Cambodian utopia and/or dystopia

Before we said goodbye to our car, we took one last joy ride, down to Si Phan Don, the 4,000 islands on the Mekong in the far south of Cambodia. There are three islands that are slightly larger and thus have some tourist infrastructure. They come in three flavours: most party, middle party, and no party. Of course, we went for the no party island (Don Khong) because we are old people and we hate fun.

As our friend Jenny would say: This is shit, no?
As our friend Jenny would say: This is shit, no?

Unfortunately, upon reaching said tranquil and peaceful island (accompanied by our friend Jocelyn, by the way) we were confronted by a Festival. People everywhere, laughing, playing carnival games, buying sizzling fish from street stalls that lined the whole island town. Too many joyful tourists to even find a free guesthouse within 500 metres of the river. Colourful, exciting longboat races on the Mekong. Terrible.

MUCH better.
MUCH better.

This would have been lovely if we had been expecting the thumping music and thronging crowds. However, we had been expecting a very quiet island away from everything. There’s a reason that my wise husband believes in not having expectations, you know. So, we were quite pleased when we arrived on the middle-amount-of-party island, Don Khon, and found it quiet and peaceful. Just a few bungalows, a dozen restaurants, a waterfall, and a couple little bicycle paths crisscrossing the island. We took advantage of these activities slowly.

But, what did you do with your THINGS, Felice and Luke?

The sorting begins
The sorting begins

After our 4 nights in paradise, it came time to say goodbye to our little car. We drove back up to Paksong, in the Bolaven Plateau, where Jhai is. We promptly moved every one of our possessions onto Jhai’s front porch, and commenced sorting into piles. Give to Jhai, throw away, bring backpacking, and send home. The plan, which we have since executed, was to cart a bunch of our stuff – 4 large duffel bags, plus our two backpacking bags- to Phnom Penh. From there, an excess baggage company will put our bags on a Sydney-bound flight when there is space, before we arrive. This allowed us to keep a lot of our stuff, but not carry it all with us on busses throughout Southeast Asia.

And here are the chickens enjoying the sunny day!
We had a grand time during our second evening staying at the Jhai Coffee House (the first having been the day we met the Jhai folks). Before leaving, we gave Tyson and Wok a long, long lecture on the peculiarities of the car and assorted freebie accessories. Luke even gave a hands-on demonstration of the four wheel drive. Apparently our separation anxiety was obvious to Tyson, because he has been sending us pictures of our car ever since. Car at a school, car getting washed, car with hygiene program equipment inside. I told Tyson it’s like the petsitter is sending us pictures of our dog while we’re on vacation (or our chickens, which has happened in real life). We appreciate it.

I actually cried when Tyson drove our car off into the night. Who would have thought I could be so attached to a car? Luke even choked up a bit.

Adjusting from wheels to feet
It has been a steep learning curve, leaving the much more convenient, and stylish, world of vehicle travel. We’re just your average grubby SE Asia backpackers, now. Nobody stops to look at us in wonder or curiosity, anymore. Nobody tells us we’re cool. So much for that false source of self esteem.

Also add: the same two Chinese pop songs, high volume, speaker 5 cm from Luke's ear.
Also add: the same two Chinese pop songs, high volume, speaker 5 cm from Luke’s ear.

But mostly, we didn’t know how to take a bus. We did a bad thing and just went to a travel agency to book a bus from southern Laos to Phnom Penh. It would have been a 6 hour drive, maybe, with ample pee breaks. Well, our “VIP” bus ended up being two big busses, 5 minivans, a tuk tuk, 1 kilometre walking across the border, and 15 hours. One minibus, which we spent 4 hours riding, squeezed 20 people, all luggage, and a full motorcycle INSIDE of the van. It was an 11-seater.

We’ve since learned to book a bus with a specific company, rather than travel agencies. Although more comfortable, these busses do not allow us the opportunity to share cardboardy fake Pringles with Cambodians squeezed in next to us, at 11pm, while careening dangerously down a bumpy dirt road. But I suppose that’s an experience a body only needs once.

