Cambodia 007 – Leaving Phnom Penh
Sunday, February 18, 2007 Cambodia
I’ve skipped ahead a few days because I got on the bike and started cycling. It has only been two days, but it feels like much longer. They have been difficult days in some ways, and I haven’t had the time or energy to write about them.
To get the whole story, I’m going to go back in time to where I left off at the Java Cafe in Phnom Penh. I stopped writing there because when I got up to use the bathroom, I asked a man at the next table if he would watch my stuff. He said he would. He said he was going to ask me about the NEO anyway. I was glad of that. I enjoy any opportunity to show it off.
Even the bathrooms at the Java Cafe are worthy of comment. They were well-appointed and comfortable and nicely decorated. I looked around in amazement at how nice they were.
When I got back, I showed my NEO to this man. He introduced himself as Aaron. Meeting him and having the chance to talk lifted my spirits immeasurably. My stomach problems were getting me down.
Aaron had a very interesting story to tell. He had just moved to Cambodia a little while ago with his wife, Olivia. She worked at a university in Phnom Penh and was the editor-in-chief of a new weekly newspaper that the university had started up. When Aaron saw me typing on the NEO, he thought I might be a journalist of some kind and that he could hook me up with Olivia. I don’t know what I could write for them – I don’t think they need any shopping for clothes dialogues – but I would certainly enjoy meeting her. I got Aaron’s cell phone number as well as Olivia’s and I hope to look them up when I get back to Phnom Penh. The two of them are apparently in Phnom Penh for the long haul. Aaron had just returned from the U.S. the day before where he had gone to close up his practice as a chiropractor and put their house on the market. Some luggage hadn’t show up with him on his flight and he was going out to the airport.
Aaron was really the first foreigner I’d spoken to since I got here and I was glad of the chance to talk about Cambodia and the things that I had seen and experienced. I told him that I had really enjoyed the free-flowing nature of life in Phnom Penh, as well as the range of restaurants and cafes available for foreigners. Of course, being able to use all those restaurants and cafes requires you to have a standard western salary and apparently that is the rub in Cambodia. Aaron had been talking to some people about a job here, and he was shocked at how low the salaries were. He didn’t tell me what they were, but I did see one advertised vacancy in a paper that listed a monthly salary of $350-$450. This was a position with one of the NGOs. I suppose it could have been for a Cambodian. I don’t see too many foreigners accepting a salary like that no matter how much they like the life in Phnom Penh. And I’d read a number of references (in the LP and other places) to how so many people were riding the “gravy train” of aid money. The LP criticizes these people for banking six-figure tax-free salaries in Geneva while doing very little for the local people in the end. I wonder how true that is. I can’t imagine that it is common for development workers to make that much money. Perhaps a few consultants on special projects get that much. I have never heard of a normal NGO employee making that much. Perhaps I’m out of touch, though.
After I left the Java Cafe I went in search of a gallery that was showing some photographs I was interested in. These photographs were of children working in Cambodia. I liked what I’d read about the pictures. For one thing, they weren’t standard pictures trying to show the poverty and difficult lives of these children. He had simply taken their picture doing whatever it is they do and left it at that. Even the title of his show reflected this. I don’t remember the exact word, but it was something like “Tomuada” which in Khmer means “this is normal.” The idea is that for these children, to be working wasn’t terrible and it wasn’t child-slavery or anything like that. It was just the way things are. These children had worked their entire lives and felt it was normal. The photographer didn’t use expensive camera gear. He said that he had a basic digital camera and he used a fill-in flash. That gave the pictures a very bright and vivid quality. Digital cameras tend to give that over-saturated look anyway. I was not that impressed with the pictures themselves. They seemed like fairly normal snapshots that anyone would take in Cambodia. He did have some pictures, however, that at least in subject matter might be beyond that of the ordinary visitor. These were pictures of children working on the garbage dumps or in the salt fields. You’ve have to go out looking for those particular pictures if you wanted them. He had also had a translator with him, and with each picture there was a quick summary of the child’s life – where they came from, how much money they made, and how long they had done this work. The photographs were for sale at $180 each. They stressed that this would not make any money for the photographer or the gallery. There was a sign saying that if even if every picture there sold, it still wouldn’t cover the cost of the travel and translation and the prints themselves.
