Random Ramblings from the Cambodian Road

Well, this is fun – sitting on my lanai at Botanica, listening to Michael Buble` (right now, “Fever”) and settling in to write for a few hours before I’ll bicycle over to a nearby resort that has a fancy swimming pool. I love my time in Kep where I don’t feel the urge to run around and do things, but rather can sit back and enjoy the spaciousness of this gentle pace and all the dense foliage that envelopes me. The blue skies are peeking through and since I’m under this wide palapa roof, I’m out of the intense heat of the sun – when I venture out into it, I’ll be poolside.

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Don’t try this at home!

Get a load of this – Cambodian people don’t celebrate birthdays – everyone has the same birthday which is on the Cambodian New Year – celebrated for three days beginning April 13th. I’m sorry to miss the festivities as I’ll be in Vietnam by then. But I am intrigued by the concept of no individual birthdays. One of the men I was with on the sailboat reminded me of this when I asked him when his birthday was – he didn’t even know! I guess it’s easy to remember your friends and family birthdays – no getting into trouble if you forget! Imagine trying to get away with this shit in the United States – don’t even think about trying it with me! (September  13th if anyone’s forgotten – LOL!!)

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I commented on this after a comment from my  highly glamorous friend Christina on my Fashion Assessment/Time for a Makeover post, but I want to make further mention of it here.

This tickles me – the Khmer women walk around the villages (and in the cities – I saw it in Phnom Penh, too!) in their pajamas! It’s only a women thing, I haven’t seen any men doing it – and it’s very, very common. They’re the pajama bottom and top variety, not slinky, sexy camisoles or even nightgowns – they’re all long pants and long-sleeve tops. Some of them look like cotton, some even look like light flannel, which is amazing in this heat. (I’m the only one around dripping sweat constantly – the local folks look cool as can be!) And they’re generally bright colors, patterns, flowers, even silly cartoon-ish characters. It really is, as that Christina suggested, the perfect travel attire – comfy, cozy, attractive and here in Cambodia, oh-so stylish! Imagine seeing women walking around San Francisco or NYC or even Pahoa or P’town in their pjs! I think we ought to give it a go – any pioneers out there?!

It often happens that when I’m walking down the street, I get plenty of looks – Khmer people stop what they’re doing and take notice. I’m never a ‘head turner’ at home, so this takes some getting used to! But used to it, I’ve gotten! And no, I’m not being paranoid – it’s clear they’re talking about me amongst themselves – while I don’t understand what they’re saying, I do notice that one person looks at me, says something and then all the rest look in my direction – it’s fairly obvious what’s going on! So then there are several people all looking at me, sometimes smiling and often laughing – there’s nothing mean-spirited about it (at least I don’t think so! And it’s nothing at all like the staring down of Indian eyes!); but I realized the other day in Kampot when it happened again how odd I must look to them in my Western garb and allowing my arms and legs not to be totally covered up. And then I thought, in relation to this pajama thing – gee, you’re laughing at me – and there you are, hanging out or walking around town in your pjs, girrrrllllll!! I’d really like to see how this might go over cruising into Malama Market!

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There’s an awful common practice here with the garbage – not only is it thrown anywhere and everywhere (which, along with the poverty, is the most difficult part of being in this part of the world) – they also like to burn it, along with what we would call ‘yard waste.’ Why they just can’t leave the natural stuff to decompose on its own I have no idea – but the burning thing happens everywhere and especially in the countryside, it’s common to see circles of black, scarred earth where they’ve burned whatever it was they thought needed burning. Not only does it stink, but there are places where the smoke can cloud the sky with its thick clouds of stench. There’ve been efforts to get people to stop doing it and in certain places, I understand it’s changing. But for now, garbage is either strewn everywhere or burning up the landscape.

Ugh! Kampot Riverside

I must say, though, that great efforts seem to be made here in Kampot and Kep to keep things cleaner than I’ve seen anywhere else. Unfortunately not true for the river in the town area of Kampot – sad to see they’re still throwing garbage in it … slowly, slowly, things are changing. But from a Western perspective, it’s really, really hard to see day in and day out – the assault on my senses and on the Earth is unrelenting, exhausting and overwhelming to me.

Garbage, garbage everywhere

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The Dilemma of Deet

It was a calculated decision I made before I started the trip. I knew I would be in places that are plagued with malaria and dengue fever. While there is medication that can be taken prophylactically for malaria, there’s no such medicine for dengue fever. And while I didn’t really want to succumb to either of these awful diseases, I also didn’t want to take malaria medication for 6 months. I had three choices: take toxic malaria meds (but still have no protection against dengue fever); get toxic malaria and/or dengue fever; or use toxic deet. Three terribly toxic choices – pick your poison. I chose the poison which is deet.

