It’s 7th March now and Nel is feeling better, thank the lord. She was up for leaving for Vietnam today but by the time she decided on this we’d missed the early bus and the next one twernt til one. Nominally, it’s a six hour journey but it’s just as well to err on the side of caution and add five or so. At the earliest we would be in Saigon at seven thirty, at the latest, perhaps next week.
Whatever, I thought it might be a good idea to give it another day to be sure she’s better. However, she is well enough to leave the room and that’s a big improvement on the last three days, it means we can go out to eat instead of me getting lost and sweaty in Phnom Penh in search of pizza.
It’s the day after now and we were able to spend yesterday out and about down by the river.
We stopped by the Alley Cat cafe in the Latin quarter and ate pancakes with blueberries and drank lots of coffee, and then tea.
I’ve developed a liking for lemon tea, which is made with lime. In Thailand it was the same, ask for lemon and you get lime. Lemon tea, iced lemon, it’s made with limes and the lord only know why they call it lemon.
In fact, this Alley Cat TexMex cafe has been the only place where the waitress told us, upon asking for iced lemon that they only have limes. Apparently the owner, a large and hairy American is a bit literal when it comes to citrus fruit, and obviously he’s correct, but at odds with the rest of Asia, but then it’s not the first time that’s happened is it?
We went down to the Tonle Sap, the river that joins the Mekong here in Phnom Penh and spent the afternoon drinking limey lemon tea in cafes. The riverfront down there seems to be the western quarter and we met some of the people who live there, including Scotty, an Aussie, who makes a living playing music with a band called, with a degree of surrealism, The Cambodian Space Project, who I will look up when I get the chance to.
We first met him at the opera cafe last Friday, when we were watching the bizarre spectacle of the Japanese opera singer I mentioned, singing with piano and beatbox accompaniment, I don’t think I’d mentioned the beatbox player, but yes, there was a beatbox player, playing beatbox with a piano accompanying a Japanese opera singer. Remember I told you about the drag artist dancing on the bar opposite? Well yes, that was the night when we met Scotty. He turned up with a guitar and we got chatting.
As it turned midnight he told us it was his birthday, so I bought him a beer, against his wishes (what kind of an Aussie is that?) I really liked the bloke and he told us he was playing on Sunday down at another bar.
That night we were charged for twenty cans of Anchor beer. Twenty cans? No way! I was wondering why the waiter kept sayin wow when I asked for another one.
Two of the most popular beers in Cambodia are Anchor and Angkor, which, and try saying it to yourself, are the bleedin same pronunciation, so you have to learn to say an chore.
I am bloody sure we didn’t drink that many cans, even if they’re only little ones the size of a coke can. Nel had some but that still means I would have drank bout seven or eight pints and that’s not possible in this climate. No. I reckon I either got cheated or they put someone else’s beer on our tab by mistake. It doesn’t help that they write the tally down in squares.
I suppose they’re allowed to use their own numbering system. It’s like hangman and each stroke of a square is one unit, and then the diagonal inside makes five, and I think it’s the first time I’ve encountered a different system of counting. It means that your bill is made up of squares. It’s very foreign. I suppose that’s to be expected.
Scotty had told us he was playing at Ruby’s on Sunday afternoon, and gestured down the far end of the street we were on. Well that’s what it looked like to me, but then I’d drank some beer.
As it happens it was an involuntary gesture or spasm of some kind, and it wasn’t down that way at all, it was quite some distance in the opposite direction. We found it eventually and thanks Scotty, really enjoyed the afternoon.
Several people took the stage over the course of the afternoon, all of them entertaining. It was a good day. There were lots of westerners there who live in Phnom Penh, but I couldn’t. It’s all romantic and exotic but I couldn’t ever acclimatize to this and I wouldn’t want to. Kampot yes, but this city is just too constant full on for a simple county boy like me.
Yesterday god favoured us with a slightly lowered temperature. Mid thirties is far more pleasant than high thirties and it was possible to walk down the streets without leaving a trail of wet footprints to mark the path you’ve taken.
Yesterday evening we came down to the bus bookings office to buy our tickets for Saigon. There were, rather unfortunately, only two tickets left, and they were in different parts of the bus, and so we had to book the later bus, which means we arrive in Saigon at 7.30 at the earliest, and that’s a real pain in the arse because we have to find the hotel when we get there and it’s a taxi ride to the guesthouse.
So here we sit, in the little grubby cafe at the bus station which feels like bus station cafes from my youth in the Midlands, only more oriental, and cheaper.
