The road to Battambang

Compared to the sprawling metropolis Phnom Penh, the riverside town of Battambang is positively monastic. Our hotel in Phnom Penh was steps away from the city’s Central Market, Sorya Shopping Mall, Psar Thmei bus station and the intersection of Monivong and Kampuchea Krom boulevards. I daresay there were more people within one square mile of where we were staying than in the entire city proper in Battambang.

After a long day’s drive, a short rest at the hotel and an evening of entertaining the kids from Battambang 1, 4 and 5 children’s homes and a really disappointing meal at a restaurant we all used to like, we’re whooped. Kori’s putting Xiu Dan to bed, and the boys are in their room watching Cartoon Network. 

Driving in Phnom Penh is textbook “sensory overload.” If you have personal space issues, the walls and windows of your car will just barely keep you sane — bicycles, motorcycles, buses, cyclo-rickshaws, petrol trucks, cars and tuk-tuks press in on every side. Hawkers and beggars hover around your windows at each intersection, waving flowers, newspapers and snacks and grubby, outstretched hands pleading futilely for you to either buy or donate something. Cynical and corrupt police officers — sometimes in groups of six or seven — stalk street corners seeking hapless victims unfortunate enough to be driving without suitable headgear, proper  registration, or sufficient levels of melanin (driving while white is, apparently, a citable offense). The sidewalks are choked with motorcycles, cars, grills, children, dogs, welders (add hookers and drug dealers after 7pm) and makeshift repair shops, some moving, some blocking the movement of others.

Leaving the city takes a while. In fact, it seems to take about an hour to get anywhere like “not-Phnom Penh,” but once you’ve broken free of the city’s hold, things get pretty rural pretty quickly. And speaking of “pretty,” this is a beautiful country. Unless you’re traveling during the height of the dry season, the Cambodian countryside stretches out endlessly on either side of the road in an almost Gaelic patchwork of emerald rice farms. If I wasn’t always in such a hurry to get places, I could turn the 5 hour drive to Battambang into a daylong photo safari epic that would probably win me some sort of an award. Just today I saw at least one hundred perfect vistas for which a more ambitious photographer would have fought a live bear.

Along much of National Road 5, droopy cows chew grass idly while naked brown toddlers sit with ancient, turbanned grandmothers in front of rickety tin shacks selling diesel fuel in Fanta bottles. Tiny schoolkids in dusty blue shorts and cloudy white shirts careen past on adult-sized bicycles while massive grey water buffalo plod by obdurately, chest deep in muddy paddies ready for new rice seedlings, sown meticulously by exhausted daylaborers hobbling perpetually in a painful hunch. Gigantic tanker trucks filled with 20,000 liters of petrol pass perilously, blasting horns in a high-speed and high-stake game of chicken with luggage-laden passenger buses and skinny young dogs feign alertness, guarding some unknown boundary line along — and sometimes upon — the busy road.

About 3 hours in, much of the traffic disappears — evaporating into tiny villages and unseen sideroads — and road stretches out like a carpenter’s chalk line from horizon to horizon. Although most of the terrain is perfectly flat, it’s punctuated by the occasional lonely green mountain, invariably capped by a golden wat, its crenelations glistening like a dancer’s tiara. It’s the kind of place where you can see a rainstorm a half hour away, and where I can really get lost in melancholy speculations about what might life might have been like for my son — my buffalo boy —  had he been raised by his birth family in a rice farming village in rural Vietnam. In my mirror I can see Chien staring blankly out the window, and I wish he really would take me up on my cash offer of a penny for his thoughts. Ben Folds plays sings “everybody knows it sucks to grow up” on the car stereo. Really. It’s kind of a moment.

The real treasure, however, is the destination. The people, not the town — Battambang itself offers little in touristic or aesthetic value. We visited three of our six children’s homes last night, and proved to ourselves once again that the kids here are just as wonderful as the kids we just left in Phnom Penh. We were so tired from our drive that I decided to leave the camera in the car and just enjoy the hugs and the laughter without the pressure of capturing any of it for posterity.

We played and played until Kori whispered to me, “Our kids are really  tired, honey.” Tomorrow we'll hang out at the hotel and relax before heading out to the homes after lunch.

This time, I’ll spare you some adjectives and I’ll actually take some pictures.

John McCollumComment