Buses held together with duct tape, given as goodwill gestures by more prosperous countries like Korea and Japan when they were deemed embarrassingly old and dirty, yet functional enough for their poorer neighbors to the south. Swirling fans above my head momentarily brush away the flies flitting through the cabin.
One rest stop after another, we are boarded by ten women in sweaters, cotton stockings, dust masks, wool hats and baggy pants. They offer an incongruous amount of food for a bus ride. They have entire grilled chickens skewered on bamboo, 5 hard boiled eggs skewered, pork skewers, some kind of knuckle meat…skewered… bags of colored liquid, fruit bags, water bags and strange chips. Their clothing layers are three deep with no perspiration visible in these harshly hot temps.
Crippled chickens lay in a pile, un-moving, un-clucking, awaiting the cleaver, awaiting the grill. Stumpy dogs sniff about the dust scraps with focused eyes. Cigarette butts tossed aside at varying lengths of completion. Ample piles of trash in the corner, beautiful red flowers on the trees above. Bus continues to idle. Air-con a stale breath of exhaled chemical ice.
A country where you can stop at any corner and push search wifi and nothing comes up. Highly unconnected and slow and unreliable when it is provided. The dust here is a white, sandy dust. Cambodia is more of a brown, dirty dust.
Moving into the dense jungle, verdant canopy thick like a giant outdoor greenhouse. White barked trees stuck like toothpicks under a pillow of broccoli, all the leaves blossoming at the top to meet the sun’s hale glare. We approach a 90^ turn and three vehicles have collided. A large truck hangs over the edge of the guardrail, oil seems to have leaked all over the road.
Another rest stop, another chance to look at mystery meat and colorful eggs in Saran Wrap. Like paying for a stomachache.
Indistinct shrub land and red clay dirt passes until a magnificent golden Buddha punches your eyes awake. He sits peacefully among desolation beside the one room tin roofed houses offering no tangible reprieve from poverty but rather a structured belief system intended to end suffering for these uneducated peasants–‘escape’–the true hallmark of religions. We pass a graveyard dedicated to revolutionaries. The tombs are yellow, shaped like taller WW1 German helmets.
In the mountains, white and yellow tubular flowers droop like fragrant tears. Kids; faces dirty with exhaust fumes and play. Trees; everywhere with bare, burned patches possibly indicating the clear cutting of the modern world encroaching upon this paradise at 1,000 m above sea level. The hills; round and solid, jagged and with chins raised look like scoliotic giants bent over, searching the landscape for their lost keys.
Small black pigs wrinkling their nose toward our bus. Only green, varying shades of green paint the walls of life here. Cutbacks, switchbacks, up and down backs weaving astride the mountain. Jungle trees are more visible now. Full branches, healthy leaves, probably full of the same bugs that have buzzed and crawled all over me the past weeks.
The drop down into the canyon from the road is dizzying. No guardrail. Only a stranger driving this hulk of a bus, with hopefully functional brakes. Road shoulder disappears and the houses are close enough to touch from my window. Thatch and tin, thin layers to keep the oppressive jungle out, or perhaps to let just a little in for good luck.
“Winding road ahead” sign taunts us as a mist begins to fall. Clouds securely belting the middle of the valley, prompting the mountains to peek above with their singular, expansive green eye.
Coming down from the heights, finding the chocolate river a la Willy Wonka Factory flowing imperceptibly past sunken boats and judicious palms. Civilization presents itself to us with lonely gas stations and rumbling pickup trucks. Rice paddies accepting the playful tickle of sprinkling raindrops behind us.