Thailand, Fall 2008
Saturday, November 8, 2008
On Saturday afternoon, I met Barry, Rudi, and Rudi's girlfriend Thyda (TEE-duh) at Savarnabumi airport for our brief trip to Cambodia. The check-in lines were of moderate length but ridiculously slow. Efficiency and customer service seem to mean nothing here so we waited, and waited, and waited.
Going through security, they confiscated my toothpaste and shaving cream, both within the specified limits. In the U.S. I think of the TSA as a bunch of officious idiots who wouldn't recognize a genuine threat but use their power backed up by petty rules to make our lives miserable. Outside the U.S., it's even worse. I'll spare you from further rants on the subject, perhaps I will expand on it in my Musings section later on.
On the plane, the flight attendants handed out small packets of forms. The only one that applied to me was the visa application and I had already obtained my visa on the web. When I went through the immigration line, I was informed that I needed to fill out yet another form that everyone else had received in their packets so it was back to the end of the line, now much longer than before.
The wait was made even longer by some old guy walking past immigration without stopping. Well, he was stopped by the guards and a long argument ensued with lots of pointing and angry discourse in what I can only assume was the Khmer language spoken by Cambodians.
Once past all of the lines and forms and documentation checks, we went outside to catch a tuk tuk to our hotel. The tuk tuks here are different than those in Thailand. In Thailand, they are three wheeled cycles with a covered passenger area behind the driver. In Phnom Penh, they are actual motorcycles with a special trailer hitch where the rear passenger seat would be. The back part is much the same as in Thailand. The motorcycles have small engines and it is surprising they can pull a load as they do.
We were able to squeeze four passengers and our baggage into the back and got on the road. I have expounded before on the craziness of the driving in Thailand. Here in Phnom Penh it is even worse. They pay little attention to the lines in the road or even the predominant direction of traffic. They ignore stop lights completely which is probably why there are only a few of them in the whole city.
At the hotel at last, we checked in only to learn that the rooms that had been reserved had been given to others and we would have to take what was left over. Basically it was between the king size beds Rudi had reserved and twin beds we got. It didn't matter much to me but Rudi made quite a scene and said that our rooms should at least be discounted. They smiled and ignored his angry display. The anger, it seemed, was mostly a show to try to get the discount because it disappeared the instant the elevator doors closed behind us.
My room had a problem with the air conditioner not working so they moved me to another room which was ok and only a little convenient than being next door to my friends. It was a nice room with a good view of the temple complex behind the hotel.
Rather than doing a day-by-day account of my brief stay in Cambodia, I'll try to give you a picture of my experience. There are a few actual pictures on the main trip page.
The tuk tuks I have already described. There are variations on the described version. Motorcycles are he primary vehicle here, outnumbering cars by easily ten to one. Some are pulling tuk tuk trailers, others are doing the work of trucks pulling a variety of trailers with whatever one would normally haul in a pickup or delivery truck.
The average motorcycle on the road has anywhere from 1 to four passengers in addition to the driver. I've seen what appeared to be families with small children all piled on a motorcycle. And nobody here wears a helmet.
The main streets are wide and even the side streets have wide sidewalks. For many years, Cambodia was a French colony and they designed attractive streets and wide sidewalks for pleasant strolls through town. I'm sure the designers would be appalled by what has happened to these broad avenues and sidewalks. They are now widely used as parking lots making it hard to walk without having to detour into the street when the sidewalk becomes impassable. Even when there are no vehicles parked, the paving stones are often broken or missing.
Another obstacle to walking is the frequent encounter with beggars. Small children paw you asking for whatever you will give them. Crippled men and women candidly display their infirmity to garner sympathy that would product the desired cash. And there are not just a few as I see in Thailand, these beggars are everywhere competing to be in your face.
The French influence is apparent also in the number and quality of restaurants. During our stay, we didn’t go to any French restaurants but we did have some wonderful Vietnamese and Russian dinners. What I didn’t see were Cambodian counterparts to the numerous Thai street food vendors. I also didn’t see any restaurants specializing in Cambodian food. I’m sure there must be some but I didn’t see them.
