kiri was safe and sound back in Sydney and most importantly, this time we had a car.

We set off the Friday afternoon before the Pchum Ben week of holiday. I had just had my final day at AQIP. Our trip was beginning and our time left in Cambodia quickly diminishing. Without much hassle we made it to Kompong Cham by evening so that we could start the real drive the next morning.

Already things were proving to be easier. There was no need for tense negotiations with transport junta leaders and my gleaming white pick-up was fresh from a service. We passed through some dusty, western-esque towns with saloon style two-story wooden buildings and a coating of red-brown dirt on anything stationary. We stopped in Memot for lunch and had quite possibly the best Cha Bonlai (stir fry vegetables, my provincial staple) I have ever had. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but for those keen to try it was the only one that cooked your food up fresh and it had a rabbit on the sign. As we traveled further towards Sen Monorom the dirt became redder and the forest denser and more lush.

The road was not great, but quite manageable as it had not rained for three days and had time to dry out. We arrived at the outskirts of Sen Monorom around 3pm. We couldn’t believe our luck. It was stunning, an extremely picturesque collection of rolling green hills, red dirt and jungle forested valleys. The scenery was unlike anything I had ever seen in Cambodia, and very reminiscent of Australia.

We cruised into town and found ourselves a guesthouse. We found the design of many of the guesthouses somewhat strange. As a general rule, cabins tended to be placed facing inwards with windows and balcony’s overlooking the other cabins. Behind the cabins lay a stunning and peaceful view. I couldn’t work out whether guesthouses had been constructed for a Khmer market with different holiday preferences to barangs, or just with little forethought?

After an incredibly oily dinner of fried potato chips and inferior cha bonlai we organized an overnight trek into the jungle. We were a little hesitant, given unsuccessful trekking attempts in the other Kiri, but decided to risk history repeating itself. The next morning we set out from Sen Monorom on an elephant, with two Pnong guides (the elephant’s minders) and a Khmer guide (presumably our minder). Not one of them spoke a word of English. This was entirely my fault. We had been negotiating in Khmer with a fast talking, James Bond from Stung Treng-like, young man and when informing us why the trip was so expensive: for example with English speaking guide I had jokingly said “Oh we don’t need any of those things”. Of course I didn’t actually clarify with him later on, that actually, we really did. But of course, like many of his kind, he disappeared as soon as the cash was handed over.

Nevertheless, we sallied forth, Mr B and myself on top of the elephant in a small bamboo basket. The basket was extremely cramped, we had to either sit on top of or nurse our bags, in addition to our guide’s bags. Mr B had to hang his legs over the edge of the basket and even then took up over a half of the basket and made it very clear that he was not comfortable.

Mr B less than impressed to be on the elephant

This state of affairs lasted around 15 minutes before the two of us insisted that they stop the elephant and let us down. Our guides were somewhat taken aback, but given a general reluctance to talk to us much, little was said. The next couple of hours were very pleasant, we walked beside the elephant and pushed deeper and deeper into the jungle. Whilst the beginning of our walk provided sweeping views of valleys and hills, after awhile we started to get into real jungle.

After a few hours it started to rain. The usual walking route had proved to be too narrow or difficult and so the elephant and rider had gone down a different route. As the rain started to splash down in warm, heavy drops we decided that we needed to find the elephant and make sure that all our things were covered. I dashed off with one of the guides back to the spot where we had last seen the elephant. We couldn’t see her, and so the guide delved down the thickly treed path which she had taken. Quickly, I realized that I had no idea where Mr B and the other guide were, or for that matter where I really was. My guide continued at break neck pace along the track following the deep prints of the elephant in the mud. I stood, already completely saturated, deliberating. The guide who I had been following did not stop and soon he was entirely gone from my site. In a snap decision I chose to follow him. After a few minutes I still couldn’t see the guide or the elephant, but the deep imprints in the sodden earth were enough for me to know that I was at least on the right track. As the rain continued to fall the track got more and more difficult. My feet, legs and arms were covered in scratches from the undergrowth and I had to regularly stop due to a lost thong almost being swallowed up by the muddy path. I was feeling pretty miserable. The guide was occasionally in sight, and would stop and wait for me at particularly difficult crossings. He kept on asking me where the others were and I had to keep on saying “knom at dung” (I don’t know!). As I stumbled along I started to conjure up all sorts of images of losing Mr B in the jungle. Finally we arrived at the camp spot, the elephant was happily roaming free and his minder was taking a rest, but there was no sign of the others.