Another fun part of our “bus” trip
Bribery is one of those things: the way we feel about depends vastly on our mood. If we’re having an easy day, and everything is just lovely, we’ll pay a bribe without a thought. But, if we’re feeling persnickety, we will chuck a stink about it. As you can imagine, our epic “bus” journey caused high levels of persnicketiness in us. Not good when crossing a Southeast Asian border, in this case from Laos to Cambodia.

The first “fee” was leveed by the bus company at the exit from Laos. Not so much a bribe as a scam, I had read about this particular situation online. The bus driver gets everyone’s passports and photos, takes a chunk of cash, and brings it to the border guards for exit stamps. However, the border guards are three feet away and there are no lines. We just walked up to them instead, causing irate shouts from the bus driver. The French guys we inspired to leave the bus driver got even worse verbal abuse. (Totally culturally scorned in Laos, by the way.)

But at the window, the border guards asked for a two dollar “fee.” No big deal, so we said, “Sure, we would like a receipt, please.” As far as we know, this is universal code for, “I’m not paying your bribe.” They said no, we said no. They handed our passports back – “no fee, no stamp, don’t leave Laos.” We persisted a while, and finally gave in, annoyed. Annoyed at their obvious collusion with the bus company, and with a new Lao government in charge who is super serious about corruption. Just not here.

Well, we were pretty touchy by the time we got to the entrance to Cambodia, after paying another “fee” for a “health check.” (Not a thing.) When we reached the Cambodian border guard, we gave him the requested $2 (he put it in a briefcase on his desk). He, of course, refused to give a receipt. So we, obviously, wrote down his badge number. Talk about a power move. He got really angry, leant over his desk, and snatched our passports back. There were heated words and stares from all around. Finally, he gave back our passports in exchange for the piece of paper with his badge number. (We plan to email a contact we have in the nearest Cambodian consulate to the border.) But I am human and I have a memory. It’s badge number 05756.

Better things about Cambodia
Phnom Penh was a joy. We loved it. We found “our” part of town randomly, by sharing a tuk tuk with a French girl who had done the “bus” journey with us. (We were nervous to have her take the ride to her pre-booked hotel in the middle of the night on her own). We found a cheap hotel and got some midnight street food. Upon our morning explorations, we found that this quarter of the city was very local, but the upper end of Cambodian socioeconomic status. We began to frequent a big, shiny coffee shop (“Artease”) filled with young architecture and design students, typing on their laptops and studying together. They drank trendy-looking pre-packaged “jelly coffee”, by the way. Your guess is as good as mine.

Tuk tuk logic: enter an intersection when traffic is moving in both perpendicular directions
Tuk tuk logic: enter an intersection when traffic is moving in both perpendicular directions

We eventually branched out to other fancy coffee shops, and I tried out a couple of the westerner-filled yoga studios. We also found – wait for it – a sushi AND hot pot BUFFET. We did also take some walks, and a million tuk tuk rides. Riding in the open air tuk tuks made us very pleased to not have our car for once. Not only are the rides delightful, but the unwritten rules of the traffic are the most befuddling we’ve seen. Like in Ulaanbaatar, traffic lights in Phnom Penh are purely decorative.

Christmas tree, Lexus, Hamburgers
Christmas tree, Lexus, Hamburgers

We love the cacophonous character of Phnom Penh, even if parts are terribly distressing. It’s a haven for Western expats, with Krispy Kreme, Burger King, Western hospitals, and international schools, Christmas decorations gracing all of it. Theres a nightly Khmer dance performance at the national museum (loved it), and western standard massage places. But there are also very dodgy massage parlours, street side tuk tuk fabricators, roaming street food vendors, chaotic traffic, and begging kids. There are lots of old white men accompanied by tiny, younger Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) women. There’s a park where young people gather each night to do enormous coordinated dances to hip hop and dubstep music. They’re the generation that didn’t see the Khmer Rouge, and who confuse their elders with their partying and trendy ways. Our fellow millenialls, with a very different context in this war torn country.

