February 1, 2010

Kampong Cham Province: Part 1

Tonight I have traded my top floor writer's niche for my bed, and my cup of tea for a bottle of diluted Gatorade. I am exhausted, my stomach is unsure of itself, and my head is still spinning from a whirlwind weekend!

I spent a lovely weekend in Kampong Cham province—the hometown of our volunteer coordinator, Sopheap. Better known as “Pheap,” She invited the volunteers to join her for a temple opening ceremony and a trip to the mountains outside of town. Since most of the volunteers will be leaving Phnom Penh in the next two or three weeks, there was only a sparse showing for the bus at 6:45 AM Saturday morning.

We arrived, frostbitten and hungry, in Kampong Cham around lunchtime. Normally a bit of air-con is a blessing in Cambodia, but our bus had the temperature set at blustery winter day, and my vent—as many things on Cambodian buses are—was broken...open. Even with half a lotus shell (Khmer MacGyver) wedged in the vent, I spent the bus ride huddled under a spare t-shirt, shivering. The group dispersed into hotel stayers, and the more adventurous/broke bunch staying at Pheap's family's home. Her house seems typical Cambodian, or slightly better than average. Standing tall on stilt legs, the upstairs had slat bamboo floor that threatened to break at the next false move. The bedrooms of Pheap's family and a minimalistic living room were upstairs, and downstairs, also in typical fashion, a squat-toilet WC (not Writing Center) and kitchen completed the house.

For lunch, we plowed through several Khmer dishes at a local restaurant. We ate family style, scooping and passing as we chopsticked noodles, rice, soup, meat and veggies into our mouths. After lunch, we set off for the bamboo bridge to the island with the new temple. The bridge itself seems to be a miracle of engineering. Thousands of bamboo rods have been woven, strung and otherwise held together to create a 10-foot wide bridge that stretches the better part of a kilometer. Treading lightly on the far right side of a bridge that is only wide enough for a Lexus SUV (when cars pass, stand still and suck in), we enjoyed the thrill of creaking bamboo and the rapid rattling caused by motos speeding along the slats. By the end of the bridge, we were well aware of the midday sun. We got charged the “foreigner tax”---again--before we could continue on of the most difficult 2 km walks I've ever taken. Bedraggled in my flip-flops, feet covered in orange dust, I tried to avoid the rocks and passing traffic on the dirt path to town. All the volunteers were red-faced and shiny with sweat. Our lunch was rumbling in our bellies, and the sun just wouldn't quit. We hadn't signed up for this...

Not a moment too soon, we opted to hitch a ride on a passing horse-drawn cart. The cart of big western people attracted everyone's attention as we rolled by, our horse looking chipper, mane flowing. The normally quiet town was flooded with people for the event, and it was difficult to stay together. I had a hard time understanding much about the symbolism in the ceremony, but the next thing I new we were crashing a temple fund raiser. Pheep knew someone who knew someone, so we sat at a table and started eating, again. The coconut sticky rice was my favorite, but I wasn't confident in my body functions to eat very much more. After donating some dollars and riel, we decided to maneuver through the crowds once more. Finagling our way around the temple grounds, we found a scene reminiscent of a county fair, complete with pop-a-balloon-win-something boards. Ken, an older volunteer with a wicked sense of humor, grabbed a dart and chucked it with horrible aim, actually puncturing a nearby can of beer.

Spraying alcohol is not a way to make friends, so we ducked into the tobacco fields for a walk to the Mekong. This walk, much like the first, began with good intentions, but ended in hot, dusty misery. It became entirely clear to us why Khmers ride motos everywhere.

Having learnt our lesson, we hired a team of motos to take us back out of town and across the bridge. My driver found the ride particularly enjoyable as he joked in Khmer and laughed as we rattled, rolled, and swerved ominously toward the edge of the bridge. I arrived without a scratch, but with giant sweat marks down my back. A quick hammock nap at Pheap's and we we off to eat Khmer hot pot. Hot pot is basically a do-it-yourself bowl of soup. Very communal, very tastey.

Exhausted, (but clean—we took showers at a hotel!!) we went back to Pheap's house. Our mats and mosquito nets were a welcome sight after the grueling day. The bathroom is already locked, brush your teeth here, Pheap said, pointing to a bucket of water on the stairs. We did. Pee by the flowers if you need to, Pheap said. We did. The bamboo slats were a little too much for my side-sleeping habit, but I managed to find just the right way to sleep. Middle of the night emergency pee? You bet. Not bad for a girl who wouldn't leave the house without make-up a few weeks ago...