The local, local bus

Local bus Capitol, the name of the local local bus, leaves every day at 7h30, 8h30 and 11h30 from the Central Market. Luckily, our fantastic suitcases could be instantly transformed into comfortable backpacks making mobility a bit easier. We hopped on the crowed bus, quite rudimentary but luxurious as it had a TV just above the driver’s head. I silently prayed that he had seen the film a 100 times and was more interested in the road than the beautiful Cambodians dancing about. The seats were covered in a cheap plastic of various shades of blue and red but had the amazing ability to fold back into a semi reclining position which made sleep come easily. BA, Air France, AA and the rest of the airline companies could learn something about the importance of comfort for their passengers! The ride was quite painless. Three hours of occasional bumps, endless open fields of emerald green rice paddies, stilted makeshift huts of bamboo and palm, lots of horn honking and cell phone ringing. We overtook tuk tuks, water bulls pulling wooden carts, hoards of bicycles, Lexus, lots of motor cycles and vespas and even a few stray dogs.

The bus dropped us off on the main strip of Kompong Thom which runs through the town and continues on to Siem Reap. During the mid-70’s, this road was severed by heavy bombing in-order to eradicate all contact and mobility between Siem and PP. Surprisingly, we were the only passengers that descended from the bus, which one might consider as not such a good sign. Kampong Thum, is well, sans intérêt to say the least. Off the main-strip, there are a few unpaved roads cluttered with trash, an outside food market, a school or two, 2 enormous trees housing thousands of gigantic oversized bats, a few restaurants and two hotels. Zero charm and super eery especially as we were the ONLY tourists at that particular moment. All eyes were on us especially Noa and in fact his  popularity sky rocketed making him the most intriguing girl/boy (they couldn’t quite make him out) in town. Even the mosquitos loved him!

Hot and overly spent, we found a hotel for 8USD a night. We were their ONLY guests in this huge concrete block which made the experience even more bizarre. Within 15 minutes we had ”done” the town and searched for a restaurant. On a small side street we found Larry, an American living in PP commuting every weekend to oversee his café serving 12 or so items varying  from traditional amok to pizza which all needs to be pre-ordered hours in advance.  Larry’s wife wrote down the ingredients for our order. We made it simple- 3 steamed rice and Khmer curry with fish. Different then anything that we had ever had. A fusion between Indian and Khmer with the sweet taste of licorice. Supposedly, this recipe had been passed down from her great great great grandmother from some faraway village.

Woman with girlAs the sun made its descent, dusk fell quickly upon Kompong Thom creating a soft attractive glow. Groups of elderly women all dressed in boxy button-down pajamas set out on foot for their evening exercise. Marching with synchronized short determined steps their arms swayed exaggeratedly along their sides casting obscure shadows on the cracked pavement below. They innocently giggled as our gaze caught theirs but continued without wavering. Little did we know but these boxy button-down pajamas either in brightly colored prints of well known icons (Mickey Mouse, Spiderman, Tintin) or the poke-a-dotted ones in flowery pastels had become a real fashion statement here in Kompong Thom. From the very young to the respected old, at 10h00, midday or for their evening walk everyone was dressed in these stylish ensembles. It appeared that the only criteria in making them a true fashion statement was that the top and the bottom HAD to match. I hesitated on buying an ensemble but realized that Philippe and Noa would have certainly left me to die in Kompong Thom, not really the place that I wanted to be.

We must say that that night was far from enjoyable. Our 8$ room was worth no more than 2$. Actually, I think that it would have been more appropriate if they would have paid us to stay there! A square with no window and no air, we felt like we had been buried alive. The night was suffocating, uncomfortable, a bit scary with strange noises, calls of geckos and howls of dogs. I wished that I had now agreed for the upgraded room (10 USD) with air-con. We might have slept in bits but no more than 92 minutes total. All we could think of was morning.

Lia hai

Sua s’dei!

