they can also be found in the archives.
It was a long ride, full of peril and nearly disastrous ends. There was no air conditioning on the bus, and no radio. The locals knew not to sit in the front. As they entered through the broken door, they would shuffle slowly towards the middle and back. They always moved slowly, saving every bit of energy in this treacherous heat. Sweat dripped out of my every pore as she slept silently with her head on my lap. I could not stop wondering how she could sleep on this bus, with the heat and the jolting of the bus going over trenches cutting deep into the dirt road. The driver would hold on the horn as we passed children and animals and road warrior like vehicles. Outdated and beat up, rusty old cars would meander slowly down the dirt path. Every car was packed way beyond capacity with supplies and people that were stacked high above the dust and dirt that was constantly stirring from vehicles passing by. The unfortunate people walking or riding bikes wore shirts wrapped around their faces, hiding their lungs from the constant onslaught. Occasionally, a Mercedes Benz or Cadillac would drive past, the drivers undoubtedly worked for the government. Government employees make up 2% of the countries population, and control 85% of it's wealth. An old Khmer man once said to me "in Cambodia, the poor get poorer, and the rich keep stealing from the poor." His words floated in the dust and exhaust hanging over the desolate path.
The bus veered violently, narrowly missing a young girl dressed in school attire, and carrying a backpack as large as she was. Instead of colliding with the girl, the driver ran down a family of ducks. The mother was leading the chicks to a river running parallel, the water oozed with gasoline and pollution from years of environmental degradation. He hardly winced at the sight of feathers flying up and over the windshield. The wipers went on and dark sooty blood smeared across the already dirty windshield. I did not wake her, I didn't want her to see this. We kept on driving, and he kept on honking that damn horn.
The front seats were the worst because passengers were subjected to the fullness of each ditch we went over, flying into the air with each bump and finding themselves more cramped with each kilometer. The horn could be heard at it's loudest in the front seats, and I wondered still, how she could sleep in such chaos. I myself could not sleep a wink, staring out the front window, wondering when the bus would fly off into the rice paddies. My knucles grew white with apprehension.
With each stop I would exit the bus, and watch carefully as luggage was loaded and unloaded. I knew that without vigilance, our backpacks would surely be stolen, and we would be stranded with no passports.
The next stop was particularly putrid, and the driver muttered in Khmer something to the like of "lunchtime". My companion had awoken and she stretched and yawned as I sought the nearest bathroom. The smell of rotting food and death hung in the air, and with each breath the dust stung my nose. After the ritualistic harassment from small children peddling rice in banana leaves and selling snakes (I still don't fully understand why someone would wish to purchase a live venomous snake, perhaps to eat?) I found the bathroom. It was a small shack built over the same river I had seen children swimming in, just a couple hundred meters down the road. The door creaked open and I squatted down over the shallow hole. Grasping at the wooden walls I proceeded to utilize the facilities. A large rat scuttled from under the floor boards and ran towards the exit, peering over his shoulder before disappearing.
Back by the road some old women were selling tarantulas for lunch, you could either buy them still alive for 10 cents, or cooked for 5. Tarantualas, pigeons, duck fetus and a lot of the other peculiar dishes became popular during the famine, when people ate whatever they could. Most of these "strange" foods remained because starvation is still an issue, and people eat what they can to survive. I couldn't decide whether eating it cooked or alive would make me more sick. Eventually, despite my ravenous hunger, I decided to pass on lunch and grabbed some sweet rice instead, my appetite would have to wait. One thing you learn traveling in poor countries is to skip meals if it seems as though it may make you sick. No matter how hungry you are, it is better to wait, than get sick. We got back on the bus, my stomach growled and I began to question my decision. But as we drove on, my appetite was ruined once again with the sight of dead bodies strewn on the side of the road. These poor people were victims of the road, struck by cars and left for dead (I was later told).
It took around 9 hours before we arrived in the impoverished beach colony known as Sihanoukville. The city was named after the former leader of Cambodia, prior to Pol Pot's treacherous reign. He was exiled during the genocide, some say that he abandoned his people. But there we were, in the city of Sihanoukville, a known refuge for former Khmer Rouge fleeing persecution for their inhumane crimes. Here, the former soldiers could reenter into a society that they helped bring to it's knees. The remnants of the agrarian nation were everywhere, but here, the remains seemed less prevalent. In a lot of ways, this place was paradise, despite the incredible poverty. As we unloaded our bags from the bus I slung my 60 pound bag over my back, put on my front backpack, and hung my satchel across my opposite shoulder. The search for accommodation began once again.
