The journey from Phnom Penh to the little town of Kampot near the southern border of Cambodia takes me down a long, straight dirt road. Heading away from the airport and out of the city, the buzzing of motorbikes surrounds me. They slice quickly in and out of the paths of large trucks with open backs, which kick up dust as they fly past.
My smiling, chubby-faced taxi driver points and says, Factory workers. Saturday. They go home. Standing on the back of each truck are 100 or more people. Metal frames run overhead, which some of the workers grab while the others sway back and forth, unsupported. My driver honks so the trucks will move out of his way.
I sit mesmerized in the back seat of the taxi as city gives way to country. The trucks thin out and, after an hour or so, disappear. It is just us now, passing through village after village. Children and their parents are busy alongside the road, sitting, playing, working, living. We pass loose cattle walking and stray dogs nonchalantly crossing from one side to the other. The driver honks and swerves. Impossible that I had been planning to get some work done during this ride. Every new sight makes a lasting impression, is something I would never want to miss.
This is my first time in Cambodia, and the three-hour trip to Kampot is my introduction to its culture. The driver, in a loose long-sleeved white shirt and khakis, stares ahead, speaks on his cell phone from time to time. My journey is just another trip for him.
The sun begins to set behind the Bokor Mountains, their green hues muted by smog. The driver answers his cell phone, so softly there is no sound from his mouth, only lips moving. Another loose dog appears in front of the car. Large with short dark hair, it stands in the middle of the road, trusting and unconcerned. Talking and smiling, the driver plows on, tapping the brakes slightly. The dog is directly in front of the car.
Without a flinch, without hesitation, the driver hits the large, dark dog. Its hard thud rocks the taxi. In the back seat I begin screaming. The driver continues speaking and smiling as he drives over the dog’s body. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. My hands fly up over my mouth to stifle my scream in a strange and semi-conscious effort not to disturb his conversation. My thoughts race to grasp what has just happened. I tell myself that this must be the Cambodian way. Years of terror and mass murder have hardened these people to suffering, made them lose sight of the value of life.
It does seem to be treated differently in this country – life. The standing people on the backs of the trucks could lose their balance in a moment and fly off. Female motorbike passengers ride sidesaddle, hands settled loosely in their laps, not ready to catch them if they fall. Many motorbikes hold four or five people, four or five lives lost if they too meet up with a taxi driver who does not care enough to brake.
The shadows of the arriving night pass over the driver’s face in the rear view mirror. What if this is not the Cambodian way, I ask myself. Perhaps what the driver has done is not normal in this culture. Perhaps little children are standing over their dead pet in the roadway right now, crying. I realize my smiling taxi driver might be a well-dressed chubby-faced psychopath. My eyes move back and forth from the dark road to his face in the mirror, now expecting that he might drive me into the woods, pull me from the car and slice me into pieces with a scythe. Three hours on Cambodian soil, and my thoughts are tinged with death.
I wish I had only imagined hitting the dog. Perhaps fatigue combined with twilight has played a trick on me? We pull up finally to my guesthouse in Kampot, and I get out of the car without a word. The driver, sane or psychopath, climbs out too and walks immediately to the front of the taxi, bends down to look at the bumper. I did not imagine it. I walk inside quickly, away from the man who introduced me to Cambodia.