Saturday, March 12, 2011

From Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham and on to Kompong Thom

It seemed like a long drive to Kompong Cham, but really it's not all that far. It's just that when we are going fast, it's not very fast, and most of the time we are not going fast at all. Think of a two-lane highway with horse-drawn buggies, bicycles, scooters, minibuses, SUVs, sedans, and small trucks. The horses are very small and so are the carts or buggies they pull; they are the slowest vehicles. Next are the bikes, followed by scooters. We are in a mini-bus, but there are only 6 occupants (us 4 tourists, San Pol, our guide, and the driver), so we go a bit faster than the minibuses with 15 to 20 people. The SUVs and sedans are much faster as they carry people who need to show everyone else that they are powerful. There is order. The bikes and scooters squeeze to the right and the we pass them, sort of in the middle of the road. The problem is that the same thing is happening with the oncoming traffic, but somehow everyone squeezes through.
We made a roadside stop. Everyone stops here to pee. There are several WC buildings, each a separate private business, because of course you leave a banknote on the way out. The one we used was very clean and I suppose the others are too. It's a business like any other. There are vendors all around where the cars are wait. So, it is also a bit of a tourist trap. You can't avoid them. They sell fresh-cut mangoes, pineapple, the small bananas they have here, dried fruit, migales (yes, spiders), bamboo stalks filled with sticky rice, and so on. A Buddhist  monk passed by and three women bowed down immediately in prayer before giving him his daily ration. The daily ration is no longer a bowl of rice; it's cash, and they collect quite a bit of it. It does not go to the pagoda or the religious communities, nor is it distributed among the poor; no, each monk get to keep it. For the pagoda, there are other fund-raising schemes. In the mean time, the lady with a baby on her hip got nothing from the locals.
Kompong Cham is a fairly big town. Our hotel was on the river front, facing the Mekong and the promenade. After lunch at the corner “pub”, we left for our visit to Prasat Han Chei, another 12th century religious sanctuary – on flat ground, not at the top of a hill. Before we got there, we stopped at a fishing village where there are houseboats on the river with poles holding the nets. Along the road vendors sold fried fish specialties, smoked fish, and fish preserves in jars. The women were preparing fish on the road. 
We stopped at a rubber plantation. This used to be a Michelin latex plant. Michelin built workers' houses all around the plant. The trees are all around the plant, too. The trees, hévéa, in French, are not very thick. They start producing latex when they are about 7 or 8 years old and produce until about 60, so there is a whole rotation around the plantation. The latex runs for about 6 months from June or July. During the other 6 months the workers maintain the forest and the plant's equipment. It's not the right season, so we did not see any latex being collected or transformed. We did get to see the trees and how they are sliced into for collecting the latex. I picked up a few seeds. Maybe I'll ask Agnès to incorporate them into a necklace. They are extremely lightweight. Nearby is a traditional village with all kinds of trees; it looked like a village in a jungle. There were banana plants, coconut palms, sugar palm trees, durian, mango trees and more. They also made brooms, there.
We visited the Prasat Han Chei site, pre-Angkor, ninth century, very impressive. I'm getting used to the structure, now. San Pol says that we are visiting Cambodia in the right order, seeing these small sites first, so that we can understand the Angkor sites.
Back at the hotel and then at the pub for dinner, the news was all about the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami. We are not cut off from the rest of the world. We see what's happening in Libya, too.
Today we went from Kompong Cham to Kompong Thom. It's hot and dry. We made a short stop at Phnom Ho (I think it's “Ho”, for “man”). The legend is that traditionally men always got to choose the women they were going to marry and the women had to pay. One day, the women wondered why it was always that way and they challenged the men. Let's each build a hill for a day. At dawn the next day, we'll see who has the highest hill. So the men started building their hill, but when they saw the moon, they went to sleep. The women built their hill and continued as they pushed a ball of fire (what the men thought was the moon). When the sun came up, the men were surprised to see the higher hill the women had built. So there are two facing sanctuaries. The pagoda only dates back to 1969. There's a gigantic stupa that only goes back to 2003. In fact, most of the pagodas we see only go back as far as the 19th century. Before, it was all sanctuaries on the model of the ruins we've been visiting. 
We also stopped at Kuhear Mohanokor, a 12th century sanctuary that was never completed. There's very little scupture, but the building is in tact. The entire site, however, is occupied by a modern pagoda and all its buildings, schools, monks quarters, etc.
We stopped in a little village so that Paul could finally see the traditional houses up close. I noticed how many had TV antennae attached to bamboo poles next to the house.
Our last stop before a late lunch was the Santuk Silks works. It's run by Bud Gibbons and his wife, a Cambodian. He came to Cambodia 17 years ago with an NGO and after several years of successful work the NGO said they were pulling out. He wondered what was to become of the people they'd been helping... He decided that aide was not being done correctly as it was not promoting the Cambodians to becoming self-sufficient. So, after first helping handicapped Cambodians learn a trade (weaving), he decided that reserving work for the handicapped was a bad idea because of the risk of having parents mutilate their children in order for them to have work, so he integrated the workplace, handicapped and non-handicapped. He bought some land and planted some mulberry bushes for silkworms (not enough for their production, but enough to show the process). The girls (most of the workforce) all start with spinning. When they are have spun a while, at least two months, they can move on to weaving. While they are learning, they are paid by the hour, but when they become weavers producing scarves for sale, they are paid per production. Second-grade quality is only paid half the rate the first time and not paid for at all after that. This encourages the weavers to pay attention and do good work. They are also responsible for preparing the loom; there are 22 threads per centimeter, so a 20 cm.-wide scarf has 440 threads. Next week, he is launching a design contest. The weavers will be asked to create their own designs and the one whose scarf sells first will get 90% of the sale of that model. The place is running on its own; he no longer contributes anything from his US social security check. This was his aim. They are self-sufficient. Of course their production is for the tourist market at tourist prices, but the women have a skill they can take anywhere. His big problem is turnover. These women are earning between $75 and $80 a month, some more, but that's a lot in Cambodia, so after a few months the guys come calling and they get married and before you know it, they have a baby. In order to keep them, if they've been working for a year or more, they get 3 months' paid maternity leave. When they come back, they can have the baby brought in for nursing in the morning and afternoon, but not kept on the grounds. They need baby-sitters, but this is still a good deal here.

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