Lessons of Phnom Penh

Our first morning in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where the air is hot, the pool water is cool, and minivan buses going from the airport to the hotel squeeze 28 people into 14 seats, was exciting. The hotel Pavilion was a beautiful vintage building with state of the art 1940’s electrical switches and outlets (being an unreasonable worrier, I made sure the balcony provided a quick escape route in case there were any electrical problems…There weren’t.) a beautiful teak bed dressed in mosquito netting and a fabulous pool surrounded by lounging beds. It turned out we didn’t need the mosquito netting, the rooms have air conditioning, so there was no need to open the windows in the evening.

Our room included a 9 am breakfast created by a questionable chef. His “guiche” was a combination of chopped veggies tossed in a crust, a bit of scrambled egg and about six cups of melted cheese on top. However the passion fruit juice and fruit were delicious.

We took a stroll to the Central Market (Psar Thmey) which is the size of a city block, in search of sunglasses and a cheap watch. We ended up splitting up so Toni could go the “sunglass” section and I went to the “watch section”. I purchased myself a pink plastic “Barbie” watch for about $3.00 in less than 5 minutes and still had an hour to wait before meeting Toni.

One of the vendors near by was making a drink from sugar cane. He had a large steel wheel about the size of bicycle tire that turned 2 rods. He fed the thick stems of sugar cane between the rods and as they squeezed out the juice, he added a little lime juice.

When he saw me watching, he smiled and held up his finger to ask if I wanted one. I sat on the tiny red plastic stool and he poured the juice into a cup with crushed ice. My hypochondria kicked in, I had read that in order to avoid traveler's stomach one should only drink ice in a nice establishment, or ice that has a center hole indicating it came from an ice machine, but ice that could have come from a block might be questionable. Fortunately I'm an experienced hypochondriac, and I carry all the essentials; mascara, 3 different brands of ibuprofen, emergency nuts and raisins and the miracle drug, Cipro, so I figured I could take the risk. It was worth it, mildly sweet, but light and refreshing.

Toni and I returned to the hotel to book our flight to Siem Reap and cool off in the pool. Being overly confident of my skills as a savvy traveler, I had convinced Toni that we shouldn't purchase any airline tickets for travel within Cambodia until we arrived in Phenom Phen. I had good reason, while traveling Vietnam(albeit 10 years ago) I'd discovered it was cheaper to purchase tickets for the travel within Vietnam from a travel agency in Saigon, rather than purchasing them through Orbitz or another American website. True, I had forgotten that a flexible schedule is essential when flights aren't pre purchased. I was left with egg on my face when we discovered that all the flights to Siem Reap, where we planned to visit Angkor Wat, were full for at least 4-5 days.

We had only booked 2 nights at Pavilion. The hotel informed us that we could stay another night or two, but would have to move from our huge room with 2 beds that overlooked the pool to a different smaller room in the newer part of the hotel (which turned out to also be bright and comfortable).

We sat by the pool drinking gin and tonics trying to figure out what to do.

"I think we should just take the public bus. It's seven or eight hours, but it's only a few dollars and then we can go tomorrow," Toni suggested.

The thought of riding hours in a bus, potentially with a chicken on my lap, was not the solution I was hoping for. Toni waved down the waiter to order another drink.

“Danger, danger, Will Rogers, don’t drink too much in this humidity,” I said.

“Will Rogers?! You mean Will Robinson! Will Rogers was a cowboy and WILL ROBINSON was the kid on Lost in Space!” Toni rolled her eyes at me.

I knew I had to do something to redeem my reputation. Suddenly I remembered an old Cambodian proverb that I made up… “When bird has no wings, it drives car.”

Our hotel had a fantastic concierge who was very helpful in finding us a car and driver to take us the Siem Reap for less than $100! And it would only take five hours.

When the driver picked us up in his air conditioned car the next day, I was looking forward to a relaxing drive in which I could see the country side on the way to Siem Reap (where I knew the air would be like a steam bath and I hoped to sweat off at least 5 pounds while looking at ancient phallic symbols).

Relaxing is not the way I’d describe the trip, our driver had no qualms about racing the torn and bumpy road from Phnem Phen to Siem Reap and I quickly learned the rules of the road in Cambodia..

  1. In general, drive near the right-ish side of the road
  2. 2. Passing may be attempted on the left…or the right…

3. It is ok to drive in the left lane when a motorbike is coming towards you as long as you honk your horn once or twice

4. It is ok to drive in the middle of the lanes if a motorbike is in one lane and a truck of palm fronds in the other…as long as you honk your horn once or twice

5. If another vehicle is driving towards you in your lane, honk your horn and just go slow

6. If a cow is in the road honk your horn once or twice

7. Cows are not afraid of horns, be prepared to stop

8. If you want to turn left from a right hand lane, it is ok…you do not need to honk your horn.

9. At a round-about, feel free to go which ever direction you wish

10. Most important, JUST RELAX… there’s no hurry….

I decided that last rule would be my mantra for the rest of the vacation… just as soon as I got out of the car!

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