Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Running Amok

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Yay! After groaning through much of the last week, we have something exciting to look forward to: a new country, the Kingdom of Cambodia! Our bus leaves at 0830, so we get up at 0730 for some quick breakfast. There’s also one administrative detail to attend to: the guy who rented the motorbike to us is asking 200 000 VND (10 USD) for repairs to the left side, which was a bit scuffed up during our spill.

The bus itself is this Japanese export, as evidenced by the various labels on buttons and knobs. It’s relatively clean, onboard toilet, seats a touch hard to sit on after all that bouncing around on the motorbike. Getting out of Saigon is slow going, made worse by the fact that this is day two of the Vietnamese university entrance exams. You can see hordes of youth at the examination centres, some beaming with pride while others fight back tears from the early morning session. They clog the streets on motorbikes, each with tiny knapsacks, maybe a notebook or two stuffed into the space between knees and front wheel column. We gradually get into the outskirts of the city. Valkyrie and I discuss plans for Expedition; the hours pass, and soon enough we’re at the Bavet crossing into Cambodia.

Here we get off the bus, go inside, have the Vietnamese border guards inspect our visas and stamp us out, walk back outside, grab our packs, go through the Vietnamese metal detectors because they forgot to staff them earlier, haul our packs over to the Cambodian border station, step inside, hand over our passports and immigration cards to receive Cambodian visas, put our stuff back on the bus, and head down the road a slight bit for lunch.

First impressions of Cambodia: the main roads are newer than in Vietnam, and consequently still of reasonably good quality; there’s a LOT of development in the border area, much of it casinos and hotels; similar to Vietnam, the countryside and small towns lack much in the way of infrastructure; they do indeed use USD as the main currency, with Cambodian rials used only for small purchases; food seems like halfway between Thai and Vietnamese, with a greater range of curries and slightly different spices/herbs. Of course, all of this is based on cursory inspection from the main route, and maybe won’t hold up to further exploration.

As we get into the city, more surprises: there are indeed a lot of newly paved roads. Traffic is less chaotic than in Saigon, with a much higher car-to-motorbike ratio, and petrol is slightly more expensive. Phnom Penh is on average (at least near the city center!) cleaner and more modernized than Saigon, owing perhaps to both a massive influx of tourist money and a rapidly modernizing economy supported partially by investment on newly discovered oil fields in national waters.

We get off at one of the downtown markets, and immediately have to fight through a crowd of tuk-tuk drivers to get our bags. The cry of “Hello? Sir? You want tuk-tuk?” soon becomes a familiar sound. (If you’re not familiar with this: a tuk-tuk is a motorbike taxi that tows a seating area, usually covered, in rear. There is no meter or agreed-upon rate, and so every transaction is an adventure: you have to negotiate with your driver as to route and price.) We decline, since we and Google Maps both have the sneaking suspicion that accommodation can be found without much walking, and fortunately Valkyrie’s knee is mending quickly enough that she feels up to hoofing it.

There are still glimpses of French influence to be caught: our first food in Phnom Penh is actually ice cream from a parlor run by a French expat. I order a scoop of soursop, while Valkyrie opts for a banana-chocolate crepe. We have an ulterior motive: the ice cream shop has wifi, which enables us to look up reviews of hostels, hotels, and guesthouses in the area. It also turns out to be extremely good timing on our part, for we duck inside just as it starts pouring.

Half an hour later, after walking past the Central Market and over towards the river, we’re checked into the first windowless room we’ve stayed in, not counting our one night in a capsule hotel back on our trip to Japan. It’s clean enough, though, and reasonably close to the main downtown attractions. With accommodation taken care of, we’re feeling a bit peckish, so we decide to head out on another walk: this time, we’re headed for the cluster of restaurants on 278 Street, where we hope to find some decent amok. On our way, we pass a beautiful temple complex, the imposing outer wall of the Royal Palace grounds, Wat Botum park, something that looks suspiciously like a Cambodian rendition of the Arc de Triomphe, and a few touristy joints before settling on Tom Yum Kung Thai Restaurant. The amok, little pouches of steamed fish in curry sauce, is delicious; we accompany it with a tasty pumpkin stew and a mango salad, and wash the whole lot down with fresh coconut juice from whole coconuts. Yum!

After that, we amble back to the hostel, ready to collapse into bed. Tomorrow we plan to walk around and see some of the local sights; despite the heat and constant barrage of tuk-tuk drivers, the city seems pretty walkable. How true is that? I guess we’ll find out!