So, we have a one-week break from teaching this week. Many of the other volunteers at CWF have headed off to islands or beaches, but me and a fellow teacher fancied something a bit more active. Hence, we ended up booking a bespoke Mekong Explorer trip with a company called Adventure Cambodia. As is my usual modus operandi once I’d agreed to go I didn’t really think all that much more about it. Once the day of departure dawned though I was a bit anxious about the mosquito and possibly leech quotient I might encounter on the tour, but a bit late to be worrying about that now.
So, Day One. The trip itinerary tells us that er hem we shall, ‘depart from Phnom Penh by car directly to Stung Treng (stopping for lunch in Kratie) overnight in an excellent riverside hotel (a/c hot water) unfortunately no reservation in our name either, but a minor detail that was rectified. It also had a lot of mosquitos in my room. I bloody hate mosquitos. Still, trying to adopt the ‘glass half full’ philosophy as much as I can, typing up my blog post whilst draped in a sheet fearful of the near silent assassins scouting round my room, at least I’ll get a chance to find out if my mosquito repellents will work. I have three different brands, and I’ve practically bathed in them. I can hardly breathe, surely it will deter them, or I shall die in the attempt to keep them at bay.
So, the day dawned. I got a phone call about 7.55 alerting me that the taxi was waiting outside to collect me which was an auspicious start. Less auspicious was I had to navigate the taxi to my co-traveler’s apartment, and I was at the point of losing confidence about our destination when I espied him sitting lonely on his backpack on the street outside the block in which he is staying. It seems he too got a text to say they were ready outside, only they weren’t, they were at mine. I had a feeling they’d assume we are a couple, which we are not. I thought there may have been a clue in our booking in which we stated ‘we are not a couple, we require separate rooms’ oh well, I was hoping this assumption would not stalk the whole trip. Hilariously (I thought, but then I am rather easily amused) we immediately drove back to outside my apartment, where we handed over our wads of cash (the balance of the trip, the deposit having been paid by paypal) and our adventure Cambodia contact left us in the capable hands of our taxi driver. Fortunately, he was both chatty and had pretty good English. More than enough to communicate on a wide range of topics, but with the odd anomaly in communication to keep us on our toes and make me doubt my comprehension of some of the more outlandish tales. I maintain though that comprehension was less an issue than credulity, but you can judge for yourself. I did find his use of passenger for customer confusing at first though…
So, although the journey was long, it was also interesting. It was good that our driver Rai was happy to chat, and started early off by helping to correct our feeble efforts in Khmer and he was I think, genuinely happy to answer questions. It was a very long drive – his time in the driver’s seat however would not end with dropping us off some 8 hours after pick up. He then had to go to Siem Reap for another pick up, and tomorrow will drive from there to Sihanoukeville. He will do that drive on about 3 hours sleep. I think he was a good driver, but even so, I’d rather not have anyone drive me on so little slumber. I’m glad we had him on day one of his epic road trip.
There was relatively light chit-chat to begin with, but then my tired companion wanted to sleep. So, after the first comfort break (which, for the record, was but the first of many for our driver who I seriously began to wonder if he might have a prostate problem) I moved into the front seat, and my co-traveler slept and I got chatting. My the tales I heard tell!
It was such a deluge of extraordinary things I hardly know where to start. Upmost in my mind though was his description of what he referred to as ‘the jungle people’ beyond the region of Sen Monorom in NE Cambodia. Some hours further drive and trek into this dense jungle area, our driver insisted there were ‘uneducated’, ‘jungle people’ who, he assured me, still actively practice cannibalism. I thought maybe that this was a linguistic misunderstanding, but no, he was adamant, ‘still now, you go and they will kill their daughter to eat’. What? Really? He believes this? He claimed to have been and heard this from reliable people he knew. What is curious, is that this is not the first time I have been told most insistently, that there are ‘jungle people’ near the borders of Vietnam, who are cannibals, so the myth, if that is what it is, is clearly believed by some even if I have absolutely no idea if it is true. I can imagine scenarios where you might eat your enemies, but your own children seems unlikely unless you are Thyestes, and it was an accident. I asked my guide ‘why’. His explanation was that these people are uneducated, and they do not have feelings for each other. It all sounds implausible but a compelling tale. I can believe there are still isolated tribal people in remote corners who have their own language and own traditions, but beyond that… well, what is curious, is that this is the second time I have heard such a tale. It makes you wonder if somewhere along the line there is or was truth in it. It is certainly believed to be true that those that tell it. One of the people who told me was university educated, and well-travelled, not at all the sort of person you would say was susceptible to superstition. It’s very odd. I have checked in with Captain Google, but can find no other reference to this, so I have no idea where the tale originates, only that it is interesting (to me) that it has some apparent currency.
