08 May 2010

Smart Noshery Makes You Slobber.

Click the title of this post-- you won't be sorry! Ok, now for the real post--

Cambodia Overland

On our last day in Siem Reap, we were lukewarm on carvings and temples and cut wild trees that once grew over broken stones. We felt we'd seen it, and without being scholars on the topic, there was little more we could really gain from seeing another seven-headed naga, another elephant, another demon, another churned sea of milk, another apsara, another Buddha. The Angkor complex is fascinating in its sprawling, brokedown way, but it's confusing, too. It's a heritage site, so you expect it to be clean. You expect the government and international agencies to create jobs for people, and maintenance is one of those good never-gonna-end sort of jobs. But in our days at Angkor, we saw people sweeping leaves out of the forest. What is going on? Surely, that is a never-ending job that nature manages well enough? We were starting to ask weird, unanswerable questions, the kind of questions that make people move to Cambodia forever. Maybe the Cambodian conception of beautiful nature is about tidiness, like bonsai trees? Why are they burning all that sugarcane? Why is there a working rice paddy in the middle of two Angkor temples?

And we'd spent enough time in Siem Reap, too, enjoying the bizarre cafes and people-watching. People will strap anything to the back of a motorcycle in this town. The creativity is astounding. Can you strap nine chickens to the back of a scooter and ride it without falling? We had also enjoyed a lovely thing (that we would truly miss in the coming days)-- Siem Reap's generally good food. It's filled with surprising variety-- there's even a Mexican restaurant. And because Cambodia was colonised by the French, you can get a delicious crispy fresh-baked baguette anywhere.

We had not yet seen the water; yes, we had seen the straight little river that splits Siem Reap neatly, but we had not seen the big water.

Tonle Sap, which is a giant lake that feeds the Mekong river during the dry season, and then changes its flow to feed the lake during the wet season, is the heart of Cambodia. So we got on a tour boat and rode out past floating villages to a larger, moored boat, where we ate dinner and watched the sunset.

There were drawbacks. We were first herded to an alligator farm/eel farm/giftshop on a river feeding into Tonle Sap. The veg-friendly dinner was a bowl of chips and overcooked vegetables with rice. No soy sauce. No chilli. Overall, it was probably a bit too expensive.

But it was brilliant, as well.

The floating villages are Vietnamese refugee communities; during the Vietnam war, thousands of Vietnamese people fled, anywhere they could. Fleeing one war-torn place for a war-ravaged neighbour seemed incongruous to me, possibly ironic, but the tour guide told us, "They had to leave. Go anywhere." Even Cambodia, I guess.

Though Cambodians love fish and seafood, and more than anything, tuk tray, or fish sauce, Cambodians don't tend to live on water. Just on land near it. But the Vietnamese refugees are true boat people. The Cambodian government gave them refugee status, but it couldn't give them land, since so many Cambodian citizens are peasants without land, as well. And rent on land is too expensive for they refugees. So they live, they work, they cook, they sleep, they learn, they pray, and they continue, survive, in boats.

Floating school, floating church, we even saw a floating mosque.

Check out the solar panels--

We saw three or four little kids paddling around in little metal or plastic tubs; they were all going in different directions, and I asked, "Where are they trying to go? What are they doing?," because if I'm in a boat, I'm trying to get somewhere. And the guide said, "They're just playing."

Because the boats are homes, which means the lake is the street, the front yard, the playground. But the lake is also the toilet. I probably shouldn't take this analogy too far. You never know where we might end up.

I have never seen kids so comfortable with so much water. I myself can't swim more than about 3 feet. I don't even like being wet, honestly. But these kids...when their tubs starting taking on water, when their tubs started sinking, they calmly cupped the water out with their hands.

A man steered his little jalopy-like motorboat next to our boat, and his little toddler hopped across, to our boat, holding ice-cold beers for sale, because they knew our tour guide only had warm Angkor-label beer. I will say this now: I will never jump from one moving boat to another, risk falling into the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia, unless my life depends on it, in which case-- I will not be bringing you any ice-cold beers, my friend. I will not.

A kite flying over Tonle Sap.

And a beautiful sunset over the lake.

The real problem I had with this trip was that it was like touring through poverty. The tour boat goes through the floating village, through these people's front yards, their streets, and we saw their homes, their schools, their bathrooms, but they most likely don't see any of our money. Craig said almost the whole visit to Cambodia was "vacationing in someone else's misery."

The next morning, we got up early and took a bus to Kamphong Cham on our way to Kratie. From Kratie, we were going on an eco-tourism sort of homestay organised by the Cambodian Rural Development Team. We were supposed to meet them at their offices, and we'd stay there overnight.

