Going down to Snooky
Trip Start Jan 16, 2006
27Trip End May 21, 2006
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Where I stayed
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
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
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
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
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
Photos to come tomorrow...