5 Mar 2008
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
11°33'36.66"N 104°55'0.31"E
33°

 

There are few places in the world that we've said categorically that we would not return to. Three to be exact. Noumea in New Caledonia (we found the people were sooo not nice) is one, Santiago in Chile (it would take too long to explain) another, and the only other one is Phnom Penh. A dodgy meal last week whilst in Vietnam forced us to stay here for a couple of days rather than changing bus and going onto somewhere else in Cambodia. I'd been ill for several days and was getting to the stage of thinking that it wasn't just normal diarrhea and thinking about going to see a doctor - at least I knew I'd be able to find some kind of international clinic or a local one with doctors who spoke English here - maybe I'd find one elsewhere, but it was a risk I couldn't afford to take. As it turns out, my last two bowls of very tasty steamed rice have stayed put, so no doctor required (thank you) but we've been stuck in a city where I genuinely find it hard to find a single redeeming feature. Peter's not so bothered. Lots of people here are VERY into dirt bike riding, and as I write this he's out trying to arrange a 3 or 4 day tour. If he manages - I'm too old for motor cross - I might slip back to Sihanoukville, or some other place where I can just sit, read, watch the news and work on the computer. I'm STILL trying really hard not to hate Vista. Several people stared at me with open mouths when I told them that I'd adopted a new operating system so early. Unfortunately, it was the penalty we paid for buying an ultra-portable laptop. It's great, and only weighs 1.2kg, but the penalty was no choice about the pre-installed operating system. Only a few more months and my warranty will be up and whoosh. I'll have a dual boot Linux/XP computer and be a much happier little vegimite. Why removing the originally supplied software would void the warranty is beyond me. And who gives a 12 month warranty now? Hardly worth bothering with. And it's not even a worldwide warranty - it has to go back to base in Australia at our cost. It is nice and light though.

It's about 5 years since we were here. Only for a couple of days, and only because we were going to the temples at Angkor Wat from Bangkok. This was pre-budget airline explosion, a 3-leg ticket was the cheapest I could get and it would be a shame to waste it. Over the last few weeks, people kept telling us how much it had changed - a lot cleaner than it used to be, quite a few trendy bars and restaurants and lots of new hotels. My memories of Phnom Penh were quite vivid. A very, very dirty and dismal city, where we were constantly warned about walking at night (although I have to say that by the time we'd had a drink we'd forgotten the warnings and came to no harm) and constantly warned about the police. We hired (and just about killed) a XR250. We didn't go off-road. Not unless you count the 'roads' outside the central business district, including the one with the sign saying Ho Chi Mi nh City however many kilometers. I'd swear that sign also had National Highway One written on it, but I'm not 100% sure. When we picked the bike up, we asked the lady if there were any peculiar road rules or speed limits. She said two things - don't stop for the police, they only want cigarette money from tourists and don't come off. You'll have to be transported to Bangkok if you're seriously injured and could die before they get you there. We didn't come to any harm on the bike either, but had the very curious sensation of cars and bikes passing on either side of us.

There is a nominal law that you drive on the right side of the road, but nobody seems to get it. Lots of potholes and bits of shade from the tropical sun meant that everyone - cars, bikes, trucks, tractors - just drove where they wanted, when they wanted. Peter got wise, getting behind a local on a bike and following him really closely. It was rainy season, which was good in the sense that we weren't riding through clouds of dust, but bad in the sense that we were both as mud splattered as if we'd been doing some real off-roading. My only other real memory of Phnom Penh (apart from the foul smell coming from rivers and open drains and the constant assault of the beggars) were the sweeping shopkeepers. We'd sit in the afternoon, at a hole in the wall bar, and be entertained for hours. Shopkeepers don't want the garbage on the road outside their shops. Fair enough, it wasn't just plastic and paper garbage, but rotting vegetation and other stinking stuff. Out they'd come and very diligently sweep every last bit of it into the middle of the road. Then the man from the council would come and, equally diligently, sweep it all back into the gutter. As soon as he went, out came the shopkeeper. Then back came the council worker. Very entertaining, especially after a couple of beers.

