Phnom Penh – The Dark Side
January 2003, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Flying into Cambodia necessitates changing planes in Bangkok. If you’re wise that is. I have a friend who we were due to meet up with in Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second city. Let’s call him Alan, because that’s his name, and get to his tale a little later.
Once any sane person has changed planes in Bangkok (unlike Alan – we’ll get to him in the next post or two, don’t worry), there then ensues a rather uncomfortable two hour flight to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. The plane takes off and doesn’t stop climbing for an hour, wherein it points its nose firmly downwards again and begins it’s descent into Phnom Penh, Pochentong airport. Anyone who’s taken a short flight knows the drill; stewardesses shove their trolley’s uphill to dispense drinks and plastic food, and then try to prevent the same trolley’s from disappearing through the front of the plane as they grab the empties. But this is a little different, as the plane climbs so steeply for so long. Also, the planes that ply the routes between these two South East Asian countries are designed for slighter frames than the average chubby European! I exclude myself from this grouping, obviously!!
We landed and disgorged during the rebuilding of the airport’s reception area, and followed people who had no idea where they were going. When finally we were herded into the correct temporary shelter, we were confronted by a sinister looking row of officials who strained to peer at us through dark glasses, and then at the passports that had been swiped from us on the plane.Everyone sweated, not only due to the 80% humidity, but also because of the projected guilt that we all felt, as though we’d had our foreheads tattooed with ‘I done it’, ‘It’s a fair cop’, or some other suitably Sweeneyesque slogan. It was like Midnight Express! Honest!!
Next, fresh meat was called forward by one official or another by means of a pointed finger and a sharp grunt. My turn came and I was asked a few questions, which I neither understood or was seemingly required to answer – not that I could possibly have answered adequately anyway. Shockingly, I was ushered away con-passport and quickly left the building through the “Exit” tarpaulin … into the heaviest rainstorm I’ve ever encountered. Even worse than the one I’d been caught in in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, which nearly washed me down the Mid Levels. I managed to bag a taxi, or rather, the taxi driver managed to bag me, and we set off for the city. The place was packed with people calmly sheltering from the deluge anywhere they could, smoking to pass the time. This meant under bridges, doorways and quite worryingly due to the proliferation of lighted cigarettes, underneath petrol station forecourt awnings.
It’s a little known fact, but if you get into a taxi in Cambodia, the driver owns you! He’ll take you to a hotel of his choice even though you state your own preference, and will be waiting to pick you up in the morning to take you to the river harbour, whether you want him to do so or not! I did, so that was OK. The hotel to which he took me not wholly against my will as I was knackered. It was however a very scary place; screams, chain-dragging-on-floor noises and knocks on the door came free of charge most of the night.
Thank God for the morning, the waiting taxi driver and the escape to the river harbour…
River journey, the wonders of the Siem Reap region and Alan’s Tale coming soon.