"Young Female, Traveling Alone"
This article is an excerpt from the book "Young
Female, Traveling Alone" by Manuela Pop.
Strung Strang, Cambodia
"How much to cross over to Strung Strang?" I asked the Cambodian man.
"Fifty dollars," he quickly replied.
"Fifty dollars? That's way too much. How about thirty for both of us?"
I had met Esther, a young Israeli girl, on Don Det, an island in the Four Thousand Islands region south of Laos . She was traveling with a group of Israelis through Asia. We were going to travel together through Cambodia .
"No, fifty dollars," the Cambodian man responded. He seemed annoyed.
"Well, we'll wait. Maybe, some other people will show up and it will come out cheaper for all of us," Ester said to me.
We sat down in the small restaurant by the riverside. This was the point of no return: in between the Cambodian and Laotian borders. The way to cross into Cambodia required a boat to bring us to the border on the other side of the river to get our passports stamped and continue down the Mekong River to the nearest town in Cambodia , Strung Strang. The Cambodian border was across the river, and we had already passed the Laotian border. Local Cambodians took advantage of the situation and inflated the boat prices: usually fifty dollars per boat.
As soon as we sat down, five Cambodian men came to sit with us, and after thirty minutes of bargaining they finally lowered the price to thirty-five dollars for both of us on the speedboat.
"You follow me," one of the men told us after we handed him the money.
He left quickly. We walked behind him through a small alley behind the boats, at a distance of about three feet. He walked fast. He soon disappeared out of sight.
"Where is he?" I asked Esther.
"I don't know."
"I think we are getting ripped off," I continued, enraged.
We went back to the restaurant and looked for the Cambodian men with whom we had negotiated the boat price. They were not there. I was furious. I asked the restaurant owner. He didn't know.
"What are you talking about? You have seen us talking. Where are they?" I yelled at him.
"Come quick," Esther said, "one of the men is by the boats." I ran outside the restaurant.
"Where is the boat?" I yelled at him.
"You follow man?" He asked.
"Yes, we did. Your friend is nowhere to be found. Where is the boat?" I asked again.
"You follow me," he said.
We followed the guy closely this time and arrived at an old bamboo boat.
"Where is the speedboat?" I asked the guy.
"No speedboat, fifty dollars speedboat. Thirty-five dollars, slow boat."
We realized we had gotten conned. Two Cambodian women and their children were quietly waiting in the boat. Esther and I got inside.
The journey down the Mekong River was fascinating: The river was wide, and the brown water flew rapidly through big trees growing out of the bottom of the river. At that moment, I was glad to be on any boat going to Strung Strang. The small Cambodian man was very skilled at driving the boat on the fast river.
We arrived at the Cambodian customs agency. The officers charged us ten dollars. Border taxes, they explained. Esther and I paid the fees and got our passports stamped. We were getting scammed again. There was no Cambodian border tax to pay. The travel agency in Bangkok who handled the Cambodian visa procedures had told me so.
Back in the boat, Esther fell asleep. I listened to music, contemplating the beautiful natural surroundings. The children were lying down, quietly playing with broken toys. The mothers chatted away in a low tone of voice. From time to time, they stared at us, smiling. The women were beautiful, with long hair down to the waist and wide faces with big brown eyes.
At lunchtime, they offered us rice, bread, and fruits. I asked the women whether there was a bathroom on the boat. They gestured for me to go ask the boatman. He showed me the toilet in the back of the boat: A very tight-fitting room built out of bamboo. I barely had room inside to squat over the hole. The river was flowing below. I looked down and saw its rapid waters.
I later sat down next to the boatman and looked at his old hands maneuvering the boat. He must have used them a lot. He had the hands of a hard worker.
We arrived at Strung Strang at two o'clock in the afternoon. Esther and I debarked and walked into the guesthouse across the street from the harbor point. The owner, a French Laotian, gave us the nicest room. Later on in the day, Esther, the guesthouse owner, and I sat down at a table in the alley, drinking homemade Cambodian liqueur. We told him about the scam at the Cambodian border and he said we should be careful with Cambodian men, because they often pull scams on tourists.
An old man with half a leg missing passed by. He came closer and begged for money. I gave him some change. It no longer bothered me to see amputated Cambodian people. They seemed to be there everywhere I'd look.
Cambodia is the second-poorest country in Southeast Asia, and Laos the poorest. Due to numerous wars and the four years of barbaric communist rule under the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, the country was in a deplorable state. Cambodian territory is mined, and every year the government invests large sums of money for countering the mines, which injure or kill the Cambodians.
Esther wanted to try out karaoke, a common entertainment in Asia. A couple of young Cambodian men working in the guesthouse offered to bring us to a party place.
In the evening, Esther and I jumped on the back of the guy's motorbike and drove away. We arrived at an old house and entered. A beautiful Cambodian woman walked us into a wide room with leather couches around a big TV and a stereo set. The walls were covered with pictures of half-naked women. I started to feel strange. I noticed the woman wearing tight, revealing clothes, which was very unusual for regular Cambodian female attire. I realized we were in a whorehouse.
"This is a brothel, not a bar," I said out loud.
"No problem'party place." His casual tone of voice made me believe the place most probably provided usual entertainment for them. The beautiful woman returned with a tray full of beers. The men start drinking and singing karaoke. As the night advanced, we got drunker and sang louder.
The woman sang a few songs with us. She had a strong, confident voice. The men seemed to be mesmerized by it.
"Why do you have brothels in Cambodia? Why don't you get girlfriends?" I asked the men.
"Girlfriend? No. In Cambodia, woman no girlfriend. Fun friend or mar
Obviously, there were only two categories of women in Cambodia: marriage potential or prostitutes. To get married, a guy needed financial security, and, before reaching that stage, the men frequented the brothels. I was getting annoyed with the situation, and I wanted to leave.
"I want to go back to the guesthouse," I said abruptly.
Esther and I jumped back on the motorcycle and rode back to
the guesthouse. Early the next morning, we took the boat
to Phnom Pen.
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