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Phnom Penh Perspective:

So often in Cambodia...

by Bronwyn Sloan

June 2004

[Phnom Penh Perspective is the latest monthly column to hit the bandwidth generator known as talesofasia.com. The column may or may not be about Phnom Penh, but seeing as Bronwyn is in Phnom Penh, is developing the talesofasia guide to Phnom Penh and may from time to time write about Phnom Penh (but will certainly write about Cambodia), it seems like an appropriate title. As with all present and future talesofasia columnists editorial freedom is the order of the day. Bronwyn may be reached by e-mail here. Look for Bronwyn's column to appear on this website on or about the fifteenth day of each month.]

So often in Cambodia, the best part of a trip is the journey. That’s frustrating for a journalist (and for my sins, this is what I am), but the key to this place is to relax, never count your chickens before they hatch, and don’t just expect the unexpected—revel in it.

For instance, this month produced a classic Cambodian road trip. Once a year in Ponhea Leu district, about 20 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh, the local people hold a racing carnival. The only real purpose for the event anyone can come up with is that it provides a last chance to relax and have a good time while the rice paddies are still dry and cracked and the rain clouds still tease farmers by looming ominously in the evening, drifting absentmindedly away as the sun sets, taking their swollen bellies elsewhere without releasing more than a few drops to the baking ground below.

These are the days before the monsoon comes and the backbreaking work of preparing the fields and planting out the rice seedlings gets underway in earnest; the last chance to have fun for a while.

A simple story to cover as a journalist, yes? An event close to the city, a carnival atmosphere, the stunning spectacle of hulking beasts galloping in competition across sugar palm dotted plains. The sort of thing editors snap up gleefully with minimum effort on the part of the journalist. Ah, no…

“I cannot come because I am sick,” the translator announces plaintively by telephone the evening before the Big Event. The ambient noise drifting down the line with him sounds uncannily like a karaoke bar in full swing, but argument is, of course, useless.

By chance, a friend at the table overhears the swearing and cursing which accompanies the slamming down of a sturdy Nokia. He speaks reasonable English, is a fun guy, likes a laugh. He happens to be a policeman (a fact that will become relevant later), and, like many in his profession here, supports a wife and kids on a wage that is meager and usually months late. He tells me he has access to a 250cc motorbike.
“I could go,” he says. “I would like to see the nature.”

Saved by a nature lover in need of a job! Early the next morning we meet up and take National Route 5 past the Japanese bridge, out past the Cham Muslim mosques that dot the road here, past Svay Pak, past the place they create (that can be the only word for this abominable stuff) the famous Wrestler “red wine”, and turn left at last at the bustling market Psar Prek Pneuv, where the road turns to dirt and the water lilies are still blooming beside the road in the water of the dyke that rings Phnom Penh. Occasionally, the ancient capital of Oudong Mountain allows itself to be glimpsed in the distance like a fairytale castle.

The problem, as so often happens here, is that the directions are vague, and Ponhea Leu is a very big area. The only real landmark to navigate by is that the races are “next to Phnom Braseth”. A Cambodian “next to”.

Phnom Braseth is a tourist attraction in itself. The true Phnom Braseth temple is a relatively old and quite beautiful wat high on the hill on the right hand side of the road, but when Phnom Penh people speak of Phnom Braseth, they often mean the strange and incongruous twin sites of Angkor Thmei (New Angkor, or Wat Sovanthommareach, to use its proper name) and Phnom Siem—sprawling collections of exact (well, sort of close) copies of the temples of Angkor. At Angkor Thmei, a miniature Banteay Srei is strewn in one corner of the vast yard, a copy of the library of Angkor Wat in another.

More than 50 monks inhabit this active temple, and their bright orange robes help to take the edge off the somehow disconcerting effect of concrete Naga heads on tall poles that line the paths, each clutching a fluorescent light bulb in their jaws.

The place is hard to miss. At the gate on the lefthand side of the road heading from the capital, the famous faces of the Bayon suddenly loom in elongated replica, and through the entrance that these faces form, two rows of concrete giants and gods in a scene from the legend of the Churning of the Sea of Milk guide the visitor into what resembles a cheery Buddhist Disneyland riding out a funding crisis.

