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Published: April 20th 2011
The old drunk looked like Jerry Garcia resurrected. White, wiry Santa whiskers. His coarse, steel-wool hair had been brush-hammered into a flaring ponytail. His breath reeked of Red Bull and Jack Daniels. He stood at Karen’s ear trying to cajole her into joining him at his commercial bakery making bagels and breads for local restaurants. His equally shit-faced buddy was touting a DC-10 that he could let you have for a cool $1.2 Million. A California bred Cambodian princess asked every American in the pub if they knew what the Lakers’ chances looked like in this year’s playoffs. A burly, bearded anthropologist expounded on the world banking crisis from the corner bar stool. Across the lane, on the edge of the Royal Palace lawn, a group of Tuk drivers gambled away their earnings in the shimmering afternoon heat while the early losers dozed in the back seat of their trikes. Down the street you can soak your feet in a tank full of little fish that will nibble your tootsies free of dead skn. We’re in Phnom Penh Cambodia. Situation normal.
Our Vietnam Visa is good until April 30th but by the end of March it had become abundantly clear
Chau Doc Cyclo
An extremely uncomfortable form of transportation favored by the locals.
that we had squeezed all we could out of southern Vietnam and so our eyes turned westward to Cambodia. The weather in northern Vietnam never really warmed enough to persuade us to head up there. News stories about water buffalo freezing to death in Sapa did little to fire Karen’s enthusiasm for nearby Hanoi. We decided to cross the border at Chau Doc since this would give us the opportunity to enjoy an easy day in one of the Mekong Delta’s prettier towns.
We took a bus from Saigon to Chau Doc. Our friend Giang at ASC Travel; T: 0978 57 58 59/ Cell: 0908 80 19 45 hooked us up with our tickets and instructions. Giang speaks excellent English which is, surprisingly, a rare talent among travel agents in Saigon. At the Saigon bus station we met a Vietnamese from Can Tho named Nuy. A real chipper kind of girl who seemed to relish the opportunity to practice her formidable English with a couple of Americans. The bus station itself is little more than a ten acre paved lot with a few accessory buildings and vendors located on the fringes. While we waited for our bus to leave
Chau Doc Market
Still the nicest market we have found in Vietnam.
we snacked on tangerines and bananas that we had bought that morning in a local market.
Our bus left at 9 AM. A full-sized vehicle equipped with a big flat screen TV which played the same Vietnamese variety show program that we had seen on our ride to Da Lat. Halfway through the trip we stopped for lunch in a cavernous restaurant/ gift shop operated by the bus company. We ran into Nuy there and continued the conversation we had started in Saigon. She works for an upper end hotel chain called Victoria with operations throughout southern Vietnam.
There are a number of ways to enter Cambodia from Vietnam. The easiest is flying. There are direct flights from Saigon to Phnom Penh on Vietnam Airlines. The one hour flight costs $200 per person one way. Traveling by bus to Chau Doc and boat to Phnom Penh is $22 per person. Total travel time is ten hours though most folks, like ourselves, will put in for a night at Chau Doc before moving on.
The bus station in Chau Doc is about two kilometers outside of town. Your bus ticket includes a van ride to your hotel. Just
Karen On Transit Day
Patience is truly a virtue.
give the van driver the address and you’re there. We stayed two nights at the Trung Nguyen Hotel. We took room #203 with a large wraparound balcony overlooking the Chau Doc central market. A wonderful place to sit for hours and watch the Vietnamese at work and play. The stay was $15 per night and that included a pedestrian breakfast. The room itself was a little small compared to others we have seen but it was as clean as a whistle.
The next morning we took one of those cramped, streamlined, sulky-like, Chau Doc cyclos to Delta Adventures Hotel on the river. Delta has a stranglehold on the overland border crossing business between Cambodia and Nam. It is interesting to note that Delta charges about 50% more if you’re going from Cambodia to Nam as opposed to the other direction. The boat took off at 8:30. We made one stop to pick up some folks. We probably had twenty total by the time it was all said and done.
