Furthur (V)

Krakor, Cambodia

Kompong Loung

Boats and houses on an overcast day

Kompong Luong, Pursat province, Cambodia

08:00: Faced with another enormous breakfast, M. and I go on hunger strike.

09:00: Interviews at a karaoke bar in Krakor. My attempts to discreetly take photographs of the environment for use in an eventual report are somewhat frustrated by the fact that every time I step outside the gate, every child for six kilometres around appears and starts shouting “hello, hello”. The adults look on bemused, wondering why the funny-looking foreigner is taking pictures of the gateposts of the local brothel.

10:00: We move on to the establishment down the road, a distinct step downmarket. There is no bar or television, just a roofed compound centered on a wire cage filled with cans of beer and boxes of cigarettes. The girls, who are older and plainer than in the first place, work in little free-standing shacks that look barely large enough to contain a bed.

10:15: The owner’s son, who is about twelve months old, senses that his older sister is getting more maternal attention than he is, and resolves the problem by pummelling her with all his force until she runs away, crying. He then wails loudly until his mother leans out of her hammock to pick him up. This display of precocious masculine power causes smiles all round. I find it less endearing, and I’m not sorry when the sight of so many strange faces causes his lower lip to curl in genuine distress and he hides his face in his mother’s chest. It’ll do the little tyrant good to experience some trauma of his own.

10:30: The guy from the Pursat NGO gives me a lift down to the river on the back of his motorbike. The day is dark and overcast and Kompong Loung looks like the end of the world. A line of grubby shacks sprawls across a muddy floodplain strewn with garbage. Offshore, floating houses loll in the grimy waters of the river, and a group of men sit on their motorbikes in the shallow water.

12:30: We go to another roadside restaurant for lunch, and M. types up her notes. The customers and staff do their best to look as if having foreigners pull out an iBook and start typing in the middle of the fish course was the most natural thing in the world.

13:00: Back in the bus. Furthur.

14:45: M. and I get out at Oudong, site of an important hilltop shrine, while the others return to Phnom Penh. K. helps us find a guy with a motorbike to drive us from the road to the main site.

15:00: We climb the stairs to the shrine. About every ten steps, there is a heart-rendingly crippled, aged, blind or infirm person shaking a cup. The parade of misery is slightly less overwhelming than the Boschian gauntlet of horrors that awaits anyone crossing the border at Poipet, but only just. Buddhist visitors, of course, acquire merit by giving money to each of the deserving in turn, but we have foolishly forgotten to provide ourselves with enough small bills. Tossing a dollar bill to every fifth beggar and saying “Here, divide this among you” doesn’t seem like a good idea, especially since we are carrying barely enough to get us back to Phnom Penh.

15:15: Having visited the shrine, we are pursued downhill by two small children chanting “You give me one doll-ah.” M. and I acquire vast quantities of merit by resisting the temptation to give the little monsters a good kicking.

15:30: We stumble onto the grounds of a vast new Buddhist center, around which squads of orange-robed monks and white-robed nuns are working with shovels and picks in the broiling sun. As we watch them work, an older monk detaches himself from the work crew and greets us in good French. He turns out to be an former petty officer of the Royal Cambodian Navy, and is eager to tell us all about the project.

15:45: Our new friend shows us the principal features of the site and leads us into a small building overlooking the meditation center. On the second floor, the founder of the center reposes inside a large glass-topped freezer cabinet. M. and I take turns to reverently ascend a short stepladder and peer down on him. He has been dead for three years and aside from a rather yellowish cast, a severe case of five o’clock shadow and some general gnarliness about the hands and face, he looks in pretty good shape. As I try my best to compose my features to convey the blend of interest and piety that I believe to be appropriate when contemplating deep-frozen Buddhists, I am struck by the thought that there’s enough space left over in the cabinet for a few tubs of ice cream and some frozen pizzas. I descend the stepladder carefully, trying hard to banish the mental image of a dozen ice-cream cones peeping out from under his saffron robes and taking great care not to meet M.’s eye for even a second.

15:50: Our guide invites us to kneel down and receive the blessing of his two elderly colleagues, who are kneeling in meditation beside the cabinet. I put some money down on the offering vessel, and they at once begin to chant rapidly in Pali, pausing every thirty seconds or so to hurl handfuls of lotus blossoms at us both. I bow my head slightly and do my best to assume the expression of gratitude and respect that I imagine to be called for when being pelted with plant matter by elderly sages.

15:52: The holy men run out of things to throw. We bow deeply and make our escape.

16:30: We get a ride to Phnom Penh from a man whose total English vocabulary consists of the words “five dollar”.

17:15: Just past Chruoy Changvar, we run into the mother of all traffic jams, and after fifteen minutes sitting immobile in a sea of motos, we end up getting out and walking the rest of the way.