More disturbing to me – because it is actually true, and not just hearsay, was the sight of a poor live pig, strapped to the back of a motorbike. Our driver found this comical as it periodically twitched. Interestingly (to me) the sight of a skewered calf on the back of a truck earlier in the day seemed to bother him more. I am so confused about the whole Buddhist thing, in the Cambodian context. He, like others, is most insistent you shouldn’t kill animals but ‘of course’ it’s completely OK to eat them. He explained to me that you have to eat meat otherwise you wouldn’t have the strength to work hard in the fields. I can be a vegetarian because I don’t have to work hard in my country apparently. I couldn’t be bothered to give the counter arguments, there is no point. He was saying the government had tried to stop the roasting of skewered whole animals because it was not in keeping with Buddhist ways and sent a bad image of the country to overseas visitors. Well, it may not be a nice sight on the roads, but it is an honest one. People do eat meat. It is a lot more humane to transport it dead than alive and enduring torture of upsidedown transportation. Sorry guys, but here it is, this is the reality of what your pig may have been through before it became pork on your plate in Cambodia. The real tragedy though is that here at least the treatment of animals is not hidden. I fear worse atrocities in more seemingly controlled western standards still happen. Overcrowding, airless transportation and grim slaughter houses. Still, it turned my stomach to see that poor porcine. How it was suffering I can only imagine.
The driver took time to try to explain Buddhism to me, the five principles. With regards to the ‘don’t kill animals’ he drew my attention to the fact at every pagoda or temple, you will see representations of animals. Now I got in a bit of a knot about what he was saying here. I wasn’t quite sure if they were proudly displayed to remind you not to kill them, or a dire warning of what might lie ahead of you in a future life if you mess up this time round. He was saying if you are not ‘good’ you may come back as a pig, and be killed seven times before you can try again as a person. I have no idea if that was a ‘for example’ sort of scenario, or if seven deaths is taken as the standard number of goes at being a pig, with more life cycles if you are a chicken whatever. Anyway, this is why the animal imagery is so prevalent at temples and pagodas he said, because it reminds you not to kill them, and also I suppose potentially warns you what you might come back as? I really lost some of the finer details in translation I’m afraid. I have however heard credible stories of cannibalism by the Khmer Rouge, but that was an expression of power, not that that validates it, but it has nothing to do with basic nutrition, which was how it was being seemingly presented to me today.
On a personal note he shared that he had had a traditional Cambodian wedding 500 people came. He ‘of course’ asked monks about what date they should choose to get married on. I asked if it was true that people cancelled marriages if monks did not think the match of birthdays was good. He explained this had indeed happened to him. He loved another girl before he married his wife, but the monks said it was not good, so they broke off. It is hard to understand. I asked if they could tell me who my match would be based on my birthday, but apparently (and maybe conveniently) they could do this, but it only works if you believe them. Well, ironically, that I can indeed believe! It wont therefore work for me!
