Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 8 – Time to Leave Siem Reap

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Sunday night was our final night in Siem Reap and the last evening we spent with Tuit. Since Tuesday, Donald and I had spent every afternoon and early evening with him. We took him with us to all parts of the city, introduced him to all the local people we knew, allowing him to do things and have experiences he never had before. Each time we had the opportunity for someone to translate, we encouraged him to do well in school and told him how important it was for his family”s future. I believe he understood all of this. He had sampled all the ice cream flavors at our hotel and for a final treat, we took him to the Red Piano, one of the first Western owned restaurants, for an ice cream sundae. He had never seen whipped cream before and found it very tasty. When we brought him back to school, Eddie drove right up to his door. It was very poignant to tell him goodbye as we had certainly grown accustomed to having him around. Donald and Eddie took turns hugging him goodbye and then it was my turn. We both smiled at each other and then when I hugged him, he hugged back. Donald and I will continue to support him and even though there are many social and cultural issues against him, we think he will do well.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Monday morning, before the town had time to unwrinkle itself, Eddie picked us up in front of our hotel and once again, Donald and I found ourselves back in Eddie”s 1989 Camry this time pulling his infamous trailer now piled high with our luggage. He has been renting this car for the past two years and counting the times the odometer has flipped, he figures the car began with 260,000 miles to which he has added as additional 60,000. For me, just a short ride around the block is my testament to Eddie”s ability as a mechanic. Now we were beginning a road trip and even though he had fixed the air conditioning, the odds of traveling without a break down were not in our favor. Not thoroughly believing his assurances that nothing would go wrong, I requested a stop at Star Mart, the local convenient store, where we loaded up on water and snacks, just in case.

Our destination was Kompong Cham, a riverine town located on the banks of the Mekong River and capital of the province bearing the same name. Jean Paul had stored his trike there in the Doctors Without Borders compound and they now wanted it removed. According to plan, Jean Paul would drive from Phnom Penh and meet us in Kompong Cham. We would spend the night there and the next morning load the trike onto Eddie”s trailer. All of us would then drive to Phnom Penh, where Jean Paul would relocate his trike and Donald and I would spend our last few days in Cambodia.

Leaving Siem Reap, we drove south east on the often traveled National Highway 6 and reaching the small town of Skoun, we make a left turn onto National Highway 7 and began traveling due east, toward the Vietnamese border. Skoun, a dusty market town, similar to all the others, has one claim to fame. It considers itself the culinary center for fried spiders. Possibly, the Khmers developed a taste for this eight legged creature when there was very little to eat during the hard times under the Khmer Rouge. Today, tourists who stop there have to fend off market ladies descending on them with platters piled high with this furry delicacy. Donald and I have been through this before and were not disappointed when Eddie did not stop.

KOMPONG CHAM BACK STORY

When analyzing the name of the town, kompong, translates into port or “the side of a river” and Cham denotes an ethnic group descendants from the Kingdom of Champa. Known to history since the 2 AD, these people lived in Central and South Vietnam, achieving their zenith in the 8th when they controlled territory in both Vietnam and Cambodia.

The relationship between Champa and Angkor was less than cordial and in 1177,the Cham attacked and sacked Angkor only to be destroyed four years later by an avenging Angkorian king, Jayavarman VII. The exploits of Jayavarman VII have been carved in stone on the bas reliefs found in the Bayon temple and that of Banteay Chmar. In 1720, an expanding Vietnam annexed the Kingdom of Champa. The loss of their land plus the resultant persecution induced the last Cham king to abandon Vietnam, seeking other places. He moved a group of his people west into Cambodia to settle on the banks of the Mekong, today called Kompong Cham. Islam arrived in Southeast Asia in the 7th, brought there by Arab traders and in the early 17th a Champa king converted his people to Islam. Today, ninety percent of the Chams are Muslims. The Khmer Rouge especially targeted the Cham and it is estimated that up to 500,000 of them died during this time. Today, these people are making a comeback but have been warned by Hun Sen that he will not tolerate any fundamentalist behavior. When a disturbance did break out, Hun Sen put it down forcibly, just so they would understand where he stood. Many Cham are fishermen and live in floating villages and the women are noticeable by their head scarves and the men by their knitted skull caps.