Worse things about Cambodia 

The Khmer Rouge past can, shamefully, be forgotten in the bustle of Phnom Penh. We are therefore very thankful that the Cambodians have memorialised the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, just outside of the city. In brief, this Killing Field, one of hundreds in Cambodia, was a place of genocide during the Khmer Rouge reign in 1975-79. People were transported here to be murdered and disposed of after enduring torture in the school-turned-prison, Tuol Sleng, in the city. 30,000 adults and children were killed at this one location. I’m not going to give the grisly details here, but the things we learned here are absolutely the most disturbing things we’ve learned about on this trip. I don’t have words to adequately describe the horrors the Khmer Rouge perpetrated in their demented quest for a complete revolution. The death toll of one quarter of the country – between 1-3 million, depending on the estimator – doesn’t even begin to cover what really happened.

We didn’t take photos of the monument. It’s a big white and glass stupa, filled with the skulls and larger bones of victims. The burial pits haven’t been completely excavated, and things come to the surface after rain. I saw a plaid collared shirt and 3 teeth just visible above the soil. The caretakers pick up these types of resurfaced remains every three months. There’s an audio guide that has recordings of people who survived the Khmer Rouge, but no one from this Killing Field, because no one survived.

Perhaps I’ll get to write a blog in Southeast Asia in which I DON’T have to describe unspeakable horrors. Not today.

Abruptly into Christmas

Of course, Christmas has come and gone since our last post. We spent the holiday here on the beach in Sihanoukville, in southern Cambodia. We joined a merry band of overlanders down here, including the French family and the German family from our China trip, and two Swiss couples who have also driven here from Europe. Everyone is trying to find a way to get into Thailand with the annoying new paperwork regulations, a problem we no longer have. We appreciate their being stuck, as it cut our holiday loneliness off at the pass.

Christmas dinner
Christmas dinner

The Swiss folks offered to make Christmas dinner for us (taken on Christmas Eve in their culture). We set up tables and chairs on the beach that we’ve been spending our days on, and ate enough to feel sick, so at least that was like home.

The beach, Otres, is a very relaxed place, used by both locals and westerners. The two groups do use different parts of the beach, mostly. Our friends are camped in the local area. While we were hanging out there one day, some picnicking locals next to us brought us a plate of their lunch, which was very kind of them. It was whole, tiny bbq baby chicks. Later, a white fellow rode his bike past us on the beach, shouting “Merry Christmas!” and throwing both hands up in peace signs as he wove through the waves. It’s a funny place, Otres.

Three Cambodian boys, maybe around 8 years old, came to hang out with us while we ate Christmas dinner. They were very smart little guys. We bade them to sit and gave them some Swiss food – they were clearly not into the taste, but politely ate half. Perhaps they would have preferred baby chicken. They left us for about an hour, returning to us sky high from sniffing glue.

There are also many, many jellyfish on this beach. They are beautiful colours. They are so thick at night that it would be simply foolhardy to try to swim.

img_0015Also probably foolhardy, but we did it anyway – taking a boat to a rock and jumping off of it into the ocean. It was about 7 meters up, and it was very fun. We also got to do some only-ok snorkelling. It was, as mentioned, only-ok, but we did see some spiky black sea urchins.

We’re going to hitch a ride with our German friends, Arne and Jenny, and enjoy the freedom of the road in Cambodia with them a bit. We think we’ll enter Vietnam in a week or two. But for now, we’re going to watch the sunset over the beach from the same chair we’ve been sitting in all day, getting a pizza every few hours. It’s not a bad life.

Si Phan Don

Phnom Penh

Otres Beach

One thought on “Cambodian utopia and/or dystopia”

  1. What a pleasant surprise this morning to see your blog, everyone has gone home, so it’s just Bella and me to clean house and do laundry. We had a great Christmas, so much fun having those beautiful little kids here but I am looking forward to time that you both will be here for Christmas. Your pictures are always so fun to see and you both look so good. And your blog is always so interesting, what an adventure!! Love you and keep having fun.


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