Cambodia 001 – Taipei to Phnom Penh
6:13 a.m. Saturday February 10 (On the airport bus)
So far, things have been going as well as can be expected. I’m on the airport bus and my bicycle is somewhat safely stowed underneath. I was worried of course that I wouldn’t be able to put my bike on the bus, but in the end, the bus pulled up, the luggage door opened on the side and I just put my bike in. I was worried for half a second that it wouldn’t fit. The luggage compartment was actually narrower than I remembered. However, with a bit of twisting and turning, I got it in and laid it down flat. I only hope not too many people throw luggage on top of it now.
Getting to the bus stop wasn’t that hard, either. I carried my bike down first and then went back up for my duffel bag and knapsack. I put on my knapsack, slung the duffel bag over my shoulder and then pushed the bike along by the handlebars. I wouldn’t want to go too far like that, but it worked. I started to think that once again I had too much stuff. A nice beach holiday was starting to look pretty good!
It was a bit chilly and it was drizzling, but not too badly. I was worried that I was running a bit late, but getting up at 4:45 seemed cruel enough. I didn’t want to get up any earlier than that! The taxi divers were pretty insistent about me taking a taxi. They told me all kinds of stories about how the bus doesn’t run anymore, how the bus is so irregular that many people miss their flights etc. Then a Japanese fellow showed up and they all turned their attention on him and tried to get us to take a taxi together. I was more than willing, but none of them seemed interested in dealing with my bike.
It seemed to take a long time for the bus to arrive, but it did and I’m on my way. I’ll get to the airport later than I’d like, but it should be okay as long as EVA doesn’t give me a hard time about the bike. A very suspenseful little trip! Yikes! It’s already 6:30 and we haven’t come close to leaving the city yet. I should have left more time.
8:24 a.m (departure lounge)
I’m at the departure lounge now. Gate C10. The flight should be boarding in fifteen minutes. The big news is that after all that trouble, I did have a problem with the bike! The check-in girl said, and I quote, “You can’t just roll a bike up and expect us to take it!” I wasn’t very happy as you can imagine. She was essentially telling me that I couldn’t take the bike. I didn’t get upset, but I stood my ground. I told her that the EVA Air web site said all I had to do was take the pedals off and turn the handlebar sideways. I also told her that I’d called EVA Air airport staff and they confirmed it. She of course wasn’t listening to me at all. She was simply giving me that look that I assume is part of their training – the look that makes them appear to be listening when they are simply counting sheep in their head and waiting for the customer to stop talking. It wasn’t as bad as I was anticipating though. It turned into a farce more than anything else. She and another woman came out from behind the counter with a roll of tape, two cardboard boxes, and a box cutter. They slit the cardboard boxes in half, draped them over the top and then wound the tape around and around the bike. It was a ridiculous scene. The problem was that they were taping over the tires as well. So now you could no longer roll the bike. The wheels were all taped up.
Earlier, I had been chatting with a luggage guy. He didn’t speak English, but he was very interested in the bike, and he kept assuring me that he would take care of it. He used sign language to tell me that he would be the guy they would assign to roll the bike away. Then when the two women were done taping the cardboard on the bike, this guy came along and tried to wheel it away. Of course it wouldn’t move. He wasn’t daunted though, and just pushed harder and harder until all the tape and cardboard tore off. Now it all hung loosely off the bike. The women didn’t seem to mind that. Just having some cardboard anywhere near the bike seemed to make them happy.
The one possible problem in all this, however, is that they made me sign a form that said I was checking in an improperly packed item. I eventually signed it, but only after making them understand that I was not happy about it. I even made them get me an official complaint form so that I could fill one out. The problem is that by signing that form, I’ve absolved them of all responsibility if the bike gets damaged. Who knows if the bike will even show up in Cambodia?
Immigration was okay. There was some confusion surrounding my new passport. The computer kept returning my old passport number and they didn’t know what to do. I explained the situation to them and it felt like it could go either way here. But he was a nice guy (or he was just following procedures) and he changed my number on the computer and let me through.
On the plane:
Constant updates courtesy of the Neo. It’s 8:56 and we’re due to take off at 9:10. Other than well,… everything, it has been pretty stress free. The flight left from Terminal 2. I knew that from the convenient sign on the bus. I still didn’t take it for granted though and I asked everyone I could. Plus, when we stopped at Terminal 1, I went out and looked around and spoke to the driver and showed him my e-ticket. He confirmed that I was supposed to go to Terminal 2 and we weren’t there yet. The last thing I wanted to do was zoom right past my terminal, or the entire airport, and then have to work my way back.
