Sunday, April 18, 2004

Holiday in Cambodia

So I am in Phenom Phem, the capital of Cambodia. I survived Songkran in Thailand, though it took me a few days to dry out. I went to a beach party that basically involved beer, techno, waterguns and Thai fire dancers (which basically <-word repeated too often involved kerosene and keeping back 5 meters). The next morning I embarked on a 32 hour trip from the southern Thai islands to Siem Reap, the town near the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia. I have to say that the bus to Bangkok was the most uncomfortable trip I have made since I made the Ouagadougou –Lome run back in my Peace Corps days. There was so little leg room you actually had to wiggle to get you legs between your seat and the one in front of you.

The trip up to the border was uneventful enough. The crossing took unnecessarily long and had the added pleasure of having to walk the gauntlet of 10-year-old pickpockets from the immigration building to customs. Then we waited three hours for transportation. I thought I would be a savvy traveler during the wait. I needed another bottle of water, but instead of buying it at the tourist center where we were waiting, I would go out and across the street to the local shop, therefore saving up to 50¢. Unfortunately in said local shop, I ran into some children celebrating Songkran. And they were into the flour throwing aspect of the celebration, in addition to the water. I recrossed the street, soaking wet and smeared with hardening white goo, but proudly clutching my reasonably priced bottle of water. Hehe.

On the way from the Cambodian border to Siem Reap, we had to drive very very slowly because it was still the Songkran festival and the driver needed to throw water balloons at passers by. And the road was awful, on par with Burkina rainy season roads. And we had to cross a bunch of little rivers on these bridges made from a metal frame and unsecured railroad ties. The only comfort was that the metal bridge frames weren’t rusty because they are no older that I am (joint kudos to Richard Nixon and Pol Pot on that one.)

The next morning I hired a motocab and set off for Siem Reap. I should have known known what? when the guy got pulled over in the first 5 minutes. He went the wrong way around a traffic circle and the cop confiscated his moto. He had to pay one hell of a bribe to get it back . . . . We spent the day tooling around the temples.

In the beginning we had some communication issues, i.e. he couldn’t speak any English and didn’t realize that I wanted to actually stop and walk around the temples. He just drove by. Eventually we worked out a system where I smacked him on the back a few times and he stopped. Angkor Wat is incredible. I will leave it at that. Anything else I could say would sound like nancy-pansy hippy stuff and you know that isn’t my scene. Go see it yourself if you can. If not, I will bring the OBSCENE number of pictures I took over and we can have a look.

My favorite temple was Ta Prohm, one of the jungle temples. I got there at sunrise and had the whole temple to myself. I was supposed to go watch the sunrise somewhere else, but my driver got lost. I didn’t see another soul for almost an hour. I was completely playing Laura Croft in Tomb Raider (I’ve never seen it but I have a good imagination - and point of reference as it was filmed there.) I would set the auto timer on my camera, then run, jump and swing into the frame. Most of the shots are me as a blur, but I was having a hell of a time. When there is just you in this huge temple, it is almost like you discovered it. Again, I recommend it, especially the Laura Croft thing.

I left Siem Reap this morning. I was supposed to take a nice air-conditioned minibus down, but I ended up getting completely drunk last night and sleeping through my alarm. I fell in with this group of Irish and English travelers and that was that. At eleven last night I said I was leaving “the pub” as soon as my glass was done, and don’t you know it took me to 3 am to down the thing. Using my new-found Harvard intellect, I deduced that perhaps they were putting more beer in it when I wasn’t looking or dancing on the bar or something. (Sounds familiar!) Anyway, the moral of the story is I was out $5 for the bus ticket and had to find another way to Phenom Phen. Being a former Peace Corps volunteer, I decided to take local transport. At the local bus depot, a nearby dirt field, I selected my vehicle. One driver tried to entice me into his less filled truck with promises of more room, but this wassn’t my first rodeo so I got in the full one with the engine on and therefore avoided sitting in the hot sun for hours until the second one became as crowded as the first.

Now these trucks were a different animal than the ones that I knew in Burkina. They were standard pickup trucks that you sat in the back of. With 23 of your best Cambodian friends. And their 9 children. And their luggage. And two 50 kilo sacks of rice. And a full wooden Queen sized bed frame for the newlywed couple. There are no benches, you just pile in and sit on the edge of the truck. I was late arriving so the Alpha Granny, already in the back of the truck, assigned me to the back corner with the young boys. I suppose it could have been worse, I could have been on the floor with the young girls, but still, I was not given a primo position. I was next to the luggage that was tied to the back beyond the tailgate and topped with young children. I didn’t think this was particularly safe, but they probably had insurance, right? Anyway, we take off down the road toward the capital. The pavement promptly ends just out of the line of sight of the last luxury hotel, beneath a government banner with the slogan, “Tourist Money Helps Lessen the Economic Crisis,” and resurfaces intermittently throughout the journey, mostly so the driver can hit it at Mach 1 and try to bounce you out of the truck. As people spread out I got pushed off the side of the truck and on to this metal ring that was welded onto the back to tie the luggage to.

Yes, that is as uncomfortable and dangerous as it sounds.

The only less comfortable mode of transportation I saw was the hog truck where the pigs were, um, hogtied and stacked on convenient hog transport stacking shelving units on the back of a pickup. But, we were going through the Cambodian countryside, past rivers and traditional homes, which were really quite beautiful. So it wasn’t so bad. For the first two hours. Then I ran out of water and realized it was 100 degrees out and my body remembered that I had been drinking like a fish the night before. The next six and a half hours were a little tough. I was FILTHY when I got to Phenom Phen. I mean filthy. I can’t remember my hair ever being this dirty, including all African transport. I washed it three times and the suds were still brown.

So now I am holed up in this cute little hotel in Phenom Phen. The rooms are a little ghetto, like the bathrooms don’t have sinks and the shower is a spiket roughly 6 feet above the floor. The room is tilted at a 15 degree angle. But I am paying $3 a night so I can’t complain. And this isn’t even the cheapest room. Shared showers are only $2.

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