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On a Wing and a Prayer

“It is raining cats and mice,” the Khmer moto-driver yelled back to me. We were on a motorcycle travelling from Phnom Penh to a small village located outside the city in the heavy monsoon rain. On the roadside we pass countless small thatched homes, each with a large unglazed earthenware jar to collect rainwater. Young women huddle under tarpaulins to keep dry, and titter back as we drive past.

Trailerloads I catch a glimpse of a road sign up ahead encouraging the purchase of a LandRover Discovery that can “withstand the blast of small arms and explosives, run on flat tyres and communicate with the outside world via two way intercom.” Another promotes the “Hearing Aids and Madman Victims Association.”

Suddenly a van with a dozen passengers on the roof roars past and a dusty horn-tooting Toyota forces us on to the verge.

Travel is slow and nerve-racking, partly because people and cows wander across the road without looking. Some trucks overtake where they shouldn’t, and twice already we had come across two overtaking vehicles bearing down on us, sending chills down my spine.

Wat On this day, our journey had begun at 5.30am from a ramshackle market 30km outside of Phnom Penh. After catching a bike and trailer to the national road, the touts had led us to a group of motos with whom we had haggled a fare of US$2 for the one hour ride into the city.

By 7.00am we had arrived in Cambodia’s capital and found a cafe run by a good-humoured Frenchman. We ate toast with jam before Onphum, our driver, moto’d us around Phnom Penh on a whistle-stop photo tour of the capital. Eventually we dodged the traffic to cross 53rd street – no stoplights in town makes this an adventure every time – in order to reach the outer stalls of the Central Market.

Psar Thmei (the central market) resembled a leftover set from a Buck Rogers movie. Rows of fresh flowers and vegetables greeted us on our right, while to the left women squatted over small charcoal fires to tend to roasting peanuts and chestnuts. Open stalls sold live chickens, rambutans, ironmongery, t-shirts (with “I survived Phnom Penh”, “Danger: Landmines” printed on them), textiles and small Buddha statues. I paused at one stall where a young girl was selling kramas, those ubiquitous chequered cotton scarves you see Khmers wearing in all types of weather. I wasn’t ready to buy anything just yet, so I made a mental note to return here on my way out and told her I’d be back. I guessed from the look on her face that she heard that a lot from Westerners.

Market Wandering through the aisles, the sobering reality of Cambodia set itself upon me. A young boy, perhaps 12 or 14, ragged, half blind and with a noticeable limp, began to follow us around with his arms outstretched. “Papa, monsieur. Mama, madame. Papa…” he chanted, his blank, sunken eyes staring at us. I tried to ignore him, for I knew that giving alms in such a public place would release a flood of needy street urchins upon us. So we began a sad, sad game of cat and mouse as we tried to lose him in the maze of stalls. Eventually I did in fact shower him with riel. I know that this is wrong. I helped sow the seeds for a mini-industry of ragged children who will sell you nothing of any value, who will ambush you, follow you naggingly around and expect you to unload your pockets in their direction. I hope you give generously.

Hiring a moto to take us back to our village proved more of a challenge than we had imagined. No one could understand why we were interested in going to such a place: “Long way,” one man said with a sweeping gesture that signified an incalculable distance. “Maybe 30 kilometres.” “Very dangerous,” muttered another. I wasn’t sure whether this was sensationalism or just a bargaining tactic. But finally an agreement was struck.

On the side of the road the locals watched us as we prepared to leave: a tactum man with a squint; a small woman with a gold tooth; and a young man bouncing a baby on his shoulder. The toddler stared at me with a look of bemused horror verging on tears. And then we were off, leaving behind a chorus of loud, twangy Khmer.

As the monsoon rains began to fall, we left Phnom Penh behind – our bikes bouncing past tin shacks that gradually gave way to bamboo huts and palms. Roadside Bikes

While the monsoon puts a damper on travel, the asthetic benefits are unarguable. Within weeks of the first rains, the parched plains are transformed from the burnt browns of the Sahara to the soothing greens of the Waikato. On this day, the sun occasionally peaked through the grey clouds to illuminate thin strips of green that stretched to the horizon.

Stopping for petrol at a stall, an old man with blackened teeth traded our driver a two-litre Fanta bottle filled with fuel for 1,000 riel. He began with, “coos me mam, where you come from?” followed by, “how many day you stay in Phnom Penh?” then, “coos me mam, how many children you hab?”

Like most Khmer, he had an atrocity to tell. Using a smattering of English and an on-the-spot ‘translator’ (aka our moto-driver) whose English was not much better, he informed us that during the Khmer Rouge reign his wife and son had died. As a widower, he had been forced to marry a widow he had not known and they could barely speak without arguing. “We are not suit,” he said.

In another life in the 1960s he had been a successful fish merchant married to a Siem Reap schoolteacher. “The Khmer Rouge send propaganda to the school. My wife read it and tell me there will be war. I laughed.”

Back on the moto, our driver was keen to point out bomb craters. These three to six-metre wide holes had been turned into fishponds, or used for growing lotus or for washing. He told me the Khmer were ready to forgive America. “America come back anytime, no problem.”

Shuddering back over the 30km of dirt road, I silently took in the countless images on the road ahead: the local two-man propaganda machine; streams of school children dressed in white and indigo; a group of monks loitering outside a newly constructed wat; and scarecrow-like effigies strapped to posts to ward of ghosts.

Tropical discomforts aside, the ride was more wondrous than it had been in the morning. My clothes clung to my body but I smiled blissfully at the children who, from the roadside, called out: “one, two, three, four…” as they counted the number of bikes as we sped past.

Had I a glass, I would have raised it to this new and hopeful nation.

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