Published: March 28th 2011January 27th 2011
Now that we are back in Cambodia, memories are reactivated of our last visit to that country, which was just over 2 years ago. That was in my pre-blogging days. So here is one, as the TV chefs say, that I prepared earlier....
We were on our way from Kratie to Sen Monorom. The first part of this journey was no problem, just a regular bus journey to the little town of Snuol, from where, we had been told, we could easily catch a minibus to Sen Monorom. But it was in Snuol that things started to go slightly pear-shaped.
Snuol. The very name of the place should have told us something. Instant mental associations are invoked with words like snide, snigger, sneaky, and snot. And indeed it turned out to be a bit of a dump. There was a bus station of sorts, which consisted of a single concrete platform in a sea of dust. In the sea of dust, various decrepid vehicles of all shapes and sizes manoeuvred about slowly in a seemingly random fashion. Buses, minibuses, tuk-tuks, handcarts, motorbikes, not to mention all kinds of bizarre hybrid vehicles that defied classification or indeed description. Around the edges of the sea of dust, there were various shacks constructed mainly of corrugated iron and recycled materials of all kinds. Some of these shacks were apparently restaurants provided for the benefit of travellers. A few local people sat disconsolately in these restaurants, sipping cups of tea, eating snacks. It looked like the kind of place where nothing much had ever happened, and nothing much was about to happen any time soon. Mind you, in a country with a history like Cambodia's, nothing happening is perhaps quite a good option as far as the average punter is concerned.
On the concrete platform there was a small wooden desk, behind which sat a man in uniform, probably a policeman whose job it was to oversee the comings and goings in the sea of dust. I went up to the desk and asked him where I could get a minibus to Sen Monorom. He looked at me with a sad expression and made no reply. But help was at hand. Another man, not in uniform, who had been lounging about in the vicinity, came up to me. He was evidently the local Mover and Shaker, Mr. Fix-it.
"Sen Monorom?" he said.
"Yes. Sen Monorom."
"OK, I have minibus. Five dollar per person." - he gestured to a minibus parked nearby.
"When does it go?"
"Soon - don't worry."
"OK, we wait."
I wondered briefly, why should we be worried? Little did I know.
We walked over to the minibus. It looked to be in good shape, although there were no passengers inside. But beside the bus one passenger was waiting, sitting on the edge of the platform. It was strange that I had not noticed him before, because he was a foreigner, the only other foreigner in Snuol at that moment. And he was not exactly an inconspicious foreigner either. He was, in that memorable phrase of Raymond Chandler, about as inconspicious as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake.
For starters he was a big man, maybe 1.90 metres and 120 kilo. He was about 40 years old, with dark crew-cut hair and a bristly beard. There was something bear-like about him. Grizzly-bear-like in fact. Then I noticed that he was only wearing one shoe. His right foot was partially wrapped in a bandage, with the bare toes protuding. A wounded bear. Beside him was a large suitcase. We sat down next to him.
"Hi, you going to Sen Monorom as well?" I said.
He looked at me gravely.
"I want to go, yes. But right now, I wait." - he spoke English fluently but slowly, in a deep bass voice with a heavy German accent.
"Have you been waiting long?" I asked.
"One hour, maybe two. I forget."
"What's the delay?"
"There is no delay, this is just normal here. I think maybe they wait for other passengers. Then if nobody comes, maybe they cancel, who knows."
"What did the guy in charge say?"
The wounded German bear gave me a pitying look.
"What does it matter what they say? That is of no consequence. They say anything, these people. You cannot believe anything."
It was clear that the Bear was not having the best of days. To cheer him up a bit, I tried to make conversation.
"So what happened to your foot?" I said cheerfully, then instantly regretted it.
He gave me another look.
"I went walking with new shoes. Trekking, you say. But no socks. Stupid. My own fault."
He looked even more depressed now. I tried a new tack.
"So how long have you been in Cambodia?"
"Too long. People told me it was cheap here, but it is not so cheap. If you take the air fare into account, then Majorca would be cheaper. And the beaches - where are these great beaches? And the towns. People told me, you must go to Battenbang, it is wonderful. So I go there, and it is a village. Just a village, there is nothing there. But this," - he gestured to our immediate surroundings - "this is worse than nothing."
Abruptly the Bear stood up, muttered something, and limped off. Tracey grinned at me.
"Looks like you've made a new friend there," she said.
"I expect his foot is hurting," I said.
