We got on a bus! Yes, that is sort of it. That was the adventure for yesterday, and it was glorious. I think people who share my mindset will totally get why, people who don’t will be left pondering:
Non-plussed ponderer: ‘so you went on a bus ride?’
Me (ridiculously excited): ‘Yes!’.
Non-plussed ponderer: ‘but you got off to explore right?’
Me: ‘No‘ (confused now), ‘we just stayed on the bus, it was amazing.‘
Non-plussed ponderer: ‘that’s it?’
Me (ridiculously excited): ‘You so should have come too, it was totally brilliant!’
Non-plussed ponderer: ‘erm‘
Both: mutual blinking and incomprehension as the chasm between us in terms of understanding widens.
Do you see the problem there?
The plan was basically this. I’m conscious my time here is finite. Although I’m not in love with Phnom Penh I suddenly realise there is so much of it I haven’t seen and would like to explore. What I didn’t know until a couple of days ago, is that Phnom Penh has an emergent public transport system. Who knew? Since September 2014 Phnom Penh has had a city bus service, there are only three routes, but that’s a start.
The appeal of getting on a bus is, for me, three-fold. I like doing things local people do, it’s cheap and it offers a brilliant way to see parts of the city that I wouldn’t otherwise get to, without worrying about safety, navigation or being odd for either staring or being in some random industrial estate or whatever at all. After some consultation with one of the returning CWF volunteers, we established there is a perfectly fine bus stop on Mao Tse Tuong, immediately outside the Tuol Tompong Pagoda. Once you know the stop is there you really can’t miss it. I mean, it is a bus stop, with a shelter, concrete seats, a timetable (in Khmer admittedly which is fair enough in context but utterly incomprehensible) and even a route map. There were some technical issues for me and my two companions all the same. We had found out the bus route is essentially circular, so the plan was just to get on it and stay on it and watch the world go by outside our window. Or more accurately, we would go past the world as we would be moving and it would be on the whole remaining still. This is/was all well and good, but as we didn’t really know the route otherwise – apart from the fact it would end up at the night market at some point – we had no idea at all which direction we were to be traveling in. Never mind, surprises are good. We knew we wanted a number 2 bus, and we knew it was 1500 reil flat fare, which you have to pay again at the night market stop which is the sort of terminus, and that was enough.
We trekked excitedly past the Russian Market and past the local Wat to get to the stop. It was indeed unmissable, with the huge white (anatomically detailed) stallions outside the temple a handy landmark nearby. We found the route map and formed a queue. One of my fellow travelers took a snap, partly to proof we were there, and partly so we could have a copy of the route with us to follow on her phone in case of need. Smart thinking there!
A few other local people assembled too. We were enjoying the dulcit chords of some wildly inappropriate rap tune blaring out from a children’s toy shop over the road, it was like an instant party. We were definitely all set up for an adventure. After a bit, a random minivan pulled up, and after some excited chit-chat, some of the people waiting for the public bus got in. Smilingly, the driver offered us a lift, we declined as the whole point of the outing was to try the public bus and we didn’t actually have a destination in mind. As they departed though, we had a shared moment of regret at what might have been, and resolved if it happened again we’d just pile in and see where fate led us.
It wasn’t long to wait for the bus. When it arrived it was, well, unexpectedly plush. There seemed to be Korean writing on some of the notices (I didn’t know it was Korean, but one of we three has taught there and declared it to be so). It seems likely, as I’ve heard tell, that these buses first were used in another country and then as they are replaced they end up in Cambodia. I have no idea. The bus was sort of tatty, but fully functional. It had air-con, mainly single seats (actually, exclusively so, apart from the back row). You have to have the right money as no change is given. When we first got on there was a wooden box with a slot in it at the entrance to the bus as you hop on, a woman with a book of paper tickets issued us with one each as we put our cash in the ballot-box type construction. Then we just took our seats at the back. I was very excited with my ticket. Is that normal I wonder? I think it should be, even if it is not.
