Ox carts bump along the sides of the road, cattle cross at will between scooters and four-wheel drives alike. Farmers zig zag across the road with loads of rice on their backs. A group of weather-worn men burst in to laughter at a small eatery. Children file along the side of the road in small groups carrying satchels and backpacks. In amongst the chaos, hawkers sell sticky-rice and fruits to everyone passing by. And through the middle of this we slowly make our way.
For the first four hours of the journey we have watched fairy tale Cambodia flit by the windows of the bus. Endless green plains of farmland dotted with lollipop shaped sugar palms, broken up only by the occasional village or spider-peddling roadstop.
Now, as we get closer to Phnom Penh, we are crawling along ten kilometres per hour bouncing through pot holes that would swallow smaller vehicles. Only now am I able to look out and appreciate the life happening outside the windows. Of course, this is all a silent movie for us inside the bus. The TV has been on some sort of comedy stage show the entire journey, the man behind has been snoring since Siem Reap, others are screaming into their phones – presumably telling a loved one they’ll be late – and the lady to our right may just be slurping her fortieth cup of tea, I’ve lost count. But looking outside, I know I will be back here.
The sun beats down from close to its zenith and radiates back off the pavement of Sisowath Quay. It is a hot, bright day and I am squinting even through my sunglasses. The cafes and restaurants to my left are buzzing, with their mid-morning customers ordering anything from croissants and fresh mango juice to hamburgers and amok. Hawkers incessantly offer goods to those along this path. Lunchtime is prime selling time when tourists spend just as much time in banter with the sellers as they do eating their lunch. “Tuk Tuk, sir?”
How many times have we heard that today? “Yes, please.” “Where are you going?” “Saigon.” Laughter fills the air from both sides. One has to keep a good banter going with the Tuk Tuk drivers of Phnom Penh – it keeps both sides sane. It is true though, this is my last day in Phnom Penh and I am determined to visit the villages I saw on my way here – a Tuk Tuk isn’t going to be able to take me there, or to Saigon tomorrow. We are looking for two things only. The first is a motorcycle without a 4 pm curfew, and the other is someone fluent in Khmer and English to come with us on this outing to the country.
The first would seem like an easy task, but we have had more than our fair share of dubious offers this morning and are headed for a travel agent on the Riverfront we have heard good things about. For $7 and a copy of my passport, we walk away with a brand new steed that needs only be back by 7 pm. The only thing remaining is to find a guide and translator. This has proved even more problematic, and even the hotel staff seem stumped. One leather-jacket clad driver asked for $100 – a month’s wage for many Cambodians. I am starting to doubt that we will find someone.
We drop back into our hotel for a cool mango juice mid-morning, and the older gentleman at reception seems to have finished his shift and has been replaced by the sharp-faced, sharply dressed younger staff member from yesterday. One more shot at this, I think to myself. Maybe he knows someone. After much deliberation, he calls a man named Soksan on his mobile phone and passes it over to me so I can make my introduction. He is soft-spoken and all business. He offers a fee of $15 and to meet us in the lobby of the hotel in just under an hour.
Soksan arrives on a beaten up old Honda scooter wearing a perfectly pressed black suit, maroon shirt, and perfectly polished black dress shoes. I have to stifle back a laugh. On the phone, I had told him where we will be going. Those pretty clothes are not going to last long out there. We take out the maps we have on hand and show him face to face roughly where we want to go. Up National Highway 6A into Kampong Cham Province. His eyes snap to the map. Until now he hasn’t quite grasped where we will be going, and a hint of excitement crosses his brow.
The questions begin to haltingly come from his mouth. Where will we go? Who will we meet? Confidently, but slowly Soksan takes the lead out of the city, mercifully allowing us to get used to the ebb and flow of Cambodian traffic. We head along Sisowath Quay before striking left to head around the towering white Wat Phnom, taking us to France street where we fill up for $2.
Then we brave the round-a-bout next to the Old Stadium which leads us across the Japanese Friendship Bridge onto the NH6A. The gaping maws of the potholes are suddenly much more real, daring us to lose concentration. Eyes on the road and arms tense, we ride for about an hour out of Phnom Penh before stopping for a drink. My wife pushes a can of drink into Soksan’s hand, which he accepts reluctantly with a small bow of his head.
