Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

From my 2003 South East Asia travel diary

Picking up from where I left off

August 20, 2003- Arrival in Phnom Penh

I usually like to know where I’ll be staying (at the very least) after arriving at a destination when I travel. Even when I go to New York, on my bi-annual visits- where I lived for over 7 years and have friends who live in practically every neighborhood- it makes me feel rather unsettled to not know where I’m headed once off the airplane, or where I’ll be staying for the duration of my visit.

When I traveled throughout South-East Asia I had a general itinerary, but no confirmed reservations for accommodations or pre-arranged flights/transportation between the various countries that I had planned to visit. I liked having the flexibility to adjust my schedule to account for any unplanned detours, unforeseen mishaps or last minute changes.

I arrived at the second destination on my itinerary, Phnom Penh, Cambodia without having made any reservations at a guesthouse in town and I knew that I might be in for a little bit of an adventure. I remember backpacking through parts of Western Europe, making our plans day by day and how, without fail, we were hassled by local drivers and hotel owners each time we stepped off the Eurorail at a new destination.

After two days in Bangkok, I took a 7:50am flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Having slept less than 5 hours left me feeling rather sleep deprived, and knowing that I had a full day ahead didn’t get me off to a good start but I was prepared to wing it.

The night before I excitedly thought about the first leg of my trip, the beginning of my adventure. I had tried to contact a few guesthouses in Phnom Penh to make reservations and arrangements to be picked up at the airport without success. I had mulled over my options.

Initially I thought I’d just choose one of the recommended guesthouses listed in my guidebook and just take a taxi straight there from the airport, but then I started thinking of what could go wrong… What if the taxi driver tried to take me for a ride? What if once I got there, the guesthouse didn’t have any vacancies? What if I couldn’t find it? What if it had closed down? I imagined myself going on a wild goose chase, running around lost and frustrated. I realized that I shouldn’t make things too complicated for myself. After all, I only had one day in Phnom Penh and couldn’t afford to waste any time. Any unexpected delays would cut into the amount of time I had for sight seeing. So instead I thought of a better plan- I’d call a few guesthouses from the airport first, book a room with one of them and ask them to send someone to pick me up.

Even with “plan B” in mind, I mentally prepared myself for the possibility of other less favorable scenarios.

After getting my landing visa, clearing customs and claiming my luggage I went looking for a pay phone and currency exchange. As I stepped out of the airport, I scanned the area for payphones. I spotted a row of telephones, and as I dragged myself and my luggage over to the phones I heard what seemed like heckles, but I soon realized that they were just friendly bids for business from several cab divers who called after me:

“Miss?! Lady?! Lady?! Hello Ma’am? Need a ride? Where are you going?”

But the public phones didn’t have any coin slots. I tried to pick up the phone and dial, but wasn’t able to. One of the cab drivers, who had trailed me from the arrivals exit told me that I couldn’t use those phones to call out. He pointed to the other end of the arrivals exit and I saw long windowed counter- like you’d see at a theater box office- it was labeled Post Office. Then I remembered reading in my Cambodia guidebook that phone calls at the airport must be placed through the post office. Too lazy and tired carry my backpack, I dragged myself, hunched dragging my backpack along the ground, expending minimal energy behind me, over to the post office. I asked the clerk to ring the first guesthouse on my list but there was no answer. Good thing I thought of a “plan B”, but there’s no “plan C.” Someone at the second guesthouse answered so I was handed the phone receiver through the window. When I asked if the guesthouse had any rooms, the person on the line paused, momentarily confused.

“Do you have a single room?” I clarified.

“Yes” he piped in when it clicked in and he said that he’d send someone to pick me up and take me to the guesthouse. I told him my name so that the driver would be able to find me. I figured that they’d make a sign with my name on it to find me at the airport or at least be able to ask for me by name.

For making this phone call I was charged a grand total of US$1.

As I was making my way towards a bench in full view of where the cabs seemed to be making pick ups and drop offs, a well dressed woman with garish makeup called after me telling me that my “friend” was on the phone. Confused at first, I followed her guessing that it must have been the guesthouse calling. Back at the post office window, the woman handed me the phone; it was the guesthouse manager. He had called to give me the name of his driver, Mr. Ni and his cell phone number just in case. I jotted it down and hung up. As I turned to leave, the woman called after me and I realized that she was asking me to pay for the call. I almost reached in to my pocket for another dollar, wondering why I had to pay for the call but instead I said,

“Why do I have to pay for this call? I didn’t make the phone call. They called me.” The look on her face changed from indignant to sheepish and I knew that I was right.

Feeling a little more relieved I paced around eyeing the cabs for what seemed like at least 10 minutes. Several of the cabs had been idling about and I wondered if one of them was from the guesthouse. I wondered how they’d find me and how I’d find them.

