This is the email I sent my parents yesterday evening shortly after I arrived in Phnom Penh:
After much blobbing around, I am finally in Cambodia. Some similarities to Vietnam and Thailand, though it has its own vibe going on for sure. I got up at 5:15 this morning to go to the market to check it out and get some grub for the journey today. This little border town had the best prices in the whole country: 12000 dong (60 cents) for a kilo of rambutans and 10000 dong (50 cents) for a vegetarian sandwich. It was nice to get the “real” price and not be fleeced which is what happens in most places. But Chau Doc was a quiet, untouristy town.
With provisions in hand, the journey began. I took a boat up the Mekong River to the border with Cambodia. Along the way we stopped at a fish farm, which was a floating house with a few trap doors through which the fish were fed. We participated in the feeding and got mightily splashed in the frenzy. Another stop further up river was at a Cham village. The Cham people are Muslim and have been here for hundreds of years. Their houses are on stilts. One of the houses had markers for how high the river floods each year. The reason for stilts was obvious! It is pretty hard to believe how much water height can fluctuate. But the people were really friendly and the kids didn’t mind us taking pictures of them. The French student group that was also on the tour has brought long balloons and were blowing them up and making shapes to give to the kids. The kids loved it — I bet they will remember this batch of tourists for a long time to come.
Then it was four hours in this noisy little riverboat that was only as wide as three Vietnamese-size folding chairs. The scenery was the same, monotonous but lovely. Brown water edged by eucalyptus, with wooden stilt houses along the bank every so often and the occasional rickety bridge connecting the banks. As we went, I read Catfish and Mandela, a recommended read for visitors to Vietnam that I bought in Saigon. In a nutshell, it is about a Vietnamese-American man whose dad was a POW of the Viet Kong and whose family escaped to the US after the war. He returns to Vietnam twenty years later to bicycle from Saigon to Hanoi, discovering his cultural identity along the way (or something like that). I am halfway through the book after one day of travel and hope to find someone to start trading with soon as my bag is getting book-heavy again. After this book is read, I have The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouc and then it is time to start searching in earnest.
Crossing the border was pretty painless. We had to fill out departure cards just like in an airplane and then the guide took our passports, passport photos (I have a stash from a photo shop in Malaysia), arrival/departure cards, and $23 USD to get the visa handled. We waited an hour, during which time I worked on my kilo of rambutans and spoke with the tour guide of the student group. He said that Total, a French oil company, pays for most of the trip for children of the employees. Nice deal! I love seeing young people get out in the world – that’s how the travel bug bites. I told the guide that at least some of the kids will be back in a few years to backpack on their own. Three-week organized tours are how it all starts. At least for me…. Anyhow, the guide handed us back our passports and we were led along a dirt row lined by corn fields (I came all this way to see Illinois landscape? Yup.) to get our passports stamped. Then we loaded into two separate vans and began the drive of uncertain duration to Phnom Penh. I heard it took two hours, someone else heard three, another four. I decided to believe it would take four hours and be pleasantly surprised if it was less.
Cambodia looks pretty much like Vietnam though it seems a bit poorer. The houses are shabbier, many people walk barefoot, there aren’t as many motorbikes and certainly not as many cars and buses. The streetside stalls have fewer items on offer. People are thin, and I mean thin. In Vietnam no one is obese, though a few extra rolls here and there on the adult population are not uncommon. The signs are no longer readable. Khmer is in the same family as Thai so the script looks similar but is incomprehensible to me. But it is hot just the same. I had time to ponder this one feature of the region when our van blew a tire. Thank goodness a tree on the side of the road offered shade while I read my book and waited for the menfolk to fix it. I wished someone was there to laugh about a joke about calling AAA.
But no AAA was necessary as the tire got fixed and we were underway once more. Finally, the van pulled over in a nondescript alley awhile after we noticed taller buildings and denser traffic. The French kids (who were getting a bit on my nerves with their spraying cologne in the enclosed space of the van and making endless mouth fart noises – I am all for young people traveling but maybe not on my tour) stayed in the van and continued on. Me and two German girls, Tony and Mona, piled out and decided to share a tuk tuk. $1 a head, and that is US dollars. I still have a cash stash of US currency, so this wasn’t really a problem. But dealing in US currency is not something that I want to do since the smallest denomination I can do is $1, which will lead to spending more money. I have yet to find an ATM, though word on the street is that ATMs dispense US currency as well. It is kind of funny to see other travelers of European origin toting the occasional Benjamin this far away. The exchange rate is 4000 riel, so I am paying in dollars and getting change in riel. Maybe not the best system, but at least it is consistent. Maybe tomorrow I can find a place to do an outright exchange and leave the green stuff at home.
