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Exploring Backroads in Cambodia with gruesome Discoveries

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

© Frank P. Schneidewind

Attention, dear readers!

The following report is not suitable for minors,
viewers discretion is advised

It contains some pictures, which viewers may find disturbing.
Please switch to any other of our reports without scrolling down, if you like animals, such as dogs.

The last road trip in mid December of 2010, was not without surprises. We were zooming around in Battambang province and scouted for some new sources of things we needed. The area bordering Thailand and Pailin province, was ours to explore once again. An older Toyota Camry was hired to take us around in this thinly populated area. Once a Khmer Rouge hideout, real civilization advances have not yet found their way here and things are like in the old days minus the gunfights, landmines, ambushes and kidnappings. This area has been longing for a lasting peace for a very long time. Khmer Rouge guerilleros are a thing of the past now and developments begin slowly. Nearly 30% of the villages here, are said to have electricity now. Presently the roads and bridges do see a lot of re-modeling and re-surfacing. Not all villages have access to clean drinking water, but nobody needs to starve anymore. The fields are green and agriculture is booming everywhere, where the earth allows for it. Corn and sugarcane plus rice accounts for most, of what grows here.

The border area here is one of the most densely mined areas on the planet, it is much better now than just 5 years ago. Guns and artillery are silent now and the folks here can return to their normal life. Occasional villages dot the countryside, while most traffic on the dirt roads between communities is taking place on mopeds. Cargo loads are still often transported by pushcarts or oxcarts. Two border crossings into Thailand have opened up, not too long ago. The northern one is at Baan Laem and leads to Battambang, where the southern crossing is for traffic from Baan Pakkad to Pailin at Phsar Prom. We choose to enter Cambodia via the northern border post, as Battambang was our primary objective at first.

To find suitable transport for us, was a task more difficult, than anticipated. But we succeeded at last and hired us a set of wheels with two drivers. One drove within Battambang province and the other one took over at one of the police roadblocks closer to Pailin, he claimed to originate from there. We planned to cover the distance between Battambang and Pailin off the beaten path, but one no longer needs an off-road bike to do that (remember my ruby-shopping trip a while back with Stefan?). Cambodians, by the way, use the left side of the road, a version that I grew up with and was also used to from Northamerica. The car originated from the Bay Area in California, as some old service stickers on the windshield told us. Who knows how this one made it here, clear on the other side of the world. I personally wouldn’t wonder, if somebody in Oakland or Berkeley missed this jalopy a decade or two ago.;)

 

This one had at least some plates, which allowed him to leave the police district. I very well remember those days, when vehicles of all sorts hardly had license plates. On mopeds, their Thai origin was always visible by some residue of the octagonal and round road tax sticker, the Thai government plasters on your ride. Stolen somewhere, smuggled here and off they went without papers, plates or anything. The rare cars back then had their steering wheel on either side, but this all seems to be a thing of the past now. A bureaucracy of sorts, has blossomed here in the boonies. The citizens today here proudly display their IDs, licenses and other documents with a plentitude of colorful stamps on them. It signals to them probably some return into normality. No longer you encounter roadblocks by dudes with AK 47s, demanding a road toll or passage fee, even the few bridges were free now.

The Battambang roads were in a decent shape. But they gradually deteriorated, as we came closer to this province’s border with neighboring Pailin.

If bridges existed, they were one-lane only. They appeared fairly old and were often enough missing completely. Japanese, Korean and German road constructing equipment was seen operating in a variety of places along the way.

Once we reached the northern part of Pailin province, all road making efforts ceded and our dust trail grew longer from the loose dirt of the road surface. Cars and trucks do keep a long distance in between them, to avoid the dust trails from vehicles ahead.

The houses were simply made along the way, wooden structures on concrete pillars, denote a possible flooding zone. Indeed, some dry riverbed nearby, may look totally different during the monsoon season.

In some larger village en route, I requested a pit stop. We had to relieve ourselves due to the bumpy road condition, the drivers posed for me in front of our vehicle here:

What looked like a regular roadside restaurant, was indeed one with the typical plastic furniture and several umbrellas to draw attention. We were allowed upon request to use their toilet facility out back.

