A Journey Back in Time

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
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Trip End Apr 22, 2005


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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Thursday, January 13, 2005

"You've got to be kidding me", I said as we were being shuttled across the tarmac. I turned to a tubby expat who'd lived in the area for decades and asked if he'd ever flown on a plane like the one we were heading toward. "Oh sure" he said, "But that was back in the Vietnam War - shit, it could be the same plane from the looks of it."
 
The mechanics we're smiling as we ascended a simple stepladder to the crop duster, where we handed off our luggage to the flight attendant. Not only weren't there any overhead bins there was very little over head. About twenty other westerners ducked inside; empathetic, half-smiling glances were exchanged, met by shrugged shoulders and raised brows as we squished into our seats. Resigned to our fate, nervous laughter peppered the cabin. I desperately wanted the emergency exit seat but the zaftig one got it first so I crammed in next to him. I looked at the exit -- no larger than a cafeteria tray. Trying to escape would be like shoving dumplings in a bottle of Pepsi.
 
The flight attendant grimaced as she yanked the cabin door closed and latched it shut. It was too late now to turn back, though the thought of taking another flight did cross my mind -several frantic times.
 
We bumped and bounced from side to side as we taxied down the runway, the engine roaring and sputtering a like lawn mower over gravel. The door to the cockpit flew open. Behind the pilot, large plastic bags pilled so high behind him only his cap was visible. One of bags plopped toward us, and just as we were airborne the flight attendant rushed forward and hefted it back in. The plane pitched to the left. Pressing her shoulder against the door the bags seemed to have a mind of their own as they pushed their way back out. A man in the front jumped up and helped her click it shut. She gave a nervous smile, scrunched forward and teetered back just as the door flew open again and the bags tumbled forth, one bursting open, its bundles of letters and small packages obstructing the first two rows. 
 
I closed my eyes, took a slow, deep breath and then I heard the gasps. I looked up as clouds of white were filling the front of the plane. Surely this was it. I held my breath. An Aussie upfront raised her hand to touch the smoke and screamed back, "It's the air-conditioning! Thank God it's only the air-conditioning"! 
 
Bracing herself with one hand on the ceiling, the flight attendant staggered through the cabin handing out little red and white checkered boxes. I was still so nervous I barely touched my cat food. No gin onboard, no alcohol whatsoever and my painkillers were in my suitcase. I asked if anyone had any booze for my watermelon Fanta and then deflate as I learn I'm surrounded by teetotalers. Om mani padme hum, I silently meditate over and over until I nod off between being punched downward in 10 foot deep air pockets.
 
If you're still breathing after the plane has reached terra firma then it's been a success. I was breathing quite heavily. It's incredible how quickly one can go from terrified and humble in the choppy skies, to arrogant and indignant on the ground. No sooner had we come to a stop when I started bitching, "That was hideous! I've felt safer in dog pounds with pork chops shoved up my ass"! The missionaries in front of me spun around and cast a haughty glower in my direction. "Oh, I suppose you've never had pork products in your ass before - you people kill me".
 
That black and white photo taken during the fall of Saigon of a little girl being ripped from her mother by machinegun-armed soldiers elicits more or less the same warm and cozy feelings one gets from Phnom Penh customs. Chaos abounds as we're told to hand over our passports with $20 US inside and then shuttled over to another line to wait as our paperwork is processed -- all the while everyone pushes and prods, shoulder to back, and elbow to gut. A woman from behind the counter holds up a British passport and when the man approaches she hands it off to an armed guard who motions for him to follow. My heart sank. No matter how many times I've been through customs, no matter how many visas I apply for I always exhale with a smile when I am handed back my passport. I beamed and worked my way through the crowd, and outside to the taxi stand.
 
With only one foot in the car he started in with the tricks that every driver employs in developing countries around the world, no doubt since the dawn of the rickshaw. I long-ago honed my skills in "scam survival" in India, the Motherland of all Scams. While I still consider India one of my top three favorite countries in the world, none are more irritating, yet none more fulfilling. Indian touts are by far the sneakiest and cleverest, and after you've dealt with them for a few days you can handle anything. Southeast Asian cabbies, while gentler to be certain, are certainly no less persistent.
 
