Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cambodia part 2.1

My entry into The Kingdom of Cambodia started with the realisation that 'Cambodia Tourism', if there even is such an entity, does not really have a strategy for making new arrivals feel welcome. I crossed the border from Thailand at Poi Pet, now (since the road had been paved a few years ago) it was just a 4 hour drive west of Siem Reap. Gerd was quick to remind me that in his day, the whole journey was over a potholed dusty dirt road. The brat in me wanted to ask, "yeah right- was it uphill both ways and you had to walk it in the snow?!", but I didn't want Gerd to desert me before we had even reached the hotel, so I stayed quiet. 

My first 15 minutes of being in the country left me feeling like I was saying goodbye to a good friend (Thailand), and being thrown into the arms of a Turkish prison officer (Cambodia)- and I was now about to get a beating. 

Departing from the Thai side was no party- we were herded into lines divided by metal raiIings, so narrow I could not even turn around with my back pack on. I started feeling like a sheep heading for the shearing station, just waiting for some purple dye to be stamped on my assets.     
Once clear of Thai immigration we found ourselves on a busy street; not the Cambodian immigration counter I was expecting. There were people walking and driving around, even a hotel and casino. I wondered what country I was actually in, as our passports had now been stamped as having exited Thailand but not with entry into Cambodia. We were in no man's land- Somalian pirates were surely now only moments away.     

The Cambodian immigration booth did eventually show up further down the street, where visitors were lead into a small mosquito filled room and made to feel like a complete inconvenience to the staff behind the glass. We were not even worthy of air conditioning- I wanted to stick my head through the little slot and gasp- just to take in some of the cool AC'd air I could sense on the other side.  

We were finally stamped and free to enter and Gerd negotiated with a taxi while I stood in the street slightly bemused at the sights and sounds around me. Soon enough we were on our way, and I slept away in the back of a taxi - a Toyota Camry (imported from California I was told) for the 4 hour drive to Siem Reap. Appropriately I dreamt I was in California- it helped me sleep better knowing Big Sur and the Pacific Ocean were just outside my window.  

Waking up to luxury is always a good thing. We were staying at the 5 star Raffles Hotel D'Angkor in Siem Reap and now, we 'had arrived'. Cold towels and uber attentive staff were waiting for us and the whitewashed, colonial style room with balcony overlooking the enormous pool was a sight for sore eyes. The morning's ordeal was soon forgotten as I beat the dry heat with a very wet dip in the expansive pool. 

Unlike me, Gerd had been unable to sleep in the train; in fact on a couple of occasions I would wake up to him staring at me with what I vaguely recall as a 'Jack Nicholson from The Shining' look. Just kidding Gerd! Now he was out cold and by the evening we were both refreshed and ready to head out to Siem Reap for dinner. 

The $1 taxi ride was blatant rip-off Gerd and I joked, "where do they get the audacity to overcharge like this?!"  

Siem Reap is a small town with a few busy streets in the center, packed with market stalls selling touristy nik-naks, restaurants and the occasional 'Doctor fish' stands on the street. These are where you and a few friends can immerse your feet into a large tank of water, where tiny fish will come and peck at your dead skin. The whole idea seemed absurd to me but it was fun to watch others do it- typically they would squirm and giggle on entry and then it would just turn boring as the meal got underway. Neither Gerd nor I felt like offering ourselves as meals to the fish but we didn't mind eating some of their undersea relatives. 
We headed to The Khmer Kitchen, a Lonely Planet recommended hole in the wall and we tucked into some Amok, which is the local style curry. I was in disbelief at how tasty Khmer food could be, and also at the price - just a few dollars. Our money was going to go far in Cambodia and we were not going to go hungry. 

While walking around town we were approached by a tuk-tuk driver with whom we negotiated a rate for the next 2 days of sightseeing around the temples. Jack, or "pocket Jack" as we named him due to his pocket sized dimensions, would turn out to be a great source of entertainment over the next two days as well as a friend.

On the way home Gerd introduced me to Swensens, an ice cream chain from the US which seemed to be doing well in these parts. We stopped of course and I watched as Gerd tucked into his favourite- Green Tea ice cream. 

The next morning we discovered the definition of breakfast. The Raffles has the most amazing buffet, with waffles, a choice of at least 5 fresh fruit juices, pastries, bacon, sausages, and a little lady to make the omlette of your dreams. Gerd and I put the omlette lady to test, and her cigar shaped productions never failed to impress. 

