About two hour’s of last night’s valuable sleeping time was spent trying to erect a mosquito net over the bed. In spite of the mesh over the windows, the ceiling fan and the air-conditioning unit, one of these joyless little parasites had managed to infiltrate our defences and proceed to buzz around the room at ear level. Usually we’d take the very un-Buddhist approach and swat it straight away, but this particular specimen must have been a spitfire pilot in a former life. He avoided repeated attempts to down him and kept taking sanctuary behind an immovable wardrobe. After a good forty minutes of waving our arms around at it in an almost epileptic manner, we gave up and decided to hide under the net instead. Mosquito nets are light, take up little space in your pack and are easy to set up – unless the ceiling is too high for you to suspend it from, and the walls are too far apart to attach them to. When hanging the net off the fan we found that the net didn’t reach down over the sides of the bed, and when attempting to attach the elastic to the wall I managed to pull a picture hook out – along with a lump of plaster, which I quietly stuffed back in the wall as if nothing had happened. In the end Hollie managed to create a temporary bivouac shelter over the bed using the headboard. We crawled underneath, turned off the light, and sighed in resignation as the net inevitably collapsed onto our faces. I finally fell asleep and dreamed that I was some Atlantic cod, writhing around in a trawlerman’s net.
No matter how well we plan for the mornings, we always seem to end up rushing about. This time it wasn’t our fault. We powered through our morning ablutions through sleep-filled eyes before taking all our stuff down to the front yard. Having made good time we decided to have some breakfast in order to maintain our strength on the long bus journey to Phnom Penh. This was a naive decision – we didn’t account for the laxadaisical Cambodian approach to catering. Half an hour later the Giant Ibis minibus arrived to pick us up at exactly the same time as our Muesli and french toast. The ever-dignified Hollie cut her losses and abandoned her breakfast. Whilst she went to get her bag I tried to shovel what I could in to my gob before the minibus driver lost patience with me. With Hollie beckoning frantically at me from onboard, I climbed the steps onto the bus and greeted my fellow passengers through a mouthful of tea, toast and muesli.
The journey to Phnom Penh was more comfortable. We booked with the Giant Ibis bus company, and I’d be surprised if there’s a better way to travel around these parts. Comfy seats, aircon and a conductor who speaks excellent English make it worth the extra couple of quid out of your budget. There are of course external factors that make any journey in Cambodia more difficult. Because of the volume of slow-moving farm vehicles on the road, it’s unusual to go more than sixty seconds without having to overtake something. The intention to overtake is signalled by several blasts on the deafening horn, followed by a pathetic farting response from the tractor’s own hooter to acknowledge that they know you’re coming round them. Accidents are common and presumably from the constant driving on the wrong side of the road, head-on collisions make up a large portion of the accident statistics. At one point we were held in a queue of traffic for at least half an hour. A siren was heard from behind and the traffic parted to allow a shabby-looking minivan with “ambulance” written on it through.
From the safety of our window we saw all kinds of sights as we passed by. As we left the suburbs of Siem Reap the landscape was cast back into perpetual poverty. The dust on the road is all-encompassing and sometimes it feels as if you’re in the middle of a sandstorm. It’ll clear to reveal half-collapsed houses and fields full of plastic bags and rusty farming equipment. For a hundred miles or more this is the scene. Then suddenly on your left the mighty Mekong emerges like a mirage from the arid plains. The road follows it’s meanders and as we progress into Phnom Penh the buildings that line the road get more frequent and less ramshackle. In the distance the Phnom Penh tower looms – a gigantic corporate skyscraper that wouldn’t look out of place in the New York skyline, but looks bizarre set against the tired prefabs and ex-colonial villas of Cambodia’s capital. Again, we’re reminded of the corruption and inequality in this country – which claims to be vaguely communist. Whilst generations of the same family squat under the same corrugated roof, people drink cocktails in the skybar and look out over the panorama of the city.
We were ferried to the hotel by a tuk tuk driver who was all sweetness and light as he made a show of swinging our bags onto his vehicle, but who’s face turned to thunder when we arrived at our destination and refused to book a tuk tuk tour with him. Our new hotel was a wierd place. We appeared to be outnumbered by young, overenthusiastic staff who seemed to start giggling every time we asked a question – it’s an unerving habit that makes you feel like you’re having the piss taken out of you. We were greeted with a champagne flute of orange juice upon check-in – a bit over the top for 12 quid a night, but nice all the same. The room was modern but the bathroom seemed to be infested with little black bugs that kept appearing from cracks in the tiles – Hollie hid in the bedroom whilst I blasted them with the shower nozzle, which made me feel quite manly and turned out to be quite an enjoyable game.
Later as Hollie took a nap I went for a wander around the city. I was offered marijuana and a girl within the space of a hundred yards – services which tend to only be offered to me on the rare occasion I’m not with Hollie. I politely declined and walked over to the riverfront to look out over the Mekong. It must be twice as wide as the Thames and three times as murky, but there’s a vital feeling about the river which you don’t get in Britain – people live and die on these banks on a daily basis, drawing their food and livelihoods from it’s cloudy depths.
I turned round and weaved my way back through mopeds and rickshaws to have a look at the Royal Palace.
My trouble is I can’t be on my own for too long, or I start trying to talk to strangers. In the absence of anyone else to talk to, I made friends with a soldier stood on guard outside the palace. At his side he held a rifle fitted with a bayonet, and for a second I thought “This is a bad idea”, but he had one of those faces that say “I don’t want to be in the army. In fact, I’d rather run a small vintage cafe in France and drive a Smart car”. He stood to attention as I took his photo, and told me he’d been stood there for four hours (temperature, 35 degrees celcius). We stopped in that night and had room service for tea.
Tomorrow will be a dark day – we will go to the Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where thousands of people met a gruesome end at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.
Peace and love!
Tommy and Hollie x