Cambodia 002 – Phnom Penh
Sunday February 11 2:20 p.m. (coffee shop at a gas station)
After all that planning, I forgot to put on any sunscreen and forgot to bring it with me. So I’m burned. I don’t know how badly yet, but my forearms are pretty toasty and red. I was wearing long pants, so at least I didn’t burn my legs. I think they would have gotten even more sun.
I found a tiny haven, which is nice. It’s a little coffee shop attached to one of these gas station variety stores. It has tables and is air conditioned. I can buy a bottle of milk to quench my thirst and then get a coffee to pay for the use of the table. I don’t know how long I’ll last, though. I haven’t been on the bike for a while, and the riding I did today got me a bit sore. I’m not that comfortable in this chair. And I’ve had a busy day, so I’m a bit frantic. I don’t have that calm coffee shop mood going on yet.
The mosquito net worked out quite well last night. I managed to brace it just right so that it covered the whole bed. I wasn’t even aware of it being there. Having it gave me the confidence to open the window wide and let in some cool night air. It got cool enough that I actually grabbed the supplied thin blanket part way through the night. I don’t even know what time I went to bed. It was pretty early though. I didn’t sleep the night through, but I slept well enough. I don’t even remember what time I woke up, but it was early. I took a shower and shaved and took a couple of pictures out the window of my room. Then I gathered up my gear and headed out into the city.
I wasn’t sure where I was headed. I just went down some of the small streets near the Star Sunshine. (I think that’s the real name. I keep forgetting.) I got my camera out very quickly. I’m SO glad I brought the little handlebar bag I bought for my camera. It is very handy especially since I also brought my North Face. I left this morning with my North Face on my back and the camera in the handlebar bag. It wasn’t totally ideal. The knapsack gets a bit sweaty on my back, and it’s a bit awkward to swing it around and open it when I want to get out the map or something. But it is much more convenient once I’m off the bike and inside or wandering around. The pockets make a big difference.
I can’t remember anymore what pictures I took. I didn’t take as many as I might have, but I was all confused about lenses. I’ve never gone anywhere with a 50 mm and a 28 mm lens before. So I could never figure out which lens I wanted to use. I kept changing lenses and then trying to take a picture that needed a different lens. I finally settled on the 28mm for inside the city.
I think the first pictures I took were of the dirty canal that I noticed when I arrived. Then I took a picture of a guy sitting on his scooter. He seemed very pleased to have his picture taken. I took a few random street shots. I remember taking a picture of a large wagon that was delivering firewood. I also took a picture of a boy selling coconuts. A man was buying a couple and the boy was chopping them up with a machete. After the man left, I bought one of them as well. That way I could get a close-up shot of his hands and the coconut. I have no idea if any of these pictures will turn out. The boy chopped the husk off, and then he expertly sliced off the top so that the last bit was razor thin – just like a strip of plastic in a container that you can poke a straw through. He then cut a slit in the edge of the husk and slipped a straw under that and presented it to me. Now I had to pay for it. I’d had the feeling to that point that people weren’t overcharging foreigners. There just seemed to a price for everything and that was it. So when he said “one dollar”, I thought it was a bit high, but I paid it anyway. What do I know? Maybe coconuts are worth a dollar here.
I popped my straw into the coconut and started to drink. Coconut milk has never been my favorite thing. It’s a bit tart or bitter or something for my tastes. Once or twice in my life, it tasted great because I was really thirsty. This time I wasn’t that thirsty and I had to force myself to drink it. I don’t know how much milk was inside, but it seemed like a lot.
While I was drinking, I heard a voice say hello. I turned around and saw a man on the other side of some gates. I started talking with him and he came out to talk to me. His name was Seng Sam Ath and he is an Internal Audit Manager at Cambodia Brewery. I know that so precisely because he gave me his name card. He seemed like a nice guy. I know he was a busy guy. He worked full time at the brewery and he was doing an M.A in public law and was going to night school to become a C.P.A. This was about eight in the morning and he had a big exam at 8:30. But he said the school was nearby and it was no big deal. He was even going to take a bath before he went. Just before he said goodbye, he told me that the going rate for coconuts in this neighborhood was four for a dollar.
