Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Enter Cambodia

The Laos-Cambodia border crossing is stark: a long shimmering strip of asphalt sidled by desolate, leafless woodland that stretches back and disappears into brown horizons. To make the scene even more dire, I had to walk 200 meters in the heat of the high sun from the Laos border station to the Cambodian visa checkpoint. A Frenchman, Fred, who I was traveling with to Phnom Penh, didn't believe me when I told him we had to walk. He laughed and continued sitting in the sun while I shrugged and hefted my bag. Vans and buses continued to dispel passengers who ambled refugee-like across the mirage of no-man's-land.

The Cambodian checkpoint was little more than a ramshackle outpost of a half dozen clapboard buildings and a cluster of bleating goats. After an excruciatingly slow visa process, we boarded the next bus and set off for Phnom Penh, eight hours to the south. Along the way we passed lush palm-studded fields and sturdy red-dirt villages, while plumes of rubbish smoke in the distance acted as visual orientations across the otherwise flat terrain. In the northern provinces wood fuel is a big business – a business I later found out was illegal – and several roadside stands were populated by locals hacking logs into various sizes: some too big for fire pits, others as small as wood chips.

In what proved to be the highlight of the trip, a bat flew in the open door of the bus and flitted to the back where it caused fits among a group of Western girls who were chatting in the back seat. After a dinner break at a roadside noodle house, a large smiling Cambodian boarded the bus and squeezed into the seat next to me. He held a small covered cardboard box that turned out to contain two baby parrots that the man fed orange slices to and water from a small syringe.

Only in Cambodia.

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