RETURN TO OLD SOUTHEAST ASIA: CAMBODIA PART 1
by RJ Furth
Southeast Asia has played a huge part in my life. I first visited the region in 1976, spending nearly five months traveling my bus, boat and train. I returned in 1981 when Sandy and I, two months after getting married, were hired to teach at the International School in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Sandy and I taught at ISKL again from 95-99, with our kids in tow this time, and we’ve returned a few times since leaving to teach in England and returning to the States. My first novel, started in 1983 and completed in 2004, was set on the Thai island of Ko Samui. Much of the Southeast Asia that I knew nearly 40 years ago has changed dramatically, caught up in the development that inevitably follows and economic boom. With the exception of Bangkok, which was always a thrilling, funky, enormous city, the charming places I knew are now modern, bustling, Westernized, expensive. The food remains great, but it is now easy to see CNN, eat at MacDonalds, visit a mall that sells the same items you can get in Des Moines. That is why we decided to visit Cambodia, one of the few remaining nations that, for the most part, has changed minimally in 40 years. Of course, that is in large part because 40 years ago the Khmer Rouge took over the country and murdered 2-3 million of the countries 7 million people. Cambodia’s growth was stunted and the country is only now starting to catch up, though it will never achieve the modern status of a Singapore.
Sandy and I arrived yesterday for a 10 day visit. The airport at Phnom Penh is still small, customs is slow and reminiscent of an older time when airport workers were still wary of visitors. The process of filling out forms and obtaining a visa was a bit tricky, and I ended up in a minor dispute with the immigration agent who claimed I had not paid him the $30 I had just handed him. I began to get upset before I realized that I was never going to win an argument. Refusing to pay an additional $30 would have meant not being allowed into Cambodia. Besides, I figured, the man could probably use the extra income. I walked away. Welcome back to the Third World. I was again reminded of where I was on the 30 minute drive to our hotel. There were more cars than I had expected, but still plenty of motorcycles zipping in and out of traffic and slow tuk tuks (carts with motorcycles in front) that clogged the flow of cars. With few traffic lights, every intersection was an adventure. Cars, motorcycles, tuk tuks and pedestrians waited for traffic to slow, then they moved across the oncoming traffic and worked they way across or into the flow of the main street. It was a form of organized chaos that worked. After checking into our hotel Sandy and I went for a walk along the Tonle Sap river. Crossing the street was a thrilling adventure as we too waited for traffic to slow, then darted across, hoping not to get hit by a motorcycle. Compared to crossing the street in manic Saigon or Bangkok, though, it was a dawdle.
We visited the central market this morning and had one of those wonderful experiences that you often have in Southeast Asian markets. The fruits and vegetables were gorgeous, including exotic ones such as durian, mangosteen, dragon fruit, papaya and guava and more I cannot name. The freshwater fish and seafood were fresh and enticing. Crabs tried to crawl out of their buckets. I saw every part of a pig, including ears, tails, tongues and brains. The food stalls were packed with women and students eating bowls of noodles and rice topped with myriad ingredients. (I’m pretty sure I saw the stall where Tony Bourdain ate.) After a visit to the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda (which houses the Emerald Buddha) and National Museum we went back to our small hotel to sit by the pool. It was 11:30 and already 90 degrees. We’ll head out again later this afternoon when things cool down a few degrees. It’s been a wonderful first 24 hours.