Look out! Khmer drivers about!

Ok, so having found sanctuary from obnoxious tourists with pride in the strength of their hangovers…. Back to bike drama!

I haven’t ridden a bike since pigtails were the height of fashion. But they say you never forget, and although they turn out to be right, what they don’t mention is the Cambodian highway! The way to Honour Village follows National Route 6. It’s the biggest, and hence busiest, stretch of road in Siem Reap and it’s a straight shot from the airport to the centre of town. Trying to explain using the roads here will involve some rather inventive metaphor, so bear with me please. Imagine you’re the marble in a pinball machine… or the puc in an ice hokey match… Gulliver on Brobdingnag (check me out: literary reference!)… Simba caught in the stampede. Are we seeing a pattern here? For drivers here the only rule is that rules are for wusses. Traffic lights are optional, right of way is fiction, everyone drives on the side of the road that suits them best and running over Westerners is hilarious. Now everybody race to their destination. Ready. Steady. Go!

But I’ve skipped ahead of myself again. All that fun only begins when I make it to the actual road. Between Prom’s and the road is…well, a stretch of rubble. There are renovations going on and the builders thought a good old fashioned game of Trip The Tourist was in order so the smashed up contents of an entire building have been emptied into the street for people who were not born wearing flip flops to sprawl spectacularly over, or for audacious cyclists to give every one of their 206 bones a good rattling.

So, over the shards of brick we go, turn right, pause briefly at red light, shoot it and join the stream of traffic racing hectically out of town. Some of the wheels on the road belong to things even my overactive imagination cannot reasonably call a vehicle: a motorbike connected by a few lengths of string to a disarticulated wheelbarrow supporting a crew of acrobatic Khmer, transporting lengths of steel pipe to yet another hotel building site along route 6 while the driver balances his cargo with whichever hand he needs less to steer doesn’t really belong in the same category as a car… or even my rusty old bike with it’s lovely habit of leaning to the left and leaking air out of the rear tyre.

Having said all this I have become very attached to my ride to work. After a risky dash across a roundabout you come to the royal gardens. In the morning they’re just a sudden patch of beautifully manicured emerald green garden in the midst of red dust and moto exhaust fumes, in the evening though the smell of jasmine is intoxicating and I’ve been known to take the long route home just to breathe deeply of air that doesn’t smell like cow dung and durian. (For those innocent souls unaware of the reek of durian please, do your utmost to stay in blissful ignorance; it’s a piquant mix of rotting fish and raw sewage.) Then there comes a pagoda that more often than not is hosting a wedding so I’m treated to a glimpse of brightly coloured traditional Khmer outfits. They really are wonderfully exotic, like birds of paradise each one brighter than the one before and weighed down with shining gems and gold, the women have their hair piled in high ringlets on the tops of their heads and the men stand sombre and proud with hands behind their backs. The warble of prayers and music floats into the sky and over the golden roof of the pagoda. The whole thing makes my heart soar. No matter how many times I see it. Then on through a cloud of incense at the statue of Buddha and, at last, on to route 6.

Here the careening trucks, Lexuses, motos, bikes, cows and green-shrouded road sweepers are easier to dodge. And a mere 20 minutes later I’m turning left onto the track that is the last 15 or so minutes’ ride to HVC. There’s a school and a small stretch of lean-to houses and shops where the locals yell hello from their hammocks and the kids wave from the backs of their parents’ motos. When it comes, the change to rural farm land is sudden and immediate. The civilisation drops away and the landscape stretches out in front and to both sides, flat and seemingly endless. The path is flanked by rice fields, a mix of water and grass and the odd punctuation mark of a floating Khmer head as fishermen dodge eels to catch tonight’s dinner. I am joined by an honour guard of mating dragonflies that flash in the stark sunlight and butterflies the size of my palm that skate along beside me. The road tails away into the bright red of Cambodia’s dirt tracks and the smooth ride of route 6 becomes a jog over stones and into furrows made by the wheels of passing motos and farm trucks. Occasionally the near-total quiet is pierced by the shriek of a pig, tethered on its back into a half-barrel and balanced on the back of a motorbike. But for the most part silence reigns. In the distance is a treeline that I’ve come to believe can never be reached and on the hottest days it’s easy to feel the danger of the place, that it may well go on and on in every parched direction waiting to lure an all to human body out of the shade to collapse under its own need for water. It’s easy to feel the weight of the locals in this place too, the weight of their poverty as they pepper the planes with tiny homes, sometimes as little as four sheets of corrugated iron propped together, sweating it out under the cruelly blazing sun.

