Tuesday, April 7, 2009

SE Asia Chapter 5: Cambodia

When you work as a foreign English teacher in South Korea's public system, every so often you get this unexpected gift. It happens when your co-teacher turns to you at 8:55am and says "Oh, Lisa, you have no class today." If you are me and your school is awesome (shout out to 순전 여고!) , this happens a lot. But today, instead of wasting time or planning lessons, I'm going to try to get this monkey off my back, my blog about the rest of my trip in SE Asia. It was 3 months ago, I'd be surprised if anybody actually still cares, but I seem unable to write anything else until I get it out of the way. So without my travel journal, here goes...

Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

After a day of much needed R&R to recover from our travels from Bangkok to Siem Reap (see Chapter 4), we rented bicycles to make the trip around the Angkor, the ancient city that has made Siem Reap the bustling, wealthy tourist centre of Cambodia that it is. It's home to many famous Khmer temples ("Wats") including Ta Phrom where parts of Tomb Raider and Indian Jones were filmed and the big kahuna: Angkor Wat.

History buffs can your fix here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor I'm not writing down everything I know about the place, we haven't got time!
I was happy to get back on a bike after having such a great time touring Ayutthaya on one. Even the most unsteady of our troop felt significantly more bike-confident having had a full night of rest and some great food the day before. And Angkor was definitely worth seeing by bike. The forests were beautiful and gave plenty of roadside shade. We pulled up at the first small temple, Banteay Kdei and I was already enthralled by the beautiful gate to the temple, which featured a large serene face of stone smiling at visitors. After Banteay Kdei, we ate lunch at a roadside stand (fried rice, soup and fresh fruits while children and chickens ran amok around us) and then made our way to Ta Phrom, which was so surreal and beautiful. Wandering through this ancient structure, with enormous trees reclaiming the grounds, it was easy to imagine myself as an explorer or picture the temple as it might have been centuries earlier. After Ta Phrom, our travelmate Amanda ventured off on her own, while the rest of us (Susan, Ali, Jennifer and I) continued on to Angkor Thom (Angkor City). On the way we stopped to climb up Ta Keo and paused outside a couple of other smaller sites for water breaks. The day was already quickly slipping past. We biked through the east gate of Angkor Thom and parked our bikes beside the terrace of the Elephants. On foot we toured Krueng Palace, Baphoun, and (my absolute favourite) Bayon Temple. Bayon temple features hundreds of faces staring out over the city and keeping a watchful eye on its inhabitants. It was the perfect place to watch the shadows grow longer as the afternoon changed from golden to deeper hues of orange and red, matching the dusty ground beneath our feet. As we headed for our bikes we did come across a large group of Korean tourists who were thrilled to find out we were teachers in Korea and knew how to say "Hello" to them (which earns a round of applause apparently). I would have loved to stay at Bayon a little longer, but we needed to hit the road before we lost the light. Cambodian traffic is crazy enough in the daytime; we did not want to be on our bikes (without lights) after dark. As we rode past the magnificient sillouette of Angkor Wat at dusk, I felt, for the first time, excited to be going to see it at sunrise the next morning. We ended our day of biking (about 40km) with dinner in the marketplace and an hour long shiatsu massage by blind masseurs. It was lovely. It did not, however, change the fact that I had a wake-up time of 4:30 am coming around the bend.

