Monday, August 16, 2010

Phnom Penh

The bus ride to Phnom Penh was smooth and easy. We passed by small villages with stilted houses and it rained a bit. As we drove into the city we were both surprised at how nice it looked. There were long stretches of grassy park filled with people doing their evening group exercises and nice statues posing at the center of traffic circles. After a few days in the city we realized that those nicer areas were not very common. Most of the city is not very pretty or flashy - it's functional, aged buildings. Which is fine and what I expected. Cambodia needs a few more years before I would expect to see much modern grandeur, although there are already distinct signs of wealth in places such as the casino on the water. When we stepped off the bus Chuck was happy to realize that we had been dropped off just around the corner from our hotel. As we made the short walk the tuktuk drivers proved to be a powerful force, soliciting us almost every step of the way. They weren't pushy beyond their initial offers though, which was commendable. We hadn't made a reservation at the hotel before arriving, so we were lucky that they had a room available - the last one available. Chuck easily talked her into letting us stay for $25 instead of the $40 she quoted us. It was a big room with a jacuzzi bathtub, so we thought it was a pretty sweet deal. After a few moments relaxation we headed down the road to 108th St to see the night markets and parks that we had passed on the way into town. The traffic was hideous. Motorbikes went every which way and after only 5 minutes of walking we saw a very close call between two of them. It wouldn't have been a serious accident, but someone would have probably been knocked over at the least. We walked along the wide, grassy median that served as the park, watching the people doing their group exercises and keeping our eyes open for good looking restaurants. There weren't as many as were we expecting, but a lone Indian place managed to catch our eye. Phnom Penh is known for its Indian food for some reason. Not exactly sure why. The service inside was overly friendly, the decor was an unsuccessful attempt to look fancy, and the lights were too bright. All in all, it was a pretty promising place. If it had actually succeeded in looking fancy we would have felt completely out of place. And when a huge 4 inch spider scampered under the table across from us my heart rate quickened, but I felt grateful that he probably ate a bunch of the bugs that might have otherwise crawled into my food. We chose to ignore him rather than freak out, although I was definitely on high alert for any sudden movements. When the staff finally spotted him they gently nudged him out the front door rather than grabbing a can of Raid or smashing him with a shoe. I was so glad they did that instead of killing him! Spiders are awesome creatures to have around, even if you'd prefer them to not crawl around your restaurant floor. The food did end up being pretty good, too. The rest of our evening was spent indulging in the luxury of our jacuzzi bathtub.

We lazed around on the morning of the 7th, ordered breakfast in bed and watched some silly movie about Jessica Simpson joining the Army while we played on the computer. At 1:00 we moved to another smaller room (part of the deal when we got the nice room for $25) and at 2:30 we finally went out for the day to see the Cambodian Grand Palace. We wanted to get our tuktuk ride from a driver who wasn't sitting on the side of the road waiting to snare unsuspecting tourists, so we said "No" a lot as we walked to the main street. We flagged down an empty tuktuk instead, and haggled with him until we reached an agreement of $1.50. It was still a bit bit pricey in my opinion, but they bargain hard in Cambodia, so that's the best we managed to get. He dropped us off in front of the Grand Palace, and once again, we had to say "No" to a few tuktuks (how can they even ask? we just got off a tuktuk) and some souvenir vendors. I made the mistake of telling a lady selling water "Maybe when we're finished." She told me to remember her by her orange Puma hat. We'll revisit her in a bit. The line for tickets was only two people long, one of which was this blonde girl who fit the blonde stereotype quite well. First she accidentally cut in front of the other girl in line without even realizing it, managed to drop her bracelet while playing with it, forgot whether or not she actually picked up her ticket, then walked into some guy as she was going through the gates. She was amusing to watch, but we quickly lost interest in her as we entered the Grand Palace complex. Not that it was really all that grand, but it was pretty, even if it was much smaller and less decorated than the Grand Palace in Bangkok. We headed towards the main pagoda and had a look around. Inside, I noticed that instead of all the chandeliers being lit, only every other chandelier was on. I wondered if they were trying to save money on their electricity bills. The Silver Pagoda - which is one of the well known sights at the Grand Palace - was not very exciting. I think it's called the Silver Pagoda because it houses a bunch of important and valuable silver trinkets. And it certainly was filled with silver and jade and whatnot, but it didn't really get me excited. Besides the pagodas filled with silver and temples filled with gold, we saw a small museum of clothing and pottery and a secluded garden area with a trickling stream of water. That was about it. As we left we had to wend our way through a mass of school kids who must have been on a field trip. They were quite loud, but looked so sweet in their British-inspired long pleated skirts and button up shirts. We managed to dodge them all and broke free, back onto the street with the water and souvenir vendors. I was approached by the lady in the Puma and bargained her from $1 to $0.50 for a bottle of water. Walking back down the road, water in hand, we spotted another Puma hat coming our way and I realized that I had bought water from the wrong lady. She noticed the water in my hand and looked like she was about to be upset with me, so I quickly jumped in with "How much?" We could definitely go for another water anyways. She wanted to charged us $1 but we told her we had just gotten a bottle for $0.50. At this she glared down the road at the other lady, but agreed to our price. After we paid she stomped off down the road, yelling at the other woman. I had to stifle my laughter lest she turn her anger on me. I suspected that she and the other woman must have an on going competition for customers that she gets very frustrated about. Our walk took us past the National Museum, which I decided to just get a picture of rather than visit, and then we grabbed a tuktuk to the Central Market. The distinctive yellow dome of the main building reminded me of something from the 70's, which, who knows, was maybe when it was built. The market was full of tightly packed stalls selling all the usual goods: clothes, shoes, jewelry, toys, pot and pans, and of course, a section full of fruits and veggies. We didn't spend much time there seeing as we didn't actually want to buy anything and the constant invites to look at the goods in each stall got tiring. So we walked out the backside and spotted a tall building that looked very much like a mall. Indeed, it was a mall. With AC. So we took 20 minutes to walk around inside and cool down before deciding what to do for lunch. We knew we wanted local food and we knew we didn't want to walk far. Lucky for us there was a very local place just down the street from the mall. It was so local that we were a bit unsure at first, but we figured that they probably had some of the most authentic food we were going to find. Using a series of charades, we asked if they were currently serving and then took a seat at a very dirty, rickety table. We watched the adorably dirty children running around as we waited for our lunch, cringing when at one point a little boy bit a little girl on her back, seemingly just to see what would happen. She cried and someone came to comfort her. I don't recall him being punished or reprimanded. Our lunch ended up being delicious and we ate as the various Cambodians milling about watched us. The staring is always awkward. I wouldn't say that I've gotten used to it - more that I've gotten used to being annoyed by it. Being stared at while you're eating is both more and less awkward than usual. More awkward because, well, you're eating, and less because you're distracted by your food. After paying, we took a tuktuk back to the hotel, choosing what we hoped was the best one from amongst the 20 or so that were competing for business on the short street. We relaxed until dinner which consisted of more Indian food, but at a different restaurant. Despite the place being big enough to fit only two tables inside, it was really good food. As it turned out, the chef was from Nepal, so he had some experience with Indian food. All in all, we felt it was a pretty productive day.