We turned around and plunged back into the jungle. Ten minutes later, after revisiting all the spots where I had previously fallen over, or lost my thong, I spotted the others. Mr B greeted me with a mixture of intense relief and anger. Apparently he had also entertained various visions; one of me catching up with the elephant and continuing on without him and others of awful elephant and non elephant related accidents. We made our way to the camp and took in our nights accommodation. It was a wooden shack with a corrugated iron roof. There was a dirt floor and then a raised wooden section and no sleeping materials to be seen. Rather than start to worry about this, we walked to the waterfall that was nearby and relaxed, comparing our various jungle wounds.

When we returned, the camp had been transformed. Mattresses with rugs and mosquito nets had been set up from some mysterious storage space, there were fires inside and out, and dinner preparations were well under way. Our guides went to bed some time before 8pm after drinking some ‘sra’ that had been brought ostensibly for us, but due to its close resemblance to methylated spirits we couldn’t stomache. We figured it was probably early to bed, early to rise and followed suit.

Our start in the morning was not quite as early as we had expected. Breakfast needed to be prepared and then straight afterwards what looked to be lunch was also cooked up. The chief elephant minder had a bandage on his forehead, which he told me was because he had a headache. I asked if this had anything to do with the ‘sra’ last night, but he didn’t respond. He and the other Pnong guide then led the elephant down to the river and gave her a bath.

Finally we were ready to set off. Mr B and I decided that given the debacle of the previous day we would ride on the elephant, at least for the beginning. We were also wary of the condition of the track given that it had rained for most of the night. This time, I found the elephant immeasurably more comfortable, Mr B was right next to me and the elephant confidently and slowing plowed through the deep mud and across swollen creeks. Our return was slowed by her voracious appetite and a particular penchant for fresh green bamboo, but I couldn’t possibly criticize her given her amazing ability to climb up steep, muddy hills with two barang and a heap of baggage on her back.

Coming out of the jungle to a Pnong village

We arrived back in Sen Monorom tired and somewhat relieved. We had been talking a lot about the rain and the condition of the road out of Mondolkiri. We decided that given that it had been raining for almost a day that it would be best to go back now, whilst the road was potentially still passable rather than get stuck here after a few more days of rain. That night, I fell asleep fully clothed on the bed straight after dinner. It was around 8pm.

We woke early; me because I was uncomfortable and Mr B because he was fretting about the road. For once we moved fairly quickly and after a fleeting stop at the interesting looking Sen Monorom market we were ready to go. The trip did not start well, driving from the market at 5km per hour, the road was like ice and my usually well grounded hilux was having trouble finding its feet. We traveled the 140 kilometres from Sen Monorom to Memot tensely and slowly. There were potholes and puddles that spread along great swathes of the road with more potholes lying in wait. Five and a half hours later, with great relief, we arrived at the Memot junction. I had learnt to drive a four wheel drive in incredibly challenging conditions and the sun was shining. We decided to push through to Kompong Thom for the night and begin part two of our Phum Ben holiday the following day.

