Sunday, November 1, 8:15 AM
En route to Nong Khai, Thai-Laos Border
Plans change. New Zealand turned into Laos first, and then I was in Bangkok en route to Laos when Laos turned into Cambodia first. Reasons aside, I found myself a week after NY in the Ancient Khmer capital of Angkor Wat, the world’s most famous and arguably most impressive ancient temple city.
Crossing over the Thai-Cambodia border into the seedy town of Poipet, I knew I was in another world when I had to bribe the Visa officer to stamp by passport, quoting a price $10 higher than the price clearly posted above his head: US $20. (I got him down to a 100B ($3) tip above the actual price.) Judging by the transparency of corruption with the first government official I encountered, I knew I was entering the Wild East. Next I could buy whiskey and cigarettes from a number of stalls conveniently located next to border control, or walk into any of 10-20 sizable Casinos. Apparently in the mornings, this place is thronged with Thais coming to gamble. A poster I read on the immigration queue clued me into another aspect of tourism in the devil’s playground: Sex with Children is Illegal and Punishable by Law. Welcome to Cambodia!
With no buses after 5PM, I hired a taxi with 2 Swiss girls to take us to Siem Reap, 100km away. So far Cambodia felt a lot like Nepal: it was dusty, people walked along the highway, some leading cows or buffalo, others riding two on bicycle. There was little or no electricity to be seen in the twilight horizon, and once again, the familiar smell of burning trash! Only difference was that our driver drove fast, honking at anyone and everything to get off the road, as it was clearly the hi-speed vehicle’s right of way. (Good thing I left my bike behind in Bangkok for this side-trip!) I was happy‚ as I’ve been living in refinement for the last four months, so the old provincial ways and dust were positively charming. I knew which guest house I wanted to stay and asked the driver to let us off there, which was on the way to the taxi stand he wanted to take us to, but he refused. One of the Swedish girls in back though it necessary to explain that we tell you where to take us and that’s how it works, but he told us how it works, and that he’d pay for our ongoing tuk-tuk to take us to the guesthouse.
I finally came to understand it a few days later how everybody hooks each other up, and how there are certain conventions, a consumer etiquette, about how services are taken and given. For example, when I made my own arrangements with a bus company to take me to another city, my moto driver (completely unrelated to the guest house I was staying) explained to me how he’d be put in an awkward position to take me to the bus, as I should have bought my ticket through the hotel. If only I had a pair of six-shooters on my hips, they’d know who’s always right around here!
I had an incredible time in Cambodia, and a completely different experience in each of the 3 cities I visited. In every case I felt a mix of excitement, bewilderment, horror, irony, and joy. Keep in mind that above was my experience in and out of a border town, which aren’t all bad, or crazy. But this post was supposed to be about Crazy. I like details as I’m sure you do, but just too much impressed me and I’m 3 countries behind! (Yeah, I did a lot of hopping these couple weeks, for me!) So let’s list Crazy:
- I stayed in Okay Guesthouse in Phnom Penh, and it was just Okay. I actually hated my room the first night, hoping for a cheap $3 and having to take an over-priced $5 instead. (Explanation: I was in a lousy mood, having just woke from my cramped and hot-as-heck 7hr bus ride, during which I was worried that I was drugged as I could NOT stay awake after eating my veggie-meat sandwiches; my head grazed the ceiling of my basement room, 2 roaches greeted me once I shut the door inside, the signage on the wall was all about not bringing home under-aged prostitutes to the guesthouse, the place was full of backpackers, whom I’m not fond of.) But it was Okay, I moved into a $4 room the next night and it was A-Okay! (Really, I prefer less in so many ways lately, like sleeping on the tile floor the other night was better than Okay :)
- I came across a few other Okay things that were uniquely Cambodian, like Okay Mart and Okay Condoms. I can just see their advertising campaign: “Yeah, they’re Okay!”
- I saw a sign for Special Muscle Wine. I want some of that.
- Little boys of 2 and under don’t wear pants. Even when they’re riding on a motorcycle holding onto mommy’s waist, or being held with one arm from the speeding vehicle.
- On my way to the Killing Fields I noticed foam, piled high, spewing from the Phnom Penh drainage pipes. Latte anyone?
- I thought driving in India was crazy. Cambodia drives crazy. NYC taxis do NOT drive crazy, not after what I’ve survived.
- I met a friend of one of my NY boss’, who owns the longest-running Rock Bar in Cambodia (12yrs). He seemed real down to earth, a really nice guy, but I learned he doesn’t go anywhere without SEVEN bodyguards. The rich/hi-profile of Cambodia need to protect themselves. I was drinking a coffee at an outdoor cafe when SIX Lexus’ pulled up and a man came out and sat down for a coffee. The guy I was talking to told me it was the President of EuroTel, who also owns the largest media company and holds a seat in Parliament (or some big gov’t Chair). But yes, Bodyguards. A recurring theme I’m collecting examples of is how you can do anything you want with money.
- Prostitution is legal, also in Thailand. It takes some getting used to, and I thought I actually got used to it. In Cambodia, though, Everyone looks under-age. It’s Crazy, and freaks me out. In Thailand, they look 18. In Laos, they look… their age. In Cambodia, they look 15. I’ll show you the free local nightlife guide someday… every bar advertises their flock of underage-looking seagulls. No, these places are not brothels, they’re THE nightlife. There’s no distinction. It’s so weird.
- Cambodia’s national treasure, Angkor Wat, is all-access, meaning you can just walk on, climb around in, and step all over it. That’s just crazy to me, as in America they take everything cool, special, unique, or of historical significance beyond reach.
I’m done for now. More on Cambodia later, as it’s super-awesome! I haven’t even touched on ANGKOR WAT or the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, but I will post about them separately. (Update: the Flickr photos are up!) Generally though, I honestly felt out of my comfort zone for some reason or another on a daily basis, and frequently had the urge to head for the border, back to the relaxed Thailand I know and understand. (I also saw amazing things, which blew my mind and eyeballs.) But my second thoughts always won: if I stayed another day, I’d have a whole extra day of unforgettable, jaw-dropping experiences! So I stayed for 12 days, and ultimately departed in order to keep my Nov. 1 date with the That Luang Festival in Laos. I’m so glad I hung around, and I’m sure that I’ll be back.