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Coming Home In A Strange Town

I’d gotten off the bus near Psar Thmei and waded through the touts while most of my fellow bus passengers stood in huddled groups, consulting their Lonely Planets, bombarded by calls of, “Motorbike? Tuktuk? Good clean cheap room?”

It wasn’t until I’d actually grabbed my backpack and hefted it onto my shoulders that it had dawned on me that not one single tout had said a word to me. How is it possible that I could arrive in Phnom Penh by bus, be dropped off at the most common arrival point for Westerners (besides Potchentong Airport), and not be hassled?

I almost laughed and cast a glance back at the other barang[1] who seemed a little flustered, confused, overwhelmed by the onslaught of touts[2], seeking solace and direction within their travel guides. The guys all wore t-shirts and long shorts, most of the women wore singlet tops and shorts or loose skirts.

Then it hit me; my obvious Western-ness (or barangitude) could not be hidden, but I’d made a conscious effort to at least dress like the locals. Cotton short-sleeved collared shirt and long pants. And instead of standing 5 meters from the bus with a Lonely Planet in hand and gazing around as if I’d just landed on (or from) Mars, I’d barely broken stride from the time I got off the bus. Hopped off, grabbed my bag and headed towards Monivong Boulevarde. Maybe the touts thought I was an ex-pat returning from a short trip to Vietnam.

As I headed south along Monivong towards “home”, my mind flashed back to a comment I’d made almost 4½ years previously. I don’t honestly recall if it was something I’d said while caught up in an emotional moment, but in the ensuing years it evolved from a comment to a commitment.

ooOoo

On February 6 2005, while at a dusty stop somewhere between Siem Reap and Poipet, stretching my legs and trying to realign my skeleton after the first leg of a punishing and slow and dusty bus ride, my then girlfriend and I sat on a bench, surrounded by local children who had been mesmerised by our impromptu drumming session.

We’d stopped at this outpost for a break, and were instantly surrounded by children carrying trays loaded down with drinks, snacks, postcards, etc. Jen and I broke away from the group, sat on a nearby bench and began absently tapping away on our drums. We weren’t really playing anything at all, just letting the rhythm drift randomly…

The children had momentarily forgotten their imperative to sell candy and drinks and instead were enjoying the makeshift show we’d put on. They stood in a semi-circle around us, smiling. I looked around the group while remembering all that I’d seen in the three months prior to that moment. I’d spent that time in four different Southeast Asian countries. And yet it was Cambodia that had really gotten into me. From the wonder of the temples at Angkor to the horror of Tuol Sleng. The spirit of the people was something I found inspiring, the will to rebuild their nation out of the ashes of the Khmer Rouge years. Here was a country that had quite literally lost everything; their past, their families, their homes, their history and culture, and in too many cases even their lives.

Amid the group of drumming aficionados, and with these memories swimming through me, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I have to come back one day and do something. Something real, something… useful.”

“Back to Cambodia?” she asked.

I nodded.

She looked up at the children and then over them, past them, to the dusty desolate countryside beyond. This was apparently farmland, but I could not see how anything could possibly grow out there.

I don’t know what was going through her mind at that point, or what she was seeing with her thousand-yard stare. But I remember her giving a slight shake of her head as she said, “Good luck with that.”[3]

ooOoo

Just before Christmas, 2008, after 4 years of letting my Cambodia experience[4] filter through my heart and soul, I finally set about putting a plan into action. I did a Google search for housebuilding cambodia and learned of the existence of Tabitha Australia. This is an organisation that raises funds for numerous projects designed to assist and sustain desperately poor families. As well as raising funds for houses, wells and livestock, the Tabitha Foundation also assists families with implementing savings schemes. Of particular interest to me, however, was the way in which Tabitha put together teams of volunteers to go over and put houses together.

I found a contact email address and fired off a preliminary inquiry off to Jude, who got back to me fairly quickly with a basic outline of what was involved. The builders were asked to contribute at least AU$500 towards the cost of materials for a house (which is essentially a 6m x 4m one-room cottage on stilts, with either wooden slats or sheets of tin for walls). One house costs AU$1500. The really hard work such as building the frame and the floors and so on was done by a team of Khmer builders. The overseas volunteers then came over to attach the walls and secure the floorboards.

Jude told me there was a two-day build kicking off on August the fifth.

I said, “Count me in.”

I then got a good friend of mine, Karen, on the case. Karen is a travel consultant, a damn good one. I remember walking into her place of work on January of 2009 and saying, “Can I book a flight to Phnom Penh?”

