A bus, the beach and Women's Rights (allegedly)
Trip Start Oct 14, 2005
25Trip End Ongoing
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I waited outside but nothing much seemed to be happening, so I want into my office to attempt to clear up some of the debris that gathers on my desk such as unread reports and chewing um wrappers. It was mainly a displacement activity because I am not a big fan of sitting around looked like a confused foreigner, so I tried to look busy instead. I came out of the office a few minutes later to find one car load of people had left already, including the girl from my office that I cling to at moments like this - she helps me to understand what is happening and is someone I feel comfortable with. But she had gone so I was directed to the FAO minibus waiting and climbed on board, taking my huge (by comparison to everyone else) backpack with me.
I used to think I was quite efficient at packing, but by comparison to everyone else, I had a bag big enough for a month! I nervously stowed my bag next to a vacant seat then looked up. I had been duped!!! I did not realise it but this was a family affair and so that meant that there were children in the bus! The thought of travelling 1000km with lots of screaming kids did not exactly fill me with enthusiasm, but I smiled and sat down. The relief of the air-com took away the fear of the children, although I was to find that was only a temporary panacea.
We started on our journey to Phnom Penh. I understood from eavesdropping the day before that we were to stay a night in Phnom Penh then go to the beach on Saturday morning. So the engine started and we began to travel South. Well, technically, we headed to another part of town to pick up another guy who works here and his two children and wife. So they jammed themselves in too, and away we sped, down National Road no. 6 to Phnom Penh. We stopped to drop off and collect a couple of people in Kampong Thom, about halfway to PP. I did not like to ask what on earth they had been doing or wanted to do there (having lived there for 6months I know choices are limited) but it seemed that everyone else knew we would be doing these exchanges so took all the stops in their stride. I remained slightly confused and carried on with my Anita Shreve book, occasionally looking up and smiling, trying not to seem overly baffled.
As we arrived in PP around 6pm, I got a text from my friend, asking about my dinner plans. It is always a bit tricky for me, this whole eating communally at Khmer restaurants; I have sat through many a meal not eating the meat that was ordered but instead, picking at rice and soy sauce, my new staple food. But after some discussion, we decided to go to Sorya, the biggest air-con space in Cambodia - a large 6 floor shopping centre, where beautiful foods such as pizza reside. So I laughed at my friend's text, mocking her suggestion that I should escape to eat food at a foreign restaurant. Why would I do that when we are in Sorya, land of The Pizza Co. and Lucky Fish Burger? How very misguided I was.
We went up the escalators, some of our party struggling with the tricky manoeuvre as you get on the moving stairs. We turned and went up the next escalator, then the next, passing on our way, the places I knew of that I have eaten at before. Then up we went, past familiar fast food meccas, to the top floor food court. I discovered there that the top floor is host to something similar to the food courts in UK shopping malls, but with more animal parts in more soup.
We stood in a group, staring open mouthed at all large u-shape of food stalls, serving a veritable feast of delights, such as gelatinous fish balls and chicken bits. A friend looked concerned at the non-meat offerings, and asked me if I was going to be okay. In my attempt to dispel the rumour that white women are high maintenance in Cambodia, I started to wander round inanely, looking for some food I could eat. The middle of the u-shape was packed with tables and chairs full of happy eaters, so there must be something I could eat, if all these people have been able to find food. Obviously there was not much happening in the world of non-meat eating in this place, so I sloped back, embarrassed and defeated, to the rest of the group. But then I was saved! My friend did not want to eat meat either, so we both had gelatinous fish balls in soup with sweet bread and butter. I must admit, that no, I did not eat all the gelatinous fish balls, or GFB as we in the know call them. In fact, I realised that my GFB may have been made with pork fat to bind them together, so I picked around the edges and made an effort, all the time concerned, was this a taste of things to come during the rest of the weekend?
