February 1, 2010

Kampong Cham Province: Part 2

Nutella and banana pancakes at a riverside cafe started my second day in Kampong Cham off with a happy, happy feeling that only Nutella in provincial Cambodia can supply. The tuk tuk trek to the mountains was about 15 minutes bumping around, knocking my back into metal bars. We climbed up the steps to the “male mountain” temple to feed a pack of monkeys. Cute at first sight, these little guys will steal your heart, then nab your bag of peanuts if you aren't careful.

The next temple, on the “female mountain” required a 217 stair climb. At 10:30 AM, Cambodia begins to swelter. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. That's what I had to keep telling myself as I forced my legs to keep working. At the top, out of breath, legs made of spaghetti, I was able to see the Mekong Valley, lush and green. The stunning contrast of the rich green fields and the gold and white temple architecture caught my eye and my camera. The pictures never do the scene justice. In the temple, I prayed for safe travel for me and my volunteer friends, with whom I was now much closer.

I've heard pieces of the story of the male and female mountains from many sources. Here's what I make of it: long ago, the Khmer people were deciding who was stronger, men or women. It was a matter of dowry that needed to be settled in the only appropriate way, who can climb the mountain faster. Everyone assumed the men would dominate the competition, but the women—always with the trickery—managed to fool the men. To get a head start, they hung something over the men's tents to fool them into thinking it was night time. Thus, the women were able to finish the task first. Now, the mountains are known as the male and female mountains, the female much larger. Moral: men are easily fooled into sleeping extra long.

We descended (careful not to tumble 217 stone steps) for another meal: more roundtable Khmer feeding frenzy. I wished for a slower-paced meal, but if you eat too slowly, there won't be anything left, so get your chopsticks ready. The most frustrating part of the trip was trying to pay for the meal. Some of the volunteers are very adamant that they only pay for exactly what they ate and what they drank. Others, like me, would rather just split the ticket evenly and if I pay $0.10 for part of someone's drink—good for them. It's just not a big deal. Anyway, a hurricane of confusion engulfed the table, with English and Khmer, dollars and riel, addition and subtraction, calculations and guesstimates. It was too much for me. I put in $5 (20,000 riel), which was about 3000 riel too much, and sat back to watch. With full stomachs, we boarded a bumpy--and this time hot bus--back to hustling, bustling Phnom Penh. My guts nearly exploded. Yikes.

By the way, I got my 3000 riel back from lunch. What a frighteningly accurate system...