Asking for safe passage en route to Sihanoukville
04.09.2011 - 04.09.2011 28 °C
Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, Cambodia
With our bus to Sihanoukville departing early in the afternoon we were left with a free morning to explore more of the capital that we had rushed around on our previous visit.
However, our first task was to locate cardboard boxes to pack the various souvenirs we had purchased. As in Yangon a small secondhand market in cardboard boxes exists in Phnom Penh, near the Olympic Stadium. This curiously named stadium has, of course, never hosted an Olympic event. After being used in May 2007 by Ronan Keating, the first time by a major international act, possibly its most famous event since being built in 1964 was the small part it played in the 1966 FIFA World Cup. Unexpectedly, North Korea faced Australia in a qualifier. As North Korea lacked diplomatic relations with most countries, finding a suitable venue for the match proved difficult, until Head of State Norodom Sihanouk, an ally of Kim Il-Sung, said the matches could be held in Phnom Penh. The matches attracted 40,000 fans, with Sihounouk decreeing half would cheer for Australia, while the other half cheered the Koreans. The matches were held on 21 November 1965 and on 24 November 1965 with North Korea winning both (6–1 and 3–1). Because South Korea and all African teams had withdrawn in protests against FIFA, North Korea were thus directly qualified to the final tournament, where they reached the quarter-final.
Easily finding the stores we were seeking some amusement was to be had by the first box we saw - it had shipped from Wortley, Leeds a few miles from home in the UK! Suitable cardboard boxes purchased we were soon back exploring the city spending a little more time at the Russian Market and around the Royal Palace. As in the previous evening small children hawking books, postcards and bracelets were still a constant presence whether walking the streets or taking a break at a pavement café. Whilst their continued presence grew a little irksome, that was simply a facet of Phnom Penh life that one must accept.
Our Mekong Express bus to Sihanoukville was quite the First Class experience compared to our ride with the Paramount bus company a few days earlier. As we departed the traffic madness of the capital, negotiating a large bus around narrow streets, made smaller by a myriad of scooters, cars and other motorized vehicles, cold drinks and a small snack were distributed. The bus also carried a guide who was able to explain the various tourist sights that we were passing. It was, however, sometime before we realized that the long explanations of something of other in Khmer was actually being spoken in English and that the odd words we were able to understand were not as a result of us inadvertently soaking up an understanding of the Khmer language. Listening intently and feeling sorry for the Japanese couple sat across from us, who must have thought their understanding of English very poor, we grasped snippets of information about our journey.
Stopping without explanation a variety of times, before leaving the capital, gave us the opportunity to be waved at and ‘helloed’ by a variety of small children. As the only westerners on the bus we were clearly still interesting to many of the locals.
Halfway into our four hour ride we stopped briefly at the shrine of Ya-Mao - a central personage of a legend local to Sihanoukville and much of the Cambodian coast – or so we think from the broken explanation we received. She is a neak-ta, a powerful ancestor spirit that lords over this part of the country. Known as Ya-Mao, literally the Black Lady, her domain encompasses much of southwestern coastal Cambodia and she is the protector of sailors and other travelers of the area, both on and off shore. Locals from fisherman to taxi drivers are careful to make appropriate prayers and offerings (phallic objects and/or bananas) to Ya-Mao for their safe passage.
Fishing boats that work the area waters hang a hand of bananas on the bridge as an offering to Ya-Mao, and phallic-stick offerings can still sometimes be found on the beaches near fishing camps. We stopped at the best known and most apparent manifestation of the veneration of Ya-Mao – a large collection of spirit houses at the crest of the Pich Nil mountain pass on National Route #4, at the northern edge of Ya-Mao's domain half way between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.
Commanded by our friendly bus guide to stay on the bus she made offerings for safe conduct to Sihanoukville on our behalf, armed with incense sticks and a large bunch of bananas. From our brief stop it was clear that many if not most drivers on Route #4 stop at the shine to make offerings, and like the fishing boats, some drivers, especially taxi and truck drivers display a hand of bananas on the dashboard for Ya-Mao. Veneration of this neak-ta is still very real and very important.
With our offerings made to the Cambodian equivalent of St. Christopher we passed safely over the small mountain range, passing yet more rice fields before reaching Sihanoukville in the early evening.
With our hotel located high on the hill overlooking Sihanoukville and the Gulf of Siam we spent our evening there feasting on curiously tasty Spanish tapas and planning our explorations the following day.