Terminal 2 was pretty empty and quiet. It was a bit strange actually. The bus dropped me off in front of some big doors that don’t look anything like the departure area of an airport. I thought I was in the wrong place. But everyone was going in there, so I followed them and rolled my bike down a long empty corridor, turned left, and then rode the moving walkway up to departures on the third floor. There it was a bit busier, but not overly busy. I guess there is no airport tax at Terminal 2. I looked around to see if I had to pay, but I couldn’t find anyplace that wanted any money. I didn’t want to walk up to departures and have them send me away because I hadn’t paid my tax. I like to do things properly, which is why it bothered me so much that the check-in woman was so affronted. She made it sound like I was just another idiot passenger who had no idea what they were doing. But of course I had checked into it to the best of my abilities. Well, that isn’t totally true. I could have had people keep calling and calling about the bike, but what Fennie was told was very, very definite. And that, combined with the web site information, was enough I thought.
I don’t have a lot of confidence that my bike is on this plane. It’s not a large plane. Some luggage trucks were rolling up to the plane while I was in the departures lounge and I watched them unload. It wasn’t a pretty sight. For one thing, every container was jammed with luggage. Suitcases were jammed in so hard that they had a lot of trouble pulling them out. If they had to pack so carefully, then there wouldn’t normally be a lot of extra room. The second thing that gave me pause was how rough they were with the bags. The conveyor belt was a fair distance from the containers and these guys would pull out a bag from any height and then just let it drop on to the conveyor. But the conveyor was far enough away that the bags wouldn’t even land flat. They would land on the corner of the conveyor belt. They hit hard enough that I expected some of them to split in half. I imagine over time all luggage personnel come to hate luggage. I think they would take it as a personal affront when something difficult was offered to them to load on the plane. I don’t see these guys being very happy when they open the doors on a luggage container and see a bicycle. I watched while a few containers were unloaded, but I didn’t see my bike or my duffel bag.
Well, the doors have been closed and sealed. The last passengers are onboard. The flight appears to be maybe two thirds full. It’s empty enough anyway that I have two seats to myself. That’s a good thing, because there isn’t a lot of room in these seats. I got the aisle seat which I requested, and the window seat is empty. I tried moving over to the window seat, but it feels much more confining with the window and the wall right there. Plus, there is no place to put my elbow. I wonder what flying was like years ago. Was it more comfortable than this? It must have been.
That’s sort of another reason I resent all the trouble over bikes that I’ve had over the years. One of the reasons they don’t like awkward luggage like that is likely money. They need everything to be square and similar in size so that they can streamline the loading and unloading process. The faster they do it, the more money they can make.
Uh-oh, I spoke to soon. A last-minute rush of passengers has started. A bit of chaos. Lots of people had taken other seats because the plane seemed somewhat empty. Now they all have to move back as these new people want their seats. It’s interesting to see a range of people again. It’s been a long time. Some of them are likely Cambodian. They don’t look Taiwanese anyway. I’ve seen a couple of backpacker types. There are also some ordinary white folks. Not surprisingly, they’re gigantic with equally gigantic children. I kind of look at them with awe. They’re like pink whales flowing out of their sets.
The two men in the seats in front of me look Cambodian to me. And they don’t seem to have flown very often. They’re all excited and moving around a lot. The guy right in front of me keeps slamming the seat into my knees. That isn’t hard to do because my knees are jammed right up against his seat anyway.
10:30 a.m. (on the plane)
I should be approaching half way through the flight, but we sat on the ground for a long time. We didn’t take off till close to ten o’clock. I’m so tired I can barely function. I really don’t deal with flying very well. I never have, I guess. I suppose it could be different if I got a good night’s rest before a flight, but I never do. Luckily this is only a short flight. I remember on the flights to Ethiopia and Guinea I just wanted to die. And that makes cycling even more difficult in some ways, because even when you’ve arrived, it’s just the beginning. You then have to assemble the bike and then ride off to find a place to stay. That was particularly tough in Ethiopia. In Guinea it was different because my bike never showed up. I have a feeling that will happen this time, too. Or the bike will be half-destroyed.
