Tuesday, October 30, 2007

An Amorous Khmer - The Ride From Phnom Penh

Buddhist Monks waiting for their ride.

Royal Hall

Phnom Penh Museum

Preah Sihanouk Boulevard

Independence Monument

Everyone becomes a different person once uprooted from his native land, whether for employment, education or a simple holiday. I am no different. I am polite and patient more than I usually am. I am also decisive and careful. But I take chances when doors of opportunity open up. It is in this vein that I tell of an amusing anecdote that, though it was uncomfortable and constricting at that time, I now look back with fondness and a hearty laugh.

My bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap started rather uneventfully. Someone drove me to a corner in front of the Phnom Penh Cultural Center where I was to wait for my bus. A couple of middle-aged Chinese guys (who I initially thought were Japanese) waited with me. We were both trying to make conversations, but all they could mutter was
“Temp’l? Temp’l?” – so I gave up after a while. I stood infront of an apothecary where an old lady was smiling, spewing words in French, and all I could say was, “Sorry, je ne parle pas le fran├žais.” She must have understood me - she offered me a seat – which was so sweet, as I didn’t have any business for her, and sheepishly offered back my Merci beaucoup.” An old lady offering me a seat! Imagine!

Thirty minutes later, the bus arrived, and a flurry of embarking activities followed. The stowage compartment from the side of the bus was gradually filled with a potpourri of stuff that city dwellers bring home to their folks in the countryside. Sacks of what-have-you's, packed garments, crates of yam and bananas, everything went inside the compartment, including a live chicken in its cage. I slowly made my way inside, looking for my seat, where I was pointed to a seat whose number doesn’t match my assigned ticket. The assistant implied that my seating had been changed, so that’s it.

From the looks of it, this was gonna be a packed ride, with a strictly local population – except for the two Chinese guys and myself.

I refused to part with my 12-kg bag, which was a good idea, since the bus would drop passengers along the 6-hour (and later, 7-hour) ride, and the aforementioned compartment outside would be constantly subjected to disembarkation. With a window seat and airconditioning – I couldn’t complain. This will be a breeze.

Then came a group of Khmer ladies. One of them sat beside me, while her friends were behind us. She closely looked at me and smiled, so I said,
hello. She had a friendly face, long hair pinned on a twirling bun. Turns out she couldn’t understand a single word of English. Not even a “yes”, a “no”, “thank you” or the word “English”. I would have loved chatting with locals. Oh well. An interesting 6-hour bus ride flew off my window. Or so I thought.

The bus started playing on video a Chinese comedy-adventure series dubbed in Khmer. Every hour or so, the assistant would change the disc for its continuation. The passengers totally lapped it up - hook, line and sinker! They love this rollicking slapstick! I was grateful that it wasn’t a continuous barrage of Cambodian videoke, as I was forewarned.

My huge baggage settled snugly between my legs - so I couldn't move much, and I just had enough leg room which didn't allow me to slouch down. Nor did I have enough elbow room to make a comfortable side maneuver. Moreover, all the aircon vent were decidedly set elsewhere but my direction. I thought,
“alright, this is your country, so be my guest…” I wasn’t gonna argue with a bunch of Khmers when I didn’t even know where I was gonna sleep that night, not having made any reservations – again! I was gonna wing it!

Two hours into the ride, the bus made a stop at some
carinderia, not much different from those we see on a bus ride to Baguio City. Everyone got off the bus but I waited until I didn’t have to squeeze myself from anyone. My khmer seatmate stood, looked and smiled at me, and invited me down. I nodded and said, “Later. Thank you.” Once back to our seats, my amiable seatmate started talking, whatever it was about, I just nodded and smiled. It felt like I’ve swallowed a lizard’s tail too. She pulled a pomelo from inside her bag and offered a piece. I politely declined. It is gastrocolic, and i refuse to risk any unscheduled bowel movement, thank you. Later, She took a paper-album, literally threw the stuff on my lap, and motioned for me to scan through.

Hmmm… so she’s been to the temples before. And she had lots of friends with her too. Does she live there? Or is she on holiday? Then I saw a picture of her standing across the moat of Angkor Wat, all pregnant. She kept smiling, annotating some of her photos… and slid her arm into mine. We were best friends. Some hospitality, I thought. At times, she would push her arm against mine and I was pasted against my window wall, I couldn’t move my feet, nor my arms,
but I am not gonna make advances to someone who was once pregnant. Maybe this is usual Khmer camaraderie, who knows?
I vacillated between my window’s view and the Chinese video. As the sun begins to set, some 3 long hours into Siem Reap, she removed the sandals off her feet and comfortably settled her bare feet over my left shoe. She would slide her feet against my leather. Was it a Khmer ritual too? I wasn’t sure if it was
polite to shake her feet off my shoe. This went on for a while. Every time she pulls it off my shoe, I'd try to pull my left foot under my seat – in vain. The hours stretched long and uncomfortable. Six hours became 7, and the last 30 minutes stretched like 30 days.

I comforted myself with the fact that she was, in fact, being friendly and was doing me a favour. A human skin shining my shoe would save me several Rials worth of shoe shine.

It started to rain as we drew close to
Siem Reap (which garrishly meants “Siam Defeated”, by the way). As the bus drew to a stop at the garage, I scampered off with my baggage. Rain fell heavily. She glanced at my direction with a blank look, and I nodded my goodbye. Rushed to the nearby shed. It was late and dark, and i was cold and near-drenched. What was she gonna say, I couldn’t tell.
I was unhappy though that the shoe she painstakingly rubbed clean was gonna be muddied up by this torrential rain. Darn!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

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