Khmer Khmer Khmer

So I think I left off at taking the bus to the border of Cambodia from Bangkok. We had bought tickets for a mini-bus ride that would transfer us to a long-distance taxi in Cambodia after we walked over the border. The bus ride from Bangkok to the border was about 4 or 5 hours, and when we got there we all piled out of the mini-bus at a little shack where we were supposed to get our visas. The visa people had set up a restaurant there, so while we were waiting for our Cambodian visas we ate some chicken and some rice with a big group of other travelers that had gotten off other minibuses. When we got our shiny new visas back, they put stickers on us according to our destination and we walked a half kilometer to the border crossing. We waited in the first line to get our stamps that say we exited Thailand, then walked a ways more to the actual Cambodia border station. The ones on the Thai said were air conditioned and clean, but the Cambodia one was open air with a little office where the sweating officers sat and stamped sweating tourist’s visas. An hour and a half later, after standing in all these lines, we got onto a bus that was going to take us to a bus station a ways away. We all flung the windows open to cool us off and dry up all our grimy sweat and cruised on down the road to the bus station.

From the border to there, it was flat, flat, flat and deserted. The station was a building in the middle of a big field at the side of the road, and looked to be pretty new and spiffy. We waited there for a bit until we were told that there was indeed no taxi and that they were all full, so we should pay 10 USD extra so we can get on another mini-bus. We had already paid extra to get in the taxi for that day, since we were told that it was the busses that were full, so I had a chat with the guy who was trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I told him that a taxi should be more expensive than the bus, and we already paid the fee for the taxi, so he could talk with the travel agent who we bought the tickets from and get his share of the money from her, but meanwhile we would just get on a minibus and go to Phnom Penh. He agreed pretty readily, so I think he was just trying to see if we would fork over some money before getting on the bus.

We piled into a bus with some other foreign people and went off down the long, one-lane ‘highway’ that goes from the border to Battambang and Phnom Penh. The sides of the road were scattered with little huts raised off the ground on poles. Underneath each house were hammocks slung from the poles, and people just hanging out in them. There was absolutely nothing else other than huts, fields and jungle and palm trees for about two hours. I had known that Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was a lot cleaner than I had thought it would be, but it was a lot more deserted as well. I guess I’m used to ultra-crowded China, and in Thailand I had only been in Bangkok which is also extremely crowded.

The ride from the border to Phnom Penh took about six hours. No one had good enough English to be able to tell us how much longer the ride was, so we tried to busy ourselves guessing which town we were going through by looking at the Khmer writing for town names in Peter’s Lonely Planet book and trying to find them on the road signs. Most of the signs were for some Cambodian political party or for the king, but it occupied some time peering out the window. About an hour or so after dark we got to Phnom Penh and spent some time driving around dropping people off at their hotels, since Bo, Peter and I weren’t sure where we were staying. We got out with the last bunch of people, but their guesthouse was full, so we talked to some tuk-tuk drivers outside for a while and learned some Khmer, and then one of them took us to a cheaper guesthouse down the road, so long as we promised not to mention that he took us since that first full guesthouse lets him hang out in front of it. We ended up staying at Happy Guesthouse #11, which was 8 bucks a night for a room with four beds. We threw all our stuff in their and went to find some food.

I forgot to mention, a really convenient thing about Cambodia is that they use both USD and Riel, so we didn’t have to adapt to a new currency. I was told that using a strong currency will help boost their economy. I’m not sure how that works, but it was great for me since Thai Baht had really thrown me off and I had spent way too much in Bangkok.

That night we were all really tired and didn’t look around too much, so just went to have some food and a beer and a few games of pool, then went back to the guesthouse. The guy who worked at the restaurant/bar was named ‘Barang’ which means foreigner in Khmer, because when he was born he looked like a ‘barang’ baby according to his mother, which got him a lot of crap in school because when he was really little his classmates thought he really was a ‘barang’, who by some strange circumstance was able to speak Khmer. He was a funny guy and we promised to come back the next night.

When we woke up in the morning, we found that our guesthouse was on a lake, and was actually really nice looking, with hammocks everywhere and some huts that were on a dock into the water. The people were really friendly who worked there and the food was cheap and really good. I tried a whole bunch of different kinds of Khmer curry, with pineapples and coconut, etc etc. Very tasty. I also started to drink a whole bunch of coffee because it was cheap and everywhere and made with sweetened condensed milk and ice.

For the next few days we hung out in Phnom Penh to figure out the rest of the trip in Cambodia, and I needed to wait for my salary to come. Phnom Penh is a pretty small city, maybe the size of Montreal, but for Cambodia it’s considered pretty big and busy.

