Chapter 41: Welcome to the rainy season.

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Where I stayed
Wild Orchid Villa

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Yeah, yeah... I know it's been a while. =) You haven't missed much, though. The rest of my stay in Cambodia wasn't all that exciting. The bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh on Monday (May 31) at 7am was old and shabby, and the ride wasn't memorable (I think I slept a lot). The journey ended at 2pm at Narin II guesthouse. It seemed centrally located and cheap enough, and we were tired, so we checked in even though it wasn't a spectacular place. As it turned out, the hotel was central, but not convenient; it was a 20 minute walk to any worthwhile sights/restaurants/museums.

Our first priority in the city was setting up an appointment for Jonas the next morning at the SOS Clinic near the US Embassy so he could get his ankle infection checked out. What had started in Si Phan Don weeks before as an innocent mosquito bite had mutated into a grotesque, puss-filled, half-dollar-sized open wound, and Jonas was seriously limping. Our activities in Phnom Penh (or lack thereof) were somewhat dictated by his daily clinic visits and inability to walk far comfortably. We ended up staying in the city for 5 nights, and to be honest it was a lazy several days. During the frequent downtime I read a lot, played games, listened to my current musical obsession (Snow Patrol), and scarfed down "happy" pizzas on the waterfront.

Phnom Penh has a fascinating history. The French influence is obvious in the architecture, but the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city and left much of it in shambles in the 1970's. Now it's a bustling metropolis that's healing with time, and the waterfront is very nice, but the city still didn't have much to hold my interest aside from the genocide-oriented museums. The chaotic traffic, long distances, and the constant hassle from moto drivers looking for work made exploring by foot a chore. The rainy season also is officially underway now; the first night it poured, and the streets down by the river flooded, which made for a crazy obstacle course.

Wednesday we hiked 20 minutes down the road to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly the S-21 prison, which had previously been a school). S-21 was the infamous Khmer Rouge torture and detention center; thousands of Cambodians (and some foreigners) were held there under shockingly inhumane conditions and questioned, and many of them were later executed out at the Choeung Ek "Killing Fields" south of the city center. The museum was haunting: the cells were left intact and looked claustrophobic and dirty, and the torture instruments were displayed alongside paintings done by a survivor that showed how they were used.

Thursday we met up with Jonas' friend Phillip from Stuttgart. He was backpacking through Southeast Asia on a slightly different path, and he ended up hanging out with the three of us for the next 8 days or so, which was cool. On Friday Jonas and I had another dose of Khmer Rouge history when we took a moto out to the Killing Fields. We both felt like we had to see the site even though there's not much there; it's just a memorial tower filled with victims' skulls, and a bunch of shallow square pits with signs detailing how many bodies were found in each one. It was a prety somber experience walking around the place, but it was hard to imagine the atrocities that happened there.

Saturday morning (our last in Phnom Penh) I accompanied Jonas to the SOS clinic and learned from the nurse how to clean, disinfect, and bandage his wound. I've been his in-house doctor since then, and the ankle is finally starting to look normal again. We stopped at a book store where I traded Michael Crichton's "Airframe" (blech) for Ludlum's "The Bourne Identity" (mmm... Matt Damon...), and then took a noon bus 4 hours south to the beach town of Sihanoukville. Christian had taken a morning bus and found the Mealy Chenda guesthouse (where we'd agreed to meet), so when Jonas, Phillip, and I showed up at the bus station there was a guy with a sign that said "Jonas & Tim" waiting to bring us to the hotel. Mealy Chenda was a pretty awesome guesthouse with a good terrace restaurant (great seaviews!) and an upstairs open-air TV/VCD lounge. After we checked in we spent 5 hours hanging out (relaxing, eating, and playing cards) on the terrace with a nice Swedish guy named Jorgen.

Jonas and I had intended to stay in Sihanoukville for 3 or 4 days and then go back to Thailand, but a number of factors conspired to keep us there for an entire week. It rained every day except Sunday, so we kept hoping "maybe tomorrow" it would clear up and be a good beach day... the hotel's bus to the border wasn't running on any discernable schedule... and we were trying to put off parting ways with Christian (he was going on to Vietnam next). Anyway, Sunday at least was a pleasant and sunny day at the beach, and I found a dead young reticulated python in the sand, which was sad but exciting (full-grown retics are the world's longest snakes).

After the beach we stopped at a cafe called Yin Yang, which was owned by a crazy (and drunk and stoned) middle-aged German guy who kept a beer-drinking pet monkey on a chain in the garden and played 90's alt-rock (Lush, Toad the Wet Sprocket) on the stereo. Very random. We ate dinner Sunday night at the most amazing restaurant I've ever been in: the Snake House! The food was actually mediocre Russian and Khmer fare, but the restaurant and surrounding gardens were filled with dozens of terrariums containing local reptiles. Even our dinner table was a stylish glass-topped home for a few baby retics. I spent most of the meal pacing around watching the snakes and taking pictures, and I came back a few days later for another look.