We lazed around all morning on the 8th. It wasn't until the afternoon that we got out to do some sightseeing. We hailed a tuktuk and asked how much to go to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. We knew we had hit gold with him when he said it would cost $2. An honest man is hard to come by. We had earlier been offered $4 for the ride by one of those lazy drivers who wait for easy tourists, so $2 was a fantastic price. Stepping out of the tuktuk in front of the museum complex brought us face to face with a beggar. He had been burned badly in the past, his face looking melted and taught, and he shoved his hat into Chuck's chest, expecting that the closer he was the more likely we were to give him money. We were financially unmoved though, and walked past him through the front gates. The museum was not quite what I was expecting, but as I looked at it I realized it's what I should have expected. It was the very site at which all the horrendous imprisonments during the Khmer Rouge had occurred. As we walked through the various concrete buildings we read the signs and looked at the pictures that gave detail to the past. The buildings had been a high school before being taken over by the Khmer Rouge. We could see that each room would have been home to a collection of desks and books, but now they housed iron bed frames and pairs of shackles. Brick walls had been built in some rooms, further dividing them into tiny prisons that weren't big enough for a person to lie down in. One building had been wrapped in barbed wire to prevent any escape. The faces of the prisoners were on display throughout the buildings, showing Cambodians young, old, male, female, angry, scared, and sad. It's estimated that about 17,000 people went into the prisons and only 12 people are known to have survived, namely because they had skills the Khmer Rouge found useful. Everyone else was tortured and ultimately taken to the Killing Fields for execution. It was definitely some horrible stuff. At first I was very impressed at how many photographs I kept passing by as we walked through the rooms, but then I began to notice the same faces over and over. I suspect they didn't have photos of every single person that went through the prison, so in order to convey the multitude of victims they had to reuse them. I have to admit that the realization made me laugh. Not out loud - there were signs prohibiting happiness posted around the museum, so laughing out loud was not an option. But inside, I chuckled, although I'm not sure why. Perhaps because they've made such efforts to showcase their horrible past experiences and meanwhile the same crap is going on elsewhere in the world. Same same, but different, as they would say in Thailand. We make these memorials in an attempt to never forget and to not make the same mistakes again. Meanwhile, horrible things continue to go on in the world. It's all a little bit pointless at the same time that it's necessary. While we were exploring the place it began to rain. Lightly at first, so we only got sprinkled on as we moved from the first building to the second. It was a downpour by the time we got to the last building though, leaving us rather damp. Once we were finished looking at the displays (including some of the skulls of the dead) the rain was light enough again that we were able to walk down the street to find lunch without out getting completely soaked. We passed by a few places that looked okay, but none really stood out. The rain, getting heavier again, finally drove us into one of them though. There turned out to be no menu so we asked the girl if she would order for us (using hand signs and common English words, of course). I'm not sure what exactly it was, but it was good. Beef drizzled with some sort of gravy with rice and, of all things, french fries. I wondered if that was for our benefit, us being Westerners and all that. Maybe she figured we wouldn't consider it a meal without fries? It rained and rained while we ate and rained some more while we drank beers and waited some more. We watched a group of 10 men all dressed in the same work shirts come in for lunch and drinks. They started pounding them back pretty hard which made me wonder if the work day was over already. There was also a pair of men who had been seated since before we arrived, drinking and laughing. At some point they took to occasionally turning around and making cheers-ing motions to Chuck with their drinks. As we left (the rain let up again briefly) one of the men stopped us for a chat. He was obviously drunk, and a bit scary, but he seemed to mean well. He gave Chuck a glass of beer and told us that he was a bodyguard and a policeman, and gave us his business card. He said we could call him if we ever needed to. That if we got in trouble, he'd be happy to help us out. Over the course of reading that book I had bought from the kid in Siem Reap (Off the Rails In Phnom Penh) I had learned that Cambodia has a history of rich people with bodyguards. The setting of the book was back in the 90's, but I'm quite certain people still hire bodyguards there today. For example, one day we went to KFC and there was some sort of guard standing out front. Inside was a well dressed young Cambodian couple, acting all lovely-dovey and giggly with each other. When we left (after they had left) the guard was gone. I think he was their bodyguard. And here was this drunk man, possibly offering his bodyguarding services to us. Very strange. We thanked him profusely and quickly drank a good portion of the beer, not wanting to offend him by not accepting his generosity. He seemed happy with us as we took off down the street in search of a tuktuk. We found one that was willing to take us back to the hotel for $2, but we ended up giving him $3 because the rain was so bad. The streets were flooded and the traffic was horrendous. We saw one guy driving his motorbike through the murky water along a curb, and I guess he misjudged his trajectory because he ended up falling over. He wasn't going fast so it was a slow, easy fall. Three people came rushing to help him get his leg out from under the bike though, which I thought was very nice of them. I suspect there are places in the world where people would have just watched him struggle, the thought that he might appreciate help never crossing their minds. On another street I was warmed by the sight of two guys trying to clear a blocked gutter so the water wouldn't back up into the streets. I doubt they fixed the problem, but it was nice to see people trying to help the world around them. Back at the hotel we took some time for relaxation. I ended up napping while Chuck went downstairs to the restaurant area to be social. By the time I woke up I was having some stomach pains. Chuck checked in with me at some point, and told me he had met a Westerner (a British guy to be exact) downstairs and they wanted to go check out some of the bars on the street. Since I wasn't feeling well I shooed him off to go have a good time with the other fellow and to let me know how it went. Besides, I wasn't quite sure that I really wanted to go to the bars anyways. They were all "girly bars," or the kinds of bars that hire ladies to flirt with the customers in order to get them to buy them drinks. It wasn't until close to midnight that he returned, wide-eyed with his tales of the "girly bars." Apparently, when they walked in all the girls (usually at least 10) would swarm around them trying to get their attention. When they sat down, a few would continue to hang around, hoping to be bought a drink. One of the flirting tactics he thought was the funniest was when they would tug on his arm hair and compare it to their lack of. He said that when the British guy bought one of them a drink, she glued herself to the seat next to him and flirted for the next half hour, tugging on his arm hair, stroking his arms, and rubbing his back. He said they also went into one bar that was really weird because it seemed to be filled with a bunch of young girls. When they weren't running around chasing each other and laughing maniacally, they were playing cards or some dice game. He said they didn't stay long in there. He sounded like he had a good and interesting night though.

