Catching the early bus from Phnom Penh is one way to tackle Siem Reap with a smile, writes Anne Anderson.
But a sore bum and surreal experiences isn’t out of the equation, she adds!
Turning at huge pictures of Cambodia’s two kings, the bus heaved over the hump of Phnom Penh’s Friendship Bridge, and drummed its way through the space between two rivers, dodging accidents as it went. The public bus to Siem Reap, and the temples of Ankor, was a big bus, old, and comfortable, one person to a seat. Red seats with high backs created mini-compartments. Plastic bags, tied to rails beneath its windows, emitted smells of snacks.
Mae Toranee, the Earth Deity and my traveling companion, squeezed merits from her hair as the bus crossed an inter-provincial bridge. Roadmakers pulling rubble with their hands, had carried away mountain skirts in cow-drawn carts to the province of three mountains. Vertical white rings banded the feet of Be-Watted, Be-Aerialled, and Mouse-Bitten.
The bus followed a flat, straight road through browning rice fields. Palms edged some of them, green lollipops bouncing out of a tan haze. Sometimes there was only stubble. Occasionally cone hats, and checked scarves, studded the paddocks. No skin saw the light of the sun out where the sickles swung. Cotton clad arms gathered piles of stalks with heads of a machine, shooting the sheaves into fragments.
Every now and again, trees and wooden cottages on stilts pulled the horizons close to the bus. Horsepower drove a machine thrashing sheaves on a spare space. High red head plumes nodded as tiny black ponies walked in circles around a centre pole. I’m captive in this bus, glues to a a smeary window where passing scenes repeat like television programmes.
When it came to Skuon, a low broad town around a statue on a roundabout, the big bus stopped. A broad roof sheltered a throng of tables and a small enclosed centre counter. Beyond the road makeshift umbrellas sheltered a snack stand. Passengers scampered for the tables, an ice-chest of drinks, and the doors lining a building to the right. Now where is that Red Bull, Miss Anderson is in need of a caffeine fix! Before they ladled steaming stews on to plates of rice, they wiped their spoons and forks with toilet paper they pulled from plastic dispensers on the tables.
“Excuse me,” said a Khmer man from the seat behind. “Our little girl is asleep. If we get something to eat, please can you watch her for us?” “Of course,” I said, “Where are you from?” “We live in Hawaii.”
They left the bus with the light footed air of Western parents finding temporary escape from the chains of nuclear family, heading for the building spotted with doors. An old lady sitting on her haunches divested each of them of 500 reil. The building housed concrete squat toilets. Each had a tap and its own water tank, with a plastic saucepan floating in it. No toilet paper here. Drip dry, and wash the spills away. But that wont stop Miss Anderson squating with the best of them!
“You are a long way from home,” I said, when I thanked them for looking after my bag too. “We hope our daughter will understand why we ask her to speak in Khmer,” said the man from America.
Their little girl barely stirred when lifted her from the bus to a seat in the shade and tempted her with mangoes.“Sraii.” Eating Cambodian mangoes is like eating sunlight only better, wallowing in sticky lusciousness, haunted by ethereal flavours. As to the sweet drips running down my chin and staining my frock, I better stop here!
Girls wandered the tables bearing wide flat baskets of spiders on their heads. Roasted, black and, flecked with orange sauce, they sold them in sticky handfuls. Half a spider was enough. Their wares tasted like tyre rubber rendered tangy by a prawn cocktail sauce with coconut substituted prawns. Its novelty was well and truly outweighed by its inedibility.
On the road again, trees and villages were fewer, the plains were drier, the fields larger. The bus driver reached backwards with an object in his hand, his eyes never leaving the empty road ahead. A screen high above his seat sprang into life.
A film director held his mirror up to nature and discovered the theatre of the absurd around him, then set two would-be money-makers floundering between ignominy and disaster. The kick boxing prize went to the other fighter; the man who owned the motor vbbb had no difficulty stealing it back from them; and when they turned to housebreaking, the gorgeous girl inside the first house completely disconcerted them. What she had on her mind had nothing to do with money… Such simple plots are winning formulas in Cambodian block busters.
Provincial capital Kompong Thom interrupted the movie, the dry swamps, and villages sprinkling the narrow blue road. At the centre of town flat faced buildings rose in a ribbon of shop-fronts and a little river bisected the road with a bridge. Two Europeans with backpacks were the only people walking in the heat of the day. On the edge of town balconies flowered on Chinese houses with four stories, newly built. Confirmity ruled even in this boondock.
