The first weekend I'm at work is actually a three-day weekend with Monday off for International Children's Day. I tell Sophoes that my two friends from school are going to Siem Reap for the weekend, and he offers to give me 2 extra days off in order to travel all the way out West to meet up with them. This map does not reflect the actual route of the van, but it gives a general sense of distance. A van from Phenom Penh to Banlung should take about 10 hours (with stops), and a van from Banlung to Siem Reap using the "new highway" should take about 7 hours.
On Friday, the van is supposed to pick me up from work at 7 AM, so I'm not surprised when it shows up at 9 AM. The driver opens up the trunk to allow me to scramble into the back row, which is fine with me because there is only other 1 person in it! I lean my head against the side of the van and sigh in contentment over my good luck when the van is turned on and the wall I'm leaning on turns out to be the only working speaker. Not as great as initially presumed. However, my karma must have been really good that day because at the next pickup, I'm instructed to go to the front seat! Oh happy day! Maximum leg room and a direct flow of air from the AC! When we've finally picked up all the passengers there are maybe 16 or 17 of us in total crammed in the van and we hit the road.
The body odor is overwhelming. Two adolescent boys sit behind me, and a man next to them nudges my arm and points to the glove box. Inside I point at various objects, and he nods when I point to the air freshener. The driver holds out his hand, I give it to him, and he sprays it directly into the van's AC vents. It helps, somewhat.
About an hour later we stop in the middle of nowhere. No buildings in sight. Blue sky, green jungle, and red road as far as the eye can see. I'm confused. Maybe we ran out of gas? The women all head over to the left, and the men all go to the right. Bathroom break. Right. I decide not to participate. I've been told not to wander too far away from the roads to avoid stepping on a land mine. It's odd to me that public urination is commonplace in Cambodia, but the same activity would make someone a registered sex offender in the United States. Different worlds, really.
The Cambodian countryside along this random road is interesting. Very rarely do roads seem to cut off perpendicular to it. People appear content to build their shacks and shops and wooden houses on stilts right on the side of the highway. Sometimes we pass fields of charred tree stumps, other times burning rice paddies. There's a lot of smoke. Occasionally there are small wooden houses that look like they may collapse at any time. People in various stages of undress lie still in hammocks and on front porches, moving their eyes but not their necks in vague curiosity when our van goes barreling past. Some are so languid and still in the oppressive heat that I doubt they even bother to swat the flies away. Other times the residential areas are a little more developed. We'll see dogs trotting in the road that wait until the last possible moment to lumber off when the van blasts its horn at them. Cows are tied up next to the road and their ribs poke out.
After a while it all starts to look the same, so I start to read the book "In the Shadow of the Banyan" by Vaddy Ratner, a Cambodian women who was a 5 year old child of a wealthy family who, with her family, was forced by the Khmer Rouge to evacuate their home in Phenom Penh and work on a labor camp in Prey Vang before eventually escaping to the United States when she was 10. The story is fiction, but is loosely based on the author's own experiences. I struggle not to cry at some points, especially during the death scenes. Reading about the violence that happened only about 40 years ago while witnessing the absolute poverty spread across the entire countryside is heart-wrenching.
At one point I look up because we seemed to have changed direction. Unlike the long van rides I've done through Laos that are guaranteed to make even the steeliest of stomachs lurch around a never-ending succession of hairpin mountain turns, the road across Northern Cambodia is relatively straight and flat. In the distance, I see a muddy road jutting out across the water, sometimes dipping below the water line, ending at 2 extremely flimsy looking ferries. "Those look really unsafe,'' I think to myself. I quickly realize that the road we are on leads to said ferries. A man driving a moto with a load of bricks cannot get his breaks to work and he starts yelling as he gains speed down the steep road down to the water. Two other men jump over and try to slow it down. A cloud of dust slowly settles in their wake. He regains control. "Surely we're not going down to that ferry,'' I think to myself, but we keeping moving forward.
We drive through the mud to the end of the ''dock'' and the ferry appears, to me, to be already full. ''We are going to have to wait for the next one,'' I think to myself. Wrong again. Somehow the van driver angles us up the ramp and with a lead foot propels the van onto the ferry. Miraculously, the people on motos and pedestrians jump out of the way at the last minute and avoid being squashed. The side door of the van is opened and people stand outside. Live chickens squawk and peer out from the wooden lattice of their crates. Women in hats and jackets and long pants peel fruit and hand it off to toddlers. Others pour bottled water on their naked babies. I don't understand how they are wearing so many clothes.