It was a short ride to the Vietnamese border. We killed fifteen-minutes in an overpriced café while our guide ran the passports up to customs. Back on the boat
Riverside At Night
Pretty as a picture. Just don't look too close.
we cruised for a couple of miles before we hit the Cambodian frontier. We all sat in a small, shady, paved square around a small Buddhist shrine. It was Cambodian New Year and a small table had been set up with burning incense and food offerings for the ancestors. We were called up one by one to have our visas stamped by a very serious looking individual behind a teller’s window in the tiny customs house. Visa cost is $22 US if you have your own visa photo. $5 more if you don’t. Our bags remained on the boat. The customs inspectors had no interest whatsoever in looking through our things. A half-hour later we transferred to the Cambodian fast boat. A more comfortable craft with a bathroom, a small snack bar and an open area in the back where you could sit and get sunburned.
FAST BOAT VS. SLOW BOAT; WHAT’S THE STORY?
When you buy your ticket to Cambodia the travel agent will ask you if you want the fast or the slow boat. Some may tell you that the slow boat doesn’t get into Phnom Penh until after dark. Blah, blah, blah. Buy the slow boat
Mike and Ron
Ron manages Rory's Pub. Great guy from Seattle. He's one of the highlights of our Phnom Penh stay.
ticket. You’ll be transferred onto the fast boat anyway. There’s only one kind of boat that they run. It doesn’t make any difference what you pay as you’ll get there at the same time as everybody else. When you get to Delta in Chau Doc they’ll try to get you to upgrade to fast boat if you have a slow boat ticket. Just decline politely.
The river we traveled was bracketed by high banks of brown fissured clay. Above the edges we could make out corn tassels bobbing in the breeze. There were a few families swimming with their cattle in the water but there was little else to see. At about 1 PM we could just make out Phnom Penh on the left bank. Lots of Wats (Buddhist temples), the Royal Palace and a few assorted twenty-story buildings. The boat docked at two o’clock. For an extra buck and a half each we got a van ride to our hotel. There are plenty of Tuk’s around that will do the same job for $2 total.
We arrived in Cambodia during their New Year celebration. As a result about half of the restaurants and hotels in town were
#33 Street 178.
closed. We ended up staying at Rory’s Pub at #33 Street 178 right across from the Royal Palace. Rory’s is primarily a bar that offers 6 rooms upstairs. We took room #104 for $20 US a night. Small, clean, hot water, dodgy cable TV and a small refrigerator. The bar is populated by a menagerie of ex-pats and locals all in various stages of alcohol and/ or drug intoxication. Drugs are readily available in Phnom Penh. Grass, Coke, Heroin and Methamphetamine can be had for a pittance. The ex-pats we met all reminded us of the Nicholas Cage character in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’. Most are from the UK, Ireland and the States. Elderly, thin and given to statements of astounding grandeur.
There are three areas in Phnom Penh that tourists can choose lodgings in. The City Center, the Lakeside and the Riverside. The Lakeside is for serious drug users. The City Center is all but abandoned by visitors. Riverside is the place to be. The promenade is lined with glitzy, neon-lit restaurants serving pedestrian food at prices that are not justified given the mundane offerings. Walk 2 blocks off the strip and you will find excellent food at half
Bright Lotus Restaurant
22 Street 178. $6 feeds two.
the price. Bright Lotus I at #22 Street 178 is especially good. Overall, prices in Cambodia are about 40% higher than those in Vietnam. It is a US$ based economy. All of the ATM’s here dispense US dollars. In order to get local currency you would have to go to a money exchange but there’s really no reason to do so as everybody uses dollars. The current rate of exchange is 4,000 Riel/ Dollar but that rate is dropping. In some parts of Cambodia you are lucky to get 3,800 Riel. The dollar is in serious trouble overseas and it doesn’t look like things are going to get better anytime soon. If the Cambodians have us figured then who hasn’t?
