Soaking in Malaysia, churning through Singapore and rinsing in Phnom Penh, and where ever we go, still the cycle will be spinning. Getting from Johor to Singapore, a breeze said the receptionist who arranged a taxi for us. “It will take you all the way to the airport, and only costs 50 Ringgit.” If it’s too good to be true, it’s probably not. I get a knock at 2:50 am, it’s nearly three o’clock. The taxi put our stuff in the boot, and off we went. The immigration was about a five-minute walk. Anne was trying to download a pdf file of our tickets. “This doesn’t look like the bridge going over to Singapore.” No response from Anne.
Ten minutes later, I cotton on. We were going to Johor airport. “Can you take us to Singpore airport?” “No.” Back, back, back. Through Malaysia immigration, into Singapore, and through immigration again. I was carrying the Anne bags and getting a good work out. A taxi from immigration. We took the wrong turn. Back, back, back, up the escalators, through the tunnels to reach the taxi stand. A long walk on an over-pass with a sign: No loitering. Just like being in Australia, I grunted.
By this time it’s 4 am in the morning. “No problem,” said the taxi driver, “Not much traffic, no police.” He did it, for good measure throwing in a drive by dive to a toilet and raid on an ATM at a ‘petrol kiosk” replete with real bowsers. Anne rewarded him with a ten dollar tip.
The previous night we had printed up passport photos on a printer we purchased for another job. We bequeathed it to the hotel. In Cambodia the photos weren’t “clear” enough to duck the ‘Not good enough, can scan. $2, pay here.”
All smiles, nothing grave. No questions about our outbound ticket out of the country, which really upset the directions to the Tiger Airways staff in Singapore, a favourite scam of Australian airlines going to Bali. We weren’t going to fall for that.
Balconies sprouting potted plants, yellow flowers on the street trees, back at Royal University, the Frangipani flowered in long lanes. Two and maybe a baby to a scooter, pickup trucks, and little shell sedans. Vietnamese coffee, bitter, gagging till sugar loaded. Steel grills vanishing from the balconies, gray barracks going under new paint. The world drifting in and out of focus after eight hours sleep in forty-eight. Then I saw something yellow and now I don’t know what it was.
Yellow is the colour that jumps from the street. Malaysia had red. Every town and city has a colour, appearing in its paint, it’s umbrellas, and it buildings. In Palembang, it’s the soft blue green of the sea, in Johor, loud red shouts. And here in Phnom Penh it’s a yellow softer than canary.
Now there are traffic lights with numbers counting down. Overpasses, paved road – where are those potholes gone? And the dust and the mud, and the good-looking young men, the beautiful women, all in their 20’s? Now they’re in their 30’s, and on scooters and cars, no more walking the footpaths, legs swinging straight from their hips. No more homemade cars or trucks, trundling by, patched together from old parts, just like the lonely aging jeep we saw in a side street, one tyre slowly leaking air. It’s ten years since I last worked here.
At the general store at the corner, men are teasing a small angry boy. He’s quick and hard with his fists after they put him in the washing machine that had just been delivered. Loss of face starts young, the boy was pissed off with being taunted. This is serious stuff, when he grows up he will the same. “Johnny Cash wrote it about in that song, Boy Named Sue,” says Anne. ‘Same, same.” At the coffee shop ubiquitous little flies are finding hands on the street.
Cool drizzle starts again. Plastic rain coats, on scooters, billow into coloured snowmen wearingn helmets. The helmets are new, none are decorated. A single scooter with four brightly coloured skirts, and karmas, chequered head scarves, wound tight, stands apart in scads of two with helmets to a scooter. All the signs of an NGO with a road safety message.
The rickshaws have become tuk tuks – wheeled passenger carts led by a motorbike herbed up with a Mazda engine. In Phnom Penh tourist central they come with patterned seats, carved wooden armrest and thin plastic sides, some advertising riverside bars across their backs. Across from our hotel rooms the old gray blocks, freshly painted yellow, bear signs saying “house for rent,” “house for sale,” in English and Khmer. In the middle of the night, a boy walks down the street, clapping sticks beneath the windows. When he reached the end, he turned, and came back, clapping them again.
At the River Front, we collapse on concrete seats with sponsors, just like in Vientiane. A plain tuk-tuk, passes, with a passenger, a little girl carrying a yellow fish balloon. Guest houses with expensive trimmings on the out-side, and with names like Lyon D’or and River House are pushing girly bars back in side-streets. Between the bars there’s a knife shop, with lethal blades, and a sign, “Hand-made in Cambodia.” “This is the street of hair dressers, bars and pharmacies. What is does that add up to?” says Anne. She can play the blonde dumb enough to get past Australian custom officials. The Bassac River has a sandy smell, its in the air. Fish in the market are so fresh their heads are still snapping.
Why is it that we see light and shadows and reflections in Cambodia? The country is like walking in a maze of mirrors, every time you think you have grasped it, another reflection appears. Laos is like this too, but it’s a never-ending wave of ridge lines. Each time you climb a ridge, thinking you almost know the country, all you can see are waves of more ridges to climb running out to the horizon.
The beds have suffered this trip. They are stained. The coffee in Johor. The ashtray of water in Phnom Penh. No stopovers saved Singapore.
We are in Marthe territory now. I can feel her shadow around the corner, see the flick of her long skirt just beyond the edge of my eyesight. She sailed through here a century ago, into the unknown, on her way to Luang Prabang, and a cliché paragraph quoted in every guidebook since. She wrote of crew cut old women white of hair. What she didn’t write was how hard old woman beggars smack you on the arm when you don’t give them money for taking their photograph.