Returning to the main road and continuing on, a second path off to the left leads to a miniature version of Angkor Wat. This is Phnom Siem, and the centerpiece Prasat Vimeansure Kampol Bei is a favorite with picnic makers from the city on the weekends. This is a Sunday, and the place is packed. A few unimpressed, come-as-you-are cows graze around some uppity ponies decorated in traditional silks and tassles, waiting for terrified local tourists to tentatively mount them for just long enough to have their picture taken in front of this distinctive creation. Vendors selling everything from whole broiled chickens to palm fruit, beer and soft drinks, offer shady picnic platforms and hammocks. Both these places are the work of the mysterious Ros Sarin—a former Ministry of Cults and Religions official whom followers say was once a forest monk in the wilderness around Oudong.

“He stayed in the forest from when he was 16 until he turned 46, and then he returned to the world of people claiming he had been sent back to construct something that not only showed dedication to the Buddhist religion, but also served to show the world the glory of Khmer culture,” temple caretaker Heang Phleoung says. The result is this two-part complex, which is being expanded as more money is found. Funds so far have come from a few well-off locals and from the American Khmer community. Heang Phleoung says he believes around $2 million has been poured into it so far.

My friend is unimpressed. He is hungry and so am I. A whole broiled chicken, steamed rice, beer and water placate him, setting us back a little more than 10000 riel ($2.50—incredibly inexpensive) and we discuss the task ahead over the chatter of our unfortunate but delicious chicken’s more lively former colleagues.

“I need to find buffalo racing. It is supposed to be around here somewhere. I am not sure what time it starts, but the photographer is there taking the shots already so all I need to do is interview the riders and speak to some people in the crowd.”
“If you want buffalo, you should go to Kompong Thom,” he says enigmatically. “Buffalo are better in Kompong Thom.”

Like so many Cambodian comments, I leave this one hanging in the air and hope it will fall into place later. Argument, as I said before, is useless, since foreigners cannot know these things and I will only be humored. Discussion becomes zen without a starting point on which to base it on. Gentle perseverance seems to hold the most promise.

“I need the buffalo that race today near here. Can you ask around? They are supposed to be near here.”
Some questions about buffalo soon draw animated responses. We leave the picnic area and follow the direction of the fingers most pointed. It leads back towards Phnom Penh. Further questions to the sleepy occupants of various huts and shops along the side of the road lead us down a subsidiary dirt road, which twists itself around potholes and fades a shade more the further it goes. I am beginning to get confused. Phnom Braseth grows smaller and smaller.

“They say you should go to Kompong Thom,” my enigmatic but enthusiastic friend tells me again after a long discussion with an elderly couple beside a dry rice field. The reception bars on my phone waver and blink at me. I blink at him. “There are not many good buffalo here,” he reiterates in the way you would speak to a rather slow child.
“They don’t have to be good. They just have to race,” I plead.

He sighs at me and wipes the sweat off his forehead, launching into machine-gun staccato with the elders, becoming a frustrated cop. We are determining the exact coordinates, apparently, and if these people are somehow harboring good buffalo, they will soon crack.

More finger pointing down another winding path, and we reach a sala. A one legged former soldier with tattoos and rolled up fatigues smiles and produces three small children from the shade.
“Yes, we have found the buffalo,” my friend announces. We proceed on foot.

Dry mud crunches. The sun is getting very high in the sky, but my friend is now on a mission and strides ahead. The last bar of the phone gracefully bows out as we round a hillock of dry grass topped with vivid green shrubbery. The road is lost in heat shimmers somewhere way behind us. This is the back of beyond, and I am very dubious. Where are the crowds? Where are the people? Where is the party?

We stride over another small hill between paddies and emerge from the brush. And there they are. Six rather pissed off looking, definitely unraced, muddy, surly water buffalo, held in check by two more small children armed only with bits of string and a defiant air.

“Now we have really found buffalo. How much do you want to pay?” my self satisfied guide announces. And then it dawns. There is no racing as a rule in Cambodia, so he has discarded the unfamiliar word and instead set his mission around one he knows. Buffalo renting. Our journey has been a quest for buffalo renting.

I search for the right words. I fail to find them. I excuse myself to try to make a call to Phnom Penh, where my regular offsider is enjoying a well earned day off, but might at least be able to convince my stand-in guide that this is not what the editors in Hamburg and Madrid had in mind. By clambering up the hillock, climbing halfway up a termite mound, holding the phone at a right angle and facing southwest, I manage to find a precious reception bar.

