Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Saigon, French Indo-china

Friday, August 2 and Saturday, August 3, 1929

My friends seemed anxious that I sample about everything and so insisted on buying me pieces of queer fruit, corn on the cob, cooked bananas, coffee and Cambodian doughnuts, etc. We ferried across the Tonlé-sap above Phnom Penh and pulled up at the market at eleven. There were no more buses till 5 AM the following morning for Saigon, so I parked my traps at the Thai-Hou Hotel and blew  myself to a 30¢ déjeuner. I next proceeded to surprise myself with a haircut, the result proving I really did have ears after all.

It was a beastly hot day. I visited the interesting Economical Museum, sat about the café sipping ice-water, walked around town, etc. Sitting in the café made me sleepy so I had a big 20¢ dinner at 5:30, got my things and went toward bed—the park grandstand. Dark fell at last and I got the blanket and mosquito net all fixed up on a bench when two boys came up to see me. To get rid of them I suddenly forgot how to speak French—which couldn’t have been a great effort as I don’t know any—but there is nothing like flattering yourself. They were very nice and one wanted to take me home with him or to the home of an Englishman. But I held out and they finally left.

As I had but 8 hours sleep in the last 108, I was all set—mosquitoes were ready. I about smothered under the net so finally tossed it off and tried to get to sleep before the bites started itching. But not a whole lot of success, and three times I was visited by native cops, the last one bringing a big French gendarme with him. This time I was told to pack up and come to headquarters—a great relief from mosquitoes—for a while. My passport was examined with much show of interest and they searched around trying to locate some officer who could speak English. I lay down on the bench for an hour’s sleep but failed, as a Chinaman was brought in on some charge and he and a half dozen officers made plenty of racket, but mainly because mosquitoes don’t even respect police stations. An hour later, at 3:45, two officers came in who could stab at English (funny, they didn’t even try my hot French) and I was questioned as to where I came from and was going, being told it was unsafe in the park due to thieves, pickpockets, etc. After an au revoir, I left in the company of a very nice officer, an Indian who lived in Seim Reap when he was home. Took rickshaws to the bus place, he insisted upon coffee and rolls, and made all arrangements on the Chinese bus for me, got me the best seat, etc. These “higher-ups” don’t miss getting lots of service from the natives and the French have gained some prestige here, even with his congenial “mixing” nature. Many times I have been a little embarrassed to have men and boys take off their hats as I passed—as a mark of respect to the white man. Of course this happens only along the highway or in small out-of-the-way villages.

My new galloping dominos was a rattling good noise-maker. Either we were first out or else but few buses travel this line, for the bus was packed and later swamped. As we crashed the gears and roared minus a cut-out down the streets of Phnom Penh it began to grow light. The dark gray clouds of night, fluffy, delicately ruffled, took on faint tinges of pink and rose. Near the horizon it ended in a definite line of demarcation to be replaced by a clear light orange sky. The prangs and chedi of the Palace and Wat, rising gracefully upwards and silhouetted against this light sky, were I think one of the most artistic and representative scenes I have yet seen in the East.

Soon, crossing a stream, we were in open country, many of the rice fields and wild wastes being under water. Hundreds of thousands of acres of good land are lying idle in Indo-China due to a lack of people to utilize them. Forests there were too, and plenty of them. The crafty Chinese driver was a bargainer of the first order. Only once when he started off slowly down the road was he not called back. People were squeezed in like sardines, but always managed to find a place for one or two more. The roof was piled 3 feet high with sacks of corn, baskets of chickens, suit-cases, boxes, etc. We ferried across the rapidly rising Mekong and after a stop for coffee which my front seat companion, a mechanic in Saigon, needs must pay for to be happy, we roared on down a splendid road through flat fields of rice. Only isolated hills appeared on the horizon. During a stop in a village to change a flat tire, I spent about ten minutes in the sun and got a good dose of sunburn.

It seems illogical, but it seems that very often the people who live in the tropics are unburned and have white skin. Instead of lying around in the sun here, people avoid it studiously. Two or even one hour in a bathing suit here would fairly boil your skin off. Only the acclimatized natives can handle it.

We at last reached Cholon, and a few minutes later the market or rather Saigon station. A run-down coolie tried to take me to some crazy place, and couldn’t speak French—and I had no idea of where we were, so it soon got to be funny. The passing natives could not help—so finally I hit on a bright idea and said Rue Catinat. The result was that off we went to this famous street and I finally located the American Consulate nearby. It was after office hours, but I wanted to find out about hotels and get the mail. The worthy gentleman must have been preparing for the afternoon siesta or else he had a poor lunch for he was not in the best of spirits.

Mrs. Lindwall in Bangkok recommended the Grand Hotel des Nationes so I tried it—and fell. Located at the center of town and “Parisian Life” it is I guess a first rate place. I got a two weeks pension rate of 50 piastres, $25 for 14 days, with food! Undoubtedly could have got an even lower rate in a second-rate hotel, but I craved the rest and a few comforts and showers to the hit-and-miss week I had just spent. The room is in the annex, a good big one and just what I want. Have a petit déjeuner of a cup of coffee brought to me about eight. Don’t know whether they serve a regular breakfast or not—haven’t bothered to find out and probably won’t. Of course I miss my afternoon tea, but perhaps I can afford a toddy or whisky soda once in a while. The chef is undoubtedly a Frenchman and that explains the excellent meals of seemingly an endless number of courses. The dollar and eighty I pay per day wouldn’t buy the déjeuner or lunch in America. In the evening you eat out on the sidewalk in the open.

Saigon is certainly a “Little Paris” and I think the most attractive city in which to live in the East as far as I have seen it. No denying the French know how to live. Saigon has its hotels, gaie cafes, its opera in which every year a European troupe plays. It has the Rue Catinat—fashionable shops in which are displayed the very latest from Paris. The boulevards are beautifully laid out—very wide, tree-lined, with parks and monuments. The names are all French—Rue Bonnard, Rue Marechal Joffre, Rue Miss Carvell (Edith Carvell), etc. The buildings are of a fine white stone for the most part. Walking along the street you might think twice before you admitted that you were not in Paris, that five miles away uncivilized natives lived their simple lives in a small thatch hut. Rue Catinat might well be the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris with its good-looking French women smartly dressed, its immaculately garbed men in their white linens, the French sailors and soldiers in their various uniforms, the officers in snappy white outfits. The procession of cars passing in the streets, the shops, the cafés. But at second glance you see scores of rickshaws, hundreds of natives dressed as are the Europeans, riding in big cars as do the white people, and a good percentage of the young women very, very attractive. [Guess who’s been in the jungle too long!] You often puzzle for some time before you can decide whether she is white or dark. More than likely you are right either way you decide.

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