On the 9th we once again stayed in the hotel until about 2:00 PM. We grabbed a tuktuk to a place we had been told about by other travelers called the Boom Boom Room. I know it sounds seedy, but it was really just a nice clothing shop with a selection of bootleg movies and music. I'm not sure why we decided we wanted to go there, but we did, and we selected two movies and an audiobook. We had to wait 30 minutes for it all to be burned onto CDs so we went down the road to a little coffee shop to kill some time. I traipsed the muddy dirt from outside all over their shiny white tile floor on accident - I wasn't paying attention to wiping my feet. I apologized a lot but they smiled and said that it was okay. We had our coffee (well, I had a coffee and Chuck had some watermelon because he really detests coffee) and chatted for a bit before heading back to pick up our movies. They ended up costing us $13 which was retardedly ridiculous in my opinion. We were left wondering why on earth we had bothered in the first place - we could buy original copies on ebay or something for that price. Oh well. Moving on with our lives, we headed towards to river on foot, passing by the Independence Monument along the way. It was very reminiscent of India, which is something I've noticed about a lot of the traditionally Khmer (ie: Cambodian) architecture. I haven't looked into the influences that India and Cambodia may have had on each other in the past, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some strong ties. Past the monument we came to the river where the Naga Casino was located. We hadn't planned on visiting the casino, but since we were right there we decided to take a look. It wasn't as grand as a Las Vegas casino, but it was definitely nicer than much of the rest of the city. We walked around and saw tables set up with blackjack, baccarat, roulette, and a bunch of slot machines. We found some penny slots and each stuck in $1. At the end of our visit we came away with a net positive of $4. Not too bad! Cashing out our slot machines was funny though. They didn't have the fancy ability to print out a voucher, so we had to push a button that set the red light above the machine spinning and hope that someone noticed us. When a casino girl came we then felt silly for cashing out such a minimal amount of money. But it was fun and who cares what anyone else thinks. Waving down a tuktuk we began the haggling process. He wanted $3 (ridiculous) and we wanted to pay $1. He dropped it to $2 and we countered with $1.25. Next he offered $1.50 but we were adamant about our $0.25 and insisted on paying only $1.25. After some more back-and-forth he agreed with a laugh and we were on our way. Because he was such a good sport about the whole thing we ended up giving him $1.50 anyways. We spent some time relaxing, had some Cambodian food at a hole-in-the-wall down our road, had a drink at the hotel bar. The British guy Chuck had met the night before came by at around 8:00 PM. His name was Matt. He was a very thin man who chain-smoked and exuded a sort of clam, cheery darkness about life, if that makes any sort of sense. I found that I liked the guy, which was good I suppose because we all ended up going out drinking that night. First we went to the strange bar that was filled with the ladies who acted like middle-schoolers. They wanted me to see the bar for myself and give my opinion. It was definitely a bit strange, but I think the girls were all of a legal age. If not legal, then maybe just under the 18-year limit. None of them looked like 12 year old, though. However, they acted like 12 year olds. They would jump over the bar and chase each other around, giggling and yelling. Some had lollipops in their mouths and they pretty much ignored us for the most part. I felt like I was sitting in a classroom and the teacher had left. When an overweight older man came in and greeted the girls as if he knew them, kissing their hands and all, we figured it was time to go. Last I saw of him, he had one girl on his lap and two others hanging off each arm. Creepy. We headed a few streets over to another bar street, began at one end and worked our way to the other. We would stop into a bar, have a drink while we checked out the atmosphere and the girls, and then move along to the next. Each bar was a bit different. In some, all the girls would surge in on you, many trying to touch your arm or give you a little massage. In others they stayed seated but smiled and said hello, and in others they basically ignored you and let you do your own thing. Some were full of very pretty ladies while others had not so pretty ladies. I'm not sure how differently they treated me because I was a girl. I think some of them were more interested in talking to me because I was a female. There could be many reasons for that: a girl is "safer" than a guy; they don't see many females in the bars; they actually like girls and are hoping to hook up; the way to a man's pocketbook is through his girl; etc. In one of the bars I decided to buy a nice smiley girl a drink to see what would happen. She had been standing at the end of the table smiling a lot and trying to speak a bit in English, although her English was almost as bad as our Cambodian. She tugged on both Chuck and Matt's arm hair, checked out my nail polish and my earrings, etc. When I bought her a drink the only thing that really changed was that she sat in the seat next to me and smiled at me a lot. It was kind of strange, but she seemed surprisingly genuine so at least it didn't seem like she was feeling forced. I bought one other girl a drink at the last bar we went to and that was an interesting experience. She was a tiny little thing, only coming up to my shoulder and had a bubbly, easily excited personality. She spoke minimal English, so there wasn't much in the way of conversation. We all played pool (me, her, Matt, Chuck, and a girl that Matt bought a drink for) and whenever she or I sank a ball she would run over to me laughing and give me this big hug around my waist, jumping up and down as she did it. Even when her drink ran out she was still enthusiastic about me. I have to say, she was somewhat endearing.

