“We are getting out of here.” It was more an order than a statement.
Phnom Pehn was wearing thin on us. “I’m sick of being a walking ATM,” said Anne. We were at the Russian Market. I waited in a tuk tuk while Anne did a quick tour of the market, looking for scarves and shoes. I bought a drink, opened my wallet and a man with one leg and a woman carrying her young baby came up to me. “Fuck fuck fuck.” They were my exact words. Clouds shifted, sun boiled afternoon.
Anne got back from market. She handed the scarves. “Choose your color.”
Next day, we get out of the hotel which is crawling with ants. The sheets survived coffee stains, but not spared crumbs and ash.
Time to follow the Cham. Up river we go. We took a bus. The slow boat from the capital stopped four years ago when they built the new road linking Kampong Cham to the capital. They also built a bridge crossing the Mekong in Kampong Cham, and gone are the days of catching slow ferries run on iron cables across the river.
The terminal had changed so much, noted Anne, who said now they have awnings around the old market. She even found the same restaurantshe ate at seven years ago. “We don’t have time for a meal, ” I told her, feeling a bit under the weather from the codeine laced cough medicine I bought the night before. Ann poured it down a drain. “No more hangovers for you nephew.” And I was grateful.
On the bus, she had the little camera out. We were moving, at last. The Cham, who migrated from Vietnam, call Kampong Cham their home. “I was here on my last trip,’ said Anne. ” I planned to stay a few days and ended up here for three weeks.”
On the way here, we met a teacher. I thought he was French, the way he was spitting out his pomegranate seeds at the Phnom Penh terminal. Later, we briefly spoke him. He was now spitting out bits of snacks he bought at another bus terminal. He was tall,withdrawn and an American who said was teaching English in Siam Reap. He only earned $400 a month. I said he could get an easy $1000 in Thailand. He had his teaching kit on, a long-sleeved white shirt — to cover the track marks, Anne noted – and black trousers, and was always plugged into his iPod.
He walked a few steps and span on his sandals. Ann thought he had AIDS, with that cadaverous look. I pegged him as being a smack head. These are things we discussed on the last hour to Kampong Chan. He didn’t look old but the eyes were like holes in his head. He had only been here six weeks. So much for him being French, living here for years and going to the province to see his Cambodian family. This guy really didn’t want to talk.
It’s a swamp. The road was elevated and still needed to be paved. A bus in front of us was nearly spilling out its contents of buckets, bags, and kitchen utensils. “I hope that rope doesn’t break,” says Anne, adding “there’d be suitcases half way down the highway if it does.”
Out of Phnom Penh Cambodia swapped being a country for being a swamp. It was water in every direction as far as the eye could see, with just a road running through the middle.
Arrive in town Kompong Chan. Anne was here seven years ago and just fell in love with it. I’m falling for this little charming town of the Cham too. A festival is on, the end of Buddhist Lent, and most of the hotels are full. We meet Book, a tuk tuk driver, at the bus terminal. He tells us he learning English for free at Christian missionary school. “I’ve got two kids to feed. ” Where have I heard that line before. Anne is a bit worried he’ll introduce us to his family. And sure enough he picks his son up, and he tells us about the low quality of education, and how the Mekong is polluted, “Not safe to swim, ” so he must pay two dollars a time for his son to swim at the hotel he drops us at.
“It’s gonna be worth the ten dollars to get a good collection of Cambodian sob stories.” Anne is talking about the fee we are paying him today to show us around town.
Hotel, according to our driver, was built by a general in town. The driver pointed at a wall and said barracks. “The general wanted a place where his soldiers could eat and drink.”
We are at the outdoor restaurant The tables are separated by bamboo fences. “More like pens,” says Anne, who adds that it gives a more intimate dinning experience.
The pool, notes Anne, is only one meter deep. “It’s to look at, not to swim in.”
The food. How do you describe it. You don’t. We just kept quiet for ten minutes and pigged out. That deep-fried duck, though chewy, packed the flavors. “There’s something in those herbs that make it irresistible.” Anne was sucking the meat. “It’s the way you eat it. ” ITB was waxing lyrical. “There’s some alchemy going on here.”
Anne suggested it was the humid night, sexy girls singing and dancing that made the food so tasty. She was making fun of me again. “No,” I continued, trying to be a connoisseur of things food. “It’s the combination of basil, lime leaf, ginger, and chilli.” I hadn’t eaten Thai food for over a year, and Indonesian food only gave me the runs. “There’s this Thai and Cambodian influence going on here.” says Anne, They have always traded and exchanged ideas.”
We wanted to order a coke. We got two sodas. We asked again for coke, and got Mellon juice. That was ok with us. We ordered 555 cigarettes and got menthol. We we later exchanged it for the right ones.
Our driver picked us up at the hotel, and was wearing a Child Abuse t-shirt, no doubt handed out by the local NGO’s or even his Christian parish. This got Anne musing.
“I get really tired of the signs of the sanctimonious gleam in the eye straight from the day of the women’s temperance Union. They are all so busy watching dirty old men they completely miss what the menopausal women are up to with boys younger than their sons.