Home, at the moment, is a guesthouse near the market. The climb up the stairs winds up and down hallways as well, so I don’t even know what floor I am on. All I know is that it is room 21, I am sharing it with the two girls for tonight (I hope to find a friendly hostel tomorrow as the guesthouse owners seem to be annoyed when I asked them questions like where to acquire a map (no free maps in Cambodia) and where an Internet cafe is), and that the landing smells strongly of marijuana. I have heard other travelers say that “you can get anything in Cambodia,” which is likely true in a poorer, desperate country. People also say “don’t stray from the marked paths – there might be bombs.”
Admittedly, after a long day of travel and hotel-hunting in the rain, I was feeling grumpy. Why did I leave Vietnam? How long until I am in Thailand? And other such thoughts. Umm, culture shock anyone? And I had barely even gotten off the bus! Geez, you grumpy traveler. Chill out. And, following Uncle Dave’s advice, eat something. I went for a wander, taking a turn about the market. There I found what looked a lot like Thai iced tea (including the beloved green tea that you can’t find in the States!) and despite the rain the sun burst through the clouds in my mind. Having zero language skills here, I pulled out a Lincoln that I put in my wallet as my dinner and Internet budget for the evening. I showed it to the small crowd of ladies that gathered around to watch the farang dig in her bag, muttering to herself. Mutual understanding occurred, and the vendor produced four US dollars and 2000 riel: my change. Perfect! I smiled and nodded my assent, pointing the the green bottle that was obviously more popular than the others. Ice tea, milk. In Thailand they use condensed milk, whereas here they use fresh milk. But the taste! Like sweetened jasmine tea with some other inexplicable ingredient. Glorious day. It is funny how something as simple and familiar as a beverage can turn a mood around. I really must be a child, which is how I feel much of the time while traveling.
Dinner was fried noodles and vegetables, which is pretty much the only option besides fried rice with vegetables as far as I can tell. The next option on the agenda is to learn how to say hello, thank you, toilet, and vegetarian in the local language. Perhaps I will do that now before my time on the Internet runs out.
So know that I am safe, fed, and getting on fabulously.
That’s all from yesterday and today’s status is pretty much the same. I walked like a fiend: heading out at 6:30 am to find a proper hostel (i.e. one with a dorm room) and not really stopping for a proper meal (but plenty of snacks) until 6:30 pm. That meal was a curry, which tasted quite a bit like Thai curry you can get in the States. (Nothing compares to the pumpkin curry Kuhn Meh – my Thai mom – makes.) While eating said curry, I looked at yesterday’s notes and made some new ones. My thoughts from yesterday mostly regarded questions that I wanted answers to in order to feel more comfortable here in Cambodia. Where can I find a dorm bed? How much should a ______ (bottle of water, tuk tuk, fruit, hour of internet use, etc) cost? Where is an internet cafe? Where is a map? Where is an ATM? What kind of money does the ATM dispense? Where can I exchange currency? How do you say ______ (toilet, vegetarian, thank you, how much, etc)? And so on. Happily, over the course of today, I have discovered the answers to all of these questions (except the translation one) and more. I even stumbled upon the U.S. embassy. You know, just in case. Kidding! Hopefully.
Really though, there was some ruckus in town today. It started as I was heading North, towards a hostel called Me Mate’s Place, when music that was faint got louder and louder as I walked. In one of the open boulevards, there was a truck with a loudspeaker pumping a knock-off of Gangham Style repeatedly. (Since this morning I have heard Gangham Style from at least five other sources. Attention, people of Cambodia: other music does exist.) In the park and on the sidewalks, people wearing white baseball caps and white or blue t-shirts with matching logos milled around, congregating a ways off from the speaker. Once I passed the scene, growing numbers of people wearing the same gear passed me going to join the assembling mass. Lots of motorbikes whizzed by, the passengers carrying Cambodian flags and blue flags with the same emblem. The occasional heavy-duty truck would pass too, the cargo space in the back packed with people standing up.
A couple hours later, I returned to the same spot where Hostel Nomad (whose owner, Robert, is really friendly and freely gives information, as he did yesterday even though his hostel was full when we came in looking for a bed) happened to be in the thick of the action. The mass was much larger, and a man was saying something over the sound system that had everyone cheering and pumping their flags in the air. It had the smell of a political rally, which a Cambodian later informed me was correct. Apparently there are elections in ten days, though according to Wikipedia (not the best source to quote, I know) Cambodia is a one-party system. From the looks of it, the rally I saw today (and continued to see as people zipped around town with flags, honking and hollering) was in favor of the dominant party. Otherwise, would the police (of which there were plenty) have stopped it? Who knows. But as far as I know it didn’t come to violence, so all is well on that front.
The Cambodian with whom I spoke briefly today approached me as I was walking around the perimeter of the Palace. He seemed friendly enough and was able to answer my question about the rally, but he was really a tuk tuk driver trying to get me to do a day trip. Oy vey! Everyone wants something. He was pleasant enough to talk to for the first couple minutes, which was nice because usually I don’t engage with obvious touts. I have become master at smiling, shaking my head and hand in a “no, thank you” gesture, and avoiding eye contact with the more predatory guys shouting “You! You! Motobike!” from across the road. But once he could tell that I wasn’t going to accept a ride after our little chat, he changed. The desperation was obvious, like a smell in the air. I felt bad, as a bleeding heart like mine is wont feel, but with so many people wanting, needing, mememeing, how do you choose? What do you do?
I just walked away, and hadn’t gone fifty yards when I could hear him striking up a new conversation with some other tourists. So the cycle continues. But I didn’t get very far before I got hooked again. This time, it was an older man in a wheelchair with nothing but a blown-off twig for a right leg. He had a container in his lap and held up a sign written in Khmer, English, and French saying something to the effect of “I am not begging, I want to work. I am selling books for…” and the like. Books: my weakness! I took a look. The English language ones were all about the Khmer Rouge and the horrors of the Cambodian genocide that ended only thirty-four and a half years ago. The 70s were not a pretty time in this part of the world. First They Killed My Father is one that I saw often in Vietnam and was hesitant to get because it is heavy reading about a little girl whose family is torn apart under the regime and she is drafted as a child soldier. (Side note: a monk in the iconic orange robes just walked behind me in this little internet cafe. Just thought I would share.)
While I was looking over his selection, a lanky young man came up peddling the same wares. He saw my interest in First They Killed My Father and produced the sequel from his own basket. Tempting, tempting… Then I innocently asked how much and the game began. I was just curious, wanting to do price checking in my head to compare with other books I have bought over here. He flipped it over and pointed to the sticker price: USA $13.95 or CAN $18.95. It’s a nicely done copy, but a copy all the same. $14?! I told him that I could get the same in Vietnam for $3. (Or cheaper, though I didn’t throw that in.) Counter-offer: fool! I was stuck now and I knew it. He was begging for 2 for $7 and I was exasperated with myself for asking. I tried to walk away, but he was on my tail and finally agreed to $3 with only the encouragement of my protests that I didn’t want the book in the first place. But once he agreed to the price I set, I had to pay. Not the worst thing in the world, though I did feel bad that I didn’t buy from the guy in the wheelchair since he couldn’t exactly follow (monk just walked by again – he smells like incense) me over the curbs as I tried to escape his younger competition. Such is life.
After these and similar encounters, I feel that I am getting more and more distrustful. (I was torn between mistrustful and distrustful, though from grammarist.com’s explanation I feel the right one is distrustful: “distrust is often based on experience or reliable information, while mistrust is often a general sense of unease toward someone or something.” ) I always try to deal with happenings with a smile, though I am perhaps not as polite to local people as I could be. For example, one morning in Vietnam I was sitting at a mobile food stall drinking hot, sweetened soy milk when a girl around my age sat down next to me and said hello. I snapped at her, saying that I didn’t want to buy anything and realized immediately afterward that she probably just wanted to practice her English. I still feel bad about it and don’t want to do the same thing to another person, though it can be quite taxing to be harassed all the time to spend on various goods and services.
So besides finding a hostel, snacking on street food, stumbling upon a rally, buying a book, and wandering in general, I went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as simply S21. Originally a school, it was converted into a prison/torture/interrogation center for prisoners of the Khmer Rouge. Records indicate that over 20,000 people, men, women and children, passed through between the years of 1975 to 1979. January 7th, 1979, when the regime fell, only seven prisoners were found alive (though some reports say there were more but seven is the number the media seized upon and is the number that will live on in infamy). During those years, somewhere around the number of two million Cambodian people were killed by other Cambodians. The museum has a collection of skulls (many of which have bullet holes clearly visible) and mug shots by the hundreds. It’s a chilling place. And to think: it used to be a school and a surprising number of the perpetrators used to be teachers. Downright horrifying. Tomorrow I plan on going to the Killing Fields, 12 km outside of town where thousands of people met their end.
Now, with the War Remnants Museum and now this business in Cambodia don’t think that I am seeking all the downer things on this trip. I think it is important to see history from the local perspective, and if this is what happened then so be it: I will learn. But good stuff is going on too. Kids ride around laughing and riding their bikes. People are openly jazzed about the upcoming election. I am in touch with Anouk (my Belgian friend in Thailand) and each day brings my closer to Thailand. Angkor Wat, a wonder of the world (I think), is just around the corner. Fellow travelers keep telling me wonderful things about India. I have a new love for Vietnam. Lots of good stuff, even with the history and its dark echoes here.