After dinner, replete and happy, we were dropped at our various hotels and arrangements were made for the morning. I heard the organiser say "4am" I nearly choked on a stray fish bone at the thought! Then Hurrah! It was departure at 5am, so I was saved. I was staying at the VSO office, so dived straight into the supermarket next door for a restorative beer, which I was sure would ensure a good nights sleep.
The alarm went at 4:45, cutting it fine I know. I dressed and crept out of the office, onto the deserted humid streets of Phnom Penh, to wait for the bus. It was still dark, but I could make out the shapes of the cycle rickshaw and moto taxi drivers as they slept on the pavement. They slept in the clothes they worked in all day, on either a mat on the pavement, or tilted their rickshaw up to make a kind of bed. They slept soundly in their mosquito nets, the corners tied to motorbikes, trees or fences. The occasional car or motorbike delivering bread would go past, but the pavement dwellers slept on.
My lift arrived, still in darkness. I climbed into the fiercely air conditioned bus, and waited. I knew this is where the real confusion would start...We went next to another house in Phnom Penh, to pick up a colleague and his family. In they got, two kids, two adults. I was happy to see that they had what I would consider a "normal" amount of luggage. Although anyone who travels with kids in the UK would probably disagree with me.
The second car arrived and we started out journey around two hours after I woke up; we had travelled about a mile! As the grey light filtered into the streets, we drove out of Phnom Penh. I saw many people participating one of Cambodia's obsessions; very early morning exercise. People were exercising everywhere. This included older couples "power walking" through the hushed streets which in an hours time would be choked by traffic. They walked in shiny white shoes and bright white sun hats, tiny steps, arms pumping and jaws working as they talked.
One inventive soul had rejected the organised line dancing by a dual carriageway, and instead found a place amongst the crowds on a grassy traffic island. She was lying on a towel, legs in the air, furiously pedalling an imaginary bicycle. The efficacy of such exercise is surely questionable, but it's more than my lazy backside does at 5 O'clock in the morning!
I decided that to prevent air conditioning induced total body shutdown, I needed to sleep to conserve energy. This does of course have the added benefit of not having to talk to people. Talking to people can be tricky in different ways. Firstly, you need to be able to speak Khmer. Secondly, you need to understand the Khmer, assuming they understood you and responded. Thirdly, you have to be conscious of the fact that you are a terrible burden because if you talk to people and they do not understand, they will not say so but will just smile and avoid you and your confusing foreign ways for the rest of the trip. So sleep is often a safe option.
I dozed and shivered most of the way to the coast. When I did wake and look out I saw the mountains, with their deforested bare soil, which meant we had about an hour to go and deforestation was still rife. I was not surprised by either revelation.
Breakfast in a truck stop involved iced coffee with thick condensed milk. The coffee was strong enough to strip enamel at 50 paces, and the milk sweet enough to do the same; just what I needed.
By now I was getting excited about seeing the sea. So when we climbed back in the bus, the floor of which was by now, collecting a good covering of debris from snacks and childcare products, I was disappointed but not surprised when we stopped. But then it became clear.
The bus pulled up next to one of several four-wheels-drives, whose occupants were also having a quick pray before spending the day by the sea. The prayers were said at one of many shrines, each with a statue of Buddha and ornaments to decorate the small concrete building, which is the size of a large garden shed.
I got out of the van and explained when asked that I did not have any religion or god, which to me, seemed an awful lot easier and didn't involve bare feet on rather sharp road surface. But then I am fussy like that. I was confused a little because one shrine seemed to be busier that the others, which were rejected by everyone; apparently the busy one was the original shrine on this location, so the others were mere pretenders and did not have any power.
After prayers were said, we started down the hill and I saw my first sight of the beach for months! We went down into the town of Kompong Som, a town which is an ugly scar on what should be a beautifully forested countryside. But hey, who cares, because the beach is gorgeous and the winds were cooling. So lets not get too bothered about this whole tree thing, I wanted to swim - I packed a Frisbee and everything!
