The foreigner sits in that street café every morning. As he sits, the owner looks up and soon the food arrives. First, pickles in their oval dish and the hot chilli sauce. Then the steaming broth from the pot that sits on the fire. Last to arrive, the main attraction, smoky marinated pork atop sticky rice with tomatoes and boiled egg, both sliced, both green.
He doesn’t speak much. Every dish brought forward brings a mumbled “Arkhun” but this is a breakfast of few words. Around him, morning life come and goes and ponders the characters who share his table and cook his food.
She, the breakfast lady takes the star role. Always chopping and washing she is stationed behind her table, while her sons orbit around her acting as waiters, delivery boys and general help. The diners come and go but few are as regular as the foreigner, who arrives just before seven.
He sits with his phone for company and after half an hour or so plunges into his disorganised bag. Usually he finds a crumpled dollar or more rarely 4000 riels and then stands and, with a smile, pays the breakfast lady. He knows how to order. He knows how to say that was tasty but all he ever says is “Arkhun”.
He wants to say next week I won’t be here. He wants to say how much his quiet times have meant as he sat by the river. He will leave with a smile and a final “Arkhun” and life will carry on.
So I woke up this morning thinking I would not see the more isolated temples I had read about. I was not too upset. The large, and largely overlooked Angkorian Temple at Banteay Chhmar had been a super treat. The homestay property, a wooden house up on stilts, had allowed me a window into daily country living and the roosters’ dawn chorus had ensured an early start to my journey home.
Then all of a sudden everything was possible. There was a driver who could take me, so off we set. Thankfully, I had already found some pork and rice and this, along with an iced coffee, meant I was ready to head even further off the beaten track.
Cambodia is so flat with only the odd rocky outcrop, a Phnom, passing for a mountain dotted here and there. However along its borders are real hills. So with eyes fixed forward,I passed through lush vibrant green paddies, knowing that the horizon was my goal.
Our first stop was Prasat Ta Moan. The driver happily told me as we pulled up that the last kilometre was too steep for his car. Thankfully it was only eight and the road was shady. At the top, the army halted me in my tracks and for twenty minutes I sat looking at a rack of automatic weapons while the soldiers drank beer and smiled. Once deemed open, I was allowed to travel the last twenty metres through the trees. The temple was beautifully serene, and being the first visitor I shared it only with the Thai and Khmer soldiers both of whom guard this disputed land.
Stop two was a drive east with the hills on one side and the pancake landscape on the other. At Ta Krabei I got a military escort, though he would have preferred to have watched the boxing on the TV. He walked me twenty metres through the woods and posed happily for pictures. A different temple, smaller but more intact then my first stop.
I, the eternal planner, have jumped from one unplanned activity to another these last two days. My driver dropped me in Sisophon and I was offered an onward journey back to home at a very good price but it was ‘go now go now’. So now I’m sitting in a share taxi with three Cambodians and a rather lively rooster. All in all, this unplanned weekend has been quite a little adventure.
I love being on my own. I can happily spend the majority of the day in my own little world. Today I have barely spoken to anyone and it is now lunchtime. I have just been wrapped up in planning lessons and getting ready for my six hour teaching day tomorrow.
I like a routine so I get out of the house about 6 in the morning. My alarm isn't set but I am usually awake before dawn. I walk and watch the good people of Battambang. At the start of my walk the streets are quiet and life hasn't really commenced for most khmer households. I see the same faces exercising by the river. There's the kindly looking fellow who teaches his adoring, all female class Tai Chi and the men who play Kinja, a game where you kick a shuttlecock to each other.
I stop for a bite to eat at the same little place. Sok sabay I say to announce my presence. I like the fact that peace and happiness are my first words each day as I take my seat and wait for my dollar breakfast. I've usually walked two miles or more before I sit down, so I am more than ready for my pork, rice, pickles and broth.
After breakfast I wend my way home. By seven the town is feeling more awake and the streets are full of life. Children off to school and parents off to work. Others, like me, choose to have a Khmer pavement breakfast.
A cup of coffee just before home signals the fact that there is work to be done. I try to start early so I can have a break and eat my fruit salad lunch. On good days, like today, I get a paragraph or two hammered out before it's time to put my long trousers on and face my students. After the peace and happiness of the morning, my afternoons are more hectic. I love teaching, but I don't find it calming or tranquil.
Most nights after work, I will go out and be sociable. A chat with friends is great but the Asperger Path will have me home by about seven. That will leave plenty of time for some vegetables and rice and another slice of peace and happiness before bed.
Life is full of simple pleasures. I rediscovered one recently and I am loving the manifold delights it's bringing me.