I felt pretty icky on the 10th so the whole day was pretty much spent in the hotel. Matt showed up again that night though, and we figured "What the heck - we're in Cambodia," so we all went out. We went to a couple of the better bars from the previous night and one or two new places. Girls who we had spoken to the night before recognized us and would say hello. The girl who kept getting excited while playing pool with me was really happy to see us and clamped on to me the moment we came in the bar. She didn't seem to care whether I bought her a drink or not, but I got a couple anyways. Chuck and I tried asking her about her life, but with the language difference we only managed to work out very few things such as the fact that she's married and has a kid, who I think is 5 years old. After hearing this I doubted that she was one of the bar girls who would prostitute herself out. Although one might automatically assume that all the girls working in bars and trying to get you to buy them lady drinks are willing to sleep with men (or women I guess) for money, that isn't the case. Sure, a lot of them do accept money for sex, but a fair few of them don't. And girls are free to be choosy about who they'll sleep with - some will only go with guys they really like and others might go with a unsavory fellow just to make some money. I saw one bar girl turn away from a guy who went in for a kiss after they had been flirting lightly for a bit. I guess she had either decided "no" or she was playing hard to get. We saw a trio of two girls and a boisterous overweight man all giggling and being playful with each other in a more-than-friendly way. I guess they had decided he was alright. Matt told us that he had seen men go into girly bars and not a single girl would be willing to talk with them, where as another guy might get more offers than he knew what to do with. Matt himself made an offer to a girl he had been flirting with all night. She said she would go with him, but she wouldn't do anything sexual. He decided not to take her up on that offer and the next night when he came back she was almost begging him to take her back to his hotel. I think she actually cried when he said no. I don't know if she changed her mind because she realized she really needed the money or if she suddenly just wanted to spend a passionate night with him. I dunno. He wasn't mean about saying "no" either - they still flirted and hung out and he bought her some lady drinks and all that. And the fact that the girl who I had gotten myself attached to had a husband and a kid made me think that her goal in working at the bars was just to make as much money from lady drinks as she could - that she wasn't going to be going home with anyone for sex. She might let someone take her out to some other bars or a club with them, but no sex. It's certainly an interesting system for prostitution, and I like to think that it favors the girls a bit more than the customers. They have a safe haven where they can get to know a guy a bit before deciding whether or not to go home with him. They aren't making money solely from their sexual escapades because they get paid for each lady drink that they're bought (although I bet it's a pretty small amount of money). They get to have a good time hanging out with their friends while at work. I dunno, it could be worse, ya know? I'd be interested to find out how many girls really hate their jobs at the bars or feel that they have no other options. We ended up leaving the bars around 3:00 AM to go to a club called Heart of Darkness. It was a modern place - something you'd expect to find in the affordable parts of Miami or San Francisco. We were frisked before going in which was kind of exciting what with it implying that danger was afoot. Inside, Chuck and I had a good time making fun of a thin but pretty girl with a bobbed haircut and a short skirt for her dance moves. She looked like a duck when she danced, holding her hands almost as if she were going to do the chicken dance and sort of kicking her feet back like a hen scratching at the ground. Maybe we should have called her "chicken girl," but for some reason "duck girl" became her nickname. Later on when I was on the dance floor she came up and danced with me for a few moments, then she thanked me with a smile and left the club. I thought that was nice of her. At 4:00 the club closed down. In fact, at 3:55 it was jammed with people at at 4:00 it was practically deserted. We were amazed at how quickly everyone cleared out. Before leaving, Chuck borrowed a pen from a beefy looking guy in order to give Matt his email address. After returning the pen we realized that the guy had most probably been a bodyguard. He had acted a little odd when Chuck first asked him for the pen, and there was a younger couple nearby that he seemed to be keeping his eyes on. Bodyguards might not be the best people to bum pens from, but luckily it all worked out just fine. Bodyguards. Sheesh. I'm not used to having people like that hanging around. That's Cambodia for you.

We felt fine on the 11th, although we didn't feel like doing anything. We decided to just eat all day long. We even had a Cambodian raw beef salad, which is highly cautioned against by travel advisories. They all say to never eat any raw meats, but we figured we had been in SE Asia for long enough that we'd probably be okay. And we were. I mean, unless I have some unknown parasite living in my intestines, which is possible. But hasn't caused me problems yet. It was pretty good too, although I think I prefer my beef cooked a bit - it's easier to chew and has more flavor. We decided to go to the casino and try our luck again. Maybe we would come back a winner like we did a few days before. The casino was a much livelier place in the evening than it had been during the day. There were a lot more people and they were mostly all dressed up. There were a lot of gorgeous Cambodian girls wearing sexy dresses who I assumed were looking for rich dates. Unfortunately, luck was not on our side and we lost $4 of our money. Stupid casino.

