01/15/13

Unexplained Phnomena

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It’s time for a little detour, folks. We’re going to talk about beauty.

I care about my appearance. I try to look good if I possibly can. And I know enough about fashion that people pay me to write about it.

But I also try to dress appropriately for wherever I am. In Southeast Asia, that means keeping your shoulders and thighs covered. Which sounds easy, but in practice I can’t find a way to do it that doesn’t result in my looking (or at least feeling) like a missionary.

It is almost impossible to find an attractive dress that is not stifling in tropical heat which meets those qualifications. Which is why I have now appeared in public numerous times in a dress covered with elephants. I hope my future teenage children will understand why I did it, and try to show me a little mercy, but I realize that’s a lot to ask.

The worst part is that I seem to be the only westerner here who even tries, so I look like the one sad old maid in a sea of Ke$has.

Another beauty-related topic that’s been on my mind a lot these days is skin color. I saw my first tube of skin-whitening cream my first day in Chiang Mai at the 7-Eleven (I was disgusted to see that big international brands like Ponds make them as well as local brands I’d never heard of). Since then, I’ve seen numerous billboards showing a man with a line down the middle of his face. On one side, he’s darker. On the other, he’s pale. Jacey, our tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, told us that he wishes he were fairer. We told him that everyone in America wants to be tan, but it didn’t make an impression. (A slightly related aside: in Cambodia, they use US dollars for everything, but they won’t take bills that have even a tiny tear in them. I told them that nobody in the US would care—they would probably even take a bill that was torn completely in half—but they remained firm.) Anyway, it makes me so angry that these corporations are encouraging so many people to hate their appearance.

Now for a beauty tale that will leave your hair standing on end (which is a lot better than what it did to my hair while it was happening. But I’m getting ahead of myself).

I spent yesterday morning on my laptop in the hostel’s lounge, updating my blog, and booking my bus to Ho Chi Minh City and accommodations there. But I didn’t want to completely waste my last day in Cambodia, so at 1:30pm I decided I had better go out and see some sights.

I was slightly nervous that Andy (my tuk-tuk driver from the day before) might be waiting for me outside—he had stepped inside and waved at me earlier, and the thought that he might be counting on me to provide him with a good-paying tuk-tuk job (when I really felt like walking) was making me a little anxious. Fortunately, when I exited the hostel not only was he nowhere to be seen, there were no tuk-tuks there at all. (As I mentioned, Andy has tuk-tuk number seventeen for my hostel—so there are at least seventeen tuk-tuks that could be waiting there at any given time.)

I decided to make the most of my freedom and walk around the city. I was really starting to get the feel of it. Instead of avoiding eye contact with people, I looked at everyone and smiled. I still shook my head when they offered me rides, food, clothes, etc., but I did it with a positive attitude.

I saw some street signs pointing towards the Independence Monument—Phnom Penh’s equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe, only, somewhat ironically, it celebrates Cambodia’s freedom from France—and decided to walk there. I found myself humming “Aux Champs-Elysees” as I walked, because it really did feel a bit like walking towards the Arc de Triomphe. There were government buildings on either side (including the busy folks at the Ministry of Corruption).

I was struck by the number of portraits of the king. There are a lot of pictures of the royal family in Thailand, but they are not usually three feet high and on the outside of buildings. Some of them were wreathed in black, which made me wonder if something had happened to the king, but then I remembered that black isn’t a funereal color in China, so maybe the black was just to show that he is a serious man. (I later asked a Cambodian who told me that the king had died in October. I felt really bad for not knowing that. Normally I would make sure to know that sort of thing before visiting a country—when I was in Argentina former president/first gent Nestor Kirchner had just died and I made a point to photograph the graffiti commemorating his life. I’m not sure if I even got a photo of the many images of the king (I wasn’t sure how the guards at all these buildings would feel about my taking one). The same Cambodian told me that king was loved by everyone.)

By the time I made it to the Independence Monument (which evokes Angkor Wat’s towers, only on a bigger scale) I was starving. I walked up and down streets looking for a restaurant that wasn’t totally empty (it was about 3:00pm), or of dubious cleanliness. When I was approaching desperate, I rounded a corner and found myself face to face with BB World, “Cambodia’s most well-known burger and fast food chain.” This, I had to try.

BB World was a large, welcoming space with high ceilings and an attractive spiral staircase leading to the second floor. The dominant color was red—red booths, red chairs, etc. It looked very much like an American fast food chain—only cleaner and with much better service. At the front were pictures of the various options (the burgers come with a tiny Cambodian flag stuck in them!). After they took my order and I paid, I was told to go wait at a table. Next to my table were sinks, soap, and paper towels for washing your hands. I was very impressed! (Unfortunately, the food was not so great. The fries were not tasty at all—and I don’t know what my burger was made of, but it definitely wasn’t beef.)

After I ate I wandered down one of the streets that flowed out from the Independence Monument. It was the nicest I had seen in Phnom Penh—it had several attractive stores (including a “Face Shop,” which I suspect is being sued for copyright infringement as we speak since it looks exactly like a Body Shop). There was even a Mango (international Spanish chain that I love but can’t afford in the US).

After I passed the Mango I noticed a sign for a salon that advertised waxing. I was immediately interested, since I learned long ago that I am hopeless at shaping my own eyebrows, which are probably my most prominent feature.

