Cambodia Wrap

“The fate of Cambodia shocked the world when the radical communist Khmer Rouge under their leader Pol Pot seized power in 1975 after years of guerrilla warfare.  An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died during the next three years, many from exhaustion or starvation. Others were tortured and executed.  Today, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world and relies heavily on aid. Foreign donors have urged the government to clamp down on pervasive corruption.”  BBC News 

BBC’s description of Cambodia doesn’t exactly motivate you to 86 your trip to Hawaii and jump on the first thing smoking to Siem Reap.  But thankfully, unless it’s on the back of a cereal box or is accompanied by cartoon illustrations, I find reading quite draining.  So we never got BBC’s rundown of the recovering country.  Not that it would have deterred us from making the trip anyway.  Discouraging perceptions of a country certainly didn’t stop us from visiting Colombia.  We actually found it amusing to watch people’s expressions when we told them we planned to start our trip with a hike through the Darién Gap.  For those that are not familiar with the Darien Gap, it’s a place that helps us weed out society’s mentally challenged backpackers.  Side Note: Did you know the FARC has an 800 number?  I guess that makes it easier for parents to ring them up and tell the kidnappers they can keep Corky, he’s not worth the million dollars.

I digress.

Despite Cambodia’s difficult and recent past, the corruption of its government, and its economical struggles, the country’s people have to be the most genuine in the south-east Asia region.  We got more smiles, greetings, and general friendliness than Thailand and Laos combined.  Sure they have hawkers that never quit and the tuk tuk drivers have the same moral compass as Jeffrey Skilling.  But what country doesn’t have their problems? 

Food:

Khmer food is an awesome genre of Asian cuisine.  We found Amok and Lok Lak at the top of our list.  Cambodia also houses the best variety and quality of Western dishes in south-east Asia.  Which worked out perfectly because we were becoming a little tired of rice, noodles, and fried dishes.

Top Rated For The Trip:

Cycling around the temples of Angkor Wat was awesome experience.  Not only because the temples were amazing, but not having to involve ourselves with hired transport was extremely refreshing.  Though the post may not emphasize it, we also enjoyed our beach time in Sihanoukville.

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Sihanoukville

The South East Asian Circuit (SEAC) is a well-known travel path for newly liberated teenagers and 20 somethings who are looking to drink industrial amounts of booze, ingest various available drugs, and dance the night away to the top techno hits of yesterday. The not so well-kept secret Sihanoukville has worked its way into the SEAC rotation and has even began to rival its Thailand competitors just across the gulf (Koh Samui and Koh Phangan).  Not quite the buckets of booze at the FullMoon Party, but give it a couple of years. . .

The beach access and center for the debauchery is located several kilometers from the main portion of town. A strategic move by the locals, that I would equate to putting the shitter at the far end of the camp site (That is, for hygienic purposes). Referenced by its large traffic circle statues (Golden Lions), the area is dedicated to appeasing the hordes of tourists that have made their way to the southern portion of Cambodia. The three roads that line Ochheuteal Beach are packed with restaurants, bars, clubs, backpackers, and a few hotels that have tried their best to distance themselves (geographically) from the rumbling bass that lets the roosters know when it’s time to get up.

The area has several long stretching white sand beaches that are met by crystal clear waters that are warm to the touch. A short boat ride can take you to several different islands of various levels of inhabitants and a handful of companies compete to offer you snorkeling, diving, and fishing. But it seems to be the booze cruise that attracts the most attention.

As soon as you step onto Ochheuteal Beach you are greeted by the overzealous merchandisers that are offering a variety of goods. Everything from a massage to fresh seafood is there for the taking. Not interested at this very moment? Then expect to find yourself at the receiving end of an attempt to form a bond, with a pinkie swear promise, ensuring that when you do change your mind, you will dedicate your cash to (put name here). After several days of batting away solicitors we realized the best way to avoid this five-minute discussion and oath, is to actually keep your word and dedicate all of your business to a single individual. Learn her name, become her friend, and that way you can tell everyone that you already promised your business to Nai.

