Part Three: To Kompong Som and Back
On Sunday morning, we get up early for a trip to Kompong Som. Located on the Gulf of Thailand, Kompong Som is one of the few deep-water ports in Cambodia. The main problem with travelling to Kompong Som is that it means lots of driving. And in Cambodia, driving is plainly and simply dangerous. Devi's death kept coming back to me.
Generally speaking, there are few good roads, there is an enormous amount of traffic, and there seem to be precious few rules governing how people drive. There are virtually no stop lights and virtually no stop signs. Theoretically, people drive on the right side of the road, but in reality that's not quite true: people drive wherever they can find - or create - an open path. To some extent, the lack of stop signs forces drivers to adopt a flexible approach to lane usage. For example, a motorcyclist trying to turn left onto a busy street can't wait for a break in traffic; there won't be one. So instead, he'll simply turn left into the lane of oncoming traffic, first driving alonside the curb, then slowly drifting across the lane as small gaps open between the oncoming vehicles. Eventually, he'll make it into the right-hand lane, where most (but not all) the other vehicles will at least be travelling in the same direction. It's somewhat easier for cars; although motorcycles and bicycles make up the vast majority of the traffic, car drivers all adhere to a very simple principle: "I'm bigger. Get out of my way." In countries with a more developed infrastructure - wider highways, clear-cut laws, highway patrols, driver education, and so on - drivers are largely responsible for their own fate: "I'll stay in my lane, I'll stop at the red lights, I won't go too fast, and I probably won't have an accident." But in Cambodia, every driver depends on proper evasive manuevers by every other driver: "I'm going to drive in the left-hand lane, into oncoming traffic. The other drivers will see this, and they will get out of my way."
Before we left Chicago, my wife and I debated whether or not to bring a car seat for our son. Eventually, we decided that with all the shampoo we were carrying, we didn't have room. We thought we'd buy one in Cambodia, then give it to someone when we left. But it turned out that there was no point in buying a car seat: most of the cars we rode in had no seat belts.
It's just before dawn as we leave Phnom Penh. Our driver is wearing a full-length coat. To him, the 70-plus degree temperature is terribly cold. We make our way out of the city, weaving past bicycles, motorcycles, cyclos, and slower cars. Our driver seems to have an element of machismo; the idea of actually behind someone is simply unacceptable, and he makes every effort to pass anything and everything ahead of us.
Close to Phnom Penh, the landscape is generally flat. Farther south, the plain is broken up by small mountains. The road is lined with small shacks. An astonishing number of them, even the some of the most decrepit, have TV antennas.
Eventually the road stretches up into the hills, and for a while the countryside could easily pass for Kentucky or Tennesee. The illusion is dispelled when, midway through a mountain pass, we come across a small group of roadside markets. A line of wooden outhouses stretches alongside the road; the doors list the price of these accomodations as 500 riels. On the opposite side of the road, a long line of spirit houses awaits offerings from weary travellers.
It takes about three hours to reach Kompong Som. We crest a hill, and suddenly the blue ocean is visible in the distance. Compared to Phnom Penh, Kompong Som seems tranquil. We stop at a beach on the outskirts of town, and it's wonderful: a small park, peppered with tall trees, leading down to a beach that gleams with white sand at the edge of enticing blue-green water. The outline of a handful of small islands is visible in the distance.
There is a line of small open shelters at the edge of the park; several of them are topped with bright blue plastic tarps, and they remind me of something from Cambodia's sorrowful past: the makeshift tents at the refugee camps that once dotted the Thai-Cambodian border.
The water here is warm. My daughter coats herself with the white sand, laughing. My son, two years old, laughs merrily in a sea that is ten thousand miles from his home. My wife stares out at the blue water, and I wonder what she is thinking. I believe that her father brought her to the ocean when she was a child, but I don't want to ask. I wonder if she is thinking about her father, or her brother, or what life would have been like without the Khmer Rouge.
Late in the afternoon, we head back toward Phnom Penh. Now and then it rains lightly. Two or three times, we have to stop to let cattle cross the highway. It's early evening when we arrive at the roadside markets in the middle of the mountain pass. We stop briefly, and our driver burns incense and prays before one of the spirit houses, asking for a safe trip back to Phnom Penh. I would have prefered to have skipped the prayer, and just driven more slowly.
As we enter the city, Sean and Anna press their faces to the car window. Russie Boulevard is lined with flags in preparation for a visit from the Chinese premier. Sean stares at the flags, and at a billboard with an image of Angkor Wat. "I see Cambodia. It's Angkor Wat, Anna." His big sister is indignant. "I know that, Sean!"