As we drove through the town, I felt strangely at home. I had spent a week here with VSO and I was really pleased when we headed for this bit of the beach I knew, next to the hotel that VSO use. We arrived at a beautiful guesthouse, so I did what I usually do when arriving at a guest house which had been pre-booked - I got my bags and went and stood in reception. I don't know why I bothered.
The hotel, it was decided, was in a quiet lane next to the beach. This was not exciting enough because there were no internet shops or discos nearby. I was surprised, who needs to check there email when we are away for only two day!!!! So with this horrific internet-less revelation in mind, we sought a hotel which would satiate the rock n roll and internet needs of the group.
We went into town and found another hotel. Then I did it again. The same mistake. We arrived at the hotel, booked the rooms and I arrived in reception with my bags. Then I realised I was the only one that did this, everyone else and their bags were still in the bus. We were not going to check in but instead go straight into town to buy food.
So the car and the van eventually found parking spaces at the market in Kampong Som town. The market was heaving and at first sight, as with all markets here, it is difficult to see how you actually get in to the market. I decided that instead of waiting in the air con with most people, I would forge ahead with a group of women who knew what they were here for. They wanted to buy seafood, and only the best seafood would do.
We barged through the dark cramped aisles, following our noses to the fish selling area. This was the most organised section of the market, because the sellers of live fish needed to be near the centrally supplied air supply which bubbled happily through filthy buckets of fresh lobster and fish.
We scoured the stalls and looked for the best. After ten minutes we found some crabs that passed muster. They were squeezed and weighed to make sure they were not just big, but actually full of meat too. There was a lot of harrumphing when crabs that were not a suitable
This process of scathing looks at buckets of squid, lobster and king prawns was repeated until we had got good prices for everything. We paid around 30,000riel (7.5$USD) for a kilo of prawns; I estimated that we bought around £400 of seafood IF we had bought it in the UK. We had a black plastic sack full of prawns - how cool is that! It made any Plat de Fruits des Mer I have ever seen pale into insignificance! Okay, so less presentational lettuce was involved, but the lobsters were to die for.
The seafood got dumped in the back of the open truck, and I got back in the bus. How are we going to cook this, I asked. I was not sure of the reply, but it seemed that everyone else knew and it was clearly a stupid question. But in the UK, if you spend that much on seafood, you want to know it will be cooked before it goes off in 38 degree heat! Call me fussy, but that's the way it is.
Next stop for the bus was a drinks shop. We loaded up with mix crates of soft drinks beer and water, then off again on this mystery tour! We started to drive out of town, and headed towards the beach, but I did not want to anticipate anything in case of disappointment. Each time we got back in the bus I tried to listen to what was happening but it was too much to follow when you have so many people with so many conversations.
But then, oh yes it really happened, after 5 minutes we arrived at the beach!!! I was SO excited, there was white sand, a cool breeze, deck chairs and remarkably, 3 black sacks of cooked seafood. Now I get it! Whilst we were faffing with drinks, the other car took the
So all of us found places at the long tables, lying back in deck chairs, cracking crabs, lobsters and peeling prawns. The restaurant provided rice and plates and someone in our group had the forethought to bring a bottle of chilli sauce (I saw it when I got in the bus and did not like to ask why!).
There we sat, eating all afternoon but not making a dent in the 6Kg of prawns, so matter how hard I tried. The weather was superb, Pheap was cracking open crabs for us and I had been handed cold beer (I was the only female drinking of course). Then it stuck me - I was the most over-dressed foreigner on the beach! I was there in my denim jeans, shoes, vest top and shirt, when a white girl strode passed in a white string bikini. Okay, so as I am sure you know I am not a white string bikini type of girl, but it has to be said that two tops and jeans are not my normal beach attire. My clothes were in the car - should I get changed?
