Part Two: "I See Cambodia!"
It's not quite 8PM as we step off the plane. It's hot, but not quite as hot as Bangkok. I'm shocked as we walk into the terminal: It's nothing like it was when I was here in 1991, nothing like it was when my wife left Cambodia in 1992. It's still under construction, but it's much more polished than before: clean tile floors, nicely painted signs in Khmer and English.
A friend of my wife's, Pou Phon ("Uncle" Phon), is waiting for us just beyond the immigration checkpoint. Unlike 1991, when visas were practically impossible to obtain, they are now issued upon arrival. The whole process takes less than five minutes. The baggage carousel is just beyond the immigration checkpoint, and by the time I'm through with the visa, they are loading the last bag onto a cart. Pou Phon, it turns out, has a friend of his own at the airport: the head of customs. We have three carts piled high with precarious stacks of baggage. The customs man pushes the first cart toward the customs inspection point and motions for us to follow. He looks at the inspector and gestures at the three carts. "Ayvan theang aw nee men bhat chaayk thay," he says. ("All this luggage is OK. Don't check it.") And that concludes our customs inspection.
As we walk outside, I'm struck by a smell. It's hard to describe; it's a mixture of damp heat, wet pavement, sweat, exhaust smoke, and a hundred other things that I can't identify. Memories come rushing back to me: it's the smell of Bangkok. It's the smell of Phnom Penh. We are back.
Just outside, Srey's sister Lung is waiting, along with her husband and children. They hug briefly, but there are smiles only: no tears. We jam our luggage into a small van and one other car, and then drive to the house we'll be renting in Phnom Penh. It's actually the second floor of a house, and it's right next door to Lung's home. The drive takes about 20 minutes, and in that time I'm struck by several things. Phnom Penh at night seems strangely dark to anyone accustomed to the eternal mercury-vapor glow of American cities. The streets we travel are, for the most part, without streetlights, and most of the buildings are dimly lit from the inside only. But the streets are teeming with people; motorcycles and bicycles crowd the roads, and people are gathered outside nearly every building.
We turn off of Monivong Boulevard onto a small side street. It's unpaved, and incredibly bumpy. Another left turn, and we are at the building that will be home for the next two and a half weeks: House No. 47, Street 75, Sras Chork, Khan Donh Penh.
We stay up a couple hours, visiting and unpacking. Pou Pon asks us if we want to accompany him to Arei Ksath the next morning, where the Catholic Relief Service is distributing rice to victims of recent flooding. We'll have to get up early, but we know that jet lag will prevent us from sleeping anyway.
At about seven the next morning, we head to the ferry that goes to Arei Ksath. The ferry is a small wooden boat, big enough for a couple dozen passengers and a few motorcycles. It's still early, and it isn't very crowded. As we're preparing to depart, one of the crew falls overboard. Another almost falls when a young woman pushes him playfully. "Joi!" he shouts. The word is part of my limited Khmer vocabulary; it's their equivalent of the "F" word.
Arei Ksath is across the Mekong from Phnom Penh. Or, more accurately, it's across the Mekong and the Bassac. The Mekong and the Bassac converge in Phnom Penh. Arei Ksath is just on the other side of the point where the two rivers come together. Midway across the water, there is an odd sight: there is a visible line in the water where the two rivers meet. Each is a distinctly different shade of brown.
At Arei Ksath, we walk down a muddy side street, to a small wooden house. By local standards, it's a nice house. It's built on stilts, as are most Cambodian homes. A single monk sits beneath a blue plastic tarp which is suspended as an awning from a neighboring building. A few representatives of CRS are there, handing out rice and a few other items according to a list of designated recipients. It's a quick process, and soon we're back on the ferry. We're all exhausted, and we don't go anywhere else for the rest of the day.
The following day, we again accompany Pou Pon to another CRS relief effort. This one is in Prey Kongreach, a very small village in the countryside beyond Kien Svay. We'll take a boat to Prey Kongreach, but it takes about an hour and half to reach the point where we board the boat. This is the road that my wife walked in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh. She points out the temple where they slept on the first night of the exodus. The road is narrow, but reasonably well-paved. Look closely along the way and you'll see low-tech recycling practiced everywhere. My favorite example: a fence made from the steel stampings that reinforce car hoods.
The boat we take to Prey Kongreach is a long, canoe-like wooden vessel, powered by a small motor which spins a propeller at the end of a long shaft. There are about a dozen passengers in our boat. First we cross a small inlet. There is a temple under construction on the opposite shore. It's a gorgeous work of architecture: on the top is a four-headed statue like the famous monument from Bayon. Made from dark gray concrete, it looks ancient. Stairs lead down from the temple toward the water, and the stairways are framed by Nagas, seven-headed serpents that figure prominently in Khmer design. The most wonderful detail is an enormous crocodile that appears to be climbing out of the water, crawling menacingly toward the temple.
We sail out of the inlet and into the open water of the Mekong, then across to where a small stream flows into the river. Our pilot manuevers the boat into the stream through a narrow gate; my best guess is that the gate is there mainly to guide the boat into sufficiently deep water. At times, there is nothing but marsh on either side of us; at other times, there are trees and fields, and at times we pass through small villages. We pass a few other boats. As we pass, they lift the propeller out of the water to avoid striking our propeller. This sends a spray of water over whoever happens to be sitting nearby. There is a monk travelling in our boat, and to everyone's amusement he is sprayed with water not once, but twice. It takes about forty minutes to reach Prey Kongreach. We land across from the gate of the village temple. A crowd of about a hundred people is waiting in front of the temple. Several monks are seated in front of the temple. As guests, we're given fresh coconuts. Part of the top of the coconut is chopped off with a cleaver, and a hole is cut to insert a straw. Fresh coconut milk, in its very own container.