Friday, September 01, 2006

coca cola and incense

It’s been an interesting day. It’s only midday and already I feel awash with thoughts and different observations. My morning started with my alarm at 7.15. I had given myself an extra 15 minutes sleep-in time as it wasn’t strictly necessary that I be in at work at my usual 7.30am starting time. Mechanically, I was out of bed and in the shower and musing about my upcoming day. I was listening to Cortez the Killer, thinking about how it is my grandmother’s birthday today and my brother's birthday was yesterday. He is going out for dinner with his new girlfriend and my parents tonight. Suddenly, I am filled with an awful sadness; I am not in Melbourne, Mr B and I can’t join them for dinner. I hop out of the shower and automatically locate some work clothes, I muse about what I would be doing if I was in Melbourne.

Today is a special day at work. We are all heading out to the Kandal seed centre for an opening celebration of the seed company. The event is to celebrate the four seed centres merging into one, and the fact that from the point of registration, the company will be a real company under Cambodian law. Our timing is perfect, we arrive just as the monks do. We are ushered into the seed centre which is a large warehouse with the seed processing and cleaning machinery and a small office upstairs at the far end of the building. A large blue plastic sheet has been laid down on the cement floor of the warehouse and a raised platform has been erected, covered in rugs where the five monks settle themselves.

I am invited to sit right at the front of the blue plastic. As usual, I would prefer to sit unobtrusively at the back, but my colleagues refuse. I notice that all the women are sitting at the front, as are all the barang. The chanting begins. The five monks are swathed in the usual bright orange cloth attire and sit quietly on the platform. In front of each is a silver plate with a glass, a bottle of water and a can of coke. I take in the incense, flowers, monks and coca cola. A curious milieu of religion, tradition and American commercialism.

The monks appear very young, ranging in age from around 8 to 18. The chanting continues, it is all in Pali. Containers of food and material are then distributed to guests. I am given a mock silver platter with a gift on top to hold. I am to keep my hands on the gift during the chanting and then we are instructed to offer the gifts to the monks. This is done and we all sit back down again.

The chanting resumes and a monk who is seated in the middle starts to dip a handful of palm fronds in a chalice of water and flick the water over the kneeling crowd. Now I realise why they wanted the “important” guests to sit at the front, so they would be assured to get blessed by the water. The water, as Boreth later explains to me, is meant to represent cool, calm and cleanness. The monks are praying for the success of the company and for all those who are associated with the company. All five monks then reach for plates of flowers and throw handfuls of petals into the crowd. It is at this point that I realise why it is sensible to have a bowed head; yes for praying, but also to avoid being hit smack on the forehead with the small sweets that are mixed in with the flowers. No damage is done though.

Sothat who I worked with in Prey Veng is seated behind me. “Anthea, have you been to Prey Veng recently?” he asks. I profess that I haven’t been to Prey Veng in a long time. “Me either” he responds shaking his head. Now that the project is over he no longer has his job there. “I miss there, I would like to go again soon”. I agree and tell him that I would too. I ascertain that the rains have come and that there has been enough water for farmers but not too much, as has been the situation in other Provinces which are now suffering from flood. It occurs to me that in my spare month coming up I could go stay in Prey Veng for a week or so. It would be a great end to my time in Cambodia – complete immersion. But I am not entirely sure how I would manage this, it would certainly be a last ditched attempt to combat my on-going sense of dislocation from Khmer people and Cambodia. Or more aptly the Khmer people and Cambodia that I first experienced in Prey Veng in early 2004. I have a sneaking suspicion that I am perhaps too comfortable in my small Phnom Penh world to really see this plot through.

After the ceremony we all congregate outside the centre where metal tables and chairs have been set up underneath a large tent. Already loud Khmer pop music is blasting from the wall of speakers piled up to the side of the tent. We sit down and a parade of meat dishes are brought before us. I sit and eat plain rice. A little later a plate of green mango and chilli is brought out. Happily, most people don’t notice my strange fare of green mango, chilli and rice, as in addition to the truckload of food, there is also a big bottle of Johnny Walker red label whiskey on every table. I look around and notice already several tables have finished their bottle. It is now around 11.30am.

