Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Back to Phnom Penh

I saw this poster near the market in Kratie. Strangely, the place wasn't a restaurant or bar, nor did they have American beer. Which is just as well. Who comes to Kratie for "American Time" (whatever that is) and horrible beer, anyway?

This morning I woke up at 5:30 to catch a tourist van (or “mini-bus”) from Kratie to Phnom Penh. I was told to expect a pick-up at 6 a.m., or maybe 6:30, or possibly 7, or maybe 7:30. I went to have breakfast at 6, was served at around 6:30, and at 7:20 the tourist van rolled in. Five of us found seats, then we were driven up the road about 400 meters and, without any explanation, made to get into another van. This proved to be quite interesting as an observer because some of us were going to Phnom Penh and others to Siem Reap. No one told us that we were all going to the same place initially, at which point we would separate, so there was a lot of disorder, including shouting between tourists (in English) and tourist company staff (in Khmer), and a German woman telling the staff “fuck off, don’t touch me,” and “be careful with my fucking equipment, you’ll break it handling it like that,” and later, in the van, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Slow down! (The driver was barreling through peaceful village roads full of wandering cats, dogs, chickens, and children at about 65 miles per hour.) I’ll fucking kill you if you hit something. I’ll kill you!” She turned out to be very nice, actually, and was in SE Asia to recruit local people to take part in music videos she and her partner were making over the course of their travels. Still, that kind of approach with people in Indochina is seriously counterproductive (as it is in 99% of the world). Cultural sensitivity? It goes both ways, of course, but there are lines you simply don’t cross. In my experience, telling people to fuck off and that you’ll kill them kinda crosses that line…

I ended up in a window seat, squeezed in with three Cambodian men, two pieces of luggage (piled up beneath my feet), and a live, tied-up chicken in a yellow plastic bag. One of the men beside me worked for the tourist company taking us to Phnom Penh. He deduced that I was traveling alone, and with various hand gestures he asked me why I didn’t have a wife with me as the Europeans on board did. I shrugged. Then he seemed to indicate that he and I would make a good pair, ending our exchange with his hands displaying “1” and “5” (or was it “5” and “1”?), whatever that means—I know I had no clue. Shortly after that he began to play with the hair on my arms, then inspected and stroked my fingers, then rubbed and tapped my fingernails, and when we stopped to pick up a Cambodian woman (with a wedding ring on her finger) he tried to introduce her to me. Wisely, she ignored him. I began to ignore him at this time, too, so he turned his attention on the German man with long blond hair sitting in front of us and started doing the same thing to him. About an hour later the man fell asleep with his head on my shoulder, and when I carefully leaned forward he fell bodily behind me and continued to sleep with his face wedged between the seat and my lower back. He was there for a good 30-40 minutes. On the positive side, I guess all of this made the time pass more quickly.

I was sad to leave Kratie, as it’s such a lovely, peaceful, slow-paced town. I was more than happy to leave my guesthouse, though. While the Cambodian staff at The Balcony were very nice, and worked hard in the kitchen to make some very tasty food, the Aussie owner left a lot to be desired. He had little good to say about Cambodian people, was stuffy and self-important, and wasn’t willing to help with the mini-millipede infestation I had in my room (even though he told me that millipede bites can be very dangerous). When I settled my bill at the end, he gave me change in paper bills, two of which had the corners substantially ripped off, and which I haven’t been able to spend anywhere since. I must say, too, that it would have been nice if the guesthouse had cleaned my room once in four days, changed my towel once, and emptied the bathroom wastebasket occasionally since guests are asked to refrain from flushing toilet paper. It would also be nice if they provided soap. Generally, when one arrives after a long journey, one wants to clean up just a little, and it's a bit disappointing to have to walk to the market and buy something so basic. I do not recommend The Balcony (despite the nice local staff), though I do recommend, highly, Oudom Sambath Hotel, whose owner was not only very friendly (and fluent in English), but also eager to help his guests. It’s more expensive than The Balcony (the most expensive room at OSH is $25, the least expensive is $8), but it’s still cheap and the quality of accommodations is much better here. The food is excellent, too. The owner has a harrowing story about growing up during the Cambodian conflict, and the fact that he is where he is today is amazing. If I return to Kratie, I’d want to support his business again, which in turn helps support his family, who were destitute and suffered a great deal not very long ago.

Oudom Sambath Hotel is located at 439 Rue Sumamari (Riverside Street). Tel: 072-971537.

FYI: I took Sorya Bus Lines from Phnom Penh to Kratie. The cost was $5, the bus was clean and comfortable, but the trip took 7.5 hours (not the 5 hours they quote). They stop twice for food/restrooms. For my return to Phnom Penh I booked a seat on a van through my hotel. The cost was $6.50 and the trip took 4.5 hours, with one stop for lunch shortly before arriving in Phnom Penh. The van was a bit cramped, and a bit crazy, but the trip’s shorter duration is worth whatever hassles I had to deal with.

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