I woke before the wedding party this morning at 04.55 on the dot. This is the time Khmai people rise. Still in bed after 5am and you’re lazy. True to form the wedding music started not long after. There are two going on this week, competing with one another for the loudest noise. I packed my rucsac and by 6.30 I was at the bus stop 20 minutes walk away with my luggage.
My ticket cost $5 and was checked by the man at the cafe who speaks good French. He sold me breakfast – Gateau Chinoise for 25c – a hot savoury filled dumpling just cooked while I waited for the coach. It arrived on time at 0720 and I boarded with several others from my village and took my numbered place.
We were off. It had bouncy springs for a coach and it pitched and swayed like a boat in heavy seas as we gathered speed on National Route 5 heading for Battambang and the capital. Determined to be the fastest on the road the driver was soon blowing his horn at anything that might cross our path and at everything we overtake. To let us pass, approaching vehicles were pulling over onto the edge of the road though not slackening their speed as we likewise careered along like the night bus in Harry Potter. Only trucks and coaches of our size were afforded any respect. Inside the passengers and children chattered, dozed or watched the pop videos and slapstick comedy on the video monitor.
We hardly slacken pace through the many villages and small towns. The frequency and urgency of the horn sounding increases warning people and animals to clear the way for Capitol Open Tour Bus. Donkey carts, cows, tractors, children, dogs, motos, cycles – out of the way! On the open road, red and white milestones mark down the km to the next big town and our final destination. The national route is lined with homesteads, shacks, stalls and small holdings and trees, some in blossom and many with fruit especially mango, palm trees of the coconut, sugar and other varieties. The road is raised above the level of the surrounding countryside with deep ditches either side many water-filled even this late in the dry season.
We didn’t stop at any police check points though many were pulled over to pay the nominal ‘fine’ for some infringement or other. We did stop from time to time for refreshments and a comfort break. Sticky rice in bamboo tubes, green mango with chilli salt dip, roasted fish and boiled rice, chilled green tea, Khmer sushi, seasonal fruit and the usual western snacks and drinks. The bus has AC and the vents above the seats are blowing cold air on the arms and neck, rather cool in a T-shirt but on this good coach they are adjustable and I could turn mine off. Wooo! As the day advanced and the heat increased the engine was left running at the cafe stops to keep the bus cool. The normal hot weather has returned and the sun is pretty well directly overhead but a general haze creates a diffuse light though the uv is undiminished and sunburn is easily acquired. I remain in the shade or return to the bus.
I tried some of the Khmer sushi treats. I had no idea why people were flocking round the stall in the bus park buying so much produce. I couldn’t ask so I had to try. Sold in clusters of 10 the sushi treats are packed in tiny plastic bags the size of my thumb nail, tied off with a strand of plastic string and tied in a cluster like a bunch of grapes. Green ones wrapped in leaves, pink ones not wrapped and various other types, each uniquely flavoured. The green ones were tasty and cool but the pink ones were really fiery. The consistency of set gelatin, they could be sucked gently and released a salty fishy taste but as soon as they are bitten they bite back. An explosion of flavour and heat – fish, sugar, spice, hot chilli, and MSG – bursts inside your head and the tip of the tongue tingles and is numb at the same time, the whole mouth glows and the throat burns.
The numerous telecommunications towers along the route are solar-powered. Everyone has a mobile phone. Phone protocol is simple – the mobile must be on 24 hours, it must be answered wherever you are and whatever you are doing, on the bus, in a meeting, operating, lecturing (yes, the lecturer has a phone conversation and then carries on with the lecture) – at a delicate moment in the operating theatre it’s OK to say I’ll call you back but more usual the matter is dealt with on the spot. The Hospital Director deals with several items of business simultaneously – he chairs the meeting, reads the admission report, listens to the discussion, talks to an enquirer standing by his chair, signs several papers thrust before him … and answers his mobile phone. Everyone else in the meeting does the same when their phones go off. It’s something you just get used to.
At the last stop before our destination we made as if to depart when cries of ‘Moie tiet! One more!’ ring out from the back of the bus and the driver began sounding his horn furiously for the missing passenger. The lady in the window seat next to mine offered me a paper napkin for my fingers and to wipe the blade of my Leatherman scissors. The child in her lap smiled and dozed and chatted on the mobile phone (I think to her mother) and poked me now and then to see what I’m made of. It is so common to see children living with their grandparents while the mum and dad work in Phnom Penh. And this is the start of the holiday season. It’s Khmer New Year next weekend and families are starting to travel to be together for the celebrations.
I dip my green mango slices in the chilli salt hoping to keep my electrolytes up to replace what I lose in sweat in this hot weather. I don’t want cramp. Not tomorrow.
I’m going to Phnom Penh to swim across the Mekong.