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!

Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part II!

Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part II

by Stax

Stax describes the moment and aftermath of a teensy accident the Misadventurists had while attempting to reach Wat Banan (AGAIN)!. Reblogged from Stax

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

I have a pretty good memory. I don’t forget many things nor do I lose [many] items. But there is one second in my life that is gone, a fluttering moment in time that my mind could not, until recently, recall. Let me try to capture it.

Beej and I are driving down a rural Cambodian road on a rented motorbike, wind whipping through my hair, sun shining bright above us, trees swaying in the wind, birds singing. Then – A lost, weightless moment like a skipped frame in an old 16mm film –  we are sideways on the ground, skidding at 30km per hour across rough gravel and dirt on the edge of the road.

Later I manage to piece together the fragments. A monstrous white Toyota F150 (250? 350? – the one with four wheels in back) passes us extremely close on the left, so close that my…

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Battambang, Cambodia: The Wreck, Part One

by Beej and Stax

The wreck happens during our third attempt in three days to reach Wat Banan, a five-towered hillside Buddhist temple thirty kilometers west of Battambang.

We have heard from other travelers to expect a steep and exhausting climb in the 100 degree heat and humidity to the top of the temple once we arrive. The reward, though, will be a spectacular view from the top – a tableau of steaming far-below fields stretching all the way to the Cardamom Mountains in the south and the Thai border to the northwest.

On our first attempt to reach Banan, we went the wrong way and found ourselves lost among a maze of shacks and muddy dirt roads. Par for the course in Cambodia, on the map it just looked like we simply needed to follow the river.

“This way. This way,” cried an older male.

He got up from his chair on the side of the dirt road we were struggling down. It was a terrible road, but it was a road we had hoped (since it followed the river) would eventually cut across to the paved Wat Banan route. Now we were sure it was a dead end.

One of the guy’s arm waved while the other held a beer can. He pointed down toward a smaller narrow path that cut off to the right.

We looked at each other. Here we were, two obvious foreigners driving without a guide through a tiny village away from populated areas, and a strange man appears, pointing us toward a lone footpath leading into a field with lots of tree cover. It looks like it just wanders off into the jungle. Should we be trusting this guy? We’ve heard a lot about scams and to be wary of strangers, especially in this province where the Khmer Rouge had so recently been top dog.

Suddenly, a few more guys from the village appear. They all start pointing in the same direction.

So we find ourselves off-roading the motorbike through the trees and across the large field, despite dire warnings from locals to avoid makeshift trails in small villages outside of Battambang. The reason? These fields quite often are littered with buried, unexploded American shells and mines, from back in the day when America believed the greatest threat to the free world was from a few thousand subsistence-level farmers with no running water in the rural backwaters of Southeast Asia, and so set about dropping more mines and bombs on Cambodia in just several months than they did throughout the whole theater of World War II.

These unexploded ordinance explode on the daily – it’s so common, we were told nobody even looks up when a distant mine explosion is heard – and kill or maim whoever happens to be in the vicinity. Luckily it wasn’t our day to die. And of course the villagers meant well and were correct. After holding our breaths across the field, we finally reached the main road.

But we had started out late as it was. We still had over 30 km to ride, our bike peaked at 40 km/hr and the sun was sinking below the horizon. Visibility even without our busted right headlight (that’s what kind of motorbike $4 a day gets you) would be nil on our long ride back, and people were driving more idiotically than usual due to the busy Khmer New Year holiday. So we decided to scrap the plan for the day.

The next day we started out fresh, ready to reach Wat Banan by the early afternoon. In town, the sky was blue, birds tweeted, what have you. But immediately outside the city, a fell wind blew. Huge black and green clouds massed, taking up the entire southern skyline, and mean-looking streaks of lightning snaked out along the horizon to the south, just about where our destination lay. It was like gazing into the gloom of Mordor from the top of Minas Tirith.

“It’ll blow over”, I thought, and we started out. But it didn’t blow over. Halfway to the temple and lightning struck all around us, wind gusts threatened to dislodge us from the bike altogether, and thunder clapped so loud and constant we hardly heard the engine. Most ominously, other motorbikes were few and far between. Finally we had to turn back.

I’ll admit I was a bit discouraged by this point. But I can be stubborn to the point of idiocy. We would reach this Wat, no matter wat! And the next morning, the sun shines and the birds sing and… oh man, this is our day! Or so I think.

To Be Continued

Battambang, Cambodia: An Unexpected Journey

by Beej

2014-04-14_1397483816

Stax and I are headed to Battambang to check out a traditional wedding exhibition involving dozens of couples that is supposed to take place at a temple outside of town as part of the Khmer New Year celebration.

