Cambodia - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 264 (74)

Phnom Penh

Saturday 27th November

We were told that we would be collected this morning to be taken to the bus stop where our Phnom Penh bound bus was to depart and indeed a minibus did arrive as promised. We flashed our tickets, loaded our bags and set off to collect some more travellers. When this minivan was eventually full, it took us across town to what we thought was the bus stop. The only buses there, however, were rickety city buses that looked none too comfortable for a seven-hour jaunt down half the length of the country. Apparently, these were also just transition buses that would take us to the actual bus depot where the larger coaches would be departing from. As we’ve come to expect from transit points, lots of people were walking around trying to sell various things from cigarettes and gum to fruit and bread rolls. I eventually relieved a young lad of a large and fluffy bread roll for R500 (€0,10). At the final bus depot, which was ironically not far from where we started this morning, there were numerous coaches ready to depart. Nobody really told us where to go but I flashed our tickets and we were given the nod to follow the heard heading for one of the coaches. The tickets all have seat numbers written on them but this must be more for decoration than anything else since when I questioned the fact that our seats appeared to already be occupied, I was told that it didn’t matter and to just find another seat, which we did. We ended up sitting on the very back row of raised seats. We had a great view down the length of the bus but I’m not sure if this was the most comfortable place to sit given than the bus would likely pass over some rough terrain.

Three coaches departed pretty much simultaneously and formed something of a convoy all the way down to the nation’s capital. Ours was comprised of about a quarter of Western backpackers with locals filling the bulk of the seats. It just so happens that all five seats on the back row were occupied by Western backpackers like ourselves and we got to know a couple of Brits that are travelling through Cambodia for the next couple of weeks. By the time we had reached our destination, we had agreed to share a tuk-tuk to one of the guidebook recommended guest-houses.

Along the way, we stopped a few times at small towns where the passengers could stretch their legs, grab a bite to eat or to use a restaurant toilet. Once again, a throng of food traders were trying their best to tempt the passing passengers with all sorts of weird and wonderful things. With more time to spare, I might have tried some of the stranger fruits on offer but I flatly drew the line at the huge, glazed spiders being paraded on trays by a couple of young women at one particular stop. I had to take a closer look when I first saw them but they most definitely were spiders being offered as snacks. The funny thing was that these trays full of spiders were half empty, indicating that they were slowly being sold and presumably eaten. I didn’t actually see anybody buy or eat any of these six-inch long, black, lifeless spiders but the young women selling them did their best to try to convince me that they were tasty and delicious. Regardless of how much I want to try and experience new and different things, there was no way on earth I was going to put one of those things into my mouth.

At one of the longer stop offs, I ventured across the street and into the market town to mingle amongst the locals going about their daily subsistence shopping. It was mostly fruits and vegetables on sale at the primitive market stalls but the steadily growing number of flies correctly forewarned me that I was getting closer to the fish section so I turned back. I had quite a hankering for a banana or two and there were several stalls selling them but it seemed that the only way I could buy them was by the stem full with about thirty bananas on the stem. It took a while before I found a stall owner than understood enough English to grasp the concept that I only wanted two individual bananas. He explained this to the other people around his stall and they all burst into laughter. Who on earth would want to buy just two individual bananas after all? I think they genuinely took pity on the strange foreigner because he found two loose bananas and gave them to me without allowing me to pay for them. With smiles all around, I took them graciously and went back to the diner where Sandy and the other passengers were finishing off whatever it was they had just been eating. My bananas were very green and rock hard and I did my best to remove enough of the peel from one of them to take a bite. It was the most bitter and disgusting taste imaginable and when the involuntary contortions of my face portrayed this, several of the locals that had apparently been watching me with baited breath all burst into laughter. I suppose these green bananas must first ripen or something and I imagine I might have looked quite the fool from the perspective of the locals. Still, it was another nice little comical interaction with the ever-friendly Cambodians that will stick with me for a while now.

