Trip Start Jul 20, 2009
14Trip End Jul 24, 2011
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Where I stayed
Same house, 13 people, but that will soon change
Bonn Om Tuk, or Water Festival as we foreigners call it, is the largest, craziest, and longest Khmer holiday that happens every year around the end of October to celebrate the reversal of the flow of water out of the recently flooded Tonle Sap and the end of the rainy season. It takes place every year in Phnom Penh when hoards of people inundate the riverbanks of the Tonle Sap in front of the royal palace creating gridlock in every direction. For the past month every province has been holding small boat races to see who will represent the province in the festival. I was able to see the braa laam (race) here in Prey Veng on the lake, even went down to the South Eastern most province, Svay Rieng, with the other volunteers to see an even bigger braa laam on the Mekong. There were fireworks, monks came to bless the boats, paper lanterns were released into the night sky over the water, food vendors lined every part of the waterfront. Simply fantastic and I probably only watched the actual races for two minutes, kind of like how I go to baseball games, I'm in it for the food and the atmosphere
So the actual Bonn Om Tuk was last weekend, three days of mayhem in the big city but, as many of my American brethren might recall, it was also the weekend of Halloween. Now nobody here in Prey Veng showed any comprehension when I mentioned it and it was difficult to explain to my new Khmer friends. I likened it to a Khmer holiday that recently passed called Pchum Bun where people give offerings to their ancestors and the recently deceased but I said that Halloween has more to do with “evil spirits” and eating copious amounts of candy than remembering our loved ones. A choice had to be made and given that I am technically on “lock-down” and not allowed to leave the province and especially not allowed to go to Phnom Penh, the decision to stay wasn't a hard one. Thankfully I am lucky enough to be placed in an area with a fun group of people and a Halloween party had been suggested weeks in advance. Since the two poorest provinces border each other, Svay Rieng and Prey Veng, and do not have much in the way of Western amenities, Peace Corps suggested that we combine the two which puts us at 11 volunteers. That's a lot of foreigners for this small provincial town, not to mention Scott (the Canadian volunteer), a friend who broke lock-down and traveled through several provinces to get here (can't use her name since she's still afraid PC will find out), and Michael, Stephanie's brother-in-law who's currently living in Singapore and happened to be in the country
We tried to recreate an American Halloween as best we could. We bought small flat pumpkins from the market and carved them, roasting the seeds in Scott's tiny toaster oven. We made pasta marinara using sweet basil and green tomatoes from the market, garlic bread using bread from the only wood-fired oven in town, and rice-crispy treats from aam-baak, flattened rice, and a bag of marshmallows one of the volunteers got in a package from home. We got creative with our costumes, two girls wore togas, one made a butterfly mask out of construction paper and glitter, one improvised with her stash of bandanas to make a rag-doll, I was a pirate, and one was, what I thought the most fearsome, a mosquito. We watched horror movies and ate each others private stashes of candy while dogs howled madly and curious passerbys peered in through the open doorway at our ridiculous costumes and grinning jack-o-lanterns illuminated on the front porch. I probably would have been more concerned about my students seeing me if it wasn't for that they had already left for Phnom Penh and their “homelands” for the long forgotten Water Festival.
We all stayed in the newest and nicest hotel in Prey Veng which is clean and a great deal at $5 a night. But early the next morning I heard wailing from the corridor and peered out of the room that I shared with two girls to find one of the female volunteers (I won't use her name) sobbing and clutching her cell-phone. She had just spoken with her ailing grandfather and found out that her father had been shot and killed on Halloween night. She is an only child and doesn't have contact with her mother, only 23-years-old and lost her father so unexpectedly, so horribly as murder. It was a whirlwind during the next 30 minutes of calling the Peace Corps staff, planning flight departures and destinations, packing her bags, negotiating a taxi to take her and two other volunteers back to Svay Rieng to get her passport and then straight to Phnom Penh, and saying goodbye not knowing if it would be her last day in Cambodia. I've talked to her since and she says that she's coming back, that it would make her father proud, and I feel I should have known that someone who is as positive and energetic as she is and who commits to two difficult years in Cambodia would at least try to finish her service.
