There's one major highway that runs between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, home to Cambodia's biggest tourist attraction, the temples of Angkor Wat. Lots of tourists fly straight into Siem Reap, but many choose to spend some time in Phnom Penh and then take a bus up to Siem Reap. Kampong Thom is the halfway point, which we didn't realize until we saw, on a scheduled hourly basis, hoards of tourists stop at our hotel/restaurant to 1) use the bathroom, and 2) buy ice cream. Say what you will about the health of Kampong Thom's economy in other areas, but that ice cream business is thriving. Feeling a little like old locals (now that we've been living here for a grand total of 2 months), we had quite a bit of fun laughing at the western tourists stopping through in their spotless head-to-toe khaki safari gear. Because you never know when you're going to run into a tiger on the way to the toilet on your Greyhound bus.
So we headed to the protest. A group of villagers were involved in a land dispute with the government; the government was trying to give farming land to a private corporate agriculture firm for lots of cash, while the people said the land was rightfully theirs....and again, no proper title on either side, so a lot of finger-pointing going on. Several farmers were currently unlawfully detained in prison because of the dispute, so along with land protection, the protestors wanted everyone released from jail. They decided to host this protest on the one major highway discussed above, shutting down tourist bus traffic (and traffic in general) for an entire day.
I think the most interesting thing about this was that it actually brought the issue of farming land disputes front and center to the tourists, who otherwise would have driven through the pretty landscape completely clueless about what type of conflicts are happening. They got off their buses, and walked around taking pictures and speaking to local representatives about the issues.
The sign was asking Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene and protect the local farmers' land.
We stayed at the protest for several hours before the fire trucks started to show up. They were there to spray the protestors, who in turn were ready to retaliate by throwing rocks. We had to take cover pretty quickly.
By the way, check out who donated the pretty, brand-new fire truck, and made sure to print the donation on the side of the truck in English so westerners could read it:
Luckily, the first rock was never launched because a government official came to negotiate with the protestors.
Around lunchtime there was still a lot of talking going on, so we decided to go to our boss's mom's house for some lunch in a nearby village. I ended up getting sick again, but this time it was a migraine. My boss's mother, who took quite the liking to Leah and me, became extremely concerned and decided to treat me as her patient. This woman isn't your usual kindly old grandmother; she's a tough cookie who, among other things, got her 5 kids through the Khmer Rouge regime. She doesn't take no for an answer. When I was feeling rough, she ordered Leah and I to lie down on some mats, inserting pillows under our heads and commanding us to sleep. It was the most enforced nap time I've ever experienced. After the nap, she told me (in Khmer, so a lot of lecturing and me just nodding) that I needed to eat something, because I didn't have enough power in me. She went outside, and came back with a bag full of ears of corn.
She pushed the bag at me. I shook my head. She pushed it again, pointing forcefully at it and telling me to eat. I, like a 3-year-old, resolutely shook my head again. Then she ripped one out of the bag and shoved it in my hand. I gulped, and decided that the only way to make this back-and-forth stop was for me to eat the damn corn. She seemed satisfied after this. My headache was still there, but I was relieved that my new Khmer grandmother was done with her medical treatment.
We received word that the protest was finished and the road to Siem Reap was open again. The people the protestors wanted released from prison did indeed get released, and the government officials agreed to talk with them about the land problems. We were once again off on our trip.
Angkor Wat next....