Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia | Eastern Cambodia | Kratie – Day 30 – Tales from a Motorbike, Cambodia
I sit in the restaurant/lobby of the Heng Heng (‘Lucky Lucky’) Hotel waiting for the departure to Stung Treng in an hour or so. A Cambodian Karaoke video does a hilarious version of The Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’. Karaoke is fabulously popular in this country. Every song is accompanied by what might as well be the exact same video: boy meets girl and then they proceed to fall in love, with fawning looks and deer-doe-eyes in wholly unlikely lovely locations which most citizans will only visit just this way – on the screen — which, perhaps, explains the popularity of these videos. Actually, I should clarify that this is the ONLY Western World cover I have seen or heard in almost a month here. I have been impressed with the lack of direct Western spill-over, although often an influence is undeniable in the music’s beat. Still, Cambodians are quite drawn to their own culture and themes.
Other tids and bits I’ve been meaning to note for some time now:
There is a game played by kids everywhere, its simplicity a commentary on the relative poverty in which many people here live. The game seems to be a sandals version of curling without the ice and brooms, or of shuffleboard without the Love Boat. A wad of cash or some other prize is placed on the road and the players then take turns kicking one of their plastic flip-flop sandals toward the wad. Here I get a bit fuzzy on the details of the rules but I’ve seen players execute take-out moves with a good hefty hoof. I assume closest to the cash takes the pot.
Another very popular pass-time here is volleyball which I’ve seen played, sometimes with considerable skill, and always with great intensity, in all regions I’ve visited.
Two days ago I rented a motorcycle, threw the guide book away, and just rode. I headed north, past the dolphin departure dock and past the beautiful ‘hello/goodbye’ children, waving away. It’s harder to wave back at them when driving a motorbike, one hand on the throttle and much of the rest of your concentration focused on scooching around (take your pick) pot-holes, puddles, dogs, chickens and sandal-kicking games. What was strange and abundantly apparent was that at some point in my travels, I crossed an invisible border on the other side of which children and adults alike were taken a-back by my passage. Hard stares greeted me, chilling at times, and even when I squeezed out my best ‘I’m-a-friendly-person’ smile, I still couldn’t buy a smile in return. I can only guess that not many travelers pass that way on motorbike.
After some two hours and maybe 40km, paralleling the Mekong and passing almost non-stop villages of thatched shacks on stilts, I came to a sign which read ‘Temple of 100 columns. Tourist Site’. The last two words in the promotion were somewhat superflous as any sign in english in this neck of the woods would be aimed at tourists. As a tourist I felt it my duty to drop in. Besides, my backside was at that point of numbness verging on turning to stone.
I parked the bike and climbed the stairs to the temple, which, indeed, was supported by a large number of columns. However, it wasn’t the architecture which had caught my attention but rather the wonderful clang-y jangle music that was being beaten out. At the top of the stairs a dozen children in various states of built-up filth were watching five other kids who were playing fascinating instruments. One boy played a metal xylophone but with two hammers that were kept an ocatave apart by a narrow string connecting the heads. Two others were playing what looked like wooden xylophones, except that the wooden keys were all suspended on two parallel strings above a wooden platform. Another boy played what looked something like Indonesian gamelan gongs, copper drum-bowls, arranged in a horseshoe around him. Finally another young boy was pounding out a tympany-like bass beat on three drums whose heads were perpendicular to the ground, not parallel.
This quintet, whose aggregate age was probably about the same as mine beat out a resounding, ringing tune with complicated interwoven syncopation and Eastern echoes. They occasionally yelled at each other while playing, laughing and seemingly noticing and pointing out each other’s mistakes. They continued for a good seven or eight minutes, and then without warning or signal that I could discern, they stopped as one. We ‘talked’ as best we could given the half-dozen words we shared between two languages and they took me on a tour of the temple whose whole inner sanctum had been recently painted with bright pastels depicting scenes of Buddha’s life.
I left after about 40 minutes and a light rain. As I motored my way back it became apparent I was going to be overtaken by the de rigueur aftenoon thunderstorm whose dark grey wall of rain was already sweeping towards me across the river. As the rain began, I pulled over and took cover under what looked like the best ‘umbrella’ tree available. This tree proved to be effective as a rain shield for about 90 seconds at which time the real curtain of rain swallowed everything and I was being doused by what felt like fist-sized hits of rain.
At that moment a woman appeared in the doorway of a thatched hut across the roadway and several little people’s heads peeked out from behind her knees and elbows. She was waving me over. I galloped up the ramp, removed my sandals and found myself completely sheltered from the storm sitting cross-legged on a bamboo floor looking at the bemused faces of seven children aged from ‘naked’ to about 15, and at their smiling mother.
Whatever doubts I may have had about the rain-worthiness of thatched roofs were put to rest. Not a drop of the deluge was entering the abode. A wall of weaved wood some two metres back from the entrance I had just come through separated this front ‘foyer’ from the rest of the house. The matriarch, a woman perhaps not much older than me, but with very bad teeth and a yawning O of a smile, explained in Khmer that she had 5 sons and one daughter; the seventh child, a boy, was a neighbour — or something like that. I tried asking where the father was but I’m not sure what the answer was, if it was an answer to that question at all. Amongst the older children lots of hushed remarks were whizzing back and forth as if I would have understood them at full volume. The oldest two boys were smoking cigarettes, something I have yet to see a woman do in Cambodia.
Next, the mother displayed for me the raw-looking, puss-greased condition between the toes of the naked baby boy. I’m pretty sure she was asking me to help relieve this condition, leading me to momentarily second-guess not becoming a doctor. I had no idea what to do for the baby, his painful-looking toes, or his hopeful mother. Then, if I’m not mistaken, the mother — half jokingly (I think) — seemed to suggest that I take the baby with me when I leave. The other kids were laughing but I’m not sure if it was because of the baby’s sudden expresson of fear — or mine. I jovially declined as politely as I could although poor little baby’s face did not register much relief. Finally the rain started to let up. I wanted to say thank you but I had no way to do so other than verbally and (should I??) with money. I didn’t know how an offer of cash would be received: as welcome or as an insult. I decided to forego an offer of cash and left only with many ‘okun thrang’ (thank you very much) and palms pressed together in front of me. I guiltily slunk away. Should I have given them money? And what will become of baby’s toes?