There were very few details about the logistics of the border crossing except that we would be leaving our comfortable boat and getting a different one to Phnom Penh. We pulled to shore and waited for 20 minutes for the guide to come get us for immigration control. Slightly upriver was a small house with two red and white gates and a Vietnamese flag flying above and then about 50 yards past that was another house with a Cambodian flag - the border. Other than that is was unremarkable. Not surprisingly, there were no big signs saying, “Welcome to Cambodia, Have a very Khmer Day.”
To leave the Vietnam we had to put our luggage through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector. Hundreds of boats seemed to go up and down the river across the border without stopping and we were getting our luggage x-rayed. I don’t think it really mattered whether or not we were smuggling guns or drugs because the soldier manning the machine looked like he was asleep.
With that done, we walked a couple of hundred yards thru the gates and past the immigration control hut to get our passports stamped. Then it was onto our new boat for a 2 km ride to Cambodian customs. My first impressions of Cambodia were positive. The soldiers had much snazzier uniforms and the landscaping at the immigration house was much nicer. After getting our entry stamps we re-boarded the boat, which wasn’t as nice, and started upriver.
Whereas the other boat had an expansive upper deck with lounge chairs and awnings, this one had 3 floor mats on the roof and a tarp about 6x8 feet strung up for shade/rain protection. The ride upriver lasted about 3 hours. I was surprised that there were big differences between the river banks in Vietnam and Cambodia. In Vietnam, the river banks were crowded with villages and full of activity. In contrast, there were few villages, houses or even people along the riverbanks of Cambodia. The land was cultivated but not to the extent that the land in Vietnam was used.
The rainy season had commenced with my arrival in Saigon a week and a half earlier and the skies, which had threatened most of the way upriver, finally opened up about 10 minutes prior to docking. Just in time to turn the path up to the house where we were to catch our bus for the remaining 1 hr drive to Phnom Penh into a muddy slip-n-slide. After a 30 minute wait, we were put into a car and minivan and not the bus we were told to expect for the 1 hr drive to town. On the surface cars and minivans might seem better than buses; in reality, they are usually much worse since there is less leg room and almost always no suspension in the cars. I was wedged into the front seat and I think my knee impressions are still on the glove compartment.
Phnom Penh is a bigger city than expected and in some ways more Western than Hanoi or Saigon. The town was full of traffic and it felt much more free-wheeling than Vietnam. More like a wild, west town, where anything is possible. It seemed that PP had many more cars and SUVs on the road than in Vietnam. Nicer ones too. The group was down to 4 people plus me. We ended up staying at the King Guesthouse. A thoroughly mediocre place that was at least cheap. The currency in Cambodia was the riel, but US dollars are a readily accepted and prices are usually quoted in dollars. Menus will have things listed in dollars. It always takes a couple of days to get a feel for the new currency and everything being listed in dollars didn’t help much.
Kevin (a Scot), Kristen & Chris (an American couple who had been working in Antarctica) and I headed out for dinner. The guy at the guesthouse said Street 51 was the place with all the good bars and restaurants. Most of the streets in town had numbers for names. It was night and drizzling as we walked around gathering our first real impressions of the city. First off, the city was darker with fewer streetlights. Shops closed earlier and it felt more desolated, like a bad neighborhood where the streets are empty and evil lurks around each corner. At some point we started walking in the street because the there were missing manhole covers in the sidewalk that were hard to seen in the dark. That would be a nice welcome to the city, strolling along and fall 8 feet into a sewer. I’d rather take my chances with traffic.
It turns out that Street 51 is the home of one of the Red Light districts in PP and there wasn’t anyplace to go where the menu didn’t walk up and sit on your lap. After a long walk to another neighborhood, we ended up at a big outdoor restaurant that specialized in BBQ. Since the menu wasn’t completely translated we placed our order and tried to specify the items we wanted to grill: beef, tongue, shrimp, and clams. We avoided the liver and heart. The only easy part of the meal was ordering beer. Each of the brands had a local girl/waitress in a cheerleader costume emblazoned with logos: Tiger, San Miguel, Heineken, etc. About 30 seconds after sitting down, 8 beer girls surrounded our table begging for us to order their beer. The meal was fine, and somewhat surprisingly, nobody got sick later.
The next day, for 3 dollars per person, we did a day-tour of town which included the Royal Palace, a shooting range, the Killing Fields and S-21 (the site of a Khmer Rouge torture facility). Supposedly you can buy a cow and blow it up with a bazooka at the shooting range. We figured a cow would be too much money, but we were hoping to waste a couple of chickens with M-16s. When we got there, it was much more restricted and expensive than we thought. It cost one dollar a bullet with a $30 minimum and NO livestock or bazookas! We couldn’t even take pictures holding the guns. Bummer. In the end, we put a bunch of holes in targets with an AK-47 and an M-16.
We then visited the Killing Fields and S-21. S-21 was a school that the Khmer Rouge used to torture over 15,000 Cambodians before they were taken to the Killing Fields where they were killed and buried in mass graves. Only 7 people survived a stay at S-21 during the years it was operating. On display are thousands of haunting portraits of the victims prior to being tortured and killed. For me, what was so disturbing about it was being in the actual rooms and buildings where it occurred, in some rooms is the furniture and photographs of the last victims as they were found by the liberating Vietnamese Army.
Later that afternoon, I walked around PP and decided that I really didn’t like it that much. It felt dark and unsettling. And even though I was probably perfectly safe, whenever I was alone I felt like I was being sized up as I was wandering around the streets. The next morning I arranged for my airplane ticket to Siam Reap and went shopping for tourist crap with Kevin, Chris and Kristen. For dinner, we opted for a place near the guesthouse that was crowded with locals. Hot pots, steaming bowls of soups with meat and veggies added, were the specialty. We ordered beers from the swarming beer girls and the staff clued us in about the proper order to cook the ingredients. This was helpful since there were about 10 different plates scattered on our table.
Our neighbors at the next table were very friendly and offered us some of what they were eating. As we looked at the dish, he made the motion for a long, skinny animal that wriggled as it moved. Possibly snake? He got a piece out to give to me and, yep, it looked like snake. I initially declined but Chris and Kristen tried it and said it was good. He gave Kevin and I another piece and it was actually pretty good. After some discussion, we came to the conclusion that it might have been eel, instead of snake. They topped off my glass with more beer; we took pictures of everyone and toasted the snake/eel feast.
Once again, I had elected to avoid what promised to be a crappy bus ride and had bought a plane ticket to Siam Reap. The next morning I woke up early and was at the airport an hour before my 6:45 am flight.
Photos of this part of the trip are in the album called Upriver to Cambodia. Angkor Wat will publish in a couple of days or less.