Spurred on by thoughts of what the French call isolated acts of piracy we reached Phnom Penh, the capital, early the same afternoon. It is approached through unimposing suburbs: several miles of shacks among the trees, most of them reeling slightly on their supporting posts. There are a few pagodas, insubstantial looking and tawdry with gilt, which contrived to remind one of the Far-Eastern section of a colonial exhibition, and many graveyards of bonzes with tombs almost as showy as those of the cemeteries of Northern Italy. The dogs of India are here, one per house; an ugly yellow variety with a petulant expression, and sometimes in a state of utter decrepitude. Together with the pigs and occasional domestic monkeys they profit to the utmost, in their slow saunterings on the road, from the Buddhist aversion to taking life. Through the open doors one sees that the houses contain no furniture, in keeping with the Cambodian’s indifference to material possessions. The occupants wash, dress and, of course, eat in public, and half-naked families are to be observed squatting round devouring the splendid fish that can be had almost for the taking away, down by the river. Refuse is thrown out of a window or pushed through the floor, collecting in massive mounds for the benefit of the kitchen-midden excavators of the future. There is none of the well-bred aloofness of the Vietnamese about these people. The Cambodians stare at whatever interests them and will giggle at slight provocation.
The centre of Phnom Penh has, of course, been taken over by the Chinese, who have indulged in it to the limit their taste for neon signs, opened many cinemas, too many radio shops with loudspeakers blaring in the doorways, and a casino, which, started in 1949, is said already to have bankrupted half the Cambodians of the capital. However, they are supposed to be a local breed of Chinese, cheerful vulgarians raised in the country, and very much to be preferred to the arrogant immigrants from Hong Kong that lord it in Saigon.
The matter calling for first attention in Phnom Penh was that of the journey to Laos, which I still wanted to make overland, if this could be done from Cambodia. There was a road which followed the river Mekong, which in Saigon was thought to be impassable in places. In normal times one could ascend by the river itself, which, at the height of the rainy season, was navigable up to sixteen hundred miles from its mouth by one sort of craft or other. This was the end of the dry season when the water was at its lowest. Nor did anyone in Saigon know if boats still went up the river.
First inquiries were unhopeful in result. There were many fine old river boats; picturesque relics of the first decades of steam navigation, moored along the bank by the King’s palace. But there were no signs of activity, no polishing of brasses or clanging of bells, no evidence that the greenish hawsers would ever be loosened or the anchors dragged up by their rusting chains. The crews slept out of sight or had gone away. These ships would stay there for ever, one felt, a painted riverine background to the town’s flatfish silhouette.
But there was one boat actually about to leave, said a Frenchman I spoke to. He pointed to the one with an eye painted on the bows that lay alongside the King’s state launch, and, sure enough, a curl of smoke rose from the tall, black funnel. Hastening up the gangplank I asked for the captain and was led into the presence of an elderly gentleman in an old- fashioned Chinese gown, who half reclined on a bench in what I took to be the first-class passengers’ saloon. At his side was a jam-jar containing a goldfish, which, while we talked, he prodded at absently with a fountain pen. I asked this venerable mariner when the boat was going and he answered, in good French, that it was making a journey of one night up the river. That seemed of little use, I explained, as it would take a week to get to Southern Laos. Did he connect with any other service? Not that he knew of, the old gentleman replied pleasantly. And the pirate situation? I asked. Were they ever attacked? The gown was lifted for access to an inner pocket, and a bullet produced gleefully for my inspection. It had been recovered, he said, from the body of one of the crew. But such attacks were infrequent now. Until a month or two ago he hadn’t been able to leave his estate and this was only his second trip down to Phnom Penh. I now at last realised that the boat was a private one, and later I learned that its owner was a well-known Chinese millionaire.
Nor were the prospects for road travel much brighter. The Royal Hotel had a special notice-board covered with what looked like Army standing orders. They were the constantly changing regulations dealing with travel on the various roads, and the minimum degree of precaution permitted vehicles to travel in pairs, at not more than one hundred metres from each other. Each car had to carry three passengers.