When the bikini girl went passed, I was asked the question which I had anticipated - what will I wear in the sea, do I wear a bikini? I was eating lunch with 15 khmer women, all of whom I knew will change into "swimming outfits" of jeans or trousers and t-shirts. So what do I do? Well, as my usual indecisive self, I got changed into a swimming costume and wrapped my self up in sarong. I sat in the deckchair feigning being too full to swim until I made up my mind. A full 45minutes later, I decided to be true to my culture, particularly because I noticed that everyone was asleep. I flung off the sarong and ran into the water hoping that the digital camera crazy country I am in did not capture me like this. Once I was in the water, I was safe, apart from jelly fish and young blokes who wanted to practice English and could believe I did not want them as my boyfriend.
The day at the beach ended around 5pm as the sun was setting over the sea. Our fingers were sore from ripping apart helpless boiled sea creatures and I was tired from concentrating on Khmer language all day. The excess seafood was bundled away and the debris from the food we had eaten was by now attracting hordes of flies, buzzing low over the table and chairs.
After talking to other volunteers about going away with colleagues, I had been told that as soon as their colleagues are back to the hotel, it is TV on, pyjamas on and that is it for the night. But my colleagues are far more rock and roll! Pheap tried to translate a Khmer story for me that was on TV. It was the same type of theme as many Karaoke videos; boy meets girl, someone else is involved then someone cries. But in this programme, the special effects department gave Girl a pair of wings so she could fly away from Evil Boy. The sad end to this tale is that I never knew what happened to Girl with poor quality b-movie wings, because we had to go out for dinner!
At dinner I realised why everyone else had less clothes than me. I am clearly obsessed by changing my clothes, so had different ones for the evening. Everyone else, more sensibly than me, wore their evening outfit the next day. Why didn't I think of that? My capacity has been built. Thank you VSO.
The next day, we were to be ready at 6am sharp. Great, I thought, an early morning swim at the beach, then perhaps we will leave early and get lunch on the way, after all it is a ten hour journey back. This time my naivety really excelled itself. We checked out at 6am and started our journey home. But this journey, although I did not know it, would start at 6 and end 17 hours later. It is a good job I didn't know; I may have thrown myself under the wheels.
Kampot is beautiful old colonial town, set on the river, a few kilometres from the sea. The town contains streets of dilapidated colonial buildings, once painted shades of ochre are now
Team Siem Reap jumped out of the bus, the atmosphere heady with anticipation. What can you buy here that you cannot buy in Siem Reap I asked? After the look of shock faded, because I didn't know, I was told that we were here to buy fish sauce. Rumour has it that the fish sauce of Kampot is more delicious than the fish sauce available in Siem Reap. Now, not being an expert on fish sauce, I did not know this, but I can say with certainty after my bag ended up covered in the stuff, that fish sauce from Kampot is certainly very fishy. I am wise and insightful you see.
After all the fish purchases were made, Team Siem Reap was once again assembled and ready to rock and roll. I continued to smile and pretend I knew what was going on or at the very least, tried not to be visibly too confused. As the bus pulled out from the market and rounded the corner, I did wonder where we were going next, but realised the futility of 'wondering'.
Kep is a beautiful tiny place, with a few scattered buildings, all that is left of a city which was ravaged by war, during which time most of the buildings were destroyed or looted for anything they had of value. But one thing that did survive or at least has been revived, was the Kep crab market! So that is where we went... At around 11am we sat down to a great meal of crabs and prawns served in a restaurant by the sea. It was wonderful. As usual, I was the only female drinking alcohol, and was automatically given a beer by the guys in the group who had started on the Angkor Beers. But then, the sweet taste of fresh crabs and tang of a cold beer was mercilessly ripped from me, by durian.
Durian is a fruit which, to a western palate, is generally inedible. In many ways it is like coffee; here in Asia, children know they are going to like durian eventually so are forced to eat it until they appreciate it, as we do with coffee, or beer. Now, not having had this element to my child hood, I am in effect the equivalent of a three year old in durian years. So, the Kampot/Kep area being famous for its durians, I felt I had to try one.