I’d done this before, with the destination changing. When I was involved with someone from Canada (in fact, the same someone I’d been through Cambodia with in 2005), I’d often present myself at Karen’s workplace with a pisstakey request for a one-way ticket to Edmonton.

“Ha-ha, nice one,” said Karen. She knew of my love of travel and my special fondness for Cambodia (and was also being mindful of the jocular requests for overseas tickets from the past).

“I’m serious,” I told her. “I’m going to Cambodia in August.”

I’d thought about how I wanted to approach the trip. I’d want some time to myself as well as getting involved with the building project. Plus, I liked the idea of arriving in Cambodia with a sense of occasion. Jetting in, while convenient, didn’t quite feel auspicious enough. Besides, there were no direct flights to Phnom Penh. Karen gave me a few options and I decided on a flight to Saigon with a overland trip to Cambodia’s capital.

I then told Karen, “I’m keeping this under wraps for a while, so if you could keep it quiet that’d be cool.”

“Okay,” Karen said, possibly without really understanding why.

The reason I’d had at that time was based on a superstition. I’d had big plans before, and told many people. Those plans often did not end up taking place. It was irrational, but I still felt the desire to keep it quiet.

ooOo

Traffic shuffled past me as I sweated a lugged my backpack south along Monivong. The footpaths on most streets in Phnom Penh are very wide. So wide, in fact, that you could park on them. Cambodians, being practical-minded, tend to do exactly this. It’s therefore necessary to spend more time walking along the edge of the road than on what would normally be a footpath. I was not the only pedestrian on the road, however. People pushing carts fitted out with gas burners and woks and fresh ingredients shared the edge of the road with motos and tuktuks and the occasional cyclo, as well as one Westerner lugging a 12.6kg backpack in 36°C degree heat.

“Tuktuk, sir?” was asked more than once, and they’d seem puzzled by my knockbacks (always delivered with a smile and a shake of the head). The tuktuk and moto drivers would beam the most pleasant smile back at me, but I could imagine them thinking, Crazy bloody Westerner! Why would you walk? In this heat? With that backpack?

I’d done all my map consulting on the bus. All I had to do was head south, turn due west on Street 310 and then take the next street south. There, comfort and quiet would await. An oasis in the somehow laid-back pandemonium of Phnom Penh.

It was an old French colonial villa on a corner block. A group of very chilled-looking tuktuk drivers lazed in their vehicles. They saw me and before they could ask I pointed to the villa and smiled. They smiled back, nodded and went back to their siesta.

As I checked in, I was presented with a cold glass of water with a slice of lime in it. This was a heavenly gift after the half-hour trek from the bus stop. The staff greeted me as though I’d lived there for months. I then realised that I’d not stopped smiling since I started to recognise parts of the city on the bus on the way in.

Not for the first time, I felt truly at home in a foreign city.

——-
[1] – Khmer word for ‘foreigner’.

[2] – Though you’d think that Vietnam is a baptism of fire re. tout hasslement.

[3] – Much later, she’d told me that Cambodia “did (her) head in” and that she could not go back.

[4] – It was a very touristy experience, to be truthful. We saw Tuol Sleng and Cheoung Ek, and then got on a bus to Siem Reap to see the temples there. All the same, there was something about the country and the strength of the people that had really gotten into me.

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BBC photo contest

September 3, 2006 Leave a comment
My girlfriend Jen urged me to enter some shots into a photographic contest the BBC is running in which you can win £400 towards covering the news story of your choice. 

The contest is divided into rounds, each round having a particular theme. The current theme is “Look Up”, so this arvo I submitted the following shots…

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Cambodia photos

February 6, 2005 Leave a comment
Jen at Angkor Wat

Jen at Angkor Wat

Jen at Angkor Wat

Jen at Angkor Wat

Climbing down from the central prang at Angkor Wat

Climbing down from the central prang at Angkor Wat

Me at Angkor Wat

Me at Angkor Wat

Jen at Angkor Wat

Jen at Angkor Wat

Bayon

Bayon

Jen at Bayon

Jen at Bayon

Prasat Kravan

Prasat Kravan

Jen at Prasat Kravan

Jen at Prasat Kravan

Carvings at Bantey Kdei

Carvings at Bantey Kdei

Niem, caretaker at Ta Phrom and cover model of the current Lonely Planet.