Shortly after the many-course meal is consumed the dancing begins. It is only men who get up and dance, wending their way around a table, rotating their hands slowing from the wrist. The whiskey seems to have done the trick and more men are forcibly hauled on the dance floor. There are few women who work for the company and they seem to be keeping well clear. The music is cranked up a notch louder. The new CEO of the company moves from table to table, clinking glasses, smiling and talking with the guests, among whom the local police, government departments are all represented. The ceremony and party has been a success. For some, the party is only just getting started, but for myself and my fellow barang colleagues it is time to leave. We pile into one of the project’s pick-ups and head back to Phnom Penh.

On the drive back I take in the Khmer country-side, so very familiar to me now, and listen to the conversation in the car. My colleagues have lived and worked in many countries all over the world, their discussions are littered with references to other places, cultures and experiences. A sense of being part of many places and peoples pervades. Yet they all have a home-base, although for some this is not where they were born or where there families are and much of their time is spent in other places. I realise how much of an impression Cambodia has made on me, this is not something that is easily going to be forgotten or removed once I leave. There will always be a sense of just touching the tip of understanding how things work here, but that said, I have absorbed so much of this place. I do know that I am ready to leave and the anticipation of this is perhaps making me more reflective.

We arrive back in Phnom Penh a little past one and I decide to take a wander down street 63 and find some food. My stomach could do with a little more than white rice and green mango for lunch. It is raining very gently as I leave, but the sun is out and shining brightly. As I walk down the street and shake my head to proffered moto lifts the rain starts to get heavier. I duck under the awning of a spare parts shop. I am perfectly happy just to stand and wait it out. I look around at the women sheltering like me, at the motos crawling down the street their riders covered in plastic ponchos. I am glad I am here, I wouldn’t want to have not come, but this is never something that is straight forward.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Vom

Last Sunday a group of us went to Kompong Speu for the day. It was a cosy combination – my maid, Gim Lee; Mr B, Bec and Ben and their maid, Yim; plus Melissa (who’s house Yim also cleans). Yim is Gim Lee’s aunt and they had invited us all to visit their village in Kompong Speu. Preparations for the big day had been in place for many weeks. Both Yim and Gim Lee went to great pains to make sure that there was food that we liked and that we would be comfortable.

We drove up on Sunday morning in the car. After our joyrides in the back of the ute in Kompong Cham, Ben and Bec professed to be only too happy to spend the trip in the tray with a few beers, nestled among the esky, food, soy milk products and other assorted items that were being taken over. I was a bit worried about rain, but the weather just held for the one hour trip to Kompong Speu. I was feeling a bit weary after a late night experience at “The Rock” the evening before; quite possibly the most awful entertainment venue in town. I was grumpy and finding it difficult to drive and speak Khmer at the same time. Mr B took over the wheel and I got over my initial grumpiness after Gim Lee told me that she had got up at 5 am and had started preparing our lunch at 7am, which was the same time that Yim went to the market. Ow.

Yim's house

Everyone was in a bright mood, Yim kept on saying how happy she was that we were all going to her house and how that Andrew, Bec and Ben had helped so much and that she was so excited about them meeting her family. I didn’t fully understand the import of this until we arrived and I realised that she had been able to build a new house thanks to contributions from Mr B, B & B and others. The new house is made of wood, raised up on cement supports and literally towers over her old house which is a very small wooden shack, now used for preparation of food and storage. A new barbed wire fence spans her property. Yim showed us the inside of her new house and introduced us to her daughter, in a particularly Khmer matter of fact way “Joh goan sray khnom, goaut at sa’art” (This is my daughter, she is not beautiful”). Her house was immaculate and we immediately checked out all the photos of Yim when she was younger. She showed us her bedroom and we all spied the huge butchers knife wedged into the wooden slats of the wall, presumably kept there for protection.

