Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Monday, 7:30 pm
Saigon is insane. Is it really that different than six years ago? I had a blast last time. This time, I couldn't wait to get out.
Jason and I did have fun but it was a little too much this time. Maybe I'm old and boring now?
Jason and I did have a good time walking around during the day. The buildings are amazing. There was so much constuction going on that it was often hard to tell if the buildings were being constructed or falling apart. The traffic is as crazy as I remembered it but I did see a few traffic lights this time. To cross, you just wander out into the streets and the oncoming motorbikes go around you. Later at night, like on our cab ride to our hotel, the drivers honk at every intersection to let others that they are coming. It was nice to see that in the KFC era in Saigon that four people can still fit on one motorbike.
Even when we weren't walking late at night, the people peddling stuff were relentless. Cyclo? Postcards? Books? They wouldn't take no for an answer and would follow us for part of a block. Many of the cyclo drivers had a list in English of places that they could to take us to. They all pointed first at the American War Atrocities Museum. Since I've already been there, I wasn't in the mood to go. Jason was happy enough taking pictures of bizarre things like the open air concrete compound for the Tourist Police.
At one point while I was writing part of the last blog entry, Jason was hanging out at a park. His favorite moment was when a guy came up to him with a sign that he held up that simply stated, "Blowjob." We're still not sure if the guy was offering one himself or that he could get Jason a girl. A few minutes later, he was hit on by a guy in the park so maybe it was the former.
For dinner, we walked around for a bit. We stumbled onto a park where I bought an amazing sugarcane drink six years ago. This time, I was hounded by a 12 year-old selling postcards that offered to drive us to the tunnels where the Vietcong hid during the war. "I'll drive you tomorrow. Sunday is when all of the Americans go." When we said no to that and to postcards, he called me a bad man.
We tried to get noodles at an outdoor local place. We were told that we would not be served. Eventually, we found a place that would serve us and we got dinner. On the walk back to the hotel at about 10, we finally found a vendor selling sugarcane drinks. Even that wasn't as good as I remembered last time.
Goodbye Saigon, I hope to never see you again.
We decided not to go to the Mekong Delta. Instead, we took a 7 hour bus ride to Cambodia. And it was amazing. It was like a 7 hour moving museum for us. As we cruised in our air-conditioned splendor, the driver put on a crazy assortment of DVD's. First were a bunch of disco videos. Then we had some Benny Hill (still not funny), The Transporter, and then some MOR stuff: Celine Dion, the Carpenters, and the Eagles - Hell Freezes Over, baby!
The road in Vietnam was a four lane road with ample space for everyone. Not many crazy bumps either. It was completely different than the two lane national "highway" that I took north last time.
The border scene was quite interesting. Burned out druggies shared space with hippie Israeli families, a single British middle-aged guy surely on a sex adventure, Korean tourists, obnoxious Dutch guys, and bored Cambodian officials. It took about an hour for the passports to get checked. We had to get on and off the bus twice within one tiny stetch of land. But we got through and weren't even shaken down for extra cash.
Right next to us on the bus were 4 annoying British early twentysomething women. They had their pink Yankees hats with them and all were reading romance novels. As Jason and I marveled at the scenery, they spent the whole ride engrossed in their books. At one point, we reached a ferry crossing. We had to wait for about fifteen minutes for it. At that point, they started excitedly shooting pictures of the starving children and desperate vendors. We were packed into the ferry with not an inch to spare.
At this point, the road became quite interesting. It was still paved but it was very similar to the road I remembered from Vietnam. Very very bumpy and very narrow with all sorts of traffic - pedestrians, cars, trucks, buses, animals, motorcyles. Almost the entire route was lined with houses and people hanging out, enjoying their Sundays. We passed volleyball games, soccer games, horses, roosters, tiny shacks, swanky houses, schools with big courtyards, Buddha statues, propaganda posters, soldier statues, temples, roadside barbershops, abandoned gas stations, and open empty gas stations with empty marts and one attendant sitting at a desk between the pumps.