Soon enough I turn into the school grounds. It’s made up of four main houses; the children’s living quarters and a large open-faced classroom/dining room. The walls are merrily painted with animals and Tibetan prayer flags wave their bright colours in the ever-present wind. I am more often than not met by Hing, a dapper little gentleman in an infallible brown shirt with scabies sores on his ankles and a fascination with watches. He parks my bike for me before returning for a big hug and recoiling in comically exaggerated disgust at how sweaty I am after my 6Km, 40º cycle. Then the school day takes hold. I’ll save that madness for another post.

Needless to say I’ve succumbed to the craziness of the roads here a couple of times. I’ve bumped wheels with a moto driver who was too busy staring at me to realise he was about to roll into me. I’ve been knocked off by a moto carrying three people, which attempted to cut me off when I was far too exhausted to employ evasive maneuvers. And I have, get this, been physically blown off by the wind! Let me tell you, Cambodia does not compromise on storms!

However, since I’m still alive and unharmed I am rapidly running out of excuses not to plan this weeks’ lessons. So I must be off.

I’ll be back though.

See you there.

xxx

Help! There’s a chicken in my classroom.

Actually, it’s chickenS, plural. Something which the kids I’m teaching are totally fine with, but which I, comfortably-raised and wimpy Westerner that I am, do. not. like. at. all. Result? I spend a good deal of my working day dodging chicken dung and mentally yelling at Oh Be Quiet (the school’s Cockerel) to… well, be quiet!  Fortunately the chickens are among the least interesting parts of my life here in Cambodia… in fact, WHAT AM I DOING? I’m going about this completely ar*e about face! I haven’t even told you why I’m here.

In the beginning there was a mishap.

So I’m hoping, with I am aware a little vanity, that you’ve read about my last trip to Cambodia: arriving really ill, strolling around soothing Temples, sunbathing by beautiful pools, delicious Western food and, of course, the massage to end all massages?

The sequel is that I came home and promptly couldn’t shut up about how wonderful Cambodia had been, how friendly the people are, how nice the weather is, how rich and complex the culture is… until one day a work colleague of my Mother’s mentioned that he knew some people running NGOs out in Siem Reap

And so a madcap return trip was born.

A testament to juts how madcap is that I’ve already been here a month and I’m only just catching a moment to write about it! Technically speaking I’m supposed to be planning the weeks’ lessons, but for some reason I’m clacking away at my laptop instead.

But WHERE ON EARTH DO I START…

Would you like to hear about my cycling, my teaching, my living arrangements, my class, the food, the weather, the people, Sue, the other volunteers, the clubs… WHAT?

Let’s start where I start every morning: in bed at Prom’s. “Prom’s” is shorthand for The Golden Takeo Guesthouse, which is run by the eponymous Prom and his wife, who are friendly on an epic scale. It’s clean, comfy and I get a lovely discount for working at HVC since he’s a friend of the orphanage. And, bless all that is holy, it has air con. (More later about how this is an absolute necessity!) Just by-the-by if you ever plan to stay there: beware the tuk tuk driver’s patented “yes yes,” it roughly translates to “I have no clue where you want to go but I’m going to drive around a bit and ring everyone I know for directions and eventually I’ll know where to go. Maybe.” Don’t bother asking a tuk tuk driver to get you to Prom’s. No on in the whole of Siem Reap bar people who actually live there seems to know where it is. Cambodian’s don’t exactly believe in intellectual property so there’s actually another guesthouse clear on the other side of town called The Takeo Guesthouse at which you will unfailingly find yourself should you trust your navigation to a tuk tuk driver. And no, no amount of over-the-phone help from their best friend’s wife’s second cousin’s dog is going to help them get you there… despite their insistence to the contrary.

Ok, so. In bed at Prom’s sleeping peacefully through my alarm clock. Then jolt awake, stretch, yawn, stumble blindly into shower, dress and head upstairs to the roof for breakfast. Apparently I’m a terribly boring human being that loves routine because Rosa very quickly started greeting me with a cheery “same same?” and serving my breakfast with absolutely no input from me except a sleepy nod. Back to the room to collect teaching materials, suffocate myself with jungle-strength insect repellant and don sunglasses, then out the door and onto the bike.

Oh god…. the bike.

My butt hurts just thinking about it. Prom’s bikes were, around about the dawn of time, spray painted gold. But now they are a flaked and rusted fleet of wonky-wheeled crash magnets. Since a tuk tuk to HVC and back costs a pretty hefty $8, and since I’ve actually grown very fond of getting places under my own steam, I brave the bikes…

Sorry: a guy’s just walked in wearing a painfully orange vest top with some vaguely racist slogan to do with refusing tuk tuks and he’s boasting in a very loud voice about smoking drugs and slamming shots and waking up sans memory and with a strange Khmer woman in his bed. I have to go die a little inside.

Be back soon!

xxx