I was surprised at some things at the airport. The security procedures were pretty lax. Crowds of people at the x-ray machine pushed and shoved past each other. There was none of this severe one-at-a-time stuff that usually prevails. Several streams of people went into this area past guards where you had to present your passport and boarding pass Then, rather than take these streams and guide them to different areas, they were all just dumped back into one big, wide line. It was pretty disorganized. One poor fellow was fumbling with his passport and ticket and then he got bumped from behind and dropped a big duty-free bag. A bottle smashed and clear white liquor spread out over the floor. I don’t know what liquor it was, but it meant that everyone suddenly smelled like a drunk. Most people didn’t see the pool and walked right through it so it got all over their shoes. I don’t know if it was this smell or what, but the security guard at x-ray security was looking intently at people’s shoes. He didn’t seem to like my Teva sandals and exposed toes very much. I imagine, though, that it is procedure now to look at shoes and make sure we’re not carrying explosives down there.
I realized this morning that there was one small errand that I never managed to complete. I wanted (needed?) to get an adaptor for the Shuffle charger. I completely forgot to do that and so after I passed through Immigration, I went looking in the shops. I found an adaptor set in the very first store I looked in. Unfortunately, I couldn’t just buy the one adaptor I needed. I had to buy a complete set. It cost NT$350. That didn’t bother me, but I felt dumb buying yet more junk. I was starting to feel a bit weighed down by the bike and all the stuff I was carrying.
I’m looking forward to putting the bike together at the airport. If the bike arrives and it is still in rideable shape, it should be pretty simple to put it all together again. That will be a pleasure. Every other time I’ve done this, the bike was in pieces inside a box, and putting it together was a major effort. This time I just have to attach the pedals, straighten the handlebar, raise the seat, pump up the tires, attach the bags, and I’ll be good to go. Chris Jackson gave me some good advice. He said that when I leave the airport, I should turn right. “Remember,” he said. “Turn right.” I like it that Cambodia is so simple that one right turn will get you into the city. I looked at my maps and it looks to be true. There is only one road and the only decision I’ll have to make is whether to turn right or left. Very simple. Even if that is confusing, which I doubt, I just have to cycle north. That’s something else I didn’t end up buying – a compass. I looked at some compasses and was very close to buying one, but they were somewhat expensive. That wasn’t the reason I didn’t buy one though. I was just thinking that I didn’t really need one, and I didn’t have an obvious place to put it. Now I wish I had gotten one, even a tiny one. It’s always good to know which way north is.
My Cambodian buddies in the seats ahead of me have finally settled into their seats. It took them ages. Of course, they both moved their seats back as far as they can go and I’m now stuck in this tiny h-shaped space molded to my body. If seats get pushed any closer together, we’ll have to crouch down into an “h” and then have someone push us in from the side, like slotting something into a slot.
The views haven’t been much to speak of. Taipei was simply covered in cloud. We rose up above the clouds and then we were just looking down on them. I didn’t get to see anything of Taipei. That wasn’t a surprise. I can’t see anything below us now – just more clouds.
I’ve already got my forms filled out. I had to fill out the customs form, the arrival and departure card, plus the visa application. The same information was repeated on each of the forms. I’m glad to say that my new passport number has found a spot in my memory and looks likely to stay there.
There are three little old ladies in the seats across from me. I don’t know what nationality they are, but filling out the forms has become a major challenge for them. They are still at it. The plane is nothing special – no individual viewing screens or anything like that. There are just a few tiny screens that came down out of the ceiling. The closest one to me is too far away for me to really watch the movie. It’s some lame Russell Crowe romance anyway.
I’m feeling a bit better, because somewhere in the paragraphs above, they served breakfast. I only managed to have a few dumplings for breakfast. Even those were hard to eat. My stomach was all tight and I didn’t feel like eating. However, I did manage to eat all of my airplane breakfast. I had to force it down, but I knew it would make me feel better. I’m sure gourmets would not have much good to say about the breakfast, but it suited me fine. Thy served some scrambled eggs with hash browns and sausage as the main dish. It came with two slices of apple, a bun with butter, a cup of water, a large tub of yogurt, and of course coffee, tea or juices. I was feeling a bit sick to my stomach as I ate, but I persevered and eventually the nausea went away. I think the water and coffee helped settle my stomach.
