Friday, February 26, 2010

Taxi ride to Phnom Penh and Day One

Arrived Phnom Penh the day before yesterday at around 2:30 pm after a four hour ride from Koh Kong where we had spent the previous night. Koh Kong is just inside of Cambodia and is a sleepy little river town. Because of the river and the fact that our hotel fronted on the main street with the river just beyond, a pleasant and steady breeze played across our third floor deck. After our steamy border crossing the breeze was especially welcome. The street vendors were out trying to sell food but there was very little traffic other than locals, most of that on motos.

Map of our first taxi ride of about 345 km (214 miles). Click on photo for a larger image.

View from our hotel deck

View from our hotel deck

I hadn't thought we would break the trip up into two days but seeing as we got to the Cambodian border at around 4:30 we decided we might as well hang out close by instead of attempting a night run through the hill country of Cambodia.

The first day of the trip was pretty cool. Our cabbie, coincidentally named Udon, was a good guy and drove with reasonable speed the whole way. We asked him if he knew of a good place to eat along the road. He didn't know of anything off the top of his head so he called his dispatcher. "Just up the road on the right side", came the answer. It was a great place to stop. Of a size to handle busloads of tourists, it was empty when we got there at about 12:30. It had a collection of three fish in a large aquarium. Here is a picture of Udon with the fish in the tank. He asked the proprietors what kind of fish they were and reported to us that they come from the Amazon River. (Note March 16: The fish is probably a pirarucu, considered by many experts to be endangered, considered by many of the same to be the world’s largest freshwater fish.) Appropriately sized I reckon.

The border crossing was the most uncomfortable part of the trip because it was deadly hot and muggy. We filled out forms and paid the fees, about $10 each, to grease the ways while I proceeded to create dark patches of sweat through my shirt. As if to make matters worse, we left our sunglasses on a counter for a few minutes and had them stolen. Albert was incensed and when cabbies approached us to solicit a ride into town, he drove them off with angry reprisals. I, in my role of novice traveler of course, would never have said anything about the cheap glasses and would simply have gone on without making a fuss. But he told me later that things have changed here and he wanted them to think twice before doing something like that again to a tourist.

We eventually got a ride into town for something like $6 USD. Oh yes, they drive on the right in Cambodia and use riels or USD as currency. Right now 1 USD = about 4200 riels. The cab driver spoke English fairly well so Albie set up our ride next day into Phnom Penh for $50 total. But before we could shake hands on it Albert pointed to the old Camry and says, "That's a very old car. We might have to find a driver with a newer car." He replied, "No problem. My brother has new car. Tomorrow he come for you." Before the fellow could make his escape, Albert admonished him with this warning, "No horn blowing tomorrow. Have brother call me at 9:30 or so to make sure we're ready for the 10 am pickup." Albert hates it when drivers use the horn constantly. I tell him they do it to alert moto drivers, whose machines are quite noisy, that they are being overtaken. He was unmoved by my argument.

We checked in to our hotel and sat out on the deck with a couple of cold beers while we discussed the usual things: the next day's travel, the cost of things here vs Thailand or the States, friends back home, and where to eat. After sundown we wandered into the downtown area for supper. While the riverfront park had a few dim streetlights, here there were none at all. Most of the bars and restaurants were lit inside but there was no neon and precious little light anywhere else outdoors. To an American who lives in a world of bright ambient light this town felt very strange as we walked along its dark sidewalks and dimly lit vendors' stalls on our way back to the hotel.

Taxi from Koh Kong to Phnom Penh (Click to enlarge)

Next day our taxi showed up promptly at 10 am with a different driver in a different Camry, newer than the last, but only slightly so. We tossed our bags in and off we went. The road out of Koh Kong is not well traveled and is a bit rough in spots but we rode along at about 50-60 mph. About an hour and a half into the ride we decided to pull over to a row of roadside shops to get some food. After lunch I spotted a beautiful little girl playing with a crab on a leash. How will her life turn out? I wondered as I took these photos:

Albert bought a couple of snacks (above) when he paid his bill. They were little packets made from a piece of banana leaf which contained a deliciously sweet ball of sticky rice inside of which was a banana or cooked plantain. I thought I might have detected a touch of vanilla but it was probably my imagination. Lovely little treats they were.

We saw many overloaded vehicles on the highways. The one below isn't particularly overloaded in Albert's opinion.