” I first came across it in Laos from the way that some of the young boys behaved. One of them only knew two phrases in English, “I love you, ” and “goodbye ” that’s when I realized why so many women of my age that I tried to talk too wouldn’t look me in the eye or get into conversation. When I got home, my friends from Africa laughed at me. They said didn’t’ you know about the German women, they come down for the Mozambique boys all the time. ”
Nokr Bachey is a living temple, ” says Anne. “Not like those NGO UNESCO endorsed temples down the road at Siam Reap.” She adds this is a still a tourist temple “but for the locals.” It’s free too, and if you cant stomach the high prices of Wat Angkor and the aggressive touts of Siam Reap, we highly recommend this temple that was built in the 11th Century and which has a temple inside that is living and real. And with pigs and dogs and cattle roaming around the perimetres or inside the temple sanctum, it doesn’t get any more authentic than this. And it’s not hard to imagine how the temple functioned all those centuries ago.
We have scattered. I get a few pig shots in while Anne gets the young calf shots. A lady and her daughter carrying four cartons of Angkor beer ride pass me. They are all smiles. Then I hear a crashing sound. I go over and help them pick up their motorbike and beers. The mother is cut badly on her hand, and her daughter’s pyjama’s are covered in mud, but she isn’t hurt. Then a pig pokes its head in the temple. I stop helping and take photos. Then I’m back kick starting her bike and sending them on their way. I ask for a can of beer for my help. She gives me one. I’m joking and she gives a nervous laugh. She’s rattled but very thankful of my help and gives me a “Ahh Khun.”
Here the pigs reigned supreme. It wallowed in the pond at the temple. It poked its head, and waited for a Cambodian on a bike to leave the temple, and waltzed inside and found some mud inside the temple. Cows roamed the grounds. A young calf ventures into the main compound of the temple. It doesn’t escape the view finder.
Kids and cows, that’s the best way to describe this temple, says Anne, who has been to Borobudur and Prabanan with me in Indonesia, and is a self confessed “temple junkie”. Boot has been wonderful. “He’s helped us a lot,” says Anne. But not for free. “Let me take to an Australian restaurant.” he suggests. It was packed with westerns and a few women with boys half their age hanging off them. It looked like Gloria Jeans. That was the last straw. “Take us back to the market,” Anne says to the driver.
She gave him ten dollars. “Just to get rid of him.”
“Thank’s Mam,” says the driver, who thinks he reached he’s reached pay dirt today. I tell him that five is for now because we don’t have change and five for this evening for another hour drive town. We never did use him again. But we did get the top ten sob stories.
We are now at the river side. Another tuk tuk driver waves at us. Only minutes ago, we had seen Boot, our first driver, who was lurking around for fresh victims to tell his sob stories. Later, we’d find out that he got US $7000 from his Irish God Parents, to help him finish his house.
We waved back. The river flowed full. And a drunk woman with a bruised face asked us for money. “He’s coming,” said Anne. He bought water, and wasn’t coming until I called him over. We were getting fed up with the guilt trip our older tuk tuk driver was giving us. We just felt that everything he did was money-motivated. This driver had empathy. A fishing boat was moored on the banks of the Mekong dwarfed by a large river boat. He was a lone fisherman with his daughter. As luck would have it, he was a Muslim Cham fisherman.
The tuk tuk driver is Gekko, 27, who speaks very good English, and has the gift of the gab.
He’s half Ann’es age, and gives us the spiel about losing his parents in the same year, back in 1996. We take a shine to him and he takes a shine to Anne. “He’s looking for a mother figure, ” says Anne. I said more like a sugar mummy. He helped us interview a Cham Muslim fisher man. His boat is moored next to a large river boat. Gekko, the name of the driver, said that the fisher man was born under a bridge in Phnom Penh. He said that he catches 3 to 4 kilograms of fish a day which his wife sells at the market. He was taking care of his one year old girl while she was selling the day’s catch. He would soon go over the river to the mosque and pray.
We see every thing from the balcony of our hotel here on the Mekong.
Something’s going on. The police with the white gloves are on walkie talkies. And we are on the first floor of the Mariya Hotel, looking out. Then a car with three military guys give directions. A speed boat cuts in the wake of a slow boat ferrying people across the river.
Later that evening we take out Gekko to a Cambodian eating place across the river, far from the tourists. This meal and the taxi ride is on Anne. We never heard the singers. Nine important big wigs were having a meeting and even the karoke bar next door was told to turn off their juke boxes until after their meeting. “I want to kill them,” says our tuk tuk driver, who really wanted to hear music and perve at the singers. The waitresses were flirting big time, but I lucked out. I can’t speak a word of Cambodian and don’t have a local sim. I suspect that our driver wanted to play the field while his wife was visiting her family in Kratie, the next province. I’m 100 percent certain that his translations of what the waitress said wasn’t exactly correct either.
“How do you say Vagina in English,” one waitress asked him after we ducked into our tom yum, which had octopus in it, which is apparently slang for pussy in Cambodian. We’ll never know if she asked that, as King Muck was spinning his own history before our eyes. . He also said that the local karaoke women charge double the local prices for foreigners to sleep with them, ” so that they can buy medicine and fix up their pussies.”
As I said, he had the gift of the gab. And Kampong Chang has it’s fair share of story tellers, foremost being the tuk tuk drivers. “Good ones are worth their weight in gold,” says Ann.
That is if you are lucky enough to find one.