I’m really enjoying this NEO. It would have been nice to have on previous trips. I just hope it is tough enough to survive the trip. I must say, though, that being without my cell phone is extremely strange and difficult. I know sometimes in the past I’ve forgotten my phone and it felt oddly liberating. It was a pain and all that, but it also felt good. This time, it just felt bad, or at least very strange. It was so unusual to be sitting at the bus stop with absolutely no way to contact anyone or be contacted. It’s odd to think that this is what was normal for the majority of my life. Typing in this Neo at least gives me the illusion of being in touch.
Back to packing, I didn’t bring my jacket, and I’ve already regretted it a little bit. It was very cold this morning in the drizzle. And the plane is very cold. I’m also having some trouble with the Teva sandals as my own only footwear. My feet are freezing! They get sweaty on the bottom because they’re just sitting on rubber, and then they get chilled. I’d like to have a pair of socks. I also wish I had brought my glasses. I won’t need them very often, but in airports they are very handy. My eyes are giant red orbs of course and I can barely see. The glasses would be nice to sharpen things up a bit. But that would mean one more thing to have to carry around. I was smart enough to pack the Airwave gum in my carry-on, so I had something to chew during the take-off.
Flying does make me think about people differently. We are so demanding and complicated. At least we modern people are. There aren’t that many people on this plane, and yet they loaded mountains and mountains of luggage that we all needed to take with us. It was astonishing how much stuff people were traveling with. Then we need this plane to fly us around – spewing out tons of exhaust into the atmosphere. Then we need all those meals – creating bags upon bags of garbage to be taken out later. And then there is the constant flow of people heading back to the bathrooms where as a group we are producing hundreds of pounds of waste.
I have a feeling that I’ve forgotten something. Something important. I can’t think what, though. Time to shut down the Neo. Going to look at my map for a minute and try to get my bearings. I’m sooooooo glad I’m getting into Phnom Penh early in the day. Then I can just ride leisurely into town and see where I end up. I brought the Lonely Planet, but so far I haven’t felt the need to open it. I’d prefer not to have brought it at all. I don’t know if I’m unique in this regard, but I find that reading any guidebook makes me feel pressured, like I have to go see all these things and do these things because the guidebook says they are what I should do. It sets me up for failure, like I’m writing a travel test. It’s weird. For example, with a guidebook, I feel like I have to stay at a really great hotel – one that is inexpensive, yet in a fabulous location with lots of atmosphere. I get all stressed about it. Yet, when I was in Ethiopia and Guinea without guidebooks, it was much easier. I simply stayed at the hotel that I found I didn’t feel the pressure to stay at a “great” hotel. I feel like there is lots of good information in the LP for Cambodia that I can use, but at the same time, I don’t want to really use it at all. In this case, I’m going to just ride in the city and see what happens. I have enough time to ride around and get my bearings.
4:14 P.M. (at the hotel)
At least that’s the time in Taipei. I don’t know what the time is here yet. I know there’s a time difference, but I’m not sure what it is and in what direction it is.
Well, I am sitting on a bed in the lap of luxury. That’s pretty good for one of my trips – to be safely inside and in comfort this early in the day of an arrival.
So far, Cambodia is full of surprises. But I guess I’ll get to that in a minute. Or I guess that will come out as I tell my story.
The rest of the flight was fairly uneventful. I read one of my novels for a while and enjoyed it very much. I looked at my maps of Cambodia. And for half an hour or so I chatted with an American missionary on the plane. He was waiting for the washroom with one of his children when I was also waiting for the washroom and I struck up a conversation. He looked to be in his early or late thirties. A bit hard to tell because he was a bit overweight and fairly grizzled looking. He was traveling with his much larger wife and their two tiny children – a little red-haired girl with the face of an adult, and an energetic good-looking little boy. I saw them board the plane in Taipei and for that reason I got the idea that they were from Taipei. Of course that doesn’t make sense at all. People boarding that plane could be in transit from all over the world. It’s just that it’s been so long since I’ve been on a plane that I never thought of that. In fact, he was coming from Texas. He had been living here in Cambodia for nine months with his family when his wife’s mother died. They went back to the States for the funeral and were just now going back to Cambodia. He is living in a small town called Kratie. I found that interesting, because I was thinking of cycling up to that town. His name was Art, and he wasn’t exactly full of optimism about my cycling plans. For one thing, he said that the hot season had just started and that it was brutally hot. Last month would have been fine, he said. Nice and cool. But this month is hot, hot, hot. He also said that the rice harvest was over and therefore all the land in Cambodia was brown and dry and empty. Not that long ago, it would have been lush and green and beautiful. But right now? Brown and dry and empty. He also said that the main roads like the one up to Siem Reap are not that great to ride on. They are narrow and the traffic is very heavy and fast.
