Travel Writers: Anyone for Turtle? By Erica Karen Louise

Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia

After three days exploring the mystical Angkor temples of Siem Reap, it was time to depart for the nation’s capital, Phnom Penh. We flagged down our nearest moto-taxi; and our driver ‘”Mr Brown’ sporting a French neck-tie and a metal-plated tooth, took us to our bus.

Our rusty red and white degenerating bus must have been at least 40 years old, but this was quite typical of a vehicle in Cambodia. We boarded our chosen transport, sat down in our sunken, worn out, carpet covered seats, and hoped we would make it in time for sunset. Half an hour later, if not more, the bus driver still hadn’t appeared, and passengers were still arriving looking for their designated seats. As we peered out the bus window, smiling facesof women and toothless children would stare back clutching food commodities in the air for us to buy for our onward journey.  Not knowing when we would stop next, we purchased some baguettes with triangle cheese and salad; the staple breakfast diet for a traveller in Cambodia.

A very peculiar TV programme

As the bus backfired and meandered its way through the dusty roads of Siem Reap, the morning market vendors began to trade their live stock, baguettes, fruit and vegetables.  We were accompanied by excited generations of Khmer families, from young tittering children, to frail torn old ladies, on their way to the country’s capital. An old crackly TV hanging precariously from the ceiling at the front of the bus started playing a VHS tape recording of a very peculiar TV programme, evidently a huge hit with the locals. Two Khmer men on the tiny screen, each sporting a huge fake mustache, were obviously very entertaining in the local language, as a majority of our fellow passengers were glued to the screen, in stitches of laughter.

A roadside village

A few hours passed as the bus driver weaved his way along dusty pot holed roads, honking at oncoming families piled on the back of motorbikes, ubiquitous Toyota Camry’s, and the occasional stray dog. The old rusty vehicle chugged to a stop outside a remote road side village, miles from anywhere.  We were ushered out of the vehicle, and the driver locked the door behind us. The road side village consisted of a shop, a restaurant, and a hole-in-the-ground lavatory. Thankfully we had our own supply of toilet paper, but didn’t think about repelling our hidden anatomy against the mosquitoes which were in abundance in that toilet!

That familiar smell of clammy cooked meat didn’t really appeal, so I settled for crisps and biscuits, supplied by the small store. We stood perplexed as two female vendors arrived to set up their roadside stalls, selling the most unusual stomach turning goods. One merchant presented a large metal bowl of fried crusty tarantulas and the next a selection of dinner plate sized dead turtles in clear plastic bags, complete with their shells on. I did wonder if they’d set up for tourists to take pictures, but I can tell you those turtles sold like hot cakes to the Khmer families. I gather they make a good meaty stir fry, and taste like chicken (what else?!) I really couldn’t face getting out my camera to take a picture, I could barely even look.

A humbling moment 

To take our minds away from the roadside shenanigans, a large group of Buddhist monkspassed by, wearing their familiar attire; orange robes in a variety of shades, and shaved heads.  Accompanied by village locals, the group walked in a single file. Although we didn’t speak Khmer, we could only presume we were witnessing a funeral procession.  A large casket sat at the front, carried by four monks, and the villagers that followed wore solemn faces. On occasion, a monk would stop to request food. With his head lowered, he would bend down in front of the shop or restaurant, holding an aged brass bowl with two hands. One by one, merchants would place food into his bowl, and receive a blessing in return. This was a truly humbling traveller’s moment!

Under an hour later, we were once again boarding our only means of transport to get us to Phnom Penh. We passed an assortment of vehicles along the way, including a motorbike carrying a live pig with its legs in the air.  The poor pig lie strapped inside a large cylinder basket transporter; dust propelled in its face, screaming for its little life, which I am sure wouldn’t have lasted much longer than the journey itself.  The wacky TV comedy duo was replaced by squealing Khmer Karaoke. We hadn’t realized until then how popular Karaoke was in Cambodia.  We were watching an animated and very dramatic vocalist singing in conjunction with highlighted Khmer text at the bottom of the screen.  I could see some of our fellow passengers miming words, but fortunately we didn’t experience a live rendition.

Phnom Penh

We knew we were approaching our destination as the hustle and bustle of our fellow passengers increased.  As we neared Phnom Penh, the roads around us became crowded once more with bicycle riders, moto-taxis and cars. For a capital city, Phnom Penh is still relatively under-developed. The roads are still dusty, and its buildings a mix of traditional Khmer and French-influenced architecture from a by-gone era. As we bid farewell to our faithful bus in the centre of the city, we were swarmed by moto-taxi drivers, wanting to take us to a guesthouse where they would receive their small commission. We weaved our way through the crowds with our backpacks on, and found a driver to take us where we needed to go, a young man born just after the Khmer Rouge regime.  He wore modern clothing, and a drove a pristine moto-taxi. He told us stories of his family history; of his parents and grandparents surviving the Khmer Rouge.  Being knowledgeable of his country’s past, he offered to escort us on his own tour of the local museums and tourist spots the next day, which we agreed to shortly after we’d settled into our accommodation.

We arrived in what seemed like the backpackers district of Phnom Penh to get to our recommended guesthouse. We were welcomed once more by familiar faces from of our compatriot nations, in the usual backpacker attire: shorts, sandals, and Angkor Temple T-shirts. We settled into our guesthouse, which I might add, was pretty good, and we were lucky enough to get the last room. Our moto-driver waited anxiously for our return, so he could begin with his first excursion to the Killing Fields. Words cannot describe what we saw at the Killing Fields; a morbid memory of the traumatic past that these otherwise passive citizens have had to endure.  It makes you wonder where the rest of the world was when the Khmer Rouge took over the nation.

On a brighter note, I am pleased to say we did make it in time for stunning sunset views over the Mekong from the guesthouse restaurant, a great end to an exhaustive day, albeit battling once more with hungry mosquitoes.

© Erica Karen Louise

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