The days in Sihanoukville blurred together because the rain limited our activities and I quickly fell into a daily routine: wake up late, meet for breakfast on the terrace, play doctor for Jonas, watch a movie in the afternoon, meet for dinner, play cards, and sleep again. The details of each day are also a little fuzzy because of the enormous quantities of weed we smoked... moto guys sold it on the street outside the hotel, and the owners of the place didn't care if anyone smoked on the premises ("ALL of our guests are smoking," said with a dismissive wave of the hand). Aside from the rain, then, it was a fun and relaxing week, although it got repetitive and a little dull towards the end.

We met some interesting characters, including Werner, a German diveshop owner from Koh Chang, and Marek, a Czech guy taking his motorcycle around the world. A guy named Yum who I knew from my Taman Negara excursion in Malaysia was there too, so we hung out together a bit. I saw some good movies - "Braveheart," "Gladiator," "The Italian Job" - but the most interesting of the bunch was "The Killing Fields," the 1980's Hollywood account of the Khmer Rouge and the suffering of the Cambodians. It was moving to see the film after just having been in Phnom Penh.

Friday was our last day in S'ville, and our last day with Christian, so Jonas and I took him out for a "goodbye" dinner down by the port. It was sad to wrap up nearly two months of travelling together with him, but the dinner was very nice. Christian is an all-around amazing person with an unsinkable spirit and the desire to experience everything he can, and I'll miss him. Hopefully we can meet up when I eventually get to Switzerland!

Saturday was the travel day from Hell. Jonas and I were the last two passengers to get on the minibus to the Thai border, so we had to take two of the three back seats, but there was an obnoxious Irish guy (who looked like Ozzy Osbourne) taking up half the back row, and he wouldn't budge. I opened up the collapsible seat in the row in front of us to use that one, but the seat back was broken and wouldn't support me. Minutes later the A/C started leaking water on Jonas' head, so we decided to take turns in the empty front seat and the broken one, switching at each stop. When I put the broken seat all the way down to see if I could lie down without getting dripped on, the Irish guy whined that I was taking up his foot rest!

The dirt road was atrocious - all potholes and gullies again - but the river crossings were interesting. The locals make ferries by building rafts on top of two long boats - kind of like wacky catamarans with swiveling propellers on each side. There were four of these ferry trips that we had to make, and just before the second one the van broke down. The driver (and assorted onlookers) tried to fix it for an hour by taking apart the entire front passenger-side wheel and brake, and then he declared that another bus would be coming for us. It started pouring, so the 11 of us sat around in various food stalls waiting - for two more hours.

Finally a pick-up truck arrived (presumably from 1/2 km down the road), and we were loaded in. Seven of us squeezed in the back with all the bags, and unfortunately the Irish guy was in our group, bitching and rearranging everyone to make himself more comfortable. The wooden benches were better than the side of the pick-up to Siem Reap, but it was still a miserable trip with intermittent rain showers. Somehow we got to the border at 5:30 and crossed back into Thailand without any issues. On the Thai side (Hat Lek) a bunch of us piled into a sawngthaew to take us to the city of Trat, and 7 of us barely fit in the back with all of our bags... so of course the big Irish dude showed up last and demanded that we all squish even more to accommodate him. As a result the ride was excruciatingly painful, and it was made worse by cold wind and rain. We got to Trat thoroughly exhausted at 7:30 and decided to stay the night at the Trat Hotel instead of putting ourselves through the overnight bus ride to Bangkok as we'd originally planned.

Yesterday we made the easy 6-hour trip to Bangkok, checked into the Wild Orchid Villa guesthouse near Khao San Road, hung out in the lounge, and had dinner and drinks with a nice British guy named Dave who sat next to me in the pick-up. It feels good to be back in Bangkok; it's my fourth time here now, and it's comfortable and familiar. I have mixed feelings about Cambodia. The country's history is fascinating and the ruins are spectacular, but it left me a little cold otherwise, and I can't really put my finger on why that is. Perhaps I should have made more effort to get off the Siem Reap / Phnom Penh tourist trail. At any rate, I'm glad I went, but I'm also glad to be back in Thailand. Jonas and I will stay here in Bangkok for a few days to take care of some errands and then head down to the gulf islands of Koh Samui, Koh Tao, and Koh Phangan for a few weeks. Supposedly the weather gets better the further south you go, so I'm hoping to get in some good beach time and maybe a few dives! Talk to you later,

- Tim
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