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Saturday, March 11, 2006


How many Cambodians...?

How many Cambodians fit in or on a vehicle?

Always one more.

I was standing outside my guesthouse on National Road 5 taking photos of the interesting transport forms that were passing. An early model Camry pulled up right next to me. Apart from the driver it had four adults on the back seat plus several children squeezed in. The front bench seat had another two adults beside the driver. The boot (trunk to Americans) was overfull and the lid was strapped down. The driver got out and seemed to be looking for someone—going back and forth in the front yard of the guesthouse. Shortly an acquaintance of mine came out. 'I go Phnom Penh' he said to me. He then got into the front seat and the driver squeezed into the space that was left. Then off they went in the direction of Phnom Penh. I realised that this car was a taxi. They carry as many passengers as they can fit and extract a fare from each one. My acquaintance is a captain in the local traffic police.

The family of Sunah and Seinee had invited me to accompany them and some friends to Sihanoukville, a beach resort town on the Cambodian coast. I said that I would like to go but was not sure of my commitments as I was expecting friends to arrive in Cambodia on the weekend. When I checked my email last Saturday I discovered that Normand was not well so he and Ursula were delaying their trip. I was free to make the journey to Sihanoukville. When I told S&S the news, they told me they would have to check with the driver of the van as all the seats were taken. Later I was assured that somehow they would fit me in.

On Tuesday morning I got up at 4 am to be ready on time. I was starting to wonder what fitting me in meant with pictures of that taxi in my mind. My body does not cope well with long distance travel in cramped conditions. I find most seats in a van uncomfortable. When I arrived at the S&S house I was given a seat in the front of the van which had sufficient room for my long barung legs. And fit me in? Heh-heh. It seems that the size of the group had increased dramatically. Do you think the driver would knock anyone back? No, his fee was 5,200 reil per person. So how many people do you think they could fit in a typical people-mover type van?

Vans of this size in Australia usually have perhaps three rows of seats. There were five in this one. Four people sat in each row and I suspect one or two extras squeezed in somehow. And then there was the roof rack. The rest pile on up there with the luggage. The total count (not sure if it included the driver) was 32. There was another similar van with a similar number of travellers and a couple of cars. One car did not have enough room within so the boot lid was propped open with a couple of pieces of wood and three passengers made the journey sitting in there.

As we were getting closer to Sihanoukville we stopped on a mountain pass where many spirit houses were erected. Our group did as most other travellers do and paid respects to the spirits, requesting safe passage. I think both the spirits and the driver were looking after us as we had been travelling quite safely for four and a half hours when we reached the outskirts of Sihanoukville. We were pulled over by the police.

They immediately gave the driver a ticket which required him to pay a fine of 5,000 reil ($A1.70). This was not a bribe as the ticket was an official receipt. The police ordered the rooftop passengers to get down. I'm being told little bits of what is going on but because I understand almost no Khmer I know very little. Members of our party are having discussions with the police. Apparently the problem is that people travelling on the roof will make the city look untidy. Anyone who has ever visited Cambodia, or indeed Sihanoukville, will appreciate the irony of this. Safety is apparently not an issue. Someone in our group tells a cop that we have travelled all the way from Kompong Chhnang to celebrate Women's Day at the beach. And somehow this does the trick. Our rooftop passengers are allowed to climb back up and off we go.

During out time in Sihanoukville we encounter police again on a couple of occasions. Each time the passengers on the roof are required to get off and walk. We drive on a few blocks turn a corner and wait. When they catch up, they get back on the roof and on we go.

We spend most of our time over two days at beaches in Sihanoukville. They are OK but to an Australian nothing special. There is no surf. My Cambodian friends think it is wonderful but they are a little afraid of the water not to mention the sun. There is little if any body exposure. They go into the water fully clothed. I almost said 'swim' but few of them can swim more than a few strokes. I am often asked 'Are you afraid?'

'Of what?' I reply.

They don't really know what there is to be scared of but to them the water is an unnatural environment, one in which they are not fully comfortable.

In the evening we go to a guesthouse and rent a few rooms. Nine people share the room that I am in.

I am regularly being asked if I am happy. On Wednesday evening I explain to a group of my friends: Most barung who visit Cambodia get to meet only those people they need to deal with in their hotel or in shops. Some guys find themselves a Cambodian girlfriend. You see them travelling around together on a motorcycle. But still it is just one Cambodian they are getting to know. On the other hand I have the pleasure of the company of a large group of people, most of whom treat me like a brother. Why wouldn't I be happy?

I came to Cambodia to live like a Cambodian, to experience the lifestyle of Cambodian people to the extent that it is possible for a Westerner to do so. I have now experienced a holiday Cambodian style. Few concessions were made for me. I lived and ate much as they did. Sure there were challenges for me. I was obliged to eat food that I would normally have avoided. But I survived. In fact some of the Cambodians in our group complained of stomach aches. I was fine.

On Thursday morning we piled back into the van at about 5.30 am and started the journey back home. First we stopped at a waterfall which was pretty wonderful—certainly more appealing to me than the beach. However the vendors were there ready to serve at even that early hour. With the number of stalls set up at the site, I realise that this is a very popular place and in a few hours it would be crawling with people. I'm glad we made it as early as we did.

We stop again in a market town to buy food for lunch. It is busy and dusty.

Once more we stop on the mountain pass to pay our respects to the spirits. I need to go and ask if it would offend the spirits if I peed on the side of the road here. Yes, it would. But it seems the spirits are not offended by litter which lines the roadside just about everywhere.

On we go and eventually safely reach Kompong Chhnang in time for me to make a late start for my English class at Wat Xam. I've had a wonderful time. I'm tired. But I don't want to miss my English classes.

Some other news this week.

After I wrote my blog last week, but before I posted it, a group—young men including monks, young women and a grandfather (me)—climbed Phnom Krang Day Meas, a hill/mountain not far from Kompong Chhnang. I have no way of measuring its height so have no way of knowing if it is a hill or a mountain. I can assure you that by time we reached the top in the heat it felt like a mountain. However, if it was a mountain, perhaps it would have been a little cooler at the top. I enjoyed the day. It gave me an opportunity to observe young Cambodian men and women interacting—quite subdued compared to Westerners.

Since I've been here my friends have been telling me that $US5 a day is expensive for my accommodation. Someone suggested that I could rent a house for $US20—50 per month. I didn't take too much notice of that. Many of the houses here are clad with palm leaves. I'm sure it's cool in the heat and looks very traditional. If I didn't have a few thousand worth of technology to consider I might take such a house. But under the circumstances I think that security might be an issue.

Eventually Vana showed me a room that I could get for $35 per month and it is better than the one I had—in most ways. Even has a cistern for flushing the toilet. And it's about 100 metres back from the main road so is usually quieter.

I can't say I was unhappy with Holiday Guesthouse. They always treated me well. In fact, the guesthouse is almost surrounded by houses of family members who were always coming and going. I feel I have become part of that family and continue to go back to their restaurant for meals. If things don't work out well in the new place I would be happy to go back.

That's my week once again. I've taken lots of photos some of which you can see in the usual places. I hope you'll take a look. In another week my visa is due for renewal. This will be the first time I will have been through this process in Cambodia. I trust all will go well. If it does, expect me to be reporting from Kompong Chhnang for at least the next six months.

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