Then, well, we mainly sat on the bus whilst mini-adventures unfolded. We were up high, so a great vantage point from which to look out across Phnom Penh. Also, this is an exceedingly slow way to get about. Given how hard it is to manoeuvre on foot, a bus was never going to be a speedy option for moving around town! Slow is good when you are sight-seeing. One frustration is that my camera is not dead to the point I have ceased to carry it around but can’t quite bring myself to throw it away. I am secretly hoping for a Lazarus type restoration, but in my heart of hearts I know this to be exceedingly unlikely. The second in our party had forgotten her camera in all the excitement of heading out to have an adventure. The third in our party had her mobile phone, but wasn’t really into capturing the scene. She made the mistake of allowing me and traveler two occasionally custody of her phone and we kept belatedly trying to snap shots as we passed. Thus, there are no doubt several hundred shots of blurred or blank scenes on her phone. Whether we shall ever see them I know not.
STOP PRESS: I did! Not sure I can remember exactly why each was taken though, but I daresay we had our reasons at the time… The slide show that follows includes a monk on a bus; river crossing views; laden motorbikes; random street scenes and roadside hammocks. All very typical, apart from possibly the monk on the bus, which I wouldn’t really know about, never having previously traveled on a bus in Phnom Penh.
At one point a rather smartly dressed executive type got on. Hearing us chatter away in English he asked us what we were doing and kindly offered to show us around once we got to the night market – which was really kind, but excruciatingly, we had to decline as we weren’t getting off and as some of us had to be back to teach there wasn’t time to do so. That rather killed the rapport.
Other occupants included a monk, who first sat playing on his mobile phone, and then fell asleep companionably across his friend. It is noticeable how male friends and female friends will comfortably intertwine with one another, but mixed sex couples can not. In my class, I have noticed male students sitting almost on top of one another. One will have their arm around the other, the other might be playing with their friend’s fringe or something. It is most definitely platonic, and all quite innocent and sweet. It is behaviour that would be bizarre transposed to a lecture in the UK say, but it’s completely fine here. I find it quite comforting. The standard is strange though. In yesterday’s class two of my male students were sitting so close that they had their hands on each others inner thighs (I know it sounds so sexual, but it honestly wasn’t). Yet, a couple of weeks ago, I was returning to my apartment and the young security guard (male) was sitting with a female companion. Just their little fingers were touching, not even linked, just a tiny surface area of connection. As I approached they literally leapt apart, like I’d caught them in flagrante delicto. I have NEVER seen anyone kiss anyone (other than a child on the head say) in a public place, but imagine how shocking that would be, if being caught with little fingers touching is such a cause for embarrassment. The funny thing is, seeing their reaction, I sort of colluded with their shame somehow, by pretending not to have seen, not wanting to intensify their already unbearable mortification. Strange, but true.
Lots of sights to behold. We passed hidden market; industrial areas; ramshackle buildings and vast new hotels. School children toing and froing, weddings, a funeral, floats of dragons (which I subsequently found out are to do with Chinese funerals – dragons carry off the dead or something, I didn’t entirely follow). We saw river bridges and river views.
Spotted children playing; people about their business; one stumbling tripping addict was a worry. I wondered if he’d make it through the day without being run over. After about 45 minutes the bus pulled over for quite a while, and we had to pay another 1500 reil. The reason for this was to me entirely mysterious. It isn’t worth quibbling over what are trivial sums, particularly when there is no shared language, but I didn’t understand why we paid again at all, though it was all above-board as we were reissued tickets. We didn’t all have the right money, so over-paid by 500 reil, which was fine, but I mention to illustrate the truth of the statement that you need to have the correct fare on you as no change is given.