When I left the gallery, I went back to the area around the Java Cafe where I had seen a place where I could get a haircut. I hadn’t had much luck in my search before then. Either the place didn’t cut men’s hair, or when I spotted a barbershop, I was just too hot and sweaty to go inside. This time I was fairly fresh, and this place looked quite high-end and promised to offer a fairly hassle-free cut.
The sign at the front listed the services the place offered, everything from haircuts and manicures to full-body massages and “four-hands” massage, whatever that is. The place looked legitimate to me, but what do I know? I wouldn’t know a “dodgy” massage parlor if it came up and bit me.
The place didn’t seem to be very busy, but a young receptionist took me in hand. All through the process she kept telling me to do things, and I was never quite sure why I was doing them. Most of the time, she was just telling me to sit down. When I went in, she commanded me to sit down in some lobby chairs. So I sat. I don’t know why I was sitting, but I sat anyway. Then she came and sat beside me to chat for a little bit and find out what it was I wanted. I got the sense she was disappointed that all I wanted was a simple haircut. I might have gone for a legitimate massage, but I didn’t know how that worked. Besides, I felt clean enough for a haircut, but I didn’t feel clean enough to have someone try and give me a massage. Just a few minutes out there on my bike and I do get pretty sweaty.
To begin the haircut, I was brought inside a tiny room that was closed off with a curtain. A young woman came in and sat down on a nearby chair and just watched me. Apparently the cut I was going to get was worthy of a spectator sport. Next, the young man, the maestro, came in. He was a very formal looking fellow with a serious face and a severe haircut. He sized me up like a painter sizing up a canvas. He stood back and looked at me from different angles and reached in from time to time to run his fingers through my hair. He got an idea from me about how much I wanted taken off, and then he set to work.
Most of the time as he cut my hair, I got the impression that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. He made a big show out of it, but there was no system at all. He was all over the place snipping here and snipping there, just a little bit and then going somewhere else. He also changed tools constantly and I didn’t see any reason to change tools. He went from scissors to other scissors, then to a big clipper, then a small clipper, then a handheld clipper, then a razor. Once all of these had been introduced, he ranged through them and went all over my head with them. I just closed my eyes and enjoyed the whole process. Much later, when I finally opened my eyes, I found to my surprise that he had done a very nice job, and a younger, neater, trimmer Doug looked back at me. Everyone approved of the new Doug and they all trooped in to take a look. They also brought me a hot cup of coffee with cream to drink while everyone admired the maestro’s work.
Then to my surprise, a woman went to work on me with a straight razor. Apparently, my $6 got me a haircut, a cup of coffee, a shave, and a head massage in that order. I could have done without the shave. I don’t know much about shaves with a straight razor, but I have to believe that a good shave isn’t that painful. I figured that the razor wasn’t sharp enough, or she just didn’t know what she was doing. In any event, it hurt and when I couldn’t take it anymore, I grabbed her wrist and pulled it away and indicated that that was enough. It was all mostly form anyway, since I had shaved not long ago that morning. She didn’t seem upset. She just put away her razor and then wiped down my face with a hot towel and gave me a wonderful head and face massage. She was much better at that than shaving. I thought it was a bit odd, however, that after the end of the head massage, when my hair was completely mussed up, she stood back and indicated that the whole thing was over. I was free to go. I looked in the mirror at my head with my hair sticking out in all directions and just mentally shrugged. I figured I could just comb it myself when I was outside. I did think, however, that the maestro would not let me leave in this condition after all the trouble he went to with my hair. He was in the lobby though, and he saw me and didn’t react at all.
