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Travels with Pavel: 16-17 February 2005

We had set out yesterday morning from Phnom Penh by a primitive train on the Battambang line to Romeas. We were hoping to climb Phnom Aural in the Elephant Range of the Cardamom Mountains, the highest point in Cambodia. That we did not succeed did not surprise me – Pavel was hoping to do it on a wing minus the prayer, atheist that he is. Me, I just went along for fun and because it was an area of Cambodia that we hadn’t explored yet. Plus Cardamom Mountains – a very spicy Mallu connection, there. We had more enthusiasm than planning on our side. But that was only half the story of our trip. It was all the incidentals that made the trip memorable.

The Elephant Range of the Cardamom Mountains

We hired a moto from the railway station to a hamlet a few kilometers and a couple of turns from the school of Wat Mong Kul Khan, hoping that this would be the nearest point of access to the peak. In the event, it turned out that it was the nearest to some waterfalls. Not again. We’ve had plenty of luck with waterfalls, this trip. The two villagers who took us there – rucksacks and all and not a meal in some 24 hours – explained to us only at the waterfalls that the peak was two days away. So we hung around there for a while before returning to the hamlet.

There, at the home of the older of the two villagers, we asked if we could stay for the night and eat too somewhere around. Both were cheerfully agreed to and the evening was whiled away – as both children and elders pored over the beautiful photographs of the Insight Guide on Laos and Cambodia. We were treated to a great dinner of chicken, fish curry and rice – so much like back home and then went for a wash at the village pump. With Pavel’s “lustrous” body ‘shining’ in the dark, we took a bath with all eyes on us.

Our hosts

We slept on a cot in the open under a mango tree in the courtyard of the older villager’s house with mango-somethings falling on us all through the night. A big, fat pig not happy at having his style cramped by the intruders ran around us all night long, often snorting in disgust, a few feet from my head. Travel-hardened veterans, we ignored the possibility that the pig was big enough to tip us over cot and all, if he put a mind to charging us. Instead, we let a fantastic cool wind lull us to sleep as we watched the moon through the tree leaves.

Waking up at 6, we were soon off on foot – one of Pavel’s crazy ideas and one which I would regret throughout the six-odd hours it took us to get to Romeas. The villager who had been paid a princely sum insisted on taking us on his moto to Romeas but we politely refused. And thus began our odyssey.

We drew stares, smiles, laughter and barking dogs the length of our walk. It is a wonder nobody fell off his or her moto or bicycle keeping their eyes on us instead of on the road – that happens only in the movies, I guess. We certainly were a sight trudging with heavy rucksacks and heavy trekking boots, the unpaved road to Romeas. Quite a few people tried to make conversation on the way, especially the old women. We replied with smiles or the name of our destination, which were met with still more smiles and the occasional guffaw. It was hot and tiring and I cursed freely. On the way, a couple of Buddhist monks accosted us and bid us rest a while so that they could have their lunches and join us for the rest of the trip – “only a kilometer away.” We did have a good rest but insisted on completing the walk, while the young monks were ferried to their monastery by moto. Well, of course, the kilometer turned into three more or so, before we finally walked into the railway station at about 1 in the afternoon.

Soon we were entertained by the stationmaster and his friends/relatives to a smattering of English and some toddy, the first we’d had since Angkor Wat and Siem Reap – that feels like ages ago, already. The train that arrived at about 4:15 didn’t leave until close to 5. As soon as it moved out of the station, both of us clambered onto the roof, where we made some small-talk with the ticket examiner – who seemed to be collecting money from the illegals on the roof rather than dispensing any tickets.

And so in Cambodia, what I never did in India – travel rooftop class on a train. Pavel doesn’t like sunsets. Me? I love them. More than sunrises, which I find very difficult to get up for anyway. I think I fell in love with sunsets when I was in Room 317 at my hostel, Sutlej in JNU. Always had fantastic sunsets right through the year and especially in winter. The clouds, meanwhile told a story by themselves – one changed from a koala’s head to that of a lamb to finally a stag with its antlers, while the Starship Enterprise hung around nearby hoping to attain warp speed. And when I lay on my back, there up above already was a half-moon.

As the train went its rolling, shaking way, people jumped back and forth between the few – four or five – carriages and planks of sawed wood were released from the sides of the train every now and then, with lots of yelling and shouting. On the ground itself, people appeared out of the bushes running wildly, frantic in their hurry to carry their planks away. What their hurry was, we never figured out.

It soon turned dark and at a major stop – major, because we waited some 45 minutes there and there was more yelling, screaming, quarelling and chaos there – the two of us had 100Riel popsicles of red beans on the roof of the train. The inside of the train was pitch dark too, except for a few private lights and it was past 9 before we trundled into Phnom Penh, to take a third different guesthouse in as many trips. No TV and no pool table here for a US$3 a night room.

