Monday, 15 February 2016

48 hours in Phnom Penh after seeing The Killing Fields

I get up early and have a coffee on the balcony just because the temperature is PERFECT at this hour.  I don't have to disturb any sleeping receptionists when heading for breakfast at 7 am today.  

Breakfast is ample and included in the room rate, which for last night was $0.00, thanks to accumulated Expedia points.

So here I am sitting in the perfect temperature with a view of palm trees lining a river, eating a free breakfast, and a very good looking Cambodian in his mid to late 20s enters the breakfast room with a shoe-shine box and a discouraged facial expression because he instantly sees that all eaters where sandals, and who has ever had their sandals polished? 

If Lenny Kravitz can do  it ......

It's heartbreaking and I wish I was wearing high leather boots to give the guy some work, even if such footwear would look just a tiny bit out of place around here.

Indochina trips seem to be fatal for my mechanical and electronic devices.  My cell phone died in the Reunification Express in December and maybe yesterdays sweaty cycling is responsible for the demise of my 1960s mechanically self-winding Gruen watch.  It just stopped last night.  I have more than enough watches at home to take its place, but I got used to looking at my wrist to tell the time instead of submitting to the newfangled cell-phone time checking. Call me old-fashioned, if you want, but I'll just hear older and fashionable ;-)

I actually visit a proper watch store where they want $1000 for a Mido, Rado, or Longines watch, but they all have become ugly over the last 50 years.  The cheapest 'time piece' they have is some brand I have never heard of at US$150 and even that's not pretty.  I noticed watch grab bins at the central market close by on the way here and I buy a Patek Phillipe for $20.
Mine looks quite similar to this original.  1972. US$ 5,800
OF COURSE the watch I bought is a COPY.  But its simple face at least exudes some kind of style, without the now fashionable half-inch-thick 'time-pieces' with the diameters of saucers.   

My new hotel doesn't have anyone at the front desk until 11 am, so I still don't know when I can move.  If worse comes to worst, I can always cycle back to the killing fields tomorrow before my flight.

I'm glad to be able  to leave my hotel at 11 am because the pot-bellied Asian owner/manager showed up  today.  He was belching commands at the cleaning lady and the receptionist and they are both on their knees scrubbing the tiled floor of the lobby with some atrociously smelling cleaning agent, while Mr. Potbelly sits on the lobby couch and watches CNN. NOT!  When I leave I purposefully walk right  in front of him so that he has to move his feet. My intent was not to dirty the freshly scrubbed parts  of the floor again so the scrubbers wouldn't have  to do double duty.  Mr. Potbelly even says "I'm sorry".

 Well,  I'm NOT. I walk  over to the new hotel and i'm glad I switched. I'm paying much less and the room reeks of colonial grandeur ;-)

No scrubbing floors under fat-bellied supervision here; the lobby is a foot massage establishment. English skills are accordingly ;-)
stare down whom downstairs?

By 11:45 I  have  done  sink laundry, hung everything on my new fancy  balcony,  rented the bicycle, and  headed off into the slums of Phnom Penh (i.e everything more than 1 block away from major paved or major unpaved roads).

The smell is indescribable. A sewage system is being built as I type, but until it is complete and working, everything goes into the water.
YES, there is WATER below all that
I stick to my plan of buying stuff from the poorest.  A coldish can of  Fanta  from a cooler along the road to the Killing Fields.  The odd thing is:  Not only does one get the money to the grass roots, prices are also  MUCH  lower and the smiles of the vendors much brighter.

 On the way back exhaustion sets in again and I stop  at a local food? shop at a busy street corner.  I might actually be the first  Westerner ever to set foot in here, something that  is also  expressed in the eyes  of the young waitress when I sit down.  I mumble TE and make the motion of pouring hot water into a cup and hope for the best.  She brings a HUGE pot of delicious tea and a small cup.  When I try to pay, she shakes her head.  What do you mean?  If  I had a dollar in my  wallet I'd leave it  under the cup but the smallest I have is a $5 bill.  So  I approach her and gesture  that I give her $5 and she returns me $4. Again that astonished look.  I say  "I would like to pay for  the tea". She smiles, looks me in the eyes, and in a firm voice says NO.   Namastes and អរគុណs
are not enough to express my gratitude and astonishment.

Back in the hotel I DEVOUR a spicy noodle soup and some wine, and after a shower to wash off the road grime and applying half a can of Nivea to my reddish arms, legs, and face, I head to the roof-top restaurant for ICE CREAM and more wine.  Oh yeah, life in Cambodia is really tough for expats!

I also re-re-re-re-think my further travel plans. It is raining AGAIN in Da Nang, so I don't want to go there. I have to stop by there to pick up my stuff, but I don't want to hang out all day and look at a beach in the rain.   So I'm not flying to Da Nang tomorrow.  Requirements for any destination are


3)  reachable by plane via Ho Chi Minh City.

Ah well, I didn't  really want to go to the ONLY city that fulfills all 3 criteria but I guess I have to. Another complication is the layover of 18 hours.  Ah well, I've never been to the former Sai Gon, so I might as well have a look at it.

