Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Beneath the Surface

Living in Phnom Penh, I've been at a loss as to what to post here. I've even written a few articles about life in the capitol, about the traffic, the corruption, the lawlessness - but somehow I felt that posting them would detract from the travel focus of the blog.

Lucky for the readers here, my stay in Phnom Penh is coming to an end along with the year, and there are some new and exciting trips on the horizon.

Now, I'm staying in the provincial capitol of Kampong Cham, a hundred or so miles up the Mekong river from Phnom Penh. The town itself is nothing special, but the rural villages surrounding it are traditional Cambodia at it's finest.

As I rode along the dusty path on my Chinese bicycle, all the children waved and practiced and words of English they knew (mainly "hello"). Most adults in the village were busy with some task: collecting palm oil from the trees, laying bamboo water pipes from the Mekong into the village, chopping wood, planting rice, making huts and houses - but a few seemed to be dangerously unoccupied, drinking whiskey and waving merrily (but a bit aggressively) at 9:00 A.M... I didn't stop to chat.

After a while the houses dwindled but the dirt road pressed on. I started having thoughts of highwaymen - surely they exist around here... But decided to go a bit further. After all, there might be a magnificent sight just around the next bend. Finally, I came across a young boy driving an ox cart. We chatted amiably in my extremely broken Khmer for a bit, then I asked how to get back to the town, and he pointed me in the right direction. When I asked what was down the other way (the way I had been going) he ran his finger along his neck, the universal throat slitting sign. I swallowed hard, thanked him, and went back the way I had come.

Cambodia looks fairly safe to the visitor, but I we have to remember that the country is growing out of the ashes of a 30 year civil war and the people have experienced horrors that no one reading this blog is likely to know. Take care of your safety in Cambodia! Now I know why anyone with money buys the biggest, most heavily armored vehicle they can afford.

Tomorrow it's off to Kratie, home to the famed Irrawaddy river dolphin. I read an article on a website a while back that the species had gone extinct years ago and the whole thing was a sham perpetrated by men with dolphin fins, swimming at a safe distance from the boats. A scheme, the article reported, to keep the tourist business in Kratie alive. I have since heard from numerous eye-witnesses that the article has to be rubbish because they went there, and there were definitely dolphins. Stay tuned for the final word.

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