One of the things I reflected on while watching the sunset and over conversation with Pavel was how the atheists I knew seemed always more at peace with themselves and the world than the believers. The believers, like me were always full of doubts. Well, Thomas is my middle name, after all.

Travels with Pavel: 11 February 2005

There’s two sides to me (and there are schizophrenics, yes). One is the cautious fellow, who tries to make the right decision under the circumstances, takes the better-safe-than-sorry approach to life. This ‘me,’ I’m afraid has missed a lot of fun in life as a result. The other side of me is the one that doesn’t want to miss out on anything, always burdened with the feeling that he’s already missed out too much in life, and so thinks, “let’s go for it!” This ‘me,’ I’m afraid has a lot of bruises to show for it. Not that I could’ve stopped Pavel today short of having a full-blown fight. The issue was waterfalls.

The white man’s approach to the elements (and I do not base this observation only on my experiences with Pavel or Sandro, my regular climbing partner in Taiwan) is often based on confronting them, based on immense self-belief and on as much a must-do spirit as the can-do. The Asian by contrast is ready to bow to superior forces. Or maybe the Asian mind just doesn’t see the point of climbing of a mountain, even if it is the highest mountain in the world. The more important mountains for the Asian are the holy ones from Emei Shan in Sichuan to Mt. Kailash in Tibet and of course mythical ones, nobody actually has to climb, like Mount Meru. Or it is the beautiful ones like Mt. Fuji in Japan.

Now me, well, I am caught somewhere in the middle – the consequences of my upbringing I guess, in a world caught between the middle class straight-and-narrow cut-the-risks approach and my Indian schools on the one side and American TV, Western literature and a fantastic 20-volume encyclopedia at home on the other.

So then, all it takes for me is a little encouragement. And Pavel, well, he is the Great Encourager – like Mao was the Great Helmsman. There ought to be constellations in the sky like that.

Three stolen cashew-nut fruits. That was the sum of our nutrition till about 8 in the evening when we finally got back from the last of our waterfalls for the day. I was driving on the right side of the road for the first time in my life and I chose the worst tracks in the world to do it. With the chap riding pillion about twice my size and on a scooter/moto that could barely carry me, it didn’t get better. One brake-too-late-and-crash! into the remains of tree stump in the middle of the bloody track later, I was nursing a bruise swelling beautifully over my ribs from Pavel crushing me against the handle.

The first two waterfalls weren’t the problem. Standing over the first one at Choang and then walking under the falls, was fun. Even if what Pavel called a “massage,” was quite painful at times.

It was the hunt for a seven-tiered beauty advertised in the Lonely Planet that had me in ‘cautious’ mode and asking silly questions like “who would put a waterfall here?!” The dirt track was murderous. Pavel, quite unwilling to listen to reason (as I defined it) was always immediately solicitous of my health after spilling me – even though a few seconds was as long as the solicitousness lasted. One time, the damn scooter reared up right on backwards with me landing beautifully flat on my back. I picked myself up off the track a few seconds later, laughing anyway, but Pavel was looking rather pale, quite like “This time I’ve done it, I must’ve killed him. No?!”

The damn waterfall finally came into our sights at 5pm some two-and-a-half hours after we started from the last one – rubber plantations, cashew-nut plantations, bare-breasted tribal women, rickety wooden-plank bridges and a French-speaking old man in a village a few minutes from the waterfall, all on our way. The French speaker quite clearly put up two fingers to indicate the distance in kilometers but said something that sounded closer to “trois” than “deux” and told us that we should be there in “quinze minutes.” So I, who had 12 minutes ago given Pavel another 10 minutes to look for his waterfall, was prodding him to “hurry up” for another however many minutes more. The waterfall in the end, wasn’t anything to write home about.

Several spills later and in complete darkness (call the light from the lamp of a less-than-100-cc moto, illumination?) for most of the way, we got back into town. Me the god-fearing, god-believer with the atheist. Well, the good thing about this is that the believer tends to pray double. And prayer always helps, doesn’t it?

We’d found ourselves new lodgings. This time we have a room – rat-infested, lizard-infested, dirty pillows and all – together with the aforementioned moto at a daily rate of US$5, which is good in our currently straitened circumstances. However, for dinner at the same place we went to yesterday, we’re charged double for what was pretty much the same thing – or maybe just a little different. Anyway, Mr Hak Boonthan, our new host, will hopefully refurbish his dwellings if he wants to make a proper guesthouse out of it. He will probably name it “Lakeview Guest House,” after our suggestion. We seem to be the first paying guests here – his family occupies the other rooms. Mr. Hak has got photos of his travels in Nepal and of his wife’s in India on the outside wall. I could identify Bombay at least. Talk about a small world.