- 01. To The Rescue
- 02. Last Minute Minutia
- 03. Spiritual Me
- 04. A New Approach
- 05. Cruising Cambodia
- 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
- 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
- 08. A Day on the River Limbo
- 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
- 10. Saigon Reunification
- 11. The Way to Huế
- 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
- 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
- 14. Southeast Asian Rescue
Our arrival at the village of Kampong Tralach provided the opportunity for an ox cart ride. I cannot claim this was on my bucket list. Nevertheless Frank and I put on our smelliest clothing, debarked the ship and boarded an oxen buttock buttressed buckboard. We were assigned to the English-speaking oxen, but all the passengers jumped at this rare chance, creating a bizarre scene as the parade of westerners rumbled through the village in a caravan of over a dozen ox carts.
At first I thought we were to get a token ride of a few hundred meters, but then we turned onto a road leading out of the village with no apparent end in sight. Predictably, the oxen lightened their load, an event most aromatic in the midday heat. The cart was cramped for the two of us, a single plank perhaps a meter square with flimsy railings that when leaned upon rubbed against the manure-encrusted wooden wagon wheels. As one leg then the other would fall asleep, then throb, then ring with stabbing pain, I squirmed and shifted and shuffled and slouched. Each anguished lunge pitched the cart on its sole axel, thrusting my back into a flapping ox tail or worse. It was a less than pleasant.
Three days later — or was it twenty minutes? – we arrived at a monastery boasting a ninth century pagoda, which I toured with some relief. Well worth a look. Around us the locals were in the throes of their New Year’s celebrations. Blindfolded youngsters, desperately trying to interpret howls of misdirection from the surrounding crowd, swatted a club at a dangling clay pot presumably filled with piñata-esque goodies. Nearby, a tug-of-war with the boys on one side and the girls on the other ended as you might expect. Good fun.
At some point our ox carts disappeared; never was I happier. An air conditioned bus whisked us to another monastery at Oudong. Along the way I was aghast, not for the first time, at the amount of rubbish that lay alongside the roadway. An essential problem with Cambodia is that nobody pays taxes. While farmers and homeowners tend to keep their respective patches reasonably tidy, anything that blows, or falls, or is dumped, or is swept by floodwaters, onto public land just sits there for all time, or until it is washed into the waterways. The major rivers have sufficient flow to wash the rubbish along, but every backwater is a cesspool of detritus. Power boats have ingeniously mounted cantilevered engines to facilitate the frequent clearing of their fouled propellers. It is difficult to see this getting anything but worse.
At the Oudong monastery we were seated cross-legged on floor mats in a pagoda most grand. A monk sat before us with a large bowl of popcorn-like jasmine buds. Samath explained we were in for a twenty minute blessing, preparing us to show proper respect at its conclusion by providing the key phrase that was to be uttered while demonstrating a cross-legged bow no middle-aged man of Northern European descent could possibly execute.
I glanced at my watch as the monk began his blessing, a throat warbling with a rap rhythm that sounded something akin to a didgeridoo. Sometime later my legs, which hadn’t entirely recovered from the ox cart episode, began complaining with vehemence. To be fair, Samath had told us to sit however we would be most comfortable, but I had misjudged my stamina.
After an eternity, I looked at my watch again—three minutes had passed. Buddha himself observed that “Life is pain”, and I had to admit I was coming to appreciate the sentiment. I closed my eyes, trying but failing to acquire some level of Zen. Eventually the monk began pelting me in the face with the jasmine buds. I opened my eyes, mildly relieved to see that the others were getting the same treatment, and that ammunition was running low. Finally, Samath signalled the moment for the words of respect with the cross-legged bow, my attempt of which resulted in an involuntary groan that echoed throughout the pagoda. But dammit, I was blessed.
That Friday evening the ship docked in Phnom Penh. A small party of us set out on reconnaissance. As advertised, the night market was a market, and it was at night. Otherwise, the area was less then exotic, a Gloria Jeans Coffee immediately adjacent, a flashy nightclub name Mao’s across the street from a waterfront restaurant named Titanic. I surmised one must attain a certain level of appreciation for cynical irony to operate food service establishment in Phnom Penh.
Saturday morning I was surprised to find the ship underway when I awoke just after sunrise. I had understood we’d be spending three nights at Phnom Penh. I was right, but I had missed that we’d be cruising during the day to a nearby island for a visit to the school and a silk factory. Generally speaking I have a low opinion of parents, but I like kids and teachers, so I was looking forward to the school visit. The silk factory, on the other hand, loomed as slow torture. As it happened, both events went rather contrary to my expectations.
The school kids consisted a dozen nine-year-olds. It seemed to me they may have been extorted by the school administrators into showing up midway through their five-day holiday to pay tribute to the school’s benefactor, our cruise ship. There was but one boy amongst them. On cue, he belted the first line of the Cambodian national anthem, the girls then joining in with fervour, all eyes affixed to the portraits of the Cambodian People’s Party leaders above the blackboard.
The French passengers were convinced to sing a song for the students. The kids looked a bit perplexed – remember, this cruise line usually has German and English speakers.
Last came the question-and-answer period, which made it abundantly clear that these kids had been put through this wringer on numerous occasions. When was the last time a nine-year-old asked you “Have you found your visit to my country enjoyable?” I was fully expecting a question along the lines of “Do you think the western powers have come to understand the limits of their power and authority in Asia?” (No, by the way.) I was moved, if you follow me.
Much to my surprise, the silk factory was fascinating. We were delivered there in relative comfort by tuk-tuk, a mode of transport with which I’d become most enamoured in my post-ox cart period. The silk factory was, and I use this word as a compliment, primitive. So simple that in twenty minutes I came to understand a process that had evaded my grasp (and interest) for fifty years. That said, I would not suggest a career in Cambodian silk weaving. It is extraordinarily tedious work, a long day yielding a piece of fabric but a meter wide and a half meter long. I’d rather work at WalMart.
While my fellow passengers milled about the souvenir shop, I took the chance to try out one of the many hammock available to the uninterested consumer. Feet elevated with hat low on my brow, my field of vision was limited to watching my chins perspire. A first.
We were delivered by tuk-tuk back to the ship, where we lunched on fine food and wine in air conditioned luxury. I had nothing to complain about.