So back to the jungle stories. Our guide explained that if a cow or dog is roaming a tarmaced road, and is in collision with a vehicle, then that animal’s owner is wholly liable for any damage to the vehicle, because the animal is not under control. This is the accepted ‘rule of the road’ which is an inherently bizarre notion to me as I’m not really aware of any rules on the roads at all. Anyway, our driver explained he had been behind a minivan touring in the jungle region, when it was in collision with a wild pig. The animal’s owner was furious, and insisted the driver paid reparations for the pig. The driver tried to protest but to no avail as it is the law of the locals in this remote place. In the end our driver intervened and said they must pay because it looked like it might escalate and the local jungle people did not understand the law. There was a whip round amongst the tourists to meet the cost of the pig. Now it seems the going rate for a pig would be around 150,000 reil – well that was said to be the going rate though apparently it was nigh on extortion. However, the jungle people insisted on far more than that, because the pig was pregnant, they wanted reparation for the future generations of pigs that would never now reproduce as well. ‘The pig was pregnant!’ He guffawed at the retelling of the story. The pig was dead too. Poor pig. He felt that there was particular outrage in that the mini-van driver could not even realistically take the pig away after paying so dearly for it. It just wasn’t practical. I repeat, poor pig. Poor porcine. Pigs are not having a good time over here as far as I can see…
Other distractions on the road included over-laden vehicles, imaginatively packed vehicles and general roadside scenes. It is amazing how much fun it is to watch traffic here when you don’t have to move through it on foot. The fear evaporates, it becomes an exercise in the observation of extraordinary things! So we passed lotus fields and along dusty highways, we crossed weird-looking bridges and gawped at trucks in abundance.
One recurrent scene in a particular stretch of roads were long strips of highway lined with what looked like neatly raked gravel. It turns out to be some sort of tuber, dug up, cut to size, and left to dry on the road side. occasionally, people would put some tree branches across the roads just ahead of the piles to stop drivers going over them. I don’t know if the pictures quite show it. I think he said it was tapioca, but really, I have no idea. I don’t know what tapioca looks like prior to becoming frogspawn in a school pudding circa 1973. (Note, I subequently was told this was NOT tapioca, but definitely casava, and then General Google clarified, tapioca is made from process casava, so I hope we’ve cleared that up).
We had a lunch stop in Kratie, which was familiar after our foray there before. I had a decent Khmer veggie lunch, morning glory and garlic PLUS noodles and mixed veg stir fry for about $3, it was so brilliant that our driver was on hand to interpret. Healthiest veg fix in ages. Not quite the classic Cambodia street-side restaurant with little plastic chairs, but a sort of upmarket version of the same where we had a pot of tea and locals eating too. If only I could communicate in Khmer, the experience of living in Cambodia would be so much better. You can eat well here, but you need to know how to communicate. We practised our polite farewells, which went down well, though I have a feeling the smiles were less encouragement of our efforts and more amusement at our technique, even so, I think the attempt was appreciated. I like to think so anyway!
We got to Stung Treng, or wherever it is, by about four, having first to take a detour to avoid a market that had entirely taken over the central district, which was handy, as we needed to get to the market later anyway. We passed a hospital sign, and our driver told us when he was young he used to thing the H sign wasn’t for hospital but for helicopter, and was always a bit disappointed he never got to see any. Who can blame him. A perfectly reasonable misunderstanding and a source of prolonged bitter disappointment in anyone’s book.
We arrived at the hotel, waved off our driver with a $5 tip. No idea if that was appropriate or not. We’d agonised about it quite a lot en route. He stopped toward the end of the journey to see if some people waiting at the wayside needed a lift, I thought at first he was being nice, but as he drove away he said he could have given them a lift, but couldn’t work out what to charge them so didn’t, which was a bit cheeky given we have already paid through the nose for the journey. I’d have happily picked them up for nothing and company. Oh, that reminds me (no idea why) we were talking again about the roadside purveyors of petrol in their glass bottles, and I said it scared me how unsafe it looked, but he said it used to be much worse. Until a couple of years ago vendors would deliberately place the bottles in the sun so the petrol would vaporise and the bottles would seem fuller! Now they have to accept some half-hearted cover with tatty parasols to shade them instead. This is no doubt considered to be health and safety gone mad in some quarters, but not by me!
We arrived at the gold sands/ golden river hotel depending on which sign you read, to be greeted by friendly reception staff who explained there was no booking. We sorted it with phone calls to Adventure Cambodia, but it wasn’t the best of starts. Hotel is right on the river, and we each had twin rooms with a river view. It isn’t as posh as it appears in the photos, and I DONT LIKE SHARING MY ROOM WITH MOSQUITOES. We quickly dumped our belongings and then ventured off in search of some last-minute trip essentials. To the market! Our adventure now properly underway!