So, the party’s started.
Group rendezvous for the Intrepid tour was in the restaurant for the hotel at 6.00 p.m. We gathered in dribs and drabs, sitting around self-consciously staring at one another in a sort of rogue version of wink murder whereby we were all playing by different rules and exhibiting varying degrees of jet-lack and exhaustion which wasn’t great for ease of communication. Trying to remember each other’s names was hilarious. I don’t think I’ve slept for 36 hours plus straight now, so I can’t even remember my own name. I don’t think my traveling companions find my claim to be staying on to teach English altogether plausible. Never mind, neither do I. Besides, they were too polite to draw attention to this. We seem to be a fairly small group of about 8 I think (that is bad, I can’t even count to ten any more it seems). One of those gathered who seemed friendly and jolly, was actually with a different Intrepid Trip (Food of Cambodia) so we waved him off to another group meeting, we held our ground as the Best of Cambodia Trip.
Obviously, this blogging mission has to adhere to a certain degree of confidentiality so I wont give too much away about my traveling companions. Let’s just say they seem grand. Mixed nationalities – I’m the only Brit, the others are Australians miscellaneous (representing Perth, Brisbane and Sydney); a Swiss woman who is travelling for quite an extended trip – until the money runs out. An American couple (we haven’t talked American elections yet, he’s quite domineering, she’s wearing a triathlon T-shirt so promising, I’ve not outed myself as a marathon runner wannabee yet), a young american male who may be a bit overwhelmed by the strong female contingent and our Cambodian tour guide who is going to be great. There are only two veggies me, and a British born but now Australian man. He got brownie points from me for flying to the UK from Australia to see Kate Bush in concert when she unexpectedly ended her decades long absence from performing to do so. I don’t know that the brownie points will offset his carbon footprint, but hey ho, it’s nothing to what Trump is unleashing so I daresay it’s an irrelevance now. Depressingly enough.
We had a necessary, but somewhat stiff briefing about responsible traveling, sorting out a tipping kitty. Doing introductions etc. Being told that whilst on the trip we are not to engage in violence; prostitution or drugs – presumably afterwards you can do as you please. As far as I can tell we seem an abstemious lot, though how can you tell these days what people are really thinking behind their innocent enough facades? Then the majority of us opted to head off for an evening meal together. Even though I can hardly hold my head up let alone keep my eyes open I really don’t want to miss out. You have to squeeze in every moment don’t you. Upshot was our guide suggested a trip out in a convoy of two tuk tuks ($3 a tuk tuk 3 in one, 4 in the other) and we headed to the waterfront. It’s massively touristy, but you know what it was fun. Bouncing along in the tuk tuk is somewhat precarious, they feel like I imagine a souped up Robin Reliant would do. It was dark, but loads of traffic about, and it was fun darting through the streets. Our destination was a rather western choice. I can see why it was picked, you climb up seemingly endless flights of stairs which I’d swear had increasingly deep treads as you launched skywards. Either that or my legs were shrinking – and end up at an upmarket bar with views across the river. Do I need to explain that my photos don’t really do it justice…
It was westerners only, and them menu was catering for that market. Pizzas, burgars, and the only Khmer options were fish or meat based – with the notable exception of a soup but I was starving. One of our number did have that though and it looked amazing, that’s mine next time. I ended up with a four cheeses pizza as that was the only vegetarian thing on the menu – though then found out the other veggie had negotiated a veggie option of a Cambodian dish which was loads better. My bill was $10 for a very good pizza and a ginger ale, expensive because of the venue and western food. I hope to get more adventurous and more local as the days pass by.
