Thursday, May 10, 2018

Angkor Wat (and Siem Reap)--Travelogue from the archives, September 2011


Friday, September 23, 2011--starting in Phnom Penh

Sam and I met up at the convenience store which had sold us our bus tickets.

There was some minor confusion there when the woman who had sold us our tickets said actually no mini-bus would be coming to pick us up.

It wasn’t actually a big problem because we could take the tuk-tuk there, but both Sam and I must have been in a cranky mood, because I (who arrived first) said, “But you told us we would get picked up here when we bought the tickets.”

Sam also laid into her a bit when he arrived. “Then why did you tell us we would get picked up here.”

She apologized and said that because of the public holidays (Pchum Ben (sp?) there would actually be no pick up bus.

We ate breakfast, than caught the tuk-tuk to the bus station.

Sam and I had tickets right at the front of the bus. I sat next to the window, Sam sat next to the aisle.

On the other side of the aisle across from Sam was a Russian guy who introduced himself as Andre. His English was a bit broken, but he seemed friendly enough at first, eager to talk to us, and wanted to know where we were staying in Siem Reap. Sam and I told him the name of our hotel, and said he could tag along with us and see if they had any extra rooms.

This was something we would soon regret, because this Russian guy quickly became obnoxiously drunk (and showed signs of mental instability as well). He drank several beers, and then got out a bottle of whisky. He was too drunk to open up the bottle of whisky, and past it forward to the front of the bus for the Khmer bus stewards to try and open it for him.

The first signs of trouble were when he kept incessantly taping on the shoulders of the Khmer tour guide (bus hostess—whatever you call the young lady at the front of the bus who is responsible for making announcements) and asking her question after question to the point where she was starting to get visibly annoyed. He even interrupted her when she was making announcements on the microphone. He also started to annoy Sam by turning around and mumbling drunk sentences in a combination of Russian and English that Sam couldn’t understand and was annoyed by.

At one point, Andre took his bottle of whisky and wandered down to the middle of the bus, found some Khmers, plopped himself down in an empty seat, and started trying to share his whisky with them. I’m not entirely sure what happened but he must have annoyed them because one of them came up and spoke to the bus hostess, and soon she escorted Andre back to his seat and told him he couldn’t change seats.

Andre then began proposing to the Bus Hostess, asking her to come back to Russia with him and make lots of babies.

“The worst thing is,” Sam told me, “everyone thinks we’re with this guy.”

“Do you think?” I asked Sam.

“Well, if there were 3 Chinese people sitting together at the front of a bus full of white people, wouldn’t you assume they were all together,” Sam replied.

Actually we weren’t the only foreigners on the bus. There were a few other white faces scattered throughout the bus, but we were sitting up at the front with Andre, and Sam at least claimed that everyone was glaring at him like he was with Andre when he went to the back of the bus to use the bathroom.

As Andre continued hitting the whisky, he became more and more drunk. He also started developing the urge to use the bathroom, and asked that the bus be stopped so he could get out and pee. The young Khmer bus hostess, with all the patience of Job, tried several times to explain to him that there was a bathroom in the back of the bus, which he persisted in not understanding. Then Sam tried to explain the same thing to him, and he still didn’t understand.

I gave Sam a rough time about this. “You obviously didn’t do a very good job of explaining things to him,” I said. “Because he still doesn’t understand.”

As Andre repeatedly called for the bus to stop, I tried to explain to him. “On the back of the bus,” I said slowly emphasizing each word.

“Yes I know,” he interrupted. “Many people on the back of the bus.”

“No, there’s a toilet at the back of the bus.”

“Yes I know, many people back of the bus have to use toilet.”

“Oh, I give up,” I said.

Sam observed, “He’s about to piss himself surrounded by people pointing to where the toilet is.”

Eventually, the bus driver must have decided that making an unscheduled stop was better than having the Russian piss on the bus floor, and they stopped the bus for him.

He stumbled out and peed right in front of the bus. He seemed a little confused as to why no one else was getting out of the bus to relieve themselves, and poked his head back into the bus to ask if anyone else needed to get out and pee.

“There is a toilet at the back of the bus,” Sam yelled at him. “Sit down!”

For whatever reason, this time he seemed to understand, and gave a sort of embarrassed surprised smile. But if he had absorbed this information, he soon forgot it.

“That one piss stop isn’t going to do him a lot of good,” I observed to Sam. “He’s been drinking a lot, and that is just going to be the break the seal piss that he took now. He’s going to have to go again in about 10 minutes.”