It is supposed to take 5 hours from Phnom Penh to Battambang. It ends up taking 8. To clarify, this is an eight hour bus trip for a 291 km distance (for you ‘Mericans this amounts to a paltry 180 miles, or what some folks commute during one day.)

Road conditions make default slow pace of Cambodian buses yet slower – deep ruts and giant pits force the bus driver to detour off into open fields several times, resulting in a crashingly bumpy ride akin to a safari.

In a noble but misguided attempt to distract us from the discomfort, the driver and his obligatory sidekick play scratched-up DVDs on a small screen up front (all Cambodian bus drivers have a sort of buddy who rides up in front with them, yaks with them constantly, nudges them awake to take over driving duties when they eventually nod off during their epic hauls).

The first movie is an early John Woo crime melodrama – made in the early 1980s, evidently before Woo found his groove. It consists of:

1. An excruciating Olivia Newton John-inspired pop soundtrack pumped up to full volume and blasted out of fuzzy speakers just above our heads

2. Ultra-“serious” histrionics – meaning half of the running time is given over to tight shots of women’s faces crumpling slow-motion in anguish;

3. Incomprehensible shootouts in pitch blackness with fakey blood; and

4. Dubbing into Khmer that sounds as if a Cambodian man and woman yelled all the lines into a cheap mic placed at the bottom of a plastic bucket in a Phnom Penh warehouse.

Also I don’t think the voice actors actually saw any of the movie they were dubbing over, because all lines are delivered at the exact same volume and tone- the man a monotone clipped yammer, the woman a shrill wail just short of a scream. After the dubbing session the poor woman must have been coughing blood for a week.

With some earplugs though, this all becomes manageable after a while.

I’m drifting off to beddy-bye when the bus shudders to a sudden stop. Not so unusual given the driving patterns here, where people pull out in front of you quickly. Then 30 minutes elapses with no movement. I part my window curtain to see what could be happening out there.

My bleary eyes adjust to the blazing shadowless midday sun. We are mired in a massive traffic jam just outside of a small farming station. Dozens and dozens of Khmer agricultural workers, most of them women in groups, walk quickly across wide brown plowed fields toward the work station about a kilometer up the road.

So many workers hurry this way toward the station, faces tight, unspeaking, I deduce something unusual has happened. Their body language suggests people who are trying not to panic while evacuating a disaster zone. But this far back, and stuck in this jam, it’s impossible to discern any problem. My first thought is that the road has gone out – either that or a bad accident.

Then I see the bus. Or what used to be a bus. Now it’s a hulking 12-meter long shell, windowless and smoldering and hissing smack in the middle of the road. The billowing smoke stings the nostrils with the sweet, acrid chemical smell of shorted-out wire plastic coating.

The bus still stands upright on its wheels as we pass, so it must have caught on fire while driving. The workers probably heard the explosions from where they’ve been in the fields and feared the worst.

Workers rush toward an accident at a field station near Battambang. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

Luckily we see no blackened forms welded to the seats, no piles of cinders on the asphalt barely recognizable as people. The passengers escaped without harm.

I think briefly of the grinding gears, the probable sparking of the bottoming-out exhaust carriage, the oven-like heat of the day, and the persistent smell of oil and clutch fluid on, well, all buses. I think of how unknowingly fortunate the majority of passengers are to survive long hot journeys on these old Korean clunkers.

Not so fortunate are the two poor men laid out unconscious on the road as we pass the field station. Their motorbikes, from which they have recently been violently separated, lay dented and twisted out in the ditch, so much scrap metal. Their flip flops are scattered on different parts of the road several meters back. The men appear to be on death’s door.

One man’s face resembles a giant purple-black bruise. His eyes are close. The flesh of his elbows and knees look like chewed up Fancy Feast cat food and a raw, serrated gash runs from his hip  down to his calves. The other man is in even worse shape – totally motionless, features completely obscured by blood and dust, arm bent behind his head, one spindly-fingered hand flopped out almost like he’s waving at us awkwardly, but backwards.

A crowd stands silently surrounding the men, bending over them curiously, faces blank, while a thin figure crouches down apparently trying to wake them up with sharp claps. It doesn’t seem to be working.

A huge irrigation truck plows toward us from a dirt outlet road and parks himself directly in front of the line of traffic that has been slowing down on the opposite lane, swinging around the melee widely to look at the accident. These rubberneckers have been the ones obstructing the Battambang-bound traffic.