We arrived at our hotel, the Superstar Guesthouse on Street 172, right in the heart of Phnom Penh, at about 2:30.  At $12 a night ($15 for A/C) these rooms are slightly more expensive than our Thailand ones but the family that owns the hotel is very nice and Nora, the husband, speaks good English. I was able to rent a small moto from him, a 100 cc Honda Dream, for only $4 a day without having to surrender my passport as security, the usual requirement, which was important because I needed to be able leave my passport at the Thai Embassy for three days while they processed my application for a tourist visa (allowing me an extra 60 days stay in Thailand). Albert owns an electric moto which the owners let him store in the hotel when he's in the states so his ride was waiting for him already.

After a refreshing shower we drove the motos a short distance to a sidewalk cafe on Sisowath Quay, the riverfront road and a beehive of frenetic activity. Our restaurant, Happy Phnom Penh Pizza, another of Albert's favorites, serves Angkor beer on tap (60 cents a glass) and a wide selection of good foods for between $1 and $4 USD. You can even get a so-called Happy Pizza here which is apparently made with marijuana. If I decide to eat a pizza, I'll report back on that. Situated directly in front of the restaurant is the junction of the mighty Mekong with the Sap and Bassac rivers. Seeing the Mekong again makes me think I'd like to experience one of the many boat trips available for 15 or 20 bucks. This is a pretty fine place to eat except for the constant flow of beggars and scammers trying to part you from your money. I have a hard time saying no but the more time you spend here the more you realize that literally everyone you encounter wants your money and they'll do almost anything to get it. In one case, a woman in a wheelchair looked at us with sad, pleading eyes, asking for money. We indicated no and turned back to our conversation. A few minutes later I glanced back at her and saw her using a cell phone. I'm not sure what to think about that but I was less inclined to feel bad for her at that point. What do you think?

After dinner we went over to the Shanghai Bar to sample the night life. Albert is a regular here, and is, need I say it, a wealthy American, as am I, so the hostesses instantly made us feel very welcome. I chatted with a couple of them and learned that many work in bars in order to support their parents or keep a brother in college, and what they really want is to get married and have children. They're beautiful women as you can see. A hostesses' job is to get you to spend money on drinks, not to go home with you. If you buy them a drink they get a piece of the action. So we did.

Here I am with a lovely girl named Christine. Below are two other ladies, Nith and Aya, with whom we shared our table and a few drinks. Afterward Albie and I went to a place called Sizzlers on Street 136 where the girls were just as beautiful and even friendlier. No photos are available to document our visit there ;-)) and it's probably just as well.
Nith and Aya at the Shanghai Bar

Next day I needed to get my application for my Thailand visa filed so at about 9:30 Albie and I drove our motos over to the Thai Embassy a couple of miles away. Okay, I know I wrote that driving a motorbike in Chiang Mai was chaotic, and it was, but driving one here is even worse. The situation at intersections "controlled" by a stop sign is absolutely insane -- anything goes, anything. How aggressive you are is the only determinant of progress. First of all nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to the stop signs. It's a goddamn free-for-all. If it's rush hour, you edge into the intersection little by little until you can force your way across the steady stream of vehicles. As you edge in, people are constantly going around you from the right and left, both in front and in back, until at last you're through to the other side. Keep in mind too that, here in Cambodia, I'm again driving on the right as we do in the states. Add to that the fact that on these little motos there is no clutch and you push the shifter down to move to a higher gear, exactly the opposite of any motorcycle I've ever driven in my life. I ask myself time and time again why is it that I'm driving this damn thing in this infernal chaos? Adventure or transportation? I guess I'm not really sure.

Oh yes, there a couple more rules to keep in mind. There is a helmet law in effect and the police will be only too happy to fine you (and pocket the money) for not wearing one. Except at night. Nobody wears a helmet at night because apparently the cops go home at 5 pm. You know how in the states we typically use our headlights at all times now? In fact, newer motorcycles don't even have a headlight switch -- the lights are always on. It's different here. Here you are subject to an instant $2 fine if you use your headlights during the day! As I said, driving here is insane and I think that last fact probably illustrates it as well as anything. I recently posted this video on Facebook of a traffic jam I witnessed and repost it here.

I'll be here for at least a week I think. My visa is due back next Tuesday and seeing as I have nothing special planned in Thailand other than to head back to Chiang Mai for an extended visit I might just stay here a bit longer than the minimum. There are sights to see and perhaps a river trip ahead.