No, none of the natural bug repellents would work on these suckers – they’re all well and good when all you’re trying to do is avoid the annoyance of bug bites. But this is more serious. So I’ve come armed with a few small bottles of the stuff and am doling it out sparingly but purposefully.

In Lao, I sprayed myself minimally and often. Here in Cambodia, those diseases are not as widespread, so I’ve been more conservative in my use of the evil stuff. But there were those awful sand fleas in Sihanoukville whose remnants are still with me – yes, at my beloved Otres Beach (every paradise has its shadow!) – those sand fleas were horrible and even deet wouldn’t stop them – and still, they’re bugging me. I must have more than 40 bites all over my body, especially my upper arms, my legs and ankles and my upper back – the itching is horrendous – and I’m covered in bites and scabs. Don’t waste your breath telling me not to scratch, it’s useless, I’m a scratching fool! Sometimes the anti-itch cream I brought along works. Someone suggested tiger balm – I bought some and it too, works sometimes. Sometimes not. Hold on, I’ll be back in minute – I’ve got to go and scratch my arms off right now!

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Driving Ms. Ingenito

I’ve gotten pretty used to this ‘having a driver’ thing. And I like it! There’s something wonderfully bourgeois about it and well, you know how much I go in for that sort of thing!

I wonder if I could work something out at home – surely people in Puna are looking for all kinds of alternative work opportunities!

Here’s the deal – and this was especially true in Siem Reap, but it’s possible everywhere – I hire a driver for the day and he (only men in this job, women are simply not hired drivers in this part of the world) shows up at the time I ask (and in Siem Reap this was often ridiculously at 5 o’clock in the morning!) and takes me wherever I want to go. Not only does he take me there – then he waits until I’m done doing whatever I’m doing – I come out and then we head off to the next place I want to go. It simply doesn’t matter how long I’m doing my thing, he’ll hang out and wait for me. Most of the tuk tuk drivers have hammocks tied into their rigs so they can nap while they’re waiting. The cost is insanely cheap, of course – yes, I like this having a driver thing – now, if only I could find one with fringe benefits!

Dear Dohn, our sweet tuk tuk driver around the Angkor Wat Temples

Here’s something I’m surprised I’ve never seen in Puna – people using CDs as rear reflectors on their cars! Some of them are even painted red! Here they use them on their tuk tuks, of course, since there aren’t many cars on the road. Maybe we ought to bring tuk tuks to Puna – wouldn’t that be fun! Ohyes, and then I could have a driver!

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This is very old news, but my access to news is often late in coming and my internet connection is sometimes not fast enough to watch videos online. It was only last week that I finally got to watch Barack’s speech about the tragedy in Tucson. And I was moved to tears. Never in my life has my heart been touched by anyone even close to the White House. No, he hasn’t been the Savior. And he’s made some decisions which I vehemently disagree with. And I really wish we weren’t in Afghanistan. But still, I trust this man’s heart. And I believe it’s in the ‘right’ place. And still, very much still, I am grateful he’s in the White House.

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I was confused when I first saw these items in the toiletry section of the markets, but it didn’t take long to figure it out – so many products with “whitening” written on them. Yep, the Khmer are doing the Michael Jackson thing – ohyeah, I know that’s not quite fair – too bad! Anyway, it’s one of the reasons they keep their skin completely covered up from the effects of the sun – no, they’re not just being sensible to the skin cancer issue (this probably isn’t a motivation at all) – they don’t want to be dark and they certainly don’t want to get any darker than they already are. Light skin is all the rage.

The irony, of course, is that all the Western tourists are sitting in the sun all day, trying to be darker (yep, also not very sensible about the skin cancer issue – excuse me, but that does include me!)

It’s interesting because during Khmer Rouge days when the city people were rounded up and brought out to the countryside, they received the worst of the torturous treatment. They were recognized as part of the intelligentsia and artistic worlds and in collusion with the scourge of Western influence that was labeled by the KR as the root of all evil. Part of how they were recognized as such was because they had lighter skin than the countryside folks – this was partly because they were often from mixed blood (often with Chinese) – “pure” Khmer was darker and seen as superior.

Oh, this light and dark skin thing permeates cultures everywhere around the world and continues here in Cambodia – some have even come up to me and put their arms next to me, proudly showing that they’re lighter than me! Will the time ever come when we become color blind to these ridiculous notions?

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It’s official – I’m either getting very comfortable being out here on the road or I need to consult someone about narcolepsy (I wonder – will my traveler’s insurance cover that consultation?!). Remember the beloved tuk tuks I was talking about a minute ago? Well, I fell asleep in one of them while I was in Siem Reap (and then another later in the trip – it’s a slippery slope!) – it was one of those very long days of temple exploration (about which I swear I’m going to write about soon!) and I was pooped, totally wiped out from the walking and the heat. Tuk tuks are not the smoothest ride in the world – very, very far from it – they’re rickety, have nothing remotely like shock absorbers and they’re charming! And the roads, of course, are often something like the back roads of Hawaiian Acres – pot-holed, bumpy and also far from smooth. So there I was, sleeping in one of these buggers – couldn’t believe it when I awoke and that I was gone enough to even be dreaming!

