Today we set off from Phnom Penh to Kratie – a town in the north east of Cambodia, situated right next to the majestic Mekong river. The journey takes 6 hours and we were most of the way there, when suddenly the bus runs into what appears to be a traffic jam. This is in the middle of a small village, so we’re surprised; we hope its roadworks and not a traffic incident causing this unexpected stop.
As it turns out a moment later, what’s really occurring is a protest – a group of about 40 villagers have blocked a bridge on both sides and aren’t letting through any cars, buses or motorbikes. The reason for protest – the government has taken away land from several farmers. Talking to a local the next day, we learn that the land is usually given or leased to private companies for planting of rubber or cashew nut trees (basically profitable plantations), while the farmers are left without their main source of income. Land eviction is a perpetual problem in the obsessed with development and profit (probably to buy more SUVs) country and is well known internationally.
As for our journey to Kratie, after a 30 minute break the bus driver decides to take a 100km trip around (2-3 hours at Cambodia speeds). We’re told the town of Kratie is only about 3-5 km away, so we decide to get off here, sensing an adventure and hoping to hitchhike the rest of the way once we cross the bridge. The protesters have no problem with us crossing on foot, so we scramble our way over the layered motorbike and log barricade (not so easy with 15kg backpacks) and emerge on the other side. So far so good. Shortly, while taking a rest in the shade (its about 3pm, but the sun is so hot you’d think it somehow moved closer to our little planet, probably for a cuddle; or we’ve finally succeeded in eroding the atmosphere completely and are receiving sun rays raw and direct), we see a funny little vehicle that is basically a mill on wheels moving slowly down the road. Gerda waves at an old man behind the wheel asking it to pull over, which he does, and manages to explain to him that we need a ride into town. We’re welcomed aboard without any hesitation (people in Kratie region are said to be the friendliest in the whole of Cambodia), so we pile our bags onto the platform dusty with flour and jump in ourselves. Naturally, traveling like this we attract a lot of attention from passers by and are greeted many times before we reach the central market area in Kratie. We also go past the building of Cambodia’s Department of Rural Planning, who seem to be having a large party behind the closed gates. Celebrating the successful land operation perhaps. We make it all the way to the central market in Kratie and say goodbyes to the friendly local. Time to find a hotel.
UPDATE Monday, 2012-04-09: we’re heading further into Cambodia’s north-east and are informed that our bus is running 2 hours late because the protesters have blocked the bridge again (a different one this time). During the weekend there was no protesting though, maybe they’re specifically aiming to disrupt working day traffic only. We wish them good luck in their cause!