Sunday, December 31, 2006

Out of Combodia

I'm sorry to say, the place didn't really do it for me - I didn't even last a week. Not to say there weren't some good things, but I kind of feel "been there, done that". Once I got through the border crossing, it was a quick van ride to Stung Treng, at which point I found out why there are no buses on this piece of the road - there is no bridge across the river to get north from Stung Treng. Instead, there is a funny little causeway that runs about half way across the river, then there is a ferry. No large vehicle would make it. Improvements are on the way - the whole road is being extensively rebuilt (with Chinese money) and there is a bridge about half complete at Stung Treng. Once these projects are completed, the transportation links in this area will be revolutionised (I hope the good people of Laos will in fact be linking their national highway to this new road, otherwise there will still be that weird "lonely track through the bush" to navigate).

The best thing about Stung Treng was my hotel room - it was massive (two double beds and room for two more), spotless as pretty much all accomodation I have been is has been and had cable TV, all for $5. So, no real regrets the next day to catch the bus for the longest single bus journey of my trip - all the way to Phnom Penh. This was Christmas eve, so I splurged on a waterfront 3 star (I guess) hotel. Now there have been places where I have wanted to move on from - PP is the first place to actually make me wish I was at home.
The nice area of town, along the river, is fully colonised by the tourist industry and just not very nice. The touts were either aggressive or pathetic - one poor boy just stood mutely in front of me, pleading with his eyes for me to have my shoes (sneakers!) shined. He wouldn't stop being a cling-on and to my shame, I shouted at him. So, my first reaction was to just get on the next bus to Vietnam: since I didn't want to cut and run so quick, I bought a ticket to Battambong, up in the north west.

Of course, then Phnom Penh turned out quite nice and peaceful - I did what thousands of locals do every day and promenaded along the river. I was sitting having a smoke when one of the young girls selling books from a clothes basket hung around her neck tried to sell me books I don't want. Instead of pushing, she sat down with her friends nearby; after asking me for food "I'm Cambodian, I have no money, I am hungry", she not only got some food but offered to share it with me. Of course, I didn't accept, just felt ashamed at my attitude, once again. I also found an almnost deserted spot in my hunt for the railway station, up near the American embassy.

The poor railway station has seen better days - its interior furnishinsgs have been removed, the exterior is in desperate need of a clean up. It probably symbolises the state of Cambodian rail quite nicely - they only run the one train a week, to Battambang, but the track is so badly damaged, it takes three times as long as the bus. But good news: the Malaysian government has donated track and the Asian development bank has provided mony not just to restore the track, but to extend it - to the Thai border in the north and across the Mekong and into Vietnam in the south - all by around 2015, so that there can be a direct rail link from Thailand into China (and then onto Moscow - now there's a formidable rail trip to do!).

So - no trains for me in Cambodia - I took the bus up to Battambang - a very peaceful riverside town of 80,000 or 126,000 people, depending on your source. It was what I needed, and very cool to walk around of an evening (albeit hot and dusty during the day). There, I found my favourite restaurant of the whole trip - the White Roses, a simple family run place where I had my second dish of Loclac (beef in a very mild gravy over a salad with fried egg, chips and rice - reputedly a very traditional Khmer dish) and tried out the Khmer version of a curry. I was only there a couple of days, but the urge to completely skip Siem Reap and Ankor Wat and make a break for Vietnam completely overcame me.

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