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Documentary : Through the Parrot's Beak: a Bleak Road to Cambodia : The only practical route from Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh is by car on historic Route 1. Don't bring credit cards; they only take cash on this journey.

October 09, 1990|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — More than a decade after the dreaded Khmer Rouge Communists were ousted from power in Cambodia by a Vietnamese invasion, it hasn't gotten much easier getting to this dilapidated capital city.

With only four flights a week to the outside world, booked solid for weeks in advance, the only practical route for most travelers to Phnom Penh is to drive from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam along Route 1, which during the Vietnam War functioned as an incursion route for the South Vietnamese army into Cambodia's "Parrot's Beak." Although the two cities are less than 200 miles apart, the drive now takes more than six hours.

Because Cambodia's diplomatic relations are limited to Vietnam, India and Soviet Bloc countries, I must pick up a visa at the Cambodian Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon. A consulate official greets me with a broad grin and informs me that I just missed the last bus of the day to his country.

He volunteers that he has "a friend" who will drive me for $300. When I blanch at the price, the official replies coolly that without availing myself of his friend's car, my visa could take days, if not weeks, to process. Only a fool would argue with such logic.

One drawback to road travel in Vietnam and Cambodia: Although traffic bears right, as in the United States, most of the vehicles on the streets these days are used cars imported from Singapore and Thailand, where the steering wheel is on the right-hand side, as in Britain. Thus, most of the time my driver was blind to oncoming traffic as he pulled out to pass Soviet-made trucks laden with melons or foam-rubber mattresses, foul-smelling tractors and braces of oxen.

We stop along the way to buy loaves of bread, which the driver says is in short supply in Phnom Penh. (He is wrong, it turns out.) Soon the old Toyota is filled with the yeasty aroma of French-style baguettes whose preparation, a legacy of the colonial era, seems to have survived three wars in Indochina. We also stop to fill up on gasoline before reaching Cambodia, because at 900 Vietnamese dong a liter, the price works out to a bargain 80 cents a gallon, thanks to heavy government subsidies from both Moscow and Hanoi, which my driver gloomily notes will come to an end this year.

Just before the Vietnamese-Cambodian border at Boc Mai is an old railroad bridge that has been converted to road traffic by laying boards where there used to be tracks. It is a one-lane bridge, and crossing it becomes a game of chicken to see who can make it first. By the time we are halfway across, a farmer appears at the far end with two water buffaloes, which are clearly not inclined to go in reverse. After much cajoling, the farmer separates the buffaloes, and they literally squeeze by the sides of the car, breathing their loamy breath into the car as they pass.

At the end of the bridge, we find a solitary Chinese bicycle, leaning on its kickstand, blocking the way. A Vietnamese farmer lies on his side by the road's edge, his traditional cone hat obscuring his face. Our initial concern turns to irritation as it becomes clear that the farmer is roaring drunk.

When Vietnam withdrew its last troops from Cambodia last September, it erected an enormous wooden victory arch at the border, which still delineates the frontier. The border formalities are just that--two copies each of exit customs declaration and passport control declaration to leave Vietnam, two copies each of customs declaration and passport control declaration to enter Cambodia. As we drive out of Vietnam, I notice that one of the customs men is wearing my driver's brand-new sunglasses, and the driver is cursing mildly under his breath.

The traffic, which was heavy on the Vietnamese side of the border, evaporates in Cambodia. The landscape alternates between farmers at work in flooded rice paddies and towns whose shops have been burned out for 15 years. Commerce now consists of roadside stands--gasoline is sold by the liter in plastic soft drink bottles, and every 100 yards or so there seems to be a small pyramid of 555 brand cigarettes and Scotch whiskey.

Thanks to the grim efficiency of Khmer Rouge sappers, it still is not possible to drive all the way to Phnom Penh. The only bridge over the Mekong River, a sloping concrete span just outside the capital, was blown up before the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975. During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge tried turning the clock back 4,000 years, killing more than 1 million Cambodians in the process. Their program obviously did not include bridge repair.

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