Friday, January 2, 2009

Phnom Penh

One day we were in the ever-growing and dense Phnom Penh traffic and I flashed on: 30 years ago this was a ghost town. No doubt that's far from an original thought, but what an amazing transformation from the horror of Year Zero and the emptiness of 1978 to a big, sprawling Asian city!

The bus from Saigon took 7 hours and was a comfortable, easy ride with Leslie talking to two young women from Manchester. Goofily we didn't bring anything to eat (food packed in the bus hold) and it's been awhile since we've been tempted by bus stop food in SE Asia. The border crossing was easy with the bus guy (kind of like a tour guide) having collected $25 from everyone for visa and his services. So we were among the privileged having a short wait. As in our 2005 Poipet crossing they let us out on one side of the border for us to walk across, then picked us up on the other side, but this time, no dealing with immigration scams. Photo: countryside

Got into Phnom Penh around 2:45 to a bus station near the Central Market. Leslie got a tuk-tuk driver to call our hosts (Samnang and his family - where we stayed last time) and we took off in the tuk-tuk for the Russian Market. Another not bad ride. When we turned on to our street we were shocked to see it is now paved. Pulled up in front of the house, where Samnanng, Sokhom, Jeudy, Da, Chanmony, and Sophea greeted us. It was a wonderful homecoming. Our old room was ready for us and there was a Christmas tree in the living area. Everyone looks great. Samnang looks as strong as before, so that's a relief.

Mony's website:

We settled into the old routine of Mony and Sophea hanging out in our room, talking, playing games and so on; great meals fixed by Jeudy & eaten with Samnang, Sokhom, Mony & Sophea; walking to the Russian Market and internet cafe; relaxing; having our morning coffee on the balcony, watching the world go by: people selling ice, charcoal, brooms, eggs, flowers, coconuts, fruit; school children walking, holding hands, riding bikes (holding hands), school teachers, people going to market, coming from market, trash pickers, old guys sitting across the way and upstairs, on the balcony, really old people stooping around, and here comes three teen girls walking along, holding hands, talking; motos, cars, trucks, and lots of carts. Photo: Samnang & David

The first time I was in Phnom Penh I experienced it as dark and dangerous. When we went to the Russian Market (a block from where we're staying now) there was a man lying face down in the mud, a man with no face (just an open, infected wound), children with the red hair and sores and big bellies of malnutrition, beggars every few feet, and in a place where we were eating on the riverfront we saw a woman beating one of the vendor children with bamboo like a whip (I intervened) and it all seemed, like I said, dark and dangerous. Now it seems (1) definitely better and (2) like maybe I was misperceiving the degree of darkness before, or (3) all the above. Photo below: outside Psar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market)

Following from an email from Leslie to her sisters: I think it's Christmas Day or night where all of you are now so Merry Christmas to all. It's 9:00 am on December 26th here so we celebrated yesterday - our little family 1st thing after getting up, and then a huge feast and party in the evening with our family here. The food was unbelievable - 3 people cooking all day to produce a fabulous Thai soup, egg rolls, rice paper wrapped spring rolls, grilled chicken, pork satay grilled outside, fried rice, special Cambodian salad, and more. It was topped off by a mocha almond cake covered in whipped cream from a French bakery! Then we sang - karaoke with the girls. "Oh Carol" is the one they always want me to do but use Charles' name instead and "Hotel California" for Charles. The girls sing with us and also backup + many songs for just the 2 of them. It is really fun and we laughed till we cried. Charles pantomimed poor Tommy dying on the race track singing "Tell Laura (Leslie in this case) I love her," etc. Too funny and he lays cut and bleeding clutching his poor heart which is broken in more ways than 1. Everyone just exploded in laughter and applause! Of course we miss all of you, especially during the holidays, but this trip has been a really special one. The timing is perfect for our friends so I'm glad we can be here.

CK again: we've also spent time at two western-oriented places: Sister's, a coffee shop with good pastries (not too sweet!) and coffee (French press, no less). Also Jars of Clay, a Christian place with more good coffee and good pasties and a decent used bookstore upstairs. Both are near the Psar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market). Food thoughts for our return: shrimp with lemon grass and chillis served with cha gio from BistroB along with green papaya salad. I also want to fix more bun Cha - really, mine is almost as good as the best we had in Hanoi.