Not quite sure what day of the week it is as the hours and even seconds seem to melt into one another creating experiences that are beyond time. Up too early to mention with the ritual gong of metal pots awakening the monks for their morning prayers, my mind spins with thoughts of the girls. We leave today and I feel torn. This short time with them has changed us all and we yearn for it to last. As Noa continues to sleep silently by my side and Phiippe stirring from my restlessness, I slip from under the single sheet, dress quickly, and descend the steep spiral staircase in search of Arun, by all means the nicest and most humble of our hosts- a replica of a Buddhist monk without the orange robe. He greets me with the traditional ”sua sdei”, hands pressed together in prayer in front of the heart.

By bicycleThe rest of the world appears to be in deep slumber until I make my way out onto the large avenue Norodom Blvd via tuk tuk. Pi, the tuk tuk driver who calls me ”my friend” swiftly maneuvers his rusty vehicle through the insane early morning traffic reaching Transitional Cambodia  just before 7-am. Jaya and a handful of the girls greet me at the entrance, eager for a hug and to show me their rooms. Unlike the other shelters that we spent time in, Transitional Cambodia was simple but spotless. Three to a tiny room, each with their own shelf for their personal possessions and the luxury of a toilet!  They have a full schedule of cleaning their space, Khmer and English classes as well as computer and arts and crafts. The girls each have their own yoga mat and a sacred space with pictures of yoga positions pasted on the wall. They learn to develop curiosity, independence and responsibility in hopes that one day they will be able to care for themselves without the risk of returning to drugs and prostitution. N.Y, C.T, D.C, (names are concealed for protection), and Dara are seriously  interested in continuing their yoga studies and hope to teach in their spare hours. For this, we would like to develop a sponsorship program for teaching yoga. I had tears and a torn heart saying good-bye to these angels.

Gril of Cambodia

Sandwiched between Jaya and Dara, we spun through the crowded streets on Dara’s motor cycle (a first in a long time). Thankfully Dara’s long black silky hair waved wildly in my face keeping me from seeing and wanting to control the craziness ahead. Between honks and touts, I listened to Jaya’s  ”story” of her early life and that of some of the girls.. We parted with a few tears and promised to keep in touch ”lia hai, lia hai”.

Philippe and Noa were upstairs on the terrace savouring hot ginger tea, sweet banana pancakes, exotic fruit salad and lemon mint ice shakes. I arrived just in time for the best (well one of the best) meals of the day! Isabelle and Dara met us for the feast while sharing some last minute ideas for future work with us and the girls. We were sad to say good bye but had a bus to catch and an adventurous one at that.

A roller coaster

Yoga classYoga class has been scheduled daily at 16h00. Our days seem to revolve around this magical time and everything that we choose to do before paves the road to Street N°302 where Nataraj is found. Every day we extend the classes a bit more now up to 2.5 hours and even this doesn’t seem to leave us with enough time. There is much to share with them as they are so eager to learn. We have incorporated pranayama, meditation and finally some partner work which is the most challenging due to their past history where touch was associated with negativity. There is progress, an enormous amount, especially in their attitudes and their level of confidence. Feeling more and more at ease, they allow themselves to be guided  into some challenging asanas and  situations which are met with humour. Most of all, we are having fun and taking time getting to know each other a little more. I feel a bit uncomfortable knowing that in a short time we will be on our way and the moment will come when we will have to say good-bye.

After having removed the water tank from the roof top of the yoga centre,  the owner of the building connected the water system with that of the city’s causing high levels of pressure in the pipes and extensive damage to the toilets. Feet and hands soaked, Philippe repaired some leaky pipes, dismantled the existing system, installed a new system which hopefully ameliorated the evacuation of water and will be sustainable .

