Don't worry, we haven't come across any of these things in surprisingly civilized Phnom Penh, but if this were ten years ago, they would've been unavoidable. (This is the title of a famous book we've seen all over Asia about the Phnom Penh of recent memory.)
Ok, so sorry to anyone else who thought that they had been dropped from this distribution list because we haven't written in so long! We just didn't have anything exciting to tell you since we ended up lounging on the beach in Mui Ne for 2 weeks! We kept thinking about leaving but we just couldn't do it. So now our Cambodian travels will be a bit shorter, but we don't think we'll regret it. Mui Ne was fabulous. It's officially the longest time we've spent anywhere since we left on this trip over four months ago - so long that our bags had dust on them when we took them out of the closet to pack. We frequented a nice, newly opened Italian restaurant in town where on our last night we were offered jobs by the Italian owners! Tempting, but we wondered what our families might have to say about that. Our days consisted of windsurfing lessons in the morning before the wind picked up too much, and some combination of reading on the beach, listening to music, walking in the surf, watching kitesurfers, and watching movies in the afternoon and evening. It was really tough. We thought about learning to kitesurf, but it was a little too expensive. Over the two weeks we did grow very jealous of all the kitesurfers who looked like they were having tons of fun, and we hope to try it one day - maybe in wetsuits on Lake Ontario!
So after 2 wonderful weeks we boarded our familiar open tour bus and headed to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on Sunday. After so much time in a very different Vietnam, the return to what is more typical here hit us like a punch in the face. The noise, the touts, the begging children, the guy who approached us as we were sitting in a restaurant and offered us marijuana...Twelve hours there was more than enough. It took us 5 minutes to buy two $5 bus tickets to Phnom Penh across the street from our hotel. Sometimes it is pretty convenient that everyone everywhere is happy to take you anywhere you want. We got on our A/C minibus with only 7 other tourists. The 4 empty seats on the bus was a record for us, and the bus actually left on time. We should've known it was too good to be true.
The distance between HCMC and Phnom Penh is a mere 213 kilometers, on mostly good roads, but the bus companies manage to turn this into an all-day affair. About two hours after getting on the bus, and with only 20 minutes to go to the border, we stopped at a restaurant for half an hour so the bus company could get its necessary commission. We were let off the bus at the hot, dusty Moc Bai-Bavet border and were immediately assaulted by a dozen women in conical hats and face bandanas (having tan skin is very undesireable here and it's hard to find skin cream that isn't 'whitening') wanting to change money for us. We were told the actual crossing would be long and chaotic, but we must've gotten there at the beginning of the mid-day push because it really wasn't bad. It was uneventful other than that Kate got asked out on a date by one of the Cambodian border guards and our visas cost us $25 when we were nearly certain it should've been $20. Of course the official price (if such a thing even exists) is not posted anywhere. We were finished with all the procedures at 11:15, and then we waited, and waited. We did not get on the bus to Phnom Penh until after 2. It was not a minibus, so the company needed to wait for enough tourists to accumulate, and of course we were all waiting at a restaurant. The bus needed some help to get started, so Raime, 2 other tourists, and a bunch of Khmers gave it a push and we were off. It was relatively uneventful, except for a ferry ride where you would think they would've built a bridge (it is one of the country's major 'highways'). We were supposed to arrive at 4, it was more like 7. When we arrived at the guesthouse on the far edge of the city center, the bus was carefully parked to nearly block any escape onto the street, and our bags had been carried into the lobby before the doors we opened. We managed to make a clean getaway, and found a good hotel closer to center (with a big balcony and free laundry), and more importantly very close to a Western supermarket with cereal, chips and salsa, AND Ben&Jerry's. $6.50 a pint but we're only human. Phnom Penh is a nice surprise so far. Many people are genuinely friendly, the tuk-tuk drivers calmly say 'OK' when you say no thanks, and there's a big boat-race festival over the next few days so the atmosphere is very lively. Compared to all the other Asian cities, this feels much more like a big town. This morning we went to the Tuol Sleng Museum, which was a Khmer Rouge detention center 30 years ago. Tomorrow we will visit the memorial to the Killing Fields. Very depressing stuff, but it's important to see what a hell this country was so recently.
We're off to wander the festivities some more. We'll try to get more pictures of the city up next time.