We were all stunned for several hours. We had an awkward breakfast at the restaurant next door as we tried to talk about the days plans, watched a few hours of CNN and HBO, and Michael tried to sort out his onward travel arrangements that would put him in Siem Reap later that night. There were only six of us left as we picnicked on the lakefront with peanut butter sandwiches. I told Michael the good news about Stephanie's new job with Boy's Hope Girl's Hope (Yay!!!!) and Michael phoned Stephanie and Wes to congratulate her and catch up a bit. We both talked with them for a while and it seemed strange to be on the other side of the world in the 95 degree heat in a remote provincial town sitting with Wes's brother while we both talked to our siblings that were half awake and recounting Denver's first snowstorm of the season, crazy. Afterward we headed to the taxi station in town where twenty or so moto drivers gathered in small clusters, some smoking and others sleeping, eyeing Michael and I as our intentions were made clear as we walked towards them. We were quickly surrounded and I tried as best as I could to say in Khmer that he needed to go to Siem Reap and we needed a moto driver to take him at least to Kampong Cham, a large provincial town 1 ½ hours North, to catch a bus the rest of the way. It was intimidating trying to negotiate with so many Khmer men, our story spread like wildfire to the other groups and when I couldn't get the price down enough and approached another cluster the price was the same as the last and they wouldn't budge. Finally we found one man who knew about the buses in Kampong Cham who was sure he could get Michael there before the last bus left so we agreed on the $7 price, a bit much but they were a trail of dust within seconds and Michael would later tell me that he flew the whole way there (he had his own adventure after that, missed the bus by a few minutes, took another moto to a nearby crossroad between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap where they tried to scam him into spending a night at a hotel, then had no choice but to hire a $60 taxi
The rest of the evening was spent showing the other volunteers the town, four of us took a nice but very dusty bike ride out to see the sunset over the rice fields along the new highway being built not far from the town. When it's complete it will knock off a third of the time it takes to get to Phnom Penh creating a new stream of tourist buses and money that will surely change the face of the countryside, currently a quiet rice farming community that doesn't have electricity but in a year that will all change. We speculated about this over dinner at a tuk-a-luk (fruit shake) and mee-chah (fried ramen noodles) stand, the standard Peace Corps comfort food, then sat out on the pier and enjoyed the breeze and night sky until the late hour of 9 pm (something that us female volunteers can rarely do since it's too risky to do alone; "gangsters", snakes, scorpions, etc.). We all agreed that it was a good evening but no one could mention the morning's events or how we were all concerned about our friend who was currently on a plane back to the United States. Life changes that quickly.
The next morning we all got up early, had a quick breakfast then said our goodbyes, three volunteers headed back to their villages in the South and my friend from the North and I headed up National Road 11 to Kampong Cham. We had toyed with the idea of going there before Halloween since it is between our two provinces and is the wealthiest province in Cambodia which means regular transport and, more importantly, Western food. We also have friends there, a middle-aged married couple, Lori and Warren, who are great company and Warren and I often message to compare our work at the RTTCs. I had been worried about the transportation having been told to find an unmarked green van on the side of the road by a garage but we lucked out after I asked a woman at a food stall nearby who phoned the driver and then told us that they were turning back around for us and would be there in ten minutes. After cramming into the backseat of the already packed van and driving for about 45 minutes, the landscape changed suddenly, ricefields turned to forests of rubber trees and small hills could be seen in the distance. After about 1 ½ hours we came to a massive bridge spanning the Mekong and a large sprawl of modern and French colonial style buildings on the other side.
My friend and I got our second wind after the hot car ride and we spotted the air-conditioned Tela gas station in the distance, renowned in our circle for having over-priced ice-cream and cookies, but ice-cream and cookies nonetheless. We were soon joined by Lori and Warren, already looking at home in their new town and they walked us down to the scenic riverfront. We sat at a Western restaurant on the water called Lazy Mekong Daze , sipped on chilled white wine and inhaled french bread pizzas while they filled us in on their work so far in the community, their strained housing situation, and their speculative teaching schedules. After a long lunch they walked us a few blocks down to the hotel all of the volunteers stay in when they come into town, The VIP, a hotel that lives up to it's name as being the nicest hotel I've ever seen in Cambodia with overly ornate lacquered dark-wood furniture, AC and hot showers for $15 a night, a bit pricey for us but I'm going to blame the wine. We said goodbye to our friends and made plans to meet in the next morning for breakfast then sat in the hotel for a good hour trying to take in the drastic change of surroundings from small town Prey Veng to modern industrious Kampong Cham. We ended up staying another night along with a few other volunteers that came in the next morning from visiting a rural PCV site. We explored the city and massive market, walked down the waterfront where children flew kites and rode bicycles, and hung out with the other expats and backpackers at the Western restaurants.
The last night we all sat outside of the hotel to look out onto the Mekong and enjoy the last of the strong winds to come through from the Monsoon that had come in from Vietnam, it had just nearly missed us. We could hear the call to prayer coming from the mosque on the opposite shore, it seemed surreal to hear it there but Kampong Cham is named for the Cham (Muslim) community that tends to populate the shores around the Mekong, a small Muslim community living amidst a mostly Buddhist population. It is hard to notice except for the few women that wear headscarves and the domes of the mosques that appear suddenly between the landscape of rubber and coconut trees. The call to prayer was just a reminder of how much I still don't understand about Cambodia and how strange and emotional the week had been. It had been almost a week since I observed a class at the RTTC. School would start again the next day but I felt worlds away from Prey Veng, from the Peace Corps, and from my friend in the states just then arriving to a new world herself, one without her father.
The next morning my friend and I indulged one last time and had nutella-banana pancakes at a restaurant called Smile before she bought a ticket on a large air-conditioned bus and I found my green van parked right where I left it. Three hours, three van changes, and several inquistive fellow passengers later, I made it back home. Happy to be in Prey Veng, happy to go back to school, happy to see my shack-full-o-boys, heck, even happy to eat rice again. As nice as Kampong Cham is there is something about Prey Veng that's starting to feel like home, surprisingly. I start teaching tomorrow which I am excited and nervous about and hopefully it won't be a one-man-show, that is me teaching and my co-teacher simply watching, complicated but that's a whole other story.