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Cambodia 1991:
Part 8: Relaxing Days, Very Quiet Nights

Boy with dugout canoe, Ksach Kandal Miscellaneous other notes, while I'm thinking about it:

Radios here (and some other electrical items) are often rigged with clips that can be hooked up to motorcycle batteries. There are many sidewalk businesses selling and recharging the batteries.

Drinks are sometimes sold in plastic bags filled with ice, but are more often sold in cans. That's unlike Thailand: there, the small plastic bags were everywhere.

Huot heard on the news that a new market is going to be opened in Poipet, and the border with Thailand will be reopened. And on the subject of news, the thing that I dislike the most about being here is that I have no idea what's going on in the rest of the world. As far as I know, there is no reliable English-language news.

The bathrooms in the White Hotel were equipped with bidets, but none of my roomates understood what they were for. As far as they were concerned, it was just another sink: at various times I saw the bidet used for washing dishes, washing clothes, rinsing out a broom, and holding some spoiled fruit.

An amputee in Phnom Penh: The price of one wrong step One evening I went out onto the balcony of the hotel. In the street below, I saw a man, one leg amputated at the knee, on crutches, slowly working his way through a flurry of motorcycles and cyclos as he struggled across the street. I watched him and thought, that is the price of one wrong step. Maybe he was a soldier. Maybe he was a farmer. Mines do not care who steps on them. If he had crossed the road, or taken a different path; if he had been walking eight inches to the left, or eight inches to the right, how different his life would be today. One wrong step.

Sometimes I would eat at the restaurant downstairs at the White Hotel. Beggars - often amputees - would sometimes be waiting outside the door. I would usually give them something on the way out... if the waiters didn't chase them away first.

It's been an uneventful day. I went to a nearby hotel - the Sokhalay - and phoned my mom. For $15, we talked for about three minutes. Later, I spent some time talking with Srey and Yan. Yan recalled that when she was growing up, about 30km from Vietnam, the ground would often shake from the bombing on the other side of the border.

Wat Unalom In the afternoon, I walked around the city, taking photos, pausing for a conversation with some monks at Wat Unalom. They knew a tiny bit of English, and a little French. I knew a tiny bit of Khmer, and a tiny bit of high school French. Needless to say, the conversation was limited, but fun.

Kong, who has been in Battambang, returned to Phnom Penh today. We were originally supposed to leave Phnom Penh on May 2, but we've learned that we won't be able to get a flight out until May 3. Meanwhile, Kong has made no arrangements for changing our flight reservations beyond Laos. Our tickets for the flights back from Laos and beyond, in fact, were left with Pollen Proeung in Vientiane, and I had assumed that this was so he would be able to change our reservations if necessary. Since Kong hasn't contacted Pollen, we still don't know how long we'll have to remain in Laos, or Bangkok, or Singapore. Yan's group will also be leaving on the 3rd, and they'll be leaving Laos on the 4th. I learned also that Kong had previously travelled to Cambodia with the man who is leading Yan's group - but Kong had constantly complained that he was being charged too much for everything. I had heard Yon Bin voice the same complaint about yet another guide... and now, people in our group had been saying exactly the same thing about Yon and Kong. The leader of Yan's group smiled wearily when he heard the complaints about about Kong. "Now," he said, "he knows it's not so easy."

Sunday, April 28: Thary tells me according to a radio broadcast there will be no water service in Phnom Penh all day today, and possibly not until the 31st. The blame, according to the announcement, lies with the Soviets, who have not delivered promised fuel, which I assume is used to power the pumping stations. Electricity will be off all day, too. It went off at about 8:30 last night, then came back on briefly, then went off again.

Ferry dock Later in the morning I went with Srey to her former home at Ksach Kandal. We took a small ferry across the Bassac River to get there. It was incredible to watch the motorscooters being loaded onto the boat. Two guys would pick up the machine and carry it down an impossibly steep embankment. Then they'd carry it across the narrow planks that led from the dock to the boat. On the other side of the river, two other guys would unload it the same way.

We went swimming a couple different places. The first was a very small river called, I think, the Barrac. It was shallow, with a muddy bottom; a naked young boy in a dugout canoe took us across. Later, we swam in the Bassac. Both rivers were very warm. Unlike the smaller river, the Bassac became very deep very quickly. Twenty-five yards from shore, it was easily 10-12 feet deep. I wore a krama when we swam in the Bassac, but I never did master the art of tying it so that it didn't come off. And trying to change in public under the krama, a feat that the Cambodians did effortlessly, was all but impossible for me.

