Cambodia or bust

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Sunday, February 6, 2005

We spent all of Thursday and Friday on some form of transportation. Took a bus to a ferry, got back on the bus, switched to another bus, took the bus to the river boat, rode the river boat for five hours to a dock where a motorcycle-drawn wagon awaited to take us to our hotel. Went to sleep. Got up and repeated something similar.

We cruised up the Mekong in the afternoon on board a boat packed to overflowing with white foreigners. There were so many couples, it felt like the Mekong Love Boat. And almost no Americans. Mellisa and I cracked open some Tiger beers, leaned back in our deck chairs and soaked up the warmth. The river looks exactly how I had imagined it, or at least how I've seen it pictured in all of the images from the Vietnam War. It's unfortunate, but the entire time we were on the water I couldn't for the life of me get images of John Kerry on a patrolling swift boat out of my head. Too much election coverage.

The brown waters of the river were lined with palm trees and endless miles of stilt houses, ramshackle wooden buildings on toothpick legs. As we puttered along, it became apparent that we were witnessing late afternoon/early evening bath time along the Mekong. Everyone was out, adults and children alike, lathering up and splashing around in the turgid water. I saw people squatting on little piers going to the bathroom 50 yards away from their bathing neighbors. The women waded in wearing long-sleeved gowns, the kids jumped in jubilant and naked, the men went in with bared chests and shorts.

When they saw our pleasure cruise with photo-snapping tourists lining the roof decks, they didn't duck or run for cover. The kids got very excited and with no modesty or shyness waved frantically, screamed "hello!" and performed funny antics to get our attention. Although I'm sure at least one of these tourist tugboats comes by daily, it seems the novelty has yet to wear off. Maybe it was the effects of drinking the first beer I've had a month, or the golden tinge lent to the water by the setting sun, but I was overcome with the warm fuzzies. I've never seen such beautiful, genuinely happy people. Hard to believe that only 30 to 40 years ago this river delta was being bombed and burned.

The disadvantage of traveling with these organized groups is that you get dragged to a lot of places that you could care less about. Case in point, the crocodile farm on Thursday (a depressing concrete zoo with lethargic crocodiles sitting around waiting to be made into shoulder bags) and the fish farm on Friday (a wooden shack on the river complete with an enormous stinking, steaming pile of brown fish meal). The tour agency hired a fleet of row boats piloted by extremely tiny, scrappy Vietnamese women to take us around some of the floating villages. These women were inordinately small (I think the one at the helm of my boat was about as big around as my right thigh) but amazingly strong. They asked us for tips in US dollars, and it was the most bizarre sight. I haven't seen American money in 7 months, and here it was right in front of me-all of these women wearing conical hats, standing in their wooden row boats in the middle of the Mekong River and joyfully waving dollar bills in the air.

We docked at a customs checkpoint and got our Cambodian visas before walking across the border. They herded us all onto yet another boat, and it became very apparent that we were now in a different country. The boat was dirty and cramped, and the scenery along the river changed as well to thatched roof huts and acres of uncultivated riverfront property. Cambodia made Vietnam look like an advanced, sophisticated, wealthy country. Is it possible to intensely miss a country you have only been in for 4 days?

We transferred from the boat to a minivan for the final haul to Phnom Penh. My first vivid memory of Cambodia is of a little girl, probably 5 years old or so, throwing a small rock at our car window. Things never really improved much from there. At 8pm we arrived at the center of Phnom Penh, a mere 4 hours behind schedule. Our minivan driver decided that he had had quite enough of carting around a load of foreigners, so he stopped the car at a random intersection and told us to get out. We protested. The tour description stated specifically that we would be dropped off at a hotel in the backpacker district. He refused to take us there unless we paid him a dollar per person (there were 8 of us). The backpacker district was so far away, and the gas would cost him so much money. Outrageous.

For 40 minutes we battled, more for the principle of the matter than the money. The South Koreans in the van called a friend of theirs who lives in PP who is fluent in Khmer (the Cambodian language) and a mini UN tribunal was convened. The driver yelling in Khmer, the Koreans listening and translating to Korean, the other Koreans translating in English for us. Everybody talking angrily. We at last settled on a 2 dollar fee, which was still irritating but at least it got us where we wanted to go. Turns out, we were right around the corner from the hotel strip anyway.

We pawned off all of the remaining currency we owned, dong and RMB, to convert to US dollars and bought tickets for Siem Reap. We leave tomorrow morning...I mean, God forbid we stay in a place for more than one night. This schedule is starting to wear me down and this country is putting me on edge.
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