Part 3: To Laos and Beyond
We made it to our departure gate in plenty of time, and eventually a bus took us out to a small Lao Aviation airliner. It's an ungainly craft, a Soviet-built Antonov Turboprop, with about 40 seats. There is no assigned seating. By the condition of the interior I'm guessing that it's about thirty years old. As we climbed through heavy clouds on takeoff, a fine mist streamed in through the air vents in the overhead baggage shelves. It looks like smoke, but no one seems alarmed. We're given a piece of candy, and then, a short time later, the in-flight meal is served. The meal consists of fried chicken, boiled carrots and incredibly dry potatoes, a banana, a muffin, and a piece of bread. There is not even a pretext of the meal being hot; it's as if they took it out of a refrigerator, let it warm up to room temperature, and then served it. Still, we're all hungry enough that the chicken tastes good.
We land at Vientiane after about an hour and a half. It's not what you would call a bustling air terminal. It reminds me of a small-town municipal airport... but then again, maybe it isn't even that big. There is one other Lao Aviation Antonov on the runway, and a larger Soviet Aeroflot jet is parked a little farther away.
As we climb out of the plane and walk across the runway, we see Kong waving to us from the terminal building. Kong's contacts get us through immigration and customs with no trouble. Or perhaps I shouldn't even say that we went through customs. It seemed to me that we just bypassed them altogether. Yon's suitcase, aka my suitcase, is indeed in the lost and found. Things are going well once again. Kong has already checked us into rooms at the Santiphab Hotel. I take a shower, and then a brief nap. Then we have a short meeting with Kong and the rest of the group at a restaurant along the Mekong. Keo pays for everyone; we eat fish, fish soup, rice, pleah (a delicious salad with uncooked beef, marinated in lime juice), and bong dia gon (literally, "baby duck eggs") - fertilized duck eggs, cooked just before they hatch. The eggs are boiled, then the shell is cracked open, and they are eaten with a small spoon directly out of the shell. The taste is odd, but good; they taste a little like eggs, and a little like chicken. You don't, however, want to look too closely at what you are eating. You can easily make out the shape of the tiny bird inside, bill and all. After dinner, we all go to bed, exhausted.
On Wednesday morning, April 3, I go with Kong and his contact from the Cambodian embassy - a Mr. Proeung - to inquire about visas to Cambodia. We meet with an official in a small outbuilding on the grounds of the Cambodian embassy. It is sparsely furnished: a small settee, two chairs, and a coffee table. Photos, mostly of Angkor Wat, decorate the walls. At one end of the room, a chalkboard is covered with Lao writing.
Although visas have been arranged for the other members of the group, I'm not so lucky. The Foreign Ministry has denied my request.
Kong shrugs this off, convinced that it is only a minor problem. He will, he assures me, obtain a visa for me in Phnom Penh if I wait in Laos for a few days. After a few more meetings with Proeung, and a telegram to Phnom Penh, it appears that the rest of the group will be able to leave for Cambodia on Friday, April 5. Kong and Proeung believe that I will be able to go on Sunday, the 7th.
On both Wednesday and Thursday, we get up early and walk to a nearby restaurant for noodles - geuy deo - for breakfast. Chanbo, Huot and Chany steadfastly refuse to let me pay for anything if they are anywhere nearby. They pay for my breakfast both days, lunch one day, and dinner the next. Then they pay the fees for my Cambodian visa, and, despite my objections, they even pay for my hotel room.
On Wednesday afternoon, we travel to the market, riding in what the Thais call a "tuk-tuk," something of a cross between a motorcyle and a tiny pickup truck. All of the Cambodian women buy silk. In the evening, we bring food from the restaurant next door up to our room, and afterwards struggle to sleep, our bodies still trapped between time zones.
On Thursday I get a chance to walk around for a while. Vientiane is infinitely more pleasant than Bangkok. It's not nearly as hot, not nearly as crowded, and has very little traffic. People drive on the right side of the road, and, unlike Bangkok, most drivers seem to be sane. Vientiane seems to have fewer beggars than Bangkok, although I did wander into one moment of near-chaos. I had gone out at night to take a few nighttime street scenes, and a sad-looking boy came up to me and extended his palm. I gave him fifty kip, and that immediately brought over a flock of other children, clamoring for similar treatment.
Generally speaking, people are more friendly toward Westerners than the Thai. At one point, as I was walking alone, a young monk waved to me, and we began to talk. He was studying English, and he was glad to have the opportunity to practice. He spoke very well. There was, however, one very odd thing: He was wearing sandals with a broad leather band across the top of the foot. The band was embossed with large letters: "RAMBO." I decided not to ask him about that; I figured that no matter how good his English, he would never be able to explain that.