Let me be very clear. I am not a morning person. I do not like getting out of bed. In my opionion, it is a process that takes all morning to be done properly anyway. I tend to feel a seething (but thankfully temporary) hatred towards those who disturb my slumber. This is especially true of being awakened before the sun is even up! I warned my travelmates as best I could. Every travel book and visitor to Siem Reap advised, you MUST see Angkor Wat at Sunrise. I'd seen the pictures, I was satisfied. But the girls outvoted me 4 to 1. Even Ali, who usually will happily join me in cursing the morning sun that interrupts a night of rest, was tricked by her love of photography into believing Angkor Wat at sunrise was something that could not be missed. And so it was I found myself posing for a now infamous picture for my photo-pass at 5:15 AM and bumping along a dusty road, squished in the back of a tuk-tuk with four cheery-eyed early birds. The child vendors that mobbed us would recieve no sympathetic looks or "No, thank you's" from this Lisa. Maybe afternoon Lisa, maybe even late-morning Lisa, but not pre-sunrise Lisa (some have referred to pre-sunrise Lisa and afternoon Lisa as a Jekyll & Hyde-like transformation). I will say that Angkor Wat was beautiful, I can't deny it. But I also remember hating it for being so beautiful that I had to be there at 6 am to see it and hating all the pesky tourists buzzing around happily who also had to see it. And especially, hating the shrill-voiced lady at the food stand: "Breakfast! Coppee! Hey Lady! You want breakfast? I sell you cheap!" After the sun had risen, I spent at least an hour wandering around inside Angkor Wat, solitary. It was beautiful, but you know what? Even more enjoyable at 4 in the afternoon when Susan and I returned that day to see it at Sunset. Bah! We went back to the guesthouse in the late morning, I had a wonderful nap and woke up feeling a hundred million times more cheerful and ready for lunch. We had some fantastic pizza and then Jennifer and I headed out to "The Happy Ranch" horse riding stables for an afternoon look at rural Siem Reap on horseback. As I mentioned, we returned to Angkor Wat for sunset although we missed the cut off for going up to the lookout. That night I enjoyed a deliriously blissful 3-hour spa package that scrubbed and massaged all early morning bitterness out of me for a miniscule $26. Well that is, until I had to get up at 5:30am the next morning to catch the boat to Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh

We travelled to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, by speedboat down the Tonle Sap river. It's more expensive than the bus, but if you want to see the best of the Cambodian landscape, that's the way to do it. At the dock in Phnom Penh, a ravenous throng of Tuk-Tuk drivers waited for us. And followed us for a block as we tried to get some distance and get ourselves organized. We found a room at a great guesthouse recommended by my lonely planet book. I say "great" not only because our room was huge and spotless, and not only because the owner arranged our vietnam tourist visa's and travel arrangements to Ho Chi Minh, but also great because she stocked kettled-cooked potato chips and Crunchie chocolate bars, the likes of which I haven't seen since September 2008. By now the pace of our trip was taking its toll on me. I was eager to get to a beach and do nothing but relax for a few days. We decided to stay in Phnom Penh only two nights, long enough to see the royal palace and the Killing fields. We went to the Royal Palace early in the day, knowing we would need a few hours to get grounded after the Killing Fields. The palace site, including the silver pagoda, was beautiful and much less crowded than the Royal Palace in Bangkok, understandably.
Next, our tuk-tuk driver for the day took us to S-21 Toul Sleung Prison, which is now converted into a genocide museum dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. The Prison itself was once a high school before the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia in 1975 and emptied the cities as part of its design to turn Cambodia into a communist agricultural society. In an attempt to achieve this, the Khmer Rouge systematically killed the educated and professional people in the population. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, journalist, and anyone dared object the parties policies was killed to stem dissent. The high school was converted into a prison where suspected "traitors" were detained and tortured before being sent to Choeung Ek for execution. We walked the halls and holding cells silently, reverenced by the gravity of what happened there. Many of the rooms have been left in the same condition as when they were found. Rusty bed frames, arm and leg shackles and waste boxes are the only objects in the rooms. Some feature black and white photos of the dead who were found here when the Vietnamese took back the city in 1979. Another floor features thousands of pictures of detainees recovered in the Khmer Rouge files and another features artists paintings of the different torture techniques used here, the most savage of human behaviours. Amanda comments on a beautiful flower bush blooming between two of the buildings at S-21, its loveliness standing in stark contrast to its setting. Next, we drive outside the city to Choeung Ek, one of the largest mass graves found after the Khmer Rouge was toppled, and now the site of the Memory Stoupa, which houses the skulls of almost 9000 people, excavated at this site. A tour guide took us around the grounds, describing how Choeung Ek operated and answering our questions. Its hard to put into words the feelings you feel at a place like that. It's estimated that 2 million Cambodians died under the Pol Pot regime.

