On The Road, From Battambang to Phnom Penh

The trip began poorly. We were bouncing down the road from Sisophan to Battambang, squeezed into the cab of a pickup, when the rough travel overcame the 8-year-old girl sitting next to me. She threw up on the seat, the floor, my pants and the woman in front of us.

There were still 14 hours to go until we would reach Phnom Penh.

In Battambang town we took on more passengers. Seven people squished into the Nissan pickup’s front cab. I was among the 26 young and old crouching together in the truck’s open back as it began the journey to Phnom Penh.

At least two children making the journey were very sick.

One girl, around five years old, lay semi-conscious on top of her grandmother as waves of malaria-induced delirium gripped her small body. Using the grandmother as support, the sick girl’s two sisters slept in a near-standing position as the pickup bounced toward Phnom Penh.

Another girl, her body limp and weakened by sickness, was asleep for most of the ride.

An elderly woman had taken some sedatives for the journey. But they wore off after 8 hours or so leaving her to endure several more hours of traveling, which was already taking a brutal toll on much younger and fitter men and women.

Dangerously overcrowded, hot, dusty and most of the time excruciatingly painful, the pickup truck is the main mode of road transport for Cambodians traveling between Phnom Penh and Battambang, the country’s second largest town, 180 rough, kilometers away in the northwest.

Apart from the front cabin, designed to fit a maximum of five including the driver, our pickup had no seats.

Sometimes passengers will be lucky and cargo may be comfortable enough to sit on. With no such luck, we squatted.

The journey costs 10,000 riel (around $2.50) per passenger sitting outside and 25,000 (over $6) for those who sit in the cramped confines of the driver’s cab.

Men are usually expected to sit out the journey perched on the inches-wide edge of the truck bed and the women and children form a sea of cramped bodies on its metal floor. A few people vomited over the side of the truck as we bounced along.

Those with children find the journey the hardest.

Children can travel for free, but only if they don’t take up space. This narrows their options to standing, sitting or sleeping on top of their paying parents.

In the first hours of travel, everyone was covered in red dust. Blows from bone-jarring pot holes turned the pickup’s human cargo into a contorted mass.

But the logic of severe overcrowding amounts to more than just the profit the pickup’s driver was destined to make by vacuum-packing his passengers.

A seriously overweight truck bounces less on the deeply rutted red-earth road that passed in numerous places on National Route 5. Likewise, passengers packed together bounce less, making the journey at least comfortable in that respect.

But one person‘s misery is another person’s opportunity: the destroyed sections of highway in Battambang and Pursat prov­inces are now the money-making ventures for enterprising locals who charge small sums to allow road traffic pass.

Fees are charged at the most damaged bridges and patches of road, which their guardians claim they have worked to repair.

Other road guardians, usually gangs of young men, set up their makeshift roadblocks at submerged sections of the road and charge small fees for guidance through deep water, which some believe is purposely made deeper by these young entrepreneurs.

Such bad roads, one passenger remarked, can be blamed on the luxury-model four wheel drive vehicles, with their two-in-the-front, two-in-the-back passenger quotas. Government officials who ride in four-wheeled air-conditioned comfort will never know just how difficult provincial travel can be, the passenger said.

 

 

 

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