I was slightly nervous about letting people who couldn’t understand me change my appearance (I had a bad experience with a beauty school in Quebec ten years ago that left me with my first bob), but I figured with eyebrows, how bad could it really be? The worst thing they could do would be to make me look like Claudette Colbert, right?

Wrong! (This is an example of a literary technique known as “foreshadowing.”)

I walked into this place (called Hong Kong something-or-other), and an old man sitting next to the door greeted me and had me sit down in a chair in front of a mirror while he brought a young woman over. I explained (with some pointing) that I wanted my eyebrows waxed. There was conferring. Finally, she led me into a back corridor and up a dimly lit staircase into an even dimmer room with several narrow gurney-like things. A woman was lying on one having her face covered in some sort of goo by a very confident-looking woman. A much less confident woman was given me.

She indicated that I should lie down and relax while the wax heated up (I inferred most of this—nobody there could speak very good English), which I did. Eventually she came over and began touching my eyebrows in a way that felt reassuring—like she had done this before. Then she began pressing my right eyebrow so hard that it was painful. I actually wondered if she were using wax at all or some technique I wasn’t familiar with it. Then I felt her add a strip of cloth and pull it off. (You know something’s different when actually pulling the hair off doesn’t hurt nearly as much as putting the wax on. It felt as though she were trying to insert the wax into my skull.)

Then, all of a sudden, she was asking me a question. Did I want (points to top of eyebrow) and (points to bottom). I was confused. Was she asking if I wanted her to wax both the top and the bottom? It felt like she had already done both. I decided to look in a mirror to confirm.

I should pause for a moment to tell you that I don’t scare easily.

I looked like an alien. Or the victim of some type of horrific accident. Half of my right eyebrow was completely gone. A thin sliver that began halfway past my eye remained (and it wasn’t even neatly done). Photos don’t do it justice—you really have to see it in 3-D to see how bad it is (it made a grown man who had never seen me before shout “Holy shit!”)—but here you go anyway:

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You’d be proud of me—I didn’t yell. I didn’t cry. I just said: “That’s really bad.” They indicated I should lie down again and I shook my head. I made them remove the remaining wax from my face while I stood up (towering over them, of course). I asked the woman who had done it if this was her first time, but she didn’t understand me. Then I politely walked out of the building, artfully arranging my bangs and wondering if I should get a haircut like Zooey Deschanel’s.

I decided not to let it break my stride. I wanted to see at least one more site in Phnom Penh. I followed signs to the Russian Market, but I found it to be too much for me (trash, chaos), so I decided to get a tuk-tuk and see something else. I had read in my guidebook that the silver pagoda with its emerald Buddha was the city’s top attraction (even though I had yet to find anyone who had heard of it), so I decided to try one more tuk-tuk driver. I found one who claimed to know what it was, but when we got to the right neighborhood (I was able to tell him it was near the royal palace) it became clear that he didn’t actually know. Then, when we discussed it more (“A wat with a big green Buddha?”), he realized that it was actually inside the palace grounds—which had just closed for the day. Since we had just driven through a beautiful neighborhood with some very attractive shops (which was quite unusual for Phnom Penh), I told him to let me out and I started walking, trying to find the streets we had walked down.

(Spoiler alert: I failed.)

Not that there was anything wrong with the neighborhoods I did walk through—they were more of what I was already used to. And walking is a slog in Phnom Penh because there are hardly any sidewalks; cars are parked on them, and motorbikes and tuk-tuks are whizzing by in the streets, so you have to hug the curb and pay close attention to what’s going on around you. Which I did for blocks and blocks and blocks. All with the handicap of being a one-browed freak.

Finally I headed back to the hostel to meet Stuart (who very nicely claimed that my eyebrow wasn’t that bad. I suggested he get his eyes checked) and go out to dinner with people from Couch Surfing. “People from Couch Surfing” turned out to be Dan, a Cambodian American guy from L.A. We ate at Chinese House, a gorgeous tapas place that I would never have been able to afford in the US (in Cambodia it was about $6-8 a dish and $5 a cocktail). We ended up shutting the place down. We got the waitresses’ life stories (one wants to go to fashion school but it’s very expensive. The other’s father lives in Lowell, MA—I promised to go eat at his restaurant when I go home. She immediately friended me on Facebook so we can keep in touch.) The waitresses asked where else I was going in Cambodia and I had to confess I was going to Vietnam the following day. It made me sad, actually. I wished I could tell them that I were going somewhere else in the country that they were obviously very proud of. Especially since I was really starting to feel at home in Phnom Penh.

Tomorrow: Vietnam!

 

01/14/13

The Penh is Mightier than the Sword

398081_10152403106045277_1243058106_nI decided to spend my first day on my own at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.

As a World War II historian, I always start learning about a tragedy thinking that they can’t possibly throw any new atrocities at me that I haven’t already read about—and I’m always wrong. The Dirty War in Argentina, the Cultural Revolution in China, and of course the Cambodian genocide all involved depravity that easily rivaled the Nazis.

It’s depressing, of course, but there’s also something uplifting about feeling like you’re honoring the memory of the people who died by learning their stories and thinking about them.