Since we had been wasting our time over the last few days we decided to pull it together on the 12th and go to the Killing Fields. We hired a tuktuk to take us there, wait for us, then drive us back for $10. We first had to walk past the lazy tuktuks who would try to overcharge us and lied to them about wanting a ride, so when they saw us slowly roll past in our bargain tuktuk one fellow said "Hey, I just saw you! You said no tuktuk!" We just smiled at him. The drive to the killing fields took us past some interesting parts of town. We got to see a less touristy area of Phnom Penh where all the warehouses and stockyards were. There were people all over the place, walking, motorbiking, bicycling, selling, buying, eating, etc. I have to say, it's a pretty busy city. We went right to the edge of it to get to the Killing Fields. That's where a lot of the executions by the Khmer Rouge were carried out - those of the prisoners who were kept at Tuol Sleng. When it excavated after the fall of the Khmer Rouge they found a bunch of mass graves, some with hundreds of skeletons, some containing only women, children, and babies, some headless. They've stopped excavating at this point, having found almost 9,000 bodies. A tall stuppa has been built at the center of the site, filled with the bones of the victims piled on glass shelves to pay tribute to their stolen lives. Skulls stared out across the fields in all directions through the glass walls of the structure. There was also a museum that had information such as the timeline of events, important people who were involved, and what happened to some of the leaders (like Pol Pot who died under house arrest in 1998). A particularly gruesome plaque described how they would execute babies by swinging them against trees. Another mentioned how they might use garden tools to execute a person, just to save on ammunition. The rest of the site looked much like a park dotted with big trees and a few fenced in shallow pits (where mass graves were located). It wasn't very big so it didn't take us much more than an hour to feel that we had gotten as much out of it as we were going to. The fact that it was an exceedingly hot day might have helped speed along the visit as well. The tuktuk driver was waiting for us in the parking area and we made our way back towards town (we passed by an elephant along the way! Not a wild one - just a working elephant). I remember being struck by how beautiful the Cambodian people are on the ride back through the city. It seemed that every face, man or woman, was particularly lovely. I decided right then that Cambodia had the most beautiful people of any country I'd been to. The darker skin, black hair, and softer, more rounded features are so pretty to my eyes. Even the old man who was leisurely pedaling his bike down the road, the balloon toys he had for sale bouncing on wooden sticks behind him, had a peaceful, aged beauty. The look on his face was so serene and content that I couldn't help but smile. We passed him by, leaving him to merge into the throng of traffic that accompanied us back into the city. Fifteen minutes later we came to the Central Market where we paid our driver and prepared for battle. The goal: to purchase flip flops. The battle plan: go to the least busy shops. The strategy: be willing to walk away. We darted through the thick jungle of stalls, dodging cries of "You look! Buy!" and "Very good for you, very cheap." The crowds subsided the further we got from the market center and soon we were able to stroll around without having to defend against the determined vendors. Unless we engaged the enemy in battle, that is. And at some point it would have to come to that. So we steeled ourselves and approached a flip flop stall. Of course, the seller was all over us, offering us various pairs of shoes that we weren't interested in and commenting on how cheap they were. At the end of the ordeal, we somehow ended up with two pairs of flip flops from two different shops. We tried to walk away from one shop, but made the mistake of making an offer before having decided to buy. When she said $7, we said $4, walking away when she didn't agree. She dropped the price by a dollar with each step we took, quickly agreeing to $4, which we hadn't actually wanted to pay at all. But we paid anyways. Then we went back to the shop we had actually wanted to buy from (because the guy was so pathetically nice) and got another pair - we convinced him to throw in a free pair of socks though. That made us feel a bit better. And the fact that the he was gleefully happy that we bought them from him was nice too. It was back to the hotel after that. A few hours later at 9:00 PM or so, Matt showed up. It turned into another night out. We went to a "normal" bar (you know, one without all the bar girls) for a bit and played some pool, then went to the bar where the girl that had taken a liking to me worked. Apparently they had a big TV there and Matt wanted to watch the World Cup match: USA vs UK. He ended up rather pouty by the time we left. The UK team made some sort of big mistake that they never recovered from. Seeing he was British and all, that put him a bit down and out. Chuck and I weren't much into the game and were kept entertained by a lovely, but crude lady boy who had decided to sit with us. Ladyboys (you know, a man who has decided to be a woman) are notorious for being crazy perverts, and this one did not fail the stereotype. She loved to mimic various sexual acts and be overly flirtatious with men, especially when it made them uncomfortable. If someone referred to her as "he," she would become incensed and insist that she had gotten all the necessary operations to make her a woman, and was almost eager to have someone take her up on her offer to prove it. She was certainly the kind of person that you would call the "life of the party" and she rather wore us all out, I think. Chuck and I didn't stay out very late that night and headed back to bed before the soccer (or football if you prefer) match was over.

We were wanting to stay in Phnom Penh for a few more nights, so on the morning of the 13th we checked with the hotel boss lady to see if that was possible. She gave us a big negative saying that she had already booked new guests into the room that night. So we went into an annoyed scramble to pack our bags and figure out where to go next before the noon check-out time. As I waited in the hotel restaurant/bar with our bags, Chuck ran around the corner to the bus office to see if they had any buses to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. He hurried back to the hotel and announced that the bus was leaving in 5 minutes. We swung our bags across our backs and hustled out the door, down the street, past the tuktuks and girly bars, around the corner and into the bus office. After a few minutes wait and a phone call, a mini-van pulled up and we climbed in along with three Vietnamese men. We were driven around the city for 10 minutes, wondering where we were going and what exactly was going on, but unable to ask anyone who spoke English. The driver pulled over at a busy corner and had us wait on the sidewalk with our bags as he got on his cellphone. A few minutes later a big bus - our bus - pulled up, blocking the traffic in the right hand lane. We were ushered on board where we were awkwardly greeted by a sea of staring faces and made our way to the very back to take the only two seats left. What a way to catch a bus. Onward to Vietnam!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Siem Reap