And just like that, we are roaring past the men, the smoking bus, the crowds and the workers, the blazing fields. The sudden momentum splashes me out of my waking dream. The clipped yammer of the man on the silly dubbed John Woo movie assaults my ears. The movie has been rattling on this entire time and is now just at it’s end point. I look up dumbly at the screen.

From a lens that appears to have been smeared with petroleum jelly, the legendary director has captured a funeral party gathered around an open grave in a green cemetery.

The huge gleaming 1980s perms and scarecrow-like shoulder pads of the silently weeping Chinese women on the screen fill me with distaste. Just underneath the distaste lies a weird emotion I can only describe as dread.

I quickly yank back the sliding window to let the hot wind flow past my sweating face. This doesn’t help matters. I’m ready for this ride to be over.

The Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeu: or How Cambodia’s History Continues to Break My Heart

Stax describes the overwhelming experience of visiting the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeu.

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

We walk up a short hill through thick green vegetation. The flowers surrounding us smell so delicious, I want to drink them in a tea or press them onto my skin.

From up on top of this 1000 foot limestone mountaintop, the highest peak for miles around, you can see why Battambang has been nicknamed “the Rice Bowl of Cambodia”– rice fields run as far as the eye can see below.

My tiny young Cambodian guide leads us to a set of stone stairs that will take us down into a dank cave. He pauses, then points to his left. I crane my neck to see where he is gesturing. Then I see a second, smaller opening in the same cave system.

“You can go there,” he says.

I walk over and look down into the dark hole. I would need to get on my belly to squeeze through this…

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The Cats of Wat Phnom

Beej thought that the spoiled temple cats of Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, were even more interesting than the temple itself (let’s face it, sometimes what he finds interesting boggles the mind), so here’s a little vid he shot and edited of them lazing around and spying on the visitors.

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.

Where Am I?

Stax steps into the Happy Place in Phnom Penh, only to find herself in the world’s first Aussie-run, Cambodian-Californian fusion, fair-trade organic shade-grown New Guinea coffee-brewing, and American honkytonk music- playing burger joint.

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

p20140407-095500 The Ha:ppiness is Here in Phnom Penh

When I close my eyes, I could almost swear (if I were the swearing type) that I’m in a honky-tonk bar. Country and western twang, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley tunes drift languidly on the a/c currents circulating about the room.

When I open my eyes, I see the restaurant’s dedication to East and West Coast styles of the U.S.: The noodle/juice/coffee bar is so California, while the modernist look with its clean lines, simple white and green color palette accentuating concrete floors and wood paneled walls remind me of places I’ve been to in NYC.

Stepping outside of the air-conditioned building, I’m knocked over the head with heat. I breathe in thick, humid air, tasting bits of dust and oil as motorbikes buzz and whir by. I’m definitely in Phnom Phen.

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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…

Quiz: Where in the World are the Misadventurists?

by Stax

Beej and I are sometimes so intent on not following the beaten path that we do things like visit major tourist attractions at night when everything we would want to see is already closed. Then instead of sleeping in regular places like “beds,” we opt for open-air train station benches, covering ourselves with sleeping bags, huddling together for warmth while enjoying the company of one tweaked-out local as he tries to feed us sausages in between spastically moving about and talking to himself in rapid Czech.

Whomever correctly guesses the name of the historical site one kilometer away from where Beej and I spent the night on the train station bench –  email us at misadventuristfilms@gmail.com OR send us a private message on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Misadventurist-Films

 If the answer is correct, we’ll put your name in a drawing. The person whose name we draw will receive a prize: a postcard from wherever we are with your very own personalized note!

Here is the clue:

In 1278, Henry, the abbot of a certain Cistercian monastery, was sent to the Holy Land by King Otakar II of Bohemia. He returned with a pocket full of Golgatha dirt and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery. The word of this act spread throughout Central Europe and the cemetery became a desirable burial site.

Conveniently, the monks somehow figured out that one year was enough for your bones to be buried for you to receive complete absolution. And then they could dig up your body and sell your plot to the next person.

With the combination of Black Death running rampant throughout Europe and the 30 Years War, this nifty profit scheme became a bit untenable. The graveyard filled up much too quickly for even a one year corpse residency to be viable.

By 1511 half-blind monks (or blind depending on your sources) were tasked with exhuming skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel.

By 1870, the House of Schwarzenberg had taken over the chapel and decided it was time to put the 40,000 bones to rest. They hired a local woodcarver, František Rint, who artistically arranged them into some of the most interesting and macabre art.

Guess the name of this historical site. We’ll announce the winner in 3 days (July 9)!