Phnom Penh, Cambodia: "Serious Police, Serious Mud, Serious Sights"

Phnom Penh

Cambodia

July 1, 2002

Dear Family and Friends,

The rain is incessant so Jeff and I decide to skip the beach at Ko Chang and go directly to the Cambodian border. I misplaced my passport photos so the border guards ripped me off for a couple of extra dollars for the visa. We spent the night in Koh Kong - a dusty and unappetizing place. Actually the hotel was comfortable and had a lovely garden.

The next day, Jeff and I had a disagreement. He was in a hurry to get to Phnom Penh. I wanted to travel slowly to Sihanoukville. So we compromised. He went his way. I mine.

Now, here's an adventure to remember:

I made a reservation on a mini-bus that was due to pick me up at 8:30. It arrived on time at 9:15. After fifteen minutes on a rutted dirt road we were stopped by the police and abruptly sent back to town to the police station.

We (nine of us, yours truly being the senior member of this particular group) waited there for no apparent reason. (No apparent reason? Don’t be so naïve, Jan.) We watched the pouring rain and eyed a variety of uniformed guys carrying a variety of menacing looking weapons.

At 11:30 the driver announced, “300 Baht each” ($7.50). So we collected the money, paid off the police and left. Four of the young passengers decided that Cambodia was not for them. I almost went with them. But I continued with the others and we were off over the mountains and through the jungles. At any moment I expected to be ambushed by bandit remnants of the Khmer Rouge.

Well it was quite a six-hour drive. We crossed four rivers on "ferries" that were nothing more than planks lashed together and propelled by two outboard motors. We had lunch in a hut near one of the crossings.

Now here is the best. As we approached one steep hill we saw that a mini-van ahead of us was stuck in the mud about 20 meters from the top. So our driver backed up and tried to gain momentum to get us up and over the hill. No luck. Stuck in the mud. What to do?

First the passengers from the other van and our group managed to push our bus over the hill. Then we all did the same for our new friends. We were all covered with mud so we washed off in a nearby stream. We felt very proud of ourselves. Not too shabby for a man of my age! What? By the way, when we arrived in Sihanoukville, the driver refunded the "toll" money we gave to the police.

The next few days were boring by comparison (thank you Buddha). Surrounded by hordes of young girls selling potato chips and bananas, I managed a good rest on the beach; I watched a couple of World Cup matches; I enjoyed a tasty sunset dinner at Chez Claude on a hilltop overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. Finally, a comfortable bus ride to Phnom Penh on a smooth road built by the American Army, you know when.

The first question I asked myself when I arrived in Phnom Penh was, "When do I leave?" Then I found my hotel. As Martha exclaimed in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, "What a dump." But you know what? It grows on you. (When I left I was already looking forward to returning.)

I visited several colorful wats and the majestic Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. I wandered around the central market where I bought a few CD’s. One of them was a recording of Cambodian drums.

I asked the bartender at my hotel to play the disk. The thumping, rhythmic music rolled out to the street. In a flash, a few puzzled guys appeared. “Who died?” they asked apprehensively. How could I know we were listening to traditional Cambodian funeral drum music? OK. Drinks on me.

Thirty five clicks south of Phnom Penh is a beautiful Eleventh Century temple city. The catch is that Phnom Chisor is on the top of a rather steep hill - only 420 steps to the top – “a very uncomfortable climb in the mid-day sun.” Cake. A spectacular view of the far plains below.

"On the plain to the east are the sanctuaries of Sen Thmol and Sen Ravang and the former sacred pond of Tonle Om. All three of these features form a straight line in the direction of Angkor" - my next adventure. This visit was a good preview.

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