For Southeast Asia, this was a pretty easy arrival process – granted, it was only a 4-hour trip, but any time there’s a ‘travel day,’ it can have it challenges and calls for, most importantly – patience and plenty of good humor.
Like while I was waiting for the bus to pick me up at the guest house this morning. “Be ready at 9:30”, I’m told – so of course, Virgo me, I’m promptly and … ahem, patiently, waiting. (Although I heard someone say once that you can’t wait and be patient at the same time – they might be right!) – anyway, it’s approaching 9:50 and I think it’s time to have a slight concern since we’ve still got to get to the bus station, which is a ways out of town.
So I ask the woman at the guest house to check in with the bus company or the other guest house where I bought the ticket – after taking a little while to convince her it was worth it to inquire further – the ol’, “no problem, no problem, don’t worry, you wait here, bus come, bus come.”
Okay, back to waiting … patiently. The man from the other guest house arrives and calls the bus company – it’s 10:55 – “no problem, no problem – bus is on its way to pick you up – will be here any minute, don’t worry!” And he’s off. Still I wait. Again, by Southeast Asian standards, this is nothing. And for me, it’s not much either – I realize that even if I don’t make the bus, it’s not really a big deal.
At 10:20, the mini-van arrives, filled with local people and looking like it won’t make it to the next block. No one wants to move to make room for another passenger (that would be me!), so that takes a few minutes to sort out – and then we’re on our way.
Amazingly, we arrive at the bus station only a few minutes ‘late’ and I’m reminded of how it’s really been pretty smooth so far. We’re all busy boarding the bus to Battambang – which looks slightly – heavy emphasis on the slightly – in better repair than the mini-van, but it’ll get us there, I suppose.
There are assigned seats, so I take mine, look for the AC adjustment (ohyes, of course I was assured it was an air-conditioned bus!) – HA! – and look pleasurably at the empty window seat next to me, hoping it stays that way. How funny. Not only was that seat taken, but the entire aisle was filled with standing people and some sitting on the smallest plastic chairs, smaller than child size. An elderly woman was sitting in the aisle next to me on one of these red plastic numbers and I thought to trade places with her, but clearly that would have been a mess – that chair she was comfortably sitting on wouldn’t have held half my weight for a moment!
Once we were filled and by that I mean filled way beyond whatever ‘normal’ capacity might be – we were off – headed to Battambang and I was excited for the next adventure.
Let’s see if I can possibly describe the noise level – first of all there’s a TV that takes up the entire front of the bus, blaring at a volume set to “loudest” with some crazy movie of men beating each other up, martial arts style. The other bus passengers seem to enjoy it as they are laughing and whooping it up, I assume in response to the film, whatever else it might be I have no idea. Then there’s the screaming child behind me, who screams non-stop for, well, for most of the trip. Then there’s the din of chatter permeating throughout the coach – all in their shrill head voices, with me, the only Westerner to be seen, sitting quietly and ohyes, patiently.
Somehow I’ve gotten off the tourist circuit and am now surrounded with local people – friendly, warm, smiling faces – but the sound barrier might be getting crashed here any moment! I try to avoid looking up at the TV screen since watching men beating the hell out of each other is just not particularly my thing – but it’s hard to avoid its omnipresence. And then there’s the non-functioning AC and the plastic covered seats – quite the combination as I find myself literally, no really, literally dripping sweat down the front, back and sides of me. The AC doesn’t appear to be working, how unusual! What shall I do, ask for a refund?!
And then I remember – I’ve got my ipod with me! In a flash of brilliance, I put it in my day bag (my backpack is stashed below and I’m hoping and trusting that I’ll see it again) – and voila` – I’m plugged in to my music as it sorta drowns out the cacophony around me – that is, when I have the volume so loud that I imagine everyone can hear Brother Iz and Keali’i Reichel serenading me with Hawaiian music that soothes and comforts me amidst the din of life aboard this bus.
We made a stop within the first hour or so – to a small village where I needed to use the toilet (always, and I mean always a nasty proposition around the bus stations of small villages and this one was no exception! There was no place to hang my day bag – of course there wasn’t, silly! And it was heavy with all my electronics in it – as I lowered myself to the squat toilet, pulled down my pants and aimed perfectly, I almost fell backward, being unbalanced from the weight of my bag and had to struggle hard to keep myself off the floor – whew, that was a close one, but I made it and scrambled out of there as quickly as I could. Then I looked at the offerings of food, again the only Westerner around and always curious as to what’s on the menu in the local market. I bought a large bag of banana chips that turned out to be delicious. But I passed on the deep fried insects and the deep fried birds. I asked politely if photo was okay and the women nodded as I pointed at my camera – look closely, here they are! I’m all for trying new things, really I am, but I just don’t think I’ve got it in me to eat crickets and beetles and whatever else is in that bowl. What would you do?
And how about these poor things?
Back on the bus, I’m happily ensconced in my music (I’ve not been one to travel with music as I tend to enjoy the sounds of the local scene, but really, sometimes on public transportation, it’s fabulous to have this music as a buffer and of course, it’s sweetly delightful to hear the music I love so much.) and watching the world go by outside. The rice paddies are dry as a bone as we’re in the middle to the end of the dry season and there’s not a green patch in sight. It’s still boiling hot as it’s in the heat of the day and I’ve just surrendered to staying wet throughout the trip. Menopausal hot flashes were nothing compared to this oven I’m in now!
