We’re sat on a bus in Phenom Penh, waiting for it to leave for Siem Reap. The bus for Phenom Penh left this morning at seven from Kampot. Siem Reap is the place from where you explore Angkor Wat, which is a much bigger place than we’d thought. There’s not only the massive temple that everyone has seen on tv (television), there are also many more temples in a complex covering many square km. It’s just midday and the hostel we’re staying at is sending a tuk tuk for us at seven, although there’s a chance we’ll be there for six. So we’re looking at six hours on the bus if it’s a good run. I was expecting more tourists but we’re the only white men on the bus. Phenom Penh is busy, and were you to take a photograph out of any of the windows you would wince and you would be absolutely sure that the next frame in the sequence will be a mass of bloodied and mangled limbs and pyjamas jutting out from an impossible tangle of motorbike wheels and saddles, and there will be petrol tanks exploding and pyjamas on fire. But it never happens and there are a hundred miracles a minute as somehow these people’s bat like sonar and their superhuman sense of spacial awareness steers them through the oncoming stream of motos and tuk tuks and cars and busses and nobody’s pyjamas get as much as a scorch mark. Many women in Cambodia wear pyjamas, in case you were wondering, especially in the poorer areas. And why not? They’re light and cottony and are generally orange with blue flowers. It’s refreshing that the people don’t seem to have acquired that rapacious appetite for all things western yet, and I’m not talking Stetsons and six guns. The owner of the last place we stayed drives a Range Rover and dresses very smart, but on the whole people don’t really seem to have a massive ego or fret because they don’t have designer labels. Breakfast costs the equivalent of a days wages for them, but they’re happy to smile at us westerners and treat us like guests. There are many expats in Kampot and they say the same, so it’s not just a naive view that I have, formed after being in Cambodia for just two weeks and being charmed by all the smiles. They do smile too, even after all the country has been through. Shopkeepers, waiters, security men, give them a smile and they smile back almost coquettishly, like lady Di. As it happened, the bus arrived at Siem Reap at about ten past eight, so that was thirteen hours, with an hour at Phenom Penh. There was a puppet parade blocking the streets and most of the passengers got off and walked but our bags were in the hold so we couldn’t. We saw some of the parade from the bus, massive dragons and other animals with people in them, all lit up and dancing. John from Wigan had kindly, and with stunning forethought given us some Imodium tablets, that stop your bowels up for days, so that’s one thing less to worry about on the bus. Nice one John! On our last night in Kampot Nel was feeling a bit rough and went to our room after dinner. I’d stayed a little longer. There was music over the river at one of the guesthouses but I didn’t want to leave Nel behind in the room. Gordon, the fantastically handsome Scots man behind the bar at Blissful guesthouse invited us to his leaving party next night but we’d already booked our bus. Shame. It would have been fun, so we shook hands and wished each other good luck and he played The Boatman by The Levellers for me as I left. Kampot is brilliant!
This is where I didn’t jump in
Earlier in the day we’d taken the little Honda up to where the dam is. John from Wigan had told us about this place, that you can swim so long as you keep your wits about you and get out as soon as you hear a deep rumbling sound, because that’s the dam being opened to let the water through the turbines. He had actually been washed downstream by it one time. We’d seen him at breakfast and he said he might join us later. So we rode out into Khmer country, where you shouldn’t wonder about on your own at night, past roadside huts and shops selling fruit and drinks and Molotovs of petrol. The river was on our right side and we looked for the spot John had recommended, pulled the bike in by some palm shelters and walked down. The stream seemed to be pretty high but John from Wigan had said that the dam is opened in the afternoon. Yeah well it looked to be flowing a bit fast and there are rapids just upstream. I wasn’t going to jump in, no way Pedro. We sat on a rock watching the water and looking across over the forest to the mountains in the distance. The waters began to subside and recede down the rock we were sat on so we knew that the dam must have been opened, and then a bunch of kids came for their daily bath. The youngest was about four and the oldest about seven and six of them came down to our rock, which must be their swimming rock, took off their clothes completely unselfconsciously and jumped straight in. Me, I’d have been worried about smashing my knees on rocks, the water was almost opaque dark, but they were climbing onto rocks and diving in and ducking each other and laughing and giggling and took no notice of us at all, they were, as Nel said, like brown frogs.
After half an hour they got out and dressed and said hello to us. The kids love to say hello to white people. The day before, on the way to Kep, we’d had to say hello to almost everyone under the age of twenty-five as we rode slowly past in the dust. ‘Hello’ and wave, and many of the older people too, with their big shy smiles. There’s a massive moral dilemma here too. In a big way you really hope they don’t become subjects of western tv imperialism but I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s a patronising view. These people want what they see on tv because we’ve piped our culture to them and of course they want modern conveniences. A fridge for example. Men come round in the mornings with sacks of ice in pickup trucks which they buy and fill their big insulated plastic boxes with. By the evening it’s melted and your beers warm. All that ‘oh it’s not like it was ten years ago when I was first here’ is a load of bollicks, because neither are you, you’re ten years fatter, you’ve got a better car and Robbie Williams blew his career in the meantime. Do you really think dirt tracks are good for the people? No? Well then. I’ve changed my views about a lot of things. Travel lengthens the mind. Anyway, these kids were scampering about, picking flowers to throw into the water and to give to Nel, and one of them put out his hand, like he must have seen a white man do, so I shook it, saying ‘how do you do.’ They all giggled and then they all wanted to shake hands. So we spent five minutes or so doing this and giggling, and then it developed into slapping hands, and me and Nel pulling our hands away and all of us giggling, and then one of them, who had the same face as little bullies everywhere started getting a bit rough. He was probably called Tyson or something, he would be back home, and he started using his fist to slap hands, and he even made a half hearted attempt to grab my phone. I looked stern at him and stood up, so then we passed five minutes with them all coming to stick their heads against my hip and stare up at me. We were still all giggling. We left then, waving and shouting goodbye, and stopped a little further down where we saw John from Wigan sat on a rock. We sat there for a while, and then me and him jumped in and swam out to another rock where we sat, looking like two mermaids.
The bus ride was easy enough, there were a couple of stops for refreshment and pee pees and many many miles of roadside villages. There we also many marquees which we thought might be weddings. Maybe, or maybe it’s a bank holiday or something. Night comes quickly here, and darkly, and because of the weird law that allows you to ride with no lights at night, a bit worrying at times. The bus driver passes everything, whether there’s traffic coming the other way or not, not a consideration, he blasts his horn to say he’s coming through and then it’s down to you to take evasive action. Which is fine during the day but I was watching through the front window and sometimes you really didn’t see oncoming traffic. Sometimes this is because they don’t have lights to turn on. Many people use vehicles that look like big rotovaters or motorized ploughs that pull a trailer full of logs or fruit, with twenty or thirty or thirty passengers on top going at walking pace. I bet they’d love a pickup truck. There are many water buffalo to dodge, and cattle walking into the road.
Pee pee stop