Inside Yim's house

We were invited to sit on straw mats placed on bamboo slat beds underneath the house. I wanted to offer help but knew that any assistance would be refused, so instead we sat and watched all the activity. At this point there was mainly women and children assembled. I met Gim Lee’s mother and grandmother and a whole heap of cousins and aunts, whom I quickly confused. Ben had brought along boxes of “So Soya” products from the factory and so they were handed out to children and adults. We attempted to convey that some were for kids and that some were for adults but were somewhat unsuccessful, with Gim Lee’s yeay (grandmother) and other elderly women happily sipping on “So Soya for Kids” drinks.


Finally the food came out. We had arrived late for Khmer lunch and so I had an inkling that everyone must be starving. All the food was placed in our little space of honour and nobody else sat down. We asked others to join, in particular Yim, but they all refused. Often in Khmer functions people eat in shifts and we weren’t sure how much cutlery there was so after hesitating for a while we decided that we should dig in otherwise the others would never eat. It looked amazing spread out in front of us and was really yummy. Yim had made a big plate of Cha Bonlai (stir fried veggies) for me, they were hot and fresh. Mr B finally tired of our ineffectual attempts to get others to eat and started picking up plates heaped with food and placing them on the other slat bed where many of the women sat. He then cleaned his own plate, knife and fork himself with water from a huge urn and handed that over too. The women found this very strange and amusing behaviour and started laughingly calling him a “nayak bomra” (waiter or maid). As soon as the food had materialised some of the husbands also showed up on their motorbikes. As usual, I noticed that the women waited until the men had got some food before they began to eat. Finally most people had eaten something, all except for Yim. When pressed she said she wasn’t hungry. I shot back that I didn’t believe her, but she responded that she was so happy to have us all here that she didn’t need food.

Yim's family

Ben trying Betel nut. The drug of choice for elderly women in the provinces.

After we had eaten the grey sky finally turned a darker shade and it started to very seriously rain. Even though we were all well under the house, the rain was so hard and at such an angle that many of us were getting wet. We huddled in closer and the wind whipped through the space underneath the house. Gim Lee ran off with an umbrella, perhaps to secure her house which was in another part of the village. And after one failed attempt to locate her and take her in the car, we drove with Gim Lee’s yeay and mother to their house so that we could bring her back out of the rain. After much maneuvering through muddy narrow lanes we arrived at Gim Lee’s house. Both her mother and grandmother sat in the car and I realised that they did not know how to get out. I opened the door for them and we all jumped out into the shelter of the small overhanging on their hut. Gim Lee’s house was about the same size of Yim’s old house. She introduced me to one of her brothers who was there. Gim Lee had wanted to show me her house, but once there, she and her mother seemed embarrassed about how the house was “at sa’art” (not beautiful). It was made of wood and looked extremely cramped for 5 people. It seemed to be withstanding the pelting rain though, so that was something. Gim Lee looked lovely and happy in new clothes; bright pink and red shirt with a black skirt with pink hem. She has beautiful long straight black hair which she had up in a pony-tail. She sat down on the wooden step to the house and I noticed her grandmother fussing about how her skirt did not cover her knees as she sat. I get the impression that she likes living in Phnom Penh, although her grandmother told me several times how much she misses having Gim Lee at home.

Yim showing her family photos on the digital camera

Back at Yim’s house we decided that it was time to make a move home to Phnom Penh. Yim sent a cousin off to forage around her vegetable patch and come back with several pumpkins and unidentified Khmer vegetables for us to take. She also wanted to give us all the left over food, but we refused and insisted that her family keep it. It transpired that quite a few of her family quite liked the idea of a lift in the car so we offered to take everyone back to their houses. I watched shocked as two elderly women went straight to clamber into the back of the ute. I stopped them and insisted that they sit inside the car, but it took a lot of convincing. We drove off and for once I felt somewhat Khmer with the car filled with people both inside and in the back. After depositing most people home we still had a couple of stray passengers who wanted to go all the way to Phnom Penh, including one of Gim Lee’s younger cousins who works in a garment factory just outside of Phnom Penh.