I stepped out the hostel door and was immediately greeted by an eager tuk-tuk driver. The first price he quoted me for the two stops was $18, which to me seemed laughably high. (I had just read a travel blog post that said rides to the Killing Fields should cost $6-$8, and rides in town $1-$2. Which hasn’t been close to my experience—only my ride the day before had been that little.) I got him down to $15 but he didn’t seem willing to go any lower. “The Killing Fields are really far away. This good price for you.” I began to wonder when the blog post I had read was written. I certainly didn’t want to nickel and dime poor people in a Third World country. Finally I gave in, but I didn’t feel good about it. I hate feeling like I’m being taken for a fool. Later, when we were driving to the Killing Fields and he saw me cover my nose and mouth with my hat to keep out the fumes and immediately pulled over and bought me a surgical mask, I felt much better about overpaying. (And yes, I wore the mask and felt very Asian.)

I decided to go to the genocide museum first because it was the prison that people were kept at before they were brought to the Killing Fields. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the most poorly designed museums I have ever been to. When you get there, the first building you go to is virtually empty—there is no text at all, just empty rooms containing a single bed (if that) and an image of a tortured person lying on that bed. Since the photos are grainy and there is no explanation of what you are looking at, it’s hard to stir up the proper emotion.

The second building contains headshots of the people who were killed, which is more affecting, but still doesn’t pack the emotional punch that it could if there were more information. Like if they clearly explained that almost everyone was totally innocent of any wrongdoing. That they were murdered by teenagers. That these teenagers murdered children and babies to avoid someday dealing with adults bent on getting revenge for the deaths of their parents.

It is only when you get to the third floor of the second building that there is even an attempt to explain who Pol Pot was and what happened (and it is not a very successful one. I could make it twice as good in one day). So that was disappointing.

But the Killing Fields were the opposite. When you get there you walk through a gate into an attractive, grassy area with trees, pathways, and a tall, wat-like building which is the memorial stupa, the centerpiece of the museum and the resting place of thousands of skulls unearthed at the site. Then they give you a tape recorder so you can take an audio tour at your own pace. A Cambodian voice explains every detail of what happened to people there, from their arrival to their execution (usually via blunt force by farm implements, since bullets were expensive). The voice warns you not to step off the paths and not to pick up any cloth or bone fragments that you might see (they still come to the surface when it rains). It’s very, very moving.

I don’t know how long I stayed—probably hours. Afterwards I was very hungry and asked Andy (the name my tuk-tuk driver tells English speakers to call him) if there was anywhere around there to eat. He took me to a little café (I hesitate to use that word lest you picture Paris; instead, picture a car port). I told him to come in and have a drink with me. I asked him what I should order and he suggested amok. I told him I had already had it but would be happy to eat it again if he thought I should. At this point the owner came over and they conferred. They settled on some sort of fish curry that may indeed have been amok. Andy had something different; both he and the owner tried to act out the animal he was consuming; it took me a minute to get it, but it turned out to be frog. I had a bite of it; it did indeed taste a bit little chicken.

I asked Andy all about his life. (It was not easy since his English is really not that great. I seemed good at first, but negotiating price is what he does best.) He said that is driver #17 at my hostel, which means that he has to wait for 16 tuk-tuks to pick up people before he gets a chance. Some days he only gets one customer, going somewhere close like the market. He also has to give the hostel a percentage of what he makes. He lives in his own place (I suspect it’s a room) for $40 a month. He says he needs about $250 total to live on, and he doesn’t always earn it so sometimes he has to borrow. His parents are farmers about an hour from the city. His sisters work six days a week, from 6am-7pm in a clothing factory. He doesn’t know how much money they make. His brother, on the other hand, writes for a weekly magazine about local news. I asked Andy if there were any possibility of making more money or getting a better job. He shook his head. Even though education in Cambodia is free up to 12th grade, Andy only finished 8th. I asked what the best jobs were in Cambodia. He said government jobs. I asked about what happened to his parents under the Khmer Rouge, but he had trouble understanding me. He did assure me that they were not killed (which I had already figured out since he was born years after the fall of the regime!)

Lest you think I was asking Andy inappropriately personal questions, he knows how old I am (one month older than he is) and how much I weigh (more than he does!)

After the Killing Fields I went back to the hostel. It was 6pm and I remembered that earlier in the day I had posted on Couch Surfing asking if anyone wanted to have dinner with me. I had a number of responses but I couldn’t write back to them because for some reason I wasn’t able to sign onto the website. I felt terrible for leaving people hanging like that, but eventually I signed on and arranged to meet people the following night.

I ended up falling into conversation with Stuart, a Scottish guy who designs bars and clubs all over Asia. We discussed Scottish independence (he is firmly against), the royal family (he is pro), and life in general until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

When I got up to the dorm a new guy asked me what time the bar started quieting down. I told him never. But then I decided to be assertive, and I marched back downstairs and asked them to turn off the sound on the TV. And they did! It’s the little things in life.

Then I spoke to my parents and my father sobered me up slightly by pointing out that maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing to take strange men who know where I’m staying out to lunch and tell them that I’m traveling alone. He’s probably right… I should be more careful.

Starting tomorrow.

01/13/13

Without a Chaperone… For Real This Time

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Cambodia is in-your-face.

Lying in bed we were treated to regular 10 minute bursts of extremely loud music and speeches via loudspeaker—starting before 8am. I still have no idea what was going on, but there was a tent set up in the (busy city) street beside our hotel. Khalid thought it was for a wedding the night before. But, who knows, maybe Cambodian weddings continue the following morning.

By the time we were ready to leave the hotel Khalid and Isaure only had about three and a half hours before they had to go to the airport. We ended up going for breakfast at a non-profit restaurant that raised money for an orphanage established by the owner. It was also in the busy riverfront neighborhood we had eaten in the night before. My preferred breakfast these days is muesli, yogurt, and fruit—they give you everything from bananas and watermelon and mango to lychee and passion fruit.