The receptionist again commanded me to sit down. I did, and she brought me a cup of hot tea. Then she perched on the chair next to me and made bright conversation. I think she was supposed to now steer me towards some other services, but she was much too interested in just chatting for that. She asked me all the standard questions about where I was from, how long I was going to be in Cambodia, how old I was, what I did for a living, whether I was married, and what I thought of Cambodia. Then she told me a bit about herself. Her family lived in the provinces somewhere. She came to Phnom Penh on her own. She wanted to go to school, but couldn’t afford it and got this job. She said that she worked 6 days a week, 18 hours a day in this salon. It wasn’t demanding work, but she said it made her very tired and bored. She said she was talking to me for so long because she was studying English and really wanted to improve. She really thinks knowing English will open doors for her. Perhaps it will. Many people here have that same idea. Of course, knowing English is an advantage in the work place, but chatting for ten minutes with a random foreigner is not going to improve one’s English much, if at all.
After my haircut, I rode around the city some more. I mainly wanted to see the Russian Market. I’d heard it was interesting. In the end, all I did was ride my bike around the area and around the market. It wasn’t that interesting, though I was told that they sold bootleg movies and CDs inside. Bootleg movies seem like a good idea since they’re cheap, but I find that they’re cheap for a reason. The quality is very poor and you have no idea what you’re getting.
For dinner, I decided to try one of the places along the riverfront. I’d cycled along there a few times, but hadn’t stopped anywhere. I looked in my Phnom Penh Visitor’s Guide and made a mental note of some places that sounded interesting. In the end, though I went to the place that was the most convenient for a guy on a bike.
I rode around a little bit first. I rode down one of the side streets leading to the waterfront. There were supposed to be a number of places there. Then I turned right along the riverfront and cycled along slowly checking all the different places out. The problem wasn’t finding a place that looked good. The problem was choosing one. There were so many places that looked appealing or interesting. Many of them had outdoor seating next to the sidewalk. I wasn’t sure if sitting out there would be a good idea or not. I wasn’t sure if you would be bothered by a lot of people trying to sell you things. A lot of other places had outdoor balconies up on the second, third, fourth, or even fifth floors. Any number of them looked interesting. I think I could have stayed in Phnom Penh another week just sampling all these places. Hardly a true Cambodian experience, but it sure would be a great holiday.
In the end, I settled on a friendly looking place that was right on a corner and had lots of tables and chairs spread out on the front and then along the side. There was a tall screen of plants along the side to block the sun. And best of all, there was a convenient place for me to lock my bike to a steel pole right beside the table where I sat.
I wasn’t surprised that a few people came to try and sell me things. One boy had a basket of Lonely Planet guidebooks and a few novels. He came back four times in total in the time that I had dinner. Either he did his rounds as fast as Superman, or he had no imagination and just kept coming back to the same one or two places. Another boy wanted to shine my shoes. He wasn’t deterred when I showed him I was wearing sandals. He was more than willing to shine those, too. And once, a little girl carrying a baby asked me for money. At first I didn’t even notice her. She had wormed her way through the plants and bushes and her head popped out right beside my table. I gave her some money and she went merrily on her way.
The menu was quite extensive and I had trouble making up my mind. I also didn’t know what would be the best thing for my stomach. Then I saw a pizza being brought to a nearby table. It looked delicious and I couldn’t resist ordering one. I also ordered a glass of draft beer. Just one glass again. I don’t want to be wandering around with a headache on top of my stomach problems. The pizza was served on a wooden dish and was the best pizza I’d had in years. I’d ordered a small, but it was more than enough for me and I thought I’d have trouble finishing it. But I kept munching and munching and finished the whole thing. I thought there would be a price to be paid, but so far my stomach has been happy about it. That was more than two days ago now and I haven’t had much stomach trouble at all. I think that’s mainly because after that pizza I’ve hardly eaten. I’ve cycled for two days now and I ate nothing the entire first day except for a bit of rice and some noodles at about 7:00 p.m. that night. And today I didn’t have breakfast or lunch either. All I had was some fried rice a few minutes ago. I didn’t eat breakfast both days deliberately because I didn’t want to take the time, but mainly because I didn’t want to have stomach cramps while I was on the bike. Then I didn’t have lunch because the heat and the sun killed my appetite. Plus, I never saw anything that looked like food or anywhere that seemed to be serving anything. I’ve had dinner, but both times I could have gone without it. I just don’t have an appetite at all. This leads me to two things from my journal that I have to retract. The first thing I have to retract is what I said at the beginning about it not being that hot. I don’t know if the temperature has suddenly gone up and the sun has gotten stronger, but I have to admit that it is hot in Cambodia. And when you’re on a bicycle, it is absolutely brutal. The sun in particular is a force to be reckoned with. It has been roasting me alive. On my first day, there were times when I thought I was going to keel right over from the heat.