And here's an interesting note: all transactions here are done in U.S. dollars. All prices are in dollars and ATMs deliver funds in dollars. They don't use American coins so far as I can see so change is sometimes given in the local currency, the riel, which is about 4000 to the dollar. A 1000 riel note is worth about a quarter.
On Sunday, Rudi, Barry, and I went to what is called the Russian market while Thyda spent the day with her family getting ready for her brother’s wedding the next day. The Russian market must have had something to do with Russia or Russians at some time in the past. Now it is a busy market with most vendors selling local handicrafts, clothes, silk goods, wood and stone carvings, silver jewelry, and food. They are all crowded together with barely enough room to walk in the aisles between the stalls. I purchased a small stone carving whose intended use is as an incense burner though I will display it as decoration next to a couple of other carvings I have.
Later, back at the hotel, Barry and Rudi wanted to take naps so I walked around another market, just next to our hotel. Where the Russian market was obviously for tourists, this smaller one was strictly for locals. They had cheap kitchenware, fruits, vegetables, a variety of meets and seafood. The meat and seafood looked like it had been out in the open all day, though some of the seafood was in buckets containing ice. Walking the aisles, I came on fortune tellers, hair dressers, eateries with unidentifiable fare, and all sorts of things folks need every day.
One section of the market was very different, the difference I first noticed by the smell of rotting garbage and, perhaps, human and animal waste. In addition to the vendor stalls, there appeared to be tiny residences. These were a series of perhaps a dozen crudely constructed wooden structures raised about three feet off the ground but with no steps. Each was approximately six to eight feet square with a piece of ratty cloth covering the single opening. The height inside could not have been more than about four feet, enough to crawl around but not to stand. What gave them away as domiciles was the obvious bed rolls visible inside.
Across the street from this area was a Buddhist temple complex with what looked like dormitories for the monks, several of whom were hanging around outside. Off to one side was an obvious crematorium and further in to the complex was a covered area with about a hundred people who, for all I know lived there on the concrete floor with only a string defining their space from where others, including tourists, walked. I could be wrong about its purpose, there were few clues to go on.
I was in Cambodia, Phnom Penh to be specific, only two days and nights. Our hotel was just off the main road along the river but that is little deceptive because the river was probably a couple hundred yards away on the other side of some major construction; I wasn't able to discern what was being built but it stretched too far to be a hotel. When I thought to ask about it I wasn't with anyone who would know and when I was with someone I could ask, I wasn't thinking about it. As my mother used to say, if you can't remember it, it wasn't important anyway. I wish I could say that it was always true.
The "river" in Phnom Penh actually refers to the confluence of three different rivers that combine and diverge to form an "X". The three rivers are Meking, the Bassac, and Tonle Sab which flow into the South China Sea through what is called the Mekong Delta.
On the night we arrived, it was the start of the Loy Krathong festival, an annual holiday based on the lunar calendar. It is a big holiday also in Thailand where it is starting to become more commercial like all holidays in the U.S.; it’s a shame. In Thai, the word “Loy” means to float, and a “Krathong” is a lotus-shaped vessel made of banana leaves in which it carries flowers, candles, incense, and money as tokens of appreciations to the river Goddess allowing use of her water for drinking, washing, farming, etc. In Phnom Penh, on the main river street, there were lined up several rather cheesy floats for a parade the next morning, Sunday. The city was in full party mode and everywhere the streets were packed with people walking, riding, or driving.
That night, after unpacking, repacking, getting moved to a new room, and unpacking again, I joined the other three and we walked to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant. The food was great and the service exceptionally attentive, perhaps because were the only ones there. After dinner we returned to the hotel just before it started to rain. The lightning, thunder, wind, and pouring tropical rain lasted about an hour and a half, turning to the drizzling rain more familiar to Oregon folks.
Barry and I returned to Thailand on Monday while Rudi and Thyda stayed for the wedding and returned on Wednesday.