We drove slowly back in peak hour traffic. It had been an amazingly fun, but also sobering day. I felt completely overwhelmed by Yim and Gim Lee’s kindness and hospitality, and also somewhat subdued by the differences in our living circumstances and the opportunities available to us. The longer I live here it seems the less I am actually spending time with Khmer people and being part of their lives. It is so easy to forget what it is like in the villages. As we drive back to Phnom Penh we witness an accident which epitomizes one of the more negative elements of Khmer society. A drunk driver causes an accident and then physically attacks the driver of the car which he rammed into. How can someone get away with such contemptuous, criminal behaviour? He was wearing an army uniform and was obviously influential and wealthy. It seems that that in Cambodia with the good, you also get the very bad.

Monday, August 07, 2006


A month ago I went to Ho Chi Minh City with a group of friends which I didn't blog about. Erik on the other hand did, here is a link to his post

It was a great trip, I hadn't been to Vietnam since 2002. I couldn't tell whether HCMC had changed and become bigger and more developed in the intervening period or whether my perspectives had changed. Probably both. After living in PP, one of the key things that struck me about the Hoch was the parks and the number of wide, green spaces in the inner city to hang out in. One of my nicest moments of the weekend, was picnicking in the park with Erik, Leah, Andrew and the kids and watching Arun's excitement about being able to run around on the grass.

HCMC is a lot bigger than PP, and the traffic was crazy, but in a slightly different way. Things went faster, but were more orderly. I got the impression that vehicles were at least somewhat likely to follow generally understood rules of road law. They certainly stopped at traffic lights too. Another thing that blew me away was how easy it was to get there! The first time I came from HCMC to PP, I seem to remember it taking an extremely long time. The road was terrible and the delay at the border was long. However, these days, leaving on our deluxe bus from PP it takes about 6.5 hours to get to HCMC and the crossing at the shiny, new border was smooth and fast!

I think the big thing about the weekend though was spending some time with my travel mates. Ben and Bec, as always, are a delight to be around and it was great to hang with Erik and Leah before they left Phnom Penh. It was a new experience to be travelling with children. But a fun one (from our perspective, where as soon as tears spring to the eyes, or a nappy needs changing we can hand the child back to its parents). All the best to Erik, Leah, Arun and Nahanni back in Minnesota. We are thinking of you and miss you all.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Road Rage

Last weekend we took my lovely, project funded pick-up truck out into the Provinces for a weekend ‘daleng’ to escape the increasingly suffocating Phnom Penh. Not that it’s that hot at the moment, it’s quite cool. The suffocation element came more from the rigmarole of work, eat, sleep, work…

We left midday Saturday and drove up to Kompong Cham. I am getting pretty used to driving in Cambodia by now and actually find that in some ways driving in Phnom Penh is less stressful than on the open road. In Phnom Penh, I tend to stay in second gear and slowly glide in whichever direction I want to go whilst a sea of motos and other vehicles make their ways around me. If I go slow and steady it seems that everything simply adjusts itself in my midst. Relatively simple. Outside of the capital though, it is another story. Heading towards Kompong Cham we were overtaken by a convoy of corpulent, black four-wheel drive Lexus’ being driven at obnoxiously high speeds. The standard 4WD driver seems to either drive painfully slow (as they are talking on their mobile phone) or dangerously fast. Perhaps to make up the time lost when talking on the phone these cars will at any given moment speed up and overtake any vehicle in their path, irrespective of oncoming traffic; foot flat on the accelerator and hand firmly on the horn. The car shook as the wave of black Lexus screamed past, racing to make an urgent karaoke appointment in Kompong Cham for Saturday night perhaps?

Despite our more timid speed, we made it to Kompong Cham in perfect time for sunset drinks and byo whisky by the Mekong, overlooking the Kompong Cham bridge. It seems that they are re-constructing the river front area, with flattened dirt lots where make-shift huts and people used to camp. The tiles were all pulled up along what used to be the promenade so we sat on plastic chairs in the dirt and took it all in.

wat nokor entrance

Perhaps we have been in Cambodia too long? gripped by the crossword at Wat Nokor...

