Sunday, 14 April 2013

... Indochina: The Wheels On The Bus

Thankfully my A-type-ness had me up early and ready long before it was time to catch the Sapaco International bus for a 7 hour ride to Cambodia and Phnom Penh. This was a good thing specifically because the driver arrived (and swiftly left) early. This was a man seemingly on a mission!

Thankfully the theory of driving on the right side of the road in Vietnam actually held true here. Well for most part. Ok, at least he didn't take his greyhound-like bus onto the sidewalk. Size certainly matters here, the horn is played like it is part of a rip-roaring orchestral piece and small vehicles get out of the way of big ones. And if they're cocky and don't/won't the larger vehicle you're on gives a literal "meh" and drives into oncoming traffic instead. Weeeeeeeeeeeeee! I was on that bus for over 7 hours.......

The bus was surprisingly empty and so I had an entire row of seats to myself. Sounds grand doesn't it? No. It was your bog-standard 2 seats in a rather odd plastic-type material and one seat was raised higher than the other for reasons unknown. It would've been an interesting ride wearing a pair of shorts I'm sure, given the heat. They played Skyfall on the TV which was entertaining purely for the broken and disjointed subtitles. I bloody love Bond me, but this was a whole new take on one of my favourite movies from last year. When I wasn't watching TV I managed to read whilst listening to some ABBA (don't judge!) or twist myself into a sleeping position that a devout yogi would be proud of, without making the seats (!) make farting noises.

It took about 3 hours, give or take, to reach the Cambodia border at Bavet/Moc Bai. The immigration process was quicker than most security line ups I've ever done at an airport. Things were probably quieter at the border too because Khmer New Year started today. For most nationalities a one month tourist visa for Cambodia costs US$20. However, Cambodia's infamous scam action starts right at the border with visa overcharging. I am not sure how I felt about this level of corruption, I mean here I was being asked to slip an extra $5, less than the price of a fancy Starbucks drink, into my passport along with the original $20. Hardly worth complaining about really. Plus the bus assistant filled in all my forms along with everyone else's, disappeared and 5 minutes later was back with a stack of passports filled with Cambodian visas. I mean it's no different to the extra charge you're slapped with when you want a rush on your passport from your own government or a visa from an embassy/consulate. Right? "Administrative fees". Would I be naïve in thinking that because many of these people earn less in a year than what most of us earn in a month, the extra $ is kind of a good cause? Hmmmm. In any case it's certainly not the first border crossing I've ever made where this has happened and undoubtedly not the last.

Allegedly the bus driver's mood will dictate whether or not you stop for a break. Mine must've needed some extra energy for his lead foot on his accelerator pedal because we stopped about 5 minutes after crossing into Cambodia. I bought a bread roll to have with my Vietnamese bananas, which nobody had cared about at the border, for 50 cents paid in USD. I was give a stack of paper which is apparently Cambodian Riel. Whilst greenback is the widely accepted major currency you will get your change back in both currencies. And like Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia appears to love its zeros! You cannot get Riel, like Kip and Dong in their respective countries, outside of Cambodia so make sure you change currencies into small denomination USD. After 20 minutes we were all back on the bus again. It appears driving standards are consistent here.... With Vietnam. Fun!

I awoke to find the bus to be the last vehicle being driven onto the Neak Luong ferry, which crosses the Mekong River if you want to carry on to Phnom Penh. It took about 10 minutes, if that, and was actually a nice excuse to get off the bus and stretch my legs even if that was somewhat cut short due to the crazy heat.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city, was once the shining star of Asia. It embodies the good, the bad and the downright evil ugliness of this country's history. When independence came in November 1953 there was a period of peace and great prosperity. The city grew in size with an air of confidence for it and its country's future. However, a darkness was about to fall upon the Cambodians. It started with the Vietnam War and subsequently the formation and growth of an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement that had an alliance with the overthrown King Norodom Sihanouk. As a result this movement, the Khmer Rouge, were propelled to power by the perfect Trojan horse. What followed was a most brutal society restructuring, believed by many to even surpass the horrors inflicted by the Nazis.