Sure enough, about 10 or 15 minutes later the Russian demanded another piss stop. He had stopped drinking so much by this time, but the alcohol must have been still continuing to work its way through his system, because he still got more and more drunk with the passage of time. The second time he didn’t bother much with words, just demanded the bus stop, then got up and acted like he was going to pee right on the bus floor.  The bus driver quickly stopped.

By now the Russian could hardly walk on his own, so the Khmer steward and the Khmer bus hostess had to assist him to walk down and to stand while he pissed in front of the bus again.

Soon he wanted the bus to stop again. The exact reason I’m not sure. Sam says he left his glasses on the side of the road the last time he got out to pee, and wanted the bus to go back and get them. (I think he may actually have just lost his glasses somewhere by his seat).

He was also telling the bus driver, “Stop, stop, many people want to smoke cigarette.”

Whatever the reason, he was soon demanding another stop. He started angrily punching the barrier in front of him (directly behind the driver’s seat) when he didn’t get what he wanted. He also stood up to harass the Khmer bus hostess.

She had switched places with her male co-worker by now, so instead of sitting in the seat in the aisle she was standing on the steps near the front door, and her co-worker was standing in the aisle passively blocking the Russian from advancing. But he leaned over the Khmer’s arm and yelled at the bus hostess just the same.

The Russian Andre seemed about my age, and similar in build to me (tall, but not particularly muscular). Seeing this large foreigner harassing this petite Khmer girl made me several times think maybe I should be getting involved here, and maybe just sitting back in my seat watching the whole thing wasn’t very chivalrous. These thoughts passed through my mind several times over the 4 hours or so that the Russian was harassing the young Khmer bus worker. But I never got out of my seat in the end.

Sam yelled at Andre once. “The bus isn’t going to stop,” he said in his booming voice. “Sit down in your seat. There! Don’t talk to me, just sit down. Sit! Don’t look at me, look that way!”

Sam said all this in such a commanding tone that the Russian just meekly obeyed him. In the awkward silence that followed, Sam turned to me and gave an embarrassed laugh and said, “Well come on, everyone was thinking it anyway.”

“No, it’s good,” I said. “In fact since you’re sitting right next to him, I think it’s your job to keep him in line.”

“I guess I’ve been neglecting my job now for several hours,” Sam said.

This actually quieted the Russian for about 15 minutes before he was up and harassing the bus staff again. This time Sam and I just let it go. (As guilty as we felt for letting the petite Khmer staff handle everything, in retrospect it was probably just as well. Trying to physically intimidate the Russian would probably just have escalated things, even if I were the kind of guy who could have pulled that off.)

Lastly, Andre started getting very touchy feeling with the American sitting directly behind us, reaching diagonally back and touching the guy’s arms. The American reacted strongly against this. “Don’t touch me. Get your hands off me,” he said.

(We later ended up striking up a conversation with this guy. I forget his name. He was originally from Maine—like Sam, and was a volunteer on some 3 week agricultural development project here in Cambodia and Vietnam. We chatted with him briefly. He said he was surprised that the police hadn’t been called or something by this point. I said that it makes you wonder exactly what you would have to do to get kicked off a bus in Cambodia. We also agreed that there are certain types of people who just shouldn’t drink alcohol.)

Eventually the Russian just passed out, ironically only 10 minutes before the bus stopped for dinner. “I knew that was going to happen,” Sam said.

The last 3 hours of the bus journey, the Russian was out cold. Although he did cough a lot in his sleep. And he did spit up a little bit, and vomit up a little bit in his sleep. (The Khmer woman who was initially been sitting next to him had long ago been moved to another seat at the back of the bus. The two young parents and child behind him now also looked with disgust at the spit up on the floor and moved to the back of the bus.) The Khmer bus hostess occasionally wiped the vomit/ spit up off of his face with the bus supply of wet tissues.

All of this drama kept us occupied on the 7 plus hour bus journey up to Siem Reap.

In addition to the drama with the Russian:

On the way up, Sam and I were looking at the Cambodia Daily (which I had bought outside the bus station) and discovered somewhat to our dismay that the top story was flooding in Siem Reap, and that several tourists had had to be evacuated by helicopter out of the area.

Adam caught the same story on the TV news, and gave us a call halfway through the journey to brag that he was home safe in his warm bed while we were heading into flood zones.

We assumed that since the buses were still running up to Siem Reap, there must be some parts of Siem Reap that were safe (and this turned out to be a correct assumption) but we were a little nervous on the way up.

