Perils of not knowing the local language
3 Jan 2012
|Note: Those of you who seem to enjoy when things go wrong on my travels will probably like today's journal entry. Those of you who enjoy the photos will be disappointed because there aren't any today.
Here in Cambodia, they speak Khmer. The alphabet is based on the ancient Sanskrit languages. In Vietnam, they switched to using the Roman alphabet, long ago. So, I could read the signs even I if didn't know what the words meant. Here in Cambodia, I can't read anything unless they provide an English or French translation.
I wouldn't be able to read the values of their currency except that they also conveniently put the number using our number system on one corner of one side of the bills. I have to keep all the money oriented face down with this number on the upper left in order to tell which is which.
My inability to read signs here or speak the language has caused other problems.
Having spent some time in the capital, Phnom Penh, and some time in southern Cambodia, I decided to visit Stung Treng, a city in northeastern Cambodia (north the borders with Laos and Vietnam.
I purchased a bus ticket through my hotel (where some of them speak some English). They said I would be picked up at the hotel at 6:45am and would arrive in Stung Treng around 2:15pm. At 6:45am my ride had arrived right on time.
I had expected a tuk-tuk (motorcycle pulling a taxi trailer) to take me to the bus. I was surprised to see a minibus with several people already in it. My mind flashed back to the minibuses I have seen crammed full of people then flashed forward to what 7 hours of that would be like. But, at this point I had few options.
We picked up a few more travelers filling each of the seats. I was relieved when we pulled up to a tourist bus and transferred. Whew! Not speaking any of the local language I'm often confused about what's going on. But, today, at least, I was not going to have a lesson in how it feels to be crammed into an overloaded minibus for seven hours.
At 2:45, just a little behind schedule, we pulled into town and almost everyone got off. I was immediately (and not surprisingly) greeted, in English, by a local gentleman offering a free, no obligation, ride to his hotel. I've learned that this usually means that the hotel is not downtown where all the other hotels are. Since this also usually means it's quieter, this is an advantage to me. So, off we went. It turned out that I was right. All of the other hotels in town were clustered in the center of town, right near the market. His was on the shore of the Mekong River, a few hundred feet down the main street. I checked the room out and bargained him down to $10/night for 7 nights.
What I didn't know then, because I couldn't read the sign, was that the building next door directly next to my room was an elementary school. The noise from kids would invariably wake me every morning around 6:30 whether I wanted to or not. And, their noise made it less satisfying to escape to my room during the heat of the day. One of the hotels downtown would probably have been quieter. Sigh. At least it was very quiet at night after school got out.
Once settled in my hotel room, I headed out to find some tour activities to occupy those 7 days. On my Nook, I had a Lonely Planet book on Cambodia and it had a section on Stung Treng, including places that could rent a bicycle or organize a tour. I set out to find them. I couldn't find any of them. Worse, it said that the tourist office was next to the new bridge over the Mekong. I finally found the tourism office. But, there was no nearby bridge over the Mekong, new or old. Perhaps the office moved since the book was written. No one there spoke English and they didn't seem to have any information on how to book a trek into the mountains. But, I did leave with a small stack of brochures. Armed with these, I tried again to find someplace to rent a mountain bike or book a tour. Still no success. Nothing in the brochures about Stung Treng matched what I was seeing.
Where exactly am I? I was supposed to be in Stung Treng on the Mekong River. I was definitely on the Mekong River but did not appear to be in Stung Treng. After a lot of confusion, I finally concluded that I was in Kratie, about two hours south of Stung Treng. So, my bus wasn't 30 minutes behind schedule; it was 2 ½ hours behind schedule. Note to self, “pay no attention to the posted arrival times of buses in Cambodia”.
Oh well. Sigh.
I checked my guide book on Kratie. Not too much to do here. And, I've already paid for 7 nights. If I had spoken even a little Khmer or been able to read any of the signs, then I wouldn't be spending 7 nights in Kratie. Sigh.
One thing I definitely needed to do was get a haircut. Now that I have short hair, it's very low maintenance but does need to be cut once a month. In Rhode Island, I had concluded that telling the barber “Number Two everywhere except longer in the beard and mustache” always got me exactly what I wanted. Prior to leaving Rhode Island, I had asked them exactly what “Number 2” setting meant. The younger barbers weren't sure but the owner said “1/2 inch”. Well, I responded, “That's about 1 centimeter”. After considerable discussion they concluded that would be accurate enough. So, with this background information, I prepared my self for the adventure of getting a hair cut in Cambodia.
My biggest concern turned out not to be a big problem at all. He took out a barber tool just like back home and it had a 3/8” attachment. I said “longer” and he produced a “1/2” (or Number 2) attachment. Perfect! When he was done, my hair was just like I wanted it.
With my hair cut, now matters turned to my beard. As you may be aware, beards are very rare in all of Asia. Something about their genetics makes it hard for Asians to grow beards (other than the very thin scraggly kind that Confucius had). To avoid shaving everyday (often with cold water), I had let my beard grow out fully. (For my female readers and others without beards, they always get itchy when they start.) For me, it takes about a month before it's comfortable. It was just now getting to the length that I like it but it needed a little trimming.
I said, “Keep it as long as possible; just cut a little bit.”
Apparently, he heard, “Cut it as short as possible; just leave a little bit.”
So, having let my beard grow for 6 weeks, it was now reduced to a three-day stubble and is itchy again. Sigh. Knowing a little Khmer would have helped.
Another task I needed to complete was to mail a few things home. I no longer needed my cold weather clothes in the mountains or the few souvenirs that I have bought. Lugging them around for the rest of the trip didn't make too much sense and might hit me with another expensive over-weight fee, like it just did on my flight from Vietnam to Cambodia.
So, I tried to send them home.
I went to a building that I think is the local post office. No one there spoke any English so all communication was through hand waving and gestures. I managed to get them to give me a box and we put my stuff in it and put my address on it and I paid them. I'm hoping that this was, in fact, a post office. I'm hoping that some day I will see my things again. But, boats take months to send stuff. So, it will be quite a while before I'll know if I managed to get my stuff sent home. Sigh.