"Twenty was really the number of the day"
The day was Saturday, the date was the 14th in the month of February. This day was special in many ways. I woke up in a bungalow on high pillars above the Mekong River. I stumbled out of bed and laid down in the hammock on the deck. It was early in the morning, and I watched the sky go from pink to blue. The sunrise was on the other side of the island, but I have seen a few sunrises, and I knew that with the amazing nature around Don Det, the spectacle would have been amazing. As I was swinging back and fourth, listening to the wood squeaking as I was at the lowest point of the swing, I realized that it was my birthday, and that I was no longer a teenager. I decided that this was a good way to wake up on one's 20th birthday.
In addition to being my birthday, this Saturday had a lot of other reasons to be marked in calendars all over the world. The biggest one has to be Chinese New Year. All over Asia they started the celebration of the year of the tiger on this particular day. I am sure that more than two billion people celebrated this day for than reason. It was also St. Valentine's Day. That I am sure is the second largest of the many. Despite the fact that the Valentine's day as we know it was created by "Hallmark" so that they could sell more than birthday cards, the celebration of love is a very old tradition. Even most people I have met in Asia celebrate it like we do in Europe, a 20th of what they make of it in the USA, that is. Mother's day is also created by "Hallmark", but this celebration was created by that one company, it has spread out to the smallest corners of the world.
In Norway it was also Mother's day (another commercially created celebration) and "Fastelaven". "Fastelaven" is the celebration of the night before the fast period in Christianity, and it is celebrated more in kindergartens than anywhere else. This has a lot to do with the "fastelaven buns" that are baked and eaten are great activities for the kids.
After Paul got up and congratulated me, we headed out to eat breakfast. We had just enough for a small sandwich each. We ate them and started to wait for the transport to Cambodia. When we bought the tickets the day before, we learned that we only had enough money to get to the city right across the border, Stung Treng. We had put aside 20 USD to the border crossing, and that was it.
A long tale boat took us to the main land where the bus waited for us. Bigger than most houses in town, orange and late, the bus was not unlike most buses in Laos. They filled it up, and left for the border. On the way there, Paul and I both knew that we would see Laos again, but the next time I want to travel around in a convertible Jeep. Driving the winding roads of Laos in an open car would be amazing.
As with all border crossings, we had to check out of Laos before entering Cambodia. This was where the border officials wanted to squeeze the last money out of our pockets. First we got the health statement card. They charged us one dollar for that. Then they wanted two dollars to stamp it after we filled it in. All of these fees are going straight to the officers' pockets, but people pay up because they just want to get moving. In the end we had to dig up some small Laos Real that was berried in our bags, in fear of loosing our seats in the bus.
At the visa office on the Cambodian side of the border they had a sign printed from MS Word saying that the visa fee was "$23". We all knew that this was just extra "money for the bar". According to the Cambodian embassy it is only 20 USD to cross that border. Six of us on the bus protested, and since we were out of money, and only had $20 each, they would not let us pass. We knew that they would let us go when everyone who had money had passed. This took about two hours. We waited, yelled at them, tried to bribe them with some other currencies, tried to bribe them with some dry baguettes, and so on. Finally, when everyone had passed, except for the four of us who were left at that stage, they let us pay 20 USD and gave us the visa. I had borrowed a few dollars from some French people who passed earlier, just in case we would not have time to wait for the real price, but I kept that in my pocket, not even telling Paul. I knew he would have just given them the money so we could get out of there. I never like loosing a "haggling match", but most of all, the other girls had no extra money at all, and I did not want to leave them in a bad situation. If we, after claiming to have no money for two hours all of a sudden could pay, they would assume the girls would do the same, and keep them there for a long time. This would delay our bus even more, if it would wait that long. We had heard from people who had already paid 23 USD that they had to pay one more dollar to get the stamp. One French girl did not have that dollar, so they took her passport. When walking up to the booth I was determined, held my passport firmly with both hands and told them to stamp it. They told me to give them my passport, and I refused. Then I told the officer with the stamp that we did not want to finance his bar visits, and that he would give us the stamp for free, like it should be. They gave in and gave all of us the stamp for free. Back on the bus they had picked up more people, but we managed to get seats, and enjoyed them on the way down to Stung Treng. Next to us people were sitting in the aisle, some on small plastic stools.
In Stung Treng they stopped at a restaurant, and half the bus started to walk around to look for the only ATM in town. We heard form a lot of people that it was closed due to the Chinese New Year. Luckily it was not, so we got some money out, but did not tell anyone. We did not have tickets out of the city, and we had heard from some frustrated tourists who were stuck in the city that there was no buses out of there the next couple days. So we got back in the bus as fast as possible, waited it out till they checked the ticket a few hours later, and told them that the guy on the bus before the border took it. They had to charge us a fee, but at least we did not have to pay for the whole ticket(which would be impossible to buy). This way we got to Phnom Penh that same night.
After being dropped off by the bus, a couple Canadian girls took us to a good guesthouse. We checked in, dropped our bags, and went out on the street to find some food. We stayed on the Lake Side. Phnom Penh is located on the banks of the river delta where the rivers Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac run into each other. In the centre of the city there is a large lake (if you look at the map). The Lake is more or less covered with buildings now. Between the bamboos in the floor in our room, we could see the water. This is the cheapest area of town, and is filled with backpacker joints. This included an Indian restaurant (Are we in India yet? Third day in a row with Indian food!) with an "All you can eat" sign on the door. It was 3 USD, and we ate a lot. Paul actually ate so much he felt sick after. I ate more, but felt good. After the dinner, Paul laid down, and I played pool with some other travelers in the guesthouse. Then I crashed just after midnight.