When the last of the rice has been distributed, the monk who arrived with us suggests that we should all leave quickly. Inevitably, the distribution of aid is followed by complaints about who did or did not receive assistance. The monks and the officials from CRS have already done their best to ensure that the aid has gone to the people who genuinely need it, and there is nothing to be gained by staying long enough to hear recriminations.
Heading back in the boat, the heat is stifling. Children play in the stream in front of several of the houses. Here and there, fishermen work on their boats, and women wash clothing. It could be the year 2000. It could be 1950. It could be 1900.
The house we're renting is fairly new. More accurately, the part of it we're living in is new: while the building itself might be thirty or forty years old, the second storey was added within the last few years. There are three bedrooms, a dining room and kitchen. The living room is open on two sides, and a comfortable breeze flows through during the day. Each bedroom has its own bathroom. There is no hot water, but given the climate, no one really cares. There are no shower stalls, either. Instead, each bathroom has a handheld shower head, and a simple floor drain. The rather informal approach to plumbing is also apparent in our room's air conditioning arrangment. The air conditioner runoff drains into a hose which is routed through the bedroom wall and into the bathroom, where it drains right on top of the toilet paper holder. Fortunately, we discover this Severely Inconvenient Design Flaw before a moment of Dire Need. There are a few elements that can only be described as fortifications: there are padlocked, wrought-iron gates for the doors and windows, and there are jagged bits of broken glass embedded in the wall outside the kitchen door.
The house is also home to a number of geckoes. They are incredible to watch. They're small, mostly around three inches long. They can move incredibly quickly. They walk up to insects almost casually, and then, when they are only a few inches away, they dart forward and snap the bugs up in the blink of an eye. A few bugs are lucky. The geckoes approach them, look them over, and walk away. Those, apparently, are the bugs that taste lousy. At night, you can sometimes hear the geckoes making a strange, clicking sound. It sounds almost like someone tapping rythmically on a pane of glass.
On Friday, Sean - two years old - is sitting on the floor in the living room, and he peers out through the railing toward the ornate gate on the other side of the street. The gate is flanked by two large pillars, each adorned with an apsara. Suddenly Sean turns to me. "I see Cambodia!" he exclaims.
Later in the day, Narath Tan's brother, Tom Tan, visits us, and we go briefly to the waterfront, where the annual Water Festival is underway. Teams of oarsmen in long, brightly painted canoes are practicing for the races that will soon take place. The riverbank is crowded with onlookers.
While we're there, we stop at a small storefront to send email to Narath. There are several such shops scattered throughout the area. For a couple dollars for an hour of access, you can browse the web at your leisure. It's a bit slow, but it works.
As Tom and I talked, he asked me if I remembered Devi. Of course, I said. We had spent alot of time together the first time I was in Cambodia: Tom, Thary, Devi and I. She was pretty, and she laughed alot; I thought that she had a crush on Tom. "She died," Tom says suddenly. Three years ago, she was struck by a car in Phnom Penh, and killed. I shook my head. Bitter irony: to survive the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, and to die crossing the street. The traffic had seemed almost comical at first. It wasn't funny anymore.
On Saturday, we travel to a small village in Takeo province. I've been warned that the roads are very bad, but all things are relative: they are far better than what I encountered in 1991. Here and there, one can still see the damage from the floods that devastated Cambodia in the previous months. In some places the pavement drops off sharply where the floodwaters have washed away the very edges of the road. In many other areas, rice fields that should be bright green are brown and dead.
It takes about an hour to reach our first destination. It's a small village along the main road to Phnom Penh, and we're here to deliver some money and clothing to a friend's family. Overseas Cambodians often send money to friends and relatives who are still in Cambodia. I wonder about the scale of this impromptu aid; in volume and efficiency, it may well outpace the contributions made by voluntary agencies and foreign governments.
The family we are visiting sells secondhand clothing out of the front room of the house. A small glass case holds a few packs of cigarettes. Three small children watch us shyly. They're enormously amused by my digital camera: they laugh at their own image on the camera's LCD.
We head off of the main road to go to another, smaller village in the countryside. The narrow dirt road cuts through rice paddies and skirts the base of a small hill. It's hot and dusty. Now and then we have to stop to let an oxcart pass, or for a dog sleeping in the road. When we reach our destination, my wife unpacks a box of clothing as our children amuse themselves. Anna swings in a hammock beneath house, and Sean watches a pig and some chickens.
On the way back to Phnom Penh, we stop at Tonle Bati. Tonle Bati is a small lake. Nearby, there is an Angkor-era temple. The temple is small, and not much of it remains. Here and there, intricately carved stones hint at a beauty that vanished centuries ago.
We eat lunch at a small shelter along the edge of the lake. Children are swimming and laughing in the warm brown water. While we're eating, a family of foreigners walks past: mother, father, and two small children, all with bright blonde hair. It's not the first time I've seen foreigners, but it's the first time I've seen another family.