Friday, November 19, 2010

Traveling through Cambodia

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Our wake-up call was 3:30 a.m. Our Vietnamese friend Dinh Ngoc Truc was picking us up at our Saigon hotel -- the Hoang Phu Gia -- at 4:30.

We would have to be ready on time because we had to take a cab to board our bus by 5 a.m., when it would depart for Cambodia.

Ken Fritz, a fellow helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, and I joined Truc in the cab, which got us to the bus well in time for the trip to begin.

Breakfast was planned for Moc Bai, the last Vietnamese city before we crossed the border into Cambodia.

After some 30 minutes we had passed through Trang Bang and Cu Chi, and entered Moc Bai, pulling into what appeared to be a Vietnamese version of a truck stock. We joined the 9 other passengers, our tour guide and driver, entering the large, covered dining area

Our places had been laid out: Small upside-down bowls. There was a rack containing chopsticks, napkins, soup spoons, fish and soy sauces, and toothpicks. A serving bowl on the table overflowed with lettuce, bean sprouts and cilantro. A young girl came by, ladling pho into our now-upturned bowls. In Vietnamese fashion, we added chiles, soy sauce, lettuce, bean sprouts and cilantro to the soup.

Pho — pronounced "fa" — is the national meal of Vietnam.

When breakfast was over, we boarded the bus for the short drive to the border. Our luggage came out of the bus trunk and we all carried and pulled luggage through Vietnamese immigration to the Cambodian side. There, our photographs were taken and we handed over our passports.

Our Vietnamese guide explained we would not have to change money if we were carrying U.S. dollars, as they are the second currency of Cambodia. We found this to be the case. All merchants -- from street vendors to fashionable shops -- can make change for dollars.

The Insect Market in Cambodia.
As we pulled away in the bus, Ken noted the apparent prosperity of Bavet, the Cambodian town at the border. Driving through town, we saw it was full of casinos and luxury hotels. Among them were the Las Vegas Sun and the Winn.

One of the first things that struck me about Cambodia was the sparsity of the population. Our guide explained the country has a population of 14 million, small for the land surface the Southeast Asian country covers.

I also noticed all official signs along the streets and highways give information in Cambodian and English.

We passed through the Cambodian countryside, bright with the deep green color of trees, the gold of maturing rice, and the blue of the sky.

About noon, our bus pulled to a stop in front of an elaborately decorated restaurant at Kampong Cham, a town on the Mekong River. The young waitresses brought out plates of chicken, fish, leafy vegetables with pork, soup, planting them on a glass lazy susan in the center of the table. All of the bus passengers sat around the table, reaching for items with their chopsticks.

Dinh Ngoc Truc at Angkor Thom near
Siem Reap.
Several of the other passengers speak English. There is a Vietnamese couple on holiday from their home in the United Kingdom. One woman told me she left Vietnam aboard a U.S. helicopter in the 1970s and then moved to France. A tall gentleman was studying in France during the Vietnam War, but now lives in Australia.

Ken, Truc and I have gotten to know the other passengers better at each of the three meals we have eaten together each day. Some include us in their photos at tourist spots.

Our destination the first day was Siem Reap, only a few kilometers from Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. The name means "the city which is a temple." It was built in the 12th century to honor the Hindu god Vishnu.

After checking in at the Angkorland Hotel and cleaning up, the passengers boarded the bus and headed for dinner together at a traditional Cambodian restaurant. It was good food, but I suspect the restaurant geared its menu to Vietnamese taste. All of our fellow passengers seemed to know each dish, which looked a lot like the others we had been eating on the trip.

Ken, Truc and I then wandered the riverfront in Siem Reap. Bright lights cast their reflection on the river.

We wandered into an outdoor restaurant and bar, where Ken and I had several excellent gins and tonic. Truc joined us with an orange drink before leaving to meet a Cambodian friend.

Our night out ended with a $3 ride back to the hotel in a tuk-tuk, a cab-like trailer mounted on the back of a motorbike.

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