January 9, 2014

Phnom Penh

Good evening from the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, Phnom Penh. My first time here for nearly 25 years. The draught Anchor beer is on happy hour and I’m in poll position – my “usual” seat by the window at the end of the bar. Sadly though its a dull, limp and cloudy evening looking out over the Mekong.

All in all, a reasonable day’s progress on the travel front though. Good to be feeling well and on the move again!

My first day “on the buses”. Like a new kid at school I didn’t want to be late for the bus, so got up early and made my way to the implausible looking HCMC “head office” of Mekong Express. Anyway, no dramas, and I hopped on the daily 08.30 bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh. Its a 6 or 7 hour journey according to the timetable – visas, water buffalo and river crossings permitting..

I have set my expectations quite carefully, as there are reports of some very old vehicles and on board Khmer karaoke party jaming sessions that involve the whole bus and go on for hours. However on this bus it’s mainly Western tourists today and things seem pretty relaxed. There is in fact no karaoke, but lots of fairly violent Asian movies on show on the big screen at the front of the bus. I deploy my Bose noise cancelling headphones and catch up on some episodes of “Breaking Bad”.

Nothing very unusual to report today, but for the record, in case you want to understand how this route works – after about three hours we debus at the Vietnamese frontier. There is a strange system with our bus guide, who takes all our passports ahead of us to immigration. Our names are called at the immigration gate and one by one we walk through. But when they are all handed back mine is still missing – but it quickly reappears from another bus driver..

Back on the bus and then back off the bus again at the Cambodian side of the border. This time I’m using an e-visa which might actually be slower to process than if I had no visa at all. Anyway, after some fingerprinting and stamping, it appears my papers are all in order again. (Note – if you are doing this, don’t forget to bring a spare copy of your e-visa as they take the first copy away from you, but you still need a second copy for exiting the country). They call me back to redo my fingerprints again,  but then change their mind. I’m in. No one checks our luggage (which is still on bus) on either side of the border.

The currency traders are everywhere inside the (government) building, and as I still have some Dong left, I move them all into the Cambodian Riel at a rate of about 18000. I think that’s 15% less than my secondary trading operation in Saigon..

Whilst waiting for the bus I end up chatting to a Hungarian chap called Mihil, who happens to live in Edinburgh. The small world paradox all over again..

No one mentioned to me in advance that there was a free mini cruise involved in today’s trip, yet at about 14.00 we drive the bus onto a ferry to cross a fair size river. The ferry was packed and we sat on the deck in the bus with our door closed. I think if it sank it would be like a bus version of “The Poseidon Adventure”, as there would be no way out unless you had one of those special hammers, or possibly knew Gene Hackman personally. The Americans behind me enquire about the use of life jackets.

The scenery in Cambodia is subtly different – the trees look different, the dogs look different, there are flash cars as well as trashy ones. Only a hundred kilometres away and it feels far away from Vietnam.

Back at the FCC, the sun lowers in the sky. Some of the cliches are maintained and others are broken by those sat at tables around me. A young Cambodian man, with a short pony tail and dressed in shorts and flip flops, drinks a crisp Sauvignon Blanc whilst smoking a Marlboro on one side of me, whilst on the other side an Australian woman drinks vodka and bores a couple of people with unimpressive tales of how important she thinks she is back in the real world. The journalists have of course now all gone from here, but the Club lives on as a good place to share a drink at the end of the day. Last time I was here though there were people reporting live on heavy fighting with the KR in the North and sharing survival stories from “the temples of doom”.

I’m driven about tonight by nice guy called “Kia” – a Khymer Bob Hoskins type, who drinks tea outside whilst you go about your business – you can immediately detect a warmer and more protecting side to Cambodian men than you see in Vietnam, where women seem to do all the hard stuff.

No time to linger here – I’m off tomorrow “up country” – back on the buses!

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