I’m sitting in a hot, rickety van on a foldable seat. We are six, big Western people in the van, with our big, Western luggage stored at the back and among our feet. The air is humid, the road long and bumpy.
The six of us make a group of volunteers teaching English in the small village of Bakod in Southern Cambodia. We are on our way to the capital, Phnom Penh, to indulge, for a weekend, with luxuries such as air-conditioning, cold drinks, and Internet connection. In Bakod, there is no electricity, only a few electric light bulbs to light up the quiet hours from 6.00 pm to 6.00 am. It goes without saying that we are all looking forward to be in the buzz of a city.
The van picked us up from the village this morning, a very unusual practice. To catch a ride, people in Cambodia usually gather along a high way to find someone going to the same general direction as them. But we are the foreigners, the barang, thought to get lost in such endeavors. So, the van man agreed to pick us up.
In Bakod the van man had a short conversation in Khmer with our local school instructor. “A few locals may hop in on the way,” our instructor translated to us, laughing. A few locals. No problem. It was van, after all.
But now, sitting on the wobbly seats in the moving van, bouncing up and down with our luggage, hoping not to bang our heads to the ceiling, we look around in the van and find that space is scarce.
“We can probably fit a couple more people at the back,” someone says. Yes, couple of people seems reasonable, three or four more will be a stretch.
Once we get to the high way the driver stops the van and begins to advertise our destination with a piece of cardboard, which supposedly says ‘Phnom Penh’. After 10 minutes, two young men climb in and take the seats at the back. Shortly after them, a couple with a small baby enters the van, miraculously finding more seating at the back.
Everyone is sweating. When the car is still, without the breeze of driving, the road is suffocatingly hot. Even inside the car, in the shade, my hair becomes glued to my forehead.
“Do you think we’re ready to go now?” someone rhetorically asks.
Hoping for the best, we all forgot to prepare for the worst. We were nowhere near ready to go… Over the next 30 minutes, 12 more people climbed on the van. Don’t ask me now how it was done. All I know is that after some serious rearranging of luggage, climbing over and on top of each other, squeezing, pinching, and a few English curse words later, there was 23 people in that shaky, 8-seat van.
And of we went, towards Phnom Penh, with our windows open, with our arms melting against each other, our backs glued against the worn-out seats. It was cheap, it was ecological (less vehicles, less fuel), and it was an experience, but I can’t say it was comfortable, (or safe!).
But I also wouldn’t say ‘never again.’ Although there was a moment in those three hours where I thought I would never feel my legs again, there was also an element of charm driving through the rice fields, stopping to buy pineapple through the van window, or stopping for sugarcane juice that is sold in small, plastic bags.
In Phnom Penh, on one of the main streets from the airport, there is a big, fluorescent sign that says “Phnom Penh – A Charming City.” My first night in the country, one of the older volunteers pointed the sign out to me, saying “I’d call Phnom Penh many things but charming wouldn’t be one of them.” I told him I would have to wait and see. Now, 25 days, three cities, and a few shared van rides later, I think I’ve waited and I think I’ve seen. And if I were to describe Phnom Penh I would say that the city, as well as the rest of Cambodia, is a very charming place.
By: Mari Hoikkala