back to Siem Reap
31.07.2012 34 °C
A few weeks later I booked what I thought was a great deal on a ride up to SR.
I climb up into the coach and.....wow. Somehow, I've managed to book myself on to the Khmer Seniors' Special. The faces around me are unfriendly and wrinkled, like rows of rude little raisins. Many of the old boys have weathered army jackets from the 80's; I'm pretty sure that the old insignia aren't RCAF. Well, looks like you’ll have a couple of filthy, Western “capitalist dogs” to liven up your journey, boys. headed up to Siem Reap with Mari: a Finnish volunteer who was off to see Angkor Wat before heading back to Europe
School-wise, I manage to get a lot of marking and planning done on the way up: mostly the new tests I have been setting the older kids to assess which ability group they all need to be in. At present, there is not much in the way of a structure so I need to get something in place by the time I leave for other volunteers to improve upon, otherwise the same useless cycle of teaching the kids basic roleplays and vocab-pictionary will continue with the older kids, or the infinite “head-shoulders-knees & toes/twinkle-twinkle” loop with the younger ones, which will get these kids absolutely nowhere. So much to do as I only have a couple of months left teaching at Hope, so will need to figure it out fast.
Upon arrival I made contact with my friends from my ill-fated Rabbit Island trek; they invited me to a party with their NGO to say farewell to one of the staff. Arriving on Chor’s dirtbike, the three of us arrived at an old 1960’s hotel being refurbished as an art gallery and boutique guesthouse. I like art, but I am not very familiar with it. Despite this, the work by local Khmer artists was beguiling and often inspiring. The KR Genocide was a popular topic and one piece stood out: a stencil of one of the women killed at the S21 Torture Centre around a radial abyss of similar bright stencil photos of other victims. If you didn’t know the significance of the ID plates under each face, it would look like Pop-art.
The party is mixture of positive, well-spoken Khmers and sweaty-yet-smart English and their Atlantic counterparts in their 20s. And then again, there are the hardcore NGO veterans. Their clothes are loose; comfortable; improbably-patterned and worn to hell: no gap-yah harem pants and SAME SAME vests here. On closer inspection I notice the battered, worn lines of their "I've seen it all" eyes; wondering if it is just the strain of their work or a tonne of weed. Each one has at least 15 years experience of establishing & running NGOs and English teaching, remembering moments like some hard-fought military action (which, to their creid -it was, in a sense). "Bhutan? Yeah, for five years of my life, boy. That was interesting: never went anywhere without a good knife and a steady supply of iodine after that"
I’m having a good time, but feel out of my depth at this party. I came out here like so many volunteers with the best of intentions; armed with a lot of enthusiasm and free toothbrushes for the kids, but a far cry from saving a world that looks more and more hopeless every day. When things get desperate, a new toothbrush will let anyone die smiling beautifully, but that’s about it. If these veterans cannot sort out the situation and their only replacements consist of 1-2 week “voluntourists”, how will it work?
At this junction you either take a “the world’s going to Hell anyway/so what’s the point”, or get up off of your swivel-chair and do something about it. I am pretty sure that the world has supposedly been going to Hell ever since the invention of the word. If there’s one thing that keeps volunteering worth it, it’s the chance for anyone of any background and ability to make a contribution whatever the time on today’s doomsday clock. And it can be made; I’ve seen some fairly unremarkable people assist projects far beyond what their utter lack of social awareness and qualifications could allow back home. So when I leave the party that night, I am not crushed; just with a different type of hope for Hope.
Such N.G.Overwhelming thoughts are forgotten easily in a place like Siem Reap. It is without a doubt the best and most established of the barang nights out here in Cambodia. From the inventively named "Angkor What?" and Temple Club on the city's infamous Pub Street to the many night markets, or tiny snug restaurants in warmly-lit ginnels there's a fix for all folk. Sex Tourism taints the periphery here, just about: persisting in the Cambodia of the 10’s like the dirt at the corner of a window frame: but it is not as tolerated or as widespread as in the Capital or Sihanoukville. Temple tourism is the bigger business, so the scene has to be clean for the Koreans/Chinese/EU package tour idyll to keep on rolling. Even the tuk-tuk drivers are better-dressed and better-fed; perhaps because their customers generally are, too.