I rode my bike around some more small streets after that and took some more random pictures. No one seemed to mind, though I didn’t take a lot of portraits. My overwhelming impression of the Cambodians is that they are nice people. Seriously nice people. Everyone is eager to talk and yet they aren’t pushy. I parked my bike at one point to take a picture of some men cooking for a wedding banquet, and a man yelled at me from inside the house. He wasn’t angry though. He just thought I was looking for something. He called over his daughter to talk to me in English and asked if he could help me find something. They were both very friendly.
A little while later, I pulled into a big open-air restaurant to see about getting some breakfast. It seemed popular and there were a few empty tables that were very convenient. I could roll my bike right inside and park it beside the table. It was open, but there was a roof high above.
I had no idea how to order food, or what there was to order, but it wasn’t any problem at all. The service here is extraordinary. I quickly had three or four people at my table all making suggestions in English as to what I should have. It was all very casual and easy. Someone eventually said something about rice and chicken and I said I would have that. The great thing though was that they didn’t bring me just the rice and chicken. I got a huge pot of tea that was nuclear hot. Even the little teacup was hot. It was too hot to even touch at first. I poured myself cup after cup of hot tea. It was delicious. They also brought me, unasked, a nice bowl of soup with a large chunk of mystery meat in it. The chunk was about the size of my fist. I was a little apprehensive about that, but I ate it as well and it was the best part of the meal along with the tea. The rice and chicken was pretty mediocre, but there was nothing wrong with it. It was just a bit of a challenging meal for breakfast. I was relieved though that it was so relatively easy to get a fairly decent meal. They even had some fairly decent bathrooms. The whole thing, including a bottle of water came to 5,500 riel, which is $1.40 or something like that. What’s that in NT? NT$45? Anyway, it wasn’t expensive at all especially considering it was in a sit-down restaurant with table service.
From there, I kept cycling and then my day took a different turn. I had been worried about my tires ever since the airport. Something was just off about them. They didn’t feel right and I couldn’t get the air pressure right. Suddenly, while taking a picture of a river with some houses on the edge, I looked down and saw that I had a flat tire! I rolled my bike a few blocks till I found an open area where I could fix it. The sun was beating right down on me and the whole process made me more than a little hot and sweaty. I finally finished and put the wheel back on the bike. I put the handlebar bag back on, put on the bike computer, and just as I went to get on the bike, I saw that the tire was flat again. I had to take everything apart and do it all over again. It turns out it was leaking around the edges of the patch I had put on. So I fixed that and then went cycling off. Maybe half an hour later, I got another flat. This was not in such a convenient spot and I had to work on the bike in the dirt with some pretty powerful sewage smells wafting around me. A nice man came over to watch and eventually help. He worked at a gas station and he let me use a bucket of water there to locate the leak. Then he helped me fix the flat. I pumped up the tire, put the whole thing back together and of course the tire was flat again. This was getting to be a major pain. The problem was the patches I had. For some reason, they weren’t holding. The pressure of the air would lift the patch and then it would leak around the edges. They worked fine in Taiwan on the one flat that I had. Anyway, I gave up on my patches at that point and went to one of the hundreds of repair places that you see along the streets. These are little more than a boy with a bunch of tools, some rubber, and an air compressor or tire pump. This boy had a nice location right under a nice shade tree. It was interesting because he used a very old system for patching the tire. I had never seen it actually done before. Nowadays, we all just buy kits that contain the patches like mine, or slightly older kits that contain patches and special glue. This fellow used a system that involved heat. He would apply a patch, soak it in kerosene for some reason, then put a piece of thin metal over it and stick the whole thing in a kind of vise. He would turn the handles of the vise to push the steel against the rubber and pinch it hard. Then he would spray kerosene inside the vise and light it on fire. It essentially was a big iron with a clamp. He kept adding more and more kerosene to raise the temperature. I lost track of the time, but I think he let it burn for twenty minutes. That was a long time to wait, but I didn’t mind. It’s not like I had anywhere to go, and it was fun to watch. It was a very busy intersection right on the highway leading down to Vietnam, so there was lots of activity. I finally learned what something was for. I’d seen small motorbikes attached to long wagons that had slats of wood across the top and held in place with rope. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what that setup was for. But here I saw some of them and they were loading up with people. These slats served as benches. It looked like a severely uncomfortable way to travel. It must have been cheap though, because it was very popular. The guys driving the motorbike operated on the “there is always room for one more” system.
