Sunday, February 21, 2010

Up tempo

I really like Cambodia. I know it’s only my third day here but I think it’s a great little place. And I haven’t seen any tourist attractions yet.

Crossing the border was fairly painless, notwithstanding the fact that the officials there are notoriously corrupt and insist on $1 “for stamps”. The Cambodians are noted for this but I got stung by the Laotians too, which suggests I look older, more respectable and richer than my backpacker associates. Still, I’m not going to complain about $2. As a British guy on the bus pointed out, for people who speak fluent English the civil servants’ salary probably amounts to peanuts.

Once our bus had left the checkpoint, we were treated to some video entertainment consisting of a glossy promotional film set to a jaunty jingle. “Cambodia! Cambodia! Kingdom of wonders. We serve you best.” The lyrics weren’t going badly until that last part.

Unlike most visitors, who head straight for the bright lights of Phnom Penh and the historic spectacle of Angkor Wat, I opted to spend a couple of nights in the nondescript border town of Stung Treng. Having sat through ten minutes of Nicolas Cage doing his moody stone-face routine on a DVD of Bangkok Dangerous, I was desperate to get off the bus in any case.

Initially I did little beyond settling in but then yesterday I hired a bike and followed a town tourist trail an official had given me. Considering there isn’t really anything to see, I was impressed by the document’s professional layout and fluent English - it had obviously been edited by a native speaker, unlike the “kingdom of wonders“ song. But, looking for a particular temple, my map-reading skills failed me (as they often do) and led me into the surrounding villages to the west of town.

Man, what a blessing in disguise that was. I loved it out there. I mean, the Laotians were nice enough and all that but the Cambodians have been conspicuously friendly and welcoming ever since I got here. They just seem to have more zip. Wherever I went people waved and said hello, especially the kids, who throughout this southeast Asian trip have been eager to have their photographs taken at every opportunity.

This time, though, I thought I’d record some camcorder footage and play it back to them. Oh, the smiles and squeals of delight! It made me grin too, watching it back as I stitched the clips together on my laptop. I hadn’t noticed when one little girl among friends had said to me: “Hello rich man.”

After that it was back into town, then to the eastern outskirts to visit Mekong Blue, a project that trains and employs vulnerable women to weave freshly-spun silk, which it then sells as ties, scarves etc. I didn’t buy any myself but chose to help the cause by having lunch in its pricy restaurant.

Now, I can’t objectively argue that Stung Treng is a better place to visit than the temply city of Luang Prabang, for instance, but I do know I’ll have happier memories of Stung Treng. Why? Expectations, I guess. Most of the places I visited in Laos were hyped up in advance, often by my guidebook, and consequently turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax. Conversely, I had no expectations of Stung Treng and was very pleasantly surprised by it (leaving aside its four or five power cuts a day).

Again, the Cambodians are just delightful. This sentiment was echoed by a French Canadian I was chatting with last night, who fell in love with the country as soon as he arrived and decided to extend his stay - touring Cambodia by motorbike - from one month to two. Given how appalling their recent history has been, and the hardships they still face, their transparent joie de vivre kind of surprises me, though. I look at the over-50s - people who might be just ten years older than me - and think: “Christ, what must you have lived through?”

Today I rose early to catch the 7.15am bus to Kratie (pronounced ‘Kracheh’), a city a couple of hours to the south that in some ways is like a larger version of Stung Treng. Both have a sea-front-like Mekong riverside, a very welcoming ambiance and a bustling, earthy market.

In common with most of southeast Asia, they also have very few cars and an awful lot of motorbikes.

I’m not sure about the guest house I’m staying in, however. When I got off the bus today, I agreed to go with a moto-driving tout to this hotel and restaurant close by. (A moto is a common mode of public transport in Cambodia, although this was my first experience of it. You sit on the back of someone’s motorbike, basically.)

I quite liked the room he showed me and agreed to stay, but the woman who runs it irritates the hell out of me. She speaks in an incomprehensible jumble of Khmer and English, paws my shoulder when she’s talking to me, bares her horrible gold teeth when she smiles and pushily keeps asking when I’m going to eat in the restaurant or go on a day trip.

In normal circumstances this might be bearable but this afternoon, while I was resting in my room, she tried to unlock the door from the outside, thinking I was still out. I opened it and she gave me some bullshit about checking the taps in the bathroom, but I’m pretty certain she’d come for a good old mooch. It’s a good thing I’m paranoid to begin with and keep most of my stuff locked in my case. No doubt tomorrow I’ll be moving to new accommodation.

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