My First Days in Kampong Cham

Phnom Pheyn, Cambodia

Well, believe it or not, I find myself back in the capital of Phnom Pheyn, but this time with Kim.

After arriving in Kampong Cham, I could see that Kim was really busy. Yes, yes, I knew that she had a real job, but somehow I thought that there might have been more free time. We did spend every evening together, but she was frequently preoccupied with thoughts of her next days work. So that meant that everyday I was free to go off and have an adventure. No problem there.

But first they, meaning Doctors Without Borders, asked me if I would re-photograph their chest X-rays. I jumped at the chance to get to see the hospital and maybe even help out. They, after all, were letting me stay in the MSF guest house. That was the least I could do. Apparently, they had photographed them twice before, but they must have not been good enough.

So the next day I met Dr. Pascal at the MSF office. We got on a couple of bicycles and made our way the few blocks to the hospital. I followed her to the X-ray viewing room, really just a small dark room with a light box. I think it was also her office. I setup and photographed 64 X-rays in all. Just in case there was an exposure problem, I recorded each one twice.

I setup my camera on a plastic tripod that they had, and I used my remote timer to trigger each photo. I was a little nervous seeing as I had a new as yet untested camera.

I had a nice local guy for my assistant. He put up each slide, and when I was done he changed them out, so it went very quickly. In about an hour I was done. Then Dr. Pascal asked me to photograph the hospitals exterior as a favor for her. I few clicks and I was done. When I asked her what I should do with the bicycle, she said why don’t you just continue to use it while you are here.

That has made all of the difference in the rest of the week that I spent in Kampong Cham. Aside from just tooling around town, I made several excursions out into the country side.

The first trip was to the so called Bamboo Bridge. After a nice breakfast in town, I headed out along the Mekong River looking for the bridge. It was right on the outskirts of town. You really couldn’t miss it. It was just as they called it, a huge long bridge made entirely of bamboo. It stretched from the shoreline about a half a mile to an island. I road my bike down the hill to it making frequent stops along the way to photograph it from all angles. When I got down to the beginning of the bridge I decided to walk my bike. Partly because it looked a little dangerous, what with all the motorbikes, tuk-tuk’s, and cars, but also because I intended to take a whole hell of a lot of pictures. It’s not very day you see a bamboo bridge.

As you can imagine, there was quite a lot of flex to the bridge. Especially when a truck would role by. They seemed to constantly be doing maintenance on it. I thought to myself that that was probably a good thing.

It took me the better part of an hour to cross. I made frequent stops. I was amazed by where I was. It was so surrealistic! Here I was just a few days ago freezing my ass off in Pipe Creek Texas, and now I was in Cambodia crossing the Mekong River on a bridge made entirely of bamboo… on a bicycle. This was one of those memories that give you flashbacks for the rest of your life and I intended to savor it as much as I could.

Reaching the other side there was a makeshift toll booth where they asked me for 4000 riels–a dollar. I paid it and got back on my bike and started pedaling through the village. Some of the single lane rode was paved, but most of it was just dirt. The road seemed to go on forever, so that after pedaling for over an hour I turned around. I had passed an amazing looking Buddhist Temple along the way and decided to stop and photograph it. I was not disappointed. There was a crudely scratched sign on a post that said $1, but I never found anyone, or any place to leave a donation.

The first thing that struck me was the contrast between the beauty of the temple and the grounds, and the squaller that most of the towns people lived in. If there is a god, I just know that that is not what he had intended money to be spent on. By the way, I see the same condition all over the world, including the US.

Nonetheless, I had a great time walking around and photographing the site. The detail of the architecture and carvings was just stunning. It was so peaceful and serene and calming being here. I could see why the orange clad monks that you saw everywhere you went in Cambodia, always had such a wonderful smile.

Just as I was about to leave the island I saw a small road leading to a campground and restaurant. 10 minutes later, and I found a wonderful funky place, with an open air restaurant. I had a delicious breakfast–again–while gazing out at the Mekong delta with all it’s birds and butterflies.

Before I crossed the bridge I stopped to photograph it from the beach. There were a lot of large beached wooden boats. It looked like they were using them to make the matts of bamboo used for the decking.

I slowly crossed the bridge again, and road on back to town stopping along the way at the funky smelly crowded market to buy some exotic kinds of fruit. What a great day!

Kampong Cham

Does it seem like I am going backward in time to you? Now you know how I feels to be halfway around the world. If I wanted to make it even MORE confusing as I write this I am actually in Siem Reap visiting the temples of Angkor Wat. But that is a story for another day. You see I am a little behind in my story telling.

Anyway, the next day, I think, was Wednesday. Kim and I shared some coffee on the terrace overlooking the Mekong River. By 6:30am she was off to work in the hot, humid coolness that passes for a morning.

Having breakfast on the terrace

Kim off to work

I pedaled my bike to town, had a nice egg and rice breakfast, and decided that I would explore in the opposite direction from yesterday. Kim had told me that there was a pretty nice Buddhist temple, and there was. The problem was that I reached it in about 5 minutes. Not wanting to let the morning go to waste, I kept on cycling until I hit a small town market. It was very crowded. It almost blocked the street entirely. I walked my bike through it, but instead of following the paved road, which veered inland, I took the walking path that followed along the River. There were many simple houses along the way. At first I thought that it might be a dangerous thing, but I quickly figured out that it was very safe. Most people ignored me, unless I directly engaged them. That is except for the kids. They all said, “hello, hello, hello…” And repeated it until I replied , “Hello.” When I added, “Goodbye,” that seemed to stymie most of them. The parents, for the most part we quiet, but seemed to beam pride when their little 2 year old said, “Hello!” I don’t know what that was all about, but it was nice to interact anyway I could with the villagers.

