#9 (final) Cambodia, March 31, 2003

Dear Everybody,

From Phnom Penh I took an A/C bus over a long road to Siem Reap. When I bought my ticket, the lady said that it would take six hours, but it turned out to take ten. Much of the road was under construction and while the bus had A/C, it wasn’t quite cool enough. At the end, the bus brakes went out so the last hour we were in low gear, but we managed to crawl into town just as it got dark.

Along the way I had a nice conversation with a young couple from Vancouver, Canada. She is a high school teacher and got a leave of absence for two years, while he just quit his job. They have been traveling for 19 months and are still enjoying it.

Also along the way we were delayed by a political rally. A Cambodian woman on our bus spoke English and she told me that Hun Seng, their Prime Minister, had been there earlier that morning on his campaign for reelection. The voting will be in July. There were thousands of people, which she said were farmers. They were dispersing then as we pulled over and parked while the traffic cleared. They (men and women) wore scarves draped on their heads in the ‘rural manner.’ The bus lady said that she was sure Hun Seng would be reelected mainly by the farmers as he ‘made them many promises.’

She had bought some vegetable green things, which turned out to be lotus pods. She pulled parts of the pod off and inside each segment was a seed about the size of a grape. She gave me one to eat—it tasted quite neutral, and OK.

I was really tired when I arrived at my hotel in Siem Reap about 6:15 PM, but I still hadn’t seen any Cambodian traditional dancing. I thought we would be able to see some in Phnom Penh, but it was on only on the weekends and I wasn’t there then. So I decided to go to one of the buffets with a Cambodian dancing show that David and I had rejected, thinking that we’d see better in Phnom Penh.

I got a moto to take me to the Bayon II restaurant at 7:00. The buffet was very good—you could choose your own food and they had a very good assortment. The dancing was exquisite. The people and the costumes were beautiful and their movements are so graceful—lots of arching and bending of the hands and fingers, and also the feet. I marvel at how they have resurrected this art form from almost nothing over the last 25 years as it was pretty much destroyed under the Kymer Rouge.

The next morning (5:15) came quickly as I had to be ready to be picked up at 5:45 to catch the fast boat to Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. We headed out across a corner of Tonle Sap Lake again, but then entered the Stung Sangkar River for an all day trip. This boat was small, and packed to the gills with 18 passengers, three crew, and all the backpacks. The engine seemed to be tempermental and needed constant attention by the two young boys. The pilot sat up front.

The river was very interesting with lots of small settlements along its banks and lots of children waving at us. Again, they had said it would take five hours, but it took eight, and this time we ran out of gas near the end of the journey. We limped to the bank and one of the young boys jumped off with a plastic gas can, returning shortly to end our troubles.

 

 

 

 

Battambang has quite a French air to it—the architecture and the French bread, for example. I walked around town the first day, checking out a couple of Buddhist Wats, the museum, the Governor’s Palace (looked like a French chateau) and the local restaurants.

The next day I hired a moto to take me to Wat Banan. Along the way, which followed the river, the rural scenes and villages were lovely and since we went early (7:45) the temperature was not unbearable. The farmers make use of the river water to irrigate their vegetable crops along with corn, rice, and many fruit trees—papaya, dragon fruit, mango, orange pomelo, and even one arbor of grapes which the driver said was new. They also raise chickens, ducks, cattle, goats and pigs.

Wat Banan is reminiscent of Angkor Wat (older than that—11th century) with its five towers. Of course it’s on top of a high hill but there was a good stairway to climb it. Nevertheless, it was an effort as the temp must have been in the high 90’s by then.

On the way back we came upon a wedding, which I always like to observe. This little rural wedding was surprisingly sophisticated with the groom and attendants all wearing black western suits, white shirts, and black ties. The guests (about 60) were arranged under a canopy in two rows, facing each other, each person holding a plate of something edible in their lap. My driver said there are 26 foods that must be represented in this ceremony. There were many kinds of fruit, and also plates of meat, including a whole pig’s head.

There were two MCs dressed in white, who both talked non-stop into very loud microphones. I gather they used humor to put people at east.

 

 

 

 

At one point a beautifully dressed couple danced from one end to the other, to music from a live orchestra consisting mainly of oboe and percussion, rural style. As they danced, they gathered pieces of fruit from the guests which they put into silver bowls which they each held.

The guests, mostly women, were prettily dressed in bare-shouldered dresses or tops with satiny skirts. My driver told me that the bride would soon enter. About that time, a woman came and beckoned me to come with her. She took me ‘next door’ to another little tent where the bride and bridesmaids were getting ready. She lined them up for me and invited me to photograph them!

The bride was resplendent in a green and gold sequined strapless dress with a drape over the arm. She had a very elaborate hairdo with gold ornaments in it. Her nails were long and bright pink. She wore ivory very high platform sandals. Her makeup was quite dramatic with gold glitter on her eyelashes. The three bridesmaids wore green and gold similar outfits, but less elaborate than the bride’s. They were all four very slender and beautiful.

Eventually the bride and bridesmaids processed in with the bride’s mother (?) and one of the MCs. At that point a commercial photographer took over, and he posed them doing this and that—honoring the parents, draping gold things around each others’ necks, both holding the bouquet of artificial flowers, etc. Then the ceremony was over and the guests dispersed. My driver told me that this wedding was a two-day affair, and the main ceremony with the large meal would take place the next day.

As we went on our way back to town, we came upon a huge tree, filled with bats. A few flew around occasionally. My driver said that the monks from a monastery nearby would catch them and eat them!

Continuing on toward town, the path for the motor scooter was very near the bank of the river and the ground, in places, had fallen away so the path was only about 12 inches wide in spots. There was a sheer 40-foot drop on one side and a fence on the other. I have learned to try not to look but just expect them to negotiate these spots successfully, which so far, they have done. I see that all of the women ride ‘side saddle’ on the motorbikes but not me! I don’t care how uncool I look, I barely have the nerve to ride a-straddle holding on to the driver for dear life!

When I asked him, my moto driver said that his grandparents were in great jeopardy under the Pol Pot regime as they were both teachers who generally were summarily executed. But they both successfully posed as farmers and managed to survive. His grandmother is still living and his grandfather died two years ago because “there was no medicine when he became ill.”

Both Wednesday and Thursday nights I had a room without A/C, but with an overhead fan. It seemed to me that I should be able to tough it out, but not having slept well on Thursday night in spite of taking two cold showers in the middle of the night, I succumbed and asked to be transferred to a room with A/C on Friday. What a relief!

Saturday I got a ‘shared taxi’ (four plus the driver) to go from Battambang to Pripot, the Thai/Cambodian border. From there I got a bus to Bangkok and was back in the Suk 11 hostel by four PM. It had rained quite a bit in Bangkok (out of season) and my sandals and I sloshed through the water. I must admit that when I got to Bangkok I visited the local McDonald’s as well as the Starbucks. Well, it’s almost time to go home!

I lazed about on Sunday and left on Monday morning at 4:00 AM to get a 6:10 flight. I’m now home—it really was a long ride this time, but I’m looking forward to being home for a month. Thanks to all of you that emailed me.

Carol

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