So, that’s the bad news. The good news is that he seemed to be a very nice guy and if I do get up to Kratie, I can look him up. It shouldn’t be hard since he is the only white guy in the town.
The skies were somewhat clear when we flew over Cambodia, so I could see some of the land. It wasn’t that attractive. It was flat and, well, brown and dry and empty. But I did get some nice views of the Mekong snaking its way across the landscape and I saw lots of dirt roads winding this way and that. So it looks like it could be interesting to cycle.
The plane landed and we all got off without incident. The airport was a surprise to me. I really didn’t have any expectations, but on a gut level I was anticipating chaos and craziness and a kind of third-world dirtiness. But there was none of that. We walked down spotless corridors. It wasn’t air conditioned, but that was no big deal. I guess one of the advantages of living in Taiwan is that when you go to a hot country like this, it isn’t such a big change, if it’s a change at all. In fact, I’m finding it easier to bear than the temperature in Taipei. I guess it’s not quite as humid. That’s probably what the difference is.
After going down a few sets of stairs I found myself in a fairly large and empty space. On my left was a counter where are all the foreigners were clustered. This was where we applied for our “visa.” They had it down to a system. There were two people taking our passports and our application forms and pictures. It was okay if you didn’t have a picture. They just charged you a dollar.
Beside these two people were six people sitting in chairs. I couldn’t see what they were doing, but it was clearly an assembly line of stamping and signing. As fast as you could walk down this line of people, your passport went with you and when you got to the end, a fellow rather unceremoniously asked you for $20. You paid him, and you got your passport with a visa inside. I asked the guy a question about my visa since the handwritten dates weren’t that clear. He had no interest in talking to me. The visa wasn’t the point of this little circus. It was clearly all about piling up those $20 bills.
After I got my visa, I went through immigration. That was also quite painless. The only trick there was that you had to stare into a web cam for a second or two while the computer took a picture of you and attached it to your file. There was a sign apologizing for any delay caused by the new computer system. I assume the web cams were part of the new computer system. I guess I was too tall for the angle of the web cam, and the guy had to pick it up and point it at me for a second.
I walked through immigration and right into the luggage claim area. And there leaning against a pillar was my bike. I have no idea how it managed to get there that fast. I guess it was the first thing unloaded. It was still covered in cardboard. It looked like at some point they stopped and added a bunch more tape to hold it in place. I noticed that the handlebars were twisted out of the position I had had them in, but other than that, it looked okay to a casual glance.
Art and his family were there getting their luggage. Apparently they took advantage of their trip home to stock up. When you have two little kids, a mother, and a father, you can really start piling on some luggage – 8 checked bags at the highest weight limit, plus lots of carry-on. What a chore moving all that stuff around.
My duffel bag came out just a couple minutes later and I was all set. I wasn’t sure if customs would have a problem with the bike, but they didn’t. I just handed over my “nothing to declare form” and then sailed past.
The outside of the airport was also a surprise. I was still expecting some craziness. I thought that perhaps the airport was new and modern, but the country would be waiting for me outside. But it didn’t even feel like an airport at all when I got outside. I simply walked out into what looked like a park. It was open and empty and very quiet. It really could have been a playground or something like that. I rolled my bike over to the farthest area and dumped everything against a wall. Then I set about putting the bike back together. Considering everything, it went fairly smoothly. First, I cut away all the tape and cardboard. Then I pumped up the tires, put on the pedals, and attached the mirror. Then I rummaged around in my bags for a few minutes, trying to get everything into some kind of order and in the right bags. I think I have too many bags.
In total, about ten different people came over to talk to me. They all used the bike as a way to open the conversation, but they all had ulterior motives of one kind or another. They either wanted to take me to a hotel of their choosing, or they wanted some of my gear, either now or when I was done my trip. They didn’t mind waiting four weeks.
