Southeast Asia Journal 14: April 5, 2010

Journal April 5, 2010

Daybreak on the roof of Battambang

Today was probably one of the most moving days of any of my trips thus far.  I was taken by a river boat through the most poverty-stricken areas I have ever seen.  The “slow-boat,” as they call it, was more like a river taxi, once we were well into the “neighborhoods” of floating villages.

To start my day, I awoke at the ugly hour of 6:00 a.m. in order to make my way to the boat headed toward Siem Reap.  The night before, I told my driver to come and pick me up at about 6:30 so that I would have enough time to check in and buy some food to eat on what I was told would be a 6 – 7 hour trip through the Sangker River headed toward the Tonle Sap (lake abutting Siem Reap).  Well, when I finally dragged downstairs at about that time, a large number of the most desperate looking men surrounded me on all sides.  My driver was nowhere to be seen.  They were all pleading with me to pay them one dollar to drive me six blocks and drop me off at the dock.  I couldn’t tell whether or not they were driven by drugs, hunger or eight starving children.  But I was eventually so frustrated by them berating me that after about five minutes of not seeing my driver, I told one the saddest looking of the lot that I would let him drive me to the boat.

Needless to say, when I got there, I was asked for more money.  I stood my ground.  I am tiring quickly of all of this constant edginess and being followed just because I am white.  I do indeed understand the problems of poverty – or, as this passage will denote, I will soon understand it more – but I get very winded when my space is constantly invaded by people, their hands all over me, tugging on my clothing and asking me to buy this or that or shouting their sob story at me.  I feel bad, I do, but it just gets old quick.

The dock was a strange place to hang out.  I had my ticket in hand from the day before because my driver wanted to make sure I had a seat.  That’s one of the best things about hiring a driver; as long as you pay them at the end of the day, they provide some excellent services to you.  They look out for your interests as well as hold on to your bags while you are away seeing the sights, they act as translators and as mediums to keep out the riffraff – seeing as they are also protecting their source of income from a frustrating encounter they might otherwise run away from – and they know all the best spots in town,

Map of Cambodia

the cheapest hotels, the most coveted photo-spots and the best advice for travel to surrounds.

The sour part comes when you get the “the bad one.” There has long been a breed of drivers who scheme and plot in all ways possible to get from their fare the most they can.  This is the notoriously shifty tuk-tuk driver – the ugly step-cousin; the proverbial rooster-in-the-hen-house to the honest, hard-working bike taxi community.  And they do work hard, there’s no doubt about that.  But there is a bastardized assemblage of conniving men who go into the town, hook up with several restaurants, places of dodgy business and form with the shiftless management of these establishments and once their fare is in-tow, they will not bring them anywhere else.  It’s like a continual conveyor belt of traveler that they attract which they hope will remain dumb to their game as long as they are in that town so that they spend money only in these specific places – everyone gets a cut.

I am not even really upset about this way of doing things.  It’s underhanded, granted, but it’s not illegal, and it is a way to make better money in a completely underprivileged society.  I get it.  You have to do what needs to be done to put food on the table.  But I just don’t like it.

That said, I made my way to the seats to await the boat and went to grab some breakfast.  There was a police officer standing nearby, so I decided to give my back a rest and leave my backpack in the chair next to him.  He’s a policeman, what could go wrong, right?

Upon my return, I find that two younger gentlemen have been picking at the locks on my bag – just keeping people honest – and the policeman is sort of leaning over them to see if they can get it open and catch a glimpse of what’s inside!  I couldn’t believe it.  I walked up behind them casually and the officer, who was the first one to notice my presence, kind of patted the shoulder of one of the teens prodding at my bag and the two turned in shock to see me hovering over them.  They smiled sheepishly and got up to pick another seat as I sat and began to ensure that they had indeed not breeched the bag.  All was intact.

They may have been complete nunces, but they were fashionable – as far as fashion goes here.  In the last decade or so, kids have been wearing their pants low on their waste, sometimes well below.  This works for the most part as long as you include a belt.  And though, this kids had the feet of an 80-year-old man and no shoes to cover them, it seemed that he had gone and spent all of his money on the pants alone, rather than to save up for the shoes and belt to go along with them.

I started to eat the bread-hotdog-herb crust combo, unique to this area, and heard a ruckus taking place just behind me.  I looked quickly and couldn’t really tell what it was I was looking at.  I don’t think that my brain computed what my eyes were imputing for at least five or so seconds.  Then it came to me; I was staring down the tailpipe of that very young man who was poking at my bag.  His pants had fallen down and he was fumbling to retrieve them – unsuccessfully, I might add.  It was all there – everything.  All that Cambodia has to offer, just dangling there before me.   Once I realized what was happening, I just grabbed my bag and moved to the other bench.  These two kids were sharing about 35 – 40 brain cells between them.  They were two boneheads of the highest order.  And in about five minutes I would find out another interesting thing about them; they were the drivers.

