An hour beforehand I had been sitting at a roadside restaurant in Kampong Chhnang. We were about one hundred kilometres from Phnom Penh but hunger pangs had hit out party. I was returning to the capital to pick up a friend who was coming to visit. I had hitched a ride with some other friends who had been up to visit with their parents. I had enjoyed the trip from the back of the truck, luxuriating in the hot sun and passing countryside. When we got to the restaurant I was hungry too so I partook merrily in the noodles and beef lok-lak (cubes of beef cooked with a delicious pepper sauce).
A half hour later I wasn’t feeling quite so merry. Bugs and viruses hit when you least expect them and sitting in the back of the truck I could tell I was in trouble. I contorted myself into various intriguing shapes to try and find comfort. It wasn’t happening. I banged on the top of the truck and motioned to my friend that a loo break was very much needed. She grinned, knowing that such things are part and parcel of traveling in Cambodia.
We stopped outside a small shop, which sold petrol in plastic Pepsi bottles.
I stumbled inside, legs crossed, the owner pointed me to the back. The shops innards were squalid; the bedrooms were piled up with plastic petrol cans and old clothes. Beds lay alongside Duckham’s oil canisters. A half eaten bowl of soup found company with a set of rusty screwdrivers. I had no time for observing the peculiarities of this little scene as I stumbled down a hallway. I could see my holy grail a few metres away.
I just wasn’t prepared for what I saw.
It was a squat toilet; I could deal with that. I was well used to them.
However, in it was the largest turd I had ever scene, a veritable Mount Everest in the great Hall of Fame of Craps. I couldn’t quite believe it. I was so close and now I had to deal with this. I then heard a small sound. I looked over to the right and saw a small boy cowering in the corner. He was holding a small cup in one hand and was trying to spoon water into the squat in order to dislodge his impressive deposit. The boy had spindly legs and arms and was quite obviously stricken by a very bad case of polio. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. He looked terrified when he saw me looming above him.
The boy was weak and was making little impression on his afternoon’s labour.
I picked him up and placed him carefully in his wheelchair (which I hadn’t actually noticed), and he shot off down the hall. I picked up a big bucket of water and finally dislodged the effort and then set to work.
I emerged into the sunshine a few minutes later. I climbed back into the truck and spent a few moments in quiet consideration. I was used to stomach complaints, I was also used to unpleasant smells and sites, and nowhere had I seen more signs of disease and poverty. However, never had I been assaulted by all of them at once. ”Only in Cambodia,” I ruminated to myself, ”Only in Cambodia.”