Battambang, Cambodia – The “Tourist Clinic”

by Beej.

The Battambang tourist clinic is casual to say the least. The woman at the outdoor check-in counter is about to leave for the day as we pull up to the window on our scraped-up motorbike, which held up fine on our 25km journey back from the crash site. The woman kindly sticks around to show us in.

Inside the clinic sits one examination bed and a couple of trays of supplies in a single undecorated room the size of a large apartment, with a small dim bathroom attached.

The doctor, middle-aged, bored-looking and jowly in faded green scrubs, saunters over after a few long minutes (even though there is no one else around to examine) and glances at Stax’ wounds. He immediately assesses the cause of the injuries, having of course seen them a thousand times.

He then decides to act out the motion of falling over on a motorbike. This causes ripples of laughter in the two male assistants beside him. We are in no laughing mood after our long dusty ride, but I try to crack a smile. You don’t want to piss off your doctor.

He instructs Stax to go into the restroom and clean out her gravel and dirt-strewn wounds, then sits back with his feet up. The two assistants, so similar they could be brothers, tap on their Samsung phones.

Since extensive areas of Stax’ knee and arms remain raw and painful with embedded gravel and dirt, I assume the good doctor knows that a thorough self-cleaning will take a while. The good doctor doesn’t see it that way and makes sure I know it. Every few minutes he exaggeratedly checks the clock on the wall -yup, still 4:30 – gives me a look – why don’t you go and get your woman moving so we can wrap this up? – and gestures toward the bathroom.

Maybe his social schedule is jam-packed. Maybe after he’s done being a doctor for the day he transforms into a genteel man about Battambang town, highly sought after playboy and jetsetting man of fashion, a man to see and be seen with. Who knows? But his impatience is highly annoying.

After Stax comes out he plops her down and checks her knee. Nope, no breaks. Then we must sign a statement promising not to blame the tourist clinic if there are any adverse reactions so that the the assistants can spray a bit of antiseptic and antibacterial and wrap her knee and elbow with gauze. That’s the whole checkup.

Amazingly, the office woman who had been about to leave earlier is still there. She has waited at least a half hour past her shift to make sure we can finish up and pay. The visit, all the supplies and medical examination has cost all of $5.00 US – about what a doctor in the United States would charge you just to wait in line.

Then as we are pulling out of the driveway to head back to our guesthouse, the woman even turns her motorbike around and asks if we need directions, offering to let us follow her. Though we know the way back easily, her seemingly genuine concern and care lifts up what has been a pretty dismal day so far.

We’re exhausted and hungry and Stax’ knee is throbbing when we finally pull into the large driveway at Here Be Dragons, our Battambang home. The two smart-aleck expat bartenders – are there any other kind? – are unsurprised at our wreck story.

The guy tells me that during the Khmer New Year week there are usually at least one or two fatal crashes a day in the countryside as Cambodians are rushing from the cities en masse, on unbelievably terrible roads, to be in their home villages for the holiday. Even as Stax is examining her grevious-looking wounds in the mirror we have to count ourselves pretty lucky. It could have been much worse.

NEXT UP: A TRIP UP PHNOM SAMPEAU IN PICTURES AND MOTION!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Getting to the Wedding Part III!

Continued from the last post

Now, there’s nothing to do but try to retrace my route from last night. The neighborhood appear to be stirring even at this early hour, but still I feel bad about the motorbike noise.

I buzz through a narrow gap between two concrete slabs – probably not more than a meter and a half. Large white eyes stare out at me from the near-total darkness inside one of the slabs.

A couple of scrawny little kids with wild hair sit on their mother’s lap near the ground. She glances out curiously too, stick legs folded under her knees on the hard swept dirt floor. The rest of the house looks patched together from wood and sticks and sheets of warped and rusty aluminum and whatever other materials might have been cast around left over in the weedy lots between the larger houses.

Income levels are all over the place in this city. Some houses stand strong and alone, made of brick and concrete with modern electrical work and even plumbing and insulation, and the roads in front of them are smoothly paved. But these others like the one I’m passing fit uncertainly in among the newer flats, squeezed against the wall of a big brother building, and appear to be little more than squatters’ residences. Natural light, maybe a gas hot plate for cooking, plastic green buckets for bathing water, and cotton rags hung in front of the doorway for privacy.

I wonder how these low frames and dirt floors handle even the slightest shower, let alone the monsoons that completely flood these roads during the long months of the rainy season. The people must just have to pick up and move every year, or they would constantly be half-submerged in mud and rainwater.

As I muse on these subjects realize too late that I’ve passed my turn. I was looking for the big Coke bottle billboard decorating the intersection, which without a street name is the only way I know the place.

But even as I pull up and turn around I can see that though we’re running very late – an hour at least – we haven’t actually missed anything. The wedding party is in a bit of chaos. And Stax is already in there somewhere with her camera, accompanied by Seiha with the sound recorder, getting it all down.

TO BE CONTINUED in the first segment of our series! We’ll premiere a sneak preview of the Khmer wedding segment very soon on matrimundi.wordpress.com.
But of course, in the meantime, there is much more to come of our exploits in Cambodia and beyond right here on the old blog.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Getting to the Wedding, Part II

by Beej

We race through the steadily brightening pre-dawn of Phnom Penh on our rented scooter, en route to a meeting with our translator and all-around guardian angel, Seiha Kong.

Most of the mainly one and two story buildings of the city still huddle in darkness, though a few auto shop lights are winking on and a few pedestrians, mainly elderly, shuffle around the narrow streets.