Niem, caretaker at Ta Phrom and cover model of the current Lonely Planet.

Sunset at Lakeside, Phnom Penh

Sunset at Lakeside, Phnom Penh

Crocodile pit next to our guesthouse in Siem Reap

Crocodile pit next to our guesthouse in Siem Reap

Temples after torture

January 31, 2005 Leave a comment

Here we are in Siem Reap, ensconced in the Tokyo Guesthouse which has a crocodile pit next to it. We can look out our window and see about 25 crocs lazing about, occasionally grumbling but generally not doing much. Which is good.

The other day we went to Toul Sleng and the killing fields at Choeung Ek, just outside Phnom Penh. Toul Sleng was a high school until the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, and they turned it into a prison/interrogation (torture) centre. Going there was a sobering experience to say the least. They have a gallery of the thousands of people interred there (about 17000 people all up). All bar 7 died in the place. That and the killing fields… well, I just don’t have the words to describe what it’s like and think of the absolute evil the Khmer Rouge visited on their fellow countryfolk. Men, women and kids of all ages, none were spared. It made me wonder what kind of threat they saw in pre-teen children and grandmothers. In one of the rooms at Toul Sleng, displayed with some examples of torture implements, were two damaged busts of Pol Pot. I had to fight a strong urge to kick them.

Siem Reap, fortunately, will provide a far more positive vibe. Temples and monuments of Hindu and Buddhist nature, the oldest being built in around 900AD, jungle growing around and occasionally through them. We’ve not seen Angkor Wat yet, today we had a look at Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm. Amazing majestic structures built long long ago.

It kinda saddens me to think that I’m flying out of this region in 9 days. But I do miss home as well.

Hope everyone is doing well, I’ll be seeing some of you all in a few weeks.

Cheers,
Karsoe/Paul C.

Holiday In Cambodia

January 26, 2005 Leave a comment

The Sex Pistols said that…

Well, here we are in Phnom Penh, and the feeling is… dodgy. There are no ATMs in the entire country, and most of the streets in the city don’t seem to be paved. It reminds me of Vietnam in a way, complete with hassling by moto/cyclo drivers and vigorous tootling aplenty. The only thing that’s missing is the ominous feeling of Government everywhere. In Cambodia, it feels as though there is no system of anything. Almost lawless. We’re safe though, so don’t all start freaking out.

I just discovered that I have only 2 weeks until I depart. :( But we’ve still got a few big things on the agenda, namely a visit to the huge Khmer temples around Siem Riep. There are a few things around Phnom Penh we’ll look at first, things I think will fully smash me around. I’ll try and write about those if it’s possible.

So far we’ve had an interesting time of it. Bus ride at the crack of dawn from Trat (Thailand) to Koh Kong (sort of limbo between Thailand and Cambodia). The border crossing was the most chaotic yet, with about 20 Westerners trying to cross the border and three billion taxi and bus drivers competing for their business. We filled out a declaration stating that we didn’t have SARS and paid a 100 baht processing fee, got 17 different stamps on the passport, a cab to the ferry. The ferry was due to leave at 8:00am and there’s only one a day. We left the border checkpoint at 7:53. The driver stopped and said we could get money changed, baht to riel, but the ferry won’t leave for another twenty minutes, I promise. Jen changed US$100 into riel and got a block of cash back which made her look like the perpatrator of a bank heist.

Picture 127

True to his word, the ferry hadn’t left. About 4 hours later we were in Sihanoukville and battled another 16 million tuk-tuk/moto/cyclo drivers at the wharf, had passports checked again and got another cab to the New Paris Hotel. A grand old big clean cheap place. This country has a reputation for having a heavily armed citizenry, so Jen and I decided to start taking a “gunshots heard” tally that night. The score so far: a rather surprising 0.

Tonight we’re staying at the No. 9 Sister guesthouse at the lakeside on the recommendation of Liam and Cerri who I met in Vietnam. I’ve managed to locate all the places Liam mentioned to me so far and they’re all as wikkid as he suggested.

Cambodia feels very much like a dodgy place. Phnom Penh is the capitol of dodge. Brett, you should be mayor of this town. They have a music shop here which will rip, mix and burn CDs for you. They’ll also do MP3 format, mini-disc, whatever. DVDs too, I think. All for about US$1.50 a disc. Or you can swap your tunes with them.

That’s about it for right now y’all. Have a good Australia Day for those in .au, I’ll catch you later.

Take care ey!

– Paul C./Karsoe