The restaurant here had their own in-house butcher shop behind the seating area. Chopping noises attracted my interest, when my bladder business was done. A row of crude tables were covered each with some plastic fabric, in the heat of the day, some stringent strange smell was barely noticeable. They were preparing for a day of business out front and preparing their meats here. The only thing that gave me a slight shock was the fact, that they were slaughtering dogs here!

Dog meat is nothing unusual in Asia. The poorer regions of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand and Cambodia are well known to serve dog meat. With Chinese and Korean folks topping even that, by eating any 4-legged protein, including cats, monkeys and rats.

I consider myself a dog friend and felt awkward. But for these poor folks here, their choices of any protein source is fairly limited. Pig and cattle farming hasn’t caught up here yet and I have witnessed dishes in Cambodia, made out of snakes, scorpions or even huge spiders. Communism gave them mass murderers, kid soldiers, killing fields and concentration camps – but no food, infrastructure improvements or civilization advances. Only land mines, that will maim innocent citizens and kids for another hundred years.

Nothing gives me the right to vent my anger or ridicule these villagers. They survived 30 hard years of war, followed by civil unrest. It probably took odd measures to come this far for them. Not 30 years ago, their people died in large numbers due to malnutrition, if not by landmines (this is the most densely mined area in Southeast Asia) or at the hand of a Khmer Rouge (the freak communists, that killed two million of the population of seven million here). Walking back to the waiting car, there was another dog still alive on the road. I hesitated a moment and had to resist picking him up and take him somewhere safe. He appeared friendly, but may be the subject of tomorrow’s menu here at this restaurant.

The road widened up and a few more villages were passed. The last leg of the journey was ahead now.

Under a blue December sky at temperatures exceeding 30° degrees (+86° Fahrenheit), the final 10 or 15 Kilometers were done on a single lane dirt track.

We arrived at our destination for the following 3 days in Pailin at the Psar Prom, where we were scheduled to meet with some more friends.

Khmertrip – Stage 3: Battambang to Pailin to Phnom Penh

Monday, November 30th, 2009

© Frank P. Schneidewind

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Stefan and I made a side-trip to the secretive Pailin district (no officials or military allowed) on rented 250cc dirt bikes. I dropped my digicam later in a half dry creek bed, that we were negotiating there in order to find the old ruby-community, I happened to know from previous trips here.

The batteries flew out their compartment because of the impact in the flat water at the spot, it was totally dysfunctional until hours later (discharged quick). So no pics of us for hours, sorry!

Emeralds and Rubies originate in the hills of Pailin, the former Khmer Rouge controlled and lawless zone. The people here still use ancient and hand-driven tools to cut raw gems and polish them nowadays. Electricity is fed from 12 Volt car or truck batteries, which power some fluorescent bulbs or other light sources. Refrigeration is unheard of here, but ice in huge blocks are being delivered from Pursat or Battambang on occasion, and sold in chunks. Cold refreshments are a real rarity, we must have gulped down 3 to 4 Cokes each to avoid dehydrating in this hot weather then, because we did find one dealer. He kept the Coke, Fanta and Sprite in a barrel with ice, so the bottles were cold and uncontaminated.

It is not advisable to drink anything here, unless sold to you in the original container.

Trust me, a full blown “Montezuma’s revenge” compares to a real regular Cambodian diarrhea like a weak fart in the wind!

The gem stones were all neatly prepared on tools to hold them for further polishing. If you look at Melona’s engagement ring, I gave her that ring earlier this year 🙂 – it proudly displays a nice ruby from right here! This trip itself was for “men only” for a lot of reasons, security was an essential one, but there were other issues too.

This Pailin area holds special memories for me. I was born again here, so to speak, when a landmine blew up years ago on a geographical surveillance trip, and injured my right leg badly. It injured a few more of us, but killed the unlucky dude, which stepped on the mine. A young Cambodian man with a good sized family at home 🙁

The gem cutter’s huts were well protected by others outside, wielding AK 47’s and with pretty grim looks on their faces, they brightened up, when we gave them a dollar bill each to protect our bikes during our exploration of the huts. Unbelievable, but in the poorest and most war-torn area of Cambodia, the finest gems were handled.

Needless to say, we bought a few. A man never knows, if he needs one someday 🙂

The price was very right and the digicam’s batteries were neglecting any more pictures again! But we were happy, that they gave us a handful of snapshots after the dive in the creek. Rechargables don’t take a beating like quality Energizers or Panasonic Hi-power conventional AA’s. In Cambodia’s back country, you may search very long for a plug to stick the recharger in.


This bus was supposed to haul us to the Capital of Phnom Phen, it really looked like a decent vehicle until we got closer to inspect details. 3 $ was the fare, which equals 12.000 Riels. Gunshot holes are nothing to worry about, we wondered how the brakes were doing. You always hope, any shooter aims high enough 🙂

The tires had indeed some rubber left, but a German TÜV or American DOT would have pulled the operating license for this piece of equipment in a heartbeat. Exhaust was noise-tuned, so potential passengers along the roads it traveled, could hear him coming for at least half a mile. Seats were old ones, newly upholstered with a vinyl (chicken poop and vomit resistant), but we weren’t in the market for sweaty butts and sat on our towels.

That was really a comfy transport, considering other options like rooftops of pick-up trucks or clinging to the outside of vans in the back with no foothold for humans. All these folks headed for the big city on the Tonle Sap River, where it meets the Mekong. Quite a distance, but standards in Cambodia are even lower than in Thailand. Things improve gradually as I can testify, having traveled on anything here from worn out, unserviced military aircraft to oxcarts before.

Military is a lot less present or visible nowadays. In older days, that was quite a difference.

Any transport here is maxed out, the tailgates are always used in the down position to extend the bed, sometimes stretched even further with a couple of wooden doors or something suitable. Dangling kids legs in the windshield signal little hold for them, don’t think any further – be happy you’re in a bus with wheels and seats. $ 3 is their monthly income, so traveling “rich people style” aboard a bus is not a valid option for them. Kids usually go free with paying parents, but no right to a spot on the wooden boards crossing the beds of the pickups for more cargo, human cargo in that case.

Suddenly we whizzed by other funny vehicles. Roofless buses? No – mopeds of a mere 100 cc engine pulling busloads of passengers on open makeshift trailers. This spot of road was not dusty and blacktopped, so I tried to take a snapshot backwards out of the little ventilation windows:

The moped buses were more popular, the closer we got to Phnom Penh, their capacity must have been several dozen of passengers. Gas tank was a plastic canister attached to the side! Snail paced, some rolled in front of our bus, but the loud horns of the bus and his very aggressive driving style forced them one after the other into the dust of the roadside, brutal methods here, but “business as usual” 🙂

They were really common in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, as you can see:

We arrived a short time later in Phnom Penh, checked a 1 $ motorcycle taxi ride later into my beloved Angkor Hotel and took an extended shower to cool down and get rid of the fine dust, that had clogged every pore of exposed skin. Soap alone doesn’t do a proper job, you need to rub eyebrows, mustache and your skin fairly hard!

Later we ate at the famed “Sharky’s”, a bar and restaurant only 3 blocks from the hotel. My friend quickly was beflirted by this attractive lady, but we were here not on a dating trip. A posed snapshot made this waitress happy indeed, emails were exchanged to send her the photo.

Later Stefan’s eyes focused on something very dark. This lady with black hair, a black dress and pitch black eyes was having dinner at the neighboring table. Stefan couldn’t keep his eyes straight and he asked kindly to trade chairs with me (I didn’t appear staring and was naturally facing her).

Her name was Sophea, as we found out after her dinner in another establishment near the Central Market (Psar Thmei). Once done with her dish, she accepted Stefan’s invite for a drink and told us about her job as Apsara-dancer in a famous hotel on the Sisowath Quay. I love Apsara Dancing and am quite familiar with the grace and beauty on display during those classical performances. Apsaras were the handpicked dancers of the Angkorian god-kings a 1000 years ago! Later, she came across with the information that she also has a second dance job near Wat Phnom. Not so Apsara style, but better paid.

I knew Wat Phnom well and we had planned to visit anyhow, so we promised to look her up at the place near the important temple on the following day. That night’s sleep was long and good after the long trip here. Stefan nailed me with questions about Apsaras that night 🙂

He proved to be one of the most compatible people I ever traveled with! Quick witted and with a sunnyboy smile But a task oriented energy, if things don’t run so smooth!