I walked over the taxi stand area asking if any of the drivers were named Mr. Ni. One of the drivers piped up saying,

“Yes, yes I take you to my car.” Another man who was with him promptly took my luggage and I followed them to a taxi parked in the lot nearby.

Though he had acknowledged himself to be Mr. Ni, I still felt uncertain. I don’t know what it was, but I just had a feeling, besides, I was on a mission; I was determined not to get side tracked or delayed. I knew that I’d be punishing myself later with frustration and self-blame if my one day in Phnom Penh turned out to be a bust. When I travel, I have a tendency to pack in as much as I can in what little time I have. When I went to Europe I visited 9 cities/4 countries in just 2 weeks. I’ve been a little more realistic this time around about planning my trip to South-East Asia, though initially, I had considered trying to visit 5 countries in 3 weeks (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia), but eventually I cut it down to 3 countries (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia). I suppose I’m always on a dizzying nonstop pace, since I’ve never taken the luxury of traveling for more than a few weeks at a time. If I had a few months to travel, that would be an entirely different matter and I could linger a little more. Nothing was going to throw me off schedule. I had this one day in Phnom Penh before heading to Siem Reap tomorrow. I pressed him for details to allay my suspicions,

“Are you Mr. Ni? How long were you looking for me? How long were you waiting for me?”

He didn’t answer and I wasn’t sure if it was the language gap or something else. Once I was in the car, I had this unsettling feeling as he drove towards the exit of the parking lot. Again I pressed him,

“Do you know what my name is?”

“I take you to hotel… tell me…”

“Do you know where I am going? Someone from the guesthouse is supposed to come pick me up. If you are the person who is supposed to pick me up you’d know where I’m going. Do you know which guesthouse I’m going to?”

No answer. We were nearing the parking toll booth at the exit of the airport.

“What hotel am I going to?”

He hesitated, “Angkor?”

We were now at the parking tollbooth at the exit of the airport about to exit onto the main road into Phnom Penh.

“No!” I shouted and opened the door. I stood outside of the car holding the door open. “You don’t know where I’m going. I’m waiting for someone from a guesthouse to pick me up. You are not the person who is supposed to take me to the guesthouse.”

He was pleading with me to get back in the car saying he’d drive me to what ever hotel or place I wanted to go.

“No!” I knew as long as I kept the door open he wouldn’t try to drive away or do anything. What would be the point of driving off with my luggage or physically harming me unless he went psycho. “Open the trunk now! Open the trunk now!”

“I take you to hotel. Where you want to go? It’s ok, ok….”

I wasn’t going anywhere. “Open the trunk now!”

Finally he realized that I wasn’t going to relent. The trunk popped open and I quickly grabbed my backpack out of the trunk and stormed back to the arrivals exit, the front of the airport, where everyone had a clear view of what had happened. I was fuming, who knows where he would have taken me or how much he would have charged me. One thing that I was pretty certain of was that he probably meant no physical harm to me- judging by his reaction. He could have tried to pull me into the car or just drive off. He was just trying to make a fare.

During this whole ordeal, I didn’t really feel as though I was in any kind of major physical danger since I was still in the airport and in broad daylight, but I was still at a disadvantage, being a single foreign woman in a foreign land, not able to speak the local language, with no map, no contacts or means of communication to call for help. If I had let my imagination run wild with scams and the lengths that people would go to in order to a buck, then I might not have been so cool-headed.

All I know was that something in my gut told me not to trust him and to get more assurance of what I was getting myself into. I didn’t want to risk getting into an uncertain situation, which may or may not have led to being put into a physically dangerous or unfamiliar situation. I instinctively knew that I needed to keep myself in a situation in which I had more control over my personal safety and options- i.e. at the airport.

Apparently I had caused quite a scene. Back the arrivals gate, the cab divers swarmed around me buzzing with questions,

“What happened? Are you ok? Where you going? You need help? What’s wrong?”

I found myself surrounded by 10 strange men huddling around me, a situation that might normally have made me feel threatened, but this was not an aggressive attack; they were simply curious.

“I’m going to a guesthouse. They are sending a driver to pick me up. I’m waiting for him. I showed them the address and name of the guesthouse listed in my guidebook. That guy is not from the guesthouse. He is not Mr. Ni.”

“Who? Which guesthouse? You have number? You want to call?”

Another opportunity to make a buck.

“I have cell phone. $1 for 1 minute,” chimed one of the drivers.

What?! I had just pulled myself out of a strange man’s car to who knows where, and I was exhausted, furious and my patience was running thin. It was all very tiring- I already felt worn out from having to argue with everyone, everyone wanted to “help”, but it was always at a price, a dollar, a dollar everyone wants a dollar and who knows what that would get you? Or where that would get you? After what had just happened I was ready to fight.

“Yeah right. No thanks.” Back to the post office I thought.

“Ok, $1 for 3 minutes.”