Soon, I came upon 3 men using a gigantic hand saw to cut 1″ planks out of a very large timber. I just couldn’t help myself, so I just stopped and stared. They ignored me for a few minutes, but when I asked, by sign language, if I could take a photo, their faces came alive. They nodded that it was OK, but when I got there one of the men said he wanted to take a photo of me sawing the planks. I was a little reluctant to give him my new expensive camera, but I put it on automatic, handed it to him, and climbed up. I think they thought that I would not be able to do it, but after sawing about a foot in a perfectly straight line they seemed duly impressed. I even got a pretty nice photo of me in the process!

I climbed down and was on my way again. Not too much further, was some guys firing a strange form of local brick. They were stacking them in a huge oven. It looked like they were getting ready to start a fire. Again, I just stopped and stared and soon I was invited to come have a look. A few more photos later, smiles all around and I was on my way.

A few miles later the path ended. I stopped, had a couple of sips of water, and went up the hill to the paved road. I got back on my bike. Even though the road was mostly flat there was a stiff head wind. Also it was close to noon now and probably about a 100 degrees. I got pretty sweaty very quickly. After stopping for a warm coke at one of the many roadside stands, I pushed on until I got back to the Buddhist temple. Wow, another incredible compound. So beautiful and peaceful. Almost in a medatative state I wandered around for about an hour. No one seemed to mind, so a again took plenty of shots.

Back at the guest house, I turned on the air, took a shower and laid down for a much needed nap to wait for Kim to return from work.

Kampong Cham

The next day was a slow day. It was the one before Kim and I were to take off on our extended vacation/vaccines trip to Phnom Pheyn. Oh yes, Kim has to go to the hospital there and get a series of injections.

And I had a list of errands to run. So after the usual coffee on the veranda, waving goodbye to Kim, I set off to the big city market. But first, I was feeling perky as I mounted my bike, so I set off on another adventure. This time I pedaled well past the bamboo bridge. About an hour later I came to another small village. There was a huge tent that blocked half the road, making it one lane only. I could see that it was a traditional Cambodian wedding. A gawked at it, but not enough to get invited, whitch I was afraid they would do.

I turned around and headed back to town. Reaching the market I had to find a small duffle bag to take on our trip. I had only brought a large roll-around suitcase. No one, and I mean no one understood what I was looking for. Finally I spotted a stall that had backpacks. I tried to sign, the shape and size of the thing I was looking for, but my charades had little effect. One particularly helpful old lady actually dialed someone on her cell phone, and handed it to me. The guy did kinda speak English, but he also couldn’t figure out what I wanted either no matter how many times, I shouted, “Duffle bag, suit case, backpack with a handle, to carry clothes in.”

I handed the phone back to the wrinkly old lady, thanked her with a little bow, and started to walk off. She grabbed me by the hand, and led me outside into the morning sunlight where a young man on a motorcycle was waiting for me. He motioned that I should get on the back, but I motioned that I had a bicycle. He then motioned that I should follow him, and off we went circling through the crowded streets. Ten minuted later we arrived at a small shop where a you man came out to the street to meet me. He said his name was something I couldn’t understand even though he repeated it in English five or six times. He took me over and showed me a variety of cooking pots. Examining them carefully for a few minutes I said that they were indeed nice, but I was actually looking for a suitcase-duffle bag. Oh, he got it now, and said I had to go back to the market where his mother was, but go to the opposite side of the market.

Follow Me!

I thanked him profusely, and drove off like I actually knew where I was going. Truth is, I didn’t even remember where the market was, let alone his mothers stall! I pedaled around aimlessly for a while until I found the market again. Actually, you could smell it long before it came into view. Eventually, I found a stall that had bags. They were more than I wanted to spend at $15, but I sprung for one anyway.

Leaving the market I happened to go by the store where the helpful guy was, I lifted the bag out of the front basket to show him that I got one. How much, he asked. Embarrassed I said $10. He shook his head to indicate that I had gotten taken advantage of.

Next up was a electric coffee-maker for Kim. She hated the coffee from Cambodia so much that I brought her two pounds of Starbucks. She had to go downstairs to the kitchen each morning to brew her coffee. Wouldn’t it be nice if she had her own coffee-maker in her own room? You think the duffle bag was hard? I will leave this one to your imagination, but in the end I did get one.

Next up was tickets for the bus to Phnom Pheyn. That was easy. Hey I’m starting too get the hang of this, I though to myself. For the final two challenges I had to cash a hundred dollar bill, and get some more minutes for my phone. That was a little more tricky. Cell service is incredibly cheap here. I got Sprint to unlock our iPhones before we left, so all I had to do was buy a SIM card for $2, and insert it in the phone. Then I had to purchase minutes. Most foreigners that I spoke to said that $1 was enough, but I also wanted internet access, so I purchased $5. After loading it onto my phone I got a text saying that I had 10,000 minutes available, but two days later I got another text saying that I only had $.97 left. It might have something to do with the fact that I found an option on my phone to create a wifi “hot spot”. Just for grins I created one and used it to log my iPad onto it. It worked great, but I guess it used up a few of those 10,000 minutes.

I found a cell shop and purchase another $5 worth. I wanted to ask the staff just what it meant, but no one spoke any English. Check-check, and I was done for the day. By now it was really hot, so I headed back to the MSF Guesthouse for some air conditioned relaxation.

2 responses to “My First Days in Kampong Cham

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