It’s happening on every nearly every mode of transportation I’ve taken – normally I have a difficult time falling asleep while sitting up – close to impossible is more like it. But the road is getting in my blood, it seems. I’ve now slept through constant horn-blowing, blaring music and assorted other noise on Cambodian buses, snoozed through jammed-packed full mini-vans where I was crunched into a space half of what my ample body required, snored on the seat sized for Khmer people with one of my cheeks hanging off, through the blaring sun on the sailboat ride earlier this week – yep, I’m certainly getting comfortable here!

It hasn’t happened on the back of a moto yet, but maybe it’s just a matter of time! (I plan on doing a several day moto trip in the Central Highlands of Vietnam – I’ve gotten rave reviews about the trip and the Easy Riders company from fellow travelers; and while it’s expensive, I’ve been told it was one of the major highlights of their time in Vietnam and the only way to really see the area, so do it I will – maybe then I’ll catch a few zzzzzzz’s on the back of one of those babies!) When I start falling asleep when I’m walking down the street, then I’ll know it’s time for that consultation!

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Size Matters! – The Rules of the Road in Cambodia

Total pandemonium is what the streets are like in any Southeast Asia country; particularly the cities and they are not for the faint of heart. Cambodia is no exception. There are all sorts of ‘vehicles’ on the road – very few cars, tons of everything else though: buses, minivans, tuk tuks, motos, bicycles, contraptions carrying all sorts of supplies, fruit, building materials, ohyes and don’t forget the animals — dogs, cows, chickens – it’s amazing!

Howz about a coco?

Wow - get a load of this guy!

The rules of the road tend to be based on one major, over-riding premise: the bigger you are, the more say you’ve got. Now this may not seem so different from the States where those monster SUVs try to let everyone know who’s boss. But here it doesn’t seem to come with the machismo factor involved in those exchanges. It’s more like being higher on the food chain – grizzly bears don’t push their weight around to bully anyone, they’re just doing what grizzly bears do! I’m not sure that analogy really works, but here’s how it works on the road: the horn is the most important tool any driver has – and they blow them constantly. This is not to get the attention of the hot mamas or papas walking down the street (remember, no one walks here!) – it’s simply to let all the other smaller vehicles know that they’re coming – it says, “get the hell out of the way, I’m barreling down the road way beyond any appropriate speed and I’m not stopping for anything.” And they don’t stop blowing their horns until they have passed whoever’s attention they were trying to get.

I experienced it this afternoon when I was riding a bicycle back to Botanica – there was a big sounding horn behind me – I pulled over onto the dirt part of the road and sure enough, a huge bus passed by – it didn’t slow in the least, but it blew it’s horn the entire time until it was well past me. This makes for noisy traveling for sure, but once you get to know the rules of the road, it also makes perfect sense.

There aren’t really any other road rules. As a pedestrian, you have absolutely no right of way – it’s your responsibility to get yourself across the street and as the smallest ‘vehicle’ on the road, you’ve definitely got the least power of all! It works for me (except all the blaring horns) and I find it amazing that there aren’t more accidents (they are plenty, I’m sure, but I’ve seen more at home in the space of time I’ve been out here).

There are no speed limit signs anywhere, not that anyone would obey them anyway. They’ve recently installed traffic lights in  Sihanoukville which is a bit of a joke – no one pays any mind to them – they simply look both ways at those intersections, like they do at all of them, and then just breeze on through.

I love how tuk tuks make turns, too. When traveling on a road and making a left turn, for example, they turn directly into the left side of the road (the lane closest to them as they make the turn) rather than wait for a clear time to cross over that lane and go into the far right lane where they ‘belong.’ So picture it, now they (we!) are traveling in the wrong direction on the left side of the road into oncoming traffic, everyone weaving in and out and around each other, as we make our way over to the right side of the road.

Tailgating?! No such concept – everyone is driving as close as they feel like it to each other – no problem, no problem!

Weight limits to vehicles – ha! I’ve never seen so much put onto the back of trucks or motos – well, yes, I have, actually – on my last trip out to Guatemala – it’s amazing how industrious people can be with their vehicles!

Buy something - please! Lighten my load!

Excuse me, could you tell me where we're going?!

It does feel like I’m taking my life into my hands each time I venture out onto the road in one vehicle or another. But it all seems to work. Except when it doesn’t, of course and then it’s a catastrophe.