When my guy finally decided that the rubber had been heated enough, he undid the vise, took out the tube, and dunked it in water. I was very impressed with the results. It was a great patch – perfectly seamless. The rubber in that spot was now stronger than the original rubber by far. I cycled away from there confident that that patch was going to hold and short of another puncture, I wouldn’t be faced with another flat.
I really miss my bike in Canada though. This bike just seems so weak and flimsy. It’s fine on the pavement, but as soon as I get on the side streets, it gets very rough. There are lots of rocks and jagged edges and it isn’t comfortable riding that bike at all. I don’t have any confidence that it is going to survive.
It was about this time that I noticed that my forearms were getting badly burned and I turned my bike back into the city. Luckily, I hadn’t gone very far – about 13 kilometers or something like that – and I got back into the city quite quickly. I made one detour into a market area and took a couple of wide shots of the streets, then shot straight up Monivong Boulevard to this coffee shop.
The main streets here are oddly named. The very first picture I took, in fact, was of some street signs on the way in from the airport. I can’t remember all the names, but one of them was Kim Il Sung boulevard. I was riding on U.S.S.R Boulevard.
I passed a number of large guest houses on Monivong. One of them had the fun name “Mean Mean Guest House.” I guess you wouldn’t want to stay there. I went into one just to see what it was like. It was a nicer looking place than mine in that it had wide balconies running outside every room. I didn’t get good vibes, though. The man at the counter was not much interested in letting me see a room. He was pretty involved in his TV show. So were the people at the “Star Shine,” but they took a break from the TV to deal with me. This guy didn’t even look up until I harrumphed and harrumphed a couple of times. The room that was eventually shown to me was nice enough. Big and comfortable with a nice bathroom and a fan for $6. Amazing when you compare it to Taiwan. That’s about NT$190.
I’ve learned one lesson today. I’ve learned it so many times, but I keep forgetting it. That lesson is that you can do a lot in a very short amount of time. When I’m in the LiveABC mode, it seems that a weekend or even a week isn’t long enough to do anything. I keep yearning after weeks and months. But in this one day and a half, I’ve had quite an interesting experience. I wouldn’t want to fly all the way here just for a day and a half, but the way I feel now, a week would be enough time. That’s assuming that the price of the flight isn’t totally crazy. Anyway, it’s about time to head out of here and get some rest maybe. Go back to the Star Sunshine and lie down for a little while. I’m feeling quite grungy and could use a shower as well.
Sunday, February 11, 9:16 p.m. (restaurant)
I’m back at the same restaurant I ate at on my first night. I was planning to go to a different place I had spotted on my way to the Internet cafe, but of course it was dark when I went back and I couldn’t find the small street that it was on. I ended up navigating by the big streets and then getting back here by the tiny street that goes along the stinky canal. It was pitch dark by then, though, so I had to break out my Petzl headlamp and look like a dork. Concerns like that soon fall by the wayside though in situations like this. The road really was totally dark and who knew what I’d be riding into. It would be really dumb to ride there in the dark and risk riding into the canal or into a big pothole and damaging the bike not to mention my body.
I was right about places like this getting a bit busier later at night. This place is packed now.