I have always been a walker. From a very young age I would happily pound the paths of Wiltshire with my parents and explore the rolling hills and forests that surrounded the town I grew up in.
A few years ago, having moved from London to Suffolk, I decided to build walking into my healthy mind, healthy body mantra and I fell in love with Suffolk in general and the River Deben in particular. Bleak and beautiful, serene and scary, this tidal river with its constant ebb and flow was both the heart and border of Woodbridge.
Then a year ago I deserted my homeland and I ran away. Sydney was a revelation. Stunning National Parks fringe the city and the bus and train network opened up a plethora of opportunities. As I travelled Australia I realised that every town boasted great opportunities to get out and get my stride on.
Then in 2017 I landed in Cambodia and it all came to a halt. Searing heat and the traffic chaos of Phnom Penh meant there was precious little opportunity for a relaxing, life-affirming stroll. I knew I wouldn't last in the capital and in February I took a job in Battambang.
There are frangipani trees everywhere,here, and there's a magnificent muddy river that bisects the city. On both sides of the river there are shaded paths but the heat meant I never took advantage of the amenities.
Last week a look in the mirror horrified me and I decided to make a change. Now, when I wake at five, instead of bemoaning my fate and lolling like a beached whale till 8, I jump up and I am out the door. I drink a litre of fluids, brush my teeth and I'm gone. Early sunrises, other exercisers and a multitude of birds bring a smile to my face as walk up and down the banks of the River Sangker in the relative cool of the Khmer dawn.
I feel better. I look better. I get more done every day. Life has become a happier place to dwell. All of this I get from going for a walk. I try to do my 10,000 steps because on the Asperger Path we like a target but if I don't, I don't sweat it. I've already done my sweating for the day.
Once I was blissfully unaware. I was an misfit, an oddball, an eccentric of a peculiarly English type but I thought nothing of it.
My few attempts to fit in were always just opportunities to stand out. I was a follower of fashion for example. However my “fashion-forward” sensibilities were heady when combined with my complete unawareness of the ripples I can create around me. Never thinking to look back, I sailed through the calm waters of life with the cut of my jib set jaunty.
Then they interfered. I was labelled. The very essence of who I was became the focus of others. Professionals were involved and meetings took place. People were concerned or perhaps even worried. I was placed on the Asperger Path and my life juddered to a halt.
Half the world away and here I am. The path is mine. I have owned myself and stuck two fingers up at those who told me what I could and couldn’t do. I live in a country where I don’t speak the language and my height, colour, build and beard separate me from the crowd. No one has really heard of Asperger here, let alone his blooming syndrome. We are all blissfully unaware.
I took a walk along the river today. I wandered down under the shady trees and crossed over on the bridge that usually takes me to work on my bicycle. I stopped for a bite to eat with the barbecue pork lady before heading north. So many times I have walked passed the pagoda there, meaning to stop, but somehow I never find the time.
Today I found I had time to spare. My tummy was full of rice and I was feeling in the mood for a meander. For me the temple itself was not the main attraction though it is undeniably beautiful. It is surrounded by other buildings as most temples are in Cambodia, but in Battambang the architecture always seems just a little more special.
I wandered about and took a few snaps and then headed north along the eastern river bank. It was a cool morning and it’s been a while since I just went for a walk. Up to the bridge that takes Highway Number 5 over the muddy brown Sangker river. I wandered up to the ferry terminal and found myself a coconut to satisfy a niggling thirst then abandoned the river for the frangipani shaded walk east.
My last leg reminded me that this seemingly sleepy city is in fact the second largest town in Cambodia. After my dreamy walk where I felt quite alone with my thoughts I turned south and soon was in the happy midst of daily Khmer life. Psar Boeung Chhouk teems with people. The Psar Nath may be the landmark market hall but Boeung Chhouk market is were people come to shop in droves.
Four months I have lived in this city. It still fills me with wonder, charms me senseless and brings a smile to my face. Sok Sabay I say to almost everyone I meet. Peace and happiness is easy to find in Battambang.
It never rains but it pours. Sometimes things are just badly timed. No matter how good your intentions are you end up down that well paved road and it can be slippery when wet. The last few weeks I’ve been in need of an umbrella.
It’s not that I am work shy, but, much as I love teaching, I am a firm believer that less is more so I choose to work part time. I cut my cloth accordingly. My life isn’t particularly ritzy but here in Cambodia my qualifications allow me to access a good hourly wage. I like to keep my teaching hours at around fifteen for the perfect life, work, remuneration balance. Recently my hours took a precariously low dip but I had been given the opportunity to teach amazingly interesting classes at the weekend. Thankfully, serendipity popped by with a more bread and butter offer of daily work.