We enter the highway leading out to the University district where we’ll meet Seiha and instantly, an overwhelmingly sweet scent surrounds us – the rows of jasmine bushes lining the kilometer-long park next to the highway have sprung fully into bloom due to the rains of the past day.

It’s barely 5 a.m. but many citizens of Phnom Penh are already exercising in the murky darkness of the park, their forms barely visible to the eye, taking advantage of the rare cool of the summer morning.

Somehow we’ve managed to fit all our gear and ourselves onto our tiny scooter. Wedged in front of me between the seat and the steering column is our gear bag, bulging with video heads, rigs, sound equipment and cords of all kinds. Stax’ backpack bears the weight of the camera equipment.

Groundwater sprays up from under the fender. I can only hope that the gear bag isn’t getting soaked through.

We pull into a gas station where a bleary-eyed Seiha is waiting. It’s too early for words and we’re in a hurry. We park briefly in a yellow pool of light. Stax quickly hops off the back of the bike and climbs aboard Seiha’s scooter.

For this last part of the journey to the family’s home, we can’t both be aboard this bike. The tiny Honda Dream  – the only one the place had left – is underpowered to say the least and rides dangerously low to the ground.

Overnight the heavy rains have swelled the puddles on the dirt road to lakes and the few paths not underwater are basically rock-strewn mud traps. Mangy-looking dogs scamper out from dark doorways and into the road. We swerve around them.

I follow Seiha’s taillight closely. This densely packed neighborhood is still a virtual maze to my sleep-addled mind. But suddenly I’m forced to stop. Seiha, pulling further and further ahead, doesn’t notice.

I’ve reached a puddle that is so deep and wide that it consumes the entire roadway and looks to have partially flooded the ground floor of the houses on either side. I hesitate. Seiha’s taillights are now far ahead. I can barely make them out anymore. He’s cleared the puddle easily. But he’s also lighter overall, and the suspension on his bike is also at least 8 inches higher than mine.

I slowly edge the bike forward into the water, sputtering through, keeping to the outside as much as possible. My sandals drag across the surface of the mini-pond.

I hope there won’t be a deep hole somewhere that will swallow my tire, I hope there’s no glass that will slice into the rubber, I hope a stone won’t jam into my undercasing, I hope the water won’t flood the exhaust system and choke the engine and foul the plugs and short out the electric or worse – and above all,  I hope that when I look down the precious gear bag itself won’t be half-submerged in the water.

I’m almost through when an unseen obstacle stops my front tire cold. The poor bike jerks and just about tips over into the drink. Why didn’t I rent a proper motorcyle? I curse myself.

I’m forced to give the throttle some more juice. Whatever the obstacle is, let’s hope it isn’t sharp. The motor whines. The back tire spins and fishes out pathetically. Then suddenly the front suspension pops up over the lip of a giant divot. The tire slams down on the road. Just like that, I’m out.

I gaze ahead, giving the engine a good rev to clear the system of mud and water.

I’ve lost Seiha. I can only hope my brain – as many of you know, not the greatest with directions – can remember the convoluted route from our brief shoot last night.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Getting to The Wedding

The security guard raises his foot, holds down the start button and stomps down for the umpteenth time on the choke lever of our scooter. The taillight weakly flickers. The engine emits a strangled chug. Then, silence.

It’s 4 a.m. on our second day of shooting, we need to get all the way across Phnom Penh and arrive at the family’s house by 5 a.m. to film one of the most important parts of the Khmer wedding – the Groom’s Procession – and our motorbike won’t start.

We parked it outside of our hostel in the BKK district here in Phnom Penh the night before, after getting back from dinner at our new favorite restaurant, Anise. We didn’t count on the torrential rain and thunderstorms that fell most of the night.

And now it appears we may have a short somewhere in the engine at the worst time it could happen.

Stax and I take over the kick-starting duties while the hostel security guards inspect the spark plugs and wipe down various connecting wires.

It’s looking completely hopeless – should we hire a car? Can we even reach one at this early hour? How will the huge luxury edition Toyota Camrys they use here as taxis manage to squeeze through the narrow mud roads of the family’s neighborhood, roads that hardly even allow two motorbikes side by side, let alone a large sedan?

It’s now 4:30 a.m.. We are officially running late to the Groom’s Procession.

Then suddenly, a mysterious tuk tuk drives up and parks in front of us.  A rumpled-looking city police officer emerges from the seating compartment. At first I think we might be in trouble for raising such a ruckus at this hour. But then it becomes clear the guards know him and he’s only here to help.

Probably, one of the guards called him at a loss with our situation, woke him up, and sent a tuk tuk over to collect him. He looks pretty tired.

The police officer notes our obvious agitation, takes one look at the bike, smiles, then calmly flips up the kickstand. He gestures for me to try the starter again. Miraculously, it starts up right away.

What it has taken 30 minutes for us to realize is that with this type of bike, the kickstand being down will prevent the engine from starting. It has nothing to do with the rain or anything else.

The guards look a trifle sheepish. The police officer shrugs.

“These guys.” He points at the guards. “Not so smart.”

This causes all the guards to laugh hysterically for several seconds. We thank the police officer and the guards who worked so tirelessly, then we take off, speeding through the early morning traffic around the Independence Monument roundabout, then out to the highway toward the University.

We don’t have a minute to lose. We have to get to that procession!

TO BE CONTINUED…