“No I’ll give you $1 for 5 minutes,” I argued in my futile attempt to maintain some sort of control over the situation. I later realized how ridiculous it was arguing over giving the guy a dollar to use his cell phone but it was not just a matter of arguing over a dollar. I was upset and didn’t want to be taken advantage of in any way shape or form.

This whole thing was about not relinquishing any control over my personal safety. I think that somehow I knew that if I were at the airport at least I’d have some measure of control over my safety- like having access to some form of communication and local police authorities. Once away from the airport, if anything unpredictable happened, I wouldn’t know where I was, or have any means of contacting anyone for help.

Meanwhile the false “Mr. Ni” had returned was I assume, pleading his case to the other drivers- he was rattling on something in Khmer about me yelling Mr. Ni, Mr. Ni, needing a ride, probably that how there was a misunderstanding…

“Ok. Ok. What number?”

I showed the guy Mr. Ni’s cell number, he dialed and handed the cell phone over to me. As I listened to the phone ring and waited for an answer, a young man clad in black approached saying he was from Asean hotel and asked if I was staying there. At this point I was at wits end, exasperated and aggravated I looked at his sign and snapped,

“No.” That was not the name of the guesthouse I had called.

“Yes, yes this is your guesthouse,” a few of the cab divers chimed.

Not trusting anyone or wanting to go through another ordeal I said,

“I’m calling the guesthouse driver.”

Just as soon as I finished saying this, the young man’s cell phone began ringing and I knew it was him. I hung up the phone and returned it to its owner.

“Oh you are Mr. Ni?” I asked. The drivers were excitedly talking to young man in black. I assume that they were reporting on what I’d just been though.

After this exchange between Mr. Ni and the drivers, he finally said,

“I’m sorry you were waiting. You were waiting long time?”

“The name of your guesthouse has changed.”

“Yes new name. It’s different.”

I breathed a sigh of relief and without further questions I followed the young man, as he carried my bag to his jeep. He could have passed for about twenty-something years old but perhaps he was younger as I later judged by his demeanor.

There was a gentleness about him. He was clad in black from head to toe, had short wavy black hair and shy, averting eyes. I somehow felt that I could trust him. It was still odd- a stranger taking me to who knows where, but I knew that I could feel relatively safe- it would have to be some sort of seriously twisted operation if this “guesthouse” was picking up foreigners and running some kind of a scam.

The driver was timid and soft spoken as he continued to apologize and politely converse with me.

“Where are you from?”

I gave him the abridged version. “I’m from Canada. I grew up in Canada.”

“How did you know my boss’s number?”

“I had this tour book,” I held up for him to see, “with phone numbers and names of guesthouses in Phnom Penh.”

“Why do you want to stay in guesthouse not a hotel?”

“I am only here for one day. Staying in a guesthouse is ok with me. A hotel would be more expensive.”

As we drove I watched the cars, bicycles, and motorbikes go by in what seemed like slow motion. In Phnom Penh every motorized vehicle drove at about 40 km/hr. There was no need to rush, no reason to rush, I had the feeling that people where just going about their daily routines free from the sense of urgency that afflicts most major cities of the modern world… then it hit me, an urgency, for what? Urgency- imposed by the demands of others, external constraints of time and space, a sense of over self-importance or self-imposed priorities..

Even though my driver was driving a jeep, we plodded along just like everyone else into town. I noticed that the jeep and other automobiles had right-handed steering wheels, but curiously, all motorists drove on the right side of the road. Much of the landscape was coated in a thin red dust that floated about in the air. Phnom Penh has somewhat of a “wild west” feeling, with wide spaces between the buildings; it’s as if it’s been frozen in time. The roads were wide, unmarked and dusty. Most of the buildings were less than five stories high. They were of uniform height and size, lined up side by side like neatly placed cereal boxes on a grocery store shelf- as we drove by the buildings and storefronts, the visual effect was reminiscent of two-dimensional structures, much like those you’d see on the set of a movie or television show lot. It was as though these buildings were only facades lined up neatly beside each other, much like you’d see in a western. Phnom Penh definitely has a small town feeling with its buildings clustered in a town square-like fashion. The buildings lined both sides of street or a few blocks in suburban arrangement. Phnom Penh was more like a quaint town than a capital city.

Where were we going? How long would it take to get there? I wondered what the guesthouse would be like. How much longer now? Why does it always seem longer on the way there than on the way back? It’s the same distance there and back, but on the way there, our perception of time is skewed as we focus on the search and anticipation. It took a long 15 minutes to arrive at the guesthouse. When we arrived at the guesthouse, I was comforted to see that it was a simple but efficiently run outfit. In the lobby there were rows of computers set up for internet use at the rate of $1/hr. I quickly checked in.

When I returned to the lobby to plan my day, it was 10:00am and several more foreign backpackers had arrived.

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