Choosing your beach chairs for the day is as equally challenging as ridding yourself of the ten-year old bracelet girls.  A tactic we thankfully mastered in Phnom Penh. The row of shack bars that line the beach are all offering virtually the exact same menu. Differentiating themselves by subtracting or adding a quarter to the price of a draft beer and occasionally dishing up some special seasoned pizza. Each bar has a person whose sole purpose in life is to ensure you end your exploration of the beach and kick your feet up in their section. This decision to settle in for the day could be out of attraction, but is most likely due to frustration and the inability to combat any further harassment. We found the White Dragon our first day (due to the latter) and stuck with it for most of our time in Sihanoukville. The three young Cambodian brothers were content with our small purchases and let us chill without any pressure to ‘buy more’. Not to mention they were one of the few beach-side bars that served up fruit shakes with the promise of making you happy.

It wasn’t until our third day on the beach that we decided to test out the actual “happiness” of these shakes and ordered one to split between the two of us. The young Cambodian kid plopped down a fruit shake that had what looked like scraps of weed mixed throughout. Now I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject matter. . . but I know a guy, who knows this guy. . . and he says that in order to make quality eatables you need to extract the THC in a fat soluble substance such as oil or butter. Ingesting weed in its natural form won’t get you the desired effect because the body can’t process/extract the THC. . . at least, so I’ve heard.

With that in mind, I turned to Sally and told her “What a waste of money, this-won’t-do-shit”. Two hours later it felt like my neck was a string and my head as a bowling ball. My entire body was melting into the sticky vinyl chair and my thought process was similar to Frank in Old School when he takes a tranquilizer dart to the jugular. Sally slowly turned toward me and lazily stated “I am glad we split. . . “. The next four hours were spent feeling like we took the short bus to Sihanoukville and all I really wanted out of life was my favorite juice box.

The White Dragon is just two shacks down from JJ’s, the Booze Cruise headquarters. We found it mildly amusing to watch the temporary (traveler) employees try to pump up the crowd before making their way to the boat. Drinking games and free shots are kindling for the 30 odd newcomers who are looking to rage the day away. Four to ten years earlier in life and we would have had a slight attraction to this sort of gathering. But now we just sat there baffled, as the large crowd shoved their way onto the undersized boat that was blasting techno loud enough that it could be heard in Phenom Penh.  The torturous vessel was packed to the brim, crowds hanging over the railings of the roof top deck, the boat swaying with the changing sea, shitty music piercing their ears, while paying for overpriced beers.  As it pulled away from the dock we wondered how many people would consider making another voyage once they get back on dry land. I personally believe that alcohol can help enhance anything to the point of being bearable, if not down right enjoyable. But I would rather split a warm forty with a hobo in a dumpster before I paid money to be subjected to an entire afternoon ‘Booze Cruising’.

The nightlife in Sihanoukville is there for the taking.  After a day on the beach we had an encyclopedias worth of advertisements and free drink coupons. The night echos with the competing clubs, shaking the windows of your guesthouse until the wee hours of the morning. But Sally and I didn’t find ourselves fist pumping at three in the morning even once during our ten-day stay. It seems we have reached the age were we would rather enjoy a beer watching the sunset, rather than dumping that fifth can of Redbull into some vodka as the sun raises.

During our travels we have diligently been keeping up with our early morning exercises. Our time in Asia has us up earlier than we prefer in a pathetic attempt to beat the heat and sometimes our schedule crosses paths with those who think Cambodia only gets four hours of daylight. Most just stare at us groggy eyed and opened mouthed. But a few do their best to entertain both themselves and their sober audience.

On one such morning, a young 18-year-old English kid saw us doing our warm up walk. It just so happened to be in the same direction as his hotel.

English Kid: “I’ve been up alllllllll night!!!”

Sally: “Cool”

English Kid: “Yep! . . . . . You doing some exercise?”

Sally: “Yeah, just heading for a run.”

English Kid: “I bet I could beat you in a race”

We both looked the scrawny kid over and noted that not only was he having trouble walking straight, but he didn’t have any shoes on either.

English Kid: “I’m reeeeeeally fast. I bet I could beat you in a foot race. . . . But I see your not dressed properly for the occasion. . . . Shame really, I’m super quick. But I have this cut on my foot (mumbled with a tone of deep thought) ‘might slow me down a bit’. . . . (He showed us the bottom of his foot and waited for acknowledgement.)