That night, at about 3AM, I woke up and went out onto the balcony. It was eerie: the entire city was almost pitch black, and only an occasional car or motorcycle would drive past slowly. The only building I could see that was lit was the Mittepheap Hotel, just down the street. It is, I'm told, a first-class hotel. In different windows of two other buildings, I can just barely make out a very, very dim glow, such as might come from a single candle. It was very quiet; at times the only audible sound was the chirping of a single cricket.

Tom Tan On Monday, I went with Thary to watch her brother Tom dance. We left in the morning, and the plan was to go to Thary's house afterward with Huot and Chanbo to eat lunch. (Thary's family lived above the dance studio.) However, it turned out that the day's rehearsal had been cancelled. We went instead to the Fine Arts School, where my friend Narath had studied. There, young dancers were training in classical and folk dances. At some point someone suggested that it would be good if I could donate $10 to the school's director. I didn't have a ten, so my donation wound up costing me a twenty.

Afterward we went to Thary's house and ate; then later in the evening I went to Srey's house for an impromptu English lesson. Srey had asked to take me to dinner; while she was changing, I sat alone in the front room. There was a group of about eight or ten children just outside the doorway, along the street. It was dark by now, and the room was lit by only a single candle. One of the children suddenly said, in English, "Hello!"

I answered, "Hello!" and the whole group roared with laughter and began clapping. Then one of the children said, "Thank you!"

I replied, "Thank you!" and they all cheered again. Someone else said hello, and I replied, and again they cheered, and so on:

"Hello!"
"Hello."
"How are you!"
"How are you?"
"One two three four five!"
"One two three four five."

House at Ksach Kandal Then I took the lead: "All right!" I shouted. Suddenly there were giggles and confusion. "All right!" I shouted again. There was more laughter, and then one brave soul suddenly blurted out, "All right!"

"ALL RIGHT!" I yelled. Then they all yelled together: "All right!"

"Way to go!" I yelled. "Way to go!" they replied.

We kept it up until Srey came outside to start the scooter. "Bye-bye!" I yelled. "Bye-bye!" they yelled back.

Malnourished child at Ksach Kandal We ate at the Samaki; the food was fine, but relatively expensive, and the music was far too loud.

The next day I again went to Thary's house to watch the dance practice. Once again someone suggested that I donate $10 to the troupe's leader. At least this time I had correct change.

Later in the day Srey and I went to Kantuot again. We ate lunch there, then rested awhile. On the way there, and on the way back, she insisted that I drive her scooter. I did, briefly, but it seemed to have a sort of semi-automatic transmission, and I never did figure out the correct way to shift gears.

Children at railyard, Phnom Penh On Wednesday, May 1, I went back to Ksach Kandal with Srey, her friend Phally, Thary, Tom, and Thary's friend Devi. After we swam, we rested in hammocks outside a small house belonging to another one of Srey's friends. several children crept up to stare at us. I'd quickly reach for my camera, as if I were going to take their picture, and they'd run away laughing and screaming, only to come quickly sneaking back moments later. Several of them had the swollen bellies characteristic of malnutrition.

On the boat trip back to Phnom Penh, I sat alongside a soldier holding an AK-47; he smiled and nodded hello. It isn't hard to find reminders that this is a country at war.

On Thursday morning, I went out walking again. I walked out to the old rail yard near the train station. Children were playing among the weeds; skinny cattle grazed in front of abandoned steam locomotives. Later I went to the central market and bought a few books, then spent a couple hours visiting Srey. Her friend Phally took me back to the hotel, and gave me a krama and a pair of scarves as souveniers. I went out again later to buy a few gifts, then went back to the hotel to pack.

Next: A Tale Ten Years in the Telling

This article contains nine parts:
Part One: Half the Fun, My Ass
Part Two: And Then, Things Stopped Going So Smoothly
Part Three: To Laos and Beyond
Part Four: In An Unhealed Land
Part Five: Into the Countryside
Part Six: Around Phnom Penh
Part Seven: To Svay Rieng
·  Part Eight: Relaxing Days, Very Quiet Nights ·
Part Nine: A Tale Ten Years in the Telling

Related Articles:
Beauty and Darkness: Travel Section
The More That Things Change: Cambodia 2000
Cambodia, April - May 2000
Holiday in Cambodia
Phnom Penh, June 1996


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