“Um, Socheat? We seem to have found buffalo, but they are less than festive looking and they definitely don’t seem to be celebrating. Can you explain to…”
But my friend has already picked up the key word—celebrate. The explosion is terrible.
“You don’t tell me you want celebrating buffalo renting. How can I do if you don’t tell me all the evidence?” he explodes. “Now you think I fail. I NEVER FAIL! I always do what you ask and you never ask me this.”

The buffalo glower. The kids watch dispassionately. The single little bar of contact with the outside world shudders and returns home to Mobitel, deserting me. My friend turns to the kids and vents his fury at me to them in Khmer in the same way the prosecution denounces a criminal at the end of a trial, turning back to me occasionally to give me another piece of his mind. My refusal to rent these buffalo is obviously being taken as a great loss of face.

I am now in the middle of nowhere to calm down a pissed off policeman, who obviously does not roll with the punches on stories that go awry, plus six increasingly arsey water buffalo and two minute kids (our three original guides got out when the going went downhill). But the two remaining kids, it seems, are not ready to just cop their losses either.

They proceed to chime in, inflaming the situation by insisting that all I have to do is part with cash and these buffalo will do anything—race, jump through hoops, perform swan lake—so what's my problem?

I finally manage to get phone reception one more time by standing on a rock on one leg and pointing west, and so reach the photographer so he can explain the misunderstanding to my friend, who has zoomed from exasperation into conspiracy theory territory and is now convinced there is no such thing as buffalo racing and the whole thing is a scam designed to make fools of us—as long as he still considers it us, and not just him, it’s ok.

The photographer answers the phone, which is snatched away, and is treated to an incredible interrogation by my frustrated friend. I had no time to warn him. The phone melts under the power of a Khmer cop in his element. Ominous silences and soft words mixed with machine gun fire on an anti-aircraft gun level. When the conversation is over, my friend seems much calmer. Satisfied. He hands the phone back with a Bayonesque smile and I remind myself never to be on the wrong end of an arrest warrant from this man.

“Yes, Madam, he has confessed me he lie you,” I am told. There is no buffalo racing this year, it transpires. It became horse racing at the last minute due to lack of available buffalo and the hardness of the ground (“I tell you already go to Kompong Thom!”). The photographer, I am reassured, will make a public self criticism at a later date when we can apprehend him.

I now have a petrified Cambodian photographer (who is also potentially on the run, at least in his mind, and whom we never see at the races, strangely enough) a pissed off policeman, two angry wheeler dealer children and some very dubious water buffalo to deal with. After some coaxing and with profuse apologies on my part, we back away slowly and begin our trek back to civilization, my friend still fuming at the inefficiency of it all and what he has to deal with, working with me.

By chance, on the way back, we spot a lone ferris wheel from the road. Packed with people, it transpired that this is indeed the grandstand. A few tiny ponies, backs bare, with bits made of bicycle chain and reigns of string, careen up and down the square space formed by two large rice paddies. We have found our racing carnival!
The day is nearly done. Only two ponies are left to race, and rice wine seems to have taken a strong hold on much of the crowd, but I have basically given up on the story I had planned anyway. I can wait until next year. The editors, used to the vagaries of Cambodia, will understand.

So White Sovann and the imaginatively named Brown bolt and buck their way to the starting point—a line drawn in the dirt. Neither has been ridden before. It shows.
“They pull carts. We only ride them one time a year,” a flustered retired jockey from earlier in the morning tells us apologetically, with a rueful glance at his no doubt bruised behind.

There are no fences or railings. This is freeform racing, and the progress of the equine stars up the course can be gauged by which point the crowd is scattering like a school of small fish at any given time.

White Sovann seems to be resigned to this tom foolery, and the tiny colt rockets across the rice fields in a virtually straight line, where a crowd stands across the finish line and seem amazed that they have to dive for cover as one of the contestants actually crosses the line at the correct point.

Brown is last seen bucking and kicking his way through a wall of people and making for a sugar palm on the northern horizon in a full stretch gallop that is far more enthusiastic than any moves he displayed on course.
“Thank you! Thank you! My horse won because he was the best behaved,” the victorious jockey tells his adoring crowd.

And my friend motions to me that he would like to leave now. He has scouted the grounds for the offending photographer and is pretty sure he is not here. We get back on the road, turn for Phnom Penh, and open up the engine.

This has been a road journey, Cambodian style.

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