Our guesthouse was a great place to hang around in, so apart from a few walks around the city we stayed in and around there. My Turkish friend Samet, from Changsha also came by and stayed there as well when he got to Phnom Penh. I also bought a really really small guitar for only 10 bucks, just a little bigger than a ukulele (which i dubbed a guitarlele). It’s easy to travel around with because its so small and I figured it would give me something constructive to do once I was in Sihanoukville on the beach, and learning the guitar will probably help with learning how to play my bouzouki too!

On the last night there we figured we should get out into the city and see what it was like at night, so we went walking around and got a little lost. We happened up on a table at an empty restaurant that had some Khmer guys and one foreign guy. We figured since there was a foreign guy, they could probably speak English or he could speak Khmer. We asked them where we were and where we should go, but they invited us to sit down and have a drink with them as they finished their dinner (of really tasty fish). The foreign man was from England and had come to Thailand on a visit and ended up making friends with people who owned a hut. They had asked him if he wanted to turn this hut into a bar or café of some kind, since they did have much business sense but wanted to do something with it. So he accepted and had just come to Cambodia to arrange some things and meet a friend of his, then he will go back and finish helping open the hut, which is on an island somewhere off Thailand.

We stayed a while, then they said they were going out but Bo and Peter were tired, so I decided to go with the people and come back home later. It was pretty late in the night by then so we drove around for a while (in this guy’s Lexus or Mercedes or whatever it was…I think we happened upon the richest few people in Cambodia..), and everything was closed so we ended up at a nightclub where Phnom Penh’s teenagers go to dance. They were playing western music and Khmer pop music, and the girls were dancing in clusters and the boys were dancing in clusters and they all kept glancing awkwardly at each other. It was really fun to watch and be there and see that teenagers are the same the world around. It felt weird to be thinking of people 5 years or so younger than me as so different to myself now.

After we left, they drove me around near the palace area and pointed things out to me, even though it was pretty dark. Then they dropped me off back at my guesthouse and I went to eat some food before going to sleep. I went and had some rice, pork and beer, and ended up staying at the restaurant (Barang’s place) and had a good long chat with a really interesting person who was sitting outside. I forgot what we talked about, but I remember thinking ‘man, I haven’t had a chat like that in a long time’. After that I went in to sleep, and slept a long time because the next day we were preparing to leave.

We bought a bus ticket for 3 dollars each from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville on the south coast of Cambodia. We got a mini-bus to the Phnom Penh bus station, then from there we got onto a local bus that would take about 6 hours to get down to Sihanoukville. The seats were assigned, so I was a few away from Bo and Peter, with an old man sitting next to me. I was really tired so I wasn’t too interested in talking to anyone, but the old man turned out to be pretty talkative. He lent me a newspaper but I didn’t get too much of a chance to read it. He told me that he is Cambodia, but spent the last bit of his life in Texas with his sons, and comes back to Cambodia to visit and relax. I asked him if he was visiting family down in Sihanoukville, and he told me that his entire family had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, and that he was only spared because he was working at the embassy in Thailand at the time. After that I didn’t mind talking to him, because I felt kind of bad that he had no one left in Cambodia. He had me guess his age and I guessed about 62, but he was actually 73 or so. He told me people in Cambodia never believe him when he tells them his age because in Cambodia if you are 73, you are shriveled and almost dead. He said he owed his health to living in the United States for a long time. He had opened a few schools in Cambodia to teach English and employed volunteers and things, and it seemed like he kept pretty busy even though he claimed he was bored sometimes now that he is retired.

The ride to Sihanoukville was pretty much the same scenery as from the border to Phnom Penh, flat everywhere and a long one-lane highway lined with huts and raised houses. Every so often we would have to stop so some water buffalo could cross, but sometimes the diver would just lay on the horn and swerve.

We got to Sihanoukville when it was still light outside, and we were swarmed by people trying to get us to take either a ‘luxury car’, taxi or motorcycle taxi. The moto-taxi was 1 dollar for them to take us around and find a guesthouse that wasn’t full, so we hopped on the back of three of those with our bags and went to a few guesthouses that were all full. We ended up at one that was way too expensive (18 dollars a night) but we were tired and figured we could spend the day tomorrow looking for a cheaper place. This place had air-conditioning and hot water and a bathtub, all things which don’t exist at any place cheaper. We all took a hot shower, and I accidentally broke the drain after I shaved my extremely hairy legs, so there was all kinds of little hairs floating around in a soapy tub that wouldn’t drain….after that none of us wanted to take a shower, so the next morning the ocean did just fine.