Since the Vietnamese put an end to the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh has slowly crawled back to life. The town has been tarted up with foreign investor money. From a distance everything looks hunky-dory but a closer examination of the social structure left me deeply disturbed. There is a yawning chasm between the haves and the have nots here. The streets are clogged with Cambodian owned Lexus sedans while the city’s sidewalks are populated with families living on 25
square feet of pavement. Sleeping in hammocks slung between trees or on filthy cardboard mattresses. Women cook what little they have on tiny charcoal braziers. Stick-thin mutts tied to trees act as security systems while the families sleep. Some of the children wear nothing but a pair of worn out underwear. Toddlers are often naked. Their sun darkened skin is basted with a month’s accretion of dirt. The kids are excruciatingly underweight and their dusty, tawny hair bears the orange-highlights of malnutrition that I first saw in Ethiopia during the great famine of 1973.
There are no social safety nets here other than what the NGO’s can provide which isn’t nearly enough given the scope of the problem. Any meal taken at an outdoor café will precipitate a parade of children peddling postcards, trinkets or outright pleas for money. One small hand outstretched, the other pointing to their mouth. Karen and I carry a wad of small denomination Riel notes which we freely dispense to all comers and there are, oh, so many comers. Hundreds of families living in the Lakeside area were just ordered off of their properties by the government to make way for a new, foreign
financed, tourist resort. These families had lived and worked in that neighborhood for generations. Built businesses, raised children, lived lives. This is how the sidewalks are filled. Phnom Penh.
There are few tourist attractions here outside the city museum and a few large temples. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 there was a huge outcry against this ‘unjustified’ incursion. An odd complaint given that the world community had little if anything to say during the slaughter of over a million people. To make their point the Vietnamese gave reporters access to the horrors they had discovered. They disinterred the mass graves they found just outside Phnom Penh and created an ossuary so the world could see the evidence. This ossuary is what is now known as the ‘Killing Field’. They also opened up a former high school that the Khmer Rouge had turned into an interrogation/ torture operation. This is known as S-21. The school’s original designation before it became a prison. After the Vietnamese pulled out of the country the Cambodians took over both of the sites as ready-made tourist attractions. Many visitors to Cambodia now believe that these were the only locations where atrocities occurred. That
Khmer Rouge Cadre
Isn't it wonderful when the kids can join the parents in the family's enterprise?
would be wrong. A reading of ‘Cambodia Year Zero’ by Francois Ponchaud makes it abundantly clear that the entire country was the ‘Killing Field’. There isn’t a town in the country that didn’t suffer from Khmer Rouge carnage. There’s a railway station in Mongkol Borei, Cambodia where hundreds of prisoners threw themselves under the wheels of locomotives as a means to quickly end their suffering. No memorials there. Pretty much all of the structures that existed in Phnom Penh before the revolution are plowed under. The old French embassy made famous in the film; ‘The Killing Fields’ was torn down in 1995.
You can visit the ‘Killing Fields’ and S-21. The ticket is $6. For an extra $4 they’ll throw in a visit to a firing range so you can have at it with an AK-47. No lie.
Tips for travelers:
The Phnom Penh central market is a beautiful domed building housing jewelry and souvenir stores. The market is surrounded by electronics stores and pawn shops. The electronics, while cheaper than Vietnam’s, are no bargain when compared to what is available in the States. The pawn shops are an utter rip-off and should be avoided.
Phnom Penh Central Market
French built. Houses jewelry and trinket shops.
riverside is grand for a visit but better food can be found by wandering off of the strip. If you see a restaurant with a bunch of Cambodians eating there then that’s your best bet.
There’s a night market on the Riverside selling clothing and cell-phone contracts. It’s also a pickpocket training center.
Dr. Fish Foot Cleaning services are all over town. $3 gets you 20 minutes of nibbles and a complimentary beer.
Stuff your pockets with 100 Riel notes and pass them out. That’s two and a half cents US in case you’re counting.
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