On Friday morning, April 5, I accompany everyone to the airport. I'll remain in Laos for two more days; if all goes well, I'll be flying to Phnom Penh on Sunday. I watch them as they walk across the tarmac to the plane. Huot turns around and, smiling, she waves. "Bye, teacher!"
I spend most of the next two days walking around Vientiane. By pure chance, in the lobby of the hotel I meet a Cambodian woman from the suburbs of Chicago. She left Cambodia with her husband in 1975; he had been employed at the US Embassy, and they were able to leave when the Americans evacuated before the Khmer Rouge came to power. Her name is Yan, and she is returning to Cambodia for the first time since she left. It turns out that we will be on the same flight to Phnom Penh.
On Sunday morning, we arrive at the airport at 5:30 AM. Lao Aviation (and the entire airport, for that matter) seems to be a rather loosely run organization. None of our bags are X-rayed, and we never pass anywhere near a metal detector. Our aircraft, once again, is an Antonov Turboprop.
We stop for refueling at a tiny airport in Pakxe, Laos. Shortly after we lift off again, the flight attendant walks down the aisle and distributes to each passenger a "Lao Aviation New Ice Eau De Cologne Towel." These are simply moist towelettes, each wrapped in its own packet; but she uses a pair of flimsy salad tongs to hand them to the passengers, just as other airlines hand out steaming hot towels. The scene is oddly poignant: an impoverished state-run airline doing its best to measure up to the luxurious standard of Thai Airways or Singapore Airlines.
We touch down in Phnom Penh in the early afternoon. Huot is waiting for me, waving from the edge of the tarmac. She accompanies me through immigration. As far as I can tell, I still have no visa; at least, there is nothing stamped in my passport. But Huot seems to know who needs to be paid, and it seems that all is well. At customs, we are discreetly given a choice: pay $10 by bypass customs, or allow my suitcases to be inspected. In spite of the fact that I have no idea what is in Yon's suitcase, I elect to let them inspect the bags. And sure enough, in that suitcase, the inspector finds something that he does not approve of... five unlabelled videotapes. He studies them for a while, as if by looking closely he might be able to determine exactly what is on each tape. He explains through Huot that this is a problem. I hardly care whether or not he keeps the tapes. Huot, however, understands the Way Things Are, and she knows what is called for here. She apologizes for the "problem," and asks if perhaps if she pays the kind agent a $10 tip, if perhaps he could help her resolve the problem. Sure enough, once he has received his tip, the problem ceases to be a problem. Huot laughs as we walk out of the terminal. "Pay ten dollars, don't inspect it. Inspect it, pay ten dollars. The same!" Outside, a cab is waiting for us, and we drive to the center of the city, to the Hotel Saw (White Hotel). It will be home for the next three-and-a-half weeks.
I'm beginning to feel a bit sick, so I don't venture out much the first afternoon. I'm sharing a third-floor suite with Huot, Chany, and Chanbo. The hotel is just down the street from Psar Thom Thmei (the "big new market," although it was actually probably built in the 1930s). Psar Thom Thmei is sometimes regarded as the "center" of Phnom Penh. The hotel itself must have been a first-class hotel many years ago. Our suite consists of four rooms: a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom. All of the rooms have ceramic tile floors. There is a refrigerator, and a bidet in the bathroom. Now, however, the days of luxury are long gone. Electricity is intermittant, and to a lesser extent, so is water. The electricity is particularly odd; at times different rooms on the same floor may or may not have power.
My new roomates continue to pamper me. By the time I arrive at the hotel, Chanbo has already bought for me a towel and a pair of sandals. She has known me for only a few days, but treats me like a son.
Chany's family comes to the hotel to visit. It's like Christmas. They sit on the floor, unpacking an enormous suitcase filled with gifts Chany has brought from America. Chany sits in the center, passing out gifts one by one. Later, one of Chany's sisters amuses the rest of her family by accidently flooding the bathroom with the handheld shower. Being from a farm, she did not know that she was supposed to stand inside the tub.
On my first evening in Phnom Penh, I look out the window as the sun sets. The vision is otherworldly: silhouetted against the glowing orange sky, a sea of antennas rises from the dark rooftops. I am in Cambodia.
This article contains nine parts:
Part One: Half the Fun, My Ass
Part Two: And Then, Things Stopped Going So Smoothly
· Part Three: To Laos and Beyond·
Part Four: In An Unhealed Land
Part Five: Into the Countryside
Part Six: Around Phnom Penh
Part Seven: To Svay Rieng
Part Eight: Relaxing Days, Very Quiet Nights
Part Nine: A Tale Ten Years in the Telling