The ride into Cambodia was just what we expected - a rip off. Instead of taking us right to the border where we could apply for our visas in person, they dropped us off at a restaurant a kilometer away where they first tried to get us to order lunch, then wanted to charge us a $20 surcharge to get our visas. The visa itself costs $20, so for me and Chuck it would be an extra $40 on top of the visas, which is a lot of money in Cambodia and Thailand. If you're up for that sort of thing, then by all means, go ahead and pay it. But we knew we could do it on our own, which is just what we did. Once we refused to pay their prices they practically kicked us out onto the street, halfheartedly promising that the bus (that we had already paid for) would be waiting for us on the other side of the border. Yeah, right. We flagged down a songthaew that was heading towards the border and quickly covered the last kilometer. He was nice enough to only charge us half the normal fare because it was such a short trip. Once off the songthaew we were pounced upon by several men claiming they would oh-so-kindly show us to where we could get our visas. They said things like "This is where foreigners have to get them," or that it was "Very cheap." We ignored them and followed the steady stream of people flowing around the corner to where the immigration building loomed. And look at that, there was a line specifically for foreigners. We hopped into it, ignoring the other aisle that read "Overstay line." We ended up there anyways when the immigration lady saw our passports. She didn't bat an eye as she sent us over - it seemed like she was used to getting overstayed foreigners. There was a guy being processed in front of us that we had to wait for. He looked like a burly biker and was wearing a necklace heavy with Buddhist amulets, each plastic encased figurine hanging off like a somber Christmas ornament. He had overstayed his visa so long that he had hit the maximum overstay fee of 20,000 baht (or something like that). That's $600. I was glad we didn't have to pay that amount. Ouch. We were processed through after 15 minutes, having paid our $15-a-day overstay fee. Once through the Thai exit we made the short walk through no-man's-land (you know, that strange area between two countries) to the Cambodian visa office. They were quite helpful at the same time that they tried to swindle us. He asked for 800 baht ($25 US) instead of the $20 US that was posted on the sign above the window. We claimed we only had US dollars (we had gotten some before leaving because Cambodia, oddly enough, uses US dollars along with their national currency the riel), and he accepted our $20's without much fuss and perhaps even a sly smile. We had our visas in less than 10 minutes. Finally, we were allowed to pass under the big Cambodian archway that welcomed newcomers into the country. And boy was the country immediately different than Thailand. The first thing I noticed (mainly because I had read about it) was that most people's skin was quite a bit darker than the average Thai skin. Then I noticed a dusty dirtiness that seemed to coat everything - similar to the dirtiness we had seen in India. Buildings were a bit less kept than across the border as well. It definitely looked to be a country with less wealth than its neighbor. We took a few minutes to look for our bus, although I didn't have high hopes. I wasn't convinced it would have made it across the border yet, either. We quickly gave up on our bus and hopped onto a free bus that took us to the bus station. We sat at the station for a while, the only people there besides the taxi drivers, hoping that some other hapless traveler would come along looking to share a taxi to Siem Reap. It was ridiculously hot. Heat is not good for your pocketbook. You're more willing to spend your money to get out of the heat. You'll pay more to sit in an air-conditioned restaurant or to have an ACed hotel room. You'll pay more to take an ACed car rather than a hot bus. You'll pay more to just get on your way rather than wait around for other passengers, which is what we ended up doing. Anything to get out of the heat. Our driver certainly wasn't concerned with getting us to Siem Reap as quickly as possible. When he stopped for gas (the gas tank looked like a propane tank in the trunk of the car and there was no gas station like in the western world - it was just an industrial looking pump with a long hose) he took his sweet time chatting with some friends who were there. When we stopped for snacks and a potty break, he took his time chatting up some other friends. He even stopped once for the sole purpose of chatting with his friends. Since it's Cambodia though, we just shrugged and waited. No biggie. At the snack shop we stopped at there was a gorgeous young Cambodian woman who was covered from head to foot. She had on a brimmed hat, a scarf that covered her neck up to her chin, two layers of long sleeved shirts, gloves, tight black jeans, and woolen socks tucked into her flip flops. It had to have been almost 100*F out. Just looking at her made me feel like I was having a heat stroke. She spoke a bit of English and when asked wasn't she hot, she claimed to be comfortable - that she wanted skin like ours. She liked our lighter skin. I sat there stunned, thinking that she was more gorgeous than 97% of the "white" people walking around on the planet. I am constantly stunned by the degree to which skin color seems to be able to dictate beauty in some parts of the world. After 3.5 hours of driving we finally made it to Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Wat temple complex. Of course, we were dropped off by some tuk-tuks who would give us a "free" ride to our hotel. We were quite clear about where we wanted to go, but we still ended up somewhere else. We were told by the guesthouse owner that it was the Palm Garden Lodge (the place we wanted to go) but they had moved and changed their name (to the Green Banana, in case you're wondering). We knew he was a big fat liar, but I asked if they had AC, wifi, and hot water and he nodded yes for all three. I convinced Chuck, against his better judgment, that we may as well stay at least one night, just for convenience sake. It had been a long day after all. After moving all our stuff into our room and relaxing for a bit we began to feel our stomachs growling. Food time. Chuck had done a bit of research on different restaurants in the city and had an area in mind, which is where we headed. A place called Angkor Famous won us over with their free popcorn. I hadn't had good, salty, buttery, machine-popped popcorn in a long time and oh my, was it even more delicious than I had remembered. Along with bowl after bowl of popcorn (they just kept bringing them) we tried some Cambodian dishes from their menu, one of which was a snake dish. It was pretty tasty, but the snake had basically just been chopped into half inch segments, bone and all, before being cooked. This left us the fiddly task of gnawing around the bones to get the small bits of meat off. Too much work. The pork dish that came with a hard boiled egg soaked in broth or soy sauce was fantastic though. Trying new food is almost always an interesting experience. Another interesting experience was being harassed at dinner by the numerous kids selling knock-off books. First, I'd like to comment on the books. I had been living with the idea that although pirated books were possible, it wouldn't be worth the cost to copy and reprint them. Apparently I was wrong. Apparently, it is worth the cost. Frequently, the books are pretty decent copies too - the text is dark enough to read, the pages stay together, and the cover is glossy card stock. At least three kids came by trying to sell us their shrink wrapped bootleg books, and some were pretty good at their "jobs." One cute little 8 year old boy came buy asking "Would you like to buy?" as he thrust his shoe box of books at us. "No thanks," we told him. "Where you from?" This is where he tried to get us engaged and develop a connection with him so as to butter us up. At least, I suspected that's what he was up to. Chuck countered with "Where are you from?" He gave us 10 guesses, ticking each one off with his fingers as we guessed. "Thailand. Africa. America." He gave us a funny look when we suggested that one. "China. France. Germany. Japan. The moon." That last one was my suggestion. The boy laughed out loud as he told us "No" and put down another one of his fingers. "Hey, You can't count that one," Chuck complained, but the kid insisted on doing just that. Two more guesses. "Vietnam." Nope. "Cambodia." He shook his head no. I was all huh? Seriously? Where else could he be from? All was revealed when he giggled and proclaimed "I am from my mother and father!" Ahhh, clever kid. After he was finished being pleased with himself he asked again "Where you come from?" "Bangkok," we told him. "You want to go to Bangkok?" Chuck asked. He sat back on the edge of a big flower pot and told us "I want to go to the moon!" Ahhh, what a charmer. Chuck and I both nodded our approval at that, in an attempt to keep his hopes of going to the moon alive. Not that it's impossible, of course. Just that it will obviously be a bit more of a struggle for him to make it to the moon than some rich kid in Boston. Life ain't fair, as we all know. "In America it is easy," he continued. "$1000, you can go to the moon." I didn't have the heart to tell him that no, $1000 hasn't gotten anyone to the moon yet. That it would take a whole lot more than $1000. Instead we gave him the cliche lines about working hard and going to school and that he can do whatever he wants, blah blah blah. The last question he asked before he finally wandered off to find some other foreigners to try and sell to was, "You want to buy?" Another of the boys that came by had a great personality. He was, however, missing a leg. All the way up to his hip. One might think this would limit his mobility, but he got around just fine using a pair of crutches, one with a platform he could rest his - for lack of a better word - stump on while he was standing around. When it was time to move he tucked the crutches into his armpits and used them for support. Because his arms were otherwise occupied he had strapped his box of books to his chest with a sash that wrapped around over his shoulder. On the front of his box was a laminated sign with a picture of some disfigured kids. The writing above the photo said something about orphans or children affected by landmines and had a suggestion to donate money to help them. He came over to as as we were stuffing our faces with popcorn and encouraged us to buy a book with a big smile and charming conversation. Chuck had been recommended a book about Cambodia back in the 90's that he thought I would enjoy, so we ended up going through this kids books. He actually had it. We (and by we, I mean Chuck) bargained him from $5 down to $4 (which was actually probably not much less than it would retail for in the US...) and handed over the equivalent amount in riel. The kid counted the money and as he finished, hesitated as though he were going to say something. Instead, he quickly changed his mind, said "Thank you" with a smile and took off. The odd behavior led us to realize that we had give him more than the agreed amount - we had given him $5 instead of $4. We laughed at ourselves. Obviously, we weren't at all bent up about paying a dollar extra. Although we always try to haggle with street or market vendors, it's more because that's just what you do rather than really striving for the cheapest possible price. When he passed us by again a little while later Chuck jokingly asked him "Hey, where's my change?" The kid flashed his big grin and actually offered it back to us, but we refused. The street kids in Siem Reap were certainly an interesting lot.