But like so many of it's counterparts, Cambodia and Phnom Penh are rising like a Phoenix from its blood soaked ashes. After a shower and some Premiership football on TV, it was time to head out into the heat and jump onto a cyclo/rickshaw. Think big wheelchair attached to the front of a bicycle. All you have to do is take a seat in the wheelchair-like part and let the driver maneuver his way through the crazy traffic. It is unbelievably quick and a lot of fun! I was bouncing away and laughing much to the amusement of my driver. "Go faster!" I giggled. My driver, Mr. Yum (if I heard him correctly) was 52 years old. I'm willing to bet my last Riel that he saw the darkness fall and engulf his nation like a cancer. Yet this man had the smile and laugh not to mention the stamina of a young boy. You quickly learn that Cambodia's soul lies within her people. There is this infectious optimism despite all they've endured, and it is heart warming to see that they overcame such atrocities with a spirit that is, for most part, intact.

Wat Phnom means Hill Temple. Whilst I'd be inclined to say its setting is more of a mound, it stands atop of the only hill in the city. A place to which people swarm to pray for luck, it is highly revered by locals. It was certainly busy when I stopped by but the park area around it was full of people celebrating the Khmer New Year. Games were being played like Pig & Tiger, people were smiling, street vendors selling their fare and families were hanging out. It was cool to just stand, watch and take it all in. The trip to the top doesn't take long, it is only a 27m high "hill" after all but it affords some nice views especially of some huge bats in the trees and some monkeys. "I vant to suck your blood!" There are also captured finch-like birds in cages that you can pay to have released as this will allegedly bring you good luck. The legend surrounding this Buddhist temple is that a female named Penh had it built to house not one but four Buddha statues that she had found floating in the Mekong.

Back on the rickshaw and I was able to take in most of the sights with someone else doing most of the work. Now I'm by no means lazy but it was kind of a nice break in the heat, which was roasting even in the early evening. You get an idea of Phnom Penh's former and future glory with opulent hotels that look like they're out of a Bond movie and a myriad of new construction including what looks like a smaller version of the Skybar in Saigon, CD rack and all!

The Independence Monument, built to commemorate independence from France in 1953, is modeled on the central tower of Angkor Wat and acts as a point from which distances to the provinces are measured. At night it is lit up and looks rather stunning.

The Central Market, known as Psar Thmei, is an interesting building for its architecture. It looks like it is out of a scene from the Middle East. The market itself is huge with an enormous section just for food & produce. My nose has certainly smelt smells it has never before and some it most certainly never wants to smell again.

Along the riverfront where the Tonle Sap River meets the Mekong is the Royal Palace. In the golden hour of the day it looked absolutely stunning and not too different from the one in Bangkok. There is an entrance fee if you want to visit the grounds, buildings and a life-sized gold 90kg Buddha that is decorated with an astounding 9584 diamonds. As always dress conservatively for places such as this and any Wats.

Due to the New Year celebrations (which last for several days), quite a lot was closed. I finished my wonderful yet rustic tour of the city at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (the FCC) for a drink and some good-cause dining at Veiyo Tonle. The former is a colonial house that is now a restaurant and bar with one of those happy hours that doesn't seem to know the meaning of the number 60, not that that's a complaint. The interesting factoid about this place is that it is apparently where Pol Pot was last interviewed by the American freelance journalist Nate Thayer. The view of the two rivers was a nicer thought if I'm honest. Veiyo Tonle, on the other hand, has a little bit more of a feel good factor. Through the money this restaurant makes, the New Cambodian Children's Life Association (NCCLA) helps orphaned, underprivileged and impoverished children and youth at risk by providing them with much needed life skills and hope for the future. They get a roof over their heads, an education and the older ones get to work in the restaurant. As a result, some alumni of this program have been able to pursue tertiary education at University. What a wonderful thing. The food was fantastic too even if I did opt for a cheeseless seafood pizza as a break from noodles or rice.

A much needed feel-good factor end to the day knowing that tomorrow will be a much different story.

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