Hong Kong International airport is huge and modern, signed in Cantonese first and British English second, with Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, and what may be Indonesian ("Perhatikan waktu Hong Kong saat mengecek jadwal keberangkatan") or Tagalog ("Mangyari po lamang na alamin ang takdang oras ng pageakay sa 'Hongkong local time'") on some signs. Surrounding the airport we can see two concentric barbed wire topped fences with about a four-metre no-man's-land gap between the two. I've never seen that level of physical security around an airport perimeter. I've seen less at some Canadian prisons. Security screening is simple, quick and polite: shoes on, belongings into little numbered baskets for which you get a laminated claim card in case of disputes about who owns what once it comes out of the scanner. Something on my person triggers the scanner to beep. I stop and hold out my arms and am told to put them down. I'm not sure if I was holding them too high for the little security officer to reach comfortably with the wand, or if assuming the position just isn't required here.
We have a tight connection, so hustle up the elevator, through the mall, down the escalator and out to the terminal transfer bus, backed in by the door. We start to walk down the right side of the bus as we would at home and are stopped with an "excuse me, this way." Oh right Hong Kong. They drive on the left, so we board the bus on the left. Signs like "please press bell before alighting" also demonstrate Hong Kong's heritage as a British possession. The bus takes us out to the airplane, where we alight. Without pressing the bell actually. It must be a repurposed city bus. The air smells like the inside of a poorly ventilated garage. We board a Dragonair A321, and once we're underway they serve us Dim Sum for breakfast. Hey, it's Saturday morning. It is Dim Sum time. eh?
My first hint that I'm actually going to Cambodia is the immigration forms that are handed around, in Khmer and English. I fill those out and then a couple of hours later we're on approach into Phnom Penh. There's no city evident at first, just a wide muddy river --it's the Tonlé Sap--with some small buildings along it, and fields laid out among tropical trees. We then spot the city. From above it looks like a cross between Paris and Spain: Paris for the star-shaped city with broad avenues and boulevards radiating from circular hubs, and Spain for the red tile roofs and tropical trees. The airplane makes an unusual number of turns for an airline approach in visual conditions, and other passengers comment on the steep bank angle. I wonder if we're maneuvering for traffic or if Phnom Penh tower doesn't have radar, and we're joining the circuit with full VFR procedures rather than just being vectored for a visual approach to the straight in. Later fellow passengers will ask my professional opinion about the landing, and I'll tell them that, without knowing the wind, runway and systems conditions that the crew were considering, I can't evaluate the choice or execution of landing technique. And I've never flown an Airbus outside of a simulator. It was a smooth touchdown and we exited the runway via a taxiway, not over the end or side, without painful deceleration, so it seemed fine to me. We're in Cambodia.
Inside the terminal we present our various completed forms, pay $25 for an embossed, shiny tourist visa and collect our bags. Signs in the airport are in Khmer and English, except for the one for the prayer room, which adds Arabic. We present our passports, newly issued visas and other paperwork and exit into Cambodia. It still looks a fair bit like an airport, an appearance that is not changed by our loading our bags and ourselves onto an air conditioned bus. Yeah, a blog entry and a half of this drivel and I still haven't told you anything about Cambodia. Travel has a big downside, doesn't it?
With our noses pressed against the windows, we join the traffic and head into town towards the hotel. Here, through the bus window, are approximately four of our fellow road users. On one small motorbike. The streets teem with vehicles, powered by engines, people or animals, overloaded to an extent I wouldn't have believed possible if I didn't read Failblog, and weaving in and out of one another's path like the RCMP musical ride. There doesn't seem to be any distinction between different sorts of road users. The backdrop is mostly tropical trees, low plastered buildings, many under construction, renovation or maybe just falling apart, and decorated walls.
As we watch the scenery and receive our first impressions of the country, one of the group leaders provides a narration, as if we would not otherwise be able to comprehend what is passing in front of our eyes. After a few minutes I tap him gently on the arm and ask, "Please, can we just experience it for ourselves?" He is a capable and very organized leader who keeps us well-informed. I had the impression that he had just left his mouth engaged after giving us the necessary information about hotel and agenda. I may have been wrong, though. He stops the play-by-play, but later another leader indicated that she thought many people appreciated the commentary. I've never been on a group tour before. Maybe it's only bloggers whose are constantly composing their own commentaries, and other people need it done for them.
After a couple of kilometres the bus turns right though a gate into a field. Just a field, with grass, and some dirt tracks and a bunch of other vehicles parked in it. I don't see a hotel. It turns out that for the Water Festival this week, they have set up traffic barricades, and vehicles over a certain size are not permitted any closer to the centre of town. I don't think it's a security measure, just a way to reduce the crush of traffic on a busy weekend, the way a downtown street in Canada might become a pedestrian mall for special events. The local officers are wearing street clothes, their badge of office is just a baseball cap with official insignia. The bus driver and one of our group participants go to negotiate with the police, and after a fair amount of handwaving a police officer wearing an entire uniform, not just a ball cap, arrives and grants us special permission to go to our hotel. I'm not sure if that included a police escort, or how exactly we got through the successive barricades. Looks like I did need the commentary after all.