Just then another foreigner appeared on the scene. Quite a different sort of foreigner to the Bear. I suddenly noticed her talking to the policeman behind the desk. She looked like a European, and was quite young, probably in her early twenties. She wore flip-flop sandals, baggy red cotton trousers, and an orange sleeveless top. Her midriff was bare, but because she was slim, the effect was not as bad as it usually is when western women adopt this fashion. She wore her brown hair in two pig-tails and had a small rucksack on her back. With the bare midriff and the bare arms, she was quite provocatively dressed by Cambodian standards, but even from a distance I could tell that she had a certain air of innocence that meant that she would be readily forgiven. She was talking to the policeman and showing him a small piece of paper. He shrugged. She turned away and then spoke to Mr. Fix-it. He also shrugged and wandered off. Then she stood there alone, clutching the piece of paper.
"She looks lost," I said to Tracey, "Maybe I'll go and have a word."
"Yes, why don't you do that. A damsel in distress, if ever I saw one." - she gave me a knowing look.
I walked over to the woman.
"Hello," I said, with a smile that was intended to be reassuring to a woman on her own.
"Hello," she said brightly. She looked me straight in the eyes and smiled. Her expression was friendly and open, almost childlike. But her smile was one of those extraordinary smiles that some Hollywood actresses have. Julia Roberts, for example. The smile was very wide, almost from ear to ear, and it revealed two rows of perfect white teeth, which contrasted nicely with her lightly-tanned, perfect complexion. Her eyes were also smiling - they were big and brown, and they were looking straight at me. All my internal organs went into meltdown, as if I had been struck by lightning.
"So what brings you to Snuol?" I said, desperately hoping that my smile had not spontaneously degraded into a lecherous leer.
"Where?" she said.
"Snuol. That's the name of this place."
"Oh, is it? I didn't know that. Perhaps I got off the bus too early." Her expression clouded slightly, but only for an instant, then the smile returned. "Yes, maybe I did that."
She spoke English very fluently, with only the slightest trace of a German accent. This accent was quite charming, infinitely preferable to the gutteral tones of the Bear. In fact I already preferred her to the Bear in every conceivable way.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"To the border."
"Oh, that should be straightforward," I said, gratefully slipping into the role of the experienced older man, "You can get on a minibus here and be in Vietnam in no time."
"But I just came from Vietnam."
This was puzzling. The Vietnamese border was the only one anywhere close.
"I guess I don't understand, then."
"Look," she said, and she showed me the piece of paper that she had shown to the other men. It was small, crumpled, and dog-eared, but it was just recognisable as a map of Laos.
"But that is a map of Laos," I said, trying not to sound too pedantic.
"Of course. That is where I want to go." She had impeccable logic, but it was a system of logic unique to her.
"But this is Cambodia. Don't you have a map of Cambodia?"
"No, of course not. I am just passing through. Today I go to Laos."
"OK. Well, it is quite a long way, and I don't think there is a direct bus from here. But you could get on a bus to Kratie, just over the road there. Maybe from Kratie you can get a bus to Laos. But you might not get there today."
"Yes, I see, but that's OK. Its not so important when I arrive. Thanks a lot for your help." She gave me the Julia-Roberts smile again. I waited for her to walk across the road for the Kratie bus, but she stayed put. Evidently she had plenty of time to spare for a chat.
"So where are you from originally?" I asked.
"Oh, Switzerland - a beautiful country."
"Yes, but a bit boring."
"Really? But the mountains are beautiful." I wished I could think of something more original to say about Switzerland - William Tell, cuckoo clocks, Toblerone - but nothing came to mind.
"Yes, but when you are born there, even the mountains get boring after a while. I like it better here. More interesting. Always something new. I like travelling very much."
"Do you always travel alone?"
"Yes, usually, I prefer it that way. Sometimes I meet somebody, but then that gets boring too after a while."
"Do you always travel without a map?"
"Yes, usually, I prefer it that way. That map of Laos I picked up really by accident in Vietnam, I thought maybe it would be of some use, but you see, those men did not even recognise it. It's not really very useful."
"I'm afraid most people here can't read maps, even of the town they lived in their whole lives. And Laos is very far away for them, they will probably never go there. Nor even to Vietnam."
"Yes, I know. That must be terrible, to be stuck in one place."
"Do you travel a lot?"
"Yes, nearly all the time. I started in India when I was 18. Occasionally I go back home to see people."
"Aren't you afraid of getting lost, on your own without a map?"
