South East Asia on a Hamstring – March 8

Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia – March 8, 2000

A minivan took us from Saigon to the Cambodian border. Stuart, our current leader, had warned us that Vietnamese customs might be bored and in the mood to confiscate. Basically, pirate CD’s and videos are a popular purchase in Vietnam and they ARE illegal, even here. So if Customs is bored, they’ll search our packs. If they’re feeling vindictive or even more bored, they’ll confiscate what they damn well please and we’re not to make a fuss or they’ll drag us off and then it’s all up to our respective embassies to figure out what to do with us.

We were lucky. Just as we got to Customs, a massive crowd of backpackers walked in behind us. The border guards took one look at them and pushed us through without even a glance in our bags.

We had to walk across No Man’s Land, through the brutal sun, baking on the dirt road. I cursed my 28 new items of clothing I’d had tailor-made in Hoi An. Formalities on the Cambodian side were easy. The Cambodians are happy to see tourists and try to make everything for us as easy as they can.

The distance on the Cambodian road from the border to Phnom Penh was not great, but it took hours. The road was unbelievably horrendous, with potholes in potholes, and has supplanted the Indian road from Varanasi to Khajuraho as the worst road I’ve ever been on. We ate takeaway sandwiches from Saigon’s Cafe Van and Stuart brought out his secret stash of Mars Bars to ease the pain of travel. We stopped for water in a small town and sent the world upside-down until our driver stepped in to pay in local currency and negotiate prices.

Cambodia has two currencies. The first is the rial and the second (some say first) is the US dollar. Essentially, you can buy anything in dollars and you get your change back in a combination of dollars and rials – the rials act as substitute coins, as there are no US coins here.

At around 5:30, we finally got to Phnom Penh and the Renakse Hotel. It was right across from the Royal Palace grounds and the wats and palace were very similar to the wats and palaces of Thailand with their gold-gilded curving spires.

We met up with the rest of the group and then we were twelve. Plus Stuart. He took us down to the river and we walked down the breezy path to Viego’s Riverside Restaurant for dinner. Some order Khmer food, some ordered western. Some (not me) ordered “happy herb pizza.” Yes, that would be pizza covered in marijuana. And then off to the FCC for a drink. That’s not

Federal Communications Commission – it’s a bar and restaurant called Foreign Correspondants Club. Presumably it was just that in a previous incarnation.

I snuck down the street to another cheap e-mail cafe – they’re everywhere. I had to run the gamut of beggers on the way back– beggers are everywhere in Cambodia and most of them have at least one limb missing. Presumably they are victims of landmines, which still lace the Cambodian countryside. I learned quickly to always carry small change in rial in my pocket to hand out. There are very few social services in Cambodia.

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