Part 4: Trips Taken and Not Taken
On Thursday morning, we leave at 4AM for a trip to Sihanoukville (or, if you prefer, Kompong Som. The name has changed a few times over the years. Sihanoukville seems to be the current favorite.) Traffic is light, and we make good time, even without relying on the standard Cambodian practice of laying on the horn to force all the smaller vehicles to the side of the road.
In the darkness before sunrise, it's difficult to see many of the smaller vehicles. A number of wagons and lorries that have addressed this problem by tacking old compact disks to the back of the vehicle to serve as makeshift reflectors.
The monotony of the drive is broken up by a stop to buy bread at a busy market town, about a half hour out of Sihanoukville. Vendors are selling dried fish and squid, live crabs, bread, coconuts, and plenty of other foods that I can't even identify. The driver goes in search of something or other, and as we wait in the van, a scraggly-looking, bearded man, stark naked, walks past.
I'm certain that this is not at all a common occurance, but it reminds me of a similar incident on my first visit to Cambodia. Waiting for a ferry at Neak Loung, a man in a loin cloth had approached a Vietnamese woman selling prawns. Speaking loudly in I-don't-know-what language, he grabbed a shrimp and marched off. Bewildered, the woman just shrugged and laughed.
Just about the time the driver returned, the naked guy, who for some reason reminded me of Cat Stevens, walked past going the other way. Nobody paid much attention to him, but from observation, I can say being naked seems to be an effective way to get everybody out of your way in a crowded market.
By the time we reach Sihanoukville, the sun is up, and the day is warm. The water, too, is warm. Those of us who don't mind getting drenched take a short ride on a "banana boat." The banana boat is simply a large inflatable tube, with two smaller tubes on either side for stability. It's big enough to seat five or six people, and is pulled behind a motorboat. At the end of the ride, the driver turns sharply, throwing everyone off into the water.
In the early afternoon, the sky darkens and showers approach quickly. A light rain arrives and departs.
On the return trip, we head toward Kampot. The roads are in worse shape, but the landscape is more interesting: rice fields in the foreground, mountains behind, and from time to time, a glimpse of the Gulf of Thailand. Fog-shrouded mountains rise up to our left. Once a resort area for the wealthy, the mountains today are virtually uninhabited. Poor roads and perpetual fog have thus far stymied attempts to develop the area. Only a handful of tourists visit the area, drawn by the "ghost town" aura of abandoned resorts like the once-luxurious Bokor Palace Hotel. (On this site, Antonio Graceffo describes hiking into Bokor. Elsewhere on the web, Andy Brouwer's excellent website has photos at http://www.btinternet.com/~andy.brouwer/bokor.htm.)
The harsh nature of the mountains was exploited by the Khmer Rouge during the Eighties and Nineties. In 1994, three tourists - David Wilson, Mark Slater, and Jean-Michel Braquet - were among those captured when Khmer Rouge guerrillas attacked a train. They were later executed. The officer who ordered the killings, Chhouk Rin, was eventually apprehended, and is one of only a handful convicted for the mind-numbing atrocites committed by the Khmer Rouge over the course of some thirty years.
In the late afternoon we stop briefly at Tuk Chhou, a site popular for a small, fast-moving river fed by mountain springs. A suspension bridge over the river offers a view of visitors cooling down in the shallow water. On the other side of the bridge, a small pasture seems populated mainly by dragonflies. Srey amazes our children with her ability to snare the insects by the tail.
By the time we reach Phnom Penh, it's nighttime, and we're exhausted. Our driver will return in the morning, and we'll head to Siem Reap.
Or so we thought.
We get up at 7 to prepare for the trip to Siem Reap. Sean complains of a stomach ache. He had eaten very little the day before, so I chalk it up to hunger. The van arrives, and we begin loading our bags. Srey is heading downstairs with Sean when suddenly, at the foot of the stairs, he vomits.
One of the neighbors, a doctor, is passing by at the very moment Sean gets sick. Most likely something he ate, says the doctor. We decide to postpone the trip. By mid-morning, Sean seems fine, eating everything in sight and drinking huge amounts of Coke. We spend most of the day resting. The delay turns out to be a blessing; nearly everyone was exhausted from long trip back through Kampot, and no one was looking forward to another day in the van. We decide to leave for Siem Reap the following morning, and spend the day relaxing around the house; Anna goes with two of her cousins and a neighbor to an upscale mall, returning with a stuffed tiger and a Spiderman mask for her brother.
The following morning, Sean seems fine. However, as I look at Anna, who is still sleeping, I start to get a little uneasy: her face looks tight, as though she's in pain. Sure enough, when I wake her up, she tells me that her stomach hurts.
The moment the van arrives, we find ourselves in a replay of the previous day, with Anna in the role of "vomiting child." Once again, there will be no trip.
This article contains nine parts:
Part One: Princess of Cambodia
Part Two: Banishing Shadows
Part Three: The Saint of the Deported
Part Four: Trips Taken and Not Taken
Part Five: Spare Days
Part Six: North to the Temples
Part Seven: Ghosts and Wrong Turns
Part Eight: Changed City
Part Nine: The Eight Hundred and Nine Stairs