After breakfast we decided to take tuk-tuks to some of the city’s top attractions. First we went to Wat Phnom, a temple on a hill built by the city’s founder, a woman named Penh. (Phnom means hill.) The hill is very green, in the middle of an elegant traffic circle not far from the river. We paid a small fee, climbed the stairs (nothing after Chiang Mai and Angkor), declined a man’s offer to allow us to free sparrows from a cage he had for good luck (I saw another woman do so, but all I could think was: bird flu), took our shoes off, and entered the temple. It was very pretty, but when you’ve seen a dozen wats, you start to feel like you’ve seen them all. One thing that did seem different was that each little statue had some money under it (usually riel), and a cut-off lotus blossom in front of it. I hope someone is getting a lot of good luck.

Afterwards we half walked, half slid down a very narrow stone staircase that was so treacherous we began to wonder whether it was a staircase at all, or some sort of water drainage system. (Fortunately nobody seemed to notice.) At the bottom of the hill we found another tuk-tuk to take us to the central market.

The central market is in a big yellow building that reminded me of the buildings at the Minnesota State Fair. Unlike the market in Siem Reap where every vendor was selling the same t-shirts and other touristy trinkets, this market had everything from diamonds to dental floss, from ipads to baby clothes. After browsing for a bit we realized we had just enough time to see one more place (and maybe not get out of the tuk-tuk). Isaure tried to pick an English-speaking driver out of the crowd, but apparently there is an order you have to go in, so instead the English-speaking driver told the first driver in line where to take us. We picked the genocide museum because on the map it looked like it was across town, and we figured that would allow us to see a bit more of the city.

The city didn’t exactly look prosperous, but it sure looked busy. The sheer volume of motorbikes, cars, and tuk-tuks was impressive. Every store front was filled. There are some very attractive boulevards with well-kept grass and palm trees.

When we arrived at the museum our driver couldn’t understand why we wanted to turn and go—we had to enlist the help of an English-speaking tuk-tuk driver to explain it to him, and even then it took a while.

When we got back to the hotel we got our luggage and climbed into the pick-up truck-like taxi the hotel had arranged to take Isaure and Khalid to the airport and me to my hostel.

The driver had some trouble finding my hostel, because the street it’s on is cut in half by some sort of important building. That was fine with me—the longer I was with my friends, the better. But after three phone calls to the hostel, he finally found it. I was relieved to see that it was by far the most attractive place we’ve stayed at so far—it has a large white verandah with lots of green leafy plants, a swimming pool, a bar, and numerous booths, tables, and hammocks for relaxing.

Seeing that reassured me that everything was going to be okay and gave me the courage to say goodbye to Khalid and Isaure.

I dropped my things off in the dorm. Unfortunately, they don’t have any lockers (“Yet!” they told me optimistically), so I gave them my passport to put in their safe and locked my backpack to my bed.

I figured that it was important to go out in the city on my own as soon as possible so it wouldn’t build up to a big deal in my head. I began to walk briskly towards the river, and to my surprise, virtually nobody bothered me. I made it all the way to the neighborhood where we had eaten with only three drivers asking me if I needed a tuk-tuk. Clearly, my East Coast don’t-bug-me face was working! I felt very proud of myself.

I took myself out to a late lunch at an attractive restaurant near the river with flowers on every table. I decided it was time to try fish amok, an iconic Cambodian dish. I hadn’t tried it so far because I’m not really a fish person, but I figured that now that I was alone, it was time to be a big girl.

And it was absolutely delicious. The best thing I’ve had since I came to Asia. So there’s a lesson for you.

After lunch I wandered (purposefully!) up and down busy streets, and followed one of the green boulevards until it left me at a massive intersection with no hint of what might be in either direction. Since the sun was getting a bit low, I decided to call it quits. When a man on the corner asked if I needed a ride I nodded. He gestured to his motorbike. I laughed, and walked over to the nearest tuk-tuk. Feeling like a powerful woman to be reckoned with, I told them where I needed to go (he had to pull out a map for me to show him, and I was so proud that I could find my hostel on the map). For once he suggested a reasonable price ($2) so I didn’t even have to negotiate. I arrived back at the hostel feeling quite proud of myself.

I spent the early part of the evening writing blog entries and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in a corner of the courtyard. Once I had made some progress I decided it was time to meet some people. Everyone seemed very engaged by their laptops, cell phones, or significant others, but I figured if I stood by the bar for long enough, someone would talk to me.

Eventually.

I pretended to be absolutely fascinated by the soccer game on the TV (even though I could not figure out who either of the teams were.)

And eventually, a voice said, “Either you are a huge soccer fan or you are just as lost as I am.” It belonged to a Canadian guy named Blake who, believe it or not, lives 40 minutes away from where I’ll be living in China. So I already have my first friend!

After Blake and his friend went to a different bar, I chatted with Birgitta, a Danish woman staying in the same dorm. She was on her way to Angkor so I gave her advice about that (and Jacey’s phone number), and she had just come from Vietnam, so she gave me tips about what to do and what to skip. She convinced me that, despite my claustrophobia, I have to visit the Vietcong tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City. I’m still a little nervous about it, but her description and her photos were really compelling.

We went to bed around 11:30—I say “went to bed” because we did not “go to sleep.” The dorm’s windows face the terrace, and there was LOUD music all night. Ear plugs did not really help. Eventually I managed to nod off out of sheer exhaustion.

Half a day alone down, and about 35 more to go before China.

01/13/13

Siem’s Fine To Me

P1030395On our last day in Siem Reap we decided to see more of the town. We went out to breakfast at a beautiful restaurant with exposed brick that could have been in Soho. (Which may explain why we’ve been spending so much money…)

We walked a little around the old market (which is a lot prettier lit up in neon at night) and down the river a ways, but we soon ran out of things to see. (We were astonished, however, when after we left the market area people started saying hello to us just to say hello and not to sell us anything. That hadn’t happened since Thailand.) It was also getting intolerably hot (Ra had told us that it’s usually coolest at this time of year but for some reason this year is different. The hottest is in April, when it’s between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius!), and it was exhausting turning down the countless offers of tuk-tuk rides. We decided it would be much more agreeable to go back to Angkor.

Rather than call Jacey and have to wait for him to come get us, we decided to pick a driver who didn’t seem as aggressive as the others. We saw a guy lounging in his tuk-tuk, ignoring passersby, and asked him if he would take us. But he turned out to be waiting for a client (that explains the lounging!) and so he gave us to his friend, Yol.

Yol turned out to be a very sweet guy. While Isaure and Khalid were in the bathroom he told me he was from Siem Reap, married, and had a five-month-old son. Out came his iPhone, and he showed me lots of adorable photos.

The temples we visited on the last day were not as exciting as the ones we had already seen—one had virtually no decorations, and all of them gave us the feeling of “haven’t we been here before…?” But I was so glad that we had gone back. It was so nice to be out in nature, feeling a part of such amazing history.

Our car to Phnom Penh was picking us up at 3:00 so we headed back to the city for a quick lunch at 2:00. Unfortunately, the concept of “quick” was lost on our restaurant. It took about 40 minutes for us to be served. Jacey joined us at the end and helped speed things up by telling our waiter in Cambodian that we were in a rush.

We said goodbye to him regretfully and began our long drive to Phnom Penh. Our driver did not speak any English at all, which made for an interesting ride. Explaining that we wanted the air conditioner turned down was not easy, and about four hours in he turned on the Cambodian equivalent of NPR, which was of course utterly incomprehensible to us. (I did understand “Phnom Penh,” which they said a few times.)

The countryside was pretty—flat with tall grass punctuated by palm trees and water. We saw lots of white cows (or were they water buffalo?) Isaure said it reminded her of Tanzania—banana trees, animals walking everywhere, one main road with no side streets, and red soil contrasting with a green landscape. The houses were all on stilts; I’m not sure why (to avoid flooding? to keep snakes out?) A few hours in the road was being repaired, which meant that the asphalt was all gone, and our driver, who was already determined to pass every car on the road, now started swerving to avoid every pothole. Imagine swerving on a dirt road for two hours, while honking every few minutes to alert motorbikes to your presence, and you will understand why we were very grateful to tumble out of the car in Phnom Penh.

Our hotel was a cheap affair in a very lively neighborhood. Our room, which we had booked the day before, was a triple straight out of 1975—wooden headboards, wood paneling, etc. We decided it would be the perfect set for a ‘70s TV show starring the three of us as an unlikely crime-solving trio.

I was starving, so we walked a couple blocks to the river and had dinner at an attractive café on the patio. While we ate several (small) children tried to sell us things, and a young woman with a baby came begging. We also watched a tuk-tuk driver follow passersby in either direction, browbeating them into taking a ride.

By this point we were totally exhausted, so we went back to the ‘70s. I tried not to think about the fact that Isaure and Khalid would be leaving me the following day—and I would finally be without a chaperone, in a city I’ve seen described as the “wild west” where the only word I know how to say is “thank you.”  I decided, like Scarlett O’Hara, to worry about that tomorrow.

01/12/13

Angkors Aweigh

P1030254The first thing we did on our first morning in Cambodia was switch hotels. Our first hotel had very nicely found us comparable rooms somewhere else, which meant that for the first time we would each have our own rooms and bathrooms. The very idea was so decadent!

Jacey picked us up at 9:00am and we drove our bags to the new hotel (where I insisted on seeing the rooms before paying. The rooms contained two beds, a desk, and TVs—so they seemed absolutely palatial to me after our last room, where we could barely move around the two giant bunks. And for $7 each, you really couldn’t go wrong.)

Once our things were safely locked up in our new quarters, Jacey drove us out of the city. Riding in a tuk-tuk is one of my new favorite things. You get a breeze, a terrific view, lots of honking (tuk-tuks, cars, and motorbikes are forever blasting the horn to warn each other that they are approaching—often from the wrong side). It’s just dangerous enough to be fun but not scary.

Our first stop was the ticket booths for Angkor Wat. It’s $20 for one day, or $40 for three. We got three-day passes. They take a digital photo of you, then immediately print a pass with your image on it, which you then have to present at every temple. It is so much more efficient than the border, it’s not even funny.

Once we were through the ticket booths, we drove along what looked like a large river but was actually the moat surrounding Angkor Wat (the temple; Angkor Wat is what the entire complex of temples (which Wikipedia tells me is the largest religious monument in the world) is collectively known as. It is also the name of the complex’s best-known and best-preserved temple. You might recognize it from the Cambodian flag.) As we rounded the bend in the moat and the temple came into view we all gasped. (I don’t gasp a lot, or say, “Wow!” when I look at things much, but over our three days at Angkor, all of us did, repeatedly.)

It seems like something out of another world (which, of course, it is). The scale is enormous, the design both completely alien and totally beautiful.

Isaure talked to some people and arranged for us to have a guide for the first temple. His name was Ra and he did an absolutely incredible job of rattling off information. He remembered so much data—years, size, the number of elephants involved in the construction. He showed us bullet holes in the walls from when the Vietnamese liberated the people who had been held prisoner at Angkor Wat during the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge. He explained that there were 32 steps up to the temple symbolizing the 32 levels of Hindu hell (all the temples were originally Hindu; now they are used to worship Buddha. Khalid dryly remarked that he wonders how long it will be before the Buddhas have been replaced with the Virgin Mary.) There is also a tower with 37 steps, symbolizing the 37 levels of Hindu heaven. (We spent a lot of time at Angkor temples climbing stairways to heaven.) There were ancient swimming pools for Hindu purification rituals (alas, they are now empty. It was so hot that if they filled them, they could make a fortune charging admission.) Ra also pointed out holes in the stone that he said some Cambodians thought were from devils’ fingers but were actually used to help move the stone from the mountains to the site. He explained that for years no education was available under the Khmer Rouge.

When I asked Ra how he had learned all this he admitted that he had followed other tour guides repeatedly, sometimes recording what they said and studying it at home until he had memorized it. He wanted to be an officially certified guide, but the cost was $4500(!) so he had to settle for being unofficial. (He remarked sadly that nobody cared if you knew all the history—all you had to have was the money and you got a badge.) In the meantime, he was studying Spanish and Russian so he could give tours in more languages. He said you could make a lot of money from big Russian tour buses—as much as $180 a day when you take into account the kickbacks you get when you bring your tour bus to a restaurant or a store.

By this point we were hungry, so we headed in the direction of some booths inside the temple’s front garden (for lack of a better term—the area inside the front gate where there are two lily ponds. (One of which locals had waded into and were fishing with a net while we were there.)) As soon as we approached women came running out of the booths, asking us if we wanted to buy books, t-shirts, fruit, lunch—you name it. This was the one negative about Angkor—and it was never-ending. If you stood still long enough, you’d be surrounded by a crowd of people trying to sell you everything under the sun. And it was exhausting. Plus, a lot of them were children. The children sold everything from postcards (“ten for a dollar!”) to bracelets and books. The majority of them were about five or six. We bought postcards from one little girl because we really did need them. It was really hard to see children working—and hard to ignore them. But eventually we learned to do both. Especially after we read a brochure that said that giving them money only encouraged adults to exploit them and keep them out of school (which is free in Cambodia).

We agreed to eat lunch at a stall (all of the food places had tables lined up next to each other, and did the cooking behind a wall using battery power. At one point they unplugged a fan that was fanning us from the battery it was plugged into in order to use that battery to make my pineapple shake.)

After lunch we met up with Jacey and drove to the next temple. Along the way we drove down a long forest road where a large family of monkeys was congregating, much to the delight of tourists. (Over the next few days we learned that those monkeys are always there—why would they move when people feed them?)

I was afraid that after Angkor Wat the other temples would be a letdown but if anything the opposite was true. The smaller, emptier temples felt like our own discovery. Climbing in and out of doorways, up and down stairs, and wandering through forested grounds never got old.

But after two more temples we were exhausted. We gave in to the pleas of another aggressive woman and had more cold drinks in the shade (I was rapidly becoming addicted to pineapple shakes), but at that point we were getting tired and the sun looked like it was going to set soon. We asked Jacey where we should go watch the sun set and he told us Phnom Bakheng. We climbed the enormous hill in the boiling heat. The temple itself was the least interesting we had seen, and the crowds waiting to see the sun set made it a rather tiresome experience. But as we told each other, if we hadn’t done it, we would have wondered if we were missing out.

Jacey dropped us off at our hotel with plans to pick us up the following at 5:00am to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat (we feared it might be a repeat of the sunset, but it was definitely one of those experiences we felt we’d regret missing). After we had showered some of the red dust of the temples off, we decided to walk to a restaurant Isaure had read about in her guidebook. But we couldn’t find it, and you can only ignore men harassing you to ride in their tuk-tuks for so long when you are hungry. We ended up taking one to the center of town where we ended up eating at Khmer Kitchen, a Cambodian place also recommended in the guide. The restaurant was beautiful and the food was very good (as were the pineapple shakes!), but our meal was constantly interrupted by people trying to sell us things—or just flat-out begging. (We were sitting outside.) The most memorable was a little boy who said to Isaure, “You know how I can tell you’re American? Because you’re with Obama!” (He pointed to Khalid.) Then he said to me, “You know, if you had black skin you could be Michelle Obama.”

After dinner we walked down Pub Street. The restaurants and stores were very chic—very different from what we’d seen in Chiang Mai and Koh Chang. We got breakfast pastries for the following morning at Blue Pumpkin, another recommendation from Isaure’s book.

We went back to the hotel and I was so excited to finally sleep in my own room.

So of course I couldn’t sleep at all.

Every sound that I wouldn’t have worried about if I were with someone was magnified. (It didn’t help that the acoustics were such that it sounded as though everything happening outside the building were happening in my room. When they dumped water in the alley beside the hotel I was surprised to find that I wasn’t wet.) I finally got up at 3:30 and got dressed.

