We took a bus yesterday from Phonm Penh to Kampong Cham, a distance of about 150Km which took about 3 hours (including a scheduled stop about half an hour from the destination). The bus station, like most other commercial activity in PP, is a streetside activity, with a few comfy seats provided as a waiting room on the pavement alongside the 25 motorbikes parked there. The journey itself was quite an experience, with some rather risky overtaking by the bus driver keeping us on our toes… definitely not a bus journey for sleeping, given that he tooted his loud horn every 100m or so, whenever there was a bike/motorbike/lorry/car ahead .. the horn seemed to mean ‘get out of my way’ and it worked most of the time. The countryside we passed through was a mixture of scrub, rice paddies and dry fields (I was quite surprised to see these), with lots of coconut and banana trees. It was very very flat. Houses, mainly wooden and on stilts, were unpainted for the most part, with equal numbers thatched in a traditional way (coconut rushes?) or with a manufactured roof (tiled or corrugated iron). As in Phonm Penh, the road takes all the traffic, with a mixture of livestock, mangy dogs, bikes, motorbikes, tuk tuk, buses, lorries and pedestrians all competing for space and going in different directions. I did not see any 30 mph speed limits in built up areas! At the midway stop, we were descended on my hordes of kids sent to sell fruit to the bus passengers. A beautiful young Khmer girl with a fantastic big smile made a beeline for the group of Europeans and started chatting in good English. She looked around 12 but said she was 17. She captivated all of us with her ready smile and good manners – the selling of pineapple was completely coincidental.
Kampong Cham sits right on the Mekong. It has been an important landing stage and crossing point (recently bridged with Japanese aid) for many hundreds of years. The Cham people are Muslims of Malay origin and so there are quite a few mosques around here. During the Middle Ages the Chams were frequent combatants against the Khmer and the Vietnamese, but lost out more often than they won and so their home area is not quite small. The streets here are wide, with a particularly nice boulevard (French colonial administrators laid this out) down at the river. Everything here is much more lazy. .the pace is obviously much slower. We hear no horns beeping away, while the wide streets can comfortably accommodate all the traffic, with the same lack of rules of the road as in PP! The place reminds me of Kuala Terengganu 35 years ago! That doesn’t mean people are not up for every trick. I got my hair cut in a barber shop near the market today, and I am sure that the ‘barang’ (literally French, but means now any European) price was at least twice the local price. Tom, an American volunteer in Kampong Cham, met us at the bus ‘station’, helped us get to the Hotel Mekong and then showed us to a ‘Western style’ cafe where we got some Western style food. I was too tired and hot to care and was pleased to curl up in bed, with an overhead fan providing some relief from the intense humid heat, but also keeping me awake. At least the rooms are clean and the shower is good! I am sharing again with Ingran, the young paediatrician who is going further up-country.
In the morning we had breakfast in the hotel, with the best baguettes, by a long way, that I have had since I arrived! Despite the additional expense I think this is a good investment and will certainly do it again. We cycled down the river about 15 minutes to get to the school where the language classes are held. The teacher is a Khmer man called Dara, in his early 50s, who lost his father in the Khmer Rouge time and spent 12 years in a Thai border refugee camp. He has very good English, having worked in the camp, and has been teaching volunteers Khmer for at least 15 years. He has a good teaching style and understood how to respond to the different levels of success different people were having. The everday Khmer we are learning has no tenses or plurals (hallelujah!) and so once you have a few subjects (we were taught and practised all the pronouns), a few verbs (I think we learned 8 or 10) and some objects, together with a couple of prepositions, conjunctions and adjectives…. you’re away. We gaily made up sentences about people who liked eating fried rice in London, but ate boiled rice in Phonm Penh and had a lot of money in Battambong. It’s a bit like ‘I’m sorry I haven’t a clue’ really, except we’re not very funny. Anyway in a class of eight we made remarkable progress in the 3 hours teaching in the morning, and we then practised in the afternoon, running a little points based competition to see who could remember some of the words and phrases quickest and fastest.
Here are a couple of short video clips. The first one shows the inside of the classroom as we took our break and the second the sleepy crossroads beneath the school (Western International School – a rundown looking little place on two stories with three classrooms on each of two floors). Some children attend what looks like a summer day-school, or could just be a playscheme, in one or two of the downstairs classrooms so the small building may be getting more use than Lornshill did in the summer! They greeted us with ‘hello. what is the time?’ and lots of big wide smiles.
On returning back to the hotel, I decided not to have lunch as I am eating far too much rice and not getting any exercise at all! Meantime Joan and I had a very nice skype conversation for 25 minutes of so, while she finished off her breakfast. I’ll explore a bit more in Kampong Cham later in the week and give a more detailed description. It’s quite a laid back place, a bit like the laid back lazy river Mekong that’s pouring millions of gallons of water downstream outside our door. Here s a couple of pictures: