What would you do if a blonde Minnesotan jumped out of the grass and threw up next to you while you were at an abandoned casino on the top of a mountain in Cambodia? . . .
December 30th was a busy day. I woke up relatively early with the intention of meeting Leif at the airport. His flight was to get in at 8 am, and I thought that a few snooze intervals on the alarm clock wouldn’t hurt, in fact they were probably helping me ease into the bright morning after the late night before. Before I knew it, it was 8:45. I hopped on my bike and tore out towards Pochentong International Airport. I was still a few kilometers from Pochentong when I spotted Leif, (his shaggy blond hair was unmistakable) on a moto heading in towards town. I busted a “Uey” and quickly caught up to him and his Dan. We exchanged some brief greetings and then drove back into town to the hotel.
Leif has been the first of my Minnesota crew to visit me, and it was great to see him after a year and a half. He is currently working for the JET program, a program sponsored by the Japanese government to bring English teachers to cities around the country in order to expose their sheltered population to foreigners. From what I hear they make some decent cash, plus they live in utopian Japan. That day I gave them a bit of a tour around town. We swung by the Russian Market to grab some warm clothes, blankets and flashlights (they call them torches over here). These supplies would be vital to our expedition – New Years rally to Bokor round 2.
If you recall from my entry about last year’s party, there were some mechanical incidents which delayed our arrival. This year, dirt bikes weren’t an option as we had a large crew that wanted to go – Barb, Ash, Katy, Katy’s mom, Zach, Brandon, Leif, Dan, Natalie, and Me. For this we would need a truck. I headed down to Damko market to arrange a Nissan (they call all pickup trucks Nissans, as most of them are Nissan diesels). These are not your ordinary pickups. They are smaller and have a cage in the bed with a roof and benches to accommodate as many people as you can squeeze into and on top of the truck. I bargained hard for the driver to meet us at 7 am take us down to Kampot and then up the mountain to Bokor, then back the next morning. We agreed on $120 round trip.
The next morning the motley crew assembled at my place, bushy tailed and bright eyed (not really, they all looked like they could use about 3 more hours of sleep). As we headed down the road, it was interesting to see those not accustomed to Cambodian traffic react to the situation. I thought that I might be able to snag a few hours of sleep on the way down, but the truck was too uncomfortable to even attempt it.
We stopped for lunch at my buddy Kristian’s restaurant on the riverside in Kampot, the Rusty Keyhole. I threw down a hearty hamburger and basked in the warm sunshine. It was now time for the more arduous segment of our journey, the road up the mountain. It is only 42 kilometers, but the road is in poor condition (that’s being nice), in addition to having to contend with other vehicles going up and down the mountain. Our Nissan didn’t have much in the form of suspension, Ash chose the rooftop, the ladies were given the cab, and the rest of us took turns hanging off the tailgate standing up. As the Nissan grinded up the hill and the hours wore on, I saw despair sinking into the faces of my compatriots. I was the only one who had been up Bokor before, and knew that the rough journey was a small price to pay for the reward at the top. Finally, after 2 ½ hours, we emerged onto the plateau and the Casino came into view. I think I saw people’s eyes light up a bit (it could have been just wishful thinking) but at least we had made it.
We pulled up to the casino. Many Cambodians had made the journey (like last year) and were in the process of barbequing and slamming back beers. We set up camp with my buddy Chea, who had brought a few tents and set about exploring the joint.
I took a nap shortly after sunset. When I woke up, I found the rest of the crew. Leif was getting into a bottle of Muscle Wine, I joined in with some whiskey. A short while later, Leif and Zach decided to take a walk around the place. They disappeared for maybe an hour. When they came back, Leif was telling me about how he had eaten some crab with some locals and that his stomach was starting to hurt. I advised him to “pull the trigger”, as I reasoned that it was best to get bad stuff out of your system as soon as possible. He disappeared again, only to reemerge hours later. Apparently he had passed out somewhere out in the grass, then woken up to a couple sitting on a wall near him. When he woke up, he threw up and startled the couple. I would have paid good money to see that. I think after that he came back and tried to join in the festivities, but failed. My buddy Charles who was sleeping in the tent around 12:30 saw him stumble in and pass out cold. At least he made it to midnight.
Throughout the night, Cambodians were lighting off fireworks and shooting guns in the air (handguns and AKs). At first it made me a bit nervous but I gradually got used to it. Seeing the trailers from the bullets as they shot off into the distance was kind of neat to watch. The next morning I found out that two people had been shot dead, one of Hun Sen’s bodyguards and a policeman. I also found out later that they were both friends of my mechanic. Drunken gunplay never turns out good.
As for the party, I had a great time. The music was decent and most of my friends made it. I think my sister had fun too (though she went to bed around 1 or 2). Brandon, Katy, and I made it until the morning and watched the sun ease up over the jungle, slowly clearing away the morning mist to reveal Phu Quc (a Vietnamese island just off the coast), salt plantations, and the coastline.
The ride down the mountain was much more painless, probably due to the fact that I was passed out on the floor of the bed for most of the way. Once in Kampot we had breakfast at Blissful Guesthouse. My sister and I parted with the rest of the gang, we headed down to Kep and rabbit islandfor a few days of relaxation. The Nissan and its eight party-goers went back to Phnom Penh. They had another 2 ½ hours of truck time. Ouch.
It was great to see Leif (check out his blog here), another reminder of friends from back home. Hope to see you all in 2006.