What I did see was increasing amounts of traffic, vendors squatting on the sidewalks next to their wares, people smiling and waving to us from cafés and other vehicles. It is not at all intimidating. I've never been to Asia before, and I was prepared to be sickened by overwhelming poverty, frightened by an unidentifiably alien environment, or simply to have no link to the culture. But it's exciting and welcoming. I had an interview once on a Caribbean island and there was the same chaotic disrepair in the streets and buildings, and the same feeling of people everywhere selling things with minimal infrastructure. People seem better off here than in much of Nunavut, and I don't just mean the weather.
We check into the hotel, which is not a hovel. There's a shrine on the floor of the lobby, along with some clocks telling the time in six places: Hong Kong, United States, Australia, England, Australia and France. Yep, I know, but they apparently don't. Check-in is efficient and polite. The staff are amused that I can recite my room number in Khmer. I learned the numbers and some basic expressions from YouTube before I left Canada. My roommate and I go up to the room. There's a TV, a bathroom, two good sized beds with firm mattresses, mirrors, cupboards, a dresser and a fridge. There's a balcony, but when we go out on it, the outside is walled off with plastic sheets, so we can't see anything. I think it faces the back of another building, anyway. It's also clean. I've had worse hotel rooms in Saskatchewan. Also the internet doesn't work and the hotel staff say they're getting it fixed. Some things are universal.
It's only early afternoon, so I go out to stretch my legs and look around. People are friendly, even if they aren't selling anything, but there are lots of people who are selling things, probably more than usual, seeing as there's a festival underway. I still need some clothes appropriate to the climate. I buy a sunhat for a dollar. It's made out of strips of dried leaves which I assume are palm fronds, all stitched together on a sewing machine and decorated with fabric strips.
Another vendor sells me a loose fitting cotton shirt decorated with a picture of a cat and circles of letters from the Latin alphabet, all printed in reverse, and spelling nothing. She states the price as seven, I offer five (yes, I am a sucky bargainer) and she tells me in almost perfectly accented English that it's a fixed price. Turns out it's not seven dollars, but seven thousand riels, which is just under two dollars.
On another street a man asks me "parlez vous français?" I'm not too surprised, as my guidebook said that some older people might speak French, as a remnant of this region's history as "Indochine." I answer in the affirmative and in the ensuing conversation tell him I'm from Canada. He says he lives in Montréal, and I must have given him a look of complete disbelief, because he opens his wallet to produce a Canadian SIN card and a Québec permis de conduire. I sit down at his invitation for a chat. I haven't been here long enough to have many questions ready to ask. I have heard that the water festival marks the reversal of the flow of the Tonlé Sap so I ask him about that. He confuses me by saying that the festival commemorates a thousand-years-ago naval victory over Islamic forces, a victory that was facilitated by the reversal of the waters. This website says it was started by King Preah Bat Jayvarman VII as an opportunity to train and select skilled boatsmen for the navy, and other sources say it dates back to the 7th century as a thanksgiving festival. Given that under three hundred years has produced some drift in the meaning of the American thanksgiving, I'll cut the Cambodians some slack and say, hey, their river starts flowing the other way. Why not have a three day party? At any rate the experience teaches me not to make assumptions about the worldliness of the people here. Except it doesn't. I'll do it again later in the trip.
Dinner that night is all together with the group at a tourist-oriented local restaurant. Appetizers start with salted roasted peanuts with some little tiny chili pepper garnishes. Yes, one guy eats a chili pepper. For the record, the little tiny red ones are much hotter than jalapeños. While he tries to put out the fire in his mouth by guzzling water, I recommend rice, and it arrives just in time for it to make me his hero. Another appetizer plate includes bean sprouts and vegetables in a sauce that has an offensive fish odour. I try it out, and fight the gag reflex to get it down. It tastes worse than it smells. I hope the "fish Khmer style" that I ordered will be better. It is. It's a delicious curry, spiced warm not hot, with all kinds of exciting flavours going on, none of which is gag-inducing fish guts.
After dinner there is a traditional music performance, with instruments including a boatlike wooden xylophone, a long-necked stringed instrument played with a bow, and a drum. The drummer is sitting cross-legged on the floor and I can see the bottom of his foot. Before coming to Cambodia we were lectured sternly about customs, including taking off shoes in people's homes, sitting or squatting on the floor, and not displaying the bottoms of our feet to anyone. I tried to figure out a way to sit cross-legged on the floor without doing so, and couldn't, so I'm kind of pleased to see that the culture doesn't demand the physically impossible. Or for all I know the drummer thinks it's hilarious to moon the stupid tourists.