The second thing I have to retract is what I said about there being so much good English in Cambodia. Perhaps I just got lucky on my first day or two and met up with lots of people who spoke English well. Since then, I’ve been encountering less and less English. This was both in Phnom Penh and out here in the countryside. In the countryside of course, the amount of English has decreased considerably. It has pretty much vanished in fact. Some students have ridden their bikes beside me and asked me the standard set of questions, but that is about it. I’ve come across very little English elsewhere. In fact, my high school French is turning out to be far more useful than my English. In shops and stores, there is often an older man who speaks French and we communicate in that language. The problem there is that Spanish is much more recent in my mind than French. Spanish keeps coming out. And quite often, I don’t know if a word I’m using is Spanish or French. The French is there in my brain, but it needs to be dusted off so I can use it.
But here I’m getting way ahead of my story. I have to go back to my pizza.
I finished my pizza and then got on my bike and rode slowly along the riverfront again. It was dark now and all the restaurants looked even more enticing now that they were lit up. It seemed a shame to leave Phnom Penh at all with all those restaurants waiting to be sampled.
I hadn’t made any definite plans, but it had been in the back of my mind all day to leave Phnom Penh the next morning. I didn’t even know for sure where I would go, but I was pretty sure that I would head south to the coast. I’ve always enjoyed fishing villages despite having no taste for seafood. The other advantage to going south was that there was a nice loop there. I could cycle down by one road, go along the coast, and then cycle back to Phnom Penh on an entirely different road, coming back in a nice circle. Other routes I’d been contemplating didn’t have a nice loop. I could cycle to a place, but then it looked like I’d just have to turn around and backtrack, which I hate doing. I also thought it would be nice to see some beaches, maybe even hang out on a beach a little bit and do some swimming. It has been also years since I’ve gone for a swim in the ocean. That’s hard to believe. It makes me wonder what I have been doing for these past three years. Time has just drifted away.
Because I was thinking of leaving in the morning, I had given my laundry to the hotel the night before. They said it would be ready the next day. But when I got back to the hotel, there was lots of confusion. No one knew anything about this laundry. Finally, the woman who had taken it from me said that it wouldn’t be ready until the next day. This didn’t make me very happy. It was still fairly early in the evening, and I pushed to see if they could go get the laundry now. They said that they couldn’t, that they had brought it to an outside place that did laundry. I asked where it was, so I could go get it myself. They said it was too far away. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer though. I got the feeling that they were must making things up as they went along and that if I pushed, things might go my way. I’m glad I kept pushing, because their next story was that my laundry would be ready by 8 in the morning. They said this after I told them that I wanted to leave in the morning. But I’d heard stories like this before in my life and I didn’t want to be held hostage waiting for my laundry to arrive. They could tell that I wasn’t going to go away, and finally they sent a young boy off to get my laundry. He came back in a few minutes with my five articles of clothing unwashed and jammed inside a plastic bag. He said their washing machine was broken and so they hadn’t washed it. I figured that was par for the course. I was just glad to have my clothes back so I’d be free to go in the morning. The one downside was that my dirty clothes were now all rolled up into dirty little balls. They were dirty before, but they were still wearable, still sort of pressed. Now they were just wrinkled rags. I smoothed them out as best I could and refolded them hoping that they would be wearable if need be at some point.