Nel’s eating noodle soup for fifty cents and we’ve sat here a couple of hours now drinking lemon tea made with limes, also fifty cents.
As far as I can make out there are about four or five Khmer dishes widely available and we’ve tried some of them, and then stuck with western food.
We saw a massive menu in Siem Reap but when the food arrived it was all cabbage stalks and cows noses. You could eat for a fraction of what we’ve been spending but you won’t like it.
I just saw indisputably the best feat of stacking many many things in a very very small space that we’ve seen in three months that we’ve been in Asia, they’re masters of it.
I reckon there were more than fifteen motorbikes on the back of that Hilux we just watched go by. There were definitely five hanging off the tail gate and the rest looked like a very neat pile up at the motocross. I really wish I could have got a picture of that, because I would like to be able to prove to myself that I didn’t just hallucinate it.
So, now it’s half past eight on the morning of the 9th and we arrived in Saigon yesterday evening at about nine thirty, so thirteen hours ago. I don’t know if we’re supposed to call it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City.
The bus ride took about seven hours and there were a few strange incidents. After couple of hours we left the main road and headed down a track, we wondered what was going on, then we realised we were headed towards the river, which really piqued my curiosity, and also alarmed me.
No need to worry, there was a ferry. No need to worry? What am I thinking? There was this coach, several lorries and a load of cars, and the ferry already looked to be low in water.
There were, inevitably, a hundred people gathered where the vehicles stop, with baskets of fruit and cans of coke to sell and a lady who looked about fifty came and tapped on the window to show us her drinks cabinet and her teeth. Through the window, Nel shook her head, and this lady stuck her tongue out at us, splashed water up the window, grinned and waved at us really sweetly. Happily the trip across the river worked out well and we didn’t sink on the way.
There were two other white people on the bus, an Englishman and his big blond girlfriend, who was foreign, maybe German or Scandinavian, or something.
When we’d boarded the bus in Phnom Penh, an employee had came around with a carrier bag and collected all our passports. When we got to the border, eventually, the passports were taken and then bought back to us and we were told to go line up at immigration. Everyone except me and the other two white people. We were sent off to another kiosk, wondering if we were going to have a more intimate experience than everyone else was going to be subjected to, and whether I’d get to keep the gloves afterwards. As it happened, I was given my passport right back and then sent to another kiosk, where my fingerprints were taken. The other couple had overstayed their visa and were fined five dollars per day.
We got back on the bus, went a hundred yards and then got out again, this time to have our bags X rayed. And so we queued again, this time in a room and with our bags while a man went through hundreds of passports, handing them one at a time to another man, who called out the name and sent you through with your bags.
Everyone from our coach was called through, except for me and Nel. We were left there waiting for an eternity, the only white people in the room hoping the bus would wait for us. Happily it did, we must have been ten minutes after everyone else for some reason, having no idea what the bloody hell was happening.
And so the bus pulled away, into Vietnam and a couple of hours later dumped us in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh.
I thought we knew about scooters but really, Phnom Penh is nothing to this. If Phnom Penh is busy with motos, Saigon seen from the bus is a sea of motorbike helmets and nothing else until you look upwards, fully expecting to see them there an all, but happily they don’t fly because that would be even more dangerous.
Actually, saying that, we saw the second aeroplane we’ve seen in a month. Think of that!
So anyway, we were dumped by the road, in Saigon. Good to be off the bus, which can be viewed as a giant carriage for a very very loud horn. The horn was so loud that it made me jump every time he sounded it, about every thirty seconds, you don’t get used to it in the same way as you don’t get used to a gunshot being fired behind you at intervals.
Nel had booked a room but we had no idea which direction the hotel is in, or in fact which direction we were facing. A taxi cost us two dollars and he had a meter running, which is always a comfort.
As it happens it’s not a bad room. Aircon and tv (television) that shows the discovery channel but no BBC news.
We dumped our stuff off and went out to find some food, didn’t find anything we could recognize anywhere except frogs, and I lost my appetite.
That’s enough for now anyhow, second day in Saigon and it’s manic, we’ve booked a day trip tomorrow to the Mekong delta to have a look about and then we’re planning on getting out of the city for a while. We’ve been looking at a place called Mui Na, about five or six hours bus trip away on the coast. After Phnom Penh for a week we really need to get out of the city.
We haven’t yet got any pictures of Saigon, you’ll have to wait til next time