Phnom Penh via Battambang

The clamour as the boat docks brings me back to reality. After the tranquillity of open water I’m reluctant to throw myself back into the hustle of town life. I hang back, until the eager crowd of motodops see me. They’re hoping for a big fare and start pulling at me, shouting out their prices. I’m having difficulty understanding what they are saying but manage to latch onto a man who speaks a little English. With a broad grin he quotes his fare to Poipet, the border town about four hours ride away. I only want to get into town but he’s already helping me with my pack,

‘Dteh, dteh,’ I shout above the bartering cacophony, almost exhausting my knowledge of the Khmer language.

‘Uh, uh, dtow nar? Where you go?’

‘Battambang!’

At this brief exchange he cracks a huge smile and laughs. Moments later I’m on his motorbike making my way into the city to stay at The Chhaya.

Hotels are plentiful in this quiet backwater city, the second largest in Cambodia but almost cut off by the appalling road conditions. Some say it’s due to the mines, planted liberally as rice seed in this area known as the rice bowl of Cambodia. Cynics tell me it is because certain highly placed and influential people have shares in the only airline currently serving Battambang. Poor roads mean more air travel. Once in the hotel I follow the wide stairs up to my room; it’s enormous. So big I fear I may get lost and I don’t know what to do with all this space. Built to accommodate UNTAC personnel, the hotels now stand vacant for most of the season, packed only during the King’s birthday when the people come down from Pailin and other outlying areas to celebrate the holiday. I pace my room. With all my possessions spread out I’m still lost. I soon discover I’m not the only foreigner. As I head out to point at food and use basic sign language in the hopes of getting a meal – and buying double chocolate Tim Tams which, strangely, are available here – I bump into an Anglo-Aussie couple: Mark and Sarah. We met in Siem Reap. They’ve been here a day, but, recovering from the ten hours of hard core pot-holing in a pick-up from Siem Reap, they’ve merely wandered the town and watched pornos on the hotel TV channel.

We head out together and successfully refresh with the local fruit shakes, tuk krolok, and wander along the gently meandering Sangker River lined with old colonial buildings. Children follow us down the street, screwing up their courage and their faces to walk faster, break into a run, touch us and shout hello then quickly join their friends again. We respond to calls from children on balconies and stroll slowly around this otherwise slumbering city. We find a secluded restaurant in lush gardens which also boasts an English menu. After perusing it we decide that frog, however many ways they are able to prepare it, is not quite what we desire. In a basic hole-in-the-wall café we enjoy a palatable meal and plan a day’s sightseeing together. We aim to climb up to the nearby killing fields if we can find someone to guide us. This will prove to be a surreal day, even by Cambodian standards.

We head out of Battambang through lush green countryside speckled with traditional wooden houses and naked children playing; ducks and rice, plump after the rains. We stop en route to visit a reservoir. Our driver decides we should see this Pol Pot era, forced-labour-built, now-collapsed dam: Kamping Poy. It is now flooded with people going about their daily activities: bathing, laundry, swimming and playing. We spot a man on a bicycle cycling against the flow…

A whole flock of children swoop down on us when we arrive at Phnom Sampeu, our destination. Finding a guide will not be difficult. Choosing a guide will be harder. We end up walking the path with children ahead and behind. After a long hot climb we reach a small shallow cave. Skulls line the walls, piled on bones; skeletal remains that are older than these children, who play in front of them unperturbed, stick twigs in the bony cavities of mouths and nostrils, hop like frogs and implore us to take their photos. They are disappointed when my camera inexplicably refuses to record their images, arms under knees, hands clasped and locked behind their necks, hopping, laughing, sprawled on the floor, the backdrop of skulls staring sightlessly past them over emerald fields dotted with red signs painted in their image, that warn this new generation of mines.

The boys suddenly remember their ‘duty’ as though brought to attention by the school master’s cane. They re-enact the grisly scenes that once took place here. Everyone who died they knew, irrespective of whether it was before their time or not. The fighting only ended three years ago but I was under the impression these killing fields were used by the Khmer Rouge long before. More recent battles saw this hill become the frontline of fighting between the government and die hard Khmer Rouge factions that continued to fight until Ieng Sary’s defection in 1996. The children try to look pitiful and sad as they mimic the dead and dying, menacing as the brutal killers. The reality is they might be descended from either, or neither.

We continue on to a small pagoda at the top of the hill, painted with Buddhist scenes, attended by few monks. We slip off our shoes and enter, feel relief at the cool and let the strange images of children and bones slip from our minds along with the thumping sun, our water dispersed amongst the group.

As we drive back the driver decides another detour is necessary. Looking back, I can see he probably wanted to rest. His return to the hotel would be a return to work. He pulls the van up outside a crematorium and shoos us out, ‘Go, look.’ We stand puzzled, and he settles down to sleep. We wander around; see no houses, no ‘custom’ for this place; only one figure, a wizened man sleeping on the stone floor.

