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The road to B'bang

The road to B'bang

I love this country, pot holes and all. How else could I ex plain coming for a

month and staying ten.

Anyone who has traveled around the country knows

its charm lies in its rural communities. That is why I am often on the road.

One of my frequent journeys from the capital is on route five, northwest

to Battambang, the country's second largest city. Taking over six hours by taxi

on uneven surfaces, the constant rocking of the car induces sleep.

I

prefer to make the trip in three stages, staying overnight at Kompong Chhnang

and Pursat.

The first leg I usually "hitch", starting early in the

morning on the outskirts of Phnom Penh with thumb extended.

Most of my

lifts come from cars and motorcycles. This is not strictly hitchhiking as one is

expected to pay the driver a token amount at each destination.

In no

time at all I am in Oudong, the old royal capital, which is well worth a visit

for its historical value.

Thirty-one kilometers further up the road one

reaches Kampong Chhnang, where I usually spend the night and which is one of my

favorite places.

From a photographic point of view the province contains

many elements representative of the country as a whole. Its landscape is

essentially flat with rounded hills at intervals. Colorful decoration comes from

a sparse population of palm trees, leaves clustered at their tops.

A

curious sight at various intervals along the rugged highway are the "road

waterers" who continuously attempt to sprinkle down the dust in the hopes that

motorists will reward their efforts with some riels tossed out windows as they

drive by.

Their efforts are meagre at best. Crouching in the back of a

pick-up, only a krama wrapped around my head keeps the dust from filling my

lungs.

Kampong Chhnang is nestled tightly along the Tonle Sap. A beehive

of activity, the city's residents cluster on the riverbank, cleaning fish,

gleaning rice or making noodles with ingenious wooden devices.

Great

photographs of beautiful sunrises can be taken at the riverside. The best time

is during the dry season.

Accommodation is sparse in Kompong Chhnang. I

stay at a clean, $5 a night, guest house on the main road, just before a

copy-cat version of the Independence monument in Phnom Penh.

The

alternatives are a $15 per night hotel northwest of the town or a floating

brothel that charges $10 for a rough room. I suspect room service is

extra.

The brothel is hard to miss as it has the letters "U.N."

emblazoned on the roof.

After dark, eating can be a problem as there are

very few restaurants. The only one I have found open is a dancing bar with

exorbitant prices and so I eat at food stalls in front of the market.

The next day, bright and early, I head towards Pursat. Military

checkpoints become regular sights, found primarilly at bridges and road

crossings.

Heavilly-armed soldiers stop vehicles and charge a "tax" which

the driver pays in cash or cigarettes.

However, the vehicles I have

traveled in never seem to stop. Its likely my eager smiles with a camera at my

side give the drivers an added sense of confidence to run the blockades. In any

event, I have never felt in any danger.

An interesting diversion en

route is Kampong Long on the Tonle Sap where there is a large ethnic

Khmer/Vietnamese fishing village.

To get there, go to Krakor, a small

town two hours outside of Kampong Chhnang. At Krakor, go east ten minutes by

motorbike down a mud track which is virtually impassable during the rainy

seasson.

Well before the moto stops at Kampong Long people run up

alongside and offer their boats for a trip to see the lake. A thirty minute trip

among the house boats is negotiable; I paid 5000 riel.

These floating

villages are almost self-contained. Colorful sign boards denote the businesses.

A large painted tooth indicates the dentist. The hairdresser is marked by a

picture of a woman with immaculately coiffured hair.

It is best to do

this tour in the morning. After lunch it may be difficult to find a taxi for the

27 kilometers to Pursat.

Pursat is a quiet town and not so interesting.

There are plenty of restaurants and a few guest houses on the main road or near

the UNDP office.

Bar Tra mountain is 28 kilometers beyond Pursat and

comes to life on weekends. Because there is little to do in Pursat its residents

descend on the beauty spot for elaborate picnic parties.

The mountain

has a rocky landscape with huge boulders and thin trees. On top of a small hill

is a strange statue of an emaciated monk who, I was told, fasted to gain

enlightenment. He deplored drinking, gambling and other vices.

This is

rather ironic, because only a stone's throw away there are scenes which would

give him indigestion if he were alive.

Gambling and drinking are the

order of the day. A brightly-painted dance partner can be had for only 200

riels.

Light snacks and drinks are available and everyone enjoys

themselves, from picnicking families to soldiers.

Cambodia's second

city, Battambang, is just three hours away. The under-rated provincial capital,

with striking, albiet aging French colonial archetecture is nestled serenely

along the Khieu river. Its marketplace bustles as the hub of Cambodia's rice

basket.

I like to take motorcycles in and around the city because of the

beautiful scenery. Most of the places to stay are located around the central

market.

Traveling in the provinces is not always easy and can take a long

time but I put Cambodia under my 'forgiving' category of countries.

This

means I overlook the inconveniences because the people are so friendly and the

sights fascinating.

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