Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

A Quick Trip South: a newspaper reporter in Cambodia takes a weekend break — by Brent Crane

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I wanted to get out of the city last weekend so I went down to Kampot, an old colonial town near the coast and the Vietnamese border. I left Saturday morning and would be meeting friends from work who had arrived there the day before. I took a Sorya tour bus that left at 8:15 AM for $7. It was to be a four hour drive. The seats were spacious and well-cushioned, with a generous air-con and Khmer music was played only intermittently and at a fair volume.

I was anxious to get out of Phnom Penh. It is an odd thing for me to be gainfully employed in an Asian country or to put it another way, to be immobile in one. Had this been China a year ago I would have seen the whole south coast by now. As it is, I’ve barely been able to explore Phnom Penh.

The other day, in preparation for future travel, I bought a fold-out map at a bookstore. When I open it up and gloss over the names they make me hotfooted: Battambang, Ratanakiri, Kratie, Sihanoukville, the Cardamon Mountains—how exotic, how alluring! But for now, they remain destinations for weekend jaunts and precious vacation days.

On the road to Kampot I took in the scenes and tried to make sense of them. In Phnom Penh I could learn a lot but a huge part of the Kingdom remained outside city limits. Being in a capital city is often more useful in showing you what a country isn’t than what it is. It is most always a haven for the elite, the middle class and, certainly it is true in Phnom Penh, the expats. The true face of the country is in the boonies. In Cambodia, eighty percent of its nearly fifteen million people are farmers. They live in stilted huts and look to the cycle of the rains like an investment banker watches the stock market. Life has changed little there. Mother Nature still rules supreme and superstition is prevalent. In China they would call it “backwards”. It is a place of witchcraft and magic, where authorities might accuse a man of trying to murder his neighbors with a bewitched plant; where victims might respond to an unjust land-grab by cursing the thieves. Some aspects of the modern world have trickled in, like cellphones and TVs, but they tend to be absorbed into the belief system rather then change it, being presented as offerings to dead ancestors or becoming possessed by spirits.

Being in a capital city is often more useful in showing you what a country isn’t than what it is

The ride in the bus was illuminating for me. Driving out of Phnom Penh was slow-going because of the traffic. On the outskirts of the city we chugged along a muddy, unpaved road. I looked out the window at the chaotic scene below. It was an industrial part of town, of auto shops, small markets selling tires and metals and hardware stores. There was little space between the storefronts and the road. The merchants sat on chairs or boxes and watched the flow of traffic like a television show. Men sat crouched around a half-constructed motorbike covered in grease. A bespectacled boy bowed and offered a bill to another boy dressed in orange monk’s robes who accepted the money and walked away barefoot, stepping in the grey puddles by the road.

Suddenly I was pulled out of my daydream. My twenty-something seat mate from Indiana wanted to socialize. He was an odd-looking guy, his face affected by some mild form of down syndrome, though he was not mentally impaired. He was ghostly pale and covered in freckles, and wore the outfit of a surf-bum, complete with a head of blonde, natty dreadlocks with thick bookworm glasses that magnified his eyes into gleaming saucers. He was the personification of disheveled.

“Hi. What are you doing here?” he asked in a gargled, lisped drawl.

“I’m going to Kampot to meet some friends,” I said.

“Are you traveling?”

“No, I just moved here. I’m living in Phnom Penh. What about you all?” He was with two others, an American guy and a Filipino girl.

“Yeah, we also live in Phnom Penh. We’ve been here a little over, um, a month. We’re doing missionary work in a place called Takeo. What do you do here?”

“I write for the Phnom Penh Post.”

“Oh yeah? Cool. What do you write for them? For the Phnom Penh…What was it? Herald?” He stumbled through speech.

“Post. I write about a lot of different stuff.” He had a habit of nodding along  when I spoke, muttering Yeahh, yeahh like a midwestern shrink.

“For example I just did a story on depression among expats and before that I did something on overfishing.”

“Yeah but, do you like, tell the whole story? I mean, most reporters have an angle, you know, like even if you don’t mean to, you are biased.” He thought he was being revelatory.

“Mmm,” I said, meaning continue.

“Like, you know?” He wanted me to affirm him.

“We try to be fair-minded,” I said.

Yeahh, yeahh.

He told me about the villagers he does missionary work for, building fences and other acts of charity.

“They always offer us food. Like a mango or something. Then they always ask us if we want to nap. And you can’t be rude so you have to nap.”

Did he actually sleep?

“No, cause there’s usually too much to think about,” he said cryptically. “I just wait till the others wake up and then pretend that I’m just happening to wake up at the same time!” He thought this quite devious. We talked about the economy of the village.