This wasn't Thailand, there were no beautiful women offering massages or people smiling with the happiness that can only come from a proud nation that has never seen foreign occupation. As we walked down the street children would scuttle out from mounds of garbage and grab at my pockets, some carrying babies on their backs, others marred by stepping on landmines that remained in the ground far after the fighting had ceased. We found a simple hotel, and my friend and I dropped our bags on the tile floor. The floor was cracked and broken from many years of use and the walls were covered in marks from the furniture. Large lizards the size of my arm climbed on the walls and ceilings. The room was small, and had only a bed. There was a bathroom attached, with the quintessential hole-in-the-floor toilet and a spigot with which one could wash their face, but never drink from. The city however, had a virginity that Phnom Penh lacked. Most of the capital was bombed and destroyed by fighting, and after the war was over, people just moved back in despite the damage that had been incurred. That city had a very ghostly feel to it, and evidence of violence was still apparent. Yet Sihanoukville bore very little of these haunting qualities, it had a rather vibrant feel to it, a positive attitude with which I feel to embody the people of Cambodia perfectly. Despite all the atrocities and violence committed in this country, the people persevere, and even though many of them have nothing, there is a strong sense of community, and love.
It was still rather early, but it was already well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. After traveling in Asia for a substantial amount of time you get used to a few things. One is the heat, with the humidity always at 100% and temperatures sky-rocketing even when the sun sets, you are constantly covered in sweat (especially during the summer, which is when this story takes place). At first, being a westerner, you feel as though you need to take a shower, but when backpacking, showers are a rarity and a great treat. After a while, the sweat ceases to bother you, in a way, it becomes you, and you embrace the sweat as a natural cooling device. Needless to say, the smell is not so desirable, so sexual intercourse becomes something rather dirty and animalistic. Secondly, a big part of the adaptation process involves the dietary changes. Eating rice and spicy chicken and other such dishes is not something most westerners eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After the stomach and body, as well as the mind, adapt, the desire for western foods subsides. The third thing is the fact that everybody, sooner or later, gets sick. And when it happens, it's terrible. Whether you are fortunate enough to be near a hospital, or have medicine, dictates how terrible of an experience this will be. I got sick on several occasions, one in which I had a fever, diarrhea, I was vomiting, we had no cellphones, and there were no hospitals for quite some distance. During this period of ailment there was a power outage throughout the city that lasted several hours and we had no clean water with which to hydrate. As I said before, be prepared. Hydration is important, one must be prepared for anything, and always take the malaria pills, no matter how terrible the side effects may be.
The day was still young and my friend and I (who I will call Katie) desired nothing more than to go to the beach and dive into the beautiful turquoise water. I wanted to take pictures and I had stocked up on memeory cards before we left Bangkok. We walked to the sidewalk and hailed a cyclo (which is the term in S.E. Asia for a motorbike, the desired form of transportation). The cyclos are cheaper than taking a tuk tuk, but far more risky. Being a tall person, I am much larger than the average Cambodian, and if I lean too hard while riding on the back of their bikes, it can easily result in disaster. The laws of the road there are few at best, and the drivers tend to drive rather fast.
As we rode down to the beach we passed people selling shells and lazing about in bamboo huts, it seemed rather utopian, almost. For every horror I witnessed in this country, there was always some beautiful redeeming factor, whether it's the optimism of the dispossessed, or the Buddhist monks with their silent and ever endearing devotion to their beliefs. Yet the beauty of this place was in some ways marred by it's reputation. Prior to coming here, I had read an article about an incident that had occurred in Sihanoukville a few years before our arrival. Several backpackers had been dragged off of the beach and executed by means of an AK-47 assault rifle. Why they had been executed I could not remember, but the image was fresh in my mind. I decided that Katie would not leave my sight, she meant a lot to me, and I would not let anything happen to her.
Katie looked back at me from her bike and blew me a kiss. We had met several months ago, on an island off of the coast of Australia. She had helped us when our car had flipped, blocking a trail leading to the beach and campgrounds. She was Italian and studying to be a doctor, but I met her while she was studying English in Sydney. At the time, I was studying in Wollongong, a city outside of Syndey. I would take the train to Syndey every time I had the chance, just to see her. She shared an apartment with some South Americans in the China town district and we would stay up all night talking and drinking whine. Katie was tall and slim, she had light skin and blonde hair, not your typical Italian, but she was my Italian.
Pictures From Top To Bottom: (I took all of these Photos) Top: standing on a dock off the coast of Southern Cambodia in Sihanoukville, Average road in Cambodia outside of a house where we were staying in rural Takeo, Average "road warrior" vehicle carrying a heavy load of cargo and people, child selling a snake on the floating villages somewhere on the Mekong, children begging for money or food in the Killing Fields.