Going down to Snooky

Trip Start Jan 16, 2006
Trip End May 21, 2006

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Phnom Penh was hot and dusty and even though the locals say they don't celebrate the lunar New Year unless they are of Chinese descent, they actually do, so everything has been very quiet with a lot of shops closed. After 3 days in PP, I decided to head south to the beach town of Krong Preah Sihanouk (His Majesty Sihanouk's town), formerly known as Kompong Som, and known as Sihanoukville, or "Snooky" to the foreigners. My main reason for coming here was to get my visa for Vietnam (faster and cheaper than in PP), but now that I'm here and since I've been fighting a cold, I may stay for a few days and enjoy the beach, fresh air and the very unique atmosphere of this place.
Phnom Penh is a city of a million-plus people that feels smaller and seems to have been re-inhabited only recently. The touristy things can be done in a day and consist of the grim circuit of the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison along with the Royal Palace, most of which is a concrete reconstruction of the original wooden buildings, the so-called Silver Pagoda, which is not silver at all, but has floor tiles inlaid with silver (mostly covered up with worn out carpets)and the National Museum, a beautiful terra cotta building full of fine, but poorly labeled, Khmer statues. The museum, not at all in accordance with museum practices in the west, is completely open air.
Lucky, my motorbike driver/guide, and a friend of Touen's, met me at the Mekong Express bus station, and then we planned out my site-seeing for Sunday. I've come to realize that you could travel the whole length of Cambodia with a network of motorbike drivers, taking you from one place to the next, with someone waiting to meet you in each town and already knowing everything about you. The motodop - as they're known here - mafia.
My hotel for my first two nights in Phnom Penh could best be described as South East Asian baroque meets tile-and-cement factory with an Indiana Jones-type bar(appropriately named the Temple), open 24-hours and strictly aimed at the farang, on the ground floor. A concrete 6-floor rabbit warren, the Angkor International wasn't exactly charming, but it was cheap, clean and near the center of the action on the river. The staff were very welcoming, friendly and helpful; I couldn't say the same of my fellow guests who seemed to be mostly 20-something backpackers who thought they were being edgy by hanging out in western bars in Phnom Penh, or loutish English guys with tiny Cambodian women waiting in attendance behind them. Fortunately, my room was quiet and dark and had AC and I was only there 2 nights. My last night was spent at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, compliments of my wonderful roommate Christina who truly understands that sometimes even the independent budget traveller needs a break from small rooms, cold water, and threadbare towels. My room at the FCC had the largest bathtub I've ever seen;big enough for 2 large westerners or 8 small Cambodian children. I doubt that I'll have a bed that comfortable for the rest of my trip. Unlike the other foreign corredspondents'clubs throughout Asia, the Phnom Penh one is open to anyone, journalist or not. I was hoping to see some real-live foreign correspondents writing away in the open-air restaurant or bar, cigarette and whisky in hand, but instead, if you took away the view of the Tonle Sap, it could have been any trendy bar in Manhattan. The manager was even a blonde American woman, very efficient and business-like, ordering the staff about in English.
Gone are the package tours of Japanese and South Koreans that you see in Siem Reap, and in their place in Phnom Penh you see Vietnam veterans, on their "Memories of 'Nam" tours, some with their American wives, some with their buddies, some with Cambodian women trailing around after them, all with haunted looks in their eyes; assorted westerners into riding motorcycles through the dirt; earnest-looking NGO and government types, easily recognizable because they look like they just walked off the Georgetown campus, wearing khaki shorts and polo shirts; American military guys driving around in SUV's; and too-tanned Europeans on the South East Asian bar/drug/party circuit. I felt more at home with the Cambodians than I did with the other foreigners.
On the way out to the Killing Fields memorial Lucky asked me, "Do you like guns?"(!) Uh, no. "There is a place near here where you can throw grenades and shoot a machine gun. Some foreigners like to do that." No thanks, Lucky. The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng are enough for me. At Tuol Sleng, photos of the victims stare out at you from wall after wall, some with dazed expressions, a few smiling, others uncomprehending, many looking absolutely terrified. It's impossible not to look at all of them and it is a horrifying and sad reminder of this country's recent self-cannibalization and long road to recovery. At lunch Lucky told me that his oldest brother was killed by the Khmer Rouge, along with all the other students and teachers at his high school, simply because they were in school. I asked him if he thought something like that could ever happen again in Cambodia and he replied