Monday, February 12, 9:17
I didn’t finish my story last night mainly because my meal suddenly arrived, but also because I was very tired. And I felt like I’d been typing forever. I’m enjoying it though. I hadn’t really typed that much, but it does take a long time to transfer the contents to another computer. The NEO doesn’t transfer a file, but actually retypes the whole thing. It types faster than I can, but it still takes some time. And you can’t do anything else on the computer while it types. So I sat there in the Internet cafe reading for a long time while it typed. It gives you a percentage reading as it goes, and it takes a long time to jump up by one percent. I’m not complaining, though. I AM complaining about how many mistakes it made. But I don’t think that was the fault of the NEO. It was something about that computer. It took a long time to go through the file and correct everything. I ended up in the Internet cafe for 2 hours and 40 minutes, much longer than I had expected. But it was very comfortable. It was air-conditioned, you could get drinks, and every computer was in its own tiny little booth separated by little thatch walls. It was very pleasant and well put together. There was even a bathroom. No loud music playing. No video games. It was wonderful. They even had a lock service. I guess lots of people show up there on bicycles and they may or may not have locks. So some enterprising person at the cafe actually bought ten cable locks, put numbers on them, and offered them free to customers to use while they were at the cafe. They charge by the hour. They even have happy hours. If you go there at a certain time, one hour is completely free. Every computer had USB ports, a web cam, and headphones. I was very impressed with it. And despite all these services, it still had a pleasant “dive” quality about it. It wasn’t spotless and steel and ceramic or anything. It was nicely organic and jumbled. The fellow helping me spoke passable English and he even gave me a discount. You pay by the hour and I was there for nearly three hours, but he cut it back to two and a half. It ended up costing almost nothing at all. I felt very high-tech and well-organized. I typed the file using the NEO into Hotmail at first. But then when I saw how many errors there were, I copied it all into a Word file which I saved onto my Jetflash. I edited that file on the Jetflash and then copied it into Hotmail. I wasn’t sure about how the Internet cafes would be set up. But if they are like this, then this Jetflash will come in very handy. Of course, I don’t absolutely need it just for saving the files. Once I email them, they are saved out there in Internet land. But it’s nice to have the Jetflash as even a temporary storage medium rather than saving them on the hard drive of the computer and having to delete it later. Plus I also took pictures of my passport etc and saved those images to the Jetflash in case I need them.
I had a really good time at the restaurant last night even though I was so tired. Everyone remembered me from before and was very happy to see me again. Again, I have to say that the service here is extraordinary and the people incredibly nice and approachable. The atmosphere couldn’t be more different from Taiwan. People are also happy. You see it everywhere. Most places I’ve been in have had an abundance of waiters and waitresses and other helpers. They run around and laugh and push each other and make jokes. At the hotel, there is lots of life. “Very Important” is the constant center of attention. Yesterday, his uncle, Penna’s brother, jumped on Very Important’s little bike and Very Important jumped on his back and they went riding around laughing and shrieking like they were at the circus. It’s all very normal, but it is the kind of scene I never see in Taiwan. I never saw it in Korea either. I remember each time when I left from Korea, I was surprised at how relaxed and approachable everyone was wherever I went.
When I showed up at the restaurant, a young guy came running up and took possession of my bike. It was his job (or rather I think he created his own job) to line up all the scooters and guard them. He had numbers written on pieces of cardboard and he put a number on each scooter and then gave you another piece of cardboard with the same number. My bike fell easily into the same system and for a change I wasn’t that worried about it. Of course I locked it up, but I didn’t lock it to anything.
Most of the tables at this restaurant were full, but there were one or two available and a girl led me to one of them. It was nicely in the back so I was farther away from the scooter traffic on the street, though there wasn’t much anymore. The music was loud enough to make you feel like you were at a happening place, yet not so loud that it was uncomfortable.
I keep calling it a restaurant, and it is a restaurant in that it serves food and drink, but as I think I said before, it isn’t like going inside a restaurant and sitting down like in Taiwan. The whole thing is more outdoor than indoor, with walls and ceiling made of thatch and canvas and other material like that.
A waiter brought over the same English menu from before. They had all the dishes on this menu, but it really didn’t represent what this place served normally. Like many places overseas, it isn’t really designed to serve one person. They’re meant for four or five people to sit together and order lots of dishes and have a communal meal. So it’s hard for them to make a meal for just the lone foreigner. In this case, I ordered fried rice with beef. A minute or two later, the owner came over to talk to me. She felt that I wasn’t really giving her place a chance by just ordering fried rice and she recommended some dish that was her specialty. I thought that was amazing. She wasn’t trying to sell me more stuff to make more money. She really wanted me to try something that she felt would do her restaurant proud. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I said okay, and I was glad I did. The specialty turned out to be bits of marinated and barbecued beef. I’m no gourmet, but this was delicious. It melted in my mouth and tasted heavenly. There were maybe 14 pieces of beef about the size of the top of my thumb and it cost less than a dollar.
