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Arrival in Cambodia

Arrival in Cambodia

As promised I have written about Cambodia before the week was out, but this is only a dent and not even the ‘cool stuff’ yet. Stay tuned for more!

It was Ash Wednesday and I had no ashes on my head, but I did have a plane ticket to Cambodia. I had a legitimate claim for traveler’s dispensation as there was no time for a Mass in the day’s schedule. The five of use Loyola students and Rylan sat in the terminal waiting. I rationalized in my head that Toberlone chocolate was not candy, which I had just given up for Lent, and shelled out three bucks to buy a large stick to eat before we boarded out plane, or rather the shuttle to our plane. I broke off my piece and tried to eat it before it melted in the hot Vietnamese air. The chocolate drizzled all over my nice white shirt. Evidence to all that I had already failed my Lenten goal… at any rate the sun was setting in a fiery orange ball behind the runway and was quite a beautiful sight. The announcement came on for Cambodia Angkor Air, our carrier for today and Cambodia’s national airline. We all boarded a little tram and headed out on the tarmac.
We approached a Douglas DC-3 and I got really excited because I thought we were going to fly on a plane that revolutionized transportation (I would also feel like Indiana Jones). Alas the plane belonged to the Royal Thai Airforce, and our Angkor Air plane was parked nearby. It was taller and more robust than the DC-3, being a an ATR 72. It was not a jet, but a prop airplane, so I was excited. We boarded via stairs and we all sat down in our assigned seats. Flipping through my magazine I chatted with everyone else about our upcoming trip until the engines roared to life and the propellers began to spin. I found out that the fleet size was only three planes, so I was on 1/3 of Cambodia’s air fleet. Angkor Air was Cambodia’s only airline, and only flew to three destinations: Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, and Siemp Reap. Can you imagine that? This country only has three planes. Can you even imagine how many planes American or any Western country operates? It blows my mind. The plane began to role and within moments we were in the air.
“We can’t be over the ocean; we are heading into Cambodia right?” I asked Rylan. “Yup” I looked out the window again. I hadn’t seen any lights in over half an hour and we were already preparing for landing. Cambodia was the darkest country I had ever seen, as there had been no lights since Saigon. Finally light came up around the capital of Phnom Penh, but it was nothing compared to Vietnam. I would come to learn later that the country relied on diesel generators and thus electricity was not as abundant as it was in neighboring countries. Upon landing we got our visas from customs (You can get a visa upon entry for 50 USD, a good deal for tourists who just want to stop by). The entire airport seemed so tiny for a capital airport, and walking outside only about five men held signs waiting for people as opposed to the hundreds outside Ho Chi Minh ciy’s airport. We met our tour guide Veeshna at the front of the airport and following him piled in the ever popular Mercedes sprinter van and was on our way to the hotel in no time. He began giving us a quick low down of Cambodian history and said, “We were first Hindu, and now we are Buddhist. Still, we are Hindu. Every Buddhist in Cambodia is also a Hindu. Not everyone will say it, but we are. We are different from Vietnam.” My ears perked up at the words spoken. I was really interested to learn more about this religion that was Buddhism on the surface but apparently retained aspects of Hinduism. More on that later. We arrived at the SunWay hotel and all of us set up in our rooms quickly and then we set off again to our dinner destination: The Titanic.
The restaurant was not a boat, but it was on the Mekong River providing a nice peaceful setting to eat under the moonlight. We ate outdoors around a large table in huge plush chairs. The food presented to us was nothing less than a feast, and I had some amock, a kind of green Cambodian curry with fish. It was delicious. I also slurped down a mango shake and munched on huge river prawn. I saw a stage nearby our table and asked over to Rylan, “Do you think we’ll see dancing while we are here? I am really interested to see some traditional Khmer dance, like the aspara.” Just as I finished my question a band playing wooden xylophones picked up and a women dressed in traditional Cambodian clothes appeared onstage and began to dance, swaying her body gently, moving her feet rhythmically, and twisting her fingers around slowly. It was very beautiful and I sat entranced as I ate my food.
Upon finishing we headed over to a bar and enjoyed some cheap beer. As time went by we saw some old beat up cars drive by with tarps lining the back of the car, the back fender sagging down, and water splashing out of the rolled up windows from time to time. How odd. We kept seeing these every few minutes and finally one of us asked a server who told us they were ‘fish cars’, which fishermen packed full of caught fish at the Cambodian coast 375 miles away and then drove to the capital of Phenom Penh inland. Crazy right? I guess whatever gets the job done. All of us raised our bottles together and said cheers to fish cars, Cambodia, and good friendship. Afterwords we got in a tuk tuk (a motorcycle pulling a kind of carriage behind it, different from the three wheeled tuk tuk/rikshas of India) and headed for the SunWay, which is located right across from the US Embassy. We all headed off the our respective rooms and I changed into my nice Cambodian sleeping robe and headed off to bed. There was a long day of touring the capital tomorrow, and I needed to get some rest.

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