They weren’t pushy about it however. They were quite nice and friendly, and compared to the problems I was anticipating, this whole thing was a breeze. Cycling into Phnom Penh was also a relative breeze. I guess in my head I still think about places like Addis and Conakry. Perhaps this place would also strike me as challenging if I came here straight from Canada. But coming from Taiwan, I barely even noticed any problems. I thought I’d have to change clothes – get into shorts and a thin shirt, but it wasn’t that hot. I just cycled in my long pants and a somewhat heavy brown shirt. I didn’t even break a sweat while cycling. The traffic was nothing at all compared to Taiwan. The roads were wide and clear. I suppose compared to Canada, it was a bit confusing. There were trucks and cars and scooters and other weird vehicles and they were all heading in different directions at different speeds and they blew their horns a lot, but compared to Taipei it was a joy. The only thing they did that I had to watch out for was ride against traffic. It’s very common for people here to hug the edge of the road and ride on the wrong side of the road against traffic. A number of times a car or scooter had to honk their horn to wake me up. I just was never expecting anyone to be coming right at me from the front.
Getting into the city was very easy. I turned right outside the airport as instructed and then rode until I hit the river. It might have been ten kilometers in total and I didn’t have to make a single turn. The roads were all clearly marked and all I had to do was check my map from time to time to track my progress.
What I was seeing on the streets didn’t strike me as very exotic. And why would it? It looks much the same as Thailand and I’m used to the clutter of open-air shops from Taipei. I almost lost track of where I was, thinking I was just cycling in Taipei as normal. Though it doesn’t really look like Taipei at all. It’s much more laidback and open. There is lots of empty space, a lot more trees, and a lot less concrete and steel. It really is like a large village in many respects. There aren’t any tall buildings anywhere.
Another surprise has been the number of foreign tourists and backpackers. I didn’t see them as I was cycling in, but when I hit the river and turned right to follow it, I suddenly hit Phnom Penh’s version of Khao San Road. Not quite as intense, but for all intents and purposes, that’s what it is. I started to see the occasional backpack and flip flops and then a Lonely Planet or two. Suddenly, I was cycling by a long row of outdoor restaurants and bars, each of them with an assortment of foreigners sitting there and looking off into space. And all around there were Internet cafes and other tour package companies. Tourism appears to be taking off in a big way.
The funny thing is that I don’t think the LP even mentioned this area. The LP talks about two backpacker ghettos. I planned on going to neither of them. Instead, I thought I’d look along the river to see if there were some dives there. But there weren’t. It was Khao San Road. I thought about getting a room there, but it was still early in the day and there was no rush, so I kept on cycling. I remember reading in the LP about a hotel that was right beside that Khmer Rouge prison, Tuol Sleng. The LP said that it was creepy to be right beside Tuol Sleng, but that the hotel had “bags of atmosphere.” I thought I’d check it out and I went off in that direction.
I haven’t figured out how the streets work yet, but it’s not that big a place and the main streets are clearly marked so getting around has been easy. When I got to the part of Phnom Penh where the prison is located, I felt much better. The streets were more quaint and residential. It seemed like a good place to hang out. I cycled down this narrow lane for a few minutes and then I stopped to check my map. I decided that if my calculations were correct, the Tuol Sleng prison would be just up ahead and on the right. I looked up and there it was. I was right beside it. It was kind of freaky to see in real life something that I’d just seen in a documentary, and to see it right in the middle of this residential area. With its barbed wire and double fences, it really seemed out of place. I was surprised when I got up to the prison that there were a half a dozen big tour buses there. There were also lots of tuk-tuk drivers and taxi drivers. And they were all hunting the foreigners who were wandering around everywhere. I was amazed to see so many foreigners.
I had it in my head that there would be nobody here and that the prison area would be very quiet. I thought this hotel, called the Bodhi Tree, would be empty. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Bodhi Tree was jammed with people. It has a restaurant in a courtyard and it was full of people drinking beer and eating cheeseburgers. And just outside the Bodhi Tree were a couple dozen Cambodians all trying to sell them a service of one kind or another. When I showed up on my bike, I was a big center of attention. It was a bit confusing. I asked about rooms and they didn’t have any. I didn’t mind, because I didn’t want to stay there anyway.
I rode down some backstreets and a man stopped me and pointed out a guesthouse. It looked like any other house to me, but I went inside and it was a guesthouse with a restaurant. They were very nice, but they didn’t have any rooms. They were so nice that they even brought me a glass of cold water before I left. I couldn’t believe it. They saw that I was hot and sweaty and they brought me a drink just like that. It was amazing.