As we drove back into the city, I felt as though I were seeing it for the first time. A bustling metropolitan of people working and living, children playing. People who'd returned to a city they'd been forced to abandon 34 years earlier came back to rebuild it. I am completely amazed by the spirit of the Cambodian people. Despite horrific loss and tragedy, despite the murder of their educators, lawmakers and medical professionals, they are rebuilding their country at an astounding rate. Every single Cambodian we talked to had lost family members in the genocide. It was a day that filled me with tremoundous gratitude for my family and friends and Canada, a country which makes all of its citizens wealthy just by virtue of living there. We take our freedoms and opportunities for granted there.

That evening, we walked a road along the river lined with cafes and shops. But I lost my desire to stay out in the city. In Siem Reap, the poor were evident on every street. In Phnom Penh, they were on every square of pavement. In Siem Reap, I was able to give groceries and baby formula to mothers begging on the sidewalk, their babies asleep in their laps or on the sidewalk beside them. In Phnom Penh, there were too many to count. Of course, they congregated on this street for a reason. It was lined with restaurants, cafes and shops frequented by foreigners. We stopped and ate at a bakery who's proceeds benefitted an city orphanage and then headed back to the guesthouse. Tomorrow we would get on a bus to Vietnam, by tomorrow night I would be on a beach, worlds away from Cambodia. But not forgotten.

Monday, April 6, 2009

SE Asia Chapter 4: The bumpy road to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I've got tardiness and laziness combining against eachother to get these last couple of entries out as quickly as possible, so I can go back to actually telling you about what I've been up to in South Korea since the new school year began in March. That, and I can't find my travel journal at the moment, so I'll do my best to be accurate and specific, but I make no promises.

We left Bangkok early, determined to make our way to the Cambodian border and on to Siem Reap without getting caught in the all too common "Bus Scam" that local tourist agencies book most land travellers on. What happens is you pay a pretty cheap price and the agency will tell you that you ride is in a comfortable bus that you only get off to go through the border and then it will take to you directly to your guesthouse in about 10-11 hours. What actually happens is they put you on a legitimate bus to the border, then arrange with someone on the other side to pick you up and take you to Siem Reap. Your ride from the border to Siem Reap is more likely to be in the back of a pick-up truck or in an over crowded minivan, and the ride that is supposed to take about 5 hours could take anywhere from 10-15, ensuring that by the time you get to Siem Reap you are too tired and exhausted to complain about the overpriced, shoddy guesthouse they've dropped you off at (the guest pays a commission to the travel agency to have you dropped there).

We walked a block or so away from Kho-San road in order to find an honest taxi driver who took us to the bus station and ta-dah! We were on our way to the Cambodian border. There, that wasn't so bad right? Not so fast, girls. We were dropped off in a small town on the border at a 7-11 and some tuk-tuk drivers agreed to take us to the border. Unfortunately, just because they've got numbered vests doesn't mean they're honest. Instead of taking us directly to the border we were diverted to a station to get our "express" tourist visas for Cambodia. The very friendly gentleman who spoke excellent english explained that if we wanted a regular tourist visa we would have to wait about 6 hours for processing. However if we paid to 200 baht more, he could get the visa's processed in only a few minutes. And naturally, if we needed a ride to Siem Reap from the border he could arrange that too. We saw other tourists arriving and leaving with their visas and their passports, so we agreed to the "express" Visa's and declined the travel arrangements. Within about 10 minutes we were back on the tuk-tuk's and dropped at the border (which incidentally, we could have walked to from the 7-11 if we'd had a map or something, our guide books made it sound like the distance required motor transportation). As we waited in line a Thai border guard checked our Visa's, and smirked "How much did you pay for these?" We told him and gave a knowing nod, "Next time just come straight here." Ok, ok. It's only 200 baht (approx $6.50), at least we're finally getting into Cambodia! We walk across to the Cambodian guard station and wait in line some more for our stamps (this office had a giant tree growing through it BTW, they just built the office around it!). Our guide book advised us to take the "free goverment run transport bus" that would take us to where we could arrange a bus or taxi to Siem Reap. We're now sweating in the exhausting, dust filled heat with our bags watching tourists get tagged with coloured post-its. These tourists had pre-arranged their travel plans with an agency (or that guy who got us our "express" visas), and we felt pretty smug watching them get corralled and shipped off by eager guides. We had to wait alittle longer but at least we weren't suckers.