The ice cream definitely did not fill the stomach,  so I head to the place that serves REALLY GOOD pizza along the indirect route. Little do I know it at this time but my brand-new 'high-quality' watch has stopped working again. En route, I run into that Swedish guy I briefly talked to yesterday in the travel agency / currency exchange / bike rental place.  Long story kept short. A 'friend' he sold his half share of a restaurant to did not pay and this 'friend' also seems to be responsible for the Swedish guy's girlfriend no longer being just that.  Apparently he has no money but when I invite him for dinner, he declines. "I can't accept, I barely know you, but could I borrow a dollar to buy food?".  I give him $2 and he gets tears in his eyes and hugs me.  What I spend in Cambodia per day is peanuts compared to what I see quite a lot of the tourists shell out for drinks and trinkets.  But those $2 are irrelevant to my daily budget but they make such a big difference to his.  Now imagine what those $2 could do for a Cambodian!

I keep walking and see a woman in her 30s or 40s laying on the sidewalk next to a naked boy of about 1 or 2 years of age.  She is not begging and there is no bowl/cap/tray to put money in.  WTF???  Hordes of tourists walk by them  without paying ANY attention. What to do???   I walk by for now and decide that I need a full stomach to comprehend what is happening here tonight.  How can there be so many laughing tourist couples living it up on Valentine's Day with all that misery  around them.  I shouldn't forget that owing to loud protests of my East Indian co-balloon crashers I carry an extra US $100 in my pocket.  

After dinner,  I walk back to where the woman and her child are still on the sidewalk. Only when I stop, look at her, and squat next to her, does a small pale palm reach towards me. I'm glad I went back.

Waking up at six am, and seeing the sky turn from grayish to a  pink-orange explosion of light over the Mekong while having my first cigarette  and coffee on the balcony is an experience that neither words nor pictures really do justice.  

I book my hotel in Ho Chi Minh City tonight and then take a bath with the help of the hot water kettle in the room (An optimist might call the 'hot' water lukewarm; You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you might just get what you need)

I remember just in time where the breakfast is most likely being served. On the roof terrace on the 6th floor.

  OMG  Look at the view. 
 Look at the fruit plate.  I can't convey the gentle caress of the warm morning breeze, the audio back ground of fishing house boats puttering up and down the two rivers below me, or the taste of the French-influenced coffee and baguette or that of  the fruit  plate (It's amazing what fruit tastes like if it hasn't been shipped halfway around the world ;-). 
To top it all off, the older woman who runs the bar up here and already let me stick my hand in her freezer to select my ice cream flavour yesterday, comes up and with fingers in the air says "You here one night or two night?" to which I have to reply "One night only, I  go Ho Chi Minh City".   "Ho  Chi Minh then you come back?"

I wish !!!!

Rodent Roadkill

holy COW!
It is this moment that I realize where I am going to from HCMC and that the coming days are going to be very dangerous days, on which I should stay away from travel websites ;-)
I have nothing big on today's agenda before my flight at 16:35 this afternoon.  Exchange my high-quality watch and (I hesitate to say or type it) buy a small suitcase.  My backpacks had already reached their maximum capacity before my return trip to the 'souvenir' shop at The Killing Fields yesterday. I bought some nice stuff for Grandma there, but I'll only reveal what it is after I pass Canada Customs ;-) (After passing Canada Customs: They look like old oil lamps, but are actually Opium-smoking devices, LOL)  PLUS, I'm picking up more stuff in Da Nang. I NEED more luggage capacity.

I head back to the central market in the fancy building. On the way to the watch store, I check out the mini-suitcase prices in a few stalls. $38 and with discount $28 or even 25..  $39 and with discount $33..  Finally I hear someone say $28 and when I tilt my head in a waiting gesture, the says $23. All these  prices are for exactly the same suitcase.  I walk another loop and mention the $23 and all of a sudden everyone is ready to match it.  I head back to the guy who mentioned $23 first, just because he didn't try to rip me off as much as the other vendors. NEVER forget to reward honesty or modesty !!!!

The watch vendor raises  his eyebrows skyhigh when I hand him "your HIGH-QUALITY watch", but without much fuss he pulls an identical one from a drawer, sets the time,  and hands it to me.

GOOD KARMA seems to be everywhere this morning. Walking back to my hotel with a suitcase in my hand I get more Tuk-Tuk calls than Pamela Anderson would get cat-calls walking around here topless. Instead of  ignoring them, just shaking my head in silence, or just saying No, thank you,  I put on a show of balancing the empty suitcase on one finger each time, to show them that their service is REALLY not needed.  Nine out of 10 times I get a HUGE smile in return.   

The reasons why I don't want to leave here are manifold !!!!

The Tuk-Tuk driver who has asked me at least 5 times whether I needed a ride during the first 2 days I came here, but now just nods at me when I pass, is parked right in front of my hotel today. I  hope  he is still there  in 4 hours when it will be time to head to the airport, IF I have my Visa Approval  Letter by then.