We were so stuffed that morning we weren't sure we could waddle out and see anything. But Pocket Jack was waiting outside in his Tuk Tuk, and we were soon off to see the temples of Angkor Wat. 

Say, Angkor Whaaat ?!

The next few hours were an amazing trip through the centuries- King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer Kingdom had done well- building the largest complex of temples the world had ever seen- and luckily for us time had been generous to these intricately carved buildings. Most of them have an incredible amount of detail still visible and apart from the occasional face that had been hacked off, the dancing figures, or Apsaras, were also well preserved. 

I really can't do the Temples of Angkor justice with a few lines in this blog, so I suggest you do some further research. Better still, go visit for yourself. I know a great tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap.  

That night I wanted to get a massage- people had told me about massages performed by the blind that were supposed to be amazing. I guess my communication skills with Jack were not quite perfect- in my attempts to describe the blind massage, I may have used the words "special" a few times. Before I knew it Jack had pulled up outside a massage parlour offering a special kind of massage alright. The ladies were all lined up outside for my special welcome! 

"Go to top floor and ask for special massage" Jack said, like he'd done this a few times before.  

"No! Jack! Blind massage... No-Can-See?!" It was no good. But then in the middle of our Khmer/English dilemma, technology prevailed- he pulled up a translation page on his mobile phone and handed it to me, "write!", he said.

 "B L I N D" I typed. He hit the enter key and his phone produced the Khmer equivelant (all words in Cambodian look like 555555). 

"oh!!" He laughed; I laughed. He knew exactly what I wanted now. He took me to the blind massage place.

It was sort of 'low end'; dark and dingy. There were a few blind people walking around trying not to hit things- they had no sticks or seeing eye dogs; being blind in a 3rd world country is harder without the tools available in the west. 

This niche enterprise of giving westerners massages for $10 per hour is a great idea- very resourceful. And truth be told it was a great massage-  the guy's  heightened sense of touch was so adept at finding sore muscles he gave practioners charging 10 times more a run for their money.  

The hour was up- Jack had been waiting patiently outside the whole time (try getting a London cabbie to do that!!). He took me back to the hotel and another great dinner in town.   

Our 2nd day had an early start as we went to see the sunrise over the main temple at Angkor Wat. It's a popular thing to do so we had to get as early start. Dependable like the English rain, Jack was outside at 5:00am (with a smile), to begin our pilgrimage. 

The sunrise was accompanied by a baguette with jam and sweet Cambodian coffee- phenominal! Perhaps the total experience was worth more than its parts but I am glad I got to do it. The sun peeked over the temple and as it rose it all felt very spiritual- I think it was time for a nap. 

We came back to the hotel for a nap and breakfast with another special treat from the OL (omlette lady). It was a long afternoon with a lot of temples and a lot of Cambodian children selling us all sorts of stuff for a dollar in between temples. Is this country just the worlds biggest dollar store I wondered!

The last morning in Siem Reap we headed north to the Banteay Srei temple- a small but extremely well preserved temple complete with its fierce naga heads and a moat!. A lot of the symbols and religious themes are from India and the one set of tourists from India I met in this country were really enjoying pointing out all the Indian-ness in Cambodia. It almost felt like they were laying claim to it! One final stop for a long drink of baby coconut water for $1 and we headed back to town. 

That evening we had a temporary break from real luxury as we boarded the 'luxury' coach bound for Phnom Penh. I guessed this was what the kids called "keeping it real" or something, and we had to do this to justify the next 5 star hotel stay that was coming up. Some sort of sadistic plan hatched by Gerd to test my resolve no doubt. 

As Murphy's law would have it, the bus got a flat half way through and the drive just never seemed to end. Gerd and I tried to watch 'Hi Fidelity' on his iPod en route but with potholes the size of Guam nothing could keep the device steady enough to make it enjoyable. 

Once again I fell asleep and Gerd suffered the journey. Next up Phnom Penh! 


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cambodia- part 1

I'm flying and crying. Figuratively of course- I'm on board Thai airways flight TG 652 en route from Bangkok to Hong Kong, listening to a melancholy mix of music on channel 9 of the IFE ('In Flight Entertainment' as it's known in the business). I left Phnom Penh this morning on a 1 hr flight to Bangkok and now Roy Orbison and KD Lang are accompanying me on my second leg, "crying, crying over me". I too am crying (on the inside) over leaving an amazing place called Cambodia.

You see unlike the rest of my trip, the last 5 nights have been spent in a country I not only had never visited before, but knew practically nothing about. The trip has been as much about learning as it has sightseeing. And now I know more about Cambodia's real past and have experienced its food and met its people, I realize what a special place it is. I'm sad to leave after 5 days; I could stay another 50.    

As a child I only remember hearing little soundbytes about Cambodia, like, "The Pol Pot Regime", "Democratic Kampuchea" and "The Khmer Rouge". I never bothered to understand these in more detail. I also remember the movie, "The Killing Fields" but thought it was to do with the Vietnam War.    

Does this sound like your knowledge of Cambodia? If not, well done for being aware of SE Asian affairs 1975-1979. If it does sound like your knowledge, I'm glad I am not the only ignorant one!

My teammates over at "Valley Girl Guides" sent over this easy to digest synopsis of Cambodia's dark years:

"so like this really bad guy called Pol Pot or something basically literally took over the country of Cambodia and on 14 April 1975 his people, The Khmer Rouge, closed down all the schools, banks, markets and OMG- malls. O.M.G! As if that wasn't bad enough he forced people to move out of the cities by telling them the US was going to bomb them. As IF the United States would ever drop a bomb and kill innocent people!! He made them work in slave labor camps in the countryside. Like where there's dirt and stuff. He wanted everyone to work in the fields to grow like a LOT of food but it was literally, impossible. So this guy, who already sounds totally annoying right? He makes his people totally kill hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians because they were too smart! Just like that! Even babies- like omg- think about that next time you're shopping at Barney's, people! Your mom was buying Maybelline at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in 1978 and some woman in Phnom Penh was having her fingernails ripped out. Crazy right?

Like 20,000 people were tortured in a converted school and then pushed into shallow graves nearby. That's what they call the killing fields. The whole thing is literally heinous but nobody could stop him as he closed off the country to outsiders. Well anyways, Vietnam came to their rescue in January 1979 when they kicked him out and occupied (that means took over) Cambodia. There's other stuff too but you have to buy the full version. $19.99 from any good travel book store in The San Fernando Valley."

You get the picture. There was a genocide 30 years ago during which time the country saw no visitors, let alone tourists, and the capital city of Phnom Penh lay empty- a ghost town. And now?                

Now I have been there I want to tell you all to go to Cambodia!! I understand Cambodia a lot better and you need to as well. Besides, they need our tourist dollars!

Their history is one filled with pain and tragedy, yet present day Cambodia is also filled with so much joy and optimism. Sometimes I would feel like people were walking around like they had just discovered joy, and they wanted to share their discovery with others! I've never met people so ready to smile or laugh. Don't get me wrong- it's far from utopia- in fact the poverty is depressing in places. It's more the way people are towards each other, just the way 2 random strangers would interact sometimes, that impressed me. In comparison one would think Westerners were savages, the way we instinctively (and rightly so!) approach strangers with mistrust and fear. Perhaps strangers are more like friends when you have shared such a dark existence in your collective past. 

It's hard to describe, and that's why you need to go there and meet the locals yourself. Like 25 year old Tuk-Tuk driver "Jack", who left his 7 brothers and sisters and parents in the village to drive tourists around the temples of Angkor Wat. He learned English from monks, paying $10 per month and in just 6 months can speak enough to communicate pretty clearly.     

Jack was so keen to work, dedicated and motivated- it was a pleasure to behold. No room for British Chavs or Aussie Boguns here. Everyone is hungry to do well and motivated to learn. Little kids don't beg for money; instead they will sell you something for a dollar and impress you with their acquired knowledge of capitals and world leaders. It's a sales tactic but wow at least they have one!! India's 'lazy' beggars should get trained by Cambodia's kids on entrepreneurial street skills. 

Finally, not only is Cambodia home to warm and welcoming people, it is also home to the most amazing temple complex on Earth, The Temples of Angkor Wat, and amazing art and artifacts from the Khmer Empire on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. If those are not enough reasons to visit, I don't know what are!
Wow that was a heavy post. In part 2 I will talk about the lighter side of my stay...