Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Entering the Kingdom of Cambodia

A lot of travelers get into a macho mindset where if you do anything touristy or comfortable you're looked at with disdain.

"You slept in a 3-star hotel? Well, I once slept on the back of a rabid water buffalo, during monsoon season, in the Hepatitis River."

Öh, yeah? I've been reusing the same tampon for 6 months."

Öh, yeah? I once fought a rat for half a can of cat food."

Please slap me if I act this way when I get back. After staying one night in a hotel that had a large rat running around in the lobby, I have re-evaluated my needs for comfort. I can suffer if I need to, but I'll opt out if I can.


When crossing the border into Cambodia, you can be subjected to a couple of scams. The most common: You attempt to buy your visa at the border, where there is a sign that prominently says that a visa is $20. Then the guard demands $35. My group didn't have any problems, but we also paid $22 to have our visas purchased for us. Also, worth noting: The country is prone to a little hyperbole: The visa says "Kingdom of Cambodia."

Along the Mekong River heading towards Phnom Penh, you notice that Cambodia is a lot less developed. More farms, fewer houses on the river, more cattle. In Vietnam, when we passed people who were on the shore, they usually waved. The first Cambodians we passed did nothing when we waved; they looked at us like they'd be just as happy seeing us roasting over a spit.

The roads into Phnom Penh were also a lot less developed. The last leg of our 3-day trip included a 1-hour bus ride. We were all jammed into a minivan that looked like if it went another mile it would come to a wheezing halt and collapse in a rusty heap. Combine the van with roads that were often unpaved and you had some rough riding.

Phnom Penh: A Man-Eat-Dog Town?

After reading the guide books and another book called something like the most dangerous place to vacation, it is tempting to bypass Cambodia. Big mistake. This has been the best part of my trip. Here's why:

- Phnom Penh (PP) is smaller and more manageable than Saigon (13 million people versus about 4 million)
- PP has better traffic control: there are more traffic lights and people obey them. (Like Saigon, few people wear helmets)
- It has all of the same wild offerings and then some. I went into a bar with a guy I met here and he bought a joint. They are sold over the counter. Dance clubs are great, all ages, races, sexual orientations (saw girley boy dancing up a storm the other night.)
- People seem less out to rip you off. Tuk-Tuk drivers and motobike drivers generally give a fair price. I have not been short-changed (to my knowledge) in stores.
- Street peddlers can still be annoying but you can disarm with a smile and a nod. If they are persistent, I either start talking to them in French or ask them if they want to meet an ugly American girl "only $2."

Drawbacks to PP:
- Few natives speak much English and street numbers don't mean anything to local drivers who speak Cambodian, also known as Khmer. My first night, I went to an outdoor restaurant. The diners were mainly locals, so I figured the food would be good. But I had a hell of a time trying to order. There was no English menu. The waiter first brought me some chicken wings, then a plate of cucumbers. Still, my problems led to my meeting another North American guy and his Cambodian girlfriend. We've since become fast friends.