Soon as the last passenger sat in his seat, our bus dashed through the neutral zone separating Vietnam and Cambodia. The atmosphere was somehow changing. One minute later, when the bus finally reached the immigration post of the Kingdom of Cambodia, all of the passengers were ordered to get off.
Right beside the bus’s front door, two immigration officers had stood up, ready to retrieve our passports. I gave my passport suspiciously, so did Ching, a 27-year-old Chinese citizen who sat beside me on the bus. We entered the immigration post. Crossing the whole length of it, we ended up at the other end of the building—with no explanation whatsoever and no passport in our hand.
“Where is my passport?” asked Ching. I shook my head. I didn’t get any clue either. Immigration wasn’t supposed to be like this. One’s supposed to queue to get his passport stamped.
Before getting an answer, we were commanded to board the bus. The bus then zoomed for several minutes through the dusty border town of Cambodia before stopping in front of a restaurant where we were, seemingly, supposed to eat lunch. Since I had no appetite, I didn’t eat. So did Ching, who was still wondering the whereabouts of his Chinese passport.
Half an hour later, everyone had already boarded the bus, ready to head for Phnom Penh, including the Caucasian kid sitting on the seat in front of me who mysteriously disappeared in the last town before Vietnam-Cambodian border. (I eavesdropped that the kid, who was traveling with his grandfather, had forgotten his passport.) Only God knew how he crossed the border without paper.
Eventually, the bus crew gave our passports back. When I opened mine, it had already stamped with Cambodian visa and the departure card had already been stapled to it. As the green bus started zooming to Phnom Penh, Ching smiled and put his passport back to his small bag.
Finding sim card in Phnom Penh
I attempted to have conversations with Ching along the way. But he didn’t speak much English. The longer my sentence, the longer he shook his head.
Somehow I knew Ching had not had the faintest idea where to stay. So I said, “I’m gonna find a room beside a lake. They say there are cheap rooms there.” I wasn’t really sure he got what I mean. But it appeared that he knew what “cheap” meant so he responded, “I-I follow you.”
I nodded. But I added that I had to find the central post office first to book a seat in the minibus to Siem Riep for the day after tomorrow. He was even happier because it turned he wanted to go to Siem Reap as well.
Yet, stuttering, he said, “H-help me find phone… card.”
So my first mission in Cambodia was finding a sim card for Ching. Unlike in my home country, Indonesia, people didn’t sell sim card everywhere here in Cambodia. You couldn’t just step into a random shop and ask for a sim card—you had to go the market.
At first, I acted as Ching’s interpreter. In a rather big shop near Phnom Penh’s central market (Phsar Thmei), the shopkeeper asked me, after reading Ching’s passport, “Is he really Chinese?” Yes, I said. And the shopkeeper started speaking Mandarin. To my astonishment, Ching was really talkative when speaking in his mother tongue. And when it comes to Mandarin, I was the one who got no clue.
The lake that had already gone
Ching thought that it was too expensive. So we left the shop and strode to a corner where there were many cellphone and sim card seller booths.
Still, English seemed to be a problem for many people in the developing countries. The first seller we asked simply ignored us after saying the price. We even got no chance to haggle. Fortunately, the second booth we visited were kept by a twenty-something young man who turned to have a pretty good command of English—and Mandarin. Ching was convinced to buy the sim card there.
While the shopkeeper was installing Ching’s sim card, I asked him about the lake. His answer surprised me, “It has already gone about ten years ago.” He suggested us to go to the riverside instead because the backpacker’s area had already moved there.
After getting the sim card, we continued walking through the old Phnom Penh. The sun had already slanted down, ready to set. Circling the market, we headed north through a small road and eventually set foot on a fore-and-aft square—like Ho Chi Minh Square in Saigon but dirtier. It was surrounded by the ministry offices and guarded by an out-of-place skyscraper which looked like an alien spacecraft.
Garbages spread everywhere. People gathered here and there—playing volley, nursing a child, selling street food. What I saw reminded me of the scene on EuroTrip where the gang incidentally went to the God-forsaken post-war Bratislava.
The central post office was just around the corner. It was being closed when we finally entered the lobby, yet the front lines were still there. They were nice and even allowed us to book without down payment. We then booked two Cambodian Post minivan seats to Siem Reap for the day after tomorrow.
Making sure what was told by the sim card seller was true, I asked one of the officers about the lake. It corroborated with the seller’s statement: it had long gone. But, he said there was still a cheap hostel left there around the old lake. He didn’t know for sure but he said it’d cost us under 10 dollars. “I will check it,” he said, dialing a number on the telephone, speaking Khmer.
A moment later, he turned to me. “They have room.” The Cambodian Post officer was so generous that he even drew me a simple yet readable map to 10 Lakeside Guesthouse, Boeung Kak Lake.
Under two currencies
While I was booking the Cambodian Post minivan, Ching booked his own room in a hotel around the riverside. (We’d already found the most effective way to communicate—I’d type a sentence on his iPhone and he’d Google-translate it into Mandarin.) “We’ll meet the day after tomorrow at 7 am here,” I typed, he nodded, and then we parted.
Strolling on the pedestrian on the riverside, I felt that I was brought to the past—and was trapped. Phnom Penh seemed to be too quiet for a national capital and too “Sephia.” Perhaps because I had just arrived from the crowded Saigon. People were gathering everywhere: on the bank of Tonle Sap River, on the bar stools drinking beer, around street food vendors selling mi using some kind of customized tuk-tuk. Every now and then I passed a group of bald monks wearing orange fabric. Wherever you looked you’d see cranes shaping the city with brand-new skyscrapers.
Finding no sign of under 10-dollar hostel around Riverside, I turned to the map given by the officer of the Cambodian Post. After comparing it with the Phnom Penh map I had, I decided that 10 Lakeside was within walking distance.
I walked to the west, through a traditional market, central market, bus terminal, and eventually reached the far end of the square beside Wat Phnom. I sat on the rim of the fountain, comprehending the contradictive cityscape of Phnom Penh, where the old and new buildings stood in harmony embracing the so-called modernity.
The 10 Lakeside was only three doors down from the fountain. It wasn’t hard to find it since it was the most festive spot around Boeung Kak. The proprietor gave me the key to a room on the third floor—a king sized bed, a big fan, and a nice bathroom with shower, 6 dollars/night. Compared to the guesthouse where I stayed in Pham Ngu Lao, Saigon, 10 Lakeside Guesthouse was obviously better. (In the morning, I found out that I could see the whole old, reclaimed Boeung Kak Lake from my room.)
The food was nice too—and they had cheap beers and shots. Too tired to go outside after a tiring yet wonderful day, I dined at 10 Lakeside’s cafe (fried rice if I was not mistaken). When I paid my bill in US Dollar, I got the change in beaten Cambodian Riel. I just realized that I was in a country with two currencies.