Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia | South West Cambodia | Phnom Penh – Day 16 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Yesterday started with my meeting Hadas and David in the hotel lobby in Battambang. They were supposed to leave the day before for Phnom Penh but sleepy sheepish smiles told the story.
The three of us were hip-grinded into the rather over-optimistically named ‘space cab’ behind the front seats of a pick-up truck bound for Phnom Penh along with an unfortunate small Cambodian woman. Rich capitalists, and perhaps realists, we realized there was no way we were going to survive the six hours to the Penh wedged in like fat toes in a narrow shoe. So, we three Westerners paid for the four spots in the space cab, the Cambodian woman, likely near a state of asphyxiation, jumped to the front seat (which she shared with two others) and away we went. Even so, we each still only had a few inches for adjusting feet. Meanwhile, approximately 142 people, chickens, sacks of rice and other things were stuffed into the uncovered flat-bed of the pick-up behind us and all were sticking out at uncomfortable angles. Added to our growing physical misery was the knowledge of how bad it was behind us.
On a Dollars X Discomfort index, this six-hour run was right near the top of my list. Including the ghost seat we each spent $11.50US which got us a very cramped ride on a road in which sections deserved to be rated like white water rivers: one for light bumps, up to five for heaving ‘drive-through’ canyons. Yes there were one-size-fits-all pot holes as in: they were big enough to contain all the cars, motorcycles and drying bones of those who never made it out of them, all at once. For much of the journey it was like riding on the moon except with full gravity. The truck and its passengers took a beating. For long sections we drove where the shoulder of the road would be if there had been a shoulder — or a road for that matter. We did our best Dukes of Hazard impression for minutes at a time, seemingly carrying along on only two wheels as we drove on an almost vertical slope beside the road to avoid the canyons in the middle of it. A couple of times we drove through rivers and at one point we zipped across a bridge consisting of three shaved tree trunks — two planks to the right and the left-hand plank all by itself, maybe a foot wide. The driver barely even slowed down, either knowing exactly where those left tires were on the road, or making a very fast guess at it, but he negotiated that bridge almost without slowing down and with nary a squint of the eye. I don’t know how any of us made it in one piece, especially those jammed into the death- blender flat bed.
Tired, hot, hungry, David, Hadas and I piled into a motor-cyclo, basically a covered wagon pulled by a motorcycle. This mode of transport won our business in the hard rain which pelted us with a welcome to Phnom Penh. The cyclo driver had one of those memorable gap-toothed smiles, gold-capped teeth outnumbering the naturals by a wide margin. We had plenty of opportunity to examine that smile because the driver flashed it at us, apparently quite pleased with himself, every time he stopped at any of a half-dozen random locations which he hoped and guessed might be the hotel we had asked him to take us to. Each time, David got out into the rain, looked around and tried to direct the driver in a city we had never seen. The penultimate stop occurred when, for some reason, the driver pulled up in front of the Office For Human Resources (perhaps because it had english on its sign?) Happily, there, we found people who knew where we were attempting to get to, and who instructed our smiley driver accordingly. We arrived at The Walkabout Hotel.
Entering this establishment requires crossing the 24-hour bar and its horse- shoe of displaced long-timers from The West. Tough looking customers with stubble and an eternal beer in front of them and the serious looks of people who might really be personally and perhaps permanently affected by the result of the automobile race on the satellite tube. Ex-pats. Guys who have found it too cheap, warm, easy, to leave the Penh or too hard to go back to wherever they came from. And so they gather, every day it would seem, at their own version of ‘Cheers’. To be honest, they’ve been nothing but friendly and helpful to me, but something sad vibrates around them.