The night is starting to blend in with the morning and I don’t recognise the people I am dancing with. Back at the guesthouse, I attempt to shower. There is a little resistance; a strained click - and the shower explodes into my chest. I am unceremoniously knocked, naked, to the tiled floor with an audible crack. My right arm has gone dead and I look up to a hissing jet of water shooting across my field of vision, blasting my dry clothes and spattering noisily out of the wooden slats into the bedroom. The entire shower unit has detached, and a broad torrent is shooting out of the wall. I stand up, trying with my one useful arm to push the unit back in place, but I succeed only in blasting the warm water into my face. There is no lock on the door, and Mari comes to investigate. I succeed in somehow dressing in my sodden clothes and we move rooms, leaving a wet trail to our new location.
The next morning and I have to return to Bakod village. I have booked a faster (and some would say rip-off) taxi back to the Capital. I say my farewells to the Finn and (despite my unintended changes to the plumbing) the friendly guesthouse owner insists on driving me to the pick-up point as I am “a good teacher”. He also insists on getting me a snack for my journey; the scooter slows to a halt between two overloaded market sacks. I peer over to look inside and see piles of chillis, fried vegetables and…crickets. That is not all. Sack #2 has fat, black beetles in contorted diamonds. I follow his directions to hold the jumping legs back to chew on the crunchy main body and as I do, I swear the damned thing’s legs move, in a spicy rigor-mortis. It has a nutty texture that smells slightly of burnt hair. Mum and Dad, if you’re reading this I am truly sorry for ever complaining about the food at motorway service stations: I just didn’t know.
Soon after my lunch-date, I am dropped off by a small shop in one of Siem Reap’s poorer residential districts. Waving goodbye to my host, I turn around. Because I am 6’3” tall, I tower over most Cambodians. In this case however, it means I am the perfect height to elbow a portly, designer-clad Khmer as I turn around. He clutches his eye with one hand and reaches behind and pulls out a silver automatic pistol. He clicks it.
I stare at him, stunned. My hands are pressed together and I am saying som-tô (“sorry”) as quickly and loudly as possible. He bursts out in laughter, his gun-hand shaking almost as hard as his belly, cocked and with the safety off waving at my chest. In his tight Polo-shirt he looks like a smug little Ralph Lauren-branded sausage. We shake hands, still grinning and laughing at this great "joke" - but I'm pretty sure my eyes are still saying f*ck you. Still chuckling (bitterly & through gritted teeth) I climb into the cramped middle of an old Camry between Sausage and another fat man with a moustache. A sharp little quack announces the presence of a Khmer WAG type in the front, replete with designer labels and a Galaxy Note phone the size of a plate.
Watching the greening fields and occasional paddy skim by in the window, I start to drift off when a dog nonchalantly trots out into the road. Not one of the mangy brush-tails lurking by the fly-tips or the ubiquitous black runt that you find at every petrol station, but a well-fed brown labrador type with a light leather collar.
All I can think is No. Surely he won’t. he has to slow down.
The distance closes rapidly and the front bumper rushes up to meet a bemused looking chocolate head with a small pink nose. The impact shakes us in our seat. It takes a moment or two to register the right side of the car bumping up and over and it sickens me how I am part of the very thing crushing someone’s pet and just how much I can feel the impact. We all gasp and look back: the dog lies prone on the highway. I desperately cling to the hope that it will miraculously get up and walk away, before any belief in is crushed along with the animal, as a dumper-truck thunders behind us on eight giant wheels. Sausage cackles to the driver, and we stop for a few minutes to wipe (a lot of) blood from the bonnet and bumper. This is a source of constant amusement for the other drivers & vendors at the lay-by and they take it in turns to inspect and play with the bloodied chamois.
Not really wanting to continue, I get back in the car just as a thunderstorm hits. Rather than slowing down, all the drivers on the road in to Phnom Penh seem to take it as an impressive challenge to their driving abilities. Weaving between pot-holes and abandoned roadworks, it is not long before we drive past the fresh remains of a small lorry crunched between two trees: its cargo of bright, plastic crates is sprinkled across the crash site like the parody of cake decorations. Just outside the city, we aquaplane and force a family of three off the road (they were OK). I meet the other volunteers in a guesthouse and we are back to discussing spelling tests and the marking I have done over the weekend. Oh well, back to school tomorrow. This is Cambodia!