Monday, March 7, 2011

February 26: Bangkok to Cambodia

Bangkok again

The rigamarole with MAI caused us to forget to book a room in BKK. We called the place where our excess baggage was stored (yes, we brought too much stuff with us – no surprise!) was full. I said to Ian, “Let’s just go to the old TT Guest House.”  I stayed there in 1989. A step down is an understatement! For $8 you get a clean room, freshly painted, a fluorescent ceiling light, a fan, two beds with one clean sheet each, shared bathroom with squatters. A budget traveler’s delight.

We met an Australian woman on the bus into the city from the airport. She told us she was staying at the Check Inn in Chinatown. One night in TT was enough so we headed over here. It’s a great improvement and considering that I have another intestinal upset it’s good that the toilet is only 15 feet from the bed! A Lomotil day!

The woman on the bus – Mardi – is a force to be reckoned with. Intense, expansive, voluble, effusive, an eternal traveler. Her husband works in Kathmandu where she spent the winter with him. She’s just taking a time-out to get warm on a beach somewhere.

We spent a bit of time walking around Chinatown - a completely different experience of Bangkok from our previous stop there.

Beauty treatment on the street

Chicken strips?

Mangling squid

Jewelry seller

Keeping in touch with customers?
Real Gems anyone?

What am I reading?

Thanks to Robert and Cari who recommended some geographically correct novels. We’ve read Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo – contemporary Bangkok detective stories. Humour, mystery, social and political commentary. A nice antidote to all the temples and chanting etc.

Two novels set in Vientiane by Colin Cotterill – Thirty-three Teeth and Anarchy and Old Dogs. Again detective stories with a comic spiritual twist.

Burmese Days by George Orwell – the good ol’ British colonial days in the country formerly known as Burma.

The Heir to the Glimmering World  by Cynthia Ozick. I didn’t finish it – it’s a ‘book of ideas’ whatever that means. It required more attention than I was able to give it. But I’m curious about the author – a Jewish scholar. I don’t know if she would call herself that. She’s written tons, lots of nominations and awards. Someone to keep in mind.

The Other Side of You  by Sally Vickers of Miss Garnet’s Angel fame. Love, death, suicide, psychotherapy, art history, Caravaggio, Rome. Fabulous!

Side-Tracked by Henning Mankell – a grisly murder mystery.

Bangkok to Siem Reap by train and boat

The train left BKK at 5:55 a.m.! It was a pretty unmemorable train ride. Flat, dry, rural landscape. I think after the rainy season it would be green and lush.

The border crossing was interesting! The train arrived in Aranyaprathat at 11:30 a.m. and was met by a bevy of tuk-tuk drivers eager to take foreigners to the border. We got a woman driver – the first I’ve seen here.

We’d read a bit in the guidebooks about Thais trying to make a little profit from the border. In its usual alarmist way, Lonely Planet sets up paranoia in the minds of travelers. “Beware, beware, they’re after your money!” It worked! When our tuk-tuk driver stopped at a shabby, little roadside stand to buy our visas we were on guard! No way! Take us to a ‘real’ visa office. So we drove 50 metres down the road to a big, white, building with a gold sign saying ‘Cambodian blah, blah, blah” and we were happy. I think we still paid $10 extra for our visas but we liked the shiny building!

Visas in hand, we approached the border. We disembarked from the tuk-tuk and started walking in the direction she pointed. It seemed a long way. There were lots of people going in both directions – Thais, Cambodians and all manner of white folk. Eventually we got to a relatively ‘official’-looking building. It was the Thai exit point. Line up, passports stamped, and on we went. Then it was the health ‘inspection’ which consisted of us completing a smaller-than-postcard-size pink questionnaire. No, no, no, tick, tick, tick. (I know, I lied about the Lomotil day). In exchange for the pink slip a man gave us a yellow slip telling us we might encounter unfamiliar infectious agents in Cambodia. Doh!

Another longish walk and finally we reached a place where we were shunted through a narrow corridor arriving in front of a wicket with four very serious, uniformed men armed with rubber stamps! At last, the Immigration, Border Services, whatever they’re called. We’re in!

A Cambodian ‘welcomer’ befriended us and helped us with the next step – finding transport to our first Cambodian destination – Battambang. We thought he was just another driver or hotel tout but in fact he was legit. I guess so many tourists enter Cambodia there on the way to Angkor that Cambodia has created this job. He got us onto a free shuttle bus (along with a group of six or seven Americans with surf boards!) to the bus station where we got a bus to Battambang.


We followed up on Juanita and Ron’s tip about cooking lessons at the Smokin’ Pot, a restaurant /cooking school operation. There were 2 Australians, 2 Czechs, 2 Icelanders, 1 Spaniard and us. Vannak is the owner/cook/teacher. 

The lesson started at 8:30 a.m. with a trip to the market. I was still feeling queasy so I averted my eyes a lot.

We made three dishes – chicken Amok, a coconut-based dry dish; beef Lok Lak, a peppery stir-fry; and hot and sour soup.

Chop! Chop! Chop!
Ian worked away at making a video for Vannak...

The boat to Siem Reap

There were about thirty of us aboard, mostly foreigners but a few Cambodians. There were two Cambodian women with very young children. I was amazed at how happy and well-behaved the babies were – no crying or fussing.

The river is very shallow this time of year and we were pushing through the mud often. Ian checked out the back end of the boat and said there is some kind of ‘plough’ in front of the propeller. I’m not sure I have that quite right. There are a lot of water hyacinths growing in the water and they clog up the waterway as well.

