Thursday, February 17, 2005

Highway to hell

The next morning Christine and I got into a cab at about 9.15 am to go to the bus station, but due to some giant grade school protest, yes that's right gradeschool, we did not arrive until 10.30. The hour delay was almost worth it to watch 8 year olds picketing in the streets, while their 5th grade friends beat on drums chanting like hippies. Christine was stilling feeling the effects of the fucky show and growing more car sick by the second. We managed to divert a potential disaster by blasting some fine Thai pop music to set our minds free, but that started to make me sick. At the bus station, I took full advantage of the lax pharmacy laws, and stocked up on much needed meds for relaxation and motion sickness. After almost forcefully removing some surly, dirty man from our bus seats, we set off for the cambodian border. The ride was easy, but the public bus (cheapest way) drops you off 10 km from the border. We had to hire a tuk-tuk to take us, but I still have nightmares about my old stalker on Koh san, so Christine has to negotiate. The Thai-Cambodain border is not a pretty sight. The moment a Caucasian approaches, they are enveloped in a human cloud. At first all of the grabbing and gentle prodding is sort of flattering and alluring, but soon it grows tiring knowing they won't call you tomorrow. We literally had to fight our way to the visa department, while being trailed by people offering their services. Luckily we had been tipped off of this madness, and had arranged a private car to transport us from the cambodian border to Siem Reip (Where the Angkor Wat temples are). At the visa office, there was a board with our names on it, and a man waiting to take us through the bureaucratic steps. On the cambodian side, the level of squalidness when through the roof. My bags where heavy to begin with, but pulling three shirtless small children on both arms was the true strongman style competition. We got into a Toyota camery and were off. Every car in Cambodia is a camery, and I mean every car. We had been warned of the roads in Cambodia, but they didn't seem that bad at first. The roads were pavement that abruptly ended every 50m or so. The most fascinating thing was that there are absolutely no traffic laws in any sense, only Darwinism. Our driver, who was a 20 something local guy, drove like we were in a stolen car. He had no problem driving into hundreds of oncoming motorbikers forcing them to scatter like flies into the dirt shoulder. When our driver was feeling a bit cheeky, he himself would voluntarily drive into the dirt shoulder, and ever into the fields if he felt the urge. I have never been so terrified in the back seat of a car before in my life, and we hadn't even left the city limits yet. As we reached the city limits, we were stopped for a impromptu police check, which was really just a racketeering scam, so we paid and were on our way. Now our driver really started to shine. He fearlessly passed cars while forcing others off the road. As he fishtailed all over the "road", which had now turned into hard dirt with bits of pavement chunks, all we could see was a dark cloud of red dust rise up from the road to engulf all that we passed. The sun began to fall in the sky, and the villages that we entered into glowed red from their perpetual red dust covering. Nothing escaped the red storm, and the visibility of the road was now no more than few meters. All I could see as we passed through some of the most impoverished accommodations I have ever seen, where hordes of small naked children playing in or around the road. We swirlded around these poor imps, all of which were painted head to toe in red dust, at breakneck speeds, even forcing some of the more agile ones to leap out of our way. Our driver was not fucking around he wanted to get to Siem Reip before it was too dark to see anything at all. He proceeded to race every other car on the road in an attempt to jockey for visibility. The loser was literally forced to eat red dust. Just as I thought the road couldn't get any worse, the road ceased to exist. We were now driving on nothing more than what appeared to be a bombed out field cleared of most debris. As I started to truly feel like we were in Satan's chariot, the setting sun began to glow red, and the fields around us were ablaze. I guess they were trying to fertilize the fields by burning them down, but driving over bombed out road with a red cloud surrounding you, in the middle of fields of fire...I don't know you tell me. After two more hours of driving hell, we arrived in Seim Reip. It was crazy, the moment you cross into the city, the roads are perfect and lined with posh 5-star hotels on both sides. After what we had been thorough I was tempted, but we stuck to the hostile we had already booked with. That night we hired a tuk-tuk driver named Mr. Chan for the three days we would be there(20 bucks + tip) and head off for dinner. The center of Seim Reip is all old French architecture turned into nice cafes and bars. It was a complete surprise after what we had been through, but a welcome one. We dined, had some libations, and went to bed early, so as to catch the sunrise over the temples.