The trip here from Saigon was horrendous. I should have taken something to stop the runs, but I really needed to see if it would clear up by itself, thereby proving (or otherwise) that it wasn't just the runs and I needed to see a doctor. A couple of days of not eating anything ensured a smooth journey. On the way to Saigon, we had a VIP or executive comfy coach. Everybody had their Vietnam visa in their passport (you don't get in otherwise), someone collected passports as we left Cambodia, handed them into immigration where they were checked, stamped and then handed in to Vietnam immigration, where several guards were processing - checking the validity of the visas and handing them onto the bus crew, and when your name was called out another guard checked your photo page against your face. Easy. Took about 3 times longer the other way, as everybody had to be issued with a visa on arrival. We filled out most of the forms before leaving Saigon, the bus crew filled out others for us, and leaving Vietnam was as easy as entering - bulk processing and when your name was called go to the guard at the door for the photo page check. We kept our passports to go through Cambodian immigration, where officers checked your photo page and signature on the form and kept the passport.

At this stage, we were deposited at a nearby cafe until someone came running back with 50-odd passports complete with visa (and yet another wasted full page - I'm really glad we have the English passports for when the Aussie ones fill up) and away we went. The coach wasn't as new or comfortable as we'd expected, and it was also a cargo bus - there was a full length/full width box under each seat, meaning you had no chance of stretching your legs. We've got the bus booking down pat now. We were allocated seat 5A and 5B. No, no - 5A and 6A please - we've been married twenty four years, it's not like we're going to be chatting all the way through a 6 hour journey. We both just get comfortable then plug into our respective Ipods until we arrive. This way we both get a window seat, and although you run the risk of getting someone a bit stinky next to you, it's slim. I got worse than stinky, but much, much better than the poor bloke in 4A. There was a woman sitting next to me with a small child, maybe 4 or 5 on the seat in front of her. As we were settling onto the bus, I noticed that the child was being almost force-fed a burger with very creamy salad topping, sweeties and fizzie drinks. As soon as the engine started, she hurled. And kept on hurling for about an hour. We stopped to get their bags out of the hold for for a change of clothes. Oh well, lesson learned.

NOT.

As we waited at the cafe on the border, I commented to another passenger that 'that woman' was feeding the little girl some kind of slimy fried noodles and green jelly for pudding. And more fizzy drinks. Back on the bus, mum peeled several small oranges and passed them over to her, and about an hour out of Phnom Penh she started again, but this time really seriously and really stinky. The man with in seat 4A got up and moved, standing near the front of the coach for the last hour or so, out of range of the smell. The odd thing is, that the woman didn't seem at all concerned, embarrassed or apologetic to the rest of us who were sitting through this. As you all know, I know nothing about children, but common sense tells me that if someone has a proven history of motion sickness - especially when it had been proven only a couple of hours ago - you don't wait for the barfing to subside before shoveling more food down a throat then wait for it all to start again. Thankfully I had my sexy flight socks on. Let's just say they needed to be washed. Yuck.

I hadn't eaten for a couple of days and didn't have the energy or enthusiasm for hunting for somewhere to stay when we got here, so we let the bus company recommend us a guesthouse that they have a mutual agreement with. It was clean enough and quiet enough - no internet but I really didn't care. They actually own the internet cafe directly opposite - it would cost less than $100 to set up WiFi, and they'd make money from it as long as they didn't start charging ridiculous prices. Apart from Sukom Island in Thailand, this is the first place we've been so far where there hasn't been a legitimate or unsecured signal. (Or one that doesn't use ABCDEFGHIJ or 1234567890 as the password).

So, has Phnom Penh improved since our last visit? I suppose it has, but all things are relative. There is a department store and a couple of small shopping centre's now, complete with small western style supermarkets, international chain coffee shops, and eateries. There are several small and very trendy looking cafe's and bars on the riverfront, several of which have free WiFi. There are lots of very smart looking hotels trying to be full of package tourists. There are also a lot of really nice green area's, beautifully kept public gardens and parks which are actually being used by local people (even though the money may have been better spent elsewhere, and at night the only locals are the homeless sleeping there). The international trials of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders have just started, so there are lots of very important people in town, but again I wonder if the money would be better spent elsewhere. Is there really any point in spending millions of dollars convicting people in their 80's who may well die before the end of the trail? I'm not saying that anyone should be allowed to get away with such evil acts, but the country is a bit of a basket case and people are hungry, homeless and unable to pay for their children to go to school - about $100 per term, which is out of the reach of the majority of the population.

Everybody knows what the Khmer Rouge did - it's documented in film and in the hideous records all such people seem to keep. Everyone knows who the leaders were. Do we really need a big show trial when the money could be used to open free schools or hospitals or clear landmine's? I've noticed a big rise in the number of very young (under 10) children walking around in no shoes, filthy dirty and dressed quite literally in rags, begging. Education is the key. Unless these kids are educated, they'll never break out the cycle, and unless it's free - maybe with the bribe of a meal to encourage them to attend - they won't get educated.