After the crab was finished, the last grains or rice scooped up, there was (in my head) a drum roll, and my colleagues turned to watch me eat durian. This fruit, which smells of rotting vileness, was handed to me so I took one for the team and ate it. The putrid flesh smell was not replaced by sweet flavours when the fruit was in my mouth as expected; I tried to chew, to smile, to enjoy, but it was too much for me. As I retched, I was handed tissues and spat it out, a damp end to my durian virginity, but the upside is, everyone did find it funny, so every cloud and all that!
7 Whilst more durians were being purchased after lunch, I wandered onto the beach to talk to some kids selling who were bracelets and being generally shocked that I could speak to them in their own language. They liked the fact I could talk to them, and teased me for not having a husband and children and the ripe old age of 32. But from a durian perspective, I am only 3years old so I consider myself reprieved.
After the durian purchasing was over, we got back to the cars. I was lucky that the pungent
We drove next to Teuk Choor, which is a beautiful spot that I must make an effort to go back to. It is a boulder strewn river which in the wet season would be great for swimming.
So one paddle later, we were back in the van and away. Time was getting on, it was already early afternoon and we were in, as far as I could tell, the arse end of nowhere and still had to make it to Siem Reap that day. But, when in Rome and all that...so I did not worry about it, I just sat back in the van, picked up my book and decided to wait to see.
When we headed out onto the road I asked, I was surprised to hear that yes, this was the road to PP, and we were going back to PP now and then to Siem Reap! Well, that sounded like a plan. We travelled back to PP only stopping once for coconuts at the driver's house in Takeo province, and of course, we stopped lots of time for the kids to have a wee. This was fine by me because if they were outside weeing, this means by default, they were not inside blowing on the bloody irritating whistles that every kid had got from the beach. I had to stop myself from force feeding them diuretics. Unfortunately, we could not put the baby outside when it decided to go to the loo, but instead, its dirty nappy was chucked out of the window into a vegetable patch. I was torn between making an environmental health statement and being pleased that the van no longer smelt of poo. But by this time, I was getting too tired to think plus, explaining a "nappy sack" in Khmer is beyond me...
We whistled and bounced our way back to PP. We arrived at some other colleagues houses where there was a complicated bag, fish and people exchange programme enacted. I went into my colleague's house and spoke to his wife in my best polite Khmer. Oh she said, in perfect English, do you want to sit down, would you like a drink? So I decided that English was the best option and in fact a real relief after spending the weekend getting a Khmer language headache from all the concentrating!
After the exchange programme was complete, I got back in the van when instructed and off we went back home to Siem Reap. We stopped for dinner in Kampong Thom about 8pm. I looked around for the people from the other car, but could not see them! So I asked when they were coming, perhaps they did not want to eat and had gone straight to The Reap? Oh them? Oh no, they are staying in PP for a while. Now, normally, that would be fine, okay, so some colleagues are coming back later. But my bag was in their car, because there was no room for it in the van. But seeing as we were now 170Km from my bag and its contents, I realised that I could not do anything about it, so ordered my noodles instead.
During dinner, at 8;30pm on a Sunday night, two more colleagues appeared from nowhere. Why they appeared then, in The Thom on a Sunday night is a mystery, but they managed to somehow fit in the van and we set off for the last leg of the journey. The van was very cold, it was pitch dark and someone had their phone playing Khmer karaoke music on loud speaker. It added to the atmosphere; most people were asleep or too tired to talk by this point. It reminded me a lot of making the late night motorway journeys we made when I was a kid; from my Grandma's house in the Midlands, back down South on a Sunday night.
Around 11pm we pulled into the office. People immediately peeled away and motorbikes appeared from the dark to collect their relatives. People left without the group "goodbyes" or "we must do it again!" that you would expect, or at least, that I expect. But I forget that this is a country where hellos and goodbyes are not really done. So I hung around for a few minutes, feeling I had to say good bye to someone, but then decided that instead, I would get on my moto, bag-less and shattered, and go home. I drove the short journey home on auto-pilot. It was a fun couple of days but it has to be said, 1000km is quite a long way to go for a weekend away. Still, on saying that, I would do it again though...