The bus took hours, and though no long bus journey over land is very nice, it was only reasonably bad. I particularly enjoyed the Cambodian music videos. There was a love ballads video and a wedding songs video; I realized eventually that almost every video featured one guy-- must be the Khmer Shah Rukh Khan!! Exactly the kind of cultural capital/camp I love. Craig, on the other hand, found the videos schlocky and shmaltzy and various other yiddish words that mean annoying and boring and not worth watching. The bus driver honked at everything that was anywhere near the bus (other cars, pedestrians, birds, houses, piles of grass...), so sleep was impossible and dozing was punctuated by horn blasts. But then the driver hit a cow-- don't worry, it got back up and ran away-- but maybe you should worry, because we really don't know if it was ok after that...

Once we got to Kampong Cham, we had another 1.5 hour trip to Kratie, which no buses service, so we had to take a share-taxi. OMG. This is a truly horrible way to travel. Six people shoved into a four-seater; Craig and I were both in the passenger seat. The driver took us a mile away from the bus station and stopped. He wouldn't drive any more unless we paid him extra. We asked why and he said he usually fits two extra people into his car, so we should pay him for the extra fares. This is a scam. He's paid by the bus company to take us to Kratie; it was included in our ticket. The bus company gave him the people they had, and he'd driven us away from the station because he'd probably get in trouble if the bus company knew about this sort of fleecing. Still, we couldn't imagine 8 people fitting into this tiny car, and didn't really want to try it out. Eventually we negotiated down to $1.25 extra per person, and we were on our terrifying way.

No seatbelts, and the driver honked at everything on the road, flying unbelievably fast on dirt roads, no air conditioning on a tropical dry-season day. The countryside of Cambodia is so dusty, even the trees look orange because they're covered in it. Because Craig and I were sitting up front, we could see every horrifying swerve the driver made, every poor skinny thing he almost hit.

We finally got to Kratie, harrowed and carsick and aching. Our hips hurt where each others' bones were poking us through the ride. I had a mildly pinched nerve from sitting with my spine so contorted. We were not in great shape. The taxi driver tried to drop us off at a guesthouse where he would get kickbacks for every person who stayed there, but we left on foot for CRDT.

Kratie is rural, seriously, weirdly rural. It's a small town in the middle of farmland, so skinny ponies walk down the road and cows lay down in front of the bank. Chickens... everywhere.

At the CRDT office, they told us that, in the morning, we would take a taxi and a boat to a small village (Koh Pdao), where an English-speaking guide would show us all the CRDT projects, like aquaculture (teaching people to farm small quantities of their own fish, so they don't have to net the Mekong and harm its ecosystem), or a biodigester (a giant composter that collects methane from animal manure, so people can burn methane for cooking instead of sugarcane and trash that pollute. They can also burn the methane for light). We would be staying in someone's home, and they'd fix food for us. Vegetarian food had been organized.

Sounds great, we said.

And they said we could help with the gardening or digging a well if we wanted. Or we could not help and just laze around and ride bikes around if we wanted.

We'd rather do something, we said.

They took us to a guesthouse and told us to get a room there for the night.

And here our troubles began. In my itinerary, the organiser (Tola) told us we would stay at the offices for the night. But Tola is nowhere to be found. And guesthouses are cheap in Cambodia, so we decide to just stay there.

The next morning, we take another share taxi and eventually find the boat that is supposed to take us to the village. The boat ride up the Mekong is beautiful and a little social, as well.

Look how hopeful Craig is, at the start of the day.

The river is the only source of communication and connection for all the little villages along it; the boat stopped to deliver giant boxes of instant noodles and jerrycans of gasoline. Women and children got on the boat to ride to other villages. A little Cambodian girl took a shine to Craig (as usual!) and sat next to him for the whole ride. An interesting note: it seems the height of fashion in Cambodian villages is pajama pants with high heels, along with large fashion jewelry and t-shirts. And I'm talking serious pajama pants. Pale yellow fleecy fabric with little bears sleeping on clouds sort of pajamas. Fascinating stuff.

The journey to the village from Kratie had taken about 2.5 hours.
"We have to tell the guide that we need to be in Kratie at 9am tomorrow morning, to catch our bus to Phnom Penh," I told Craig.
"So the boat would need to leave here at, like, 6.30am," he said. "Just to be safe."

We get off the boat. There is no one there to tell us what to do.

We walk around and eventually find a house on stilts... there is nothing telling us what to do, or whose house we're supposed to be staying in.

We eventually just climb the stairs into this house, figuring if we're in the wrong place, they'll tell us.

A Khmer woman is making up two beds. She smiles at us, but can't speak any English. We can't speak any Khmer, of course, because we're... um... tourists. We had little English-Khmer phrase cards that were supposed to help: we pointed to "Is that my bed?" and she nodded. There was no guide. We asked if anyone spoke any English, but no. Lunch was on the way, but we were worried. How we would get to see anything, much less get back to Kratie on time, if we didn't have a guide?

Lunch came out: instant noodles, omelette, fish rolls, and fish on sticks.

I asked to speak to Tola. Someone had a cellphone and they called him. He apologized for all the fish; he'd forgotten to tell them we were vegetarian. He told me the English-speaking guide wasn't coming, but a Khmer-speaking one was. I wasn't sure how this was going to work, but I thought we might as well eat and figure it out as we went along.

