It didn’t occur to me to compare Laos to Thailand on any level other than culinary. Ok, I have also made a mental note that north of Mekong they drive on the proper side of the road. Other than that, the two countries – though unique in their own ways – seemed to flow one into the other quite seamlessly. Cambodia, on the other hand, strikes me as a completely different kind of South East Asia.
The thing that I notice first – can’t help noticing! – is the quality of the roads. Having had a fair share of car trips back in my home country, I flatter myself to be able to handle any kind of road. Until, that is, I spend five minutes driving through Cambodia. When our bus – a full-size coach – crosses a bridge made entirely of feeble-looking wooden planks, the background sound effect reminds an audio track of a low-budget horror movie. When our driver fails to slow down before a sharp turn and sends the heavy machine spinning on a busy dirt road, I consider adding a high-pitched shriek to the sound of screeching breaks… Bus travel in Cambodia is nerve-wrecking, to put it lightly.
But it’s not only bad roads that make up Cambodia! I quickly forget about the life-threatening transit, stunned by what has to be the most peculiar national fashion statement. Nearly every woman in sight is wearing matching pyjamas! And no, I don’t mean a similar local outfit, I’m talking a familiar sleeping garment, cartoon character prints and all. Picture this: a young lady on a scooter in the downtown Phnom Penn, sporting a pair of sneakers, a knock-off designer shoulder-bag… and Donald Duck decorated pj’s! Even after a week in Cambodia I can’t help staring…My agitated travel partner keeps inquiring why the hell we didn’t take a train. Well, the answer is simple, really: there are no passenger trains in this country. It’s either a reckless-driver-poor-dirt-track combo – or nothing at all. Even existing “highways” are few and far between. Case in point: to reach Siem Reap, the home of the magical Angkor temples, one must drive from the Lao border in the northern most part of the country all the way to the southern Phnom Penn and then up again, to the north west – 16 hours of pure butt-numbing joy! In other words: over 800 km where it shouldn’t be more than 300.
It also comes as a bit of surprise that apparently the local currency is a US dollar. At least this is what I end up withdrawing from an ATM and paying at a supermarket. Khmer multi-zero banknotes – riel – are used instead of coins, with one thousand being the equivalent of 25 cents. It’s hard to describe any of the South East Asian countries as particularly well-off, but compared to its neighbors Cambodia is singularly poor. The utmost devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime is over 30 years behind, but still visible in nearly all spheres of life. Formerly one of the world’s most powerful empires, the homeland of Angkor has trouble coping with dirt, disease and depression. And nothing reveals this more bluntly than the capital city of Phnom Penn after dark…
On the first evening in Cambodia, I can’t help feeling despondent, pointlessly wandering through the dark, littered streets. I need a beer – or few – to make things a little more bearable, so I drag my travel partner into one of the local restaurants. There the menu speaks to my very heart and I order a “pickled mango salad with fried shrimps and fresh herbs” on the side of my beer – and a different, happy, vibrant, optimistic Cambodia explodes in my mouth!
At this very moment I know: the nation with such acute taste for food cannot be defeated! Khmer people will heal and cure their country.