By the end of the night, our flight was only 2 hours late.
It began at the terminal in Beijing, our ’15 minute’ delay stretching into hours, as flights scheduled to leave after ours boarded and departed, all with no plane at our gate. The reason for this was soon made apparent, as we descended back into the frigid Beijing winter into a waiting bus, across the airfield (good thing I had checked my jacket) and finally, into a newer Boeing 737.
Our China South Eastern lifted off, and one ‘chicken and noodles’ later, we had arrived at our midpoint in Guong Jo, just long enough to be herded like cattle off the plane, huddled around with all those continuing on to Phnom Penh while one very harassed airline attendant gave out new boarding tickets, slapped random green stickers on some people for no particular reason, before going through customs, stamped out of the country, just to walk straight back up the stairs to wait to board the flight.
Making up for lost time, one ‘beef and rice’ later, we arrived into the tiny terminal that made up the Phnom Penh International Airport. After receiving our VISA upon entry (which they called out randomly and in no real particular order), we were through the customs and happy to see both Lisa and Nicole bedraggled, but still waiting for us in the lobby. As we walked out to the waiting Tuk Tuk (a common form of transportation involving a moto and a large two bench rickshaw) that they had hired (for $15, he was happy enough to wait the 3 hours and travel to the airport and back) we were nicely blasted by the 85 degree temperature heat, a welcomed relief after the snow, ice and frigid blue skies of the Beijing we had just left that morning.
Revving up to 15mpg, we entered Phnom Penh on a freshly paved, 6 lane highway. Constructed for the ASEAN summit in November of 2012, the road was built as a face to show the visiting president Obama, stretching just long enough to reach from the airport to the two massive government buildings where the summit was held, and a little bit further on, the Royal Palace and Independence Monuments. It is maybe the one place in Cambodia where you might see functioning sidewalks and actual regularly placed stoplights. In true fashion, as the signals get ready to change the walking man begins to run, faster and faster, as the light gets closer to red. Good advice.
Humming along at 11pm, the poor engines of our Tuk Tuk whined and slowed, sagging under Nicole, Lisa, Michael and Myself, as well as our gear, as we climbed slowly up the first 500 feet of the only overpass in Cambodia (finished in 2010 at a cost of roughly $6 million) and Nicole thought we might get a good jump out and help push experience. But alas, the driver jammed it into first, the engine sputtered, and we just crested the top, before a gentle glide down the other side.
The city, as we find out later is uncharacteristically quiet at this time of night.
The normal police go off duty about 9pm, and others had heard ominous warnings about the black clad motorcycle cops that replace them later on. Cambodia being one of the most corrupt countries in the world, in which even the regular police have to buy their way in, and often do so to gain control of various bribery rackets (the higher the position, the more kick backs you get), we didn’t doubt it.
All along the wide boulevard, in the grassed medians and on the massive sino-sovietesque ministry buildings, one with massive glass and stone pillars flanking an 10 story, tiered golden Angkorian pyramid, large framed photographs of the recently deceased Nordom Sihanouk, covered in flowers, and often turned into makeshift shrines were a common sight.
The unofficial father of the country, he was born in 1922 and tapped by the French to be king from 1941 to 1955, before leading Cambodia to independence and ruling from 1953. Staunchly leftist, then anti-leftist, increasingly paranoid and egocentric (his own star in the Cambodian film industry), he was the effective ruler from 1953 to 1970, before being deposed in a coup by general Lon Nol. During the early years of fighting between Republican and Khmer Rouge forces, it was his support in exile that gave the Khmer Rouge the legitimacy to begin gaining power. By lending nationalist credence, even becoming both the puppet head of their government from 1975-1976, before becoming imprisoned by them later, many urban and rural citizens were convinced to join the Khmer Rouge under the assumption they were fighting for the return of Sihanouk to power. After decades of civil war, including a large period of time where the United States jointly supported Pol Pot (throughout the 1980′s) along with China against the Vietnamese government after their overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, he returned to the kingship after the Paris Peace accords in 1993 until his abdication in 2004 and death in 2012.
On the night he died, on October 21st, at about 8pm, word began to spread. Go outside, look up – Sihanouk’s face is on the moon. One by one, Cambodians walked out to the street and looked up. News of the event spread by SMS, online and word of mouth. That night, tens of thousands of people claimed to see his face in the moon, and soon photographs (some might say photoshopped) hawked throughout Phnom Penh and in front of the Royal Palace sold rampantly throughout the country. One Chinese factory owner after seeing a group of women workers crying and talking over the picture became immediately enraged and tore it into pieces, and was promptly deported. Another factory owner was placed into a similar situation, but after she apologized repeatedly, and it turned out she had just folded the picture, she was instead simply fined.
On the way to the Diamond Hotel 2, we travelled past the independence monument, celebrating the Vietnamese liberation army of 1977 as well as briefly glimpsed Sihanouk’s memorial, where a giant illuminated picture hangs from the Royal Palace. Cranes and work crews work frenetically on the crematorium, adorned with flowing white alligator banners, rising 30 meters to a steeped point being built next door at a cost of roughly $5 million, overlooking a broad green park where hundreds come to pray, offer flowers and burn incense as well as overlooking the nearby riverside, where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers converge together. Despite his mixed past, he was considered to be the father of the country. When his body finally returned to Cambodia from China where he had been seeking medical treatment, more than 200,000 people turned out to pay their respects until February, where his body will be burned in a 3 day mourning period.
The hotel itself was a welcomed relief from our hours of travelling.
Dark wood paneling surrounded the ground floor restaurant and bar, a small house shrine in the back, covered in incense and of course piles of fake money, while geckos crawled along the walls and moths and butterflies occasionally attached themselves to fixtures and door frames. The evening was spent catching up with Lisa and Nicole (who had herself just gotten in earlier that day from Seattle), before Michael (other Michael) finally got in from his own Christmas party at around 1am, and by 3am, we were in bed.
In all, we only saw one cockroach and they had functioning showers which we put quickly to use.