I was feeling a little bit stressed out about leaving Phnom Penh on my bike. I suppose that’s understandable. I’ve gone on long bike rides before, but that doesn’t mean I would just take it in my stride. There was a lot of tension surrounding my departures on all of my bike rides. I was particularly stressed this time because my bike and the gear are not suitable. I really have no confidence in this bike and words can’t express how much I hate and despise these Ortlieb pannier bags that I bought. I thought I’d give Ortlieb a try. Lots of people swear by them. I thought I could just get used to them, but there’s no way. I hate them with a passion. Packing them is such a hassle and I got more and more annoyed as I attempted to make sense out of my gear. There simply was no way to pack in a convenient way. I spent a long time sorting things and trying to put them into the pannier bags, but I just got more and more annoyed. I finally had everything packed, but it was a giant mess and I’d never be able to get at anything conveniently during the day. These bags are designed for one thing and one thing only – to be waterproof. And that’s fine except I don’t cycle in the rain. I usually choose the dry season to cycle in, and when it does rain, I pull off the road. Why would I want to cycle in the rain? And being waterproof, they are essentially one big plastic/rubber bag with hooks. They use a complicated roll-top closure system that rivals Fort Knox, which means that getting anything in or out of these bags is a nightmare. Getting one single thing out essentially means dumping out the entire contents and rummaging through it all, then dumping it all back in again. It is such a pain that words can’t describe it. And nothing goes in very easily anyway. The bags are rubberized and everything sticks. So nothing slides in. It just sticks, which means that everything has to come out and go back in every single time. And there are so many straps and buckles and hooks that it drives me out of my mind. I HATE Ortlieb pannier bags.
I also rather despise this bike. It’s not really set up for anything. It doesn’t have a touring geometry, touring handlebars, or convenient attachment points for touring gear. That’s not a huge problem. I’ve never actually had a real touring bike in my life. The bike I used in Ethiopia and Guinea was also not a touring bike. It was essentially a mountain bike and so it didn’t have a touring geometry or touring handlebars. That caused a lot of problems – bruised and sore hands and wrists, agonizing butt soreness – but it had the huge advantage of being very strong. It had indestructible wheels and massive tires that were designed for rough roads. They weighed a ton, but I didn’t mind that. This GT that I have now is also giving me very sore hands and wrists and a very sore butt, but it is also just a road bike and simply can’t handle anything other than smooth pavement. Actually, it barely handles that. I’m amazed actually that it has survived the last two days at all. I had to cycle about 15 km down some of the worst road I’ve ever cycled on and it was brutal. I didn’t think I was going to make it. Those thin road wheels gave me and the bike such a pounding I thought I’d fall apart – me and bike. The omens weren’t good at all for this cycling trip. I hadn’t even left Phnom Penh when suddenly the left pedal and crank started to wobble all over the place. I quickly stopped the bike and I’m glad I did. The whole left crank was one or two turns away from falling right off the bike. I’d never had that happen before. I’m wondering if there is a lock nut missing or something because that crank has been coming off the entire time. I had to stop and screw it back on three or four times every day. The crank coming off really pointed out to me what a pain the Ortlieb bags really are. Now I needed my tool kit to screw the crank arm back on. But to get at my tool kit, I have to go through the hassle of opening up the entire front pannier bag. Then I have to pull out the bag that I put inside that bag so that I can have some degree of organization. But of course that bag won’t just slide out. It is jammed in there with everything else and it is all stuck to the sides. So there I am, in the middle of Phnom Penh traffic, with the sun burning down on me, on a narrow strip of sidewalk with the dog shit and the human shit all around and the urine smell trying to choke me, and I have to empty out my entire pannier bag to get at my tool kit. I haven’t felt very insecure in Phnom Penh, but I still don’t want to be out there in public with the entire contents of my bag all over the sidewalk while I work on the bike. I finished tightening up the crank arm, and then I had to face the laborious process of getting everything back into the bag. I’d packed it in the comfort of my hotel room. Packing outside while the bag is still attached to the bike is another story entirely. It was almost impossible and I almost threw the whole bike over the fence in frustration. Contrast this with what a good set of pannier bags would mean. You need your tool kit? No problem. You unzip the pocket that contains the tool kit and take it out. When you’re finished, you put your tool kit back into that pocket and zip it up. All done. You’re on your way.
