Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Cambodia - Day 5 Journey to Phnom Penh

Day 5 of my stay in Cambodia: It's time for us to move on. The last few days in Siem Reap was probably the most memorable in my entire life so far. It’s not the sights and sounds that made it worth remembering but rather my close shave with death here. For the second time, I had cheated the grim reaper so perhaps I better not hang around this place before he changes his mind. Today, we are heading to Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. The night before, Er and I had spent some time on the internet checking out a few hotels in the capital but we ended up without a well defined conclusion. We did found out that there were many guesthouses lined along the Phnom Penh riverfront where the bus that will take us down there drops us. We therefore decided that maybe it would be better to reach Phnom Penh first before going around to scout these few hotels we have discovered online instead of simply booking now.

The farewell we had from the staff of Golden Temple Villa was worthy of a VVIP. That is of course after we were asked to sign and thumb print this statement of indemnity declaring that we will not be pursuing damages from all parties involved in the accident three days back which we were told, was requested by the police so that the poor people from the pickup truck that kamikaze us can rest assured they don’t end up even more broke paying our medical bills and associated damages. Not mentioned however, was that by agreeing to this statement, it also absolves Golden Temple Villa from any liabilities as well. :p

Not having much choice, we signed it at which point Mr. Ly, the hotel owner, popped up to present us with this brand new Golden Temple Villa T-shirt which he claims was fresh from the printing presses and we were the first of many future guests that will be donning it from now onwards. He also told us that he would heading to the capital itself to celebrate Qing Ming. Yes, he is Chinese (which also meant all those mumbling and grumbling at the hospital about our predicament was probably completely understood by the man!). :) Except for George, who didn’t appear all too happy signing off all claims to the thousands of dollars he spent at the hospital, all of us changed into the new T-shirts after returning to the rooms from breakfast to pack our bags. The hotel staff was all too happy to take group photos of us and with us when we returned to the lobby; the eventual photos for what they say will be displayed in their service brochures.
It doesn’t end there. As we waited under the lush fronds of jungle fans in this very Balinese looking garden near the lobby for the shuttle mini bus that will ferry us to the main bus terminal, the staff brought out these strange bundles of red cloth along with a bottle of vodka. If I had any illusions that the bottle ‘Absolut’ vodka might be some going away present, I was proven wrong when we were told that there was only water inside and that it has been heated so that its warmth could be transferred over to the stuff they had in the red cloth.

Asking on the ‘stuff’ revealed that it is a combination of pounded ginger and turmeric wrapped in the cloth and heated up by the warm water to be used as a hot press to reduce bruises and swelling. Having only the skin of both my legs ‘braised’ by flying glass, I was not eligible for treatment. The two candidates that ‘qualify’ were Wei Han with his swollen eye socket and Er, whose knee was also trying to form a small version of Mauna Loa (a volcano in Hawaii).

As icing on this ‘going away cake’, all the working staff lined up outside the hotel, some helping to carry our bags into the shuttle bus when it arrived before waving us goodbye as we sped away. Someone in our group was more cynical, mentioning that they’d probably be muttering the Cambodian version of “Good Riddance” beneath their smiles and hand waves! :) We circled the town a few times, picking up more passengers including two American gwei los who immediately made a small fuss wanting to know how they might have been ‘cheated’ of their express bus ride to Phnom Penh when they boarded this rickety mini bus of ours. Er helped to straighten up things for the bus conductor by telling these gwei los that the bus was only a shuttle and that sort of calmed things down again.

Pass noon, we were at the terminal. We got down the shuttle and transferred into this double decker touring bus, showing our USD6 ticket to the conductor to gain access to the upper deck. The lower deck housed a toilet and the storage area which Wei Han noted amid the bags and luggage was a complete motorcycle!

It took a while before the bus moved. Outside, the scene was repeated as passengers board other buses to their respective destinations. Close to 1:00pm, we finally started our journey beginning our 6 hour trek to Phnom Penh.

There are really no ‘highways’ of the manner we are used to in Malaysia. Most major roads in Cambodia appear to be single carriage, the big boulevards we would later find out only available in the capital city. The countryside alongside route 6, the main road linking Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, was dotted with wide open paddy fields, plantations and small ‘kampung’ houses.
A couple of hours into our journey, we stopped by at this place called Kompong Thom right in front of a Chinese restaurant. Not knowing enough Cambodian to ask what was going on and how long we are stopping, I chose not to order any food. The others ordered what the restaurant owner told was the fastest dish they can cook up. The ‘fastest’ dish took more than 15 minutes and soon they were trying to gulp down their food as fast as they could after noticing our driver finishing his lunch a few tables away.
We resumed our journey more than half an hour after we stopped, our so called ‘express’ bus making more stops along the road to pick and drop off passengers. Fortunately there were no long stops like the one in Kompong Thom but all this frequent starting and stopping guaranteed that by the time we reach Phnom Penh, it was already dark.

To compound the matter even further, the road we were on had changed into a ravaged dirt road which was perhaps the reason why this massively long queue of vehicles heading into the city had formed that resulted into further delaying our arrival.
We only got out of the bus at close to 8:30pm, immediately being mobbed by ‘tuk-tuk’ drivers offering to take us to various hotels that we already knew they would probably get commission for bringing gullible tourists. At this time, it was really dark and we were drained, so we adopted this strategy of staying first at one of the hotels suggested by the ‘tuk-tuk’ driver and then looking for better accommodations the very next day. After all, how bad can a hotel be?
Turns out it was really bad. The rooms we got at the Royal Highness Hotel on street 172, was a dump. The bed sheets smelt unwashed, the cupboards having not a single clothes hanger while inside the toilet, everything fixed to the wall appeared like it was going to drop anytime soon. Gone were the simple luxuries back at the Golden Temple Villa, no computer rooms for internet surfing in sight nor was there really a good restaurant in the darkened lobby. Room rate was USD22 for the two single bedroom that I was going to share with Er. I am not sure how much the triple bedroom cost for George, Maxx and Wei Han.
Putting our bags down in the room, we proceeded to Sotheros road along riverfront a short distance away for our dinner at a cafĂ© called the King’s Court. Having the now very common western fusion dinner, we then attempted to walk along the riverside. The strong sense of unfamiliarity and darkness of the mostly unlit roads convinced us to cancel that idea and we headed back to the hotel. While Er and I settled down for the night, I heard Wei Han was out again, checking out a nearby massage parlor. I would presume Maxx and George remained in their rooms this first night in Phnom Penh.

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