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Out of Laos and Across Cambodia

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The last day in the field was a successful one for both me and the team.  The village we worked in – Somsouk – was about 2kms down a side road from our usual route towards the plateau.  It was a larger village nestled among rice fields with the rugged plateau rising up a short distance away.  Houses were of the same style, still basic, but larger and somewhat better built than in the previous villages.  Around the periphery were a fair number of rice storage structures, looking like small windowless houses high on stilts.

Driving towards Somsouk and the Bolevan Plateau


Somsouk village and rice fields


Rice storage structures

We were the hit attraction for the children, who spent much of the day peering at us in the raised open-walled community building.  Our only competition was two people from another village selling a collection of clothes – mostly t-shirts – spread out on a large tarp nearby.  A cyclone in the region was causing some impressive gusts of wind and creating some great light and the occasional spatter of rain.


Registration for the clinic


A girl looks on and smiles as her sibling gets a finger-prick blood test

A girl at the clinic waits and watches

Boys playing with a home-made toy at the clinic

It was a successful day for both me and team.  I was happy with the shots that I got, both of the team’s work and the village context, and the team tested 230 villagers, none of whom were positive for malaria.  It was a positive way for me to finish up my work with the team.

PSI field workers interview a household about malaria prevention and awareness

A PSI field worker interviews a woman

We returned to the guesthouse at 3:30, I showered and packed, then the truck returned to drive me into Pakse.  San, Seng, Tak and Dao all wanted to come along to see me off, which was touching.  The drive took about 2 1/2 hours; San drove most of the way while the others sat in the back playing cards on a cardboard box.  Sang had the luck and was rewarded by a substantial pile of Kip.  At the high point of our drive, near Paxsong, we hit thick fog and had to slow to a crawl for about 20 stressful minutes where we could barely see the road.  Once through, San joined the others in the back to play cards while Tak took over at the wheel.  Soon the pile of money found its way in front of San, which didn’t entirely surprise me.

In the early evening we pulled into Pakse, which after Attapeu seemed expansive and bustling.  I picked up a ticket to the bus and the guys found me a quiet, comfortable guest house a short distance away.  I learned then that they were heading back to Attapeu that evening; I had assumed that they were staying the night.  That made me feel even more appreciative of their gesture of joining me on the journey.

We went for a bowl of noodles near the guest house, then a beer by the (closed) airport at a friend’s place.  The guys have friends in every town that they work, and quite possibly girlfriends from what I can tell.  We returned to the guest house and said our goodbyes, and I watched them drive away.

I woke just after six, showered and walked the short distance to the bus station.  I put my bag on the bus, which was disappointingly not as luxurious as the images on the posters at the ticket office suggested.  They have some quite plush large buses in the region that put Greyhounds to shame, but this one was very ordinary.  I would soon come to appreciate its quality, however.

I had a simple breakfast of grilled pork and sticky rice at the bus station, then boarded the bus with about a dozen other folks.  About 10kms out of town, things went sideways when we hit a motorcyclist (or more accurately, when a motorcyclist hit us).  I had long expected disaster on the roads of Laos due to the quite blatant disregard for safety and the mix of different modes and speeds of transportation.  As we were passing a motorcyclist, he took a hard left turn without looking over his shoulder or consulting his non-existent mirrors.  He bounced off the side of our fast-moving bus and tumbled down the road.  Fortunately he was relatively OK – conscious and sitting up; if he had turned one second earlier, he would have ended up under the bus’ wheels, which doesn’t bear thinking about.

We all had to get off the bus with our bags as the bus and crew had to stay and deal with the aftermath.  A smaller bus from another company was flagged down and we were put on it.  It drove us to the border with a few stops along the way – at Wat Phou and the Thousand Islands.  We abandoned the bus at the border cross, an assortment of a few small buildings with a stretch of open road between two traffic gates.  The crossing was seen as an economic development opportunity for various personnel.  I was asked for an extra $1 by Lao emigration, quarantine and Cambodian control.  It’s simply par for the course here.

Another small bus was waiting for us on the far side and drove in a pokey way to Stung Treng, about 75kms from the border.  After standing in that muggy town for about 15 minutes, our original bus pulled up and we piled on again.  We continued our journey across much of the country, which seemed continuously flat, with fairly lush vegetation and the typical red dirt.  The dirt soon turned mucky was we came into rain.  It seems that we’d just missed quite a deluge.

The ride was tedious.  I listened to music while the crew played a series of movies on the entertainment system: a dubbed Hollywood comedy about three inept men trying to kidnap a baby, one about Khmer bumpkins, some Mr. Bean, and possibly the worst Indian film I’ve seen: a Punjabi production about student councils, misunderstandings, fighting and strife.  It was endless, but thoroughly enjoyed by three young Sikh men who had given it to the crew to put on.  A funny moment was when one of the young bus crew tied his krama – traditional Cambodian scarf – around his head in a perfect turban and sat watching the film.

The last 100kms from Kampong Cham to Phnom Penh were also endless.  The bus was hot and stuffy, the windows were fogged up, the entertainment system blared, and I was sticky, hungry and tired.  I learned later that I was lucky, however.  We were arriving during the Water Festival in Phnom Penh, a time when an extra two million people pour into town to watch dragon boat racing on the Tonle Sap river.  On all other days they had been forcing people off of buses and onto taxis or motos 50kms from town.  This had happened to Vinh.  For some reason we made it through, and was delighted to get off the bus, hop a moto, and arrive at the Paragon Hotel on the waterfront, which was solidly jammed with people enjoying the last night of festivities.

I had just got into my room when I heard my name being called from the hallway.  I opened my door to find Vinh and Sue, and I gave them stinky hugs.  After a quick shower, I went with them for a German meal over on St. 130.  Shortly we were joined by a friend of their who is a prosecutor in the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal.  Amazing!  At another watering hole, Rick Valenzuela stopped by with Irwin Loy, a journalist I know from Vancouver who interviewed me when he was writing for 24 Hours.  He’s here now, working with Rick at the Phnom Penh Post.

I revived with food and beer and stayed up fairly late, but then retired to my cool, dark, quiet room.


Written by sockeyed

November 3, 2009 at 20:08

Posted in Travel

Tagged with , , , ,

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