If getting out your tools were the only problem, perhaps there is a simple solution. I could, for example, put my toolkit into a handlebar bag. But there are two problems there. One problem, is that I didn’t even want to have a handlebar bag in the first place. The only reason I brought one is that it wouldn’t be convenient to put my camera in a front pannier bag. If I had good pannier bags, I could put my camera in one of them and get it fairly conveniently. But with these Ortliebs, I have no choice but to use a handlebar bag. The second problem is that my handlebar bag is also a piece of junk. It isn’t well-designed and simply can’t carry much weight. Put more than a couple of things in it, and it will simply spin around on the handlebar.
However, I will put my toolkit into my handlebar bag tomorrow. See how it goes. But the deeper problem is that the toolkit isn’t the only thing I want to get at during the day. I’m burning to a cinder so from time to time I want to put on some sunscreen. I need to get a new roll of film and put it in the camera and put away the full roll. What if I want to stop for a drink and read my book for a while? I haven’t done that at all because just getting the book out is such a hassle. I haven’t listened to any music while cycling either, for the simple reason that I can’t bear the thought of going through these stupid bags and finding my Shuffle. I might want to put my sunglasses away. Or take them out. I might want to get at my bike lock. I might want to do any number of a hundred things and each of them requires emptying out practically an entire pannier bag and rooting through the contents. I’m embarrassed to be using bags like these.
Don’t even get me started on attaching the bags to the bike. The Ortliebs are also designed to come off the bike easily. And they do. I have to give them that. You simply pull up on the handle and they pop right off. But they are so hyper-designed to come off easily, that they are a real pain in the ass to put on. They’re supposed to be easy. You are supposed to just hold the thing by its handle, which opens the clips, and then lower it into place. But that doesn’t work that well, because you also have to be working it in so that the lower hook goes behind a bar somewhere. And that isn’t easy. The gymnastics I have to go through to mount these four bags is, again, embarrassing. I was embarrassed this morning at my hotel when the owner of the hotel came out to watch me get ready to go. I looked like an idiot as I fought and fought and fought with those stupid bags. I think it took me nearly half an hour until I was finally ready to go. Part of the problem was that once the bags were attached, I realized that the crank arm was loose. So then I had to unpack one of the bags and get out my toolkit and fix that before I could leave. I was drenched in sweat and I hadn’t gone a kilometer. I was so worn out already that I just wanted to go back inside and lie down. And in the end, I don’t even like it that the bags come off so easily. That means that anyone can just grab the handle, tug, and run away with your bags. Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone in Cambodia would know enough about Ortlieb bags to know that you could take them so easily. Still, I worry about it. People’s hands are all over the bike all the time, especially when I park it for a second to get a drink or run into a shop. It’s only a matter of time before someone tugs experimentally on that handle and surprise! The bag has just popped off and away he can run.
Perhaps these are the greatest bags in the world for smooth European roads when it rains all the time and you never have to access your gear during the day. But for this kind of a trip, they’re useless. Worse than useless. I stopped at one place to get a drink on my first day. I was a few minutes away from heat stroke I think. So I lay down on this mat on a raised platform and I closed my eyes for a bit. I opened them at one point to see a young girl fiddling with the handlebars of the bike. Sure enough, the handlebars swing around, the bike becomes off-balanced and the whole thing crashes to the ground. Both Ortlieb bags on the upper side let go on the bottom and swung over the top! Those rear attachment points are just too flimsy. They’re like toys, not attachment points. I was really worried about this because by swinging around like that, the pressure on the top hooks was incredible. They’d come right over the top and jammed there and the weight of the bag with that kind of leverage was threatening to tear the entire hook apparatus apart. What a pain. You wouldn’t catch any Arkel bags coming loose from a measly fall like that. You could likely drop your bike from the roof of a moving bus and your bags will stay firmly in place. And you’d have easy access to your tools to fix your bike afterwards.