The weekend classes were just one module of a Masters in teaching and my lovely students have all passed; most with flying colours. But the daily classes have already been running for three weeks. Today is my first day off after eighteen consecutive days of teaching. A few of weeks of teaching almost thirty contact hours has meant time has flown. I have had to exercise planning skills to ensure I was delivering well sequenced, well prepared lessons to four very different groups. Work life balance has been on hold and, this month, payday promises to be filthy in its richness.
Today, however, I am not a teacher. I have left my course books at work and Monday’s lessons are planned. It is time to recalibrate. Today I am grabbing a good friend, some swimming shorts and a place by the pool. I will sit under one umbrella whilst stirring a slightly ridiculous, fruity cocktail with another. It never rains but it pours.
It seemed a little cooler today so I thought I’d wear a really nice shirt. I have always been a bit particular clothes wise. It’s a tad thicker than my normal shirts but the temperature is only 32 degrees (that’s 90 in Fahrenheit). What a silly mistake.
So I get to work and I can feel my back. Can you feel a glisten. I can. The beading crescendos until I can sense the tsunami between my shoulder blades. As I cool, I continue to be a one man sprinkler system with no fire to extinguish. The overall effect, I was hoping for a post modern, post colonial elegance, has been washed away and I look like a sweaty foreigner who isn’t coping with the heat.
My students are kind. They won’t notice. Actually they can’t not notice, but they won’t comment. Soon I will be safely in the air conditioned temple of my classroom. As I explain the rather formulaic approach we are taking to paragraph construction I will become both drier and less self conscious.
So who do I dress for if no one really cares. I dress for me. I shave and shower and trim my beard because I am not just a teacher or a foreigner. I am in the poet autist, and although I walk a solitary Asperger Path it’s important to remember who I am. I have always been a bit particular and a good shirt is worth a little discomfort.
Thursdays are an early start for me. My eight o’clock class lasts until eleven so a good start to the morning is crucial, especially as I have my usual afternoon classes as well.
A good friend told me about the street café outside the Korean Steam Boat restaurant and as it’s on my way to work I thought I might give it a whirl. A lot of Cambodian people eat breakfast in a café. My Khmer language skills are pretty ropey but the aforementioned friend assured me there’s only one breakfast on offer with this lady. I know the word for one. It’s muy. And soon I was sitting down with a plate of rice, pickles and some truly magnificent barbecued pork. It was accompanied by some broth and was really tasty. I was feeling pretty lucky.
Just when I thought life couldn’t get any sweeter I realised that the noodle place next door sells coffee. So after my breakfast I indulged in an iced coffee and sat and watched the world go by.
Thursdays just got a whole lot better. I might even consider taking another morning class, or perhaps I should just get up early more often and enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the cool morning air by the river in Battambang.
Have a good day.
Cambodia is a land that got lost in time. A dictator came along and declared Year Zero and tried to recalibrate the society into an agrarian socialist utopia. The ‘new people’, teachers, artists and intellectuals were purged and tortured in the genocide that followed. After years of bombing from the Americans and bitter civil war Cambodia decided to inflict even more lasting damage upon itself. The aftermath is apparent but I feel powerless to help because I’m not sure what I can do.
Cities were deserted and the people were returned to the land. Those that weren’t tortured faced starvation or hard labour and in two years about a quarter of the population were dead. Mass graves, horror and destruction were left as the Khmer Rouge were pushed back from the capital by the advancing Vietnamese liberators.
Now Cambodia faces new challenges. A prime minister who has been in power for decades and whose role in the Khmer Rouge is still vague, rules a country that is lurching into the twenty first century. Rapid urbanisation, modernisation and industrialisation carry on seemingly unregulated. Any attempts to preserve habitats and cultures are hindered by corruption at all levels. In Cambodia there are many complex and conflicting needs which are failing to be met. Sadly many of Cambodia’s population are as poor now as they ever were.
One the legacies of this newly democratic kingdom is waste. You see it everywhere. In a country with so many issues is it a liberal European concern that Cambodia is choking to death on plastic. Perhaps it is, but I am as liberal and European as they come. Plastic Free Cambodia launches today and I will do my bit. This country could be a jewel in Asia’s crown with its diverse habitats and amazing ecosystems. Mighty lakes and rivers dominate the country but, if they end up polluted and choking, Cambodia could find its still largely agricultural population falling victim once again to a leadership whose primary concern is not the welfare of its people.
While I am here, just a visitor passing through, I can ensure I inflict as little damage as possible. I can’t stop illegal logging or palm oil plantations but I can say no thank you when I’m offered a plastic bag.