When you board a bus in Cambodia, the decision to read instead of looking out the window means you are going to miss out on some astonishing sights. In the past 36 hours I’ve traveled 560km, from Mondulkiri in the north-east, back to Kampong Cham for a night, then up to Siem Reap this morning. Becoming ever so slightly accustomed to the sights that have astounded me for six months now, I did put my head in a book for a large portion of each journey. Still, whenever I looked up, there was something worth seeing, and I managed to get some shots of a few sights flashing by me.
Just before my 20th birthday in 1989, I traveled from my home in New Zealand to London, embarking upon six years living in England. In those days I had no comprehension that such options belong to a very privileged and tiny global minority. My first few months in England were a struggle. In the European summer that year I had a well paid job, a room in a beautiful big house full of young people and things were looking up. With the first pay I received in which I had some spare spending money, I went away for a long weekend. As I walked over London Bridge en route to the train station, the feeling of complete freedom that washed over me is a sense that has accompanied me on every traveling holiday I have taken since. The past few days in Mondulkiri and now Siem Reap are no different, with images of the Thames River, English meadows and cottages drifting into my mind as I pass by the Cambodian equivalents of muddy rivers and dusty rural villages.
The young girl sitting next to me must surely be used to traveling on the crowded garment worker trucks because she has no appreciation of my personal space. I tried to remember this as she planted her knees firmly in front of my seat, pushed her bum into mine and elbowed me (albeit gently) in the ribs. I am sure I seemed like a cranky old hag when I finally asked her to please move her body parts back to her own seat.
Rav, the tuk tuk driver who transported and translated for me last time I was in Siem Reap to visit Kim, was at the station to meet me and brought me to the hotel that I have checked into for eight days, partly as a birthday present from my mother – thanks Mum! It was nice to see a familiar and friendly face. Tomorrow I expect, with Rav in tow, I’ll meet up with Kim, the landmine victim I have talked about previously, but also another young man, also called Kim, whose family are the reason I am here.
Last week I had to spend two nights in Phnom Penh to attend a court hearing via video link to Australia. With a holiday due and not wanting to leave Cambodia, I contacted a non-profit organisation offering to volunteer with them. The following day I was sitting across a table beside the hotel pool near Boeung Keng Kang Market with a Belgian photographer / translator who came to discuss the possibility of my assisting a young family in Siem Reap. In a country with such a high burden of need, that’s how quick things happen!
My holiday started as three nights with a friend/colleague in Mondulkiri. Off the five hour bus trip which took us from the red dusty plains of Kampong Cham and Kratie provinces, into the elevated rainforests of Mondulkiri, a beaten up old RAV4 driven by local tour guide and happy character Mr Den took us to the Nature Lodge. A shady tree-lined haven on the side of a hill with log cabins set along a rural path leading down from the central elevated open air timber restaurant/bar, we spent two glorious days here, mostly perched on cushions at the low set tables on elevated platforms flanking the bar.
Upon check-in we had the delight of seeing two travelers who we had struck up conversation with over dinner a few nights earlier, on the riverside in Kampong Cham. A professor of law and his teacher wife from Portland, Oregon, she had worked for the American Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, where they are about to return to as soon as the Ebola outbreak calms down, to visit families she has maintained long term contact with despite civil war, corruption and lacking technology. Another very interesting evening of intelligent conversation was spent with them and a young, friendly and funny Swedish couple. The following two nights were spent with an equally interesting pair of young Spanish women who are cycling through Cambodia, promoting water awareness through arts in remote villages. Counted among their skills are lawyer, sign language interpreter, multi linguists (who except me is not?!), artist, teacher, photographer. With a flair-fuelled Mediterranean passion for their cause, they really were a treat. I expect them to feature in my future life when they return through my part of the country in a month or two. Their blog is worth a read at http://artwatereness.com/.
As well as the fabulous accommodation, new and interesting company, we saw elephants, a very dry, brown and sorry-looking waterfall next to a hydro-power plant, village life celebrating Khmer New Year, drove through the hilly agrarian town of Sen Monorom with Mr Den who also took us to a Bunong Hill Tribe village inhabited by this indigenous minority population who live in very unique thatched houses. More can be read about the Bunong people here http://www.globalteer.org/the-bunong-people.aspx.
For all that, the biggest impression of my time in Mondulkiri was the unusual experience of trees. In 1970 Cambodia’s Chief Forester Suon Kaset, later murdered by the Khmer Rouge, is quoted by journalist Henry Kamm as saying “Cambodia is a country of forests”. Today the Cambodia that I have seen is very much a country of infinite expanses of deforested dust and of highways transporting seemingly limitless truckloads of timber. Cambodian friends and colleagues often refer to Ratanakiri, the province north of Mondulkiri, as one whose forests are being plundered, replaced with rubber plantations which are the only common trees seen in Kampong Cham now. The timber is transported on overloaded trucks, allegedly destined for neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand.
Back in Siem Reap a short six weeks after my last visit, I am looking forward to spending time with the various people I have come to know here and the young family I am about to know. Again, here more than anywhere else in Cambodia, I have the paradoxical experience of having evident wealth in a place teeming with privation. Whilst lavishing myself somewhat in beautiful accommodation, I am also here to contribute in some small way to the need that surrounds me. That I am in a position to live comfortably whilst simultaneously doing something useful and constructive emphasises my privilege. Perhaps the biggest imprint Cambodia may leave on me will be exactly that – “emphasis of privilege”.