It was a short weekend trip due to work commitments in PP so on Sunday we headed back home via some temples and wats. Our first stop was Wat Nokor which is a popular temple just out of Kompong Cham town. It’s a really interesting site, as it has a ruined Angkorian structure with a modern, active wat in the centre. You walk through the blackened stone entry-way created by the Angkorians and end up in a new, brightly painted wat filled with monks and begging children.

wat nokor inside

Our second stop was ‘Phnom Pro Teat Phnom Sray Teat’. This is not the more commonly visited ‘Man Mountain Female Mountain’, but a different complex which was further out of town on the road to Phnom Penh. We managed to find the two hills fairly easily but confounded the monks on top of the mountain by scrambling up the steep mountain-side rather than taking the conventional (and much more moderately sloped) staircase entrance. This was not really an act of informed choice, we simply hadn’t found the staircase given that it was down a dirt road, in front of a banana plantation. Stupid foreigners.

Phnom Pro Teat

On top of the hill was a small wat complex where the monks and nuns live and a temple. The temple was painted silver and had quite a few brightly coloured cement animals frolicking around it. We sat down to have a sip of water and an elderly nun told me that if we followed that path we would see an elephant. So we traipsed along the indicated path and there was a large, colourful, cement elephant. Interesting and random and probably not a place that a lot of foreigners visit.

the elephant

Our next stop was Tuk Cha, which is a huge dam area, which provides a popular picnicking and swimming spot for locals. Right near the dam is an area dotted with pre-Angkorian ruins, around 400 temples. Given that we were off the main road and that Tuk Cha was further west and also off the main road we decided to take the overland, scenic route. This might have been a good idea if our map had been a little more detailed. Very quickly we found ourselves cruising down dirt roads surrounded by beautiful, picturesque rice fields with the wet season rice at varying stages of growth. Ofcourse, we got lost. We tried asking for directions, but found the provincial Kompong Cham accent particularly difficult to decipher. After much to-ing and fro-ing, which enabled Bec to take a substantial number of rice paddy shots out the car window, we made it back onto the main road and eventually found Tuk Cha. It seemed our luck really had turned though, because as we pulled into a wooden, rest area overlooking the dam it started to rain. It was also getting rather late. Moods were starting to fray; I was already starting to tense up at the thought of the insanity that is Sunday afternoon traffic and Mr B had to do something approximating a 50 point turn to get the car turned around and onto a small bridge to exit. We made a cursory attempt to see the ruins, which were interesting although in a fairly dilapidated state. In the spirit of Wat Nokor, we spied one ruined, single roomed structure which had been converted into a modern house with the stone walls being used, reinforced by newer brick walls. A resourceful use of materials lying around, I suppose.

somewhere in Kompong Cham province

After a brief stop for snacks, we hit the road and after an hour or so we found ourselves in the thick of the dreaded Sunday afternoon congestion. It is times like this where you think that that you have seen the height of human stupidity and recklessness and then five minutes later someone else commits an even more spectacularly risky maneuver. We weren’t moving particularly fast and there wasn’t really much concern for our safety. We did see a lot of short calls with motos and other vehicles due to the short-sighted aggressiveness of many cars. I always seem to get this leg of the journey, perhaps because I am the more placid tempered. Mr B at times, can barely contain himself, sometimes reaching over and honking the horn at a particularly impudent vehicle whilst I am driving. My three passengers contented themselves with rolling down their windows and screaming out “Lop lop” (‘idiot’) at notably irresponsible vehicles as we cruised back into town.

It was a fun weekend, and I think everyone was glad to get out of town. It makes a huge difference to be able to drive and go wherever you want, although this does complicates matters when you don’t really know where you are going! Anyway! this post is dedicated to the Australian taxpayer. Ta for the car!