The ferry ride doesn't take as long as getting off the ferry. As no sense of order dictates who gets off first, there's a mad rush of motos zipping in front of the van. We finally get off and the driver pays a woman wearing a velour sweat suit and a large hat. In the modest village that we drive through afterward, we stop to deliver a large bag of fish feed. A boy, maybe 10 years old, struggles to carry it to a moto. Everyone in the van laughs at him, until finally a man from the van gets out and helps him carry it.
The van driver's strategy of driving down the highway is this: he blares on his horn and passes every vehicle in front of us, whether or not there are vehicles in the lane of on-coming traffic. We pass a lot of children on bikes, couples on motos, and several large industrial vehicles carrying everything from bulldozers to huge vats of dirt. Some of the motos carry impossibly large pieces of tree trunk. I am very worried we are going to plow over a motorist, but seeing as I cannot communicate that to the driver I just read my book and hope for the best.
We slow down and I look up to find us approaching a short bridge on top of a large ditch. In the opposite lane of traffic an aquamarine car sits slightly off center, its front folded up like an accordion. A large crowd is gathered on the bridge and peering into the ditch. My heart sinks, I've come to recognize this scene in Cambodia. Someone's dead. The van honks at the mob to let us pass. As we go over the bridge, people in the back of the van press their faces up to the glass to gawk, and I hear the variety of gasp which suggests to me that the scene is particularly grisly. We pass. To our right jigsaw pieces of plastic and metal that were probably very recently a moto lay forgotton in the grass. I can't keep reading a book about death while death is happening right next to me. I stare straight ahead for the rest of the drive. About 20 minutes later an ambulance passes us going in the direction of the wreck. The lights are not flashing. The frequency of death around me in Cambodia is much greater than I anticipated. I'm glad it still makes me feel something. If I were nonplussed, I would worry I was losing my humanity.
Around 1:30 PM we stop at a little rest stop for lunch. The outhouses in the back are particularly pungent. Two guinea pigs squeak in a little box near the kitchen. A dog whines at the tables for scraps. To order food I go up to the woman at the counter and look into the various pots of different colors of soups/curries. I point at a red one. A little girl brings me a plate of rice and a small bowl of the red soup at the table where I sit alone. I realize the soup is basically pure fat, so I mostly just eat my rice. A man who speaks English helps me find the cold drinks. I buy a Bacchus, a Korean energy drink that I assume is an attempt to mimic red bull. I don't know why, but I have been consuming an unsual amount of these things. Maybe I miss Korea, maybe I like the taste of chemicals. You usually get a straw to use when you buy one. A cat comes up to me, meows, and then sits in a really odd way. I take a picture. Soon I'm herded back onto the van.
At long last the van drops me off in front of what I think is maybe a car wash next to a convenient store. I call my hotel for the free pick-up they promise online, and they ask the name of my bus company. I pass the phone to the driver, he doesn't know the name either. Another man steps in and takes my phone and talks and finally my phone is returned to me. I conclude this means the tuk-tuk from the hotel will arrive soon.
The van ride home is essentially the same journey in reverse, only more unpleasant physically. I stare longingly at the back of the man's head in the shot gun seat from where I am squeezed in next to several other people in the back. It takes maybe 2 or 3 hours to pick everyone up before we leave Siem Reap, and each time I can't believe we are actually shoving more people into the van. We are done adding passengers when we get up to 23 or 24 people. A woman starts breast-feeding her baby, and some man watches with wide eyes. I don't think she is much older than 19 or 20. There are maybe 4 or 5 babies in the car, and they are surprisingly quiet for most of the beginning of the trip. A small television screen from the ceiling plays the same 5 karaoke version of pop songs on loop at a defeaning volume. The music videos feature a lot of heavily made-up women in prom dresses smiling at a plump man singing in different places at a beach resort. The babies lose their patience toward the end. When I finally get back to Banlung, it's time to get ready for the birthday party of the attorney's 3 year old son. The party is attended by friends, family, and many of the court clerks. We ate some kind of noodle soup with purple flowers in it. What a great night with great people! Cheers!