We all got on well, a bit hyper at the new environment, good conversations were had, spider stories were swapped, lizards on the wall hunting around the lights were counted and noted. The saddest, skinniest most deformed looking kitten I’ve ever seen cowered its way around the tables. I did feel sorry for it, but I honestly thought at first it was an enormous rat. It was skinny and bow-legged with a crooked tail. It was an early warning of the need to harden up a bit, there are going to be a lot of sick animals about but I can’t rescue them, and after the fleas and mange dogs in Vung Tau I think it’s best to be cautious approaching any of them. Sad but true. The staff were attentive, and incredibly amused by our attempts just to learn the word ‘thank you’ which I was determined to do, but just couldn’t get into my brain. Part of the issue is that every time I ask a Cambodian to tell me they do … and then say half a dozen other words for me to try so I end up remembering none of them, and without seeing it written down I can’t hear it properly. I’m so irredeemably shite at languages it’s amazing I can communicate at all with anyone really. Well, maybe I can’t that’s why I have to write everything down. I thought it sounded like ‘Uncle’ or ‘atchooo’ in fact it’s sort of aaaaaaaaaaaaaah-coon, and I’ve looked it up in Lonely Planet now and it approximates to aw kohn, apparently. Oh well. Trying gives the locals a good old laugh anyway. Our guide is delighted that we are game to give it a go. I asked him if it was OK for us to mirror the palms together greeting that I’ve seen everywhere – I wondered if it would seem mocking or inappropriate if we did. He seems to think not ‘people will love it, they will do it back’ cue a good hour of practising the words and manoeuvre with all the waiting staff, the tuk tuk drivers and everyone else we met on the way back. I guess it’s like being a toddler and learning that ‘bottom’ or ‘poo’ are rude words. We just couldn’t get enough of it.
The others had cocktails and beers, I was tempted, but on balance thought it a terrible idea as I can’t tolerate alcohol at the best of times. We weren’t sure about the mosquito activity. I couldn’t tell if I was really being bitten or just imagining it. Other definitely were, and there were dead mosquitoes handily squashed into the menus presumably for identification purposes and not at all because of their prior deployment as weapons of devastation used against the insect biting community. One of our number let me use her spray, it was really toxic. I got some on my finger and then touched my lip somehow without thinking and it blistered up almost instantaneously. Blimey, who needs mosquito bites if the insect repellent can deliver up dermatological and neurological damage on a par with agent orange?
The staff issued each of us with separate bills, and we all rummaged around with unfamiliar or curious denomination notes. One had her $20 dollar bill rejected for being slightly torn, which it was, but it would have been OK in the UK. We need to keep our notes pristine. She had to count out reil in an elaborate operation that took the full participation of everyone in our group as well as a significant number of the serving staff. Two of these fancied themselves as Tom Cruise style cocktail shakers and were having a rare old-time throwing the mixing cans in the air and trying to catch them with a reasonable degree of success until they realised we were watching them and sadly we put them off their stride. Shame. One in our group had a $100 bill he needed to change so he collected up all the tabs and paid, and those of us with change paid him. It was much more painless than you might think. I’ve never seen a $100 bill before it has gold on the back. Very fetching.
As we left the restaurant (no I can’t remember the name, I never even looked how rubbish is that) it turned out the tuk tuk drivers had waited for us. It was such fun weaving through the traffic coming back. Tuk tuks are great. Can’t believe I’ve not really been in them before. I tried to take a photo in motion, but it’s just a white shirt of the driver picked out against the black of night. Could be anywhere, but it wasn’t, it was our driver and our first night out, so here it is.
It was a good, bonding night out, I’m feeling confident about the group dynamic, I think we are going to have a right old time. I say that, but tomorrow we tackle the Killing Fields and prisons of the Pol Pot genocide, so not the jolliest of outings. Still, we have to do it, and it will put other things in context. I asked our guide if it is taboo to ask people about their own experiences. He says absolutely not. Which surprised me. He states that because for so long people weren’t allowed to talk openly about anything they welcome the chance to do so now. It will be interesting to see. It is such recent history.
So finally, finally to bed, its 10.20 local time. I really hope I sleep right through. I’m massively excited about how things will unfold. Tomorrow is another day indeed. I wonder if I will acquire new language which similarly delights and excites. I really hope so!