Arrival at Battambang comes quicker than I expect and as soon as the bus slows and moves into the station, there are men pushing cards and hotel brochures into the windows – I’m confused why they’re doing this, since I think I’m the only tourist around, although I soon realize that there are a couple of Asian people who are not locals also traveling here – I had already picked my hotel amongst the ones I read about and while they had no website, I was hoping they would have a room for me. I had to literally push through the crowd of men who had descended on us as I exited the bus and then I told one of them that I wanted the Lux Hotel and he grabbed my bag and headed to his tuk-tuk – “hold on, my friend – how much?” (the travel-savvy one in me says!) – “$1, Madam” – “No, too much,” I say, bargaining hard like I do and knowing that the hotel is not far away and I begin to grab for my bag – “okay, okay, 2000 riel” and I relent and let him (oh gracious me) continue to carry my bag to the chariot that will deliver me to the Lux Hotel.
Oh, the Riel/Dollar business – strange currency system here in Cambodia – the U.S. dollar is the primacy currency, with the Riel given in change for less than a dollar since they have no coins in circulation. Riel are also used in more rural areas, but dollars are everywhere. Even when I go to an ATM to get money, it dispenses dollars – the U.S. economy at home might still be in the toilet, but our cash really is King everywhere around the globe. And these folks are used to the combined currency system everywhere – I’m slowing getting the hang of it, simplified by 4000 riel equaling one dollar – they come in 500, 1000 & 2000 notes, so 1000 riel is equal to a quarter.
Anyway, he’s off and running, offering me tours to the countryside tomorrow and the next day and maybe even right now – I politely tell him that maybe, maybe, but right now, I want to go to the hotel – that’s all. So he takes me there – and it’s a fine place that I’m happy to have found. It’s pretty new, only 2-3 years old and my room, at $8/night is smallish, but has a large window, an en-suite bathroom, a large bed and is clean-clean-clean. It’s home and I’m in and all is well! Oh, it does happen to be on the 4th floor and of course there’s no elevator, so with only 87 steps to climb (one way!), these legs are gonna keep on having the work out they’ve been getting at the temples and elsewhere. No worries, they’re feeling strong!
Since we’ve arrived in the middle of the day and it’s sweltering outside, I’ve chosen to unpack, shower and sit and write for a few hours before I head out to explore this city. I read that its population is around 100,000 with lots of people in the nearby countryside. I understand its charm and urban sophistication make it appealing for those off the normal tourist track. It’s got some of that colonial architecture the French left behind and the Khmer Rouge didn’t totally destroy, so that’s worth a look-see. And there’s a river running through town, too, so that’s always a nice ambience (kayaking is available through a local NGO) – a river that I had hoped to get here on, actually; but with the dry season upon us, the water is too low for boat travel – that is, unless you want to be in a small skiff for 8-10 hours and I opted for that VIP bus instead!
It’s also the gateway to yet more nearby temples, beautiful rural landscapes, Cambodia’s only winery, host of fabulous restaurants (one of the best vegetarian in the country, I’m told) and is also home to a bamboo train that has quite a claim to fame and will soon (in the next few months) be halted as progress of a fancy train line from here to Phnom Penh gets underway – so I’ve clearly got some exploring to do! And with a comfy, clean, safe room, there’s also plenty of time and space to relax and unwind from the wonderfully frenetic pace I’ve left behind in Siem Reap.
So, with the sun finding its way to a cooler and more humane place in the sky, I will begin my wandering into this new place called Battambang.
It’s later evening now and I’ve returned to make this a post. An easy evening of strolling the nearby streets, coming upon the marketplace that I always enjoy, and soaking up the feeling of a new place well off the beaten tourist path. Within minutes, I was aware of how different it feels here already – no one wanting to sell me anything, no tuk-tuk drivers on every corner offering a ride, no one not accepting ‘no thank you’ for an answer. While I became accustomed to all that in Siem Reap, it does wear on me after awhile – haven’t they ever heard that quip about ‘no means no’?! Anyway, I was pretty much left alone to wander along the riverside and through the town, smiling as I went and receiving smiles in return.
I enjoyed a fine meal of spaghetti in a lovely, spicy vegetarian sauce with garlic bread (sometimes an Italian girl needs a break from all this fantastic Asian food!) along with a pineapple-banana shake (fruit shakes are the rage everywhere here). Belly filled and satisfied, I returned ‘home’ to enjoy a nice chat with the guy working the front desk of the hotel – “Oular” is his name and he spoke the best English I’ve yet heard from a Cambodian and is serious in his pursuit of studying it in school – he wants to become an English teacher. In no time, an impromptu English lesson was underway with him and another worker – it brought me back to my days of English teaching in Germany and reminded me how much I enjoyed it.
Oular works at the front desk of this hotel – 7 days a week, from 6 in the morning until 10 at night – 16 hours a day for a whopping $50 per month. He also gets two meals a day – lunch and dinner. That works out (I did the math, I just had to) to about 11 cents per hour. 11 cents per hour! He has a small apartment that costs $30 per month – doesn’t leave much left over – difficult to save or pay for school or do anything else. This salary is ‘normal’ he says, although they can be much lower, too.
Now it’s time for rest, some reading (a book I picked up called “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung about the Khmer Rouge time and a national bestseller) and calling yet another place ‘home’ – funny how that works, everywhere I go, I’m home. I like that. A lot.