“Do they sell their harvests in the city?”

“What?” He had trouble understanding me.

“Do they sell their harvests in the city?”

“Yeah, sometimes. Usually one family has a cellphone—they’re usually better then mine!—and they use it to set up deals with city people. It just speeds things up. It doesn’t hurt their culture or anything.”

“How much do they make?”

“What?”

“How much do the families make?”

“$150 a month. Like, the good ones.”

“That’s enough for a whole family?”

“Yeah, yeah. It’s enough. More than enough really.”

“How much does tuition cost for school?”

“Surgery?”

“Tuition. For school.”

“Oh I don’t know. Not much.”

He spotted my book. “Do you mind?” he asked pointing at it.

“Please,” I said.

He carefully took it and began leafing through the pages. It was The Wet and the Dry, a travel book by the British author Lawrence Osborne on drinking and intoxication in the Middle East. I went back to the window as he nosed through my reading material.

We were out of the city now. The land stretched for eternity, green, flat and dotted with tall, slender palms. In the distance were smooth topped karst mountains. Along the highway were small, tired-looking towns. They all looked the same, their only defining characteristics were the combinations of each town’s political slant and brewery ads. The political signs were always blue: FUNCINPEC PARTY. CAMBODIAN PEOPLE’S PARTY, CAMBODIAN NATIONAL RESCUE PARTY. The beer ads always red: ANCHOR BEER, ANKGOR BEER, CAMBODIA BEER. It was a tell-card of the third-world, this combination of cheap beer and even cheaper politics.

The scenes passed in a blur and became redundant: a rice paddy, men sitting idle playing cards under a tarp, slices of meat hanging from hooks, a man peeing on a fence, a white oxen flapping its tail against flies, an occasional golden stupa.

There is a common feature of the landscape here, one of exhaustion and bleakness, and a sort of timelessness as well. In China time was a key feature of the scenery. Everywhere there was construction; a crane, workers building a house, a pile of bricks. The momentum was towards the future and it was impossible to miss. In Cambodia things felt that way in the cities maybe, but in the countryside there was no sense of progress—no sense of time even, not of things moving forward or going back. It was simply one big green field where peasants acted out their feudal dramas. There were no promises in the scenery. It seemed to say, “You can take it or leave it.”

I turned away from the window. The surf-bum missionary was still examining Osborne. Was he planning on actually reading the book?

“What d’you think?” I asked.

“Um,” he said placing it by my side. “Interesting. I mean I can’t really say because I just turned to one page and it was kind of weird.” He looked near panicked. What had happened to him in that book?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well I can’t say really. I opened the book and saw the word NAMBLA so I started reading there.” He was talking about the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Great, I thought, this missionary thinks I’m a pervert.

“I can’t really say what I thought cause I started reading it and one second he’s talking about drinking in Beirut then he’s talking about an Arab poet and then he’s talking about pedophilia. So I can’t really say what I thought.” He had an infuriating habit of repeating things.

I read the paragraph that had so shocked him. It was a reference to Abu Nuwas, a homosexual Arab poet from the eighth century, whose literature was apparently popular with NAMBLA.

“He’s being facetious,” I said. “It’s not an endorsement of pedophilia.”

“Yeah, yeah. But it’s just weird. I can’t really say what I thought because I turned to just that page.”

I took this as a way to exit the conversation. “Well I just started it. Let’s see what else he says,” and I began reading. But he was staring at me.

“Um are you going to, like, read now?” He asked and I nodded. Then he took out his book, opened it and suddenly we were both reading.

A few hours later we arrived in Kampot. It was a fine outing, though I spent about as much time there as I spent traveling to it. There was the quiet Dutch-run guesthouse by the riverside, the dips in the pool, the heavy rain, the game of charades (“Gordon Ramsey!” “Jeb Bush!”) and the late-night revelry (“One more song and then we’ll go!” “How much for this tuk-tuk man??” “You put absinthe in my baileys?!”).

A nice jaunt.

This is a guest post by Brent Crane.

His blog on his Cambodian adventure is here, from which this post originated.

Also by Brent — A Writer’s Journey: The Adventures of a Roaming Journalist in Asia. 

Brent Crane (pictured) works as a journalist for The Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and has freelanced for various UK, US and international publications.

Brent Crane (pictured) works as a journalist for The Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and has freelanced for various US, UK and international publications.

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  1. […] spent a year at the Phnom Penh Post, to Nepal. Brent’s a prolific freelancer (and a guest contributor to the site) and by the time I’d met him in Chiang Mai he’d already sold features to […]


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