I just finished reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Heavy stuff and the parallels between Chris McCandless, the protagonist and my mate Jeff are just astonishing - life at the edge, life into the wild, along yet understanding on a deep level that in the end, "happiness is only real when shared" (Chris McCandless shortly before he died). Photo: geckos in the Coco Cafe

Right now I'm sitting on the bed with Leslie, David, Mony, Sophea and their cousin Thol and yes, we're happy.

Some years ago I decided that basically I'd seen just about all there was to see site/attraction-wise. I thought, in terms of photos that I would enjoy in the future and that I liked to see taken by other people, that what I saw day-to-day was of greater interest to me and to some other people. Maybe I've gone a little far in the direction of market, street, and related photos. But that's mostly what I'm taking and enjoying.

I began to get cabin fever in our nice little place in Phnom Penh. So, it's a two day trip to Kampot (with a long o) for us: up at 4:45, throw some coffee, meusili, banana and milk down and downstairs for the tuk-tuk (arranged for yesterday) that would take us to the Okay guesthouse, our departure point except the tuk tuk driver wasn't there so I headed up the dark street toward the market where there were several tuk tuks parked with sides down and hammocks strung inside for the driver to sleep. I saw an awake driver a little farther and we quickly reached an agreement on the fare to the Okay and went back to Samnang's and picked up David and Leslie (and the food Sokhom had packed for our journey) and away to the Okay where we waited for 30 minutes and were then bundled into another tuk tuk to the bus station - which is the people's and backpacker's bus station as Kampot and Kep are apparently not big enough stops for a tourist bus and here I am, sharing a seat with a pleasant old woman having her morning iced coffee in a plastic bag. Photo: David & Sophea

One nice thing that happened was that four kind of scruffy (and entitled) backpackers had appropriated the four best front seats, but the young Cambodian woman in charge of checking tickets and assigned(!) seating moved them to their assigned seats in the back of the bus and put the people with the front seat tickets in the front seats. Bus into the rush hour traffic and Neil Young's Thresher on the iPod - pretty good road song. The bus is only partly full. All the actual seats are taken, but there are only a couple of people sitting on those little plastic stools are in the aisle and now it's All Over Now, Baby Blue - the primo Grateful Dead version and we're driving past the slums where Chavilet and I went in 2007. It looks like some of the people (squatters) have been moved - Dust in the Wind. Strike another match Go start anew And it's all over now, Baby Blue. Out of the city on a narrow road and it sounds like a cocktail party behind and around us except nobody is speaking English. We watch it all unfold: lotus and water lilies, squatter's shacks, houses of all sorts, laundry on fences, rice padi with people working in the last fields harvested and cows grazing in the fields already harvested and later the people will spread the newly cut rice out to dry on plastic sheets in front of their houses (many already with rice drying), and except for the few still growing green fields (small patches in the Texas sense of fields) the prototypical Cambodian countryside sere with tall sugar palms, thatched roof one table stores all selling pretty much the same things and stuff hanging from the eaves, gas for sale in 1 liter pop bottles - you got your red gas and you got your yellow gas, and periodically the bus stops to pick people up and when we were closer to Kampot stopping to let people off. Somewhere along the line we stopped in the middle of nowhere (great phrase, eh) behind a long line of cars, buses, trucks, etc. with a constant flow of motos around the sides of the stopped vehicles. A truck up ahead had "collapsed" and we would be waiting for one hour." We found a bench under a tree and waited there, enduring jealous looks from the benchless masses of backpackers smoke-smoke-smoking (Do all Europeans smoke?) them Gitanes, etc. But we only had to wait 30 or 45 minutes. We made the regularly scheduled bus stop restaurant stop a few miles up the road.

One thing is certain: bus stop restaurants are a lot better now than in the former times. The worst bus stop for us was a huge shed of a place in the middle of the night between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, where they slammed down bowls of jook (sp?), i.e., rice porridge with gristly meat and garlic included in the bus fare and the air thick with mosquitoes and all sorts of other insect life, not to mention the concrete floor, well, nevermind.

The old woman next to me (still wearing her green sweater) is doing up some aromatherapy and the TV above the driver is featuring yet another Cambodian variety show (brought to us by and a prime example of some things never ever change) and I'm grateful for the iPod and though Robert Earl and REM can't compete, the Black Angels finally win the battle of the bands.

