Getting There is the Experience

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December 11th 2014
Published: December 11th 2014
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The leaves slap my face as I ride behind Savin on his motorbike. Good thing I'm wearing the bicycle helmet I brought from home. It's better than nothing. That branch that just wapped me on my head surely would have found blood had I not been wearing it.

I've got a vice-like grip on the bar in the back. The trail is so bumpy in places I think I'm going to fly off, so I clamp my fingers even tighter. Oh my gawd, they're welded to the bar. Are those blisters developing at the base of my fingers?

Sure, I wanted a little adventure, but this might be too much. Fellow volunteer Esben suggested we take a moto out to the "jar site", a burial site dating somewhere from the 15th to 17th centuries. It remains unclear whether Khmer people of the post Angkor era or a different culture altogether tucked these small wooden crypts and large pottery jars under the rock overhang in the Cardamom Mountains.

We asked for a moto at headquarters that morning. As luck would have it, my Cambodian son Savin was rounded up from the nearby coffee house.

"You ride with me, Mama," he said. I would trust my life to him, which it turns out, is what I did. Esben hopped on with the other young driver.

We went by my bungalow where I picked up my bicycle helmet. I looked funny, yes I did, I was the only one wearing hard headgear. I'm glad I did.

I guess one is never prepared for crossing a river on a moto, but cross we did. Savin knows where the bedrock of the river is highest, so he followed it. I congratulated myself on my choice of wearing my sandals and carrying my boots for the short hike later. The water felt good on my feet and legs.

But now as we speed on, there are many more puddles to negotiate, clay bogs, and ten inch ruts. I get off several places. One place he wedges the bike between wood slats and has to wrestle it out. He always waits for me to securely weld myself back to the bike before moving on.

We weave through tunnels of bamboo, tall grasses, and moist jungly vegetation that grabs at our clothes. Suddenly the darkness opens into a grassy area with tall trees sprouting all around. I look for birds and monkeys, but I think the motors have scared them all. Then we plunge into the jungle tunnels, where the cicadas pierce through our motor noise.

When Savin makes a good choice of paths to avoid deep ruts or water, I say "moto dop la'aw," which means good driver! I can see his mouth turning upward in a smile. When we both bounce and jiggle, I make woo woo noises to follow the bounces and I laugh. He smiles.

After over an hour, we pull up to a campsite, a raised platform where Trekkers can overnight. I rejoice, for I think we're there. I prepare my feet for leeches with insect spray, socks, and my waterproof boots. Then I learn it's another 3km by moto. No matter, I'm just ready for the climb by foot soon.

Two minutes later I'm walking across a stream. My waterproof boots are filling with water. The motos have moved through the water, I'm trying to figure out how to get across without slipping on the rocks. They don't seem to acknowledge my Mum status, which includes being slow and extra cautious. I finally make it across, sloshing in stream water now, my socks are sopped, and I must be carrying two more pounds in my boots.

After bouncing through more precarious twists and bumps and slithery clay, we pull up to a parking area in a huge grove of bamboo.

I can see why elephants like this area for the bamboo.

"This is elephant country," Esben's driver says. We are wary. In the last few days, several elephant sitings were reported in another area, and everyone is on high alert. Several trails have been closed.

"Are you looking for elephants?" I ask him in Khmer. He laughs, which means, "duh, yeah" and we move upward.

After a short scramble we reach a rocky outcropping where two ladders ascend. A package of incense sticks rests beside an urn with burnt sticks. This is a sacred area. Just before we climb the ladders, a pair of noisy hornbills flies overhead. Must be a welcome sign for us, or at least I hope it is.

I'm astonished at the two groups of large ceramic jars. They each appear to be made on a potters wheel, and several have a shiny glaze. Their walls are thick. They rest there, on the ledge, side by side. They invite our wonder, they are beautifully rounded and colored. I can see faint etches on one.

Who found them? Why were they placed here on the high ledge? Are there burial remains inside?

We each look at them for a long time. Then the driver asks if we want to see the next one. There's another? We follow to another ledge. The dark overhang stinks like bat guano, and we see bats flying nearby.

We crouch and crawl. A row of about a dozen "boxes" are lined up. A rectangular excavation is in each. The wood is decomposing in this tropical climate, and they've all been propped up on wooden supports to prevent direct contact with the ground. Some have fitted lids, we see bones in the cavity of another.

Viewing burial crypts is startling. I imagine these were crypts for high status people, but I need to find out more from whoever studied this site and others scattered in the Cardamom mountains.

Esben and I are sitting in bat guano, and trying not to think about how it sticks to our pants. So we finally leave. I've perfected a duck walk to get out of there.

The road back is just as bumpy and muddy. I get stranded again on the stream crossing, and Esben has to give me a hand. He jokes about how they were ready to leave me there. I'm not laughing. The mud ruts seem worse, and at one point three guys shove the bike up a narrow rutted clay slope. My job is to document.

Savin is an expert driver. I never once feel unsafe or worried. He takes care of his Mum, and earns all the accolades that I throw his way. There's a point where I just have to release any fears and know that everything is alright. It's like that with my Cambodian son. I trust him.

I'm happy and wet, and my fingers are blistered and I've got a big bruise on my wrist. But my helmet has served me well, and Savin has returned me to Chi Phat alive and thirsty for a cold beer.
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