There was evidence of some flooding on the way up. Or at the very least, there was evidence that the river had overflowed its banks. Often on both sides of the road the rivers would look like small lakes.

At points the bus was on very narrow dirt roads, and we somewhat suspected this may have been because the main road was flooded (although for all we know this could have been the regular route). On some of these smaller roads we made such slow progress that Sam despaired of ever arriving at Siem Reap, but after a while we got back on more major roads and were on our way again.

This may have been the reason why the bus drive took over 7 hours instead of the advertised 6.

When we finally did arrive at the Siem Reap bus station, we were sick of being on the bus.

Our Russian friend was still passed out cold, so we didn’t even have to worry about ditching him when we went to our hotel. We’re not sure what the bus staff ended up doing with him, and for the rest of the trip what became of him would be a lingering question that was never answered. But we didn’t want to stick around to find out for fear we might become responsible for him.

The streets of Siem Reap were slightly flooded (about half a foot or a foot deep in most places) but traffic was continuing. So we got a tuk tuk to take us through the flooded streets to our hotel Oral D’Angkor.

Sam had selected this place based on the positive reviews it had gotten on line, and it was a tremendous deal—nice clean air conditioned rooms, cable TV, free breakfast, all for just $10 a night.

The hotel owners were extremely helpful as well. When we wanted to go out and look for restaurants, the hotel owner told us that the streets were flooded, but he took us in his own car.

We ended up stopping at the first place we saw just down the street—a small little place that served Khmer food but also seemed to cater to backpackers.

We told the owner he didn’t have to pick us up again. Instead we just took off our shoes and our socks and walked barefoot through the flooded streets (this is what all the locals were doing anyway). And to bed.

September 29, Saturday

Sam and I decided we might as well see the infamous Angkor Wat on our first day in Siem Reap (no point in putting it off).

We weren’t ambitious enough to get up for the sunrise (which apparently a lot of tourists try to take in at Angkor Wat) but got up relatively early, and ate breakfast.

The hotel provided a tuk-tuk driver to take us around the temples at $11 for the whole day.

The Tuk-Tuk driver took us to the entrance to Angkor Wat (for which admission was $20 for the whole day).

The temples of Angkor are widely visited, widely written about, and widely photographed, so I don’t want to waste a lot of time repeating here what is already available online.

Counting all the temples in Angkor (not just Angkor Wat) the place is really huge. The Lonely Planet recommends you take a week to visit it if you have the time, but most of my co-workers told me that all the different temples start to blend into each other after a while, and that one day should be plenty.

It’s a very touristy area, and especially when you’re going through main gates with all the crowds it feels a bit too much like DisneyLand.

But then when you actually get into it, you feel lost in how big it is, and it does feel pretty remarkable. You’re also able to get away from the crowds a bit when you’re inside of it. (It may have helped that we were there during the low season).

My co-workers had told me that much of the mystique of Angkor is because the jungle and trees have grown over parts of the temple, and so when you’re walking along you see a temple wall integrated into the base of a tree. And this is really true as well, and, inspite of all the other tourists there you feel a bit like you’re Indiana Jones discovering some lost civilization in the middle of the jungle.

It was lightly raining the whole day we were there, which was a bit of an annoyance (and is why all of my pictures from the day look a bit grey) but Sam said, and I agreed, that the rain also helped to give these ruins more of a mystic.

We heard lots of languages among our fellow tourists throughout the day—Spanish, French, Japanese, and Malaysian accented English were among perhaps the top languages I heard over and over again. And of course Korean.

Before we went there, we had been warned by everyone that Angkor Wat would be full of Korean tourists. (Adam had told us that at key points in the temple you really had to fight with all the Koreans tour groups to try and get your photo.)

We were travelling in the low season, so there were probably less Koreans there than normal. But there were still tons of them.

At a certain point in the day, after several Korean tour groups walked past us right in a row, I turned to Sam and said, “Is there anyone left in South Korea?”

Sam had actually spent a year and a half teaching in South Korea, and was full of opinions about how arrogant and crazy the South Koreans were.

The first temple, Angkor Wat, is built with a courtyard surrounding another courtyard surrounding another courtyard, symbolizing apparently the path to enlightenment.

The carvings on the walls are taken from various Hindu myths. (Cambodia belongs to the region of the world caught between the influence of China and the influence of India—hence the name Indochina.)

At one of the first gates, a Khmer man gave us some incense and instructed us how to pray to the Buddhist statue. “You bow seven times,” he said, “and then place the incense here.”