At this point he opens up a little and we start talking about him. It turns out that he is a student, and works at our hotel at night for the money required to get him and his sister through school. The conversation turns to the ride thusfar as we look out at the road ahead. “I can ride,” I say. “We can take it faster if you like.” We pause and gaze out at it.
“This road is fucking terrible,” Soksan remarks in a matter of fact tone. I burst out in laughter. This guy is not the stiff he seemed to be. On that note, we swing back into the traffic with visors down – the air is getting dusty. Arms and shoulders aching we finally ride across the bridge into Kampong Cham Province. We pull over in Kampong Preah, a small village just over the bridge.
Guessing that the local farmers will not speak a great deal of any of the languages we speak, I defer to Soksan to make our introductions to an elderly lady sitting at the front of one of the houses. She grants our request with a kind chuckle, and we make our way down to the water’s edge. A man with close-cut curly hair and a traditional Khmer krama wrapped around his waist greets us with a stern face. Soksan proudly goes through the many different uses for the krama.
From clothing to wiping sweat and drying off after a dip in the river. None of which could be achieved by his dress trousers today, he says! I ask Soksan to suggest that we would like to hear the man’s story and make a photograph of him. I’m biting my lip at this point, imagining the reaction I might get if I randomly approached someone like this in the western world. But Kree only shows us a big grin and a sampeah, the traditional Khmer greeting.
I start by asking a few questions and taking notes as Soksan translates back to me, but it is clear that I cannot prepare for the photograph and make notes at the same time. Soksan came prepared, however, and pulls out his own notepad – on a hard file – to take notes. He asks a few extra questions of Kree and we get to know a man with three children he puts through primary school by fishing and farming rice.
We are able to give him a photograph of himself – something which he has never seen. “We made him really happy,” remarks a smiling Soksan, out of breath as we walk back to the road. I agree and thank Soksan for taking the notes for me. “I’ve never been to these parts of my country,” he pipes out. “I grew up in a small village, but nothing like this. It’s beautiful here.” Again, I agree. We cross the road to the other side of the village and meet a group of women taking a rest in the shade.
We are waved over the moment they see us and the rest of the village gathers to see the visitors. All said and done, twenty-six people are sitting in a circle around us and asking questions of Soksan. He answers their questions about us and why we are here, all enthusiasm and animation. For a time, he speaks to the elderly lady who was sitting with the women when we arrived. This row of houses is the domain of the woman and her daughters, who make traditional Khmer noodles to send into the cities.
They live simply, and their biggest concern is that the government will expand the 6A, forcing them to move their village. We also learn that her daughters are all married, and the children here are able to attend a local school thanks to the noodle business.
To hear someone tell you that their husband had been killed by the Pol Pot regime is not like reading it in a book. We are all aware of the regime and what it did to Cambodia. A good portion of the population was affected directly. What do you say to somebody whose husband was murdered by a genocidal maniac?
I tell Soksan I would like to find one last person to talk to and photograph before the sun goes down. From the road we see a man tending to his rice field, a plot of 80 metres square that he tends amongst many other similar fields. Soksan leads the way and makes our introductions, all the time glancing back at our bikes parked on the side of the road.
“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “This is Cambodia, it’s not going anywhere.” “I know, but that’s my best friend. I am at school all day, and at work all night. My friend takes me everywhere.” Tha’s eyes brighten and he straightens his camouflage jacket when we ask him if we can make his photograph. He suggests that we wait a while until the sun has almost reached the horizon.
“Has he had his picture made before?” I enquire. Soksan translates Tha’s response. “No, but he says the fields are most beautiful then.” He was right, of course. The sun warmed the wet rice leaves and glinted off the irrigation channel before warming our faces in the cooling evening air. We thank the man and watch as his ox cart bump along the side of the road.
The scooters and four-wheel drives make their way along the road as we get back to our bikes, but the children and cattle are nowhere to be seen. We buy some fruit from the hawkers and wind our way between the potholes. For the last four hours of our journey, we have listened to Cambodia’s stories and seen its spirit.