Thursdays find me restlessly scrolling down the Sorya Transport bus schedule, eying distances and travel times, checking my well-worn Cambodia map. Like the Trans-Siberian Railroad, that carries sardine-style platzkartny passengers for about 25 cents an hour across the country, Cambodia’s bus network connects every significant town for under 4 bucks—an unbeatable deal, if you don’t get motion sick easily and have an optimistic feeling for road travel. Having tired of the sultry market scene and of long afternoons in the apartment carping about homework, we were ready for another get-away. Besides, a few hours bouncing along on a bus brings the kids and me closer together.
Kampot is described as a lazy riverside town and a former southern retreat for French colonial administrators. This gives the impression of elegant riverboats and deep front porches, but it’s not entirely accurate. There were, in the 20’s and 30’s, the stylish Bokor Casino, the ornate Black Palace and villas along the hillside, commanding views of the sea and neighboring Vietnam over the jungle canopy. But approaching Kampot this weekend along Highway 3, we passed skeletons of concrete buildings, a few motorbikes on lonely roads, and every here and there the razor-wire and garish turquoise roof tiles of another vacation home-colossus for Cambodia’s civil servants. If I hadn’t read about it before setting out, I wouldn’t have noticed the concrete remains of watch towers along the hillside to my right, built when the Khmer Rouge took the city, stripped all its wealth, and set up their control from above.
Bus station arrivals are always noisy and unruly, with tuk-tuk drivers elbowing toward the door, girls hawking baggies of sliced mango and pineapple, old ladies with baskets of bread on their heads, and more travelers pushing through to board the bus as you’re stepping off. This gives us a few seconds to grab our bags, stand up and make a family-chain hand-in-hand down the bus aisle to push our way out. The Kampot bus-stop presented the usual menagerie of foreign backpackers—salty over-tanned old men with big lazy bellies and Panama hats, hopeful-looking college-age girls in tank tops and long flowing skirts, dreadlocked chain-smokers with distant expressions. We held hands, clutching our stuffed kitty cat and a book about chess, and made our way through to set about finding a guesthouse.
Getting settled in a Cambodian guesthouse is a reminder to me that my kids can adapt to just about anything that’s presented to them as an adventure. The Blissful Guesthouse provides the basics in shelter: two small beds (think low wooden table with a mat on top) mosquito nets draped over the top, small toilet and faucet in corner, sign indicating that toilet paper cannot be flushed, ceiling fan provides background noise. Finding no entertainment in the bedroom, and not too impressed with the characters sharing war-stories in the common room, we head out to the garden. This is Ernest’s favorite spot, and he likes to imagine his future meditation garden, where he will work out great inventions beneath banana trees. Tik and Yosh squirm around each other in hammocks, and Puck tries to climb in without flipping himself off on the other side, his frequent mistake. All around us are blossoms, and mango, jackfruit, and rose apple trees hanging with fruit. Geckos dart between flowerpots and up tree trunks. Sometimes I think, if it weren’t for the hammock-injuries and hammock-inspired fighting, we could spend whole days like this together.
The afternoon would be a long, dusty tuk-tuking adventure, and I only realized how dusty it was when I tried to comb through Tika’s sweat-cemented hair before bedtime. I’m not a huge travel researcher, so I really had no plans for what to do in Kampot other than a brochure a guy handed me as I stepped off the bus. I had learned that Bokor National Park, the main attraction of the area, was closed to road construction, but could be reached by a three-hour jungle hike—maybe when Puck is older. I’m not sure how to take the advice to “hike with guide due to tiger risk”. I had also located the main orphanage of Kampot Province—ASPECA, just across the river. There is something that keeps drawing me to these places.
Having negotiated our plan for the afternoon, we set out back down Highway 3 and then down a very long dirt road through rice paddies and pig farms toward some old caves we wanted to explore. Since most homes don’t have plumbing, you get a very intimate view of people in passing through a village—a man bathing over an urn next to a shack, a small boy squatting to poop in the corner of a garden, a pig getting comfortable in the muck. Yoshi pointed and screamed out at each new sighting.
Then we were slowing down around a bend and out of every corner children appeared, chasing us on foot and on their bicycles. Some reached out to touch Yoshi, Puck turned to see how they were gaining on us, Ernest called out a friendly ‘sosi-dey’. We stopped next to a dirt path, and were surrounded by about ten kids, all cheerfully introducing themselves as our guides. I’m so glad that Ernest, Yoshi, Tika and Puck are starting to feel at home, and I let them run ahead with the kids while I climbed out of the tuk-tuk.
So many questions! Where is your husband? Are these all your children? How old are you? Where are you from? Parle francais? They must have guided many other cave-lookers before us. Each kid found his buddy, and they chattered along down the path, lifting Puck over rocks and ditches, then up a winding stone stairway, and then down another stairway into the heart of the cave. “See—See—The stone makes an elephant here, and it makes a turtle there.” We stood in a great limestone cathedral with bats over our heads and a few small holes far above us with sunlight streaming through. One of the bigger boys pulled a lighter from his pocket and showed me the little brick stupa built into the cave. We ducked to fit inside, where there is a linga (stump-shaped statue representing fertility), and he told me what are stalactites and stalagmites. The place must have taken on a spiritual significance when people saw animals in the limestone, and then decided to add this small temple inside. The kids and I stayed gazing around, trying reverently to absorb all the meaning from the animal-rocks. Puck was getting thirsty. Then it was up, up, up, and down the rock staircase again and out the long winding path across the field.
Before we could get too close to the tuk-tuk, one of the older boys turned to me with a frank expression—“Now is when you will pay us for guide.” “OK,” I said. I had been expecting that they would want something, but I wished I had a pile of small bills. Managing small money has become a perennial challenge for me here, since the country operates mainly on US dollars, but nobody can make change. You basically need to carry fifty dollars in ones everywhere you go. I was also confronted with the mommy dilemma, which is that every kid wants to receive exactly the same thing. But what could I do if ten kids claimed to be my guide? I broke mommy protocol and handed a one dollar bill to the older girl who had first spotted us, and 2000 riel (about 50 cents) to the boy who had demanded payment.
Their expressions changed. Why couldn’t I give everyone a dollar bill? I wasn’t going to budge. Not only was I out of ones, but the tuk-tuk driver was already agreed to get ten dollars for the whole day’s work, and he couldn’t watch me give all these kids more than that just for running around beside us. Ernest and Yoshi were oblivious to the wage dispute going on around them, and climbed merrily back into the tuk-tuk, waving and smiling at the kids, who now sucked their fingers and scratched their scalps, looking sullen. We pulled away. Tika and Puck were laughing and tickling and pointing at still more backyard bathers and poopers, and it crossed my mind that there is a huge gulf between my kids and these kids.