Thursday, March 17, 2011

Flip-flops and Motorbikes

There is an abundance of both those things in Southeast Asia. At my hostel in Phuket, Thailand, there were so many flip-flops on the shoe rack that they were stacked on top of each other- high density footware storage. And there are motorbikes everywhere, seeming to be more and more the farther east I go- from Thailand to Siem Reap (Cambodia) and now Phnom Penh. I would take a really long time to cross a street, because it just seemed like a chaotic stream of traffic that I could never possibly get through, but I noticed other people crossing and the traffic just flowing around them. It reminds me of a part in The Bee Movie. Have you seen that? There's a part in the beginning where Barry, the main character bee, is questioning their career paths, and says that sometimes things seem TOO efficient. His friend asks, "What do you mean?" as the two of them are standing in the middle of an intersection of the hive with hundreds of cars streaming quickly and seamlessly around them. Now when I cross the street I just try to channel Barry from that scene.

So after Phuket I took an overnight bus back to Bangkok, then immediately got on a 6am but to the Cambodian border. Now, I have heard horror stories from several people about this border crossing and all the potential scams. The main one is that the bus from the Thai side will stop before the border in the middle of nowhere and tell the passengers that they have to fill out forms and pay for their Cambodian visa, an amount more than the visa should be when it's fake anyway. Luckily, there were a few other foreigners on the bus, and when the bus stopped (luckily in a town) we shared a tuk-tuk to the border. But the driver took us to a white square building, and told us "First you get visa here." Of course it was a scam because we weren't even at the border yet, and I couldn't help laughing at the hand-written signs in the window. "Cambodian Visa here" written in sharpie on printer paper. I just started walking away and followed the line of cars toward the actual border while the tuk-tuk driver shouted after me. We exited Thailand and went to the actual visa office on the Cambodian side, where a big sign said $20 for a basic tourist visa. I filled out the paperwork along with the German couple and a Philippino man from the same bus, and when I went to the window to pay, the official said, "Twenty dollars plus 100 baht" [about $3 in Thai money]. "Why?" I asked. "100 baht please," he repeated. I decided to treat it lightly, pointing at the sign and saying, "Maybe next time! For now, $20," and I put down the money and looked at him expectantly. He smiled and processed the visa without any other hassles.

The four of us shared a taxi from the border to the city of Siem Reap, with an awesome driver who spoke English and told us a lot about Cambodian history, culture, and politics. We passed about 6 weddings in tents on the roadside, with ornate decorations and rich colors that reminded me of India. The driver said that this was a very common time to get married since it was the dry season and no one was working in the fields. "If you get married when the people are planting or harvesting the rice, no one will come to your wedding!" the driver said.

In Siem Reap, I was a little surprised that the second largest city in Cambodia only had a few main roads that were paved. I had a map that showed the street names, but even some of the primary roads were dirt. It was hot and dusty, but had a good feel to the city. I found a place to stay, dropped off some laundry, rented a bike, and had dinner. Cambodian (Khmer) food seems to be pretty similar to Thai in many ways- fresh fruits, soups, rice, curries, and complex mixes of many fresh flavors. Like in Thailand, there was a lot of basil, lime, spouts, and chilies, though in general the food was not as spicy. I had a really delicious Khmer soup with some spring rolls before calling it a night.

The next morning, I headed out of town around 4:45am to ride the bike out to Angkor Wat for sunrise. Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world, built in the 12th century. It was first a Hindu temple, then later became Buddhist. There are many Wats in the surrounding area, built by differeny kings at different times. I watched the sun rise, and spent most of the day pedaling around and walking through the unique and incredibly varied stone temples. It was an awesome day, and luckily not too miserably hot so I was able to be out for longer than I expected.

Up early again the next day, I left at 6am to catch a 7am river boat out of Siem Reap. Instead of taking a bus, it was a boat to the city of Battambang, a much longer but more scenic option. It took most of the day to get there, going slowly through shallow muddy water, past floating markets and homes, adults harvesting river plants and children splashing in the water. It was really incredible to float through this rural, watery backyard, and I wish I could post pictures. There is so much I want to say, and so little time online, that I hardly have time to write much less upload photos. So I'll try to post some highlights from the trip when I get home to the US.

Battambang was mellow and had some nice French colonial architecture. There is a river through the city with a foot path along it, so I was able to go jogging for the first time since Phuket. Then I had breakfast with some nice French girls from the boat ride before catching the bus to Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city in Cambodia. I managed to find a run-down but quiet and charming corner of the city along the lake. It was a fairly international neighborhood, with many Thai, Japanese, and especially Indian restaurants. It was everything I could do to not go to one of the places that advertised daal, rice, homemade samosas, chicken tikka, and lassis, but I was only in Cambodia for a few days so I wanted to eat as much ethnic Khmer food as possible. So I tried Amok, which is fish and veggies with amok spices and coconut milk baked in a banana leaf. Oh. My. Goodness. It was so good. While I don't usually mind eating alone, it was one of those dining experiences where I really wish some one had been there to enjoy it with me.

In the morning I found a nice Dutch couple to share a tuk-tuk with, and we went out to the killing fields, where the Khmer Rouge killed and buried massive numbers of their own Cambodian people in the late 1970's. I don't remember how many were estimated to be killed in that particular spot, but it is said that about 1.7 million were murdered in total. It was a horrendous place to visit, with holes in the grounds of the mass graves sights, and even pieces of clothing and bone still visible in the soil. We also went to the S-21 Museum, which is the main prison site right in the city where the Khmer Rouge questioned, torchured, and imprisoned people before sending them to the Killing Fields. Of course, there are endless things to say about the horrors of that regime and the sickness I felt seeing such blatant evidence and relics from that time. But not right now. These were important part of Cambodia to see first-hand, but it didn't make for a particularly enjoyable or easy morning.

Later I walked around the city, toward the river and the Royal Palace. It was actually quite hard to do, because every 10 meters a tuk-tuk or moto driver asks you if you want a ride. There are many parts of French culture that remain in Cambodia from the colonial era, one in particular being baguettes. One thing that is very not French: how uncommon it is to just WALK. I've been really with weather on this trip- it's been hot but never too terribly hot, so it was actually a really nice day to walk around.

The next day- another early morning- off to Vietnam where there promised to be even more motorbikes!

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