First person ATW Semester: On the road to Battambang

The Concordia Courier

 On the road to Battambang

By Greta Jones | 9/22/2023

The road to Battambang is unremarkable. It is paved with faded asphalt, which is covered in a thin layer of rust-colored dirt. Deprived of the usual August monsoons, the dirt is dry, and hot to the touch. As the open back of the truck bumps along the road, dust kicks up and burns my nose. Fourteen of us are packed tightly, limbs cramped and squished by our backpacks. The journey will be three hours long, someone says. None of us know what to expect.

On the road to Battambang, the dense Angkor jungles that hide elaborate temples grow smaller and smaller. Soon, they fade into sweeping fields of rice. I have never seen this crop before, but it behaves in a way that reminds me of the fields of grain back at home. The wispy plant stands up straight for a foot before delicately curving outward. When the wind rushes through, the seas of rice turn into a field of Kansas winter wheat, bending, swaying, and whipping when the wind is stronger, but not breaking.

Some of the greener rice fields that we pass have pools of water drenching their roots. Others are dry, with only wet mud to hydrate the rice. In these, the plants have yellowing leaves and do not stand as tall. A lone figure clad in orange tends to the blowing fields, bent over, holding onto a tall stick for stability.
I see him only for a moment, then he too is swept away by the vast expanse of rice.

On the road to Battambang, farmland is broken up by pockets of villages. Collections of metal houses on stilts, small dwellings with thatched or tarped roofs, and larger brightly colored cement homes line the road. Some of the homes are open, their fronts creating stalls and stands for selling fruit, clothing, and Ganzberg beer.

Other structures, schools filled with children running around the yard, ornately decorated temples, and police boxes with boarded up doors are everywhere. People are milling about, chasing small children, arranging displays of food, petting a dog. They smile at us as our truck goes past. Maybe they think that we will stop to offer them business, but our journey is far from over.

It strikes me that on the road to Battambang, I only know of the road what I see on the road. I do not know the lives and stories of the people that I pass, I do not even know why they smile at our truck. I do not know whether the sudden dips in the earth are for irrigation ponds, or if they are scars from a Khmer Rouge land mine. I do not know how German beer came to be something advertised on bright orange billboards in front of every shop. I wonder if the blowing fields of rice have seen starvation and hunger, I wonder if the older people that pass have fought in wars that I have only read about.
Aswegoby,Ithinkof every person that I see. I do not know what their names might be, but I give them stories in my head. The man tilling his field of rice is wondering how he will pay rent, but is grateful that the rice belongs to him. The feeling that I need to ask them about their real stories makes my eyes water and my throat close.

On the road to Battambang I count my blessings and I am grateful for several things. For the bathroom stop that comes right when I need it to. For the food that I have eaten in Siem Reap, and for the people who speak my language so that I could maintain a plant-based diet with ease. For the people on the road with me, who sing in the dark on hostel rooftops, and who smile and talk to me even though we are not yet close friends.

I am praying that God is blessing the people who live on the road to Battambang. I ask Him to bless the tour guide who taught us so much about Cambodian history, and the disabled veteran at the war museum who lived through it. I ask Him to bless the people at the hostel who found and returned my blue water bottle. I ask Him to bless the cook who made the divine dum aloo in Siem Reap, and I ask Him to bless the girls in the truck who blew kisses at us in our Tuk Tuk.

On the road to Battambang, in a way that feels profound rather than unremarkable, I ask Him to bless us all.


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