The next morning we awoke at the chimper hour of 5.30 am so as to be at the temples to see the sun rise behind them. A few words on Angkor Wat before we proceed. Angkor Wat is the most impressive collection of temples in the world. The actual structure of the main temple, Ankor Wat, is the largest religious structure in the world, it makes the pyramids look like Ovieis after warriormania. There are more temples than you know what to do with scattered over something like 50 kms. You get the idea. After negotiating our breakfast from 100 usd to 1 usd, we took our spot to see the glorious yellow dwarf star do its magic, but to no avail, it was cloudy. Demoralized, but not defeated we toured the temples, I won't go into to much detail about each temple we saw, there were too many, and my words would not be able to capture how truly awesome these accient temples are. The only downside of the whole affair, was the relentless beggars and solicitors. At first we had pity, and after carefully making sure no one was around gave a small child a few coins, but everything went to hell. The kid yelled something to another kid across a lake, and Im not kidding when I say 8 other emerged from shady hiding places and underground tunnels. We were being chased by a small army of filthy swamp children, and forced to run screaming out of the temple gates into the safety of our tuk-tuk. Our tuk-tuk driver spun the wheel and we were off to the next group of temples. As I said, there is too much to tell about each site we saw (over 150 pictures...Thanks to mike ray and my aunt who both hooked up the digital capability), and Im no Byron, Whitman, or Frost (though I do have the grammar of Cummings). If you get the chance drop what your doing and go see the temples before they inevitably restrict the publics access. As of now you can climb all over them, even though they are falling down all around you and eroding quickly with all of the tourism. The temples are also one of the holiest places for Buddhist monks, who I have a penchant to harass. I met many monks who spoke very good English, and most had good sense of humor (I even got a monk hug). I thought about trying to pull a monk cawlken, but no ne would line him up. After one full day of tomb raiding (it was filmed here) we were pooped. We headed back to the hotel, had dinner in the French quarter again, and went to sleep early. The next day we were going to try again for the sunrise, but my partner wasn't having it. So, we regrouped and headed out again around noon. It was amazing that we hadn't seen half of all of the temples around the proximity, but since we saw all of the notable ones, we took it easy. We sasshayed through a few more temples, and avoided the crowds this time by seeing the sun set on a distant temple while sipping coconuts. We headed home bought our tickets for the river boat to Phenom phen (the Cambodian capital) for the next day and had some more fancy drink in French cafes. We actually met a nice Australian man,who lived locally, and worked for a NPO. He had moved to Seim Reip 8 yrs prior to help the farmers of this war torn country, and ended up falling in love with some 18 yr old girl (He was 40 at the time) and remarried with kids. Oh, the life of an ex-pat.
The next morning we got up at our usual hour of 6am to get picked up for the boat. When we got into the pick-up we were snuggly packed in with 5 others making the total 8 including driver, and not including everyone's huge packs, then we proceeded to pick up 4 more people. It was a spectacle. They fit 5 people in the cab of the truck, and 2 guys had to sit on the tailgate for the 30km drive on bad roads on the way to the fishing village. The fishing village smelled worse than you could image. It was a hybrid mix of sewage and rotting fish, but seeing the sun peek over the horizon in those thacket hut villages was a Kodak moment. Unfortunately, our camera wouldn't work, so you'll just have to image. When we finally arrived at the beginning of the river(its dry season, so its a lot further than other months), we climbed aboard longtail transports and were shuttled off to our larger speed boat. Imagine an entire village built onto the banks of coffee colored river with trash and other debris floating along. In this river was a cluster of longtail boats, now only a slight shade of their once brilliant yellows, blues, and reds. As we pulled the boat along with long bamboo rods (too shallow for a motor), we passed canoes filled with beautiful little cambodian children in pressed white uniforms on their way to school, which had the look of an old western main street building, but floating atop of bamboo stilts. The children captained their own boats, even though some looked too young to even be in school. Every child we passed on their way to school, smiled and waved, like they had just seen a movie star (I didn't know internet films traveled so quickly). The smell of rotting fish almost became charming as it was perfect for our early morning cruise through this sleepy floating village. We reached the larger boat, collided into two other transport longtailed boats, and finally after some gruff pleasantries got on the boat. We secured a spot in the hull which had AC and plush wrap around cushions. I took this time to begin lite read in the "Counte of Monty Crisco" (1250 pgs of bliss). I didn't even notice the 5 hr boat ride, because I was too busy being a nerd and reading. We finally reached the banks of the Phenom Phen and the swarm of waiting moto drivers and begging children. Getting off the boat was a tricky bit of business, but we managed and got into a shuttle to be whisked away to the Capital Guest House. We checked in, took a nap, and went to the FCC for drink and hooker watching, a great pass time in Cambodia. You just kick back and watch them lure in their prey. Its very similar to animal planet. There is the hesitant approach, the initial song and dance of courtship, followed by pleasureless sex (except dolphins), and than the female devours her mate (in this case financially). I smell a documentary...or is that still my clothes from the boat ride.

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