At a steamy wayside stop, the movie ended, and reality returned. Inside the doors of the toilet building mouldering partitions ended just shy of a common tank. But I’m an old hand at grubby dunnies! Hands clawed at a single floating bowl from two sides. Behind the stop, scrubby bushes littered the ground where a bee hive haystack stood. Distant palm tops became balls tossed in mirages dancing on the plain. This wayside stop felt like a desert oasis, down to the dust. But that’s the charm of this country.
The road rolled on, and rose. And I rolled with the punches of the rickety bus! Trees closed in, and stone carvings, pale yellow, crowded wooden workshops. Lions two metres high tucked their chins to their chests and ignored the traffic passing them. How arrogant of them! On the plains more and more houses appeared alongside the road, separated from it by empty ponds and deep dry canals. They were begging for moisture. Even the mango trees were gone, replaced by pill box shrubs with fingered leaves shrouding bullet shaped papayas. Only a dust devil prancing in circles moved beneath the noon sun blazing from a beige-brown sky.
Rumbling broke the pumping of the diesel. Beneath the window flashed a stone bridge fenced with wagon wheels. Rubber ran where the ox carts of camp followers had followed the infantry armed with spears and magic talians clasped between their teeth for celestial luck.The road was bitumen now. It was made of laterite when a God King built the bridge. (And i’m harping to an earlier age if you
The trees thickened ahead, and so did the houses. But my hair is thinning, and I put this down to menopause but back to the story.The bus heaved away from the smooth blue road and on to gravel bumps. It tossed, then beached like a stranded whale among its companions, in front of a long low iron shed, almost making me heave in a paper bag I carry for such occassions!
“Goodbye” said the man from Hawaii, gathering up his daughter’s bag of toys and books. “And good luck!” he added, as he looked out of the window. I forced a smile but my paler than ghost look betrayed how I was really feeling.
Stepping out of the bus was stepping into bedlam. Yelling drivers manifested, formed moving donuts around alighting passengers trying to force their way towards the bus’s luggage bay. The gravel underfoot vanished in a sea of heaving bodies, sandals stamping to oblivion anything or anyone disappearing downwards. As the circles moved, more drivers joined, and squeezed them inward, crushing their colleagues and their prey. Scraps of cardboard dipped and sailed like kites on arms above the mayhem, flashing guesthouse names, scrawled in green and red textacolour.
Inside it, sound walled the donut, and the enthusiasm was contagious. Laughing started the drivers laughing too- and yelling louder. The bus driver, distinguishable by a collared shirt, hurled bags into the fray. Every now and again, stooping beneath the trunk’s raised gate, he drew breath, and eyed the frenzy beyond. The man from Hawaii held his little girl high.
Only one driver was too shy to yell. When his arm was grasped, his colleagues were quick to explain. “New! New!” “He get lost!” “Not know where go!” “You come my guesthouse!”
The silent driver may have been new but he knew how to grab suitcase and balance it as he steered his motorbike into clear space.
His companions fell away, dropped their arms, turned their heads, and looked for other prey. Though he knew only the post office by its English name, he could follow a map- once he knew where on the map he was.
Siem Reap smelt of dust, as it spread from each side of a sliver of stagnant water. Green caverns etched by trees of the grassy banks reflected around three water buffaloes enjoying a brown bath. Begging children roamed the banks, growing fat on cameras. “You take my picture! One dollar!”
One small entrepreneur, no more than three feet high, had a different angle. He said he could count to fifty in English. He could, and when he earned his dollar, it sent the bigger children into frenzy.” “For not take my picture, one dollar!”
A monastery’s gate, lined in coloured flags, opened towards one side of a little stone bridge. Around the river’s curve, a nest of foreign guesthouses, bars, coffee shops and internet cafes pinned a market to the river. Shadowy stalls sold household goods, suitcases, clocks and watches. Swathes of netting, hammocks, curtained crowded spaces, hanging down to rolled sleeping mats, woven from dyed reeds, stacked beside cooking pots. Somewhere there would be flies and fruit and pirate CDs and raw animal flesh of animals hacked in lumps.
On the other side of the market, a money changer’s booth stood isolated in the street. As white faces moved towards the slit that was the window, a brown face turned, and his lounging body sprang to attention.
“These beggars know where to wait,” said a tall German man with red hair. “I am going to give money to that man. He has no hands. He can’t work.” The German man looked at the beggar again, and his face was somber. “I will give to him too,” he said quietly.
Stumpy wrists accepted a note. For an instant the man looked up, and suddenly shy, he backed away, still looking down forlornly. He spoke no English. Two motorcycle taxi-drivers waiting at a corner stepped across to him. They rested their hands on his shoulder blades and comforted him with soft words. I had seen the softer side of a town tourism had rendered hard. My reverie was rudely broken by another five year old ordering me to cough up a dollar for taking her picture.