This little place also specialized in ice-cold draft beer served in iced glasses for 2,500 riel a glass. One US dollar is 4,000 riel. I ordered a glass and it was heavenly. It was so cold it burned, just how I like it. The mug of beer came on a little red plastic plate. I noticed that all the tables had stacks of these little red plates and that is how they kept track of how much beer any one table ordered. When it came time to settle the bill, the waiter or waitress would expertly stack up the plates and count them like a deck of cards.
I had the NEO out briefly, and a young woman from the next table came over to ask about it. I didn’t get any of her story or why she was so interested, but she went so far as to take it away for a few minutes and show it to her colleagues at her table. I was dying to get invited to their table to find out what the deal was, but they were just finishing up and I never did find out why she thought the NEO would interest them. It’s a difficult little unit to describe. She wanted to know if it was a computer. Of course, it is and it isn’t. I tried to explain what it could do and more importantly what it couldn’t do, but I don’t think she really understood. That’s not surprising, since very few people I’ve met really get it. Not many people would have a use for it once they realize it doesn’t do e-mail, graphics, or pretty much anything.
I was tempted to start on my own stack of red plates, but common sense prevailed and after that first glass of beer, I concentrated on the large bottle of water that I also ordered. I have been drinking a lot. I keep ordering these large bottles thinking I can take away the leftover water, but there never is any. I drink glass after glass after glass and never seem to get tired of it. It’s a real pleasure actually.
It was around ten p.m. when I left the restaurant. I’d had fried rice with beef, the barbecued beef, a glass of beer, and a large bottle of water. The bill came to around 17,000 riel or a little more than $4. The rice and the beef were both 6,000 riel. The bottle of water was 3,000 riel and the beer was 2,500 riel. I’m starting to think about using my water purifying chemicals. I figured they would only be for emergencies, but considering the amount of water I drink in a day, it could cut my expenses in half. I buy bottle after bottle after bottle. I never see Cambodians drink bottled water. Actually, I never see them drink water. I think they drink mainly hot and cold tea. That’s understandable because I think these large pots of hot tea are free with any meal. I guess it depends on how much I trust those chemicals. The water in my hotel room looks perfectly clear and clean. It’s not like it’s brown and nasty or anything. I could fill up my water bag with four liters, purify all of it and be set for a day. I don’t really mind spending the money on bottled water, but it feels somewhat ostentatious and wasteful here. Already, the empty plastic bottles are piling up in my room, and it feels weird.
I had been wondering if the “Shining Star Guest House” closed any kind of gate late at night, and when I got back, I found that some gates had been pulled across the courtyard slash parking lot and then locked. It wasn’t a problem at all, though, because the entrance is right there and the usual people were sitting in the lobby watching TV with the door open. I called out to them and the young man immediately ran out and opened the gate for me. I was disappointed that I hadn’t seen Penna all day. The other people at the guest house are nice enough, but it’s hard to say because they don’t speak English. I hadn’t been feeling very welcome after that first evening chatting with Penna. I don’t have any plans to move, though. I love being there all by myself. I love going to these little neighborhood restaurants and feeling like I have all of Phnom Penh to myself. I think the only foreigner I saw all day was at the Internet cafe at night. No, that’s not true. I rode my bike through this amazing neighborhood on my way to the Internet cafe and I saw some ex-pats there. These were true ex-pats living the good life on an NGO or big business salary. I don’t know how old the houses were. It’s hard to tell. But they feel like they date from the French colonial era. The streets were wide and filled with trees. The houses were all behind thick high masonry walls with big gates. You could still see the houses, though, because they are all huge and go up three or four stories with lots of big verandahs and balconies. They’re really beautiful. Many of them had signs out front that indicated they weren’t residences, but the offices of various NGOs. I saw one ex-pat woman out walking her huge dog. I saw a couple others drive by in their big white 4X4 trucks. There were some beautiful restaurants there, too. One place, called the Garden Cafe, is apparently the Grandma Nitti’s of the ex-pat crowd here. That’s where I wanted to go for dinner last night, but I couldn’t find it when it got dark.