On the 2nd we checked out of the Green Banana. It was an okay guesthouse, but really nothing special. It was more that we had read such good things about the Palm Garden Lodge and decided we really wanted to stay there. The tuktuk driver this time was a good guy and took us to the right place, which we were surprised to see was quite a ways down a very red dirt road. The lodge was much more special than the previous place, and came with lots of smiles, a glass of orange juice, and a fruit basket. Much better. After putting our stuff away we walked back down the red dirt road looking for food. The buildings were much more rural than in the center of the city, and spaced further apart. But it was a busy road, with a steady trickle of traffic (mostly motorbikes) heading back and forth. There wasn't much in the way of food so we stopped into the first restaurant we saw. Good food. We had some sort of soup. We noticed a girl walking around in PJs there, although it was after noon. Full-length Pj's and thick socks. She looked quite comfortable despite the blazing heat. That afternoon we were treated to a lovely rain storm, complete with huge cracks of thunder and ferocious winds. Chuck sat on the veranda area enjoying the rain while I took a nap. It was still raining when I woke up and joined him. It continued for another hour after that. The ground was a soppy mess and there were a bunch of little frogs jumping about in the water. Chuck had befriended one of the young guys who worked at the hotel while I was sleeping, so we lightly chatted with him as we watched the rain fall. He said he had learned that thunder is made when two clouds crash into each other. Chuck and I looked at each other for a moment before responding. We were both trying to figure out exactly what to say to that. The exact physics of thunder are a bit hard to explain to someone who is living under the assumption that it comes from crashing clouds. Chuck did his best, though, talking about charged particles and opposites attracting, etc. And I don't want to give anyone the impression that I'm implying he was a dumb guy, either. He just wasn't given the opportunity to have an education like those of us in America or Europe. I found it a reflection on the Cambodian government rather than his IQ. Besides, I wouldn't have been able to accurately explain the thunder phenomenon myself. And he knew that the frogs hopping around were edible if one wanted to eat them. I didn't know that! He was just equipped with a different set of information than Chuck or me. He also told us that when the first rains of the year come, children are told not to play in the puddles and rainwater. Apparently all the pollution that has been gathering during the previous dry spell is trapped in the puddles, making toxic little pools. He said that a lot of chickens die during the first rains. But it's all washed away over the next few downpours making it safe enough that at least you won't die or grow a third eye. We tried to go to a karaoke BBQ for dinner, but apparently they don't know what that is. We read online that karaoke BBQ (which is just what it sounds - eating BBQ while watching karaoke) is all over the place, but everyone we asked was clueless. Our first tuktuk ride dropped us off outside a fancy-shmancy BBQ joint that had puppet shows or something. We decided against that and walked up and down the street, but didn't find anything like a karaoke restaurant. This led us to our second tuktuk which drove us back across town to the street our hotel was on and dropped us off outside a strange, colorfully lit building. I dashed inside to check it out quickly while Chuck waited with the tuktuk and was immediately creeped out. It was slightly maze-like and I had to walk down a few hallways just to get to the main lobby, the scent of perfume getting stronger as I went. Poking my head around the dimly lit corner I was faced with 20 beautiful women, dressed up as if they were going to a cocktail party, waiting around and looking bored. My first thought was that we had been taken us to some strange brothel, but upon further reflection it might actually have been a karaoke place. I have heard that you can hire a girl to come to your karaoke room (you have your own personal room to sing in at nice karaoke bars in Asia) to sing and have fun with you. They were probably those girls. Karaoke girls. But it was still a really strange sight, so I turned right around and went back to the waiting tuktuk. We gave up at that point and decided to just go back to the area we had eaten at the night before. We found a BBQ place (no karaoke) that offered a combo of kangaroo, ostrich, snake, and crocodile. It wasn't that good, but it was BBQ. After dinner we ended up back at the place we had eaten at the night before, eating free popcorn and having some drinks. Oh, and fighting off the vendor-children. The same ones from the night before.

