Anth in Phnom Penh

Friday, October 28, 2005

(The Horror) Bad roads, transport cartels and misadventure in northern Cambodia (The Horror)


Phnom Penh to Kratie
journey: 5 hours by bus
road condition: good

Our travels in Northern Cambodia began early one Saturday morning in Pchum Benh festival. It was bucketing down rain in Phnom Penh and every poncho wearing Khmer and his dog were trying to get out of the city to spend Pchum Benh with family in the provinces. The bus station was pure chaos with drenched and dripping travellers clutching luggage all with one aim: getting on a bus and getting out of town. After an hour long wait we made it on to our bus and into a huge traffic jam. I sleepily gazed out the window as motos and vehicles sluggishly crept along the wet streets. Finally we crossed the Japanese bridge, the sun was shining and we were on our way.

We arrived in Kratie early afternoon. It is a very pretty, laid back town surrounded by lush foliage, and hemmed in by the swollen banks of the Mekong. We didn't spend much time there as our sights were set further north. We purchased a bottle of "tuk grahom" (literal translation red water, aka johnny walker red label) and went where it was all at on a Saturday night, the tukkalup stands on the riverside. Post note: Whiskey and tukkalup (blended fruit, sugar, condensed milk, egg and ice) actually works!

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Meeting 3

I love the atmosphere of these meetings, the spirited discussions and playful teasing. It's great that farmers get so involved. And why not? This is their livelihood, the issues that they face every day. Generally, I get a real kick out of this enthusiasm, but today it is not so helpful. We have been given a window of one to one and a half hours and we have a lot of work to do. It's a bad time of year to be sitting around shooting the breeze about farming. At this time of year in Cambodia, its less talking and more doing. And ofcourse, in poor, rural areas it's all hands on deck. I met a family yesterday where the 12 year old son was responsible for preparing the land, planting the seed and harvesting as his father had died the year before. He stood by his mother all bones and dark skin. His face was serious as she elaborated on how many days he works and how they have little money for mechanization, inputs and hired labour.

We sit on a slat bed our butchers paper in the centre and the three of us ranged around. One group of villagers sit on another slat bed nearby and a second group on rice bags or thongs on the dirt around us. It's hot and this is taking much longer than it should. Vichet looks increasingly on edge, as the villagers become more boisterous. He moves to the second activity; he is coughing his throat hoarse from raising his voice above the clamour. I am curled up right at the edge notebook in lap quietly watching. Vichet is on his haunches in the middle, butchers paper under his feet. Everyone closes in as he deftly fills in figures "Prohile jea bon man?" (what do you estimate?) he calls out. 1 week ago he had never heard of a PRA.

We race through our second activity and declare we have only one more to go. There is one man who has been rather cantankerous from the beginning who bemoans the fact that he is being detained from his lunch. I turn around and tell him in my best khmer, and with my nicest smile that I haven't eaten yet either. It gets a laugh and he quietens down. Vichet appeals for just a little bit longer and acknowledges that we are all tired. He jokes that his throat is sore. "What will this do to my singing voice?" Everyone cracks up and immediately starts clapping a rhythm for him to sing to. Vichet responds (incomprehensible to me) and causes everyone to clap and cheer even louder. I go to the car and get more biscuits. On my return Vichet appears to be having a joke stand-off with one of the guys. It seems to be relating to an animal with horns? I do ok when we talk about harvest time, yields and rice seed but it seems animal jokes are beyond my comprehension. We get back to business.

Finally we reach the end. Everyone is restless after the two and a half hour session. Vichet declares that he is finished asking questions and that in return they can ask all the questions they want of me. If I wasn't experienced at this game I may prepare myself for queries regarding my involvement with the project and my position. The first question was "Have I really not eaten yet?". The second "Do I eat rice?" I tell them that I do. Predictably I then field how old I am (for some reason 26 years receives a round of applause) and whether I am married (an even louder round of applause to this response). Vichet and I exchange amused glances. Time to leave.

The Meeting 2

Anticipation mounts. I sit, legs tucked under, in the village chiefs house as villagers enter for the meeting. I get a nice feeling about this village. The chief and his wife patter about; him collecting his records about the village and her giving us cushions and tea. They are both dark skinned with graying hair and kindly smiles. I greet villagers with a "jum riep sur" as they enter. Today we are conducting a PRA in a village who do not use the projects rice seed. Sothat has been called to Phnom Penh and so Vichet is facilitator, Naseng note taker and myself observer. I am confident in Vichet but still a little nervous about doing this without our expert adviser. Sothat has stressed how PRA is very much learning by doing, responding to people and playing it by ear. He calls it free-styling.