Heading to the silver stores street behind the hotel is also a fruitful trip. Nice presents will be presented ;-)

NEW bracelet on OLD arm

By 12:19 pm I'm packed and I'm getting VERY ANTSY. Still no letter from the Vietnamese Visa People. PLEASE don't let the Vietnamese Visa Demon strike a FOURTH TIME !!!!! 

OLD meets NEW. Guess which one I prefer !

Ordering a glass of white in the roof-top bar fails to take the edge off as the minutes and seconds to the promised Visa delivery time pass.  12:25 pm. Nothing....
That would be the money for 1 flight and 2 hotel rooms down the drain.
Come on, you stoopid letter.
12:27 pm. I see the waiter looking through the liquor cabinet. Shouldn't the wine be in the fridge? He comes to me and says he can't find the wine. I walk with him towards the counter by another fridge and I spy an opened bottle of Rose in there (not even on their menu). I point at it and say "a glass of this one please".  
12:29 No letter, but I have a glass of Rose and delicious Cambodian peanuts.
12:30  Big gulps of wine and big breath of air. NO LETTER


12:32 NOTHING.  OK, time to look at contingency  plans.  If all else fails I can stay in Cambodia and fly to Hanoi on the 19th to catch my connecting flight to Seoul WITHOUT leaving the airport. Not pretty but possible.  I can send money to the hotel in Da Nang and ask them to mail my stuff to Vancouver.  
12:36 No e-mail. I'm already having fun planning the speed boat trip back to Siem Reap and the flight from there to Ha Noi on the 19th.

12:39 My cell phone emits a noise. An e-mail.  I HAVE THE APPROVAL LETTER !!!!

I head back to yesterday's hotel because they know how to use their printer and a computer and have the approval letter printed.  The cute receptionist  demands $5 'because it is policy'.  Sure, honey!  But I have seen him scrub the floors while his pot-bellied boss was watching CNN from the comfy couch. I've seen him spend the nights sleeping on the same couch. I tell him with a wink that since his boss isn't here right now "I was never here".  I hope he gets it.   Again the question "Are you coming back Cambodia?" and "I wish to see you again, Sir".  No, I'm NOT flattering myself here; poverty makes people act differently. And this is someone who has a stable position, think of the ones who don't!

As if I had something written on my forehead, the Tuk-Tuk driver asks me again today for the first time in days.  I say "$8 at 2 o-clock sharp to the airport" and he nods his agreement.

OMG, that's less than one hour from now and I'm actually  going to Sai Gon !!!!!

Just like the girl on the day on  the boat, when we docked kept  kept repeating the name "Phnom Penh", I pace around my room saying out loud "I'm going to Sai Gon. I'm actually going to SAI GON !!!!"   

For some reason the family room with a roof terrace was one of the very cheapest hotels available in Ho Chi Minh City and maybe you can guess, what I'll be shouting over the roof tops tomorrow morning.  Think Robin Williams ;-)

13:40. 20 minutes to go until the Tuk-Tuk takes me to the airport.  And I'm actually  going to get on that plane.... most likely..... probably....WHO CARES, I'll find out ;-)

and I was proud of having transported a vacuum cleaner on a bicycle. No contest !

Traffic to the airport is even worse than normal and after watching quite a bit of wiggling vehicles I see the reason why:  2 people are trying to rip open the street with an ELECTRICAL Jackhammer.  True, it’s very quiet but it doesn’t get the job done ;-)

My approval letter does the job of procuring/getting me a boarding pass. Live and Learn ;-)

I actually enjoy Security.  No one mentions my 150 ml metal can of Nivea Cream. True, there are only dregs of crème left in it, but they are travelling in a container of a SIZE IN EXCESS of 100 ml.  Hats off to common sense.

I buy some baked thingy at airport prices, but by Jove, the fruit in Philo pastry thing tastes like they did when I was 10 years old.  Hard to find stuff like that anymore ;-)

YES, I have a boarding pass. Right behind me in line were 10 young guys in their early 20s with HUGE suitcases.  Judging by the long pants and jackets they are most likely Cambodians (Even though my Tuk-Tuk driver complained about the heat). One of those kids gets the window seat right next to me.  During the safety demo he seems nervous and starts fiddling with the safety card. When we take off he has his eyes closed and when the sun comes through his window he cranes his neck  waaay backward to get it out of the intense sunlight. At this point I can't take it anymore. I motion for him to pull the blind down and indicate that it doesn't matter to me.  He says "Thank You, me first time". Oh great, a plane virgin. 
I say "Everything is going to be O.K. the plane from Phnom Penh to HCMC is safer than crossing street in Phnom Penh". Head nodding.  "you help me " I guess I didn't convince him that we're NOT going to crash. I suggest he put his big backpack into the  empty overhead bin instead of clutching it for the whole flight,  I help him to lower  his table tray when they bring the water (tricky locks if you've never seen one) and clandestinely put my copy of the flight magazine into his seat pouch (He  keeps studying the safety card and I had stolen the empty seat's pristine flight magazine for Grandma). This at least seems to distract him from Death by Crash Landing.

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