The government shuttle didn't take too long to arrive and once on board, our guide with his fancy vest and photo-ID told us all about the free-shuttle program and how the government runs it. And oh, by the way, things have changed quite a lot in Cambodia in the last year (you know we have a pretty turbulent history) and, besides boarder towns, no one really accepts US cash like the travelbooks say, so you should exchange your money now before you head further into the country. Maybe you will find a bank that can help you, but maybe you won't. Don't worry, we have conveniently arranged to take you to a currency exchange office before you choose your travel arrangements to Siem Reap. Suddenly, I wasn't feeling so smug. We were not taken to any kind of official bank office or ATM, just a guy in a seedy looking office with a calculator. At least two of the other girls I was travelling with had waited to take money out because our guidebooks assured us we could get money in Cambodia without a problem, all they have was a few thousand Baht leftover from Thailand. I had a small amount of US cash so I exchanged that and it was enough to pay for the other girl's taxi fares.

We arranged two taxis (Del from France, shared one with us) and our friendly guide assured us that our driver would take us directly to our guest house in Siem Reap. Our taxis were 15 year old toyota corollas, but atleast there was air-con. In the car, we finally had a chance to catch our breath and take a look around. Only a few minutes from Thailand, Cambodia feels like a completely different world. The kind of world you (sadly) "expect" from the media and movies you might have seen around the region. There are a few cars, but mostly it's motor cycles and bicycles and these mingle easily with ox-carts and cattle being driven on the side on the side of the road by skinny, shirtless 10 year old boys. The "highway" to Siem Reap from the board was a dirt road constantly under construction and lined by bamboos huts on stilts. Young children in clothing made red by the dust dart in and out of their homes and behind them lush green fields and palm trees stretch out across the country side. No pavement, no familiar trademarks, no street lamps or stop signs.
We were all starving when we stopped for gasoline, and as delicious as that pineapple was, I wasn't too happy to find the prices of course much much higher than you should ever pay. The shop girl was very friendly though and wasn't shy about asking if I had any Canadian money she could look at (the shop being the driveway of someone's hut with a meager spread of snack foods laid out and some soda's on ice). I did have some coins and was happy to give her a quarter and tell her about what a moose is.

The sun was setting as we drove into Siem Reap. What a difference tourism makes! Suddenly there was smooth pavement under us, street lights lit our way, and beautiful hotels began to appear on the sides of the highway. We were so close to a comfortable bed and some good food, hurray! It was now, as I tried to show our taxi driver where our guest house was, that I realized he spoke no English and didn't care where our guest house was. He dropped us off at a tuk-tuk stand on the outskirts of the city and drove away. Through gritted teeth, we listened to the one guy who could speak any English tell us that if we wanted a ride into the city it would cost 30, 000 riel. Or only 10, 000 riel if we went to a guest house he recommended instead. Or free, if we agreed to hire the same tuk-tuk driver for the day tomorrow. We paid the 30 000. Just get us to guest house, please!

Thankfully, the Red Lodge guest house was a beautiful old house with marble floors and big wooden doors and hammocks in the backyard. We gratefully dropped our bags and raced for the showers. It was an easy walk to the restaurant/market area frequented by foreigners where of course we found tonnes of ATM's and currency exchange banks and menus listed in US prices. Our buddies at the border had given us about 66% of what we should've gotten on the dollar. But even a good meal and a cleansing shower couldn't wash away the stress of the day. We all ended the day bitchy, with frayed nerves and clenched jaws. To avoid taking it out on eachother we made a firm committment to spend the next day doing nothing but resting, eating and relaxing. Angkor Wat could wait.