As we chugged along the man and woman in front of us suddenly started yelling. The man was jumping out of his seat like his ass was on fire. A catfish, caught up in the waves the boat was making, leaped out of the river right into the French man's lap! The seats were small and he had very long legs so he was having a time getting onto his feet and getting the catfish out of his lap. Once it was on the floor one of the Cambodian women calmly and skillfully picked it up and tossed it overboard.

During the voyage we passed many floating villages. Some were just a small number of shacky dwellings but others were more substantial with shops, schools and even Cambodian People’s Party ‘offices’. At times the skipper would slow down and one of the Cambodians would disembark onto a tiny, narrow, flat boat being paddled by someone squatting on the stern. Usually the disembarkee also took two or three large, heavy, plastic mesh bags. I was holding my breath waiting for one of the little boats to capsize!

The last leg of the trip was going upstream against a fast current. The skipper had to gun the engine to keep control of the boat. I was looking toward the side of the boat when I saw this tiny plank-like boat with a woman and child aiming straight for the side of our boat. The child was standing up! Just as they were about to collide the girl leaped onto our boat with a basket over her arm and her mother veered off!! “Col bia, two dolla!” We bought a couple as did the big guy from Boulder and then she was off again as fast as she came. Her Mom sped toward our boat and the beer seller leaped back onto the plank as it veered away!

At the boat dock, before we could get off the boat, we were accosted by a motor-mouth tuk-tuk driver with a high-pitched Cambodian-Australian accent. But, Buddha knows how, he won us over and he’s our-man-in-Siem-Reap. He drove us to our guesthouse and we made a deal for him to drive us around the sites while we’re here.

The ancient Kingdom of Angkor

We spent three days visiting the ancient sites of Angkor. We were least impressed with Angkor Wat, surprisingly. More on that later.

Ta Prohm stands out. It is an old monastery that has been left in the ruined, jungle-ravaged state in which the French ‘discovered’ it in the 19th century. Ravaged is not entirely true because there is a lot of conservation work being done in coop ventures - currently with India and Cambodia. So I guess the jungle-ravaged state is being conserved!

We went early in the morning when the light is soft and enhances the colours in the old stone. We met an American man who was setting himself up on a piece of rubble to do a drawing. We talked about the light and the jungle growth mingling with the old stone.

Fairly soon, by 8:30, the place was crawling with people. It is a joy to see such a sacred site but I think within a few years Cambodia will need to impose some limits to the amount of tourism. Ian was shooting with a tripod and he said he could feel considerable vibration as people walked by on the raised wooden walkways.

I tried to keep all the facts clear in my mind – what century, which king, which religion, what style. After a while I gave up and simply gazed and admired.

Bayon was another big hit with us. The various kings just built monument after monument cheek-by-jowl. It was easier than demolishing the previous ones. The books refer to ‘temple mountains’ – simply tall narrow religious monuments that represent Mount Meru (centre of the universe, home of the gods in Hindu mythology). 

The cardinal directions and the natural elements play a big role. All the temple mountains have faces carved in them looking in all four directions. All the faces look the same and were modeled on the king of the time. We saw many Cambodians who looked just like the carvings.

This young woman was working at a food stall near one of the ruins. She says she wears long sleeve tops so her skin won't get more brown. "When I am a rich woman I will make my skin white."

I told her she was beautiful and smart. (She has learned to speak English simply by listening to tourists.) She had a hard time believing it. She said she'd never heard anyone say anything like that to her before.

Modern living in ancient Angkor

On our first day we went to a landmine museum. It was very sobering and profoundly sad. I had been feeling glum since the day before after witnessing the squalor and extreme poverty along the river. I could hardly speak without getting a hard lump in my throat and welling up with tears.

The man who started the museum was a child soldier from the time he was about ten (he doesn’t know his age, birth date, parents). He laid countless mines and killed many people in his struggle to survive. He is in his forties now and is working hard to ‘rebalance his karma’. That’s my take on it. He doesn’t use those words. He has become an expert in defusing mines, He and his wife have an orphanage for landmine victims. The museum has a Canadian connection – Paul Martin, Donica Pottie, Cdn Ambassador to Cambodia and a Cdn photojournalist whose name I’ve forgotten (Richard Fotussi?) were listed as supporters and champions for the anti-landmine cause.

Something we saw each of the three days we visited ruins were bands of musicians playing traditional Khmer music. The musicians were all landmine victims – some amputees, some blind, some burned. They had CD’s for sale. We bought one on Day 1, one on Day 2 and on Day 3 we said “Enough is enough!”  Because of Ian’s ‘job’ with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre he did a lot of videoing of the bands.

Our tuk-tuk driver turned out to be a blessing. He was reliable, punctual, helpful, intuitive. His story is heart-breaking. I know I’m a sucker for a sad story and I’m aware that this might not all be true. But if it’s not his story I’m sure it’s someone’s. Ponlouk has three of his own children and he and his wife take care of her sister’s five boys. She died of HIV and her youngest son who is five is HIV+.

What was the problem with Angkor Wat? It’s magnitude and location are impressive, not only the temple but also the imagined city that existed around it. The moat is huge and the approach to the temple is grand. But the overall experience for us wasn’t as intriguing as the other sites.

The exterior walls of the temple are covered in bas relief depicting stories from Hindu mythology. We had fun, with the aid of our guidebook, picking out the various scenes and gods. There are 1200 square metres of carving!

We had a nice meal at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) – not a club at all, just an upscale expat and foreign tourist place. There’s one in Phnom Penh also. A couple of martinis, good food, a bottle of wine. Of course we got into a discussion about the disparity between rich and poor, the role of NGO’s, ethical tourism, ethical journalism. It’s hard to get away from the hard issues here – much as I’d like to try once in awhile.

We took a bus to Phnom Penh yesterday and now we await the next adventure!

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