Okay, I guess that's enough now - you get the picture!

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I love my Kindle, really I do (thanks again, Dee!) – for traveling, it simply can’t be beat – and the size is perfect, definitely better than the I-pad, especially for reading in bed, in a hammock, on a chaise lounge – all of which are the preferred places where I read. Letting go of schlepping around the weight of books is a godsend to my backpack (and my back!).

But … (you knew there was a but coming, yes?) – there’s something about the texture of holding a book in my hands that I miss with the Kindle, that I would miss with any electronic device. I’ve read a couple of ‘real’ books since I’ve been out here and I must say, I like them better. Especially when I’m traveling and I pick up and drop off books in various guest houses and cafés and such places (maybe the point is that they aren’t new books) – I love the smell of them; I love wondering where they’ve traveled; I love the tactile sensation of turning pages.

Yes, I love my Kindle, but it will never completely replace books  for me. I don’t believe for a minute those people who say that paper books will go the way of eight-track tapes. Just call me an old-fashioned kinda girl!

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Just for the record, if I never cook again, really it will be just fine with me! Ohsure, sometimes I love to cook, or I used to anyway. But the truth is that I absolutely love, love, LOVE to eat out. I love everything about it – finding a new place (or even a tried and true place I’ve already eaten at and love all the more – think Kaleo’s, Garden Snack Club, Hilo Bay Café, Café Giostra and that incredible bruschetta place in Petaluma) – reviewing each and every item on the menu and picking the one that’s just right for this moment’s mood of my palate – being served, of course, that’s always a winner; and then, of course, having absolutely no prep time, no cleanup time, just a relaxing, easy and hopefully delicious meal!

Yep, what’s that old joke about what some kind of women (fill in the blank) make for dinner … reservations! I guess I’ll cook again, but it won’t be anytime soon! And I guess the sticker shock of American restaurants will have me high-tailing back to my kitchen before long. But there’s plenty of time way before that happens. And plenty more restaurants and meals to come!

Even a fruit salad tastes better to me when served!

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I had a sweet interaction with the man who worked at the Lux Hotel that I stayed at in Battambang. We had a few conversations – I helped him with his English, which he enjoyed. It was all good fun. He’s a young man in his 20’s – I think I wrote about him already. And in retrospect, I think I missed that he was flirting with me – guess I’m losing my touch.

Ahhhh, touch – yes, that’s what brings him to mind to write about here for a minute. He drove me on his moto to the bus station as I was headed to Sihanoukville. I didn’t have my arms around him or any such thing – I held onto the back of the bike for some stability. But as I was getting ready to leave and board the bus, we were saying our goodbyes – and even though it felt a bit more formal  with him, out of respect to the very non-PDA culture that is Cambodia, I reached out my hand to shake his. He took my hand and shook it in return, but then he surprised me – he put his arms around me and hugged me. I was shocked, actually, and wondered what it was like for the Khmer people around us to witness this.

But what surprised me even more was what happened when I got settled on the bus – soft tears started to flow down my face – now really, I didn’t have such strong feelings for this sweet young man, it wasn’t that. This was not about him, per se. It was simply the comfort of human touch for those few fleeting moments. And the reminder that I’ve had no physical contact (I’m not talking sexual here, just simple human touch) with anyone since I’ve been on this journey. And the momentary connection with him brought me to tears – and I loved that it did. And I love that I’m remembering that right now and writing about it.

Oh, and I did share some hugs with Mans and Arie at Mushroom Point, which while it didn’t bring me to tears, certainly touched my heart! Simple human connection – so potent, so profound, so powerful even in its simplicity!

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Ohmibuddha, get a load of this – I’ve come to the end of this post! My list is shrinking! I’ve got two more topics waiting to be written about – not sure when I’ll get to them, if I’ll get to them – I only know that more impressions and experiences will keep on coming my way and I’m delighted to be putting words to them, pictures to them and to be sharing them with the world! Thanks to whoever is reading this right now and sharing the journey with me!

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3 Responses to Random Ramblings from the Cambodian Road

  1. Donna Ingenito says:

    I love these posts of random musings…they really give a ‘slice of life’ view of what going on around you. And I totally agree about the Kindle, for traveling it’s perfect, but there’s nothing like holding a book in your hands.

    While I understand the idea of loving to eat out, cooking, particularly cooking for others, bring a pleasure that is just very different than pulling out a credit card at a restaurant. Maybe it’s my nurturing side coming out –

    When I travelled through Thailand and Taiwan I was shocked to see the amount of people (whole families!) piled onto the motor scooters – but it was nothing compared to some of the photos you’ve shared – absolutely amazing how resourceful some folks can be.

    Looking forward to your reports from Vietnam.

    Much love to you!

  2. Pingback: Sihanoukville or Kampot | Trip to Cambodia

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