Pol Pot was the Malcolm Mugabe of the 1970's. Unfortunately for the people of Cambodia, just like Zimbabwe today (or Rwanda in the intervening years) there is no oil here. Or truly free elections. And there probably never will be (unless someone finds oil).

One very positive change is that there aren't so many dirty old men here. There has been a huge crackdown on pedophilia and it's working. I'm sure they're still here, they're just not strutting about with their little boys and girls in full view without fear of retribution (meaning Peter doesn't have to keep a close eye on who I was staring or sneering at or making comments to). Someone told me the crackdown was concentrated in Phnom Penh and a lot of it has moved down to Sihanoukville, although we didn't see any evidence of it there. A quandary: what's worse - that it's in your face or going on in secret? Same thing really. Besides, there's a reason we didn't see anything of it in Sihanoukville. I wasn't looking forward to going there - going on something I'd half read a few years ago, I had expected Sihanoukville to be the Cambodian version of Pattaya; all dirty old men, bar girls and lady boys, and I was happily surprised not to see any. On the maps there were several 'Chicken Farms' just out of town. I asked someone why chicken farms were deemed important enough to get onto a map that omitted the bus station, police station and a few other key landmarks. It appears that they had a big crackdown on prostitution a while back, and moved the girlie bars out to area's which were dubbed Chicken Farms. The sleaze is still there, it's just been moved out of town so it isn't in everyone's face and if you want it you have to make the effort to get to it.

Some things in Phnom Penh, however, are just about the same. Instead of being very, very dirty, it's only very dirty now. The police are still to be avoided at all costs. The beggars still wear you down in unimaginable ways, and the rivers and drains smell no better now than they ever did or probably ever will do. That said, being here is giving Peter the opportunity to sort out a bike tour, which he's wanted to do for some time, and has given my poor tum the opportunity to settle down, and given me the opportunity to try and tweak Vista (again) into running a little more the way I want it to rather than the way Microsoft thinks I want it to. I read a leaked report last week which stated Microsoft executives weren't happy with it's performance on their own PC's when it was released. I can only concur.

Now that the rice is staying put, I think we're still going to be here for a couple of days - even though I've been on the 'orange' flavoured re hydration salts for a week, I really don't have any energy at all through not eating or eating then losing it within 5 minutes. Peter's been out most of the days and nights happily talking bikes to people who are real enthusiasts and trying to arrange a tour - the tour bit is easy, every man and his dog will hire a trail bike and take you away for a couple of nights. We want the tour AND the gear. Not just the helmet and gloves, but shoulder, elbow and knee pads and boots. It's 21 years since we had the IT490 in New Zealand - the last time Peter did any real motor cross riding, and I remember very clearly a good pair of boots saving his leg once. Quite literally. Killed the boots though, and in hindsight that was probably the best $200 we ever spent. One lovely local man, who has a bike repair shop but doesn't arrange tours himself, offered Peter a ride on Saturday - a group of locals and expats are going to play for the day, and he can get Peter a really good bike for for a few dollars, but unless he can get some gear I'm afraid it's a no-go. Not worth the risks. Nice offer though. And great to see a young Cambodian with such a successful business. He must be very good at fixing up bikes to be so successful and to be so highly recommended by almost everyone Peter spoke to.

Yesterday, Peter shocked me. We were talking about how long we were going to stay in Cambodia - it cost US$20 for a visa, so we should at least try to get our money's worth - and he asked me if I realised it's the 4th of March. We were going be be back in England around March or April or May at the latest. The way we dawdle about, it's going to take a good couple of months to work our way back to Singapore to pick up a flight to England. I have so many Frequent Flyer points it's not funny, but for some reason you can never get a flight out of Bangkok to Manchester using points. Singapore, no problem. Bangkok - forget it. Besides, we want to catch up with some friends we made in Thailand and Malaysia en-route. I think as soon as we get this motorbike tour out of the way, we're going to have to seriously start heading south.

If he sorts out a motorbike trip, I'll hole up somewhere quiet for a few days until it's over, and if not I think we might get the train to Battambang very soon, stay a few days, then get back onto the train and go straight to Bangkok. I really can't believe we've been on the road this long already. And no real drama. A few bits and pieces, but nothing really serious, and no more than would happen if we were at home. Pretty good going really.