Displaced Yankee Productions | The Long, long, long (did I mention long) road to Battambang

The rains here are torrential. We got our first real taste of it late yesterday afternoon while waiting for the doctor to arrive at CCF. It had rained before, but this afternoon – thunder roared, the sky opened up and in minutes the water had risen in the streets nearly a foot. Kids on their way back to CCF from public school sloshed their way across the street, soaked to the bone. By the time we finished the last interview and headed back to our hotel, traffic was hopelessly snarled and the water was up to the doors. I wondered where the street kids go to sleep during rainy season and thought about that newborn baby in that leaking tarp tent at the relocation center.
The next morning we arrived at CCF to pick up Leakhena for the long drive to Battambang to bring her back to the pagoda she lived at before coming to CCF. We also brought a little someone extra. Sray Kong is an adorable tiny 11 year old that also lived at a pagoda in Battambang. Scott had asked us to drop her off at her grandmother’s home there since we were headed that way. We all set off in fine spirits, stopping at the gas station to fill up. I spoiled the girls a bit with chips, soda and M&M’s for the road. As we left the city and the miles behind, the country began to stretch out before us in the gorgeous hues of green of the rice fields. Several hours into the drive, we pulled off at a river where a raggedly dressed clan was mining sand. Nin, the chaperone from CCF quietly explained that the family could make up to $15 a month if they sold enough sand culled from the river. We watched as an older man clad in a pair of shorts took a deep breath and sunk below the surface of the muddy water clutching a large scooped pan. After a few moments, he reappeared with the tray full of sand. He swam to the edge of the shore where his wife was shoveling the sand into large piles. A short distance away, a young man maneuvered their wooden boat along the water. We spent some time filming their activities before we thanked them with a gift of money and headed out. We didn’t get far. Nearby, three women were planting baby rice shoots in a watery field. There was another group a further distance away with a plow and water buffalo, but it required a trek down an unmarked path that neither Art nor myself was in any hurry to test out. While normally I like to travel off the beaten path in life, I prefer not to do it in a place I may blow myself up. We opt for the three women instead.
By two in the afternoon we have arrived and have found ourselves a restaurant for lunch. I am busy congratulating myself in my head for the prompt arrival in plenty of time to get in some good footage of Leakhena and the reunion with her siblings and grandmother at the pagoda. We also wanted to wire her up and have her talk about what she was feeling as she headed there for the first time in over a year. But first we needed to “drop off” Sray Kong. We bought two cases of rice and some condensed milk for gifts for the families and sat little Sray Kong on Art’s lap. Scott had confidently assured us the Sray Kong knew where she lived. Like a typical kid, when we asked, she nodded yes. She knew where she lived all right. Getting there is another matter altogether. After about an hour of false starts and turn arounds, we finally get a hold of a neighbor who knows the name of the village. Once she hears the village name, little Sray Kong nods in affirmation. Looks like we are getting somewhere.
Or maybe not. In very little time we are out of the main city and on the worse road ever. Narrow, dirt, deep with ruts, covered with bumps, cows and peasants and slippery from the rains. And let me tell you a little about our van. It is a decrypted piece of ^&*^* which has no seat belts, stalls more often than not, occasionally won’t go into gear and has a broken seat that I am fortunate enough to wind up in. I prop up the back with a camera case, but it still hangs drunkenly back on broken hinges. We are all holding on for dear life. It is worse than a roller coaster ride. A truck in front of us loses traction, serves across the road and flips down the embankment. About fifteen Cambodians run to the scene. Apparently, this is a common occurrence. We start to stop, but our guide advises because of the girls that we do not. It appears that there is plenty of help. It isn’t long before we need help ourselves. We must stop for directions over twenty times and each time the village gets further and further away. The road gets so rough, poor Nin is overcome by motion sickness. We are now over three hours into the middle of nowhere and running low on fuel. However, having come this far, none of us wants to tell Sray Kong we cannot find her grandmother’s house because she is so excited to visit. We call Scott, but he has no idea where it is either. We try to offer the neighbor money to come to where we are and lead us in. They refuse because of the approaching darkness. Four hours in. We are exhausted, have been bounced literally out of our seats and are losing the light and the race against the gas gage. Suddenly, little Sray Kong pipes up with happiness. We have found the pagoda.
Four weary adults follow an excited little girl to a run down hut on stilts set back in the trees. Her grandmother holds out her arms and Sray Kong runs into them. She gracious accepts the rice and starts to pull out some basic plastic chairs for us to sit. We thank her but must hit the road (literally) back. We still need to get Leakhena to her Pagoda. It becomes apparent and discouraging to realize we are not going to get any filming done today or be able to film a touching scene of reunion. The road back is just as bad and poor Nin is sick every couple of minutes. Leakhena is wiped out after nine hours in the car and is asleep on my lap. I am slung in the broken seat, holding Leakhena with one hand, the camera with another and have braced my foot against a metal bar under the front seat to keep myself, Leakhena and the camera from flying across the van with every teeth rattling jolt. I am positive we are going to run out of fuel but finally, our luck holds up and we make it back to the city and to Leakhena’s pagoda with less trouble than we had going in. Leakhena is happy to be back but can barely muster the energy to reciprocate the hugs of her siblings and cousins. We tell them we’ll return in the morning and weary head to our hotel for the night.

 
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