January 17, 2010

A french press coffee with bacon and eggs on a thatch-covered dock at the hostel this morning was a good way to wash away all the frustration involved in getting here over the past two days.  Friday started off nice and breezy with the heating system giving out.  Luckily, the hotel across the street (where I stayed in December) has a jinjobang on the side.  It was a bit sparse compared to other bathhouses I’ve been to in Korea, and I was in such a hurry to get over there that I forgot the bag of shampoo, toothbrush and other accessories I packed for it.  My misgivings were correct.  Most jinjobangs provide lots of toiletries but all I got was a towel.  A bar of soap and hot water were the only essentials, I told myself.  A message I sent to one of Stuart’s co-teachers got his boiler repaired, but I was stressing about that possible delay  all morning.

The last day of winter camp went smoothly.  We focused on cooking Tteokkboki, a spicy stir fry of rice noodles and veggies.  Despite two hours to finish packing after school, I still missed the last bus to Seoul and had to do the Jangpyeong shuffle to catch another one.  Jangpyeong is a hub in Pyeongchang County and you can usually catch a bus to anywhere else from there.  Seoul involved a freezing cold search for the hostel; crossing and re-crossing the highway to get to a PC bang (internet cafe) so I could check the directions.  As usual, the hostel was a bit bare compared to the love motels that run at the same price.  I’m still not winning on that search, but I hope to find a hostel in Seoul that somewhat follows the model of Loki Cuzco.

Made it to the airport with plenty of time.  Chatted with a Korean who wanted to practice his English on the bus.  Feasted on sizzling bimbimpap with two sushi chefs on their way to Japan, and then I was 30,000 feet over the east coast of China.  We landed in a sunny and smoggy southern city called Guangzhou where I came face-to-face with the infuriating and sketchy Chinese beaureucracy.  My plane was boarding and I was still standing in line at immigration, I could see a crowd of Westerners had been herded to a corner marked “transfers” and the navy-uniformed immigration po had been checking this guy’s passport for the past 20 minutes it seemed.  Two of his mates waited on the other side chuckling, but I was considering the possibility of missing my flight.  Suddenly, a guard came over and asked for my passport.  He turned his back on me and didn’t say anything, then I was following a thin, spectacled bloke in loops around the desks and queue ropes to an elevator that took me up to the metal detector.  They helped me bypass the line to get to my plane on time, for which I was confused and grateful.  Another American told me that the crowd at the “transfers” corner were all North American English teachers working in South Korea.  After showing their passports, there were told to wait indefinitely in that corner.  Several possibilites came to discussion obviously, but I’m still in the dark as to what that was all about.

Arriving in Phnom Penh, a clerk at the visa desk said he couldn’t give me a tourist visa because there were no blank pages in my passport.  Here is were I lost my temper.  Normally, I’ve been doing a good job of playing nice and getting things done smoothly, but the fatigue of the trip had wore me down.  However, as it usually goes, you kick up a little stink, and someone comes along who knows how to fix things.  A middle-aged Cambodian in a uniform went and talked to the clerk, then returned with a form wherein I could give my permission to put the tourist visa on a page with only a faint stamp from Mexico City.  Irked me that the clerk didn’t bother to mention this, but I still felt annoyed at myself for lashing out at him.

The taxi driver said he knew where Happy Guesthouse No. 11 was, then asked me for the street address.  No worries though, I just pointed on the map and he took me almost to the front door.  Riding through Phnom Penh was a world away from hyper-developed South Korea.  Reminded me of Peru.  Half the traffic was motorcycles and cycle-pulled covered carriages (I think those are the “tuk-tuks” I read about).  The city is third-world and run down like the southern parts of Santiago and Lima.  It’s flat as a pancake, and several buldings have the colonial French look of second-floor porch balconies. There are also some very modern-looking buildings right next to cramped slums.  The Lonely Planet writers aren’t kidding when they say there is a wide gap between rich and poor.

The hostel is much like Loki in its ammenities, and it sits peacefully on the Boeng Kak lakeside.  Hammocks, fans, bamboo and palms.  Bar, all-day restaurant, and internet (obviously).  The weather is perfect.  It’s about 80 F, 30 C, and there’s a great breeze coming in over the lake.  Gravitated toward beer and Brits, as I usually do, and slept pretty well in my single room for $5.  Now that I’ve got bacon, eggs, toast, coffee, and tropical fruit in the belly, I’m off to see all the tourist trail highlights:  The Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the National Musuem, all within walking distance of each other.  I think the day will begin with Tuol Sleng though, so as not to end the day with a depressing look at the darkest side of humanity.  Watched The Killing Fields for the first time last week.  However, the most immediate necessity is some bug-spray cause I’m being eaten alive!