Our guest-house proprietor back in Siem Reap had told us that the bus journey would last at least seven hours, much to our resigned displeasure. In the end, it lasted not much more than five hours altogether and that was including the three stops we made. In retrospect, I wish I had been less tired for the journey so that I could have enjoyed more of watching Cambodia slip by. What I did see was a lot of rice fields and the odd hut raised onto stilts. Cambodia is the very first country I’ve travelled through, incidentally, where I didn’t once see the beautiful landscape spoiled by electricity pylons, towers or other made-made monstrosities. When we got closer to Phnom Penh, I did start to see the odd TV antenna extending upwards from the odd roof but nothing much else other than low buildings steadily becoming more and more dense. The wooden buildings for the most part started to give way to more permanent yet still primitive concrete block structures just outside of the capital.

The time we spent in the bus allowed me to concentrate more on reading through our Cambodia guidebook. Our decision to come to Phnom Penh was at least in part based on the fact that we could carry on South after a few days to the coast where we would pick up a boat back over to Bangkok. It turns out, however, that there is no such boat that goes to Bangkok. There is instead a four-hour boat that travels North West from one of the Cambodian coastal towns up the coastline to an island from where we can subsequently get a transfer back to the Thai mainland right next to the Cambodia and Thailand border. This means another long bus or train journey back through Thailand towards Bangkok. Since neither of us is particularly keen on very long bus journeys, the news of this logistical problem came somewhat as an unwelcome surprise. The future still remains unwritten, however, and there are many ways to skin a cat. We may yet change our minds about what we are going to do next or where we are going to go, right up to the moment of our next departure – whenever that might be.

Our arrival in Phnom Penh was around two in the afternoon, just when the sun was at its hottest. I found a tuk-tuk to take the four of us and all our bags to our guest-house for $2 (€1,54). He told us it was going to be a fifteen-minute drive but we arrived after no more than five. When we got there and scaled the one flight of steps with all our bags, we were told that there were no more rooms available with air-conditioning. This didn’t seem to matter to the other two Brits who took a room with a fan but Sandy and I have gotten into the habit of travelling comfortably now and the bare minimum that we look for in a room is air-conditioning and an ensuite bathroom with hot running water if at all possible. Roughing it is all very well but I made sure that we had enough budget to begin with for this not to be necessary for most of the time. I was also not particularly impressed with the look of this part of town and was attracted, largely through the guidebook’s description admittedly, more towards another part of town nearer the river. We found another tuk-tuk and had him take us the short distance across town. I didn’t realise just how short a distance it was, however, and agreed another $2 (€1,54) fare with the driver. Not only was it not very far, but it was also within an area of town that was temporarily cordoned off from the vast majority of tuk-tuk and moto (motorcycle) drivers due to this being the last day of the water festival. In the full heat of the day, we had to walk another several hundred meters following the dubious directions from our now slightly richer than he expected to be tuk-tuk driver. I’m pretty sure that we grossly overpaid on both our tuk-tuk journeys this afternoon but, then again, it always takes a day or two to get familiar with this sort of thing. Armed with the knowledge of how much things should cost, we can usually negotiate the going rate most of the time but rarely can we do this on the very first day in a new location.

We walked for what seemed like forever in the blistering heat and laden with backpacks, as we did our best to locate the illusive guest-house we were in search of. We asked for directions several times but people kept pointing us off in different directions. One rather friendly shop attendant was even so good as to call the number listed in the guidebook but it turned out to be a non-existent number – so much for the guidebook! Sandy was rapidly reaching her threshold for walking around a hot city with her house on her back and decided she would stop and sit at a nearby Irish pub whilst I sorted out the logistical problem of where we were going to stay. Some of the patrons in the pub were good enough to point out another nearby guest-house and I went over there to book us into a very nice room, which met all our minimum requirements. I didn’t even bother trying to haggle anything off the asking price of $14 (€10,77) for the room. Once again, we are not too bothered about haggling very hard here in Cambodia.

