First day in Cambodia

  • By Daniel
  • 2009-06-20 09:06:00-0700

The road north to Cambodia was immediately nicer than other roads I've taken into or inside of Saigon. They were more like the roads on Hanoi, more modern and maintained, and this gave promise to the many construction site billboards showing the future office complexes and industry sites that I've seen on my travels.

I was traveling on a Mailinh tour bus and had taken a Mailinh taxi the day before and had gotten a good price. At the front of the bus which was at first playing an episode of a Vietnamese variety show but then began playing popular internet videos. This was interesting because once again there was this mix of cultures. There were videos where white men were driving luxury sports cars that I'd seen a thousand times in San Jose but hadn't seen once in Vietnam. There were several videos with overt sexuality that I hadn't seen yet in actual Vietnamese culture. Nobody cared about the robot dancing kid in the orange shirt but they loved the video of the man who got attacked by the mule he was trying to have sex with. I couldn't believe such a business from such a conservative culture would be playing some of these videos.

The nonfunctioning GPS feature on my iPhone really began to bug me again when we stopped for gas and I wondered where I was. I remembered that the iPhone 3.0 firmware had finally gone public and had probably been cracked since the hackers had been keeping up on 3.0 and I resolved to network unlock my phone ASAP in hopes of restoring GPS functions and if nothing else to give me a phone rather than a PDA.

When we got to the border we all got off the bus, picked up our luggage and went into an air conditioned building with an x-Ray machine and a group of 80 or more people waiting beyond it, and so we waited.

There were a lot of white people, most Australians. A Japanese man from Hiroshima spoke with me in English. He asked if I had a visa already and when I said yes he said "fuck..." and it sounded good to hear familiar English slang. He said he was unemployed and was traveling from Saigon up to Thailand and back down to Singapore, nearly the same route I was taking but in a mere 10 days. I told him he could probably buy a visa at the checkpoint and he agreed and wised he'd brought more American dollars. He was from North Carolina.

One by one our names were called and our passports were returned including arrival/departure cards. A man checked my passport and I went outside, exchanged my book for my camera, gave my backpack to the storage guys and boarded. Off we went for a mere 200 meters, then we had to get off again. This was the real border.

Inside a man checked my passport and directed me to a line. A sign at the counter said they were having trouble with their computers, which were running windows and had motorized Logitech webcams. They took my passport and scanned it, took my photo, stamped the passport a half dozen times and let me pass. A woman checked my passport as she talked on her cell phone and let me pass into the health quarantine where there was a x-Ray machine and a crowd of people. I filled out a health declaration and they let me pass. It felt like I was on level 3 and just needed to find the person to check my passport so I could continue, but I guess level 3 doesn't require that so I went and got back on the bus.

The first thing I noticed in Cambodia were numerous casinos, none of which were open. There were no casinos in Vietnam.

The next thing I noticed was that they reluctant on the Thai alphabet, which I thought would be a problem for me until I saw that everything was translated into two to four written languages: Thai, some sort of Chinese, Vietnamese and English, and I can read one and somewhat pronounce another. The money is in Thai and English numerals.

At lunch I sat with the Japanese man, who was able to buy a visa at the border, and talked about Phnom Penh, which was where our bus was headed, and Angkor Wat.

I drank an Angkor beer and thought about San Francisco.

The Japanese man mentioned both lonely planet and the backpacker subculture of travelers, which was promising, and mentioned that staying near the lake rather than downtown was cheaper and hence attracted more backpackers. I had the address of one guest house in my phone, but if that didn't pan out at least I knew where to go to find English speakers and cheap lodging.

I stared out the window and noticed that this road was not as busy as just about any road in Vietnam that I'd been on.

I opened a bottle of Aquatien and thought of Tien. Then I thought of Adult Swim.

I saw ducks, hens, chickens, horses, cows and fields of grass, not rice. I saw dogs, kids playing volleyball, children playing with sticks, a naked child running in a dirt yard.

I saw orchards.

I saw scooters, modern cars, a bare 4 wheeled vehicle that looked like a stripped down truck, and many small structures like fences and ladders made from thin, tall trees that grow naturally. The landscape here was notably different and had been sectioned off for ranching livestock and not just farming crops like Vietnam. The fenced off open fields looked more familiar to me since almost all of America is fenced off in much the same way. Not all people had fences though, some would tie their cattle to palm trees or simply let their cattle wander into the middle of the highway.

The architecture was mostly the same as Vietnam near the border but turned mote to wooden houses on stilts farther in. Some had hammocks strung between the stilts, most used the shade as a garage for scooters.

We stopped at a ferry where locals were selling strange fruits that I'd never seen that looked like a mix between a cactus and a muffin and other strange things. People bathed in the river. Tori Amos sang "we may be on this road but we're just imposters in this country" in my ear and I concurred.

I wondered why the vegetation seemed so different and when I checked the location data for my last photo I found that we were at only 11° N and still at sea level, which led me to no conclusion.

I saw a man on a scooter with a barrel of piglets.

I was glad to have photography as a purpose because I didn't feel like being lost with no purpose.

Graffiti in Phnom Penh Phnom penh was different. There were expensive cars, gas stations like suburban America, and the first real graffiti I've seen in Asia. It wasn't done by locals.

My Japanese friend and I shared a tuk tuk and went to a place on the lake that he had found in the lonely planet. It was all the way at the end of a narrow and winding alley and stood on stilts over the lake. It was a $5 night guest house and the crummiest room I've had so far. The room was about the quality of a summer camp dorm and there was no internet. The drain in the sink went straight onto the floor and the drain on the floor went straight into the lake. However, it was right on the lake and there were other English speakers around and a cafe and bar right there. The man who showed us in offered me drinks, cigarettes and weed.

I went to get a drink with my Japanese friend and ended up with my first real dose of backpacker culture. Most people were speaking in English. Most people had tattoos. Most people had piercing. I think I'm still the only American because all the white people have English or Australian accents and everybody else has dark skin. It was happy hour and beer was $.75 a glass, whiskey was $.50 a shot. The bar tender offered us weed, which wasn't on the menu.

We sat with a couple from London who had been traveling for six months from the opposite direction I was headed and had lots of stories, recommendations and insight. They were smoking weed and lounging around a couched area. I had a double whiskey and a beer while they talked about how they didn't recommend Phuket, they did recommend tubing in Laos and only a day in Angkor Wat, and talked about the lunar dance parties on the beach in Ko Pha Ngan, the very conservative and honest culture in Laos, and the interesting and religious mix of culture in Malaysia. I wondered how Tien would like this and wished she were there with me.

I soaked in the knowledge, enjoyed the English conversation and then went for one last beer which I drank on the deck by the shrinking lake after being offered weed.

Street to my hotelThere are no mosquitoes here. It is the perfect temperature. There are pillows and matts at the edge of the deck where you can relax and watch the sun set at the waters edge.

This was awesome for a while, but club dance music began playing and the party turned up. It would've been the kind of thing I would have loved at a different point in my life but I was now looking for something a little quieter and more serene. I retired early and slept until 5:30 or so, about the time the sun rises, and went for breakfast, photos and to find a bookstore I'd seen on my way in.