THE DRIVE TO KOMPONG CHAM

We drove through Kompong Cham province, reputed to be the richest province in Cambodia and with approximately 1.6 million people, it is the most heavily populated. Hun Sen was born here and has left his brother in place to serve as governor and his remaining family members are engaged in business. Traveling on National Highway 7 provided an opportunity to explore the countryside and soon we were driving through an area with rubber plantations on both sides of the road. Because the land is flat, we could see orderly rows of rubber trees stretching on to the horizon. A small coconut shell, which serves as a container, is attached to each tree to catch the sap that oozes out from the slash marks that spiral around each tree. Tappers then collect the sap and it is eventually processed into natural rubber. Cambodia”s soil is particularly suited to growing rubber trees and trees here produce rubber longer than any other place. This excellent soil coupled with high prices being paid for natural rubber has encouraged foreign money to invest and convert Cambodia farm land into rubber plantations. The fact that farmers are being thrown off their land is another story.

THE HOTEL

Jean Paul arrived ahead of us and entering the Mekong Hotel”s compound, we saw his Toyota SUV parked in the driveway and looking up, we found him sitting on his balcony, smoking one of his signature cigars, sunning himself and waving. Reputed to be the best hotel in town, fourteen dollars per night promised hot water, air conditioning, a T.V., and a view of the Mekong River. These Khmer built and managed hotels seem to be clones from a single plan and as expected, the obligatory over sized chandelier and collection of vinyl couches filled the lobby. As per our previous experiences, all attempts at refinement ended here and knowing the futility of hunting for the elevator, we quickly found ourselves walking up several flights of stairs to our room. A quick assessment of the room proved we were in luck. The sheets appeared relatively clean and occupying the foot of the bed was the expected Chinese velour blanket. The bathroom, which also functioned as a shower room, contained all the expected amenities. Above the sink, a plastic shelf was attached to the wall and above that was a matching plastic framed mirror. Each piece had its accompanying manufacturer”s sticker, proving it was new. This mirror, like all the others, was hung by shorter Khmer workman, providing Donald an excellent view of his chin. The obligatory small plastic comb, packet of shampoo, and miniature bar of soap had been placed on the shelf and I knew we were in a “chic” place as the soap was still wrapped up. Due to the dingy color of the towels, it was hard to determine if they were clean but they still had that stiffness which clings to them after they are air dried on the hotel”s roof. All the prerequisite items were there including two pairs of rubber flip-flops placed by the bed. I bring my own pillow and avoid the comb and the slippers as if they were the plague. With a flip of the switch, I activated the hot water heater mounted on the bathroom wall and acknowledged the hand held shower nozzle was certainly an advancement over an often provided water spigot, bucket, and small stool. The door to the room was either warped or not cut exactly to size and the lock on the door was the kind easily breached with a credit card. We found it strange that the hallways were exceptionally wide, as if someone had made a mistake, but we had no reason to complain. Everything was just as I thought it would be, complete with a bare neon tube light over the bed.

TIME FOR LUNCH

Jean Paul was his ebullient self and after a round of hugging and kissing, after all, he is a passionate Frenchman, it seemed time to find a restaurant for lunch. Several years ago, I wrote about a man from Philadelphia who married a Khmer woman and opened a restaurant called the Mekong Crossing and soon became famous for serving the best hamburger in all of Cambodia. I had eaten there before with Donald and Eddie and was looking forward to the taste of beef with the grease dribbling down my chin. When I suggested this place, Jean Paul grabbed his stomach and made a throwing up gesture. It is easy to read his motions but sometime impossible to determine his motives. Either he had eaten there and been poisoned or he did not want to eat in an American restaurant when there was a perfectly good French restaurant down the street and the man, like most other Frenchmen in Cambodia, was his friend. Goodbye Mekong Crossing and juicy hamburger as we took a seat under a swirling ceiling fan in the Lazy Mekong Daze restaurant. The owner spoke enough English for us to learn that he came from Brittany and similar to other long stay expats, had married a local woman, had a child who was busy playing under the tables. He had recently taken over the restaurant, previously owned by an expat from the UK. Regardless of what is on the menu, a restaurant owned by a Frenchman, according to Jean Paul, is a French restaurant. I have never seen Jean Paul order Asian food and selecting from the French side of the menu, he ordered beef with a Burgundy sauce while Donald and Eddie ordered a Cambodian favorite, beef luk lak. Even though the sauces were different, both dishes were made from the same cut of Khmer beef, exceptionally tough, requiring a full set of teeth, but tasty. I ordered a bowl of hot and sour soup, thinking it would be Chinese style. Unfortunately for me, the soup was prepared in a Khmer manner with coconut milk replacing the soy sauce, sesame oil and five-spice powder. No matter what kind of relationship you develop with your food, you never go hungry because you can always fill in from the present bowl of rice and the watermelon served for dessert. We lingered over cold beer and full bodied red wine until Jean Paul suggested a drive around the city. It was time to tour.

TO BE CONTINUED

Cambodia overland – Phnom Penh via Kampong Cham & Sambor Prei Kuk to Siem Reap

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