April 24, 2008

Even without the obligatory border check, you would know that you have entered Cambodia from Vietnam. Lush vegetation petered out to sparse shrubs in an arid landscape. Rolling terrain leveled off to a horizon-bordered flatland. This was my first impression of Cambodia, a country I would soon fall in love with.

Dry, Dusty, Deserted: Cambodian Savanna

Any traveller could conveniently fly into Phomn Penh or Siem Reap, but a backpacker who counted every penny’s worth would eschew comfort and convenience for experience and adventure. So it was that I took a bus from Saigon, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

To put things in local perspective: Cambodia was probably only half the size of the Philippines, but more compact. It was a squarish country that seemed vaster than its actual size. I had barely seen any elevation in the 20 hours I had spent on its dusty roads.

Bus or Bust

The potentially bum-busting ride from Saigon should not be a deterrent. Sapaco (Saigon Passenger Transport Company) buses came highly recommended. The benefit was two-fold: A bus-ride allowed a day-long, ground-level perspective of the country yet the modern trappings of swanky Sapaco buses ensured that a pleasant experience could be had. It encompassed new, clean, comfy, fast, and most importantly for cross-country travel, in-bus lavatory — a resounding check! Being boxed up inside a moving vehicle while relieving yourself may not be on anyone’s bucket list, but that was nothing compared to busting your bladder for eight hours or, worse, peeing right on a landmine by the roadside. The bus ticket cost me about $20, a bargain considering the options: rundown buses with little to no air-conditioning covering a distance of 550 kilometers!

TTT and Donna @ SAPACO Bus

Sapaco was used by Vietnamese tourists traveling to neighboring Cambodia. As such, there were tour guides with them, speaking in Vietnamese, of course, over the PA system. It was a bit disconcerting to be subjected to gibberish at first. I let music from my iPod drown out the chatter of the guides who would take turns on the microphone.

Pump Up the Jam in Kampong Cham

Since backpackers (in this bus were some Canadians, Americans, Europeans and Filipinos) were not provided with English-speaking guides, we were left to guess what was happening. And we mostly left them to their own devices. The bus pulled up by a restaurant in a pit stop in Kampong Cham for lunch. As it happened, none of the waitresses spoke a word of English. Pointing at pictures on the menu was the only way to order food. Before we were done with our meal, we saw the bus pulling away from the parking lot. Ayee, my travel companion, promptly sprinted for the moving bus and, once she caught up, started banging on the bus door! Making light of the situation, I joked that she was a Teacher-With-Teeth turned Tourist-With-Talons, and rapped for her, “Pump up the jam in Kampong Cham.”

My Lucky Star

TTT with Dararith, aka Star Power

Despite that funny yet unnerving incident, the best thing about Sapaco was Star Power. No, the bus wasn’t powered by stardust. One of the guides was Dararith, who was part-Vietnamese, part-Khmer. His name literally meant Star Power. He asked to sit beside me after his stint. I was delighted at having human company for a change, not a gadget. I had vested interest too; this was my chance to get myself a personal tour guide – for free! He seemed accommodating enough so I overcame my inherent shyness and struck a conversation. We talked for hours about everything Cambodia. He even spelled out exotic place names for me.

Of Savannas and Sugar Palms

From the Vietnamese border in Svay Rieng, a vast flatland opened beyond the horizon. At the end of April, it was hot and dry. The place exuded a desert aura, except for some shrubs and sugar palms dotting the dusty plains. It was my first time to be in a savanna, an almost empty flat grassland that also defined the sub-Saharan landscape in Africa.

Sugar Palm Tree (Tnot)

And it seemed to go on forever through Prey Veng, Kampong Cham, and Kampong Thom provinces. Hours and hours on the road offered the same view: the ubiquitous sugar palm tree (tnot in Khmer) that towered over other vegetation with its slender, sinuous trunk. It was crowned by a head of palm leaves, spread open like a fan. They were the only sight from the bus window. The Khmers used it, not only for food (they fermented the sap to make various delicacies), but also to mark property lines. Apparently, they lived for more than a century. It seemed that everything in Cambodia was ancient, even the trees!

House with Heels

House on Stilts

Aside from sparse botanical features, another peculiar observation were the traditional houses raised on stilts. The design reflected the duplicity of the land. The Cambodian savanna was also an alluvial plain; part of the year it was submerged in flood water. Star Power said these houses would appear to float on this part-time water world.

Bridges over Time

The Mekong River Runs Through It

The monsoon season engorged the Mekong River such that it would inundate the land and even reverse the flow of its tributaries. I had crossed the same river in Vietnam just the previous day; this time I was on a modern Japanese-made bridge at Neak Loeung. I later read that this phenomenon only happened in Cambodia. Star Power took pains in explaining this uniquely Cambodian annual event; his English vocab was limited so he drew his explanation on my notebook. Then I knew it was central to Khmer life.

Ancient Bridge at Kampong Kdey

Next stop was another bridge in Kampong Kdey. In contrast, this bridge was ancient at more than a thousand years old. It appeared to have been made of stone piled like bricks, cyclopean style. Star Power explained that no mortar was used to bond the rocks together. Yet the bridge was still there – standing the test of time, war, and the elements. The bus driver decided not to test its invincibility and made a U-turn, much to everyone’s relief.

Living on a Prey

The last stopover was at a restaurant by a scenic lake in Prey Pros. Cambodia was one of the largest sources of freshwater fish and water snakes, both had abounded in this lake, although almost depleted by overfishing and pollution now. It was a short stop so I decided to skip the grub and just took in the pastoral freshness by the placid lake.

TTT @ Prey Pros Lake

End of the Road Trip

An hour before getting to our destination, the sky threatened with looming clouds. Shortly after, hard driving rain soaked the arid plain. I was rather anxious since a flatland was a favorite playground of tornadoes; they were known to touch down on these fields.

Abruptly (I charge it to language barrier), all backpackers were made to disembark by the roadside. The premium for package tourists was being dropped off at their hotel’s doorstep. No such luxury for us on a shoestring budget. We hardly had time to gather our luggage, much less our thoughts. We were deposited to the rain and crimson ground of Siem Reap. The bus had just revved away when I realized that, in the commotion, I had not even said goodbye to Star Power!

In the olden days, travelers were guided by the constellations in their journeys and, upon arrival, they thanked their lucky stars. Alas, I wasn’t even able to press my hands together in prayerful thanks to mine.

Although belatedly, I want to thank you, Star Power, wherever you are, for guiding my way through the vast savanna of Cambodia!