An old guy came along and said, "Hello!" Relief! We said hello! and asked if he was a guide. "No, I am not," he said stiffly. "What is your nationality?" he asked. "Um...we're from Australia, or America," we said. "I would like to know about your culture," he said.

He took our English phrase cards and read each English phrase out slowly to us, looking up at us for approval after each question. "Where is the bathroom?" "When will dinner be served?"

Uh-oh. This guy just wants to practice his English. Which is fine, but we really didn't know what was going on-- where were the CRDT people? He agreed to take us to the office on a scooter.

The "office" was an empty shed and a wooden platform with a tarped roof. No one in sight. Finally a young man came by. "Hello!" he said. We said hello! and asked if he was a guide. "No, I am not," he said stiffly. "What is your nationality?" he asked.

Oh, dear.

Turns out his brother is the CRDT guide, but his brother had gone somewhere else, and so CRDT had asked him to come instead. He lives in this village and teaches in another. He told us that it was a public holiday, this day, and that was why no one was here.

Why had they booked us for a homestay on this day?

He didn't know Tola, or anything about CRDT. He couldn't show us the development projects. So, we went back to our homestay house, and talked with him for awhile, still awaiting the arrival of the Khmer-speaking guide.

"I would like to know where you have travelled?" he said.

We told him we were from America, but that we lived in Australia. That we had a friend in Phnom Penh, so we thought we'd see Cambodia, and we'd just got here from Thailand.

"I think you are very lucky to see so many things," he said.

We're jerks. He told us he had never even seen Angkor Wat; he wants to see a lot of places, but he doesn't think he'll have the money. I couldn't keep up the faltering, small-talky conversation. He asked rehearsed questions and we tried to keep the immense privilege and wealth out of our answers. The stress and the heat wore me thin, and then out.

I fell asleep for an hour, and then Craig woke me up to say we were going to try to bicycle to the next village to see if maybe some CRDT people were there. While I was asleep, he watched some of the villagers stack speakers onto an oxcart-- apparently there was a party in the next town over that night.

Where is the Khmer guide? He never showed. The teacher tells us the next village is about 2km away.

We borrow some bicycles. Riding over unpaved, dusty paths strewn with grass and sugarcane, I was nervous. Then we got to a bridge. Loose planks ill-fitted over long strips of wood. Missing planks, green river below. I was terrified. I rode slow, scared. I barely breathed.

"Could you ride a little faster, please, because the village is 5 km away?" the teacher said.

I stopped riding. Craig stopped short behind me. The teacher stopped.

"This is not going to work. We need to go back. Right now," I said. We clearly weren't going to learn anything about CRDT, we certainly weren't going to help dig a damn well, and we weren't going to make it back to Kratie on time in the morning.

I didn't want to sit in someone's house, not even be able to talk to them through a translator or guide or anything, have them cook me dinner and then go to sleep in their house, having learned nothing about the development projects they're working on to make their lives better and more sustainable.

How crazy is it to make rural development projects in villages that house about 40 people more sustainable, when the cities are filled with exhaust? Really? I mean, really?? It's like sweeping leaves out of the forest.

So, we called Tola and got a boat back to Kratie. The schoolteacher rode on the boat back with us; he really didn't understand why we were leaving. We told him we weren't going to take our money back-- we still wanted the family to have the money... the only thing we had to offer, really. We told him we were sorry.

This is our return boat... most of the little boats in Cambodia are a bit leaky. People keep plastic dishes around to help shovel the water out. Click on this picture to see an excellent motion shot--

The taxi back was mercifully ours alone, and we listened to Cambodian versions of American rap songs all the way to Kratie. **I want to make up right now na na, Wish we never broke up right now na na, We need to link up right now na na.**

We went back to the same guesthouse, trying to prep ourselves for the 7-hour busride to Phnom Penh the next day... and then we both got sick. We settled in for a rough night.

More to come soon...

1 comment:

  1. That line about me saying it was like "vacationing in someone else's misery" makes me sound like a real bummer, which I can be, but I want to stress that 1) I was paraphrasing a possibly paraphrased and misheard David Byrne quote and 2) I enjoyed Cambodia and was quite struck by the place, and the people were far more friendly and full of good humour than you'd expect. Further proof that people in developing countries are more resourceful and resilient than those of us in the first world who are accustomed to plenty. Not that that makes them better, or more 'in touch,' but toppling the notion that these are 'failed' nations because of some internal shortcoming requires no other counter-example than the people themselves.

    Nicaragua and Cambodia--the poorest countries I've visited--are clearly just losers in a global battle for power and influence, and daily eat the bitter rations they've been left with. My doubts were about whether the rich should be traipsing through these countries at all, especially those with no ability to speak the language and nothing more to offer than the tourist dollar and, at best, good will and gratitude. I'm not sure this is a conundrum that will ever be worked out in a satisfactory way under the current system.