As difficult as Vietnam was for an independent traveler 19 years ago, what with all the permits (road, exit, re-entry, etc.), Cambodia seemed like a walk in the park.
A dirty one, but a walk nonetheless.
When I purchased my tickets to Cambodia from Phoenix Services in Saigon, I was told to ask for Brent Lam at the Hotel Cambodiana. He’d buy my plane ticket and permits to Siem Reap so I could visit Angkor Wat.
And sure enough, when I met Mr. Lam at the Cambodiana, he took care of everything. I didn’t experience the corruption or lies that greeted me in Vietnam. And I met some great people in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as I had throughout southern Vietnam.
At the Cambodiana, I sometimes ate with Grace, a British mid-wife who worked for a Christian social service agency in Phnom Penh. She was actually on my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Saigon. I’m sure we never would have recognized one another had we been in larger countries with more people who looked like us. She invited me to a traditional Cambodian home for a religious service. I had half a mind to go, just to see the home, but had had a long day out in the Killing Fields and couldn’t muster up the energy to go out that evening.
I also ate dinner with William, a British guy who worked in Saigon for Jardine Matheson. Again, we recognized each other at the Cambodiana from our trip to Siem Reap, and spoke about Hong Kong, where he’d lived before moving to Saigon. For expats back then, Saigon was very backwater.
Anh was a Cambodian cyclo driver who took me around Phnom Penh. I met him outside the Cambodiana and learned that his parents and sister perished during Pol Pot’s reign. He’d moved from the countryside to Phnom Penh a couple years earlier to learn English and spoke it very well. Another day he rented a motorcycle and drove me out to the Killing Fields.
I also met at the Cambodiana (at later at Angkor Wat) a father and son from Mexico and a Japanese man living in Hong Kong. Traveling alone has its benefits, meeting people you might not talk to if you were in a group or even with one other person.
And then there was Brent Lam, the hotel manager. Cambodia was just reviving after a few horrible decades and tourism was starting to stir again. The Cambodiana was the only hotel where foreigners of any persuasion stayed. (The hotel looks blurry in this photo, but everything looked blurry in Phnom Penh back then.) Lam was Hong Kong Cantonese and even escorted me to the airport on my way back to Saigon. A fellow Hong Kong co-worker had served his two years at the Cambodiana and had a flight a half hour before mine, so we all traveled to the airport together.
For a college student like me, it was difficult to pay $50 a night at the Cambodiana, but after a rough couple weeks in Vietnam and one more to go, I didn’t complain.