Day 72: Night in the Heart of Darkness

Trip Start May 20, 2008
Trip End Aug 19, 2008

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Contrary to what little plan we had, our alarm failed us and we slept through what turned out to be the only daily boat to Battambang. Having seen enough of Siem Reap and the boat ride being the main reason I wanted to go to Battambang (Jeff didn't to begin with), we decided to forgo it all together and go straight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's only real city. Thus, the day started out with a late-morning hop around the Siem Reap market area, popping our heads into every travel agency to find the earliest and cheapest bus out. The result was a 12:30pm departure and about a half hour to kill in town, which we killed by wandering around the market at random. We stopped by a t-shirt vendor selling touristy "Danger, Land Mines! - Cambodia" gag shirts. I almost inquired about the price before stopping myself, thinking: wait a minute, that's too sick of a joke, does not want. This turned out to be a good call when a few minutes later we passed by a kid with a mine-blown (I'm assuming) leg. It was another reminder of the reality of living here, despite Siem Reap's cozy charms lulling one into a sense of homey security.
The bus ride was as pleasant as such a ride could be, which is not very, but the scenery helped ease the pain. Along the way we met a friendly Cambodian-Belgian who was returning to his homeland to resettle, retire and restart his family farm. He helped me bargain a fruit vendor down to a dime for bananas as opposed to two dimes. I felt like a cheapskate, but he insisted on helping me pay the local non-tourist price. In addition, he bought Jeff & I lunch (beef noodle soup) at the rest stop. This was nice of him and my tummy was made happy. After some more chatting about his family life, childhood in Belgium, and reasons for returning home, his stop came and he bidded farewell. An hourish later the rice patties and starving water buffalo vanished, replaced by run down concrete, rickshaws and bustling markets, signalling our arrival in Phnom Pehn.

I was quite a bit nervous on the drive in... Lonely Planet billed this as one of SE Asia's dodgiest cities having been about as dangerous as Baghdad only a decade ago. With the Khmer Rouge insurgency finally wiped out however, Phnom Pehn and all its colonial charms were finally starting to be rediscovered by tourists and the thought that we were among the first wave of Westerners to visit this city was quite thrilling indeed. The bus stopped briefly at the edge of a roundabout, resulting in a spasm on my part in which I hurriedly ushered Jeff up, grabbed our bags, and rammed our way out of the bus. I for some reason was worried that this was the stop for "P.P." and that we were in danger of missing it, but all my worry resulted in was an exit from a bus a little bit earlier and some very confused looks from the driver and fare collector. Didn't matter much in the end, a rickshaw rolled up almost immediately, inquired if we needed a ride, accepted a fair price, and off we drove to the lakeside backpacker ghetto.

This trio of alleyways, a mini version of Kathmandu's Thamel was a bit dank and run down to say the least, but had an unexplainable coziness about it. Even the touts and peddlers here projected genuine friendliness as opposed to "ooh! a whitey/walking wallet!" vibes. The first one we met was a rickshaw driver named Forgothisname who became our go-to person for lifts around the city. We booked him for a prison/killing fields tour the next day shortly after finding a crashpad, which since it happened before the rickshaw booking probably should've been explained first. Oops. So yeah, we settled down in the Forgotnameofinn Inn, a bare bones but clean fleapit totaling $2 per person per night. It had a fan, something resembling a mattress, and a commons area built on stilts over the lake, which was good enough for me (namely the "fan" bit.) The college-aged inn worker who showed us the room made a funny mind blowingly cheap sales offer that I can't speak of here, but we'll just say it involved That Which Grew Wild Beside The Road in Nepal. We rejected the offer thus making Daddy proud, but wow that would've been a hell of a bargain...

By this point it was already getting dark, which meant it would soon be time to make up for our nightlife failures in Bangkok. The first order of business was to make sure our stomachs were at least somewhat fortified, so we stopped at the closest street stall for some $1 fried noodles and chicken (beef on Jeff's end.) I always try to order chicken as opposed to beef, because all the meat is of poor rubbery quality while chicken in general takes some serious (non)talent to screwup. The meal was yummy if greasy and provided the needed level of toxin absorbents in my tummy. Next up was a LP recommended Happy Hour at the Phnom Pehn branch of Raffles Hotel. Raffles is a 5-star chain of Singaporean origin, a fact that should've clued us in to the need for fancier clothing, but we did not get a clue and proceeded on foot along the main boulevard to the hotel. We approached, peered through the windows, and it was immediately clear that we'd look very out of place in this very high class establishment. Clad only in sweaty t-shirts, dusty shorts, and looking like hell, we opted out and returned to the hotel to clean up a bit. The walk along the boulevard was surprisingly nice. While Phnom Pehn was the least developed city of this SE Asia stint thus far, it was still an order nicer than central Kathmandu. Unlike "K-Town" as the douchey Australian neohippies called it, Phnom Pehn actually had working traffic lights! And trees! Gasp. That said, it lacked that special Himalayan ambiance Kathmandu along with the rest of Nepal gave off.

We returned to the hotel, rebooted, and disembarked again, this time with nicer clothes and a destination more suited to our budget or lack thereof. The "legendary" Heart of Darkness (like the book!) club was our stop of choice, though we still had an hour or two to go before peak nightlife time hit. This hour was killed traversing the club's street, stopping for a stall meal and sharing a handful of beers. Cambodia is home to what is now one of my favorite brews, named "Black Panther" and so dark it gives Guinness a run for its money. We steered clear of the Cambodian energy drinks, which "contain enough unknown substances to contravene the Geneva Chemical Weapons Accord" per LP's warning. Deep philosophical talks and bathroom hunts ensued, followed by another street stall snack. While eating at this particular stall, we were befriended by a trio of Khmer men who proceeded to rave to us about the club, ask for our official friendship, and make us promise to meet them again once inside. Alrighty then. The hour was now acceptably late for a club experience, so upon the completion of our nibbling we entered the Heart of Darkness. It was an apartment-sized, atmospheric place packed to the brim with lots of guys and very few girls. The music was booming, the dancing nutty, but it was all a bit claustrophobic for both our tastes. The trio of men soon spotted us and said hello, growing alarmingly touchey in the process. After two months in Nepal I was used to guy-guy platonic handholding but considering the dance setting and high level of male skin, my red flags were creeping farther and farther up.

Jeff: "Okay, if they buy us drinks, we're really in trouble. That's an invitation we don't want to accept." (or something to that effect)

A minute later, the trio graciously shoved beers into our faces as gifts. We drank them as fast as we could and got the heck out of there. A Google search the next day confirmed our suspicions; legendary or not, Heart of Darkness was Phnom Pehn's main haunt for the gay population. Oops. Next time we'll stick to the 5-star hotel bar.

Our nightlife attempt mildly backfired, we retreated to the lakeside area and IIRC called of the night. Hopefully tomorrow would bring better luck.
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