Aimlessly strolling through the crowed and not so crowded back streets of PP, we spend pockets of time in Psar Thmei (the Central or New Market) where everything from live frogs waiting to be skinned to fake name-brand watches are for sell. This market is far from the most economic but hosts a few excellent food stalls for lunch and amazing picture opportunities. We stumble upon Psar Tuol Tom Pong, known as the Russian Market specializing in copied Western clothing  and sold at a tenth of the price but it turns out that  Psar Chaa is where Philippe was able to supply his traveling tool chest with necessary pipes and gadgets. A worthwhile visit to the Angkor National Museum, leisurely lunches (our favorites being spicy banana flower salad, spicy papaya and mango salad with shrimp and rice paper vegetable  spring rolls with crushed peanuts in a transparent spicy liquid) in hidden garden courtyards at Friends, Boddhi Tree, BT Del Gusto, Aram (to mention a few), many run by aid organizations supporting Cambodian social programs where the proceeds of every meal go to former street kids for their schooling and some of these cafés even employ the older ones for a valuable work experience. In fact, we learned that there are more NGOs per sq. capita than anywhere else in the world and it seems rightful as 85% of the Cambodian population lives off of less than 32 cents a day making it one of the poorest countries in the world and the most under developed in Asia.

Noa with the childrenYesterday Noa  gave his first yoga class with the help of Dara to a group of children from the Klein Kleang orphanage which we visited later in the day. Twelve kids, most smaller in size than Noa but all older in age arranged themselves on their mats in a awkward circle ready to begin. Not once was it necessary to display discipline or order. They moved in and out of asanas with soft smiles and concentrated gazes. Noa taught them 1,2,3 Mother Hen (1,2,3 Soleil) which became ”muy, pii, bei pria aatuht”, cobra, tree, eagle and mountain. They had so much fun and I think Noa and Dara did too! These kids seemed considerably more disadvantaged than the girls that I teach every afternoon and we were soon to discover their ”home”. After a long search, no apparent web site exists.

After class we headed across the city, over the bridge above the muddy waters of the Tonlé Sap, down some bumpy dirt roads, passed small children chasing butterflies and finally arriving at Klein Kleang Centre orphanage occupying an abandoned church and its quarters for their clergy. This run down site was depressing, almost shocking, resembling a war zone. The kids of all ages were dirty, dressed in tattered clothes, flimsy thongs on bits of broken bricks and bits of odd trash with strong smells of urine and other unpleasant odours permeating  the air. The grandeur of the orphanage and the feeling of hollowness  was comparable to the site of S21. Six to a bed, 30 to a room, 150 in total, mixed ages and sexes and with no visible supervision . No one to greet us, no one seemed to be in charge, no organization just an uncomfortable feeling of loneliness and despair. Except for the colourful murals of children painted on a few random concrete walls and the narrative tour from beautiful Dara who had lived there for numerous years until just recently before moving to Nataraj Yoga Centre for convenience and comfort, the place was overwhelming to the naked eye. It wasn’t the level of poverty but more the feeling of emptiness that prevailed and uncomfortably touched the heart and soul.  I guess the best thing is that for the past year a handful of these kids make it via tuk tuk once a week for yoga sponsored by our friend and yoga teacher Estelle from Jivamukti and yoga teacher, Mia. There is always something that can be done.

I have decided that visiting Cambodia is like riding a roller coaster. At first there is great apprehension, butterflies in the stomach, not knowing what to expect, even moments of doubt. Then, once decided and installed in your seat with no chance of exiting, you go with the flow and it becomes doable even exciting until reaching the next summit where doubt and apprehension reoccur before plunging into whatever will come next. A mixture of not knowing, excitement, stimulation, apprehension, adventure and joy! That is Cambodia for you on a limb.

Tomorrow is our last day in PP before taking a local bus to Kampong Thum which is situated half way from here to Siem Reap. Supposedly there are some pre-Angkorian temples there hidden in the lush forests that are worth seeing. We will miss the girls and the kids but are looking forward to a bit of quietness and down time. PP resumed in a nut shell – ”sans intérêt”, big heart, hot and suffocating, chaotic in every sense, polluted, welcoming and just wonderful. The girls and the kids made PP worth every single second!