We spend most of the next day relaxing at home, then walk to Wat Phnom. The name means "hill temple," and indeed that is what it is: a small temple at the top of a hill. The road encircles the hill, and a few carnival rides across the street provide entertainment for children who have no great interest in stupas and stone lions. And, just like years before, elephant rides are another popular attraction. My children want to ride, so it's up the ladder we go, onto the wide seat on the elephant's back. The elephant lumbers around the base of the hill slowly, and we bounce from side to side. The highlight of the ride is when the elephant reaches up with his trunk and pulls a branch off of a nearby tree, then begins chewing it. For some reason, Anna and Sean find this wildly amusing.
That night we drive across town to visit one of Srey's friends. The carnival atmosphere of the Water Festival is still in full swing. The Royal Palace is lit up with strands of bright white bulbs. Stages and bandstands glow, and carnival rides are everywhere along the waterfront. I marvel at the businesses along Norodom Boulevard. Motorcycle dealers. Stores selling cellular phones. Lucky Burger. Ecstatic Pizza. It's a spectacle that would have seemed impossible nine years earlier.
At Chbar Umpuu, however, we turn off the main street, and suddenly things haven't changed at all. It's very dark. The road is unpaved, muddy, and deeply rutted. It's lined with tiny, crude, dimly-lit shacks where vendors sell a handful of goods. A little girl steps out of one house and squats to pee at the edge of the road. Cambodia is getting better, but poverty is never far away.
On Tuesday, we travel to Kantuot to visit more friends, a very old couple whose son had known my wife since she was a child. I had visited them in 1991, and again I was shocked at how much things had changed. I recalled the first trip vividly. It had been a hot, dusty journey through the countryside, and what stood out most were the abandoned buildings: burned down, bombed out, shot apart, there were whole hamlets that had the look of ghost towns. Now, all but two or three small buildings had been rebuilt.
We spent the next day in Phnom Penh. Slight oddities abound. There are, for example, Naga Cigarettes (Virginia Blend). I wonder exactly what the good state of Virginia has to do with the Cambodian cigarettes named for the mythical serpent. And of course, there is Angkor Beer. Ah, yes, beer is what the ancient kings had in mind when they erected sandstone temples in the middle of the jungle. Not being much of a beer drinker, I'm consuming Ozone brand drinking water. It's bottled in Cambodia and is, according to the label, "qualified for the drinking water quality standard of Thailand." And, ever expanding its empire, it turns out that the Coke I drink is also bottled in Cambodia. Other goods are uniquely Asian, such as the plethora of Sanyang motorcycles spilling through the streets. Or the huge, gleaming steel tanks that are mounted atop many of the buildings: simple but effective solar water heaters.
Around Phnom Penh, most of the buildings that were hotels in 1991 were still hotels. A few - like the Monorom, or the Royal - seem to have existed since the dawn of time, albeit sometimes under different names. The city even boasted a pair of Best Western hotels. The hotel I had stayed in in 1991 - the White Hotel - had been remodelled, and reincarnated as the Pailin Hotel. A friend told us that a few months earlier, there had been as gas explosion at the Pailin, and two or three people had been killed, and several more injured.
Although there are far more cars now than in 1991, motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles still dominate the streets in terms of sheer numbers. The number of people who can be crammed together on a single scooter is astonishing. It's not at all uncommon to see four adults on one scooter. From time to time you'll see a family of five, and on a few occasions I saw six - six - people on a single small motorcycle.
There is a dark side to the country's improving economy. Cambodia has become a popular destination with sex tourists. Walking back from the market, I pass a hotel frequented by foreigners. A Cambodian man sitting on a motorcycle in front whispers to me in a conspiratorial tone: "You want small lady? Girl? I know." I stare at him coldly and walk away, a bitter feeling in the pit of my stomach.
This article contains nine parts:
Part 1: The Quarter-Ton World Tour
Part 2: "I See Cambodia!"
· Part 3: To Kompong Som and Back ·
Part 4: Angkor, Snakes, and Khmer Krahom
Part 5: Artists, Pringles, and Fish in the Streets
Part 6: Two Parties
Part 7: "There has been sporadic shooting throughout the night..."
Part 8: Goodbyes
Part 9: Travelers and Conquerors
Beauty and Darkness: Travel Section
Between Barbie and Murder: Cambodia, 2005
Cambodia, April - May 2000
Holiday in Cambodia
Phnom Penh, June 1996
Farther than Wisconsin: Cambodia, 1991