The following essay was written by Kayla Monten, the daughter of PlanB’s vocalist Brett Monten about one of her experiences while on the “More Brass Than Class” tour of Vietnam and Cambodia back in 2010. You can catch a glimpse of her in the Southern Delta film clip sipping a (non alcoholic) drink at about 44 seconds into the clip.
White Minds – English Studies 2 essay by Kayla Monten.
Having been abruptly roused from a nap on mum’s shoulder due to a large pothole, I glanced out the front of the bus. “Phenom Penh, 145km” stated the faded road sign. On consultation with Dad, I figured out we were about halfway through our tedious six hour journey from Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. We would arrive that day on the 30th of December to celebrate the entrance to 2010 with the Cambodian people. We traveled for several kilometers through green rice paddies and log cabin bungalows, acknowledged by the stares of the locals as we rushed by.
A few minutes of bumpy road later the bus slowed and pulled into a gravel car park. Most people ambled down the bus steps, myself, Mum and Dad included. The oppressive humidity outside was a stark contrast to the slightly too cold air-conditioned environment inside the bus. The smell of cooked rice and fragrant meats wafted out from a poky cement building, mingling with the smell of diesel.We were immediately hassled by the cries of small children selling roses and hats. It was very hot, and Mum and I made a beeline for the toilets. I longed for a pool to wash away the sticky sweat and dirt.
Returning to the tiny building, we perched ourselves on white plastic chairs around acrylic tables nailed into the ground. Dad sampled the local hot food on offer, but Mum and I stuck to salty cups of instant noodles and cans of cold soft drink from a grimy white fridge. The building was noisy, filled with several busloads of tourists chatting and the locals and bus drivers yelling over the top in their native tongues. Birds chirped outside, as if chatting between themselves.
A quick stretch of the legs later we climbed back into our sheepskin seats to continue the journey. We passed the time by listening to music through tinny headphones and watching subtitled movies on a small screen hanging from the bus ceiling. I tried to sleep, my face pressed up against the cool window, but the vibrations gave me a headache.
The bus had to cross the Mekong River on a ferry, so it maneuvered itself into line at the dock in wait. Many people got out, but I was too exhausted to be harried by peddlers again. Out of my seat window I watched small dark-skinned people wander around with wicker trays filled with deep-fried insects. Flies buzzed around the trays, clearly unaware they could be next. The occasional pale white and brown patched cow meandered around the dock complacently;nose down, foraging along the orange sandy ground.
The bus guide clung to the edge of the bus, and gestured for everyone to come back in. Once seats were filled, the bus precariously followed two others down a narrow steel ramp and onto the ferry. I envisaged the ramp slipping down the mud of the riverbank, plunging the bus into the water. Peering over the rails of the wide boat, I turned up my nose at the appearance of the murky river water, nearly black in color, riddled with rubbish. I was glad I was inside the bus; I couldn’t imagine it smelling any better than it looked. Black birds glided in flocks overhead, their wings tirelessly slicing through the pollution.
The ferry clunked to a stop at the other side of the river and the bus hazardously disembarked up another narrow steel ramp. Our potential watery fate was in the driver’s small brown hands. This time the ramp seemed slippery; perhaps from the little waves that licked it as the ferry approached. The tires screeched, the engine strained and the bus lurched forward.
Once up the ramp, the driver nonchalantly continued, steering back onto the road for the last leg of the journey. I released the breath I was holding and let go of the armrest I was clutching, white-knuckled.
The excitement and relief built throughout the bus after news we were very close to Phenom Penh. After the longest ten minutes of my life, we pulled into the bus station. Everyone stood up and did the awkward “no you first” deal, pressing up against the back of seats to get out. The bus guide seemed just as eager to finish this leg of his journey, quickly popping open the under-bus luggage hold and unloading it. There was a scramble for suitcases, and we headed to the bus shelter. We stood under a rusty tin roof with sprinklers spraying a fine mist of water onto us. The water was cool but only dampened my need to wash. Soon enough, a hoard of tuk-tuk drivers rode up and we piled into one to get to our hostel.
We traipsed up the steep staircase of the hostel, our fat wheelie suitcases clunking up each step behind us. Jiggling the chunky steel key in the tarnished golden doorknob, Dad opened the entrance to our temporary home. After placing our luggage higgledy-piggledy on the dark chestnut floorboards, our legs were restless as windmills in a typhoon. Hunger promptly overtook tiredness. We jogged down the four flights and out the ornate front door of the hostel into the dusty street.
Hearing of a tourist strip a few streets away, we trekked up the side streets, following the gestured directions from the hostel owner. I quickly realized we were in a desolately poor area. There were groups of brown children playing in the street, wearing nothing but a shirt and nappy or a ripped pair of shorts. Our white minds told us to stick to the other side of the road, avoiding potential begging. The innocence in their eyes and their excited waves told me that these children were not beggars, they were simply intrigued by a new group of tourists walking through their home. Their happiness made me feel guilty; they had next to nothing and they were full of joy.