The following morning finds us winding through the market, along the pick up trucks, bartering our trip to Phnom Penh. We settle on the back of a pick-up, deluded in thinking it is already full and will therefore depart soon. We chew on crusty French-style hawker bread; wait and wait. More people are crammed in and at the point when we can barely move or breathe, we finally leave: a motley crew including an over-friendly, blue uniformed policeman who keeps his hand firmly on Mark’s thigh and a smile stretched across his face. Two huge unmarked boxes take up the centre of the truck and we sit around the edges. The old lady opposite me soon produces a small bag of marijuana and she eats from this most of the journey, chewing the dried herb as an antidote to travel sickness. Or maybe as an antidote to the extreme discomfort of being squeezed into the back of a pick up for six hours. Whatever its properties, I am sorely tempted to beg some to roll and smoke. Surely it would ease the pain. Her gummy jaws keep right on masticating the dry weeds, her wrinkled face collapsing over her mouth, her glinting eyes keeping wary watch of the barang.

It isn’t long before we are pulled over at a police road block. A number of uniformed police are milling about in the shade on a deserted stretch of road, no signs of nearby habitation. A battered wooden table, placed under the protection of a tree, serves as a desk: two policemen seated and looking official, pristine in pressed beige. One man strolls towards the back of the pick up. All are armed: AK47 across the shoulder, K59 in the hip holster. The AK has become some kind of Cambodian icon. I will see them in the palace guard sentry boxes, hanging alone while the owner grabs a refreshing iced coffee at the street corner café across the road, slung casually across every cop’s shoulder, held aloft by the barrel in place of dumbbells for impromptu morning exercises (palace guards again), even used to form enormous sculptures of birds, and the somewhat friendlier image of Indochina, the elephant, by post-war baby boom students at Phnom Penh’s Royal College of Art. I will also come to realise that they are hidden away in many of the few cars on the streets. Back on National Route 5 the driver speaks to a cop through the cab window. The police officer at the back orders the three foreigners off the truck. Mark climbs down and immediately there is uproar. Everyone on the back of the truck starts shouting, not least our over-friendly travelling policeman. Arms reach out to grab Mark and he is pulled back onto the truck and we speed off like we’re in a Hollywood car chase. I’m shocked and staring at the guns, wondering if they’ll raise them. The police just watch us go, seemingly unperturbed as they wander back into the shade of the tree and sit around the makeshift desk. Another truck will pass soon.

After about four hours on the road we pull over. Two motorbikes approach the pick-up and the huge boxes are unloaded and placed, one each, on the back of the motorbikes. We still don’t know what the boxes contain but are ecstatic to see them go. The Khmers don’t move an inch. We stretch our legs in front of us and luxuriate in the extra movement afforded us. We wonder why the locals don’t enjoy the extra freedom to ease their stiff limbs. Maybe they’re just more used to this. A few metres down the road we stop again. Another police road block. This time we pass through without comment. The police look briefly into the back of the truck then we’re off. Within moments we are pulling over again. The two motorbikes appear from the sparse bushes and the boxes are returned to the truck, accompanied by groans of surprise and renewed discomfort from the foreigners. The Khmers barely register the fiasco. This seems to be the routine. I will forever be left wondering what the boxes contained. Most likely legal goods merely avoiding an unofficial police ‘tax’ probably applied to anything profitable passing through the roadblock. We play through this same scenario once more before finally reaching Phnom Penh.

We know we have arrived in Phnom Penh. Buildings crop up along the roadside, the urbanisation becoming denser as we travel on and hordes of moto taxis appear; vying for custom. As we approach the city outskirts we attract more and more motos just as the huge mounds of garbage – left inexplicably in the middle of intersections – attract flies. The truck lumbers on, impeded by the wobbling bikes, the riders bartering with the pick-up’s occupants. We move as one giant shape shifting mass, the bikes swarming around us, in front and behind, flanking both sides. We continue to Psah Thmei, a beautiful centrally domed art deco market with four wings branching off; a plethora of umbrellas and tarpaulins are stretched between the wings to accommodate a mass of stalls. The driver approaches us for payment: 8,000 riel. Six hours of bone-crushing, back-aching, driving-in-and-out-of-pot-holes and spattered-in-dust journey completed and this guy wants US$2. This is why he wouldn’t barter? Man, this was the cheapest ride I’d ever been taken for. Yes, it was uncomfortable (to put it politely) but this guy’s truck must’ve sustained damage and used petrol in equal quantity to the money he’d collected in fares.

Now we needed to complete the last leg of this trip so in time honoured fashion I chose my motodop on a combination of looks: both his and his motorbikes. First, pick out a friendly face, next check out the bike. If it’s real smart he doesn’t need your money as much as the next man and may well try to charge more to recoup the money he spent on his gleaming machine. I choose a ratty but not too decrepit bike. Same goes for the rider (remembering the friendly face of course). This small task complete we all set off for Narin’s Guesthouse. Mark and Sarah take off in one direction, I in another. We hit Monivong at what I now realise is the Charles de Gaulle intersection. It is teeming with bikes, so we sail past the pretty red traffic light glinting playfully at us in the sun and join the melee, like a flanker throwing himself into the scrum. We are now in a throng of bikes heading in the opposite direction to where we want to go, puttering with the flow until my driver sees an opportunity to exercise a quick u-turn. I must’ve been praying at that point because I’m damn sure I saw no opportunity at all. However, the roads empty out again and soon we are riding on dirt and slowing to a stop, unscathed, to be greeted by Narin; plump, camp and a truly welcoming sight.

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© Ammie-oy 2010

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