Monday, June 27, 2005

Taxi Musical Chairs

Blink and you'll miss me. My time in Laos ended with a couple of relaxing days in Si Phan Don (literally Four Thousand Islands) in the Mekong by the Cambodian border. At Si Phan Don the Mekong is at its widest until it reaches the sea, and resembles a marshy wetland more than a proper river. The area is also home to the rare, freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin, though unfortunately I didn't get to see any as whilst I was on my way to catch a boat to see them I tried to take a shortcut and ended up getting hopelessly lost (though I assure you that I usually have an impeccable sense of direction. Honest.).

In Si Phan Don I met a couple of, not unpretty, German girls, and together we decided to travel all the way to Phnom Penh in a day (there not being much to see along the way). This wasn't perhaps my best idea ever, but we got there in the end, which is what counts. You see, even though there is a road that goes all the way from Laos to Phnom Penh, there are no public bus services so one has to rely on hiring pick-ups or cars through some rather unscrupulous characters. The worst thing is that, as western tourists, we are seen as cash cows and everyone wants a piece of the action. For example, on the 15km drive to the Lao-Cambodian border we had to change pick-ups twice, and each time money changed hands. The second time was along a shoddy dirt road in the middle of an eerie forest. Our pick-up suddenly stopped and a short while later another one hove into view. My all too vivid imagination started into overdrive, inventing ambush and ransom scenarios. Similarly with the shared taxis in Cambodia. We bought (exorbitantly priced) tickets all the way through to Phnom Penh, but our third taxi driver refused to take us any further without an additional payment, paying no notice at all to our cherished tickets. And there we were: newly arrived in the country; not able to speak a word of Khmer; without a guidebook; and stuck in the wrong city where it looked increasingly likely that we would have to spend the night. After more than an hour of hand waving, discussions and gentle cajoling he finally relented and took us to Phnom Penh (though I think the arrival of an extra passenger proved the decisive factor).

All these trials and tribulations lead me to form my first impression of Cambodia and its inhabitants: they'll try and get their cut out of you any which way they can. I sincerely hope I'm wrong though.

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