My room was warm, but not unbearably hot. I took a nice cold shower and then lay down and read for a while inside my mosquito net before going to sleep. I had trouble sleeping at first because I was suffering a bit from prickly heat. Around two in the morning, I got up and took another cold shower and then got out my sleeping sheet. That helped a lot for some reason. That sheet against my skin felt much better than the blanket the hotel provided and I got some sleep. The neighborhood is nice and quiet at night. I was worried about that and thought there would all kinds of traffic noise, but the streets here are pretty quiet at night. And the Shining Star is on an unpaved backstreet, so no one drives down it unless they absolutely have to. The metal shop or whatever it is right across the street from my window provides some low-key entertainment. A family also lives there with some young dogs and some chickens and there is always something going on.
I finished my first book early in the morning. I woke up at some point around three or four and turned on my Petzl and read the final few pages. What an amazing feeling. I haven’t had that pure enjoyment sensation for months, perhaps years. It feels so good to be well-rested and have enough time to read.
I woke up when the sun came up and then I dozed off for a little while. I think I got out of bed around seven and I stretched and groaned with pure pleasure. I took another cold shower, shaved, brushed my teeth, and then started to contemplate my day. My plan is to ride out to the Killing Fields today. They are about 13 kilometers out of Phnom Penh and riding there would likely be enjoyable. I loaded up my rear pannier bag, filled my water bottles, grabbed my camera, and headed downstairs. I dropped off my key at the front desk and then unlocked my bike and attached the bags. I cycled down to what I thought was Mao Tse Tung boulevard and turned right. Mao Tse Tung is kind of a ring road and if I followed it all the way around, it would get me to Monireth. At Monireth, I have to turn left and then cycle out of Phnom Penh. The road will fork after a few kilometers. I take the left fork and eventually I will see an arch leading to Choeung Ek, or The Killing Fields. All 17,000 prisoners that were held at the Tuol Sleng torture prison were brought here and killed and then their bodies were dumped into mass graves. I read that there were about 139 mass graves here. About two thirds of them have been dug up and they recovered around 8,000 skulls. These skulls are on display here behind glass at a monument. I’ve seen enough pictures of this place that I feel I don’t really have to go there, but it is a destination for a bike ride.
I found out soon enough that I hadn’t turned onto Mao Tse Tung Boulevard at all. The road I was on suddenly came to a dead end. So I backtracked and figured out I simply hadn’t gone far enough south. I rode south a bit more and soon hit the right road. It’s a pretty big road and there was heavy morning traffic. It wasn’t a problem at all though. It’s so much easier riding here than in Taipei. It’s interesting because I’ve read a few warnings in the LP and on the Internet telling people to be very cautious if they are thinking about riding a bike. But compared to Taipei, it’s nothing at all. They have an entirely different system here, and the end result is that traffic is encouraged to simply keep moving, keep flowing, and everything just merges and flows like a complex flow of water. At small intersections there are no lights or signs at all and you simply watch for crossing traffic and ride through it. There is always traffic coming from all four directions and the four streams just thread through each other. The trick is not to stop. Once you stop, you might never get started again. When people need to turn left on their scooters or motorbikes, they simply turn against traffic and keep going until they see an opening and can angle across. It’s dangerous at first glance, but it seems to work. At major intersections, there are traffic lights, but these are well-marked and have big lights that countdown how many seconds you have to wait for a green. A light change takes from forty seconds to a minute, not the three or four minutes it takes in Taipei. It has a much friendlier feel to it. There are also lots of ring intersections and you just flow around these the best you can.
I hadn’t made any plans for breakfast. I thought I might just ride out to the Killing Fields and worry about breakfast later. But just as I reached Monireth Boulevard, I spotted a little restaurant that had a lot of convenient tables with lots of people already eating there. I stopped and that is where I am now, about to have whatever I ordered for breakfast. It’s hard to know what I actually ordered. We’ll see.
My meal just arrived. It’s a wonderful bowl of yellow noodles with beef, plus the never-ending pot of hot tea and a cup of coffee with cream. I’m going to shut down the NEO and deal with the meal. I’ll continue with the story later when I get the chance.