The journey did take a VERY long time. We were getting somewhat twitchy about whether we’d make it back in time to teach, and did consider abandoning the ride in favour of a tuk-tuk. Eventually we got to riverside, and the night market and this seemed to be the more recognisable terminus. We had to alight, and then walk passed a whole load of parked buses and get on another number 2 to take us back from whence we came. This was another 1500 reil, this time given to a bus conductor who spoke pretty good English, and I think enjoyed using that she had to sell us tickets. It was grand. All the ticket sellers on the bus were women by the way (we had three different ones). The return journey seemed quicker somehow. We made it back to our starting point in about three hours.
So, summary. The public bus is a brilliant way to see some of the city of Phnom Penh though it lacks sufficient speed to operate effectively as actual transport. I’d like to go round again and maybe get on and off a bit. There were a fair few places offering tantalising views down side streets that are crying out to be explored. The more I do more local things, the more confident I feel about exploration. The bus also makes the city seem more manageable too. It offers up possibilities, and helped me get my bearings to some extent, as we pored over a map trying to work out where we were. The map I now have is brilliant. It was given out by a woman handing out fliers for a dentist and a hotel near to the Olympic Stadium and has at it’s centre point the rather grand V Hotel, but its the only map I’ve had the whole time I’ve been here with readable print size and meaningful landmarks. Brilliant.
By the time we got back, just time for a quick (but really delicious) lunch at Jars of Clay. This is a Christian run cafe in Phnom Penh. It was set up to help women leaving sex work or at risk of being recruited into it initially I think, and is a social enterprise. They have a really nice upstairs area with comfy chairs, air con and exceptionally friendly staff. The food is predominately good western fare. I had a feta and spinach pie. The only problem is that their internet is terrible (an issue if I am seeking somewhere to work) and you can’t plug in any devices. Also, because of its Christian ethos, which is fair enough as that is their origin, it is often full of more evangelical Christian types wearing ‘Jesus loves you’ T-shirts, or garments otherwise emblazoned with evangelical Christian imagery and holding hands in prayer which makes me uncomfortable although it is their prerogative to do so. It’s hard to express exactly why, but I suppose it’s because I am always left wondering if help for these disadvantaged women was conditional on their purporting to embrace Christian beliefs and values, even if they do not. They have some rather conservative leaning books for sale that are all-about ‘family values’, where ‘family’ has a narrow scope, and although they aren’t overtly hostile to other lifestyles, I think the inference is most definitely there. They do very good red-velvet cake though, apparently. This is not a foodstuff with which I am sufficiently familiar to pass any judgement, but it makes at least one CWF volunteer an almost daily visitor there.
I hope I’ll get back on the bus at some point, maybe I’ll even go wildly intrepid and try one of the other two routes! We’ll see, time is running out. So much to do, so little time to do it in.
This post may be enlivened by photos from along the way, but I am at the mercy of my mobile phone owning friend. If not, I’ll have to hang on to the memories in my mind’s eye. Maybe that will turn out to be better! After all, I can exaggerate in my head, like when you remember a book from childhood as being full of colour illustrations and later discover it had none. All in your fevered and powerful imagination you see, and all the better for it! However, in case your imagination is not fevered, photos have now been added. I hope you like them!
TEFL classes in the evening were good too! The previous day I’d had a competition to see who could do the most press-ups. This day was more reflective. All I did, was have an envelope with a load of loosely transport related questions. Each student took a question in turn to discuss, but it took us in all sorts of great trajectories. The best sessions are always when we ‘just’ talk. I had a map out so they could show me where they live and work and how they get about. I asked them about the things I’d seen on the bus that I couldn’t understand. It was my students who explained the scene I’d seen of people all in white was related to a funeral for example. I also taught them the phrase ‘it’s a nightmare!’ and now they all get that it’s fine to be asleep in my lessons but they MUST NOT snore or sleepwalk. It’s important to have boundaries. No idea what I’ll do with them tonight though. Then just one more week of classes, before we are in the party week. I am still dubious about my students’ capacity to organise a celebration or event of any kind, but then again, Cambodia in general and my students in particular have a seemingly infinite capacity to surprise. Time will tell.
So that was today. On a bus. Watching the world go by.