We caught a bus mid-morning bound for Cambodia. We were cautious of the land-border crossings, having heard tales of all manner of fraud and extortion, such as the con artists in authentic uniforms who try to sell you a bogus visa while you stand in line. Luckily, our crossing was fairly seamless, aside from a momentary power outage at the Cambodian immigration checkpoint when one of the officers fired up an extra computer. Soon we were back on the bus, hurtling down the road and leaving Vietnam in our dust.
I've never experienced such a stark difference in scenery when crossing a border. Past the five kilometre stretch of border hotels and shopping malls, the countryside appeared completely different to what we had seen in Vietnam. Flat expanses of dusty red fields, elevated wooden homes, the elegant Khmer script on signs, the horned white cattle grazing along the roadside, far fewer scooters.
After a couple of hours we arrived at a short ferry crossing. From my perch in the bus I could see a handful of women moving between the lines of cars and trucks selling food. One of them approached our bus, her wide basket balanced on her outstretched arm. The basket held bamboo skewers of small black bats grilled with chili. I wanted one desperately, and cursed my luck to find that the bus had started moving again, that the windows were the kind that cannot open.
As we rolled onto the ferry, a man was stepping off with a semi-tranparent grocery bag swinging from his hand. Inside I could see the mottled olive drab of some kind of small python, perhaps two inches in diametre. The snake was either taking a nap in the bag or on its way to being something tasty. Welcome to Cambodia, land of culinary delight.
The sun had just set when we arrived in Phnom Penh. We hopped off the bus to the waiting mob of pushy tuk-tuk drivers, luring us with singsong offers and grabbing at our bags. Having grown somewhat accustomed to this sort of thing, we beelined around a corner to re-group. We realized that we had not really done much research on potential places to stay, and that the city didn't have the same kind of concentration of cheap hotels in one discernable district we could aim for. We ended up following the suggestion of a girl from the bus, who knew of a hostel not too far away that definitely had rooms free. Off we trudged.
After settling in, we went for a drink down by the river. We found a street of overpriced bars and restaurants facing out onto hazy darkness that suggested the presence of water. Every time I strayed a few paces behind or ahead of the girls, without exception, a man would offer me "smoke," "skunk," and/or "opium." Disappointed by the development, and not really that keen on eating burgers, we headed back into the warren of narrow poorly lit streets to find somewhere cheap and local. After dinner I bought a bottle of Cambodian whisky from a mini-mart for $1.25. It was actually pretty good, a bit like Jim Beam.
It was an early night for us, after a long day, although the locals seemed to follow suit, leaving the streets quite deserted by ten o'clock. We settled in to our windowless hostel room with the air conditioning blasting, and I turned my thoughts to the disturbing days ahead.