The main ploy cabbies use that they want you to go to the hotel of their choosing so that they can get a commission and once you tell them that you've already booked a hotel they'll still inform you that it's A) "Full" B) "Dirty" or C)"My brother has a nicer place -cheaper." Before he even turned on the air-conditioning I got all three to which I replied "Excellent!" to each one and "Exactly the way I like it -- filthy! As a matter of fact I can't sleep nights without knowing that rats are gnawing on my underwear"! And "Cheap? Who wants cheap? By God, I burn money just to keep mosquitoes out of my room! Hell, I'm going to set my damn suitcase on fire right now, by God!"
 
We skirt around dirt road roundabouts with billboards advertising Alain Delon cigarettes, "The Taste of France" and pass beeping motorbikes. One driver toots his horn and smiles in my direction. As I smile back my cabbie rolls down the window and talks to him in Khmer. Before long he turns to me and says the biker has a hotel he'd like to show me. I shake my head, "I don't trust that sneaky son-of-a-bitch, keep driving, please".
 
He drops me on the main strip at the Hotel California, which from the looks of it is not such a lovely place, not such a lovely place. They hadn't received my email and tell me that they're booked so I consult my guidebook and try another place down a residential alleyway to a guesthouse with white laminate furniture and a faded pink chenille bedspread. I exit quickly and kindly, and wonder how much of my soul I just lost. Finally after some haggling I find a 20 dollar a night place on the river with a balcony, crank up the air conditioning and the BBC World News. After showering off Bangkok, I thrust myself full force into the sketchy pandemonium of Phnom Penh.
 
I stop at my corner and take it all in as a steady stream of motorbikes whiz past, and mangy mutts lie licking their wounds at the hooker bar across the street. Even at first glance Phnom Penh oozes a faded colonial charm with an undercurrent of eerie intoxicating danger.
 
It's easy to see why at one time she was considered the jewel of Indochine. The balconied buildings with their peeling paint swan their splendor toward a bustling promenade. Ornate grillwork trellised with wisteria guards the tourists at the outdoor cafes from the cyclo drivers and pickpockets. Part of the city's allure is its dark recent history, and it still bears the pockmarks of American paranoia and Khmer Rouge cruelty in the bullet-busted plaster and street lights.
 
The setting sun is burnishing the Tonle Sap River as the esplanade fills up with locals flying kites, monks in ginger robes, and backpackers in their travel grunge. Street hawkers jostle for attention outside the cafes offering everything from Xerox copied guidebooks and toy dragons made of reed. Shoe shine boys swagger down the sidewalk and women mount their motorbikes sidesaddle.
 
It's roughly a twenty minute walk through the exotic circus of the main street to the serene third floor veranda of the Foreign Correspondents Club; a bit of a cleaned-up version of the set from "The Killing Fields" -- only the Mission-style lounge chairs are now equipped with outlets for your laptop. This is where most of the news was reported from Cambodia during the Vietnam War until the day Pol Pot's troops rolled in and shut down the country. I head to the balustrade and plop down on a stool, order a gin and tonic for a buck fifty, and gaze down the hustle of Phnom Penh. Chin in hand I stare and smile in wonder --as a child this was impossibility personified; now the possibilities are endless.

From the brilliant ancient wonders of the Khmer Empire to Cambodia's more recent turbulent past, it's the history more than anything that has drawn me here. While most travelers have come to Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor up in Siem Reap, my main interest in this country is of a darker nature. 

I walk back to my hotel in the pitch of night down Sisowath. In many ways I feel I've taken a step back in time -- the history is swirling all around me like the motorbikes down the dark main strip --- not a traffic light in sight. I had read about purse snatchings and armed robberies in my guidebooks, but I walk tall and strong and put on my best NYC subway scowl. The air of recklessness is infectious.  
 
And though I'd be lying if I said walking down these streets alone isn't a bit nerve-wracking, I'd also be lying if I said I didn't love the exhilaration of anxiousness. I just hope I've left the most frightening parts of this journey on the prop plane behind me.
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