When we got to Angkor Wat it was still pitch black. (I could finally see the Big Dipper!) We used the flashlight on Isaure’s iPhone to cross the moat. According to Ra, half the bridge had been restored by the French in the ‘70s, but they stopped with the Americans began bombing Cambodia, so the other half was rough.

As soon as we entered the gate we were bombarded by the same women from the day before, this time trying to sell us coffee. Isaure spotted the same little girl we had bought the postcards from, up at 5:30am and already selling. We found spots near one of the lily ponds (that’s where the crowd is really thick, because you can see the sunset reflected in the pond). When the sun finally started to rise (which it seemed like it would never do) it was bedlam. We wondered if someone would fall into the pond. (I suggested that the whole thing would be more fun if each day a pond creature would rise from the depths and eat someone.) I decided that when I’m 90 I will come back, go over to the side of the pond that everyone is photographing and take off all my clothes.

After the sunrise (which none of us managed to get any good photos of), we continued our temple tour with more quiet, wooded ones. They were practically empty and I really, really enjoyed them. (Even though they were practically empty, they still had persistent vendors. When Isaure would tell someone that she already had the book he was trying to sell her, he would reply, “Same same but different!” Once she tried speaking to the vendor in French, and explained she would need the book in French. He replied in excellent French—and produced the book.

One of the temples I was most looking forward to was Ta Prohm (the one with the trees growing out of it that was featured in the movie Tomb Raider.) Unfortunately, large parts of it were being repaired and were therefore inaccessible, and the rest of it was crawling with so many tourists that it was rather unpleasant. If you go, I recommend going immediately after sunrise.

We took Jacey out to lunch at one of the restaurants inside Angkor. We asked him about himself–he said he’s not married because getting married costs $2000. (We got the impression that was some sort of dowry.) He owns his own moto but he has to rent the tuk-tuk attachment from a friend. He would like to buy his own but they are very expensive–a used one is $500.

At this point it was about 2:00pm, and since we’d been there since 5:00 we were ready for a nap. Jacey took us home and we passed out for a few hours.

Then it was time to figure out how we were going to get Phnom Penh, my next destination and Isaure and Khalid’s final. Our original plan had been to take a boat from Siem Reap, which sounded very picturesque, but Jacey told us that it was the dry season and boats probably weren’t running. We called the boat company and they confirmed it. After the long trip from Thailand Isaure and Khalid really weren’t looking forward to another bus trip (I didn’t care—I have a lot of long bus trips planned), so they hit upon the idea of taking a taxi. It would be faster without all the planned stops, and we could control the temperature, stop when we wanted, etc. We called Jacey and asked if he knew anyone who would do it and how much it would cost. He responded that he did and it would be $80. $26 per person didn’t seem so bad for such a long trip (it’s a 6-hour bus trip) so we agreed to leave the following afternoon.

We went out to dinner in Pub Street (once again, delicious), then walked over to the Night Market. The vendors there were just as pushy as at Angkor. Khalid got so impatient that he declared that he would buy something from the first person who left him alone. (It took a long time, but it did happen eventually.) Isaure found lots of things she liked, including a couple of opium pipes. She hopes U.S. customs will understand that they are purely for decoration.

01/12/13

Border Patrol

P1030144Despite the fact that I am fairly well traveled (28 countries), I haven’t crossed that many borders. Well, not borders that felt like borders, anyway—the sort where a guard leans into your car and peers at you intently, or where you line up in front of desk and hand over your passport while trying to look as innocent as possible. Most of my border crossing has been in Europe where things are now so casual it’s virtually impossible to find someone to stamp your passport.

I went to college in Canada, so I’ve crossed that border a dozen or so times (and make no mistake, the Canadian border guards are not all smiles). I’ve walked across the Mexican border near Bisbee, Arizona. The guard on the South African/Swazi border checked our passports, then tried to sell us some lace. I’m pretty sure I had to show my passport to take a ferry from Argentina to Uruguay, but it was very casual.

So it was with a great deal of excitement that I got up at 6:30am to wait for the minibus (read: van) that would take us to Cambodia. Just before our van arrived a van from a different company picked up a British couple that had also been staying at our hotel. We did not expect to see them again, but we ran into them on the ferry from Koh Chang, at the first gas station we stopped at, at the Cambodian border, and at Angkor Wat. (They were also memorable for their attire. Despite the fact that this is a very modest part of the world where women are not even allowed into parts of Angkor Wat without their shoulders covered, this woman was wearing a “dress” that managed to show off her bra from at least three different angles.)

Anyway, when we got into the van the driver, who spoke no English but managed to convey a lot through pointing, asked me and Isaure to sit in the front seat. She can get car sick so I sat in the middle seat, which was so elevated I had to slouch down to see properly out the windshield. A number of Buddhist talismans hung from the rearview mirror (plastic saffron carnations, etc). He needed them—he drove extremely aggressively (and I’m from Boston!) If there were ever another vehicle in front of him, he would drive up until their bumpers were practically touching, then pass it. We spent almost half the ride in the wrong lane. (To be clear, I didn’t feel that he was a dangerous driver at all—just one with no patience. But I have since learned from experience that he was a very typical driver for this part of the world.)

The van had no storage space so the driver piled everyone’s suitcases on the first seat—the one directly behind me and Isaure. My seat had no headrest, so the top suitcase had nothing but gravity keeping it from decapitating me. All the way to the ferry, Isaure had one hand on its front and Khalid held onto its back. (Do I have great friends or what?) Once we were safely on the ferry, the driver rearranged the suitcases so they were more secure.

We saw lots of people with visible motorbike injuries on the ferry (scraped legs, limps), making me happy I’d stuck to my guns and refused to ride one. (It is the primary method of transportation in Southeast Asia, but I know someone who was in a terrible motorcycle accident that changed his personality and gave him epilepsy, so I have always vowed never to get on one. I can definitely see the appeal, though—it’s a really easy way to get around, and it does look like fun. But it’s not for me.)

The drive to the border, while long, was actually pretty pleasant. Rural Thailand is very pretty—lots of interesting mountains in the distance, as well as some stretches of farmland that reminded me of the rural Midwest (with different foliage, of course). But I could definitely see why many of the Thais we met had moved to touristy areas like Koh Chang—it didn’t look like there would be a lot of money in the sort of farming we saw. We also drove by a lot of military checkpoints (often rotaries with little guard booths in the center), which surprised me—but then I really don’t know anything about Thai politics.

At lunch time we arrived at a dubious-looking restaurant near the border, where our driver handed us over to a very friendly guy who spoke excellent English. He gave us all forms to fill out for our Cambodian visas, then collected the forms, our photos, the visa fee, and our passports.

Handing your passport to a random stranger at a shady roadside eatery in a developing country is not the most confidence-inspiring act. But it all worked out—within half an hour or so he was back.

We all piled into a different van to go to the border. He parked the van behind a building, then started handing out our passports. Our group was very diverse—two Americans (me and Khalid), one French person (Isaure), four South Africans, two Russians, a Canadian, and a Swede. I was surprised to see that despite all the fuss over photos, there is no photo on my visa. So I guess my picture is now in a Cambodian database somewhere.)

We had to carry all our things a short distance to Thai customs. We queued up in the lines for foreigners and admired the “Happy New Year” decorations sparkling over the images of the royal family at the front of the room. The lines went pretty fast and soon we were on the other side, which we figured must be no man’s land. When our guide reappeared to lead us to Cambodian customs I was very surprised to see that we were actually already in Poipet. We walked by multiple casinos before we arrived at customs, so as far as I could see there was nothing stopping us from disappearing into the crowd without a visa. From what I could see Poipet was very dirty (trash everywhere) and seemed quite poor. I was clutching my bags very tightly since Shaun (the Welsh owner of our last accommodations) had told us that the border was full of pickpockets, particularly children)—but no one came near us. The line to go through customs was very, very long. (Not because there were so many people in it—but because it was so slow. The Cambodian customs agents had a very good incentive to keep it that way—for 300 baht ($10) you can bribe your way out of waiting in it.) It was so hot that I was actually sweating through the front of my shirt. The smell (sewage) did not help things much. But despite all that, I found it to be a fun adventure. We got to know the only other two people from our group who did not bribe their way out of the line pretty well—Chad (the Canadian) and Oscar (the Swede). Chad, who is about 25, works for a small airline that has partnerships that allow him to fly very cheaply. Oscar, who is about 20 and looks like he should be a playing Selena Gomez’ love interest on a Disney Channel show, plans to be a carpenter.

When we finally made it through customs we piled into yet another bus, which took us to the city’s bus terminal. There, we could change money at the official government booth, where our guide assured us they would give us fair rates. He explained that in Cambodia, even though the official currency is the riel, the real currency is the U.S. dollar. They use riel for everything that costs less than a dollar, like spare change, and dollars for everything else. There are 4000 riel to a dollar (which made seeing my bank balance at ATMs fun—I am so rich in Cambodia!)

At the bus terminal we climbed into yet another van. I ended up at the very back, next to the suitcases, with Isaure right in front of me. Right in front of her was an empty space with no seats. After all of us tourists had found seats, the driver put a cooler into the empty space and two (or was it three?) Cambodians squeezed onto the seat. When Isaure expressed dismay that they had to sit that way, one of them replied with a laugh, “You’re paying, and we’re riding for free, so of course they treat us like shit!” He told us his name was Jacey.

As we drove out of Poipet and into the countryside, the view began to improve. The landscape was beautiful—flat as far as the eye could see, but punctuated with trees and tall grass. As the sun went down, we were struck by the fact that almost every house had blue lights in the yard the size and shape of light sabers. We asked Jacey what they were and he said they were to attract crickets and lizards.

As we arrived in Siem Reap (13 hours after we had left Koh Chang), Jacey revealed that he had a tuk-tuk and asked if he could drive us to Angkor Wat. We gladly accepted. He offered to drive us to our hotel for free since he would be getting so much work the following day (but we gave him money anyway). Oscar decided to come with us, since our hotel was so cheap ($7 each for our own rooms) and he hadn’t booked anything, so the four of us and all our bags piled into the same tiny tuk-tuk. Since we probably weighed more than 600 pounds, we were genuinely concerned going around corners, but we made it in one piece.

Unfortunately, when we got to the hotel the three rooms we had been promised were not available—they told us that some westerners had damaged the toilets over New Year’s! Instead of having our own rooms, the four of us were going to have to share a tiny room with two bunk beds and a very dubious en suite bathroom. The only saving grace was that they were only charging us $3.50 per person. Given that I could barely stand, I was so tired, I didn’t really care where we slept.

And that is the story of how we got to Cambodia. And if you’ve read all this, you can properly sympathize with long slogs.