But inside those five minutes I would be hassled yet another time.  Apparently my delinquent tuk-tuk driver showed up at the hotel to find me gone and was so furious that he came to find me and tell me all about it while I waited for the boat.  This was going to be an interesting – though enlightening – ride.

You see on the commercials about organizations in place around the world helping out impoverished areas to get schools, medicine, clothing, food and shelter.  Well, this is the type of place that they make these commercials.  When I was in Peru, I thought I had seen poverty in Central America.  But

Bathing in the river

Peru took the cake.  Now that I have seen this place, I really have to say that this is definitely the worst that I have ever seen.  I thought that I would not be so saddened after having seen those other places – those places where children are digging barefoot through trash heaps to find food and things to sell on the streets, where the governments had long forgotten about them, where aid won’t reach because these places aren’t even on the map.  But I was wrong.  I was very touched by what I saw and it proved to me that no matter how much of it I see, I can never get used to it, grow comfortable with it or feel okay about it.  And it certainly makes me feel fortunate to have been born anywhere else other than places like these – much less in a country where, even if I disagree with most of its policies, they do much more for their less fortunate.

The river is their bath, food source and toilet

The importance of education was the first thing to strike me as what’s needed here.  I thought, ‘If they only knew that there were little organisms and parasites growing in that water that you’re bathing your child in; that you and your children are brushing your teeth with; that you’re cooking with; that you’re drinking, perhaps you would not be doing this.’  But as I watched boat after boat and village after village pass, I realized that this is not some connected place.  The people that we were dropping off were bringing back lots of supplies and food that they had likely saved money for a long time to buy.’  So it’s not like they can just import clean drinking, cooking and bathing water.  So what then?

Then my thoughts roamed a while longer and I thought, ‘why wouldn’t these people realize their location as one that is not the most beneficial or

Floating Church - the only western influence I have seen so far

opportune?’  And of course I remembered back to my conversation about how these people had been chase from their homes, raped, tortured, murdered – slaughtered, really.  Of course they would flee to the most difficult place to find.  And so

A young river girl watches as my boat passes

they came here.  And here they stay, living the life that is the safest – even with a staggering infant mortality rate due to parasitic infestation.  It wouldn’t even surprise me to find out that there are probably some people here who haven’t yet realized that the occupation is over.  That is why this is the worst of the poverty that I have seen to date.

Knowing all that I have seen, that is an amazingly appalling thing.

Because this is the end of the wet season and the beginning of the long, hot summer, the water was very low.  So low, in fact, that the two sac-sporting, toothless, thieving, teen nitwits driving the boat got us lodged against the bottom of the river several times.  This was to be the last transport through this area, they told me.  After this the river would be too shallow.  I was not disappointed to find out that these hopeless, pubescent skippers would be manning their last ship of the season.

One would run and jump into the filthy water to push the boat back into the deeper area while the other one would gun the throttle and wedge us in just a little deeper into the muck.  They were not very coordinated.  No real

Sleeping sailors

communication took place between them as one would throttle and the other would slip and slide around in the mud.  They hustled, though, I will give them that.  They really worked at it.  Well, until about four hours into the trip when I looked up to the front to see them both sleeping, having gotten a child to steer the boat.

Floating Basketball court

Once we got throughthe lowest of the waters, the villages became more and more “advanced.” There was everything from floating markets, to floating restaurants, to floating churches – even a floating basketball court!  I really couldn’t believe just how much effort was put into keeping this place… afloat (sorry, I had to).

Once we crossed the lake, it was back into the dusty, arid climes headed into town.  I thought that I might have seen the last of the polluted lifestyle, but really, it just got worse.  Instead of having a flowing body of water in which to dump all of your trash, feces and unwanted items, the areas I would pass through only had standing water.  So there were ultimately stagnant pools of stench rather than a steady flow of it.  Between the two, take my word for it, I’d “go with the flow” (again, sorry – how could I pass up these puns?)

Tonight I went to book a hotel and hire a driver for tomorrow’s festivities which will include seeing something that I have wanted to see for a long time, Angkor Wat and surrounding ruins.  I found out that things are much more expensive here.  It is really unbelievable.  As it happens, there have been a series of wealthy investors come in and hire up all of the drivers, pay them to only drive the tourists to their hotels and restaurants and have thereby effectively muscled out all of the low-budget hostels and backpacker eateries.  I can’t tell whether or not I like it because I want to see more money come into this place, but at the same time, I know that this money is likely only lining the pockets of a few already wealthy individuals while keeping the low-rent business in the red.  Plus, it’s always nice to know that you can still travel cheaply and help out the smaller businesses.  But since I couldn’t seem to find anything like that, I am now sitting in an air-conditioned, cushy mattress-ed, wall-to-wall tiled, four-star resort complete with sauna, a swimming pool, breakfast bar, room fridges and even a jetted bathtub.  I haven’t seen a bathtub in six months!  It’s too late tonight to indulge, but soon enough…. Oh yes… soon enough.

Please enjoy this photo gallery as I have enjoyed making it.


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