After a 3-hour drive from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) we find ourselves in an over-crowded building on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia. It was hot, and long gone were the cooler breezes from the Mekong river and any hopes of a distant ocean breeze to cool us down. Our bus stops, and we were forced to walk a half-mile with all of our luggage and equipment to where we would meet our new fixer, Mr. Chin. He directs us to fill out paper work and hand over our passports to him. Then we wait, and wait, and wait some more, for what seems to be, and actually is, a couple of hours. The once-crowded hall filled with hundreds of people, is now completely empty. Confused by the long delay, our fixer talks to the border officer about the situation. Mr. Chin runs back to us with a look of delight and says “Everyone needs to pay $2.”. Ah, a bribe, no problem, I would have gladly dropped $200 to get me out of this sweat box.
A quick picture, a pathetic visual inspection by the health officials to detect some disease I clearly did not have, and we officially find ourselves in Cambodia. With our now drenched clothes, we fumble our way on to a beautiful air-conditioned bus. I was greeted by the driver with an ice-cold bottled water, which I gladly took, and subsequently within seconds, ingested. We made our way to the back of the bus where we prepared for the next leg of our adventure.
It took me all of 10 minutes to realize we were in a different world. Culturally, everything was turned on its head. The roads were littered with pot holes… if they were even paved. Hundreds of mopeds swerved all over the roads with a complete disregard for themselves or anyone else. Water buffalo continuously ran across the street forcing the bus driver to slam on the brakes. What was most remarkable to me was the items and the quantity of items people would put on their “vehicles” (Yes, I put this in quotes because I am not sure what I witnessed would be considered a vehicle by any Western definition). From bungee-corded chickens strapped alive to a moped, to families of 4 all driving helmetless, I was in a continual state of amazement.
Our first stop before reaching Phnom Penh was a ferry terminal along the Mekong River. Honestly, it looked like something out of Mad Max… half-car half-wagon vehicles moved around the street. All of us had our noses pressed against the bus windows trying desperately to believe what our eyes were showing us. Cows strolled through the markets among vendors selling everything from bread to sun-dried snails.
Our bus finally stopped and we were instantly swarmed by vendors and beggars. Dried fresh water shrimp, sun-dried snails, fried birds, and things I had never seen…. well, hell, honestly I had never seen most of this stuff before. In the States, everyone of these vendors would be at minimum, shut down, if not arrested. Yet, these people were alive and well and nobody seemed too sick from what Americans are told would be instant death.
Protected by the “Bubble” that was our bus, we all watched the chaos around us. It literally felt like a “People Safari” where we needed to stay in our car for safety purposes in order to protect us from unknown horrors. Maybe it was the 4-hour drive, or the fact that I had spent too much of my day in transit, but I shocked many of my companions when I told them I was going to walk around. ”Really?!?!”, one guy exclaimed. ”Absolutely”, I swiftly replied. The others just looked at me with bewilderment… the kind of look you get when you are about to do something worthy of entry into America’s Funniest Home Videos…. you know, kind of like I was an idiot!
I emptied my pockets of everything valuable, grabbed my camera, and headed out into the abyss of Cambodians. ”Mr. please, you buy something from me”. ”Snails”. ”Please Sir, you like shrimp? You buy from me”. These and dozens of other Khmer phrases were yelled to me as the vendors fought to catch my eye and give me what amounted to be an elevator speech for why I should buy their food. Then, from nowhere, I heard a word I hadn’t contemplated… hadn’t even thought about for days. ”Beer Sir, Would you like beer?”. I turned and looked at her like a sniper at his target and said “Yes, beer”. In disbelief, she looked at me trying to process what I just said, and then her face changes as if she had hit the lottery. Her hands went up, and she ran over to her family’s blanket which was strewn over the sidewalk and started yelling in Khmer. Whatever she said caused her mom to spring up like a rabbit and start digging through piles of goods, until a cooler appeared. She grabbed a bag put an beer in it, and hands it to me, FILLED WITH ICE!
“2,000 real please Sir”. I quickly did some calculations. Tears began to well up in my eyes… “50 cents… for a beer… WITH a bag of ice”. I thought to myself “Cambodia IS Heaven!”.
If me buying the beer made this girl’s day, what I would say next made her year…. okay maybe her week. ”I need 6 beers”. Her eyes opened so wide I could just about see behind her eye balls. ”You wait, you wait… don’t go, I be back” she yelled excitedly. She literally looked like a Price is Right contestant who just heard their name called. With great fury, she ran from stall to stall collecting beers from 4 different vendors. Within 45 seconds she had returned from her scavenger hunt, ice-cold beers in hand, and grinning as if she just finished a marathon.
For reasons unknown to me, I was then asked to come meet her family. I obliged her and we walked toward the family, all of whom were squatting on their own feet in a position so low, if I attempted it, I would never stand again. She introduced me to all seven family members and everyone of them thanked me for my purchase. Our conversation quickly turned into a Q & A session about America and myself. Where was I from? Have I heard of New York City? What do I do for work? How the hell do you say “Internet Business Development” in Khmer?!?!?! Am I married? Why wasn’t I Married? I suddenly realized the direction the conversation was headed. I decided I best explore more of the market before walking away with an obligation I could not fulfill.
I had been craving some good bread ever since leaving the states. I love rice, but after 5 days of it, my American cravings were rearing their ugly heads. I had seen the bread stand when we first drove into the market. What I really wanted was just to take a picture of the bread lady, but felt compelled to get something. I ordered some bread holding up $1 US dollar. I think she asked me for something smaller, but I motioned to her that’s all I had. She smiles and handed me 6 loaves of bread. Okay then! I motion back to her that I want to take a picture and she gladly obliges. With my treasure chest full, I came to the conclusion that I need to drop of my beer and bread bounty back at the bus, as it was greatly interfering with my picture taking abilities.
Stepping back on the bus I was instantly thrown on center-stage to report my findings to my travel mates. “You got beer?!?!!?”, many exclaimed in chorus. ”How could I not get beer!?!?!”, “And with Ice” I chuckle, as I proudly displayed my dripping bag of carbonated goodies. Roz, my girlfriend asks, “What’s with all the bread”. ”I felt bad”, I countered. She rolls her eyes in response. “Okay, I wanted to buy something for taking the bread lady’s picture” I replied, conveniently forgetting to mention I had been craving bread all week.
We cracked the beer, cheers each other, and took several large gulps, before gasping with an overwhelming sense of refreshment. Right about then, this girl started tapping on our window and pointing to the man next to her. He was a blind man waving at us… well in our general direction. To his right was who I assumed was his young son. They wore dirty… soiled clothes, I mean, more soiled than most of the hard-working Khmer people. They looked as if they were in a coal mine. It was clear they were this country’s most impoverished.
I opened the window and Roz asks me if I am going to to give them money. ”No, give me the bread”, I tell her. She lights up with a smile and hands me loaf after loaf. I hand them 3 loaves and they instantly began eating them. Wow. I have never experienced this… the look of true hunger. Not “inconvenient hunger”, the hunger you see from the town drunk who begs for beer money under the guise of food money. True hunger. I give them an extra loaf, they thank me vigorously, and lead their dad through a gauntlet of vendors and vehicles.
We get word that we are about to board the ferry and our first Cambodian market adventure comes to an end. I begin thumbing through the pictures I took and am EXCITED!!! This knew is going to be a great adventure! As we board the ferry I look back. The girl with her blind father sees me, and waves to me one last time. I wave back as the ferry pulls from the dock. Our first chapter in our Cambodian adventure comes to an end.