Neither Sam nor I particularly wanted to do this, but we tried to be polite. Sam tried to get away only bowing to the Buddha 4 times, but I caught him on this and made a big deal of it until he completed the extra 3 bows.

After we had finished, the man asked for $10 in exchange for letting us pray there. “$10, you’ve got to be kidding,” Sam said.

“Okay, less, less,” the man said.

“How about nothing,” Sam said, and we walked away.

While making our way through this area, I would overhear some Japanese from time to time, although a few of the Japanese tourists I saw there appeared to be acting quite strangely. A couple would sit down, and in the middle of Angkor Wat would appear completely oblivious to all the history that was around them, and all the other tourists, and would engage in some silly talk about what it means to be in love. I overheard one Japanese girl saying something like, “Yes, well I think women have a much kinder heart than men,” while her male companion agreed with her.

A while later Sam and I walked passed a couple sitting in one of the window frames doing the same thing. Then Sam noticed there were two guys in front of them filming the whole thing.

“What do you suppose that is?” he asked.

“Ah, you know what I bet that is,” I said. “In Japan they have this reality TV show where they take several single young men and several single young women to various famous places around the world in this van, and then they are supposed to pair off with each other and you see who falls in love with who. I bet that’s what this is.”

Indeed, this hypothesis turned out to be correct. We later saw the famous pink “love wagon” mini van with the TV show’s logo “ai 2 nori” written across it.

They were filming again in the parking lot, and Sam almost walked directly into their frame before I stopped him.

Earlier in the day we had walked behind one of the couples as they had been talking, and I wonder now if I’m going to appear in the background on Japanese TV in a couple months. I’ll probably never know.

Sam was getting a bit hungry, so I gave him some of my bread to eat, although he ended up feeding most of his half to the monkeys.

Some Khmer children came up to us and asked us for candy. We didn’t have any, so we gave them some bread instead. (I was at first a bit confused how the beggars got passed the $20 entrance fee, but I later got the impression that there are villages of local people inside the park.)

We got back to the Tuk-Tuk driver, who took us to the second temple (there was a brief stop by the bridge for pictures.)

Then we toured the second temple.

Then we stopped for lunch. (There was a lunch place inside the park. It served food that was drastically overpriced by Cambodian standards, but we ate there anyway because there appeared to be little other options).

After lunch, the tuk-tuk driver told us that there were 3 different temples just within walking distance, and to take our time wandering around them. So we did.

It’s amazing how huge these places were, and we spent quite a lot of time wandering around one of the temples and the sculptures surrounding it.

I scrambled up to the top of one temple with a bunch of middle aged South Korean women, and then back down again. Afterwards Sam said he had forgotten how loud South Koreans are, and observed how these women would just carry on normal conversations with each other shouting while some of them were at the top of the temple, and some of them down at the bottom.

After this temple, Sam was tired out, and said he just wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep. Sam was quitting smoking this week, and he attributed his extreme tiredness midday to this. I wanted to keep going, so we arrived at a plan where Sam would give the tuk-tuk driver and extra $5 to take him back home, and then he would come back and meet me and take me to the next temple.

While the tuk-tuk driver took Sam home, I continued to explore the nearby temples.

The next temple, although right across from the main tourist area, was completely deserted of other tourists. There was an old man grazing cattle in one of the temple courtyards, and he seemed almost surprised to see me there.

Since I was not sure how friendly these cows were, I walked through the temple courtyard very slowly and cautiously.

On the other side of the temple, a group of young boys ran up to me and starting talking to me in English, asking me where I was from and how long I had been in Cambodia (the standard questions). They directed me to another temple I should see. This involved crossing over a river. (They didn’t mind because they were in their barefeet. I was a bit more reluctant to get my shoes and socks wet, but ended up following them.)

A young man, late teens or early 20s, appeared and started talking me through the temples as we walked through, explaining what everything was, and pointing out which parts of the temple had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

There was a grassy area in front of one temple where more cows were grazing. The young man pointed out where the moat had been designed to run around the temples (although now the moat was overflowing because of rainy season).

There were also a couple boys engaged in picking some sort of fruit from a tree and mashing it up into a kind of paste on a tarp, and we walked past this and he explained it to me.

At the end, after this group of boys and the young man had guiding me through several temples, one of them presented me with a piece of paper asking for donations for his schooling.

I’ve learned enough about this country to know that any money I give him is more likely to end up in private pockets than at his school. But it was customary to tip for a guided tour anyway, and they had done a good job of showing me around.

Unfortunately I didn’t have a lot of small bills in my wallet, so I gave them $1, and about the equivalent of 50 cents in Riel.