So here we are free-styling it in Pray Thbal village. We haul out the nom (biscuits) and there is a post sugar consumption rush of commotion and excitement from the kids. Tiny naked bodies clamber into the back of the projects ute. Samart cranks up the radio and next thing I know; not even halfway through planned activities, there is a party out on the dirt road. Vichet and the men continue to animatedly discuss whether fertilizer composes more of their yearly budget than fuel for powering water pumps. The fuel costs eventually win out. The imminent threat of rain further depletes our participants as women and children rush off to secure their grain that is drying out in the sun into plastic bags.

Maylee moves in and out of the room. Everywhere she goes exciting much comment and interest. "psaart, psaart" (beautiful, beautiful) everybody agrees. The women squeeze to be near her and compare their skin colour with theirs. I, on the other hand, am largely ignored. White, fair haired Australians are not unheard of in Prey Veng. However, Asian looking Australians appear to be a fascinating concept. There are children everywhere. They seem to adore Maylee and follow her wherever she goes. I sit with a 6 year old girl, naked except for little cotton shorts, she presses her bare belly against my foot leaning in to get a closer look at proceedings. A toddler rests against my left arm, idly playing with the ring on my index finger. I am not used to children, and at first was quite surprised by the sheer number of curious young eyes that would come and stare at the barang. I smile at the girl next to me, the warmth of these little bodies is comforting.

We finish up our session. The children have long grown tired of our talking and many of the women are absent, busy with food preparation or farm household chores. I present the village chief with his present, a kramar and we all pile back into the work car. As we drive out of the village, people look up from their work and watch us go. I sit, white and fair haired, squeezed in between sheets of paper covered in colourful writing about rice growing methods and farm income. Despite all our questions and probing I am quite sure that I am barely scratching the surface of the workings of this village.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Meeting 1

I sit in the village chief's house on bamboo floorboards. The long bamboo slats are spaced with one centimetre gaps to allow airflow throughout the house built high on stilts. As I sit I eye the family photos proudly displayed on the wooden beams; depicting stern faces in traditional dress superimposed in front of popular Khmer holiday destinations. Around 20 farmers come along to the meeting a mix of men and women, old and young. Children, barefoot and wearing cotton pants squirm in mother's laps. Elder men sit legs spread, with kramas wound around scrawny waists, all wrinkles, muscle and veins.

Sothat sits in the middle of the room and reigns supreme. He is in his element facilitating Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) activities. Large sheets of butchers paper are spread out on the floorboards in front of him, with colourful labels covered in squiggly Khmer text. The villagers are deeply involved in an exercise where they rank the advantages of different types of rice seed varieties. A heated argument erupts over whether the quality of one variety should be given a (very high) score of 5 or 4. A farmer leaning against a wooden beam loudly interposes, a gold watch glints on his wrist his voice rambly and raspy. A woman with baby and krama in lap screaches back and everyone laughts. Sothat lets out the characteristic Khmer "eeahh" sound, a wordless response which conveys a meaning of joking displeasure. More laughing ensues.

I sit dripping in sweat, quietly watching. I have helped design the exercises but from the moment of arrival in the village I become a fairly useless appendage. The discussion continues. I am slightly concerned that the project's brand of seed has been given a top score of 5 for all criterion. Perhaps we are being told what we want to hear? I am loosely following the animated discussions, but reserve comment aware of the fact that much of the detail is lost to me in the fast paced, clipped colloquial Khmer.

I help hand out biscuits, and pass around plates heaped with wafers and sweet biscuits stuck together with cheap icing. At this point of proceedings the only concrete thing I can conclude from the PRA exercises is that farmers like biscuits.

The meeting is finished and we wend our way out of the village. It is past 4pm and at this time of year and day the village is a hive of activity. We pass men and children sitting atop muddy buffalos, wooden carts filled with bright green bundles of rice plant stems for animal feed. Women in baggy pants with kramas tied around their waists stroll by shiny knives in their hands fresh from the field. Small children abound; naked, intensely brown and with swollen hungry bellies. As we leave the village everything is lush and green, with plots of rice as far as I the eye can see. The bright green squares of younger unflowered crops mixed in with the squares of faded light green crops, ready for harvest with their stems bowed heavy with grain. As I look out at this green shaded, textured, patchwork quilt of landscape we drive to town for the night. I am exhausted by the days work.