I was thinking I’d have to ride back to the river and join the throngs, but then by chance I rode past another guesthouse. I forget the name now. Something like “Morning Sunshine.” It didn’t look very nice. It looked like a brick hotel, but I wasn’t worried about that. I just wanted to get off the street. I went inside and to my relief there was no one at all there. There was just a girl at the counter and a boy on a stool and a girl on a sofa, all glued to the TV in the corner. The girl spoke some English and told me that their rooms were $5 for fan and $8 for air conditioning. There was some confusion, because the guy brought me to see a room with air conditioning. I then asked to see one without air conditioning, but he didn’t know what I meant. I said I wanted to see a fan room. He just pointed to the fan in that same room. We went around in circles for a long time until I realized that a fan room and an air-conditioner room were the same thing. It’s just if you paid $8 instead of $5, you got the remote to turn on the air conditioner. If you only pay $5, you don’t get the remote.
That’s another great thing about coming from Taipei. Your sense of costs is all warped. At first I was thinking that this was a lot of money. $5, $8. but then I translated it. $5 is about NT$160. That doesn’t seem like very much all of a sudden. I took a fan room. Thought I’d see if I could live without air conditioning and get more acclimated that way. You actually get a lot for $5. The room has a big double bed, a big window, a powerful fan, a TV, and a bathroom. They supply sheets and towels and shampoo and toothbrushes and soap and toothpaste, even a bottle of water. And the room is quite large. It’s not a closet, but a full hotel room. It’s amazing how expensive Taiwan is by comparison. This is nicer than many people’s apartments in Taipei, and for a lot less money. Don’t even talk about hotels and hostels!
I wouldn’t say that I found an amazing hotel. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. But I like it because it’s in a normal neighborhood with no other foreigners around. The view from the window is pretty rough, but that’s no big deal. There does seem to be a machine shop across the street, though. A lot of grinding going on. But I can live with that. I hear it now because I opened the window. I can close it later.
7:00 p.m. (restaurant)
That’s still Taipei time. I still haven’t managed to find out the local time. One thing that’s nice, it’s still light here. I’m thinking that it must be earlier, which would make it six o’clock. I lay down for an hour or two in my luxurious room. It didn’t feel that luxurious after a while. The big window faces west and the sun poured in and got the room quite hot. I didn’t manage to fall asleep at all. But it was nice to lie down. I can already feel myself starting to wake up which is nice. Wake up in the sense of becoming aware of life outside Skip’s World and dialogues. I don’t imagine I will do much tonight. I just wanted to get something to eat, so I forced myself out of bed, took a quick shower to cool off and got dressed. I’m glad now that I was talked into bringing my North Face pack. It’s much more convenient than a pannier bag. So I put my Neo and all my other survival gear into my North Face and hopped on the bike. I couldn’t see how to do that easily with the pannier bags. I just wore the knapsack as I normally would and it was fine. You can’t wear a backpack while you cycle, but you can wear a knapsack without too much discomfort. I was going to go back to the Tuol Sleng which is nearby and eat at the Bodhi Tree with all the other backpackers. That’s the only restaurant that I’d seen in this neighborhood. But as I was cycling along I spotted a corner neighborhood restaurant and I’ve popped in here. It isn’t exactly peaceful as there is a lot of traffic, but they had a menu in English and the owner speaks some English. So I managed to deflect all her attempts to order me some seafood and I got fried rice with a big bottle of water. A problem is that I got dehydrated and my headache came back. It feels like it’s been around for weeks now.
The fried rice was about as expected – meaning not too good. The water was nice and cold. I must be becoming a real creature of comfort and ease. I miss my 7-11 food paradise and the option to eat at home. I’m not looking forward to eating two or three meals a day in restaurants.
A funny thing is that I have my currencies all screwed up. For a lot of people, it would be easy coming to Cambodia because all the prices are in US dollars. But US dollars don’t really mean anything to me anymore. I have this sense that they are really valuable things. That’s why when the clerk at the hotel said a room was either $8 or $5, I thought that was really expensive and I didn’t like the idea of paying that much money. But then I did the calculation as I said and realized that $5 is NT160, which doesn’t seem like that much money at all. If only a hotel like this cost NT$160 in Taiwan! I still don’t want to pay as much as $8 a night, though. That would come out to $225 for the 28 days I’ll be here. Actually, that’s not much either, is it? That’s just over NT$7,000. I guess I’m still suffering from spending all that money on the flight and the gear.