"Not at all. In fact that is the whole point, to get lost. I like getting lost very much. Then you meet people." She gave me the full Julia-Roberts smile again, and for the first time I noticed something else in the beautiful brown eyes. Deep down, there was a hint of metallic blue as well, a more steely look. Yes, of course, that would have to be. It was inconceivable that she could really be as she seemed on the surface, and travel for years like this. Deep down, she was one tough cookie. I wondered how she financed her travels. Some long-term travellers make jewellery, work in restaurants, beg, deal in drugs, take part in various scams, or steal from other travellers in dorms or sleeper compartments. But more likely she had a rich father, a big-shot banker back home in Zurich. Just then, a bus pulled up on the other side of the road.
"I think that might be your bus," I said.
"Thanks" she said, ran across the road, and got on the bus. The bus moved away. Julia Roberts waved from the rear window, I waved back and sighed a deep sigh.
I walked back over to where Tracey was sitting on the platform. She gave me a look.
"Have a nice chat?" she said.
"Is that it?" she persisted.
"Well, she was a nice girl. Swiss. Going to Laos. Had a nice smile. But a bit of an air-head."
"Not your type then."
"I guess not."
"Quite apart from the fact that you are old enough to be her grandfather."
"A slight exaggeration. But anyway, maybe she likes older men."
"Yes, but not dirty older men."
"My interest in the young lady was purely platonic."
"Pull the other one. All you men are such sad, pathetic, weak creatures."
"We can't help it. Its the hormones, guv."
Just then there was some activity close to our minibus. A pick-up truck had pulled up beside it. Mr. Fix-it was there, shouting instructions to his minions. Then suddenly there were some more foreigners on the scene. A group of three, they must have just got off a bus. Mr. Fix-it ushered them into the front of the pick-up truck and their luggage was stowed in the back. The pick-up truck was revving its engine and seemed about to leave. I went over to Mr. Fix-it.
"What's happening?" I yelled at him above the sound of the pick-up, "Is this going to Sen Monorom?"
"Yes, Sen Monorom."
"What about us? We've been waiting here."
"No problem, don't worry. Minibus go at same time."
This started to look plausible as the engine of the pick-up coughed and then spluttered to a halt. The three foreigners in the front glared at me, as though I was responsible for their delay.
For the next half hour we watched as a gang of men loaded the back of the pick-up truck with an unlikely combination of objects. By this time the Bear had returned and sat down beside us to watch. First, directly on top of the foreigners luggage, about half a dozen wicker baskets, each crammed full with live piglets. Then, on top of the piglets, a large motor bike.
"These people have no respect for luggage" growled the Bear darkly.
Finally Mr. Fixit indicated that it was time to go. We got into the back seat of the minibus and the Bear got in front. Our luggage was stowed in the back. There were no other passengers. The minibus pulled away.
"It looks as though we're on our own. But they didn't cancel. This might not be so bad." I said to Tracey.
But after 50 metres the minibus stopped, and a few locals got on with their luggage. Why they had not been there at the bus station was anybody's guess. The bus pulled away again, but after another 50 metres stopped again. More locals, more luggage. This pattern was repeated several times as the minibus made several circuits of Snuol, looking for punters. At one stage a whole family of people got on with an immense amount of luggage, only to get off again a few stops later, apparently at the same place as they had got on. Finally the driver decided that he had enough people on board. That was 19 people in a minibus designed for 11. There were two people on the driver's seat. The space at the back was so full of luggage that the rear doors would not close. The driver and several passengers spent 15 minutes or so trying to close the doors by brute force, unable to accept the fact that this was physically impossible. Finally a few items were taken out and placed on top of the passengers. The doors were shut, the minibus finally left Snuol and hurtled off at frightening speed on a bumpy dirt road. After perhaps 300 metres the rear doors flew open and all the luggage burst out, cascading spectacularly in an immense cloud of dust in the wake of the bus. My rucksack received an indelible coating of dust and has never been the same since. This was only the beginning of an epic journey of supreme discomfort, but eventually we did get to Sen Monorom.
Now, two years later, I wonder what has happened to the people we met that day. The policeman is still behind his desk no doubt, as sad and silent as ever. Mr. Fixit is still moving, shaking, and hustling, telling people not to worry and making a few bucks here and there. Julia Roberts could be anywhere, in Asia, Africa, or South America. Perhaps in an ashram in India, mesmerising the guru with her film-star smile. But the Bear, I know for sure where he is. He is on the beach in Majorca.