The next day we went to sit on the beach and have breakfast, and think about what we were going to do next (we did a lot of this the whole trip…sitting and half-planning). Me and peter decided to go look for a place, while Bo stayed and had some more coffee and guarded our stuff. There are a ton of kids on the beach selling all kinds of things, and trying to woo you into buying things by saying ‘the capital of the u.s. is Washington d.c., the president is Obama, the population is approximately 3 million’. There are signs everywhere telling you not to buy anything from kids because it makes them not go to school and stay on the beach to make money instead, which won’t help them in the long-run. We had a good chat with a few kids, but didn’t buy their stuff so they taught us some Khmer and then went to walk down the beach to tell more people who their president is.

We found a guesthouse called GST that was pretty cheap again for a room with two beds, so we brought our stuff there and had some lunch. The room was really moldy and stinky, but it did the job. We rented some motorbikes and went to a quiet road to practice riding them. Peter could ride one pretty well, and Bo too, but she hadn’t ridden one in a while. They taught me how to ride it, and let me practice a bit, then I hopped on the back of Peter’s bike and the three of us drove around the town for a bit to get our bearings.

The next day I took the moped out for a drive to practice more, and drove for about an hour all around the little back streets and alley ways and smooth roads and bumpy roads and got a whole lot of practice in. Riding a moped is pretty easy if you can ride a bike and drive a car. The traffic in Cambodia is very much Asian traffic (weaving, stop-light-running, shortcut-taking), but it isn’t too heavy so it’s easy to get used to. I ran out of gas on the main road, but luckily I ran out of gas right in front of a little stand that was selling two liter soda bottles full of gasoline. I bought one, and a little girl dumped it in for me as a big American family pulled up, all packed onto motorbikes. They asked me where a gas station was, and I said, “Here!” and pretended like I was a pro and said ‘two’ in Khmer to the little girl and she filled their gas tanks up too.

It was getting late, but I wanted to do some more driving, so I decided to go down to the pier and see what I could see. I found along narrow road that looked like it went along the coast, so I turned onto that and found myself driving through a squawking market, and then through a long row of the shanty-est shanty houses I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. Each house was raised off the ground a little (because of monsoon season I’m guessing), but all the shacks were about 8 feet square at the most. I went slowly so I could sneak peaks inside, and there was a bed in most of them, some had posters of monks on the walls, or you could see little dressers and things, and there were people cooking outside along the walls, or just hanging out in doorways, and little kids running around and mums getting angry when the kids ran into the road. The road was really narrow, so when I truck would come at me, I would have to stop all the way at the side of the road and wait for it to go by. I guess that’s why so many people drive mopeds…cheaper and much easier to drive on these tiny pot-holed roads.

After I got past the shanty-town, I went past a few completely empty beaches and the sun was setting so it was really picturesque. I decided to stop at one where there were no people, except a couple of guys sitting in a gazebo on the beach. They called me over and let me taste some of the food they had and one of the guys had really good English and said he was the manager of the beach and an accountant. The beach had nothing on it and was completely empty, so I wondered what he was managing. His friend was completely drunk off of some kind of wine made from a root and kept laughing hysterically and imitating his friend speaking English. I talked to them until it started to get dusky and figured I had better go back before it got completely dark. I was in a bit of a jungley area, so there would most definitely be no street lights, and who-knows-what hiding in the dark.

We stayed in Sihanoukville for about a week or so basically laying on the beach during the day, driving around in the late afternoon when it got cooler and then going along the beach at night to see what was happening in the little huts all the way down the beach. We met a lot of Khmer friends that showed us some good places to go, and taught us some Khmer (most of which I’ve forgotten by now).

After about a week I decided it was time to get moving and go see some other place before I had to get back to China. Bo and Peter were going to stay on in Sihanoukville since they are going to be traveling for three months more and have all kinds of time. I looked up some places in Peter’s Thailand and Cambodia books and since I was running low on money I decided to take the cheapest route, which would be to do Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), then a bus back to Bangkok four or five days later. The night before I left, we went out with some Khmer friends for one last hurrah, then the next morning I got on the bus at 7am to Siem Reap……

(more coming very soon…..i promise!!)

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2 comments

  1. Hi Aimee,
    It had been so long since you had written. I was beginning to worry.
    It sounds like another great adventure. Uncle Mike and I donated a well somewhere in Cambodia several years ago. But I have no idea where and now I can’t find the picture. You would have been surprised to come across a plaque with our names on it.
    Keep up the blog. I really enjoy hearing of your adventures.
    Be careful.
    Love,
    Aunt Celeste

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