We were craving something more authentic on the 3rd, so we headed into town looking for a place where locals were eating. We ended up at a busy little street cart in the market with pre-cooked selections of food. The rain blessed us with it's presence while we ate our fish head, veggies, and sweet diaper sausages (that is not their actual name, but one I gave them because they tasted like what I imagine a candied diaper would taste like). Since the rain was still doing its thing once we had finished, we walked around the covered market ignoring the offers and demands for us to buy shirts or scarves. I did end up getting a cute little coin-purse to replace my cumbersome money belt that I had stopped using. I didn't even bother haggling for it because it was $1. I know, I know, so pricey. Once the rain let up enough we walked through the touristy streets of the city, where all the Western bars and restaurants are. The beer in Siem Reap is super cheap and many restaurants offer $0.50 draft beers. So, that's just what we did. We sat and had hot tea and luke-cold beers for much of the afternoon, watching the tourists, beggars, street carts, and tuktuk drivers going about their day. One interesting sight was that of a small, toned, very muscular man towing a cart of odd and ends with a speaker blaring dance music. He stopped on the road outside our restaurant and set up a metal hoop ringed with knives at 4 or 5 feet off the ground. He did a lot of walking back and forth, making false running starts, and checking his mat before he finally did run and leap through the hoop, head first, tucking into a ball as he hit the ground and rolled back onto his feet. Then he came around asking for tips from people. I went ahead and gave him some money. He was kinda cool. My favorite encounter of the day was with some young girls who were out trying to sell bunches of bracelets for $1. When I say young, I mean 7 or 8 year olds. The girls were some of the most annoying child vendors, but Chuck managed to get them interested in something other than selling for almost 10 minutes. Somehow he managed to get them interested in math problems. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but they were trying to figure out what 4 x 2 was, and 10 x 10 and 10 + 10, etc. They seemed to have the addition and subtraction down, but multiplication and especially division seemed to be quite a bit more difficult. It started out as one girl, but after a few minutes she had two other girls by her side, all three with their heads bent together trying to figure out what the answers were. It was neat to see. As soon as the lesson was over their genuine smiles faded into fake ones and they pressed us once again to buy their bracelets, which we did not do. Before heading back to the hotel for the night we made an agreement with one of the numerous tuktuk drivers hanging around, for him to pick us up at 5:00 AM the next morning to go to the Angkor Wat.

As it usually does, 5:00 AM rolled around way too soon on the 4th. Our tuktuk was already there by the time we groggily strolled out of our hotel and into the dark morning. He drove us to the Angkor Wat ticket office, where we had our photo taken and actually printed onto the ticket. Then he dropped us off outside the main temple and went to wait with all the other tuktuk drivers for our return. The whole point of waking so early in the morning was to see the sunrise from Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, that ended up being less than spectacular. On the bright side though, it was cooler than it would have been during the afternoon hours. After the anticlimactic sunrise we walked around the huge temple looking at the carvings and structure and wondering what it must have been like back in its heyday. It took us a few hours to go through the place so we were hungry once finished. We had some mediocre noodles at one of the many food stands next to the temple and were bugged by vendors the entire time. If I told them "No thanks" then they wouldn't go away. If I ignored them, they wouldn't go away. There was no winning. We were glad to be leaving them behind as we went back to find our tuktuk driver. It was hard to find him though, since there were so many tuktuks parked together. And then the fact that the poor guy was fast asleep when we found him didn't help. A fellow tuktuk driver woke him for us as we stood around looking awkward because we felt badly about disturbing him. He was good natured about being woken up, and even looked a bit sheepish at having been so soundly asleep. He drove us to the next big temple called Bayon, where we climbed up to the top and back down. It wasn't nearly as big as the previous site so we only took 30 minutes to wander around. The last stop was at my favorite temple called Te Phrom. It had been left as it was when first discovered, halfway crumbled with trees growing out of it. This gave it a fantastic sense of ancient history that had been swallowed by the inevitable march of time and mother nature. The trees that had broken their way through the walls and begun to swallow the temple were the main contributors to the atmosphere. It would have been more mysterious if the site wasn't swarmed with masses of tourists, though. Te Phrom seemed to be the most popular temple at the complex. We met back up with our tuktuk driver after about an hour there. It was only 11:00 AM and we were already finished with Angkor Wat. That meant there was still time to enjoy the free breakfast at our hotel. And after that we took a nap. We were so tired. The afternoon brought buckets of rain and we once again sat on the veranda enjoying the show. This time we were joined by one of the young women who worked at the hotel. Chuck asked her what she thought of my lip ring. She giggled and said that on Cambodian girls it is a gangster thing. Hah! I thought that was pretty hilarious. She ended up inviting us to have dinner with her and some of the other hotel people that evening. We joined them but only had a bit of food. We didn't want to eat their whole dinner. After eating we sat around watching Animal Planet - some show about monkeys where they named one Romeo and the other Juliet and made their every move into some sappy love story. It was pretty ridiculous. One of the Cambodian guys seemed to think it was hilarious and I had to agree. During the commercials they would describe a concept and then ask what the English word for that concept was. One such concept had something to do with when a mother favors one child over another and whether that's a fair thing for her to do. Or something like that. Unfortunately I couldn't help them out because I don't think we have an equivalent concept in English. This made me wonder if sibling rivalry, or favoring of one child over another is a common and important aspect of Cambodian society. I was going to mention the cliche example of how in Eskimo languages they have a bunch of different words for snow because snow is a crucial part of their life and culture, but I just looked it up on Wikipedia and read that it's all an urban legend. That English has the same number of words for snow. So nevermind on that comparison. Myth busted!

The 5th was a day for relaxing and getting some work done. That means that I blogged all day. We wandered out into the disorienting heat for an hour or two for lunch, which turned out to be pretty good despite our concerns to the contrary. Siem Reap is such a tourist town that it's hard to find the good places where the locals eat. Even though the restaurant we ended up at wasn't catering to locals, it was still good food. That evening we had dinner with the hotel staff again. This time we contributed $5 to help cover the cost of making more food. We had some dried fish, BBQ chicken, sour soup with fish (one of the girls who worked there proudly announced that she had made it), fish amok (a delicious Cambodian specialty), and rice. Dinner wasn't as conversational as the previous night because new guests kept arriving while we were eating, causing the staff to have to get up and check them in and all that. Despite having eaten with them, we went out a while later for some more food. We ate at a promising street cart stall that turned out to be a big disappointment. Not only was the food bland and oily, but there were a lot of beggar girls bugging us. Not the kind who were trying to sell bracelets or books. Just straight up beggars. They hovered around us for about 5 minutes before one of the girls began to count my freckles. I could feel her finger gently poking my shoulder as she counted. It was really quite odd. The final straw was when another one reached across our table for whatever reason. I suddenly got fed up and said "Go, go go," as I shooed them off with an annoyed wave of my hands. I was surprised when they actually left. Responding to beggars or touts at all - negative or positive - tends to give them hope and they stick around. I guess I seemed agitated enough that they decided it was best to go elsewhere.

We left Siem Reap for Phnom Penh on the 6th. We were picked up from our hotel by a small, cramped mini bus at around noon. I was grateful when they dropped us off at the bus station because the thought of having to travel all the way to Phnom Penh in that tiny van was very depressing. Our official bus was a big, AC'd bus - much better. We grabbed a few unhealthy snacks from the stalls set up around the bus station before finally taking off for our next destination.