I have a feeling this is going to be a long blog. I have been taking many bus rides, which gives me time to think, and therefore I must write.
Travelling in Southeast Asia is really a huge test of your patience. If you are on a long distance bus, they stop every 10 kilometers to pick someone up along the way. They blast Malaysian/Thai/Cambodian karaoke music (which isn't good), and they stop frequently at rest stops. They pack people in on minivans until you can't breathe. They honk their horns every 2 seconds to caution fellow vehicles "Hey! Huge bus coming through on the wrong side of the road!" And when you are not travelling and you are finally at a destination where you think you can relax, tuk tuk and motorbike drivers aggressively hassle you to see if you need a ride 100 meters down the road. Try and say No, and they hassle you even more. If you pretend that you don't notice them, they clap their hands to try and get your attention. If you don't answer to "tuk tuk?" it turns into, "marijuana?"And then if you don't buy anything from the people who are offering manicures, massages, bracelets, and food on the beach, they get angry.
There's a saying in Southeast Asia: "Same same, but different." For example, if I asked what the difference between to the Khmer dishes of Chicken Lok Lak and Chicken Awok is, a local will answer, "both are chicken. Same same, but different". I mostly get this about my origin. All through my journey in Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia, about 15 times a day (no joke), a local will ask me, "Where are you from?"When I tell them America, they just laugh and say "No, you look Malaysian/Thai/Cambodian". Oh really? (Their eyebrows furrow in confusion) "Yes, same same, but different".
So it's no surprise that when I try distinguishing the countries that I've been to in my head, it's hard not to sum up that they are "same same, but different". It wasn't until I was on the back of a motorbike in Phnom Penh did I finally start opening my eyes to Cambodia. While at a stoplight, I noticed that the motorbike in front of me was carrying what seemed to me like 20 dead chickens hung by their legs upside down on each side of the bike. To my horror, one of the chickens perked its head up and looked at me, as if to say, "How's it going?" in such a calm fashion. But since then I've noticed many distinguishing characteristics of Cambodia compared to Malaysia and Thailand. First of all, it is a very, very, poor country. The roads are covered in dust that left your skin feeling gritty. There are only a handful of paved roads in this country- but that does NOT mean travelling is smooth sailing. Cows roam around like deer- even in major cities. A typical Cambodian house are made of slabs of wood and dried palms slapped together and balanced on 4 rickity wooden stilts. Beggars missing limbs from the leftover landmines painfully drag themselves through the sand, asking for money. Kids cling to your arms begging for "Just one dollar". I almost threw up when a ten-year-old told me he would give me "boom boom"for one dollar.
It was to my great relief that when I arrived in Kampot, no one aggressively greeted me with, "tuk tuk? motorbike?" There are not many tourists here, so the local Kampot residents stare at you with mild curiosity, and the children excitedly chase after your motorbike waving spastically and shouting "hello! hello!" No one is trying to sell me something! There are still touristy things to see here though. Boker National Park is famous for the eerie ghosttown on top of the mountain where a hill station was used for both the war against the French and the war against the Khmer Rouge. Mist hovers above the ground, and when the wind blows through the bullet holes in the walls, it sounds like a ghost howling. Unfortunately, the natural beauty if destroyed by the sounds of bulldozers and construction tearing up the jungle to make way for the 300 room hotel they are building on top. It's going to take 15 years to finish, so hurry up and visit Cambodia before then.
Today I took a trip into the countryside to visit some limestone caves. A bunch of perky kids greeted me at the entrance and offered to be my guide. A 15-year-old guided me through the cave, pointing out limestone formations that resembled a calf's head and a giant elephant. I wish I could show you but once again I have not brought my camera cable to the internet cafe. Then he takes off his shoes and points to this extremely small opening in the cave and says, "we climb in?"Umm....Can I fit? Apparently so. I put on my head light (thank goodness I bought one) and follow this tiny boy as he folds himself inside and contorts his body to squeeze through several openings until finally we come to an opening with shimmering limestone stalactites/mites. Holy cow! Afterward, I visited a less impressive cave where the main feature was the "bat cave" which just made me feel uneasy the whole time we were inside. Kampot is known for its pepper plantations, so I stopped by one to finally see how pepper grows. The lady excitedly grabbed a fistful of peppers for me to pop into my mouth. This woman had a fabulous smile, so how was I supposed to say no? Reluctantly I chewed on a handful of pepper balls and smiled as my eyes teared from the spice. I politely swallowed, and then quickly grabbed for my water...
On the way home, my motorbike driver, Mr. Sok which means "Mr. Happy"in Khmer, told me that it was my turn to drive the motorbike. Oh geez, I didn't think it would go well, but I got the hang of it quickly since we were on a really straight road. This is probably my most memorable image of Cambodia. The color of the grass was so vivid since it contrasted with the rust-colored dirt road and the blue sky. If I looked beyond the farms, I could see turquoise waters and Vietnam in the backdrop. I know I sound like a guidebook but it truly was stunning. Afterward, I walked around town mainly to find a seamstress who could sew my cloth purse (this is the 4th time the straps broke) and I met Sarad who magically took out a needle and thread out of his pocket. He gave it to me, and watched impatiently as I fumbled to sew up my bag. Finally he just grabbed it and did it himself. I told him I wanted to go to a market to buy some fruit and he gave me a ride to the town's market. In Cambodia, they don't shop in grocery stores. Their markets are outdoors with vegetable, seafood, meat, and fruit stands. I held my breath and walked into the market looking for a fruit stall. I bought half a kilo of rambutans (lychee-tasting fruit, but with soft spikes covering the shell) which cost me 800 riel (15 cents). I gave her 50 cents, and she laughed and said, "Too much! Wow, that would be really expensive". Obviously she hasn't been to Phnom Penh where I got half a kilo of rambutans for 75 cents.
Did I mention that the residents of Kampot have impeccable English? My theory is that instead of trying to sell postcards and bracelets to tourists, the kids actually go to school here. I was really impressed.
Ok, you have probably stopped reading at this point. This is what happens when I don't write often. Well, if you're still listening, can you help me? How am I supposed to celebrate Independence Day here?