Sisophon, Cambodia


Two young men and a monk on a moto

Sisophon, Banteay Meanchey, Cambodia

05:00: The amplified chanting from next door, which stopped about 21:00 last night, resumes full-force.

08:15: A dog runs under the front wheel of the moto directly ahead of us. Somehow, the driver regains control, and the pregnant woman sitting sidesaddle on the back manages - just - to keep both her seat and the bicycle she is holding, avoiding a spill onto the roadway that would have put the moto and everyone on it under our car. This looks like being a good day for everyone except the dog.

09:00: We set out for Sisophon in a Mercedes microbus. In addition to the driver, M. and myself, there are two of M.’s colleagues from the NGO she is working for, plus three outreach workers. We have five packs of bottled water, a great many toilet rolls and about a hundredweight of coffee-flavored candies. M. dissuades me from painting “Furthur” on the front of the bus.

10:00: North on National Road 5, a two-lane road that runs up through Pursat and Battambang. The first fifteen kilometres or so are heavily settled by Cham Muslims, so there are almost as many mosques as wats along the road and at times the crowds on either side seem almost entirely composed of women in headscarves and men in white skull caps. We pass a long line of oxcarts coming down from Kompong Chhnang, pulled by pairs of white bullocks and laden with earthenware packed in straw.

11:00: M. is extending her Khmai vocabulary by asking K. for any word that comes into her head. So far, she has learned the names of six types of vehicle and four kinds of fruit. I have learned to call her a “drunk woman”.

12:00: We stop for the first of the many enormous meals we will eat over the next few days.

14:00: North-western Cambodia is not featureless. It’s just that the same features repeat over and over again, all the way to the hazy horizon. We pass a long succession of dry fields stippled with tall palm trees, dusty wooden shacks, muddy ponds full of ducks or semi-submerged water buffalo. Chickens, dogs and cows wander along the verge and flirt with death in the traffic. The driver brakes respectfully for the cows, but the others have to take their chances.

16:00: The road, which has been exceptionally good so far — about the quality of a decent rural road in the US – starts to show signs of wear, and the driver is forced to work his way around potholes more frequently. We see an increasing number of trailers pulled by Chinese mini-tractors, known locally as koh-yun: “electric buffalo”.

16:30: After a day listening to clangy, jangly Khmai, my ears are ringing.

16:45: The first three hotels we try in Sisophon are fully booked, so we end up in a guest house on the Siem Reap road. The road is unmade red dirt, and everything on either side is coated to the eaves in rust-colored dust.

17:15: C. appears wearing an immaculate two-piece seersucker pantsuit, putting the cis girls to shame for sheer elegance.

17:30: We manage to rendezvous with the local team leader, who will take us to the red-light district for interviews and outreach work. This renders moot my suggestion that we could cruise the town shouting “Yo! Where the whores at, bro?” from the bus windows.