Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A day or two in Cambodia

Written from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 3, 2013.  Weather clear and fine, cool early, quite hot in the afternoon, but a lovely northerly breeze all day.

Actually, we plan to be in Cambodia a week more or less, but here's how it's gone so far.  When last I left you it was in a rush, just leaving Ha Tien, on the other side of the Cambodian border.  It's only a short ways, six km I think, from downtown Ha Tien to the border at Xa Xia (the Vietnamese side) and Prak Chek (Cambodia), clean easy riding, quite pleasant for a few minutes.  The border crossing, last time I was here, was almost rural, two small office buildings separated by 100 yards of quiet road, a few uniformed gentlepersons, and not much else.  Today it's a wall of dust meeting you like a swarm of flies, from acres (or so it seems) of new construction surrounding the two new casinos (just barely) on the Cambodian side of the line.  The casinos are up and running, judging from the traffic, but the new toll plaza and inspection facilities are just thinking about taking shape amid the dust clouds.  Everyone doomed to work there wears surgical masks and wishes they could come up with something better. . .surface supplied air maybe.  And yet, there was no grumpiness or ill temper. . .just getting on  with the job. . .it's a tourist, stamp his passport and sell him a visa and get it done. . .good attitude.  Nobody so much as glanced at my bike or asked to see her papers, which I'd carefully dug out of the office portion of the pack and had ready to hand.  So within the hour we were through the formalities and off down the new (and complete) four lane freeway from the border headed  inland.  Last trip it was 10 km of indescribable ungraded rough roadbed covered on alternate sides by dumps of additional fill material, leaving a thousand S curves through the obstacle course.  And dust. Dust to fill your shoes.  What a difference five years and a casino makes!

Ah, but then about 10 km in we came to what had been a really pleasant little 2-lane highway, well paved and signposted right on into Kampot.  Now. . .four full lanes of  variously well graded to ungraded to (I swear) cultivated monster bump pot holes. . .and again, with long stretches with randomly uncomfortably placed dump loads of more fill material. . .but the crowning glory. . .was the road grader (Komatsu, not Cat) blading it out into a wonderfully treacherous 4 to 6 inch lift of loose new crushed surfacing material. . .Oh my. Fun riding.   The construction ran right into what I'm sure used to be the main street of Kampot. . .and is now a good imitation of a sandstorm in the desert. . .a Simoon is it?  Dust and grit in everything. . .including the soup and iced coffee.

Whew.  But that was the end of it.  Away from the main street's junction with the construction zone, Kampot was still the same sweet place.  It was a French town in colonial days, with lots of French colonial architecture being well preserved and restored these days.  It seems new zoning prohibits changing much of anything in the Old Market area and requires restoration of what's there. . . I had breakfast across from a young lady from the Planning and Construction Department, who also taught me the words for "Thank You" and "Toilet".  Those and some pantomime now and then will probably get us around the country just fine.  Numbers would be nice, but I have a pen and tablet. . .and most anybody selling anything has a calculator ready to hand, even if there isn't anyone handy who can speak English.  There is, though, much more spoken English here than in Viet Nam, so really, it's a pretty easy place to be.  The currency is easier than Viet Nam too.  They just use the greenback dollar.  There IS a local currency, the Riel, valued pretty much at $4000 Riel to $1USD, so $1000R = 25cents US.  They use dollars for pricing everything but small stuff. . .so you soon end up with a pocket of paper worth small amounts and keep having to dig into your hidden supply of dollars.  The people are entirely friendly and helpful, the men are handsome and the  ladies are pretty. . .and except for a few hills leaving Ha Tien. . .the place is flat.

That's just as well for the country's transport.  Although almost any size of motorbike is legal and can be found here, 99% are 125 or 150 cc machines, only a little bigger than what you see in VN. . .but oh do they work!  There are three main ways to use a motorbike (besides just riding it!).  You can pull a tuk-tuk with it. . .You can pull a farm wagon with it. . .or you can pull a side car with it.  The tuk's are for people and are really a delightful little buggy towed behind a slightly modified 125cc typical motorbike.  They have a light framework roof that extends out over the motorbike, rear view mirrors hanging down from the roof with running lights on the front, and tail lights behind.  The upholstery and cabinetry range from old and tired to new and lovely. . .mostly they're painted bright red with pinstripes and bright advertisements on the back. . .but there are green ones and occasionally a silver polished one. . .chrome or stainless body work.  That's a  tuk. . .can go pretty much anywhere in the city and out on the road. . .with at least seven people on board. . .cruises right along at the typical 45 km speed. . .my goodness.  But that's nothing compared to the farm wagons. . .which are also often brightly painted and pretty and twice as big as a tuk.  The wagons need a slightly more extensive modification  to the tow vehicle. . .it gets hurky new springs in back and a very sturdy hitch arrangement.  Some of them just haul freight, rice (stacked up high in bags) or cement (CEMENT???) not stacked up very high. . .but still, that stuff is heavy!  In that case there's no pretty top.  But you can also put benches full length of the wagon bed and a tidy roof over the whole works and there's no end to what you can put in it. . .and somehow the little 150cc motorcycles they usually use to tow them . . .move them right off down the road.  Nobody has explained to me how they can be stopped. . .but that's where the flat as a pancake landscape comes in.  Anything you stop pushing on just rolls to a stop after a bit.  Up and not a concept the road understands.  The sidecar outfits??  They're just for mobile snack stands. . .sugarcane juice sellers, or ice cream men (with Good Humor style music still!) or bright colored soda pop or sandwiches or noodles.  There may be a fierce fire burning in the brazier on the back of the sidecar, keeping the kettle boiling between customer stops, but it's at least a couple of feet from the gas tank.  

So. . .we spent one night in Kampot, which, even with the border crossing, was a really easy day.  Kampot is a riverside town not far from the sea, its old riverfront is a quiet and pleasant place with the old houses made over into restaurants and guesthouses and a certain amount of sidewalk life.  It's not a long walk from the pretty part to a dusty track that leads among rice paddies and small homes and shops out into small neighborhoods and the countryside.  I managed to find us a few very small neighborhoods to poke down into and some sweet little double ended boats "Cambodian boats" they'd called them on the Vietnamese side of the border) and some smiling people to photograph, a very pleasant afternoon.  We'll skip over the nonfunctional wifi and the very early gate lock up at the guesthouse I'd chosen. . .and it all worked out, even the part about the only key to my room breaking off in the lock at 8:30 at night with a sleepy night watchman to deal with it.  Eventually I noticed the screen in the window, slid it side ways and reached in through the perfectly spaced bars to open the door from the porch. Oh dear.  No one else will think of that I'm sure.

The next day was on into Phnom Penh. . .150 km of manicured wide 2 lane (with 2 paved shoulders) superhighway, completely devoid of traffic for 140 of the 150 km. . .straight, level, unvarying, completely smooth.  I could have set the auto pilot and taken a nap.  Until about 20 km from the PP city center. . .when things picked up enough to need a live driver.  Along the way I stopped occasionally to take pictures of green rice paddy and lollipop palm trees with pretty little farm houses (mostly on tall stilts).  A few attempted ambushes of really loaded tuks or bike-trucks didn't yield any great art, but you can see the general idea in a couple of the photos.

The city is not so large or confusing as Hanoi or Saigon and the street naming system (mostly numbers, ergo, my hotel is on 172 street) should be easy.  Unfortunately, what street signs there are are bi-literal, both Khmer (lovely to look at but. . .) and Roman letters. . .but the Khmer takes up more room and the Roman letters are darned hard to read from any distance.  Picky picky.  It would have helped if I'd brought the right guide book, the one with city maps, not the one with artistic photos.  After all, I can SEE what the place looks like!  Well into city traffic we got pulled over by a crooked cop ("improper turn")  who ended up with $30 of my money and of course no receipt. . .if you want a receipt you go to the central police office tomorrow and pay $40 and maybe get your license back. . .or pay me $30 now.  Haven't heard that line since one day in La Paz, Baja California Sur. This rotten bugger at least gave me good directions toward the hotel district after he had my money.  The one in Mexico just took the money and waved me away.  I'm not unnecessarily fond of Vietnamese police, but I've never had that sort of behavior from them in 50,000 km of riding.

But, letting bygones be. . .the city itself is interesting and very very busy. . .bursting at the seams with motorbikes, tuktuks and big fancy cars, lying alongside (and thus more or less parallel with) the Tonle Sap River, which flows both directions, depending on the state of the Mekong.  When the Mekong is high, Tonle Sap flows uphill and fills up the Tonle Sap Lake, which is a big chunk of central Cambodia.  Now, the Mekong has gone down (wasn't it flooding here a month ago??) and Tonle Sap is flowing out like a bear, draining the middle of Cambodia.  I gather the annual flooding has the same beneficial effect on the farmers as the Nile's floods have, a nice fresh coat of rich silt every year is good for your crops.  You just need a house with long legs and a canoe as well as a motorbike.   What do you do with your cows and pigs though?  H'mm.

I need to get out and about and attend the meeting I came for, so will post a few photos and leave you:
The Cambodian side of the border. . .dust mask not really optional

Cambodian Boats. . .in Cambodia, not Viet Nam for a change.  Quiet little side channel neighborhood

We'd better smile at him, he's obviously crazy, taking photos of the backs of houses. . .the young lady spoke quite clear English. . .and that's not terribly uncommon here.  

Boy with kite.  and bike.  Kampot, Cambodia

Nice but not extraordinary Cambodian countryside house.  Long legs.  Must be a canoe around here somewhere.

Cambodian lumber yard with a new shipment of chain sawn planks.

Oh, all right, one smile. . .knocking small fruits out of a tree (dry, pithy fruit with a big seed, in a pod a little like a bean. . .)

Tuk Tuk waiting for custom. . .the normal state of a tuk tuk.

H'mm. Rather a tackier than usual snack sidecar rig.  I'll have to get you a photo of a pretty one!  For short moves the umbrella is collapsed.  Otherwise. . .leave the thing up, especially going downwind!

Seating arrangement and canopy of a farm wagon set up for hauling the whole world, all at once.

Quite a nice (really pretty ordinary) tuk tuk on the prowl. . .the second most normal occupation for a tuk.  That's not a star wars helmet. . .that's a rear view mirror and running light for the tuk.  One on the other side too, and they all seem to have functioning tail lights.  That wouldn't happen in Viet Nam. . .

Farm wagon with a reasonable load.  You can't see it from here, but there's no foot room. . .the interior floor is taken up with bales, bags and roofing tin.  Note the bicycle on the left rear.

This temple was surreal.  Very large, Wide open and completely deserted.  The grounds not particularly well kept.  Not a soul around. . .at least none to see. 

Inside. . .bare, vast, and the walls and ceiling completely covered with gorgeous new frescoes of the Buddha's life!  Every parable and tale you've heard (and then some) all in Technicolor, and bigger than life size.  Where was everyone?  It felt rather as though someone had bequeathed a large sum of money to build a temple in the hopes that, when complete, it would attract a sangha.  Who knows. . .

Family residence and fishing vessel on Tonle Sap River, downtown, opposite the dense tourist area on the Sisowath Quay.  The people seem vigorous and lively but poor.  Muslims, their women wear the full head scarf and long dresses.  Some of the men wear sarongs on board. . .which looks very comfortable.  The boats have a large flooding live well amidships for keeping fish alive.  About 45' long and 9 or 10' wide.  There are usually 10 to 20 in sight on one side of the river or the other, and I've seen similar boats as far upstream as you can get in Cambodia, at Steung Treng.

A new water lilly for me. . .love the puddle in the middle!  Hurray for surface tension!

The architecture here is very vertical and constantly being added to,