When you’re on the road for this long you get good at rationing. In our case, that applies to batteries and to food. I just last week ate a vegan food bar that I bought in LA in the beginning of March.
We don’t plan far ahead, so we never know exactly when we’ll be able to buy acceptable food. Batteries are the same way. We’re on a 32 hour train ride that spans two nights from Saigon in South Vietnam to Hanoi in North Vietnam.
It’s the second night now, so it’s time to burn off my batteries which I haven’t really used much of yet.
Todd’s writing a story about the amazing journey we had to Cambodia, so I’ll pick up from there.
On the train to Phnom Penh, amongst other people, we met Andrew, a writer for Lonely Planet. We stumbled out of the train into the blinding daylight (doubly blinding for me because I forgot my sunglasses in Taiwan), and got into a tuk tuk, which is like a motorcycle and wagon combined, to head to breakfast.
Cambodia was different that I had expected. If I’ve learned one thing on this trip, it’s that my assumptions about countries are universally bound to be wrong. If I’ve learned two things, the second would be that everyone overstates the danger present in each country.
For some reason I assumed Cambodia would be a third world wasteland where we were in perpetual danger of being robbed. It’s poor, of course, but something I’ve realized is that poor doesn’t equate with bad living conditions.
Food costs next to nothing because there’s plenty of land and cheap labor to produce it. Houses are self made productions that are small but functional. Transportation is scaled down to be very cheap. Living on a few dollars a day seems horrific, but that’s only when you think of living in America or a similar place for a few dollars a day.
Anyway, the city of Phnom Penh is actually quite nice. The streets are packed with low powered motorbikes, scooters, and tuk tuks. Their way of driving is different than ours. It’s slower and far more chaotic. If there’s room to squeeze by, then the oncoming traffic lane becomes a good option. Giant roundabouts with huge statues in the middle have schools of two wheeled vehicles swarming around them.
A big river runs through the middle of the city, but right now most of the view of it is blocked off by construction barriers. I’m not sure what they’re building, but the signs say that the Japanese have donated whatever it is. That’s nice of them.
Guided by Andrew, we went to a restaurant called the FCC. Todd and I each ordered two or three sandwiches and an equal number of smoothies and fruit juices. Andrew was meeting a friend so he just had coffee.
Before parting ways Andrew suggested a hotel called “Scandinavia”.
Our tuk tuk brought is there, and as we fumbled with the exchange rate (1 USD to 4000 Cambodian Rial), a man flew past us in a yellow 4×4, doing a wheelie on the slight ramp into the courtyard.
4x4s are street legal there, or rather no one checks or cares if things are street legal.
We went through the courtyard and up the steps to a bar which doubled as the reception desk.
“We’d like a room?” we wondered aloud to the bartender.
“Sure thing. It’s $50 including free wifi, breakfast, and I’ll buy you guys a drink, too.”
He turned out to be Erik, the owner. He got sick of his job in the DVD division of New Line Cinema, and decided to move to Cambodia and buy a small hotel. Fair enough.
The price was a bit more than we wanted to pay, considering we were in a city where hostel beds were $3, but after 24 hours on a train we were excited about the prospect of a good shower and decent internet..
“I’ll show you the room. If it works for you, then great. If not I’ll help you find somewhere else.”
In the room I pulled out my phone to check the internet.
“Ahh, I used to have that same phone. You guys are into gadgets, huh? Check out Surefire flashlights when you have the chance.”
I had, in fact, checked out Surefire flashlights in the past. I had one of them in Austin, but we found even better flashlights while in Tokyo and had them shipped to us.
“Surefires are pretty cool, but we can do one better.”
From its holster on the strap of my backpack I pulled out the mighty Fenix L1D and showed it to him.
“There’s no way this is brighter than my surefire.”
It was, by ten lumens. I know this because of the product literature online, but also because fifteen minutes later he had retrieved his flashlight from his office and we were having a flash-light-off in our darkened room.
“Wow. That really is brighter.”
We’d made a friend. We told him of our peculiar diet and he suggested a restaurant down the street called “Nature and Sea”.
It was the type of restaurant that makes you feel like a regular the first time you visit because it’s so inaccessible. First you take a staircase on the side of a building, then walk around the corner on a thin deck to another staircase. Make it to the top and you’re rewarded with an open air cafe that looks out to a Cambodian temple and the bizarre traffic patterns around it.
We were grateful for the usual Southeast Asian assortment of fruit shakes and fresh fruit juices, and surprised at the rest. The menu was dominated by buckwheat crepes and fish and chips. In fact, there were at least 5 different types of fish and chips, 4 more than I knew existed.
We ordered buckwheat crepes full of vegetables, salads, and then more crepes. The staff was audible shocked at how much we ate – a trend that certainly didn’t start in Cambodia.
Afterwards we went back to the hotel to catch up on work and e-mails, too tired from the train ride to go out and explore.
The next day, after another gluttonous visit to Nature and Sea, we headed to S21, a school turned prison camp turned museum. Genocide museums aren’t the types of things you clamor to go to, but they seem important to see when you’re in the area.
The transformation from school to prison camp was visibly hasty and incomplete, but the transformation to museum was even less comprehensive. That’s what made it a good museum.
In the first building we entered what was at one time a classroom and saw a rusty metal bed in the middle. A chain was still attached to it, and a sharp torture stick was sitting next to it. No ropes or plexiglas separated us from the bed. You could walk around it and even sit on it if you wanted.
The only thing that had changed in 30 years was that there was now a picture on the wall showing that very bed with a prisoner chained to it.
These rooms were for torture under Pol Pot’s orders. Another building housed the cells. They were crudely made of either bricks or wood, and were also left intact. I went inside one, closed the door, and looked out the barred window to imagine what it would actually be like to be stuck there.
Another room housed pictures of each prisoner taken when he was brought to the camp, and yet another had piles of their skulls locked up in glass cabinets.
At the end was a gift shop with a pushy shopkeeper whose demeanor would have seemed more at home at Disneyland.
We left the museum and headed back to the hotel. Once there we realized that we were somehow five days behind schedule. This happened because the train we took only ran on Sunday. We had wanted to leave much earlier, but were
unwilling to skip the train.
So we quickly figured out the best way to get to Vietnam (bus, although a more leisurely trip down the Mekong river would have been better if we had 2 days) and how to get to Hong Kong afterwards (plane to Bangkok, plane to Macau, then a ferry to Hong Kong). We booked our tickets and then dashed out the door to meet Doug’s friend Alicia whose job at the State Department just moved her to Phnom Penh.
Alicia had brought a couple Marine friends from the Embassy and greeted us at a Middle Eastern restaurant near our hotel. We made our way up two steep staircases to the roof where we ate hummus, talked about our trip, and learned of the bizarre security precautions the Marines had to take.
Afterwards we went to a bar near the river. Cambodia is hot during the day, but at night the weather is perfect. That reminds me of being in Austin, where one of my favorite feelings is leaving an air conditioner chilled restaurant at night and feeling the warm air outside.
Our hosts were startled at the excitement Todd and I had for finding squash soup on the menu. Between the two of us we ate five bowls as well as a few fresh juices. If bars in the US had fresh juice I’d go out a lot more.
Beggars came up to us and asked for money. We gave them the little baguettes which had come with our soups but gone uneaten.
Two cute kids came up in Cambodia’s national dress, by which I mean brightly colored pajamas that everyone wears all day, and started talking to us. They tried to sell books, but our unwillingness to buy them coupled with our smiles and friendliness caused their sales pitches to give way to a friendly competition between the two.
The rapped, danced, sang, and drummed on their chests. One of them called himself “MC No Have Rice”. Their English was good and it was obvious that they were sharp kids.
“Why don’t you buy books?”
“Because I can’t read,” answered Todd.
“Then how did you order your soup?”
After they’d given up asking we gave them $5 because they’d really made our night.
With our window to get a decent amount of sleep before our 6am bus closing, we said our goodbyes and headed to the hotel to sleep. Two days wasn’t enough time to really get to know Cambodia, but it was a good enough introduction that I wouldn’t mind finding myself back there again some time.