We were grateful for the hot running water that came with our room (many hotels and guest-houses here in Cambodia don’t have this luxury) and made a quick dip under the shower the very first thing we did after dropping our bags onto the floor. Naturally we disrobed first. Whilst waiting for me to sort out our accommodation, Sandy had scanned the menu at the Irish pub and liked what she saw so we went back over there for lunch after freshening up. The food was great and I had a huge breakfast with a side order of chips, whilst Sandy enjoyed a couple of rather larger, breaded pork chops with all the trimmings. Including our drinks, which usually constitutes a couple of cokes and a bottle of mineral water, our bill came to just over $12 (€9,23). US Dollars are the norm here but anything less than a Dollar or two is converted into Riel at the rate of R4,000 to the Dollar. My change from $15 was a couple of Dollar bills and the rest in small denomination Riel notes. We’ve started to get into the habit of leaving whatever Riel is brought back to the table as a tip.

Today marks the last day of the water festival and the celebrations are in full swing here in Phnom Penh. There are boat races up and down the river close to our hotel just as was the case in Siem Reap. The river here is very much wider than in Siem Reap and there are thousands and thousands of people lining our side of the bank. Festivity is very much in the air and the whole crowd cheers on each pair of racing boats as they pass every five minutes or so. The boats race down a length of river probably about a Kilometre or so long and then slowly paddle back to the starting point again for the next heats. Although the boats are very similar in proportions to those we saw racing along the Siem Reap River, these are quite a bit longer with somewhere between seventy and eighty paddlers all lined up in pairs down the length of the very narrow boat. Some of the boats have sitting rowers, each with a single paddle, whilst others have their oarsmen standing as they propel the boat through the water. The more successful boats are those where all the athletes are completely in sync with each other and they are paddling to the tune of a whistle that the front man is rhythmically blowing on. Each boat is colourfully decorated and most boats are manned with men all wearing the same colour shirts, making it a very colourful event whichever way you look at it.

We enjoyed the festival immensely once more and walked around following the myriad of photo opportunities in all directions for as long as our tired legs would carry us. The crowds here are immense and it was taking us quite a while to move a relatively short distance. Eventually, we managed to make our way back to our guest-house for some well-earned rest.

Whilst Sandy rested, I took the laptop out to find an Internet café that we passed earlier. I had already verified that it would be okay to hook the laptop up there and their connection was sufficiently suitable for me to upload another batch of travel updates. I spent just over a Dollar for over two hours of Internet time. Whilst there, the closing ceremony of the water festival was well under way with huge, colourful and very brightly lit floats passed slowly down the river. As I watched the floats pass by, fireworks lit up the night sky in a dazzling display that went on for at least an hour or more. The float decorations were made largely of light bulbs suspended on massive two-dimensional grids to form various designs. They were oriented so that people on both sides of the riverbank could get a full-on view of the light show. The very last boat in the armada had a huge light bulb display of the outline of Cambodia, complete with all the rivers, lakes and provincial boundaries clearly marked in coloured bulbs.

Whilst at the Internet café, a young and inquisitive lad, probably no older than seven or eight, was hanging around and seemed particularly interested in me. Initially, he tried to tell me that he needed money to go to school tomorrow but it was a half-hearted attempt at best. I spent a little time interacting with him and enjoyed watching his face light up when I tried a few of my magic tricks on him. He was toting a weight scale and I asked him if I could weigh myself. As payment for this, I gave him a couple of small denomination Riel notes, which he seemed very happy with. It’s generally not always a good idea to give money indiscriminately to children. This can lead to a detrimental dependency on begging that ultimately does the child no good in the long run. I much prefer to give the kids a little attention instead and am quite happy to hand over a little bit of money if they provide a valuable service. This is what led to me to ask if I could weigh myself to begin with since this would at least constitute as a service for which I felt a small reward would then be appropriate. Once again it is this sort of small and unexpected interaction with one of the locals that really makes the trip for me. You can’t plan these things or even go in search of them. They just happen from time to time and it gives me a wonderful feeling inside each time it happens.