that he didn't know. The younger generations don't remember and the older ones don't want to talk about it. Most everyone is concerned with just surviving and many Cambodians see tourism as the great hope; a way for people who are not well connected or have no power to make a few bucks a day, and maybe something beyond that one day. And a dollar goes a long way in Cambodia. It gets you a really good meal, a beer, a ride across town on a motorbike, an hour or more online, a couple of bottles of water, and probably many other things, some not so legal. Lucky told me that the various international aid organizations in Cambodia are mostly concerned with the rural poor and for the people who are in more or less what is considered the "middle class", moving ahead is extremely difficult as loans are non-existent, no one trusts the few banks in the country, and it's really all about who you know and paying people off. Lucky's girlfriend of 5 years moved to California with her mother in the hopes of a better economic future. After that, Lucky got married to a woman he had only met twice who his mother had picked out for him. I asked him if that was common in Phnom Penh and he said no, it was more a matter of survival and that he trusted his mother's judgment more than his own when it came to women! He said that even if a couple was happy together, but the parents didn't like the husband or wife, then it was all over, so it was easier just to marry a woman that his mother already liked and approved of.
The bus down to Sihanoukville was not as nice as the Mekong Express, but since it was only half full, I was able to spread out a bit. Unfortunately, the 3 1/2 hour trip took 5 1/2 hours because of all the traffic on the two-lane road, some of it due to the new year celebrations, cows crossing the road, and heavy truck traffic. I saw more trucks and cars on that road than I've seen in the whole country in one week. The few times we went faster than 40 mph were when the teenagers operating the bus took to driving on the shoulders to get past the inexplicably endless stream of dump trucks full of gravel that seemed to come out of thin air. All fine and good until I remembered that this part of the country is one of the more heavily mined areas and straying off marked roads by just a few feet can be a matter of life and death. Not surprisingly, I've seen more amputees in Cambodia than I've seen in my whole life. Until a few years ago, people who chose to ride in the first car of the train from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville could do so for free as that car was used as a mine sweeper and was a favorite target of Khmer Rouge still hiding out in the woods. You can supposedly ride on the roof of the train, probably because it's so slow, taking 12 hours from PP, instead of the usual four hours by car. I've also heard that there's a bamboo or wooden train in the town of Battambang, north of here. I'm not sure what it does and where it goes since I haven't met anyone who's ridden it yet. In Cambodia, if it moves, it's an acceptable form of transportation.
It was almost dark when I got to Snooky, so I went straight to the Angkor Inn, also confusingly known as the Anchor Inn, run by a Chinese Cambodian woman, called 'Mom' by all, with a reputation for knowing everyone and everything going on in town. Mom also survived the Khmer Rouge by living in the woods by herself and eating insects for 5 months. It's not close to the beach, but at $5/night, it's a price that can't be beat. This town is without a doubt one of the more unusual places in this country. The first thing to greet me at the Angkor was a wonderful little terrier that tried to chew my ankle (name unknown); the second thing was a western man with a long white pony tail wearing a shirt that said "Wenches Dig Me." It seems that a certain element from Phnom Penh is here in force. Until I went down to the beach today, I really did feel that this was some wild west frontier where women, especially westerners, did not exist, unless working behind bar. But, I've met some very interesting characters. Paddy O'Hara, 74-year-old ex-mercenary from Canada, here for 6 months, who rarely leaves the block, drifting from his hotel, to the Angkor Inn, to Kampuchea Coffee shop, run by Gordon, 60-something years old from Wales, married to a 20-year old Cambodian woman, Sohpal. Gordon has taught her, when asked her age, to say "how old do you want me to be?" among other things. Two of her friends work in the coffee shop, (which does have great espresso) one of whom Gordon calls "garbage collector", the other "deaf and dumb." He has a small whip that he brings out and threatens them with when he thinks they're getting too giggly. They all adore him. I've met Paul from Scotland, resident in Goa, India for years, and Wesley from Nebraska who came to Vietnam to marry a woman who, it turns out, had already married someone else. He is utterly convinced, like Paddy, that the Cambodian women like him for who he is, not for his wallet. But the beaches here are nice enough and undeveloped for the most part, and tomorrow I'll see about my visa for Vietnam. In the meantime, I'm off to the Angkor Inn for dinner with Mom and the assorted characters.

Photos to come tomorrow...
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