Sally: “Oh, ouch”

English kid: “Yeah. . . But I could still beat you!”

Not needing any prompting from us, the kid took off down the street in a very awkward running style that would make Forrest Gump (when he had the braces) look like an olympic athlete. He sprinted about fifty meters with his arms flailing to his side like a chicken trying to take flight. He then came to a sudden stop, turned around, and waved at us with a huge (I told you so) smile on his face. We gave him a congratulatory wave back and began our five-mile run.

Our time in Sihanoukville was supposed to be our final relaxing moment in SEA (South East Asia) before making the journey to Australia. A place to soak up some sun and enjoy the cheap prices that we know we will be yearning for when buying our first $18 six-pack of ‘cheap’ beer in Oz. Granted, we did get a few days of R&R on the beach.  When it wasn’t raining.  But the reality of Sihanoukville was two antsy westerners itching for the creature comforts of a first world society. Thinking about catching up with family and having some stability for the first time in 9 months (Not moving every 4 to 10 days). So rather than embracing everything the area had to offer, we found ourselves turning in circles with anticipation, like a dog waiting for someone to just throw-the-fucking-ball. Whining with agonized excitement and so transfixed on what we wanted, that we couldn’t concentrate on anything else. It’s like being at work on a Friday afternoon with a long weekend coming up. Rather than keeping busy to help pass the time we just sat there and stared at the clock. Watching each second as it slowly ticked by. We both agreed that we failed Sihanoukville. We should have gone to an island, made our way to Kep, done something other than just sit, and wait (broken up with a few afternoon drinking sessions). But the anticipation had us uninterested in anything but getting the fuck out of Asia.

We did manage to do a few things productive with our down time. We worked out, saved a little cash by not partying, ate at some good restaurants, and boosted our self-esteem by making fun of other people. Because everyone knows that all it takes to feel good about yourself is to tear down someone else. With that, may I present to you my very first DATA (Dumb Ass Traveler Award) of the trip.

And the first ever DATA goes to. . . . . (drum roll) . . . . those who choose, not to wear shoes.

I initially thought this DATA went solely to a very specific type of traveler.

The Wannabe-Hippie Traveler: This traveler wants to appear as if he has walked the earth for years and gained a lifetime of knowledge. His hair is twisted in dreadlocks and feels that bathing would wash away the spirit of the road (and deodorant would cover it up). He wears the local traditional clothing (that not even the locals wear) and his wrists are covered in various types of bracelets. In a last-ditch attempt to get someone, anyone, to give a shit and ask him to share his secrets of the world. He has decided to rid himself of shoes so that his toes can feel the spirit of mother earth.

Hey dumbshit, we see that Iphone 4 blasting indie rock into your dirty ears. Your backpack cost $400 and I know you have spent eight times that on patchouli. But you want us to believe you can’t afford a fucking $5 pair of shoes? It’s not “hippie” to walk across the oil stained, trash laced, nasty cement of a city. It’s unhygienic.  Even the poorest of poor have some kind of foot protection.  What are you trying to prove?

We had watched this disgusting act several times throughout our trip. Always the exact same look/type of person. That is until we got to Sihanoukville and we discovered the Douchebag Beach Bum

There is a way to extend your travel time by picking up a few hours of work here and there. In Sihanoukville it is the promoter gig that seems to get the most applicants. They run around and pass out flyers, hype the party, and try to keep things lively by drinking themselves stupid. I am not sure if it’s the fact that they have never been to the beach?  Or they are from the beach and they think there is a particular “style” they need to keep up?But the Douchebag Beach Bum also refuses to wear shoes.

Douchebag Beach Bum: Their hair is long and unkept, their entire outfit pays homage to the 80’s (how in the fuck fashion decided to repeat that abomination, I will never understand).  They carry themselves with an unjustified swagger, that derives from their conquest of overly intoxicated new comers.  Like a fifth year senior praying on incoming freshmen.  Their feet are also stained a deep, dark, black.

