August 1st, 2006

Day 8: To Phnom Penh, the capital, BY BOAT!

On Day 8, Mateo and I headed off to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. We woke up extremely early, around 5 am, to catch a van to the port. The van showed up around 6 am, and we packed into the van, now full with 10 people plus the driver. That is, all the seats were filled. Then we stopped at three more placed until we had 16 people packed into a van fit for 10. It was good times.

The van ride took about 45 minutes, since the roads outside of central Siem Reap are mostly packed dirt and full of muddy potholes. As we did on our way to Siem Reap, we saw many locals living in small grass huts held up by stilts to avoid flooding. The nicer places would have corrugated steel roofs, but it was obvious we were looking at a great deal of poverty, and as we progressed the complaints about having a packed van seemed trivial and trite in comparison.

We boarded our boat and discovered that many people were staying on the roof of the boat for the trip, so Mateo and I did the same. We originally thought that the inside was full, but later discovered that most people just opted for the rooftop.

That was an important point, since neither of us remembered to put on sunscreen and it was a 6 hour boat ride. My thighs have turned bright red, and it hurts quite a lot just to walk, but that is no one's fault but my own, so it is gaman time for me (gaman means "grin and bear it" in Japanese, and is an important part of Japanese culture).

The boat ride was quite pleasant, though. The Tonle Sap lake is quite large, and the color of the lake is a consistent brown. One of the more interesting things about the lake is that there are floating communities on it. People living a good distance from shore on collections of boathouses bound together. There are smaller boats that go from community to community that sell fresh vegetables and supplies, and the people that live there seem to sustain themselves through fishing and the such. One shocking community had two live pigs in a floating pen next to their houseboat. As our boat passed by they smiled and waved.

The 6 hours passed by quickly, until near the end when both Mateo and I realized that we were sunburned. We spent most of the time reading (I am reading "A Separate Peace" for the first time), sleeping, and looking at the scenery.

As we pulled into Phnom Penh port, we were both very happy that we booked a guesthouse in advance. The port was a sea of taxi drivers, tuk tuk drivers, and guesthouse employees beckoning us to use their services as we stepped ashore. The man from our guesthouse was there as well holding a handwritten sign saying "Welcome Mr. Mateo." We jumped in a van with him and headed off to Smile Guesthouse with the other guests for the night.

The room we have at Smile has been the nicest we have had so far. There is a fan, an A/C, AND a TV. This has been the first room with a TV we have had. Flipping through the channels, we discovered that Cambodian television is an odd mix of international (British, American, Thai, Chinese, etc.) stations and Cambodian stations, as well as some stations showing very poor copies of bootleg movies.

We decided to get something to eat, so we went off down the street in search of tasty vegetarian goodness after dropping off our laundry at the guesthouse laundry service. We found a place and had a good meal, but when we went to pay I only had a Hamilton in my pocket, and the meal was only one US dollar. The restaurant couldn't break the bill. This is a country where breaking a Hamilton is a major issue. That's something.

Every evening our guesthouse plays The Killing Fields, which is all about the horrible reign of the Khmer Rogue and Pol Pot who were responsible for millions of deaths during the years of 1975-1979. It was a good movie and it made us want to learn more about Cambodia's recent bloody history.

That is it for today. Take care and I'll see you out there.