The riverboat is by far the more pleasant way to traverse Cambodia which, during this the dry season, is embalmed by dust. But it is not just the dirt tracks that make this country an adventure.
Yesterday we needed to cover a mere 150 kms -- from Ban Lung to Stung Teng, a riverboat port on The Mekong. A shared taxi sounded more pleasant than a pick-up truck, so five of us hired and crammed into a Toyota Camby, vintage 1984, which had had an earlier life in Japan, perhaps as a more formal taxi. We had all been hanging out for a few days in Ban Lung, Cambodia's north-easternmost outpost, about 70 kms west of the Vietnamese frontier and 50 kms south of Laos. It's the 'real' Cambodia if by real you mean as rustically far from Phnom Penh as you can get and be more urban than a village. About 50 tourists are roaming around Ban Lung (pop. 10,000) on any given day this time of year along with probably as many occupation forces (ie, NGO and UN folks). Most travelers hire motos for day trips (motorbikes cost US $5 without driver, $7 with) to visit the local attractions - a crater lake, some waterfalls and villages of hill tribes, who co-exist in a 'separate but [supposedly] equal' status. Our taxi included another American, an immigrant Irish-American, a German, my French friend, a Cambodian woman and the driver. Experienced bush taxi riders all, most of us wore face masks to minimize the dust invasion of our lungs. We were moving on the road 3 1/2 hours; another 4 1/2 were spent awaiting repairs of our 3 flats. The vehicle's role in the day's transport ended with a bang -- literally, a blow-out that spewed retread 50 meters along the track. Then we hopped onto motos for the final 5 kms; the taxi hobbled into town on 3 tires and a rim some hours later.
During this dust-saturating trip we played transport tag with a Toyota Land Cruiser (we passed it when it was broken down and it passed it when we were broken down). The Land Cruiser, born in 1980, contained five university students from Phnom Penh, who had borrowed the 4x4 to become acquainted with an extremity of their country which hitherto they had seen only on TV. We had bumped into each other while in Ban Lung and got acquainted. University students, I have found in my travels, tend to provide me with a lot of insight which I don't get from folks in the tourist racket who mostly just want my money. These young men, budding entrepreneurs, hold Cambodia's future. All their English abilities combined to allow for a fairly sophisticated conversation. They had come north to buy land in preparation of setting up a fruit farm. We had a lengthy discussion of their futures as gentlemen farmers and the hurdles they might face in a business they plan to run long distance by phone. The fruit they plan to grow matures in the wet season when, I suspect, most wheeled vehicles must be garaged. This fruit - I don't know its name - produces an external seed pod, with an 8 month shelf life, which is a favorite Cambodian snack food. I suggested that the sweet sap around the seeds might be refined into sugar and pointed them in the direction of the national agricultural extension service, the Internet and the dollar-laden NGOs as possible sources to tap. In any case, I hope they can manage to get the Land Cruiser back to Phnom Penh. They were making the 600 km return trip with a dead battery and a smoking (frozen) rear brake. Earlier repairs had been made to the motor; all gears were at least operating. The last time I saw them they were splashing water to cool down the rear hub; they were even thinking about finding a mechanic to look at the brakes. Mobile phones in hand, they were confident of survival.
Ban Lung, like the rest of Cambodia, is in the midst of election fever. This Sunday [tomorrow as I type] people vote. If you DON'T hear about this election, then it has been a success. If it doesn't make the evening news abroad, then Cambodia has taken a big stride to transforming itself into a democratic state. There are plenty of international election observers here, in addition to the regular occupation forces. I met a Cambodian journalist and his mentor from the NGO Radio Free Asia. The latter was offering investigative strategies and instructions on how a free press works. It's ultimately up to the Cambodians, though. When the occupation forces leave (there is still loads of work for them to do), democracy will be a few paces closer.
The Mekong trip is pleasant. No face mask - earplugs suffice. This time of year the river is low; motor boats like this one -- an elongated "African Queen" -- in a few weeks stop operation until the wet season. Our captain navigates a skillful route around sandbars and rockbergs, sometimes necessarily skimming a zig-zag over them. The river itself snakes its way through the jungle. So spectacular; no dust.
Phnom Penh (to which all rivers flow)