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Friday 24th September - Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
By Claire
Sunday, 26th September 2004 05:28

We had been told that that bus trip to Cambodia can be a long one, so we were pleasantly surprised to find that (other than the stop at a cafe after an hour) we went all the way to the border in about two hours. We passed people with skinny brahmen cows, the ones that have humps and long goat-like ears and are slightly wrinkled, and people in hammocks at the side of the road. A lot of people were having their hair inspected for lice, but that seemed more like a social occasion rather than a medical necessity.

Once there, we were warned not to let anyone near our bags as they tend to be held to ransom on the other side of the border, so we ran round to the side of the bus to grab them, but there were no problems at all. The border formalities all went on in a row of open-fronted offices, twelve in all, with a desk and a man in uniform in them. We joined the queue with the rest of the bus passengers and were pushed out of line by locals after a quick stamp on a form. It took a while and it was very hot, but we got there in the end. We walked out of Vietnam and across about 200 yards of muddy no-man's land, littered with market stalls and washing hanging on wire and children running around, and into Cambodia. I really love walking across borders, especially ones that have a good deal of empty space between them, something else I seem to have got from my father! A huge new border building was under construction in the middle of the road, just a concrete shell at the moment, surrounded by wooden scaffolding.

In Cambodia we obtained visas, had our passports stamped and started to learn our first bits of Khmer, which no-one told me was in an uninteligible script. But now we could say 'thank-you' which got us smiles from just about everyone. It was so hot, bright sunshine and a lot of humidity. Everyone was soaking wet. We trudged to a restaurant to wait for the Cambodian bus to be ready.

The cafe was filthy, with bits of food and tissue and mud all over the floor. I bought some bread and cheese as we weren't offered a menu, and then we waited for about an hour and a half. We finally piled on the bus. There were only about twenty of us, so there was plenty of room for our bags over the back seats. The air-conditioning was very welcome indeed. Once again, though, I was ashamed by the behaviour of some awful Irish girls in front of us, with tight little vests, who rested their feet on the seats, over the heads of the local people. In Buddhist country there is very little considered more offensive.

The only difference between the two countries at first was the complete lack of other traffic. Only a bicycle or a single moped shared the road, and it was very peaceful. Normally I don't really like border towns because I am excited to see a different country and there's not really anything different to see for the first fifty miles or so, but only five minutes down the road Cambodia made itself felt. A huge replica of Angkor Wat, the country's most famous landmark and source of intense national pride, appeared on the left-hand side of the road. There were signs written in Khmer outside it, but that was no use to me.

Then the rice paddies started again, going on as far as the horizon, and children with water buffalo and skinny zen cows walked past. There were villages here, unlike Vietnamese towns, which had patches of forests between the wooden houses. They were all built away from the road and could be approached along dusty driveways and paths. Sometimes bigger ones were visible in clearings, built on stilts. The gorgeous countryside just went on and on, sometimes towns popped up, just small clusters of houses, and then the villages and paddies came back. Finally the rice fields were flooded and plains of water ran to the horizon, the occasional green spike of a rice plant piercing the still water. And tall palm trees dotted the vista too. Boats replaced wading as a way of getting around. Children were paddling and splashing in the water. Straw houses were sunk in the water up to their roofs.

The flooding continued, and even when more towns appeared, they had taken the flood into account when the houses had been built - their porches met the road verge but the house itself was perched over the water. In clearings occasionally we could see the occasional ancient house built of brick and plaster, looking very run-down but still with wooden shutters intact and plaster moulding. Every now and then we saw a pagoda or old temple in the woods and amused ourselves by asking 'Wat's that?' which, like all our little jokes, will never wear out.

The bus pulled over to the side of the road for a while and loaded the aisle with plastic barrels of petrol. They must have managed at least a dozen, piling the bags on the back seats higher to get more in. The bus filled with petrol fumes. We noticed that a lot of the houses were selling bottles of petrol from their porches, as well as glass containers of gorgeous metallic green, red and yellow liquids.

We arrived at a river crossing and waited on the bus for the ferry. The isle was still blocked with petrol cans so we couldn't really leave. Masses of women with trays of food on their heads swarmed round the bus and knocked on the windows, closely followed by begging children and blind men. A little girl sat on the curb eating a chicken bone, crushing the bone itself to get to the marrow. The ferry arrived, we crossed the river, and carried on driving to the capital.

There were more towns here, only small ones, but little villages still popped up in the paddy fields. A large network of canals had been built too. We finally made it to Phnom Penh, a dusty grey city with tatty old houses and some pretty, old ones. The bus dropped us at a guesthouse and because it was dark and still quite hot, we stayed there. We chose the second room they showed us, as it actually had windows. The very camp man who showed us to the room winked at either me or Mikey and said that he'd like to be our driver tomorrow, and then left. We went down to supper. The restaurant had a very good restaurant and an impressive menu. I was excited by the cheddar sandwich for breakfast. We chose some Cambodian dishes, beef with peanuts in different guises, and a very nice potato salad. I haven't had proper potatoes for ages! The restaurant was the place all the local people seem to hang out, and they were all very chatty. We were offered a city tour on a moped in the morning, which we declined saying that I'd fall off and die, and then a tuk-tuk driver offered us the same service, which we accepted. He even showed us his tuk-tuk - half a motorbike with a covered metal trailer. After supper we checked our email and then spent a while writing diaries and slept with the air-conditioning on.

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