The road is running between some hills, climbing now . Turn left off the main 2 lane highway onto a narrow 1.5 lane road which soon becomes dirt and the bus the bus shaking, swaying rattling and creaking along and after a few miles of dirt/gravel the road is paved and into Kep on the sea with ghostly deserted villas all moldy on the sides of hills and by now all the foreigners except us and a young Chinese woman from Taiwan are off the bus.

It's a short distance between Kep and Kampot and as we are stopped to let someone off on the edge of town there is a kind of gasp from several people at the front of the bus and I look to see a motorcycle and bicycle and two people lying in the road. The moto guy gets up quickly, gets on his moto and takes off without a glance at the girl lying on the pavement. The girl is just lying there and now moving and someone is helping her up and she crumples and they pull her up and help her off the road. The Chinese woman says, "But he just rode away!" There's no answer to that.

We got to the bus stop in Kampot and there was the usual press of moto, etc. drivers. We went with a guy in a white Tico (remember this, Kampot travelers) who took us to a smelly place in a bad location and then refused to take us elsewhere though he had said he would if we didn't like the first place. So we started walking and about a 1/4 mile up the road found a nice guesthouse (Long Villa) that was full, but they had a nice restaurant, so Leslie and David waited there while I walked on and 1/2 block away found a new GH (Popok Vel) that was clean, nice desk guy, aircon, etc. They had a balcony room available, but we've been down that road noise road before, so to the desk guy's puzzlement, chose a very nice back room overlooking (this is a first for us) a pig sty with 3 really big ones + some chickens and a rooster. Cock-a-doodle-doo. Photo: Kampot riverside

Got a tuk tuk to "downtown" along the river, which was very nice. Had a Beer Lao at an outdoor cafe, then to the Coco Cafe for tom yum, garlic bread, luc lac and french fries. Great collection of geckos - chuk chuk, chuk chuk. All of this on the riverfront and the river and mountains very beautiful at sunset.

This whole scene reminded Leslie and me of Burma - specifically Moulmein: very tropical, people friendly, non-harassing, beautiful, run down, cooled out for sure. In the morning we walked to a big market about 1/2 block from the GH - again, reminiscent of Burma, like the riverside, like everything else in this town. We could definitely see ourselves coming back as we too friendly, non-harassing, run down, and sometimes cooled out.

On the way back to Phnom Penh the next afternoon we passed 20, maybe 30 trucks totally packed with mostly young women, standing, really packed in, coming home from a factory we guessed.

Somewhere along the line we've come to enjoy bus rides - short ones, that is, like 4-6 hours and especially, through the Southeast Asian countryside - though I'm sure through the Rockies or Sierras or New England would be good too. This ride was no different - a constant unfolding of people and places - buffalo carts, motorcycles loaded beyond belief, girls with their long black hair in pony-tails on bicycles, pig selling guys coming back from market with empty baskets that held a trussed up pig on the way into market, spirit houses, haystacks, monks, chickens with trailers of chicks dashing off the road and on and on unfolding like a movie.

Back in Phnom Penh there's a wedding set up down the street. Big pink tents, tables and chairs, and in the afternoon monks chanting just like the many weddings we went to in Dallas. For the chanting part, here as in Dallas, it's the monks, the middle-age and old men and women joining in (and where I always was). Photo: Kampot

This evening it started raining again, drumming on our metal roof, now roaring on the roof. It's 3 of the last 4 evenings in this, the dry season, cooling things down, making sleeping a rare experience. Perfect weather except for the bride and groom up the street.

In the morning we went downstarirs to see Mony off to school, side saddle on Uncle Da's motorcycle and Saly, a small/medium size dog, perched on the seat in front of Da with her paws over the handlebars, wearing earrings, pearl necklace and sunglasses. Saly couldn't wait to hop up on the moto for her frequent ride. Photo: Daly, Da, Mony

It's been good to be in Phnom Penh with Samnang's family. Samnang and Sokhom are well. Mony is doing extraordinarily well in school. Sophea remains a lot of fun and will be going to a new school in February. Jeudy and Than are well and the food fixed by Jeudy - better than any we've ever had anywhere in Cambodia - just brilliant. Uncles Da and David are well and now there's a dog and cat in the house. Good times.

We're leaving tomorrow - off to Bangkok for a few days. David will fly back to San Francisco and on to Houston for Peter and Brandi's wedding. We'll stay a few more days in Bangkok, on to Hong Kong and then back to the US.

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