Eventually we reached Phnom Penh. We immediately fell in love with it. The roads were wide, the buildings looked amazing (some of it reminded me of the French Quarter), and the pace just seemed more sane than Saigon. There is seemingly a solid middle class here especially when compared to Saigon. There are a lot of Toyotas. The gas stations remind me of Western ones with mini-marts. Don't get me wrong, the place is still pretty different than any developed city but having come from Saigon, this seemed like a good place to be. We took a tuk-tuk (a motorbike pulling a cushioned cart for four) ride to find a hotel. Other than the Yankee hat he was wearing, Jason and I both liked him a lot. He gave us his card to call him the next day.
We ended up at a hotel on the river, an amazing strip of shops, hotels, and parks. The tourists haven't ruined it for the locals. It was swarmed with families enjoying their Sunday night. We found a park across from an immacualate gov't building. There were hundreds of people playing in the park and sitting on nice rugs eating dinner. No one hassled us. The kids were happy to see us and posed for pictures for Jason unprompted. Many kids just wanted to come up to us and say hello.
We ended up drinking on the rooftop bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club. For the record, Angkor Beer is not nearly as good as Tiger Beer. We overlooked a four story building. The first story was a restaurant. The second story was a bar with a pool table that was empty at first except for four scantily clad bored looking Cambodian women. The third floor had a number of rooms that connected to the second floor by an outside staircase. The entrance to the rooms were from the outside patio. The curtains were drawn on all of the rooms. The fourth floor looked like it was one family's apartment.
Eventually, two middle-aged white guys found their way to the bar where they chatted with the women. We watched amused wondering how long it would take for the men to go upstairs. However, we ended up ordering some food and by the time we noticed, the white guys were gone - but so were the two women. A-ha! We were disappointed that didn't get to see them enter the rooms together.
On the walk back to the hotel, we were barely hassled. It seemed odd because it seems like with the extreme poverty, there would be many beggars. At the FCC, I postulated that the police keep them away from the tourists. Sure enough, on the walk back, we did see one beggar told to leave the area by a police officer.
There are a lot of naked toddlers wandering around. There are also plenty of minivans driving around with ten people on the roof. I also saw a car that had three people sitting in the trunk. Two were on each side with their feet dangling out and one was sitting in the trunk facing forward. The two sitting on the sides kept trying to keep the trunk from pounding their poor friend in the head.
Today we called our tuk-tuk driver from yesterday and hired him for the day. We went to the Killing Fields and to S-21, the school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison. Both were pretty damn harrowing. The Killing Fields had thousands of skulls displayed and S-21 looked pretty much like when they found it. Like any good fascist regime, the Khmer Rouge did an excellent job of taking pictures and keeping records of their atrocities.
After the Killing Fields, our driver asked us if we wanted to shoot guns. Um, okay. Down many a dusty road, we arrived. Former soldiers were hanging out eating lunch. They showed us a menu. 12 bucks for a handgun. 30 for an AK-47. 200 for a grenade launcher! The guns were at least 30 or so years old. There was a nice display of machine guns on the wall. I've never shot a gun and didn't feel like I needed to. Jason has experience at shooting ranges. He took the 13 dollar option. A handgun with 6 or 7 shots. We went into an old brick building with a target at the end. Jason shot. There was a lot of kickback. He got better as he went. One forehead shot on the target. This used to be a legal thing in the 90's that the gov't set up to make some cash from the surplus of bullets that they had stockpiled. Now, I'm not quite sure how legal it is. Living on the edge.
After that, we went to a market, then to a guesthouse for lunch where we saw the romance novel British girls. The Nat'l Museum was next - a pretty amazing building with a great courtyard. Apparently, the bats that used to live in the rafters have since moved on. Then some time at the Royal Pagoda, a sprawling complex of Buddha inspired beauty.
On the ride back, we were handed a flier by a tuk-tuk full of 4 girls about a pool competition at some club. Our driver says that the place is full of boom - boom girls, whatever that means. While I went back into the hotel to get money, Jason found out that our driver has an AK-47 and during the Pol Pot era, he slept with it in his bed.
So far, we are loving Cambodia. Everyone has been so nice. The tuk - tuk drivers take a polite no for an answer and were always happy today when we told them that we had already hired another driver. Phnom Penh has some amazing places to visit. Jason keeps talking about how he wants to buy a Vespa or something and ship it back to the States.
Tomorrow, we head to Siem Reap by bus to see Angkor Wat on Wednesday.
1 day ago