So this is what they mean when they say monsoon

Trip Start May 25, 2003
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Trip End Aug 21, 2003


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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Wednesday, July 23, 2003

The rain is falling in buckets outside this thatched-roof internet cafe in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh...

Last we wrote, we were basking in charm and serenity of Hoi An, Vietnam, sipping happy hour cocktails as our tailors worked to ensure our sartorial splendor. Costumes complete, we bid our buddy Ed adieu and headed south for Saigon. We planned to stop somewhere en route to split up the long journey, and Nha Trang ended up being a great choice. The white sand beach was lined with restaurants and bars, and we lounged in our reclining chairs in the shade of a palm umbrella, lazily watching the world go by. The tiny women carrying mobile markets atop their narrow shoulders never cease to amaze us. These contraptions are a daily reality all over Vietnam - two baskets brimming with goods, perfectly balanced on either end of a bamboo rod. The beach version was particularly cool, with a pot of crabs steaming on a pan of hot coals on one side, and lobster and clams chilling on ice on the other. The yin and yang of the fruits of the South China Sea - even Mike, his hyperbolic hatred of seafood notwithstanding, could appreciate it. With just one day to spend in Nha Trang, we indulged in a day-long cruise around the local islands. On ship, we randomly ran into some friends from Hanoi and lived it up along with the many Vietnamese vacationers, eating delicious food and (after the obligatory 30-minute digestion period), snorkeling up to the floating bar for a refreshment, which helped soothe the occasional sting from the jellyfish with whom we shared the water. The ship's crew doubled as a self-described Boy Band, covering the Eagles, Zeplin and Elvis on make-shift instruments - hilarious! Beach volleyball, bobbing for beers and a BAD Boy Band - can't really ask for much more than that!

We would have loved to spend more time in Nha Trang, but with our travel time gradually dwindling away, we had to make tracks south to Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City, as it is officially referred to here, is a bustling metropolis with maniacal traffic and modern buildings, interspersed with lush parks and the charm of French colonial architecture. We spent the morning at a small museum where we learned a little more about the enigmatic and nationally revered Uncle Ho. Then it was off to the War Crimes Museum for a sobering look at some remnants of what the Vietnamese people call the American War, and finally an anything-but sober night of partying with Ed and other friends we have met along the way. With the booming base of the bar's beat echoing in our heads, bottomless buckets of jungle juice still sloshing in our bellies, and a measly 3 hour's sleep, the morning's bus ride to the border of Cambodia was a bit rough, but we managed to make our way through the labyrinth of Vietnamese and Cambodian customs officials at the border crossing without arousing undue suspicion.
The striking contrast between Vietnam's remarkably successful post-war transformation and Cambodia's ongoing struggles to emerge from Pol Pot's ethnic cleansing and the subsequent war with Vietnam became immediately apparent as we crossed the border. The road disappeared from beneath our minibus, replaced by a viscous red clay soup that caused every manner of motorized vehicle to careen helplessly out of control. Our inevitable crash occurred when our driver attempted in vain to maneuver past a Land Cruiser submerged in the bog. Metal met metal as the minibus slid sideways. The drivers calmly approached each other and stood amicably side-by-side in the rain, absently nibbling fruit, looking nonplused as we wondered what would happen next. What did happen was a traffic jam - a line of cars whose drivers quietly (not a single horn was honked) stood in the rain, hoping to make their muddy way past the carnage of our crash. The people from the nearby village emerged from the houses-on-stilts and joined us as we watched in awe as the guy responsible for burying his Land Cruiser offered to navigate another man's truck through the mud. Perhaps believing he had learned some invaluable lesson from his previous mistake, he wasted little time in submerging the second truck in its own 3-foot deep muddy grave. Eventually, with the help of a local tractor, we managed to free ourselves from the mud and resumed our journey, crossing the Mekong Delta and finally arriving in Phnom Penh a mere 11 hours after setting out from Saigon. We hopped on some motorbikes for a damp 10-minute ride through town and took a $3 room in the lake district.

Cambodia seems to offer little in the way of creature comforts, but the kindness of the people and the serenity here more than compensate. Bars and cafes abound, each spinning their own version of the trance music that serves as a soundtrack for SE Asian travel, and serving the local delicacy - "happy pizza," spiced with intoxicating herbs, helping road-weary travelers pass the time as the rain continues to fall...

We plan to attend a talk tonight at the Foreign Correspondents Club, where international journalists host weekly discussions on current events over cocktails. This should be particularly interesting, as Cambodia's upcoming election (July 27th) will certainly be a topic of conversation. Voting is a big deal here, in light of Cambodia's history of government-run atrocities - evidence of the pre-election excitement is visible (and audible, through loud-speakers mounted atop cars and trucks) all over town. Tomorrow we hope to visit the infamous killing fields and S-21, a museum housed in the high school Pol Pot transformed into Indochina's version of Auschwitz. (I think we'll both be ready for some pizza tomorrow night!). Then it's off to Siem Reap, a few hours north by boat, to check out the town and gawk at Angkor Wat.

Leah soon hi (goodbye in Khmer)...

The Ugly Americans
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