16 May, 2010
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We left Siem Reap yesterday in the early afternoon, aboard one of the ubiquitous “buses” (minivans) that ferry tourists across South-East Asia. I’ve come to despise these minivans as the absolute lowest form of travel. They’re always overcrowded. The air-conditioning is always broken. The driver will always, without fail, simply toss your bags onto a spare seat when he knows damn well that there are another ten or so people to pick up and he’s going to have to move them into the storage area anyway, chewing up more time. And they’re cramped. Impossibly, intolerably, infuriatingly cramped. The stress positions these buses force you into would make a Guantanamo Bay torturer proud.

This ride was even more unpleasant because we were stuffed in with four fat, loud, crude, boisterous, middle-aged Australian and British sex tourists of exceptional ugliness. Chris and I ended up crammed onto opposite sides of the back seat, the wheel wells robbing us of the miniscule leg space available so that we had to tuck them up against our chests. The sex tourists, on the other hand, spread their collective corpulent mass out between us with aplomb, all the while complaining loudly about the limited space. “Yeah, you’ve got it rough,” Chris said later. “Cramming some kid up against the window while you stretch your legs out in the aisle.” When they demanded the driver stop the minivan so they could take a piss, I was fervently wishing one of them (or ideally all of them) would step on a landmine.

I had them pegged as pedophiles, of course, though after my iPod battery died I heard one of them discussing his Thai bride and how he’d lavished her village with gifts and money. The idea of a fat, old and ugly Westerner essentially purchasing a bride off a village is still distasteful, but better than what I had them marked as. Still. They were gross and the concept of Asian brides is gross. At the airport bookstore in Phuket there were entire shelves full of books about how to get yourself a Thai girlfriend. I don’t… urggh. It’s weird. I guess if both parties are happy with the outcome it’s fine.

I still hated those fat rude fuckers on the bus. It only took about one hour on that minivan to completely wipe away my Angkor Wat buzz and make me hate South-East Asia again. I’d rank it slightly above the Tiger Airways flight out of Perth, but only just.

We arrived in Phnom Penh after nightfall, and I got hit by a beggar literally three seconds off the bus, as I opened my bag to get my notebook out and she saw the piece of bread the travel company gave us to stave off starvation on the long ride. “Yum-yum,” she said. She looked pretty grubby and desperate, and was annoying, so I gave it to her. Chris, meanwhile, was climbing into a tuk-tuk with a guy who’d hailed us right in the doorway of the bus.

Here’s a good travel tip which I’m sure I’ve already mentioned: never ever ever ever ever accept a ride from somebody at the airport/bus station/train station. They’re all scam artists who will take you directly to a guesthouse that pays them a commission, and will usually charge far more just for the ride itself.

We both know this, but the alternative is to walk fifty metres down the road lugging all your shit with you and hail a new guy. After that bus ride from hell, neither of us were in the mood. I just wanted to find a guesthouse, check in, and drown myself in the toilet. So I threw my bags in with him and we set off towards the riverfront guesthouse strip.

We hadn’t really researched anywhere to stay in Phnom Penh, which neither of us had an excuse for, since we had four days with wifi in Siem Reap. After the tuk-tuk driver did his predictable “no, you stay here, very nice!” routine, we had him take us all the way to the south end of the city, where Chris had looked up a single place. They were full, but they sent us down to a hotel called the Green House, where we finally got rid of that fuckhead con artist and got to put our bags down and get out of the heat for a minute.

The tuk-tuk driver had told us this part of the city was largely deserted, with no good restaurants nearby, which I naturally assumed was a lie so that we’d settle for one of his guesthouses. Turns out it wasn’t. We had to pay about six bucks just to get up to the restaurant strip and back. Food in Phnom Penh is pricier too. Maybe I’m an asshole for complaining about paying $6 US for a meal in a nice alfresco restuarant when beggar children are trying to sell me flowers as I eat, but it was a long day and I’d had enough.

It was also Saturday night, which meant that the bars and restaurants around our thin-walled hotel were playing loud music until the wee hours of the morning. Directly outside our window was a projector screen playing non-stop music videos to an empty courtyard. I could have tolerated this if it was decent music, but it was all whining, meandering love ballads. They sounded like they were being sung by an Indian guy wearing loose white clothing, handing a carefully plucked flower to a blushing young woman. It’s the Asian equivalent of what people were listening to in the 30’s and 40’s. I guess some parts of the world never had a rock revolution.

Also, Chris says he woke up about 3 am and heard what he described as “a team of horses pulling a sea container down the road.” So, yeah, don’t stay at the Green House.

Today we moved back up into the central part of the city, trying to track down a hotel Chris’ girlfriend suggested to us after she came here in January. This place (the Angkor Bright, by the way Elisha, not the Angkor Reach) should do us fine for now, with air-con and wifi.

We’re in Phnom Penh because we have to be, not because we want to be. We need to apply for Chinese visas, which may take some time. Also, Chris is sick and needs to see a doctor. He’s been weak and tired and sometimes feverish ever since Phuket, but he’s also a typical Australian male who believes, contrary to all available evidence, that doctors are useless and will not fix your illness. Now that he’s reached the point where he barely has the strength to carry his backpack, he’s relented. I booked an appointment for him tomorrow at the SOS International Clinic, for a staggering $80 US, which we hope his travel insurance will cover.

Until these things are cleared up we’re stuck in this wretched third-world city of heat, poverty, filth, sweat, crime, drugs, and naked beggar-children picking through the garbage in the gutters. I suppose we’ll visit the genocide museum and maybe go to a shooting range, but for now we’re holed up in our hotel room researching China. I sort of wanted to go see Bokor National Park, but this place robs me of the desire to do anything except leave.