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Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Life in Cambodia

I had hoped to return to my previous home in Kompong Chhnang and the life I had in Cambodia last year. Discovered a few days before I arrived that an international organisation had approached the landlord and offered to rent the house for three years. It's been empty since I left a year ago. He took the better offer and I don't blame him.

At first I was disappointed but then I saw it as an opportunity to stay in Phnom Penh and study Khmer. Besides, my friend, Vana, is now living in Phnom Penh and that would give me someone who speaks the language to help with any problems.

We decided to make a day trip to Kompong Chhnang the day after I arrived. No one else knew I was coming. Vana and I reached the Sorya bus station in Phnom Penh at 9.45 am. It was more crowded than usual as there had been a holiday for the P'chum Ben Festival. The ticket office told us that the next bus to Kompong Chhnang was at 10.30. We bought our tickets and went to get some breakfast. Arrived back at the bus station at 10.15 am. Waited until 11.30 when Vana discovered that the bus was at the service station on the other side of the road. I don't know if he asked or heard an announcement but there was no information given in English. There never is. We went across and there was the usual situation that I compare to if you had put a bunch of bananas in the bus and a mob of monkeys were all trying to be the first to get in. In Cambodia, no one wants to be last on the bus.
Despite all this rush there were plenty of seats. But I discovered the system has changed. In the past, I usually sat in the middle of the back row because then I could stretch my legs into the aisle. There is insufficient room for westerners' legs in most seats. Now they have scrawled numbers on the ceiling with a marker and the seat numbers are allocated on the ticket. The conductor insisted we sit in the allocated seats. I was whinging and carrying on. I do this in English and very few people have a clue what I am saying but it gets it off my chest. Perhaps the conductor did understand. After a few minutes he decided that as the back row was empty and Cambodians don't usually want to sit there we could move down the back.

I understand why they number the seats. The back row fits five. But sometimes I get on, the bus is full except in the back row there are three young guys occupying five spaces. They're sitting with knees so far apart you'd think they each had a pair of footballs between their legs. I have to bully them to get them to move enough for one skinny westerner to fit in. Most Cambodians wouldn't say anything, they just stand quietly and let the conductor do the bullying.

Anyway, that is not an issue today. There are ample seats. We leave for KC without calling in at the bus station. I probably would have missed the bus if I'd been on my own. But then if I'd been on my own I'd have checked way earlier and they probably would have sent a message to me somehow. I was well known by the ticket sellers at this bus station. I've waited a long time for buses in the past but I don't think I ever missed one.

A couple of hours later we get off in KC and walk down the street to Vana's family home. He has been storing some of my stuff and we sort through it a bit. He has some work to do too in relation to the job he is doing in PP. I borrow a bicycle and head for the market. We have not told anyone that I am coming. When I get to the Seinah & Seinee family stall their mother is outside. She calls out 'John!' before I'm even close enough to see them properly. I miss the opportunity to see the looks on the faces of the twins who are inside.

I sit with them and chat. After a while they need to get back to work. I wander off to see who else I can find. At Savern's stall, her mother is lying in a hammock, which is the usual way they wait for customers. She call's to Savern who is busy with a customer at the other end of the stall. The mother stays in the hammock holding my hand until Savern finishes with the customer. Then Savern comes and gives me a hug over the top of the mother. This is unusual here as physical affection is not usually shown in public in Asian countries, at least not between males and females.

I chat for a while with Savern. She has forgotten most of the English she knew so speaks mostly in Khmer which evolves into a Khmer lesson for me. This often happened when I was there before. She is a natural teacher. Vana's mother, who was also not aware that I was here, turns up. Then she spreads the word to a few relatives who have stalls a little further down. I spend some time with each of them. I try to buy a pair of sunglasses from one. They refuse to take my money. At that price, maybe I could buy a new pair of reading glasses too but they don't have the right strength. Vana turns up and we walk around the rest of the market together.

I take him to vendors who I know but he doesn't. I chat to them with my limited Khmer but this time we can communicate a little more than usual because Vana can translate. He is quite surprised at how warmly so many people are greeting me. After we've done the circuit he says, 'I know that Seinah, Seinie and Savern love you but I did not know that so many people all over the market love you.'

When we go back to his place we start packing stuff for me to take back to Phnom Penh but it is too late now to go back that day. We stay at his place the night. He keeps telling me that he can find a house for me if I want to stay in KC. He thinks this is where I belong because so many people want me to come and stay. In fact he has only seen part of it. I could take him to four monasteries in town where I would get a similar reception from many of the monks.

Me, I'm feeling confused. All this demonstration of affection is very appealing but on the other hand my communication with the majority of these people is limited by my lack of ability in Khmer language. I am thinking that learning Khmer is my priority and that I can probably do that best in PP.

That night Vana's parents give up their bed for me. I try to insist that I am happy to sleep on a mat on the floor but he insists 'You are my guest' and the parents sleep on a mat on the verandah.

When I wake the next morning I have a feeling that I should make plans to come back to stay in KC. I feel sure that I can find a teacher in town. We go for a walk and Vana shows me some accommodation that has been offered to me but it's not really suited to my preferred lifestyle.

Vana's brother is going to give him a ride back to PP on his motorcycle. First they take me to a guesthouse to check if there is a vacancy so I can stay there until a house turns up, then they drop me at the bus station. It's about 8.15 and the bus is due to leave at 9 o'clock. It seems the bus company has made some changes. In the past, several buses would stay overnight at KC and they would leave at roughly one hour intervals in the morning. But today there is no bus there. It arrives way past 9 am and by then there are many people waiting.

Last year they would leave with about six people on board. We go through the monkey boarding procedure again. I wait back. I choose to not be a monkey. And my karma must be good. Somehow the best seat on the bus is empty. This one is at the front just behind the entrance. There is no seat in front of it. I grab it. There are a few others who don't get proper seats. They sit on the spare wheel and on the engine covering.

As we head in towards PP, there is a lot of flooding across the road. It rained heavily the previous night. There are also a lot more passengers who board. The bus reaches a point where, in a western country, it would be considered full. As you can see from the picture above, it's not a very big bus. We stop and there are seven people waiting to get on. That's seven adults, there's also a baby and two of the adults are elderly. They also have several sacks. One looks like it's filled with charcoal, another perhaps rice. Somehow this is all fitted in. The old folks and the mother all sit on the sacks in the aisle. Everyone else squeezes further back.

I wondered what would happen if there was anyone else waiting. I'm not sure if this bus company puts passengers on the roof. It doesn't. From then on the driver signals 'no room' to other prospective passengers. It's midday before we finally reach PP.

I spent a few days deliberating over my decision to return to Kompong Chhnang. Somehow I wasn't sure it was right. But by Wednesday I was convinced it was so have now returned with all my stuff. I'm still in the guesthouse but have found a home. It's not ready yet so I'll write about it after I move in, perhaps in a week or two. I've also found a Khmer teacher close by and am having regular lessons. I'm happy with these arrangements. I feel I've made the right decision.

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