This restaurant is somewhat odd, though it feels typical and normal to me. I’ve been here an hour and a half now and in all that time, I’ve been the only customer. And yet there are eight waiters and waitresses, plus the owner and then some other people. Perhaps this is just not the right time for this place. Maybe it fills up later with drinkers. Entertainment is being provided by a little naked boy who is running around like crazy. I worry for the kid. The two streets are fairly busy, but he’s free to run all over the place. I keep expecting him to get hit by a car or scooter.
9:22 p.m. Taipei time. (hotel)
One last update before I go to sleep. I finished my dinner and then rode my bike up and down a street nearby that parallels a stinky canal. It was quite exciting. The streets were really alive. Lots of people were still out and doing their thing. Perhaps Cambodians are all night people. One outdoor restaurant had the decibel rating and activity of a rock concert. I suppose it could have been a wedding reception or something like that. I’m still not organized, and I didn’t have my lights with me. It was a bit dangerous because the roads here are very dark and there are a lot of rocks and holes and debris and garbage everywhere. The canal stunk to high heaven. I don’t know how people could stand it, but lots of people were sitting outside right beside it. I guess you can get used to anything.
I was really happy when I got back to the “Star Sunshine Guesthouse” to talk to a member of the family that runs the place. It made me feel much more welcome and glad to be here. The family has a set of two or three benches out in the parking lot of the guesthouse and they sit out there and talk. That’s also a convenient place for me to lock up my bike. While locking my bike, I started a conversation with a woman. I found out that her name is Penna. Her mother is the matriarch of this guesthouse. It’s kind of a family-run place. Her little son was running around while we talked. I don’t remember the boy’s name, but it translates into English as “Very Important.”
Penna was a little surprised that I was staying here. She was telling me that foreigners don’t like this kind of place. She actually knew the name of one of the biggest and oldest backpacker hotels in the city – Capitol. She said foreigners like the Capitol because it has a restaurant and a bar and they sell bus tickets and arrange tours and all that stuff. Plus, it is close to a big market. The “Star Sunshine” on the other hand appears to be strictly a “by the hour” place, though not in a seedy way. It’s three or four floors high and has maybe ten rooms on a floor, so it’s fairly large She said that students come here with their girlfriends. I’m not sure why students, but she also mentioned just regular Cambodian guys. They appear to do a brisk trade as I saw a number of couples come out and hop on their scooters and drive away while I was talking to Penna. Her English was very hard to understand, because her voice was so powerfully nasal. A lot of Cambodians appear to speak with that nasal sound. Her mother is currently living in Minnesota of all places and tells her that it is very cold there. Her younger brother came roaring up on a scooter and she said that he had been to Minnesota to live twice, but didn’t stay. He didn’t like it there. Too cold, he said. Plus all his friends were here. Looking around Phnom Penh, I can’t imagine anyone moving from here to a place like Minnesota and being happy. What in the world would they do there?
Few people seem surprised here when I talk about riding a bike to different places. However, I don’t think they know what it means. I mentioned to Penna that I would ride my bike to Siem Reap if I went there, or to Kratie. She said it would take me one day to get to Kratie. She said that she got there once by car and left at seven in the morning and got there by three. So if you were on a bike, you would take just a bit longer than that. She obviously doesn’t realize how slow one goes on a bike.
Penna also told me about a Mini-Mart kind of place that is part of a gas station not far away. I walked there after our conversation and got a bottle of milk and two bottles of water. It’s very confusing. It’s weird to have only US dollars and no coins. However, they do have a system. What they do is give everything a price in dollars and cents. Then they add it all up and tell you how much you owe in US dollars. I think my purchase came to $2.46. I didn’t know what to do and just gave the guy a five-dollar bill. He gave me $2 in US dollars and then gave me the fifty-five cents in small bills of the local currency.
When I got back, my room was very, very hot. The problem is that there is no air circulation. And of course I didn’t pay for air conditioning. I wanted to open the window, but I was worried about mosquitoes. So I spent ten minutes in figuring out a way to put up my mosquito net. Then I could open the window. This net is much smaller than the one I used in Ethiopia and Guinea, so it isn’t as good. It’s very hard to get in it and then lie down so that you’re not touching the netting. I much prefer my big one. But maybe I can figure out a way to make this one work. I’m glad I got the double because it fits this double bed nicely. A single would have been awkward
Anyway, I am going to try and get some sleep. I don’t know how successful I’ll be. It’s a bit hot.