They asked for more of course, but I knew I had given them a significant amount of money in Cambodia, so I politely refused. And to their credit, they didn’t seem to be angry about this, and still wished me luck as I left.

I crossed over the river again and wandered around the 3rd set of temples. When I had finished looking around the Tuk Tuk driver still wasn’t back, so I killed a bit of time revisiting some areas I had seen already.

Then the Tuk-tuk driver came back and took me to see another couple of temples.

An old lady with a shaved head motioned to me with the incense. Knowing that this was yet another scheme to get money, I told her no. But when I was outside the temple grounds, she went through all the trouble of tracking me down and giving me the incense sticks. She was old and this seemed to be a part of their religion, so I decided to just go and put the incense in front of the Buddha, but not pay anything. However when she asked for money, and I told her I didn’t have any, she got so upset about it that I eventually gave her $2. (Initially I told her I didn’t have any small bills, but then she told me she had change.)

She also gave me a red bracelet. I had seen this on Khmer people before, and they had told me they got it for praying at the temple. At any rate, it would later cause Sam a fair amount of amusement to find out I had been braceleted again. “I can’t wait to tell Adam,” Sam would later say. “I leave you alone for a few hours and you come back with another bracelet.”  (I had developed a reputation for being a sucker for the children who sell bracelets, largely due to my poor skills at saying no.)

The tuk-tuk driver asked me if I wanted to see another temple, and I figured why not, so we took in another one.

And then he asked me if I wanted to see another temple, and so we took in another one.

It was close to 6 by now (closing time) but the tuk-tuk driver told me he could take me to one more temple if I wanted—although he warned me it was a bit flooded. I said yes.

The gates of the temple were actually flooded, which I thought looked kind of cool actually so I took a few pictures before wading through.

The water looked to be about up to my knees, so I decided to put the camera in my bag instead of in my cargo pants pocket. However as I automatically reached back to drop my camera down in my bag, I must have missed the open pocket, because I dropped the camera right into the flood waters instead.

I retrieved it out of the water as quickly as I could, but the damage was already done.

A few Malaysian girls (I assumed they were Malaysian based on their accent) were walking towards me at this time and saw the whole thing. At the time I was more embarrassed by my clumsiness than anything else, so I tried to play it off coolly. They gasped when I dropped my camera in the water, but I tried to just remarked casually, “It should be alright.”

“I’ll pray for you,” one of them said.

I took the camera out to test if it was alright. It took one more picture:

...and then the camera died after that.

The good news is that after a few days, the camera did start working again (which is why I was able to retrieve all the pictures I had taken thus far.)

The bad news is, for the rest of the trip the camera didn’t work anymore. I was able to take one more picture of the temple before it shorted out, and then it didn’t start working again until I got back to Phnom Penh.

It’s a bit of a pity because this last temple in particular was quite fascinating. In this temple the jungle was most overgrown of any of the other previous temples, and it had the most mystical look to it.

(Oh well, Angkor Wat is one of the most photographed places on earth, so I suppose the pictures I would have taken would have been no different than the thousands of pictures taken everyday by the hordes of Korean and Japanese tourists going through this area.)

This last temple also went on forever.

I actually got lost on my way through the temple. I wandered through the temple for about 15 minutes, but on my way trying to go back I found several dead ends. A tour guide called out that I was going the wrong way, and he told me to just follow his tour. So I meekly fell in behind them for a while until I thought I knew the way out again, and then just went off on my own.
When I did get back to the tuk tuk driver, it was 6 PM and the park was closing, so we went back to the hotel.

Met up with Sam in the evening.

Sam was in the mood for Korean food, and thought that there must be tons of places around Siem Reap. “I mean you saw all those Korean tourists today,” he said. “And you know Koreans aren’t going to be eating anything not Korean, so there have got to be lots of Korean restaurants around this city.”

The streets of Siem Reap were still flooded, so the owner of the hotel once again generously took us out in his personal car. Sam asked about a Korean restaurant, but we got dropped off at a general Asian restaurant instead—which turned out to be full up anyway, so Sam and I just walked down the street. The hotel owner saw us walking and pulled up again and invited us back in his car. I told him anywhere would be okay—the closest restaurant would be fine.

We ended up eating at a place that was clearly a rip-off (charging Western prices for food usually 1/3 of the price at other restaurants in Cambodia) but we were too lazy to go somewhere else, so we just ate there while complaining the whole time about how this place was a rip-off for tourists fresh off the plane.

Walked back to our hotel through the flood waters.

And to bed.

No comments: