Left early to catch the 7:45am flight to Saigon. In Saigon, we decided to get the local bus from the airport to the backpackers area of the city for only 3000 Dong. The cheapest airport – town journey I’d ever taken, and no scams! I thought we’d be dropped off miles out of town, and then have to take a taxi with a tampered meter all the way into town. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case, and we arrived pretty much bang in the middle of the carnage of Saigon. Saigon seemed just as I’d imagined – very chaotic, loud, bustling, thronged with thousands of motorbikes buzzing around like mosquitoes. We decided on the spot to go to Cambodia.
We walked straight into the nearest travel agent and booked a bus to Phnom Penh. The journey was to take 6 hours. We had a quick and delicious lunch, then boarded the comfortable coach to Phnom Penh. We got visas on arrival at the Cambodian border for $20 each, no problems, and more efficient than I’d imagined. In Cambodia, we had to get a ferry across a huge river, then continued our journey along a dirt track with huge pot holes. To say this part of the journey was rocky and bumpy would be a vast understatement, but at least we could glimpse the life of the farmers and their families in the villages that flanked each side of the road in little wooden huts, some on stilts, all on the verge of collapse. Still, I haven’t seen so many smiles since I bought everyone a round of sambucas back in Hoi An. Village kids ran up to the roadside to wave, happy, innocent and full of the beautiful naivety, hopes and dreams of youth, ambitions yet to be crushed, and hopefully never to be denied, but, of course, the future for poor villagers living far from the capital are is not particularly bright if it is to be measured in material terms. However, they will smile more than those enslaved by the desire to make money, that’s for sure. I smiled and waved back at them.
Entering Phnom Penh wasn’t something I was relishing. My last visit there over New Year 2004/2005 was OK, but there’s something not right in this chaotic city, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. The extreme poverty, the begging, the guns, the danger, the still fresh impact of the Khmer Rouge regime, the death, despair, desperation and pollution. Still, people are lovely, and still smiling in the face of all their hardships. We had befriended a guy on the bus called Matt from Somerset, studying Law at Nottingham Uni. A nice chap. As the bus pulled into the bus park in central Phnom Penh, the circus began. Hordes of tuk-tuks and motorbike taxi drivers surrounded the bus, tapping the windows desperately trying to get eye contact and secure a fare. In these situations you have to be decisive, so I chose a guy immediately, and we battled our way through the crowd and to his waiting tuk-tuk. We piled in our rucksacks and set off to the riverside for $1. After skipping the drivers recommendation of a hotel a little back from the river, he dropped us off at the main area.
The riverside area of Phnom Penh is a pleasant strip of swanky bars and restaurants, and is alive with the well-to-do drinking and eating, and the destitute begging and touting. Lindsay and I walked around a few hotels here, while Matt stayed in the tuk-tuk and went to find something cheaper, ending up checking into the place our driver had recommended. Quite a number of the hotels were full, so we ended up wandering the back streets and back towards the driver’s recommendation as well. We bumped into Matt at the market place, and he suggested we check his hotel out. He’d just bought a Lonely Planet Cambodia from a street urchin, and a rival street urchin wasn’t pleased, so he had been following Matt around and kept bumping him with his basket of books. Then the 8 year old kid started bumping Lindsay as well, so she shouted at him. Incredibly, the kid tried to punch her, then he grabbed a brick and threatened to throw it. Fortunately, a hotel guard came out and stopped him, and the grubby-faced urchin skulked away into the early evening light.
We didn’t like the room at Matt’s place, so eventually checked into the place we had looked at earlier, for $18 a night, which was a bit steep. We showered and changed, then stepped out to meet Matt in the Frog and Parrot at 8:30pm. We had a mug of Angkor beer each, then went to a place that served ‘special’ pizzas i.e – pizzas baked with marijuana and magic mushrooms. We ordered a large special pizza,and some black pepper crab. The pizza, alas, wasn’t ‘special’ at all, and the fantastic effects experienced by Alex and I before back in 2004 were not repeated. After the pizza, we went to the FCC ( Foreign Correspondents Club – fine colonial establishment, chandeliers hanging from the ceilings and an air of refined camaraderie) for a a brew, and then got a tuk-tuk to Heart of Darkness. It’s a club that certainly lives up to its name. We had a little dance, as rich local Khmers scowled at us. The bouncers searching everyone at the door for weapons should have been an indication of the craziness of the place. We had a good time.
Never mind….it was an exhausting day, but a very interesting one.