Hey tool box!  You’re wearing $200 Ray-ban sunglasses and drink at least double that amount on a weekly bases.  If the wild dogs eating trash in the middle of the street and then taking a shit on the sidewalk doesn’t give you clear indication that maybe you should splurge on some flip flops.  Then the fact that just last night you were holding back some girl’s hair as she puked her ass off in the very spot where you’re standing, should make things clear.  Use some of that suntan lotion to lube up your neck.  That way it might be easier to pull your head out of your ass.

To the Wannabe-Hippie and the Douchebag Beach Bum.  We say thank you (for making us feel better about ourselves) and please, buy some fucking shoes.

Sihanoukville Photos

Phnom Penh

The hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh is enough to make your head spin.  The streets are lined with restaurants, bars, and stores.  Sidewalks are jam-packed with parked scooters, street venders, tuk tuk drivers, and trash.

The locals turn the simple two lane roads into complex, eight lane, highways.  Where the direction of travel isn’t necessarily determined by a particular side of the street (left or right).  Instead vehicles utilize any portion of the street they feel will expedite their travel.  Creating a daunting ballet of interweaving oncoming traffic.  Most intersections are not regulated by traffic lights or stop signs, but rather the momentum of pure numbers.  Once there is enough build up of vehicles going the same direction a move is made to disrupt the crossing traffic.  The majority of the counter moving traffic yields as the contesting directional change creates its own dominating flow.  While a few anxious scooters try to squeeze through the moving wall of steel, creating a chorus of blaring horns and looks of displeasure.  The only clear traffic rule I noticed is the universal acceptance that there are in fact no traffic rules.  This leaves little room for the unaware tourist to become complacent when attempting to cross the street.  Causing a fast paced head swivel that leaves you looking like a member of a tennis crowd watching a match at 8 times regular speed.

As with any major South East Asian city, the tuk tuk drivers are out in full force.  This occasionally convenient mode of transportation is stained with the poor reputation created by its often scandalous drivers.  Anyone who has had the ‘luxury’ of climbing into the back of one of these three-wheeled taxis at least once, more than likely has been ripped off, at least once.  We have had several frustrating interactions with tuk tuk drivers and now try to avoid them at all costs.  However, occasionally we find ourselves knee-deep in the verbal bullshit that spews out of the mouth of a tuk tuk driver (Case in point).

Our time in Battambong had us thirsting for some of the big city amenities that Phnom Penh could provide.  During one of our many walks to the various malls and markets (Central Market/Russian Market/ City Mall / Soraya Mall / Supermarket Mall / etc) we managed to stumble across a liquar store that was slangging Jack Daniels at ridiculously low prices.  A litre for $18 and 1.75 for only $28!  A few hugs later, an address exchange (for Christmas card purposes), and we were off to (pre)drink away our failed attempt to find Sally a single piece of new wardrobe. (We finally found Sally ONE new shirt after more then 8 hours of shopping and 5+ different malls/markets.)

Being the budget conscious travelers that we are, we ensured our level of intoxication was at an acceptable level prior to venturing out to the plethora of bars along the river front.  We visited the highly recommended FCC Bar (Foreign Correspondence Club) and found the crowd and the view of the water front quite pleasing.  Unfortunately they had a price tag to match the quality of atmosphere they were providing and a simple addition on the fingers (and a couple of toes) had us realizing we wouldn’t be able to sustain our desired level of ‘entertainment’ for much longer if we decided to stay.

An online guide to the city recommended the bar across the street for the more ‘budget travelers’.  However, the fifty cent difference to FCC still had us paying about a dollar more than the favored price of the dive bar establishments that have become our wheelhouse while traveling.

A few hours of drinking and a happy pizza later and we were in search of something a little more lively than the river front bar scene.  We managed to find a club a few blocks from our guesthouse and noted there wasn’t a single foreigner in sight.  This is usually a good sign if in search of a lower price point on drinks (Also, as we found out later, a bad sign if in search of good music).  We were waved through security without being searched.  Which made me feel a bit silly for thrusting my hands into the sky and spreading my legs.  But it gave Sally and I a good laugh as we made our way through the front doors of the club.  Our suspicions were confirmed as we did a slow scan of the dark club.  Not a single tourist in sight.  This was something that we were not alone in noticing.  The entire crew from the bar came rushing toward us, pulling our chairs out, quickly grabbing us drinks, and complementary peanuts.  The whole event happened with the speed of a NASCAR pit stop (Non Athletic Sport Centered Around Rednecks).  We awkwardly looked around to see that no one else was getting this kind of attention.  A simple shrug and smile to one another silently confirmed that would definitely being staying for more than one drink.

