Monthly Archives: September 2010

“Overbounced, overswayed.”

Disclaimer: the English is really starting to go, so I’m sorry if this entry is, um, less than grammatically perfect.

Credit to Kashif for the quote that is the title of this entry. It perfectly describes the state of being one is in when traveling by any mode, anywhere in Cambodia.

No matter what you are riding in this country, rest assured that you will feel the need to see a chiropractor afterwards. Finished roads here are often like taking a boat out to sea, so you can imagine what unfinished roads are like. My favourite is when you come to a place where they’re building a new bridge– they take you off the road onto a dirt track (the first few times this is terrifying), around the obstacle (sometimes this includes water, also terrifying), and back up onto the main road. There is only one of these paths on either side, so you’re constantly encountering oncoming traffic. The first rule of the road in Cambodia is, the bigger vehicle wins. So if you’re in a bus, this is a good deal. Bicycles and motos, or godforbid foot traffic, not so much. Taking a bus is the way to go for a tourist. To go from Phnom Penh to Kampot, for example, is three dollars, which includes air-conditioning, karaoke, and de facto “king of the road” status. Well, I take it back– the only thing that beats a bus are these huge, crazy trucks that they stack twenty feet high with cut wood. I wouldn’t mess with one of those. Downside to buses: it may take you 5 hours to get somewhere a taxi can take you in two.

Taxis are super fast, and regularly travel the same routes. You can get the number of a driver and use the same guy over and over as needed, or establish a routine if you go to work every day or something. Toris are similiar. A tori is like a VW bus, and they also generally travel established routes. They’re very popular for transporting goods, too. It’s common to see them packed floor-to-ceiling with everything from fans to boxes of soap to live chickens, with barely enough room for the driver. It’s also common to strap dozens of live chickens to the roofs of such vehicles by their feet; when they arrive at a place that wants a chicken, they’ll cut one down, fling it on the ground, get paid, and leave again. Sometimes I marvel that this country claims Buddhism as its national religion.

Tuk tuks are how tourists and PCVs get around shorter distances, like in a city. Tuk tuks, I can’t remember if I mentioned, are basically carriages attached to a moto. Tuk tuk drivers will do everything possible to rip you off if you are foreign. It is really fun to negotiate with them.

But hands-down the way to move in this country if you are Kmai is via moto. Sometimes I feel like Cambodians and their motos are the same as Mongols and their horses: they are literally raised on them. Babies routinely straddle handlebars. One-year-olds stand in front of their parents while they drive. Four year olds are definitely old enough to need to hold onto anything. I don’t know if it’s cool or what, but Cambodians don’t often hold onto the bike or each other or anything when they drive around. It’s miraculous to me that they aren’t thrown off every time they hit a bump going forty. Their feet are inches from the pavement as they fly down the road. Also, helmets are generally optional (except in PP [Phnom Penh], where they’re mandatory for drivers, but not really). In the city it’s natural to ride against traffic on one-way streets, navigating buses and motos and rickshaws alike. Never ask the question, “How many people can you fit on a moto?” Did I mention that vehicular accidents (read: motos) are the second-leading cause of death for young adults in Cambodia?

There are unspoken rules to when and where and what you can do whatever driving whichever thing, but I certainly haven’t figured it out yet.

Bicycles are the way kids get to school. Bicycles are not cool in PP, but you see them. They are very common in villages, and again you’d be astounded what you can transport by bike. Old ladies regularly peddle enormous stacks of hay and such that tower over them as they go down the street. Man, I hope I’m like that in my old age.

Of the common modes of transportation that Cambodians use on a daily basis, walking is rarely-if-ever one of them. Cambodians, by and large, seem to despise walking. In the city it may be something of a status issue: if you are walking, you are too poor even to have a bicycle. So if you’re a tourist walking around Phnom Penh, people will stare at you a lot harder (and probably giggle) than if you’re riding something, particularly since you’re expected to be rich so why on earth aren’t you driving a Lexus? In the cities, more people own cars, but it’s probably still the case that most of the cars you see are not family vehicles, but taxis. The most popular cars are Toyota, but Lexus is a huge brand here (don’t ask me) and people flaunt it by putting enormous decals that say “LEXUS” on the sides of their cars. My friends and I speculate that some said cars are not, in fact, Lexus. We also decided that when we get back to the States we’re putting giant “CHEVY” or “FORD” stickers on our cars; maybe we’ll start a trend.

Traveling in Cambodia is always an experience. Yesterday will speak to that.

Yesterday my friend Taylor (GA) and I left for our new province, Kampot. Thinking to have a leisurely morning, we left Phnom Penh on the late bus at 1:45. An hour or so into our trip, our bus broke down. But, they fixed it! A half hour later we broke down again, this time for good. Naturally we’d managed to get 2 hours away from Phnom Penh, from where they would be sending a new bus. That makes sense. So we waited by the side of the road with ever-patient Cambodian travelers and not-so-patient tourists, and contemplated existence.

By the time we were approaching our new villages where our sites are, it was pretty dark. Even in daylight I’m not sure I could have recognized my new site, having only been there once (a month ago), and definitely not whizzing by it at 50 mph. Heck, I’m not even sure yet how to stop a bus in order to get off it. Taylor’s site was first and we had passed her house by the time she recognized her village. Same story with me. Oops. So we spent last night in Kampot Town, which explains why we have internet.

If any of you come to visit me, I’ll try to brief you as best I can– the briefing I never got before they stuck in me a tori and sent me hurtling into oncoming traffic for the first time. Really, you get used to it. Really.


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a word on motos

So in Kampot Province it is me, Guillermo (NJ), Billy (SD), Christine (CA), and Taylor Hall (GA), and the married couple Jen and Jake (WA). A good group, I think. Christine is closest to Kampot Town, and the rest of us are spread out to the North; Taylor and Billy are closest to me, I reckon. There are also some PCTs close to me in Takeo; I’m not sure how far away they are, but I’m closer to Takeo Town than Kampot Town (which is about two hours away).

Last night, the five of us “dirty Southerners” (as the K2s apparently started calling people in Kampot)- minus the married couple- were in Kampot Town having drinks and dessert at a Western-style restaurant (meaning they have things like cheeseburgers, ice cream, french fries, etc). All of a sudden we heard a bang and the sound of metal scraping cement. On the street a couple meters away, three kids had spilled their moto. My best guess, as I didn’t see the accident, is that since their light was out and it was getting dark, an oncoming moto had swerved to avoid them at the last minute and caught their front tire. When the bike turned sideways, it pitched on of the kids off, a boy maybe 13 or so, and he landed on his face. His nose and lip were torn, there was blood all over, and he undoubtedly had a concussion (sp?). When we ran over, Taylor (who’s a nurse) immediately went to the kid with the obvious head injury, trying to assess if he might have hurt his neck and back also. Billy, Guillermo and I lifted the moto off the driver, a boy maybe 15 or so. The boy slowly got to his feet, and then immediately tried to get back on his moto to drive away. He was so disoriented I don’t think he knew what had happened. I think he was in shock. Billy had to stop him from climbing back in the seat. Christine got a chair and we managed to get the kid to sit down and keep his foot elevated, because even though it wasn’t bleeding it had a four inch gash in it, straight to the bone. Guillermo looked at it, looked at me, and said, “Yeah, you can see his bone.” Wow. That kid was brave, though, he didn’t let on that his foot hurt even one bit; I let him use my phone to call his uncle. Meanwhile, some drunk German lady comforted the third kid, a girl maybe 12, who had terrible road rash and was hysterical. She stopped crying after a while but I could tell she was really in pain. After 20 minutes some Kmai person finally had the damn sense to call a tuk tuk, and it came and took all three kids to the hospital. All of this occurred amidst a huge crowd of on-lookers… Us PC kids and a couple other Barangs (foreigners) were about the only ones doing anything at all. Scary!

What pissed me off, though, was this German girl, she looked like she was 20something and she claimed to be a doctor, and I don’t know if she’d been drinking or what but I didn’t trust her judgment. She insisted that the kid with the busted-up face was okay to stand up and move around, after looking at him for like 5 minutes. How she could tell he didn’t have any spinal injuries at a glance is beyond me. Then she came over to the kid with the cut foot and said, “We need to cover that up.” No shit, Sherlock. But this is Cambodia, and leaving it open until they absolutely have to cover it to drive to the hospital probably would have been the best bet, since everything is dirty. But she took a wad of napkins from the restaurant and crammed them in that kid’s foot, squeezing with one hand on top and one hand on the bottom. Then she got distracted and left, and what do you know? His foot started bleeding! On top of it I think she hurt him, so he stood up and it started bleeding even more. I was pissed. Maybe she knew what she was doing, maybe she lied about being a doctor, I don’t know, but after this whole fiasco, when Taylor and I were washing blood off our hands and arms in the bathroom, we overheard her saying, “His foot might never be the same, but he’ll still walk,” in this disgustingly nonchalant way. She was entirely casual about the whole thing. It made me very angry. Then she had the nerve to smile sweetly at us on her way out and say, “Goodbye!” I don’t know what happened to the three kids… I hope they’re okay. Needless to say, we ended the night early and went back to our hotel to watch TV.

And this is why we are not allowed to ride motos.


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Kampot Province: Home Sweet Home (or something)

This week is our site visit. All of us went our separate ways in small groups to the main towns of our new provinces. My new province, where I will move after swear-in, is Kampot. Kampot is by the sea and is beautiful. It has a lot of trees, water (rivers), and mountains. Because of the sea it is a little cooler than Kampong Cham, but gets more rain. The last two days I spent in my new village, Tram SorSor (I think?), and met my new family, saw my new house, and visited my new health center where I’ll be working every day. It’s going to be a huge adjustment, and I’m a little angry at myself for getting so attached to my training family. Every day that I’ve been gone my “big sister” Tidah texts me long, cute messages in broken English about what am I doing, have I eaten rice yet, what did I eat, my family misses me (“We miss you big big!!” if that’s not “cute Asian” I don’t know what is), etc etc etc. My new family, on the other hand, is… a little slow to warm up to me. I keep telling myself it will just take time to build new relationships, it’s all going to be okay, but the prospect of leaving my current host family in three weeks is looming. Not to be melodramatic, but I would trade my beautiful Kampot province site and my new house with 24-hour electricity, tile floors, and running water to live anywhere with my current family. I will have lots of time to become a part of my new family, and there will also be opportunities to visit my old family, which is true of all the PCTs.

On the other hand, Kampot Town is crazy cool. Western food (albeit expensive), shopping, and mountains surrounding a river. Yeah, it’s nice. I will be able to visit here often, which is a perk, and apparently all the other PCVs will come to visit me and the other 6 people in my K4 group, because of its awesomeness. But now I have to eat burritos (yes, there are burritos), so you’ll have to excuse me!


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