As our eyes started to adjust to the darkly lit club, we began better observing our surroundings.  To our surprise this club seemed to be a family affair.  Several different families had posted up at the large booth tables that surrounded the dance floor.  They had everyone from little tiny Tim playing with his truck on the floor to Mrs. Daisy throwing bones on the dance floor.  A few songs later the realization was reached that if we were waiting for a song we knew or felt we could dance to, we would still be in our seats when the closing lights came on.

We finally built up the ‘courage’, said fuck it, and made our way out to the dance floor.  In less than 45 seconds grandma gangsta had practically danced her way right between Sally and I.  With a huge smile and a quick twist of the hips she edged Sally out of the equation.  Not to worry, Sally didn’t have to wait long before one of the thirty something aunts made her way over and kept her on the dance floor.  I was pretty sure the awkwardness had reached its apex, but I was unfortunately mistaken.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a twenty year old dude quickly dancing toward our direction.  I can’t be sure but I believe I saw him do the ‘reeling in the fish’ dance.  I am comfortable with my marriage and as long as he minded his manners I wouldn’t object to him dancing with Sally.  As I glanced back toward my geriatric dance partner, Ricky Martin used the same patent ‘Cambodia Dip and Steal’ move that Mrs. Daisy had used to etch Sally out of the picture, putting me face to face with the flamboyant Cambodian member of Menudo.  It took me only 3 startled seconds to moon walk my way out of the uncomfortable dance off, but it was three seconds too long.  Sally and I decided that dancing was finished for the night and quickly made our way back to our seats, shortly later calling it a night.

Believe it or not it isn’t just the mass amount of bars and the promise of pizza that makes you happy that drive tourists to Phnom Penh.  This river city capital of Cambodia harbors the wounds of the tragic and recent history of the Khmer Rouge.  There are some things that happen in this world that do more than touch the part of your brain that sympathizes with tragedy.  They actually pull at the very humanity that is a part of every human soul, leaving you speechless and bewildered that an atrocity of this magnitude is even possible by mankind.  The most widely known of these events being the systematic destruction of the Jewish population by the Nazis.  Even as a young child I was confused as to how that many people could participate in such a horrific act.  But I also considered it a barbaric attribute of the past.  Surely something that horrific, of that magnitude, could never happen again.

It wasn’t until we actually crossed the border into Cambodia from Laos that I heard the story of the Khmer Rouge.  This of course sparked the interest to visit the Genocide Museum downtown, what used to be a prison/interrogation/and torture structure for the Khmer Rouge.  The museum itself is extremely underfunded and tosses the visitor right into the grim realities of what took place at the building.  Very little information is shared about the Khmer Rouge itself and is mostly pictures of the tortured and the stories of the seven survivors (out of the 20,000+ that were taken to this particular prison).

Unfortunately, we didn’t time our visit correctly and missed the video that is played at the museum.  We understand that it is a good source of information and should not be missed.  But without the video I was disappointed in the little information I was able to extract from the exhibit, but found it moving enough to inspire some self investigational work.  After a few hours clicking away on the internet I came to one conclusion – What the fuck world?

I wont bombard you with information that is better organized and presented with just a few clicks of your mouse.  But I will express a few parts of the history that really blew my mind.

After the travesty that happened to the Jewish population during WWII, the U.N. held the Genocide Convention in 1948 (putting it into effect in 1951).  Making it clear that acts of this nature are unacceptable and will never be allowed to happen again.  However, from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge came into power in Cambodia.  They conducted social re-engineering that killed millions.  Targeting intellects, past government supports/officials, suspected spies, and anyone that stood against their rule.  Going as far as killing individuals for simply wearing glasses (perceived intelligence).  They wanted to be a completely self-sufficient country (including medicine, causing thousands to die from simple and treatable diseases such as malaria) and pushed the population out of the cities to become forced labor on farms.

Where was the rest of the world during this rule of terror?  Not only did the U.N. not get involved, they actually allowed members of the Khmer Rouge to participate in U.N. gatherings.  America just finished the war in Vietnam and surely didn’t want to get involved in a similar conflict in Cambodia (even if this conflict would actually be justified).  It wasn’t until Vietnam found its self exhausted with the pressure building up on their boarder that they opportunistically “aided” in the removal of the Khmer Rouge.  The only problem was they became that uncle that comes home from prison and chases off the abusing boyfriend.  Only to kick their feet up on the couch and treat the place like their paying the bills.  This finally got the attention of the U.N. (most likely U.S. backed, as we had a sour taste in our mouth toward Vietnam) to talk Vietnam out of the country. I guess if Cambodia had been sitting on some oil fields they could have counted on better help from western cultures.

A twenty to forty minute tuk tuk ride away, you can reach the killing fields.  A mass 9 mile grave site, one of an estimated 20,000.  A glass shrine with eight thousand human skulls brings the reality of the fields into perspective.  Sally and I chose not to visit the killing fields, feeling that the magnitude of the tragedy had set in enough for both of us and also having read that the fields can be a source of exploitation.

Begging and hawking in Cambodia is something that is unfortunately widespread.  The use of children is common place and the locals stress that you should not encourage (buy from) these kids, who should be in school.  You can clearly observe their enthusiasm for patrolling the streets in search of money becomes worn as the day progresses.  The monotone pitch for your money runs together as they look around the restaurant with disinterest.

Kid: “You buy bracelet?”

Tourist: “No thank you.”

Kid: “Two for one”

Tourist: “No thank you”

Kid: “Three for one”

Tourist: “No thank you”

Kid: “You buy scarf”

Tourist: “No thank you”

Kid: “Good deal for you”

Tourist: “No thank you”

Kid: “You buy book about Cambodia”

Tourist: “No thank you”

Kid: “Why not, you don’t like Cambodia?”

Tourist: “Uh……….No thank you”

This will usually cause them to stare and linger for anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes.  The boredom draped all over their face, as they shift from foot to foot and continue to shuffle their merchandise.  Occasionally they will reach a point of frustration and or the need for entertainment and will begin to use you as their outlet.

Kid: “You are lying”
Kid: “You’re a ladyboy”
Kid “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?”

Your sympathy is abruptly interrupted by frustration for the fact that you can’t enjoy your adult beverage in peace.  Even if you can lose the interest of the little shit, you see four more making their way down the street from bar to bar.

When walking down the street yourself, it is easy enough to shake the kids peddling their bracelets and books.  However, you have to step around the parents utilizing their kids as a point of pity.  Each set up becoming more extreme than the one before.  I felt like Pee Wee Herman driving his car down the road and watching as each of the corner street signs increase in complexity. The first having their child laid out in front of her with a cup.  The next using two of her toddlers laid out on the street.  Then the kids seemed to lose their cloths.  Then two without cloths.  The last person we passed had a girl who must have been ten years old laid across her lap completely naked.  If I wouldn’t have felt like a pervert for not picking up the pace to a light jog to get passed the site, I would have stopped and tried to explain to the ‘mom’ that I think the gig is up.

Once you develop the impulsive ‘no thank you’ (maintaining your quick stride) to the kids and the tuk tuk drivers, trying not to involve yourself emotionally, life in Phnom Penh seems to get a lot easier.  There are endless places to enjoy both local and western food, the bars continue to try to bring in business by dropping their prices, and the riverfront is a great place to sit and watch the world go by.  At night, both tourists and locals alike make their way to the well presented sanctuary from the madness of the city.  Dance crews composed of local kids compete for your attention against the over forty club who is line dancing to some local Khmer music, games of soccer, couples strolling, and the cool of the night seems to remind everyone that Phnom Penh scores pretty high when matched up against other large South East Asian cities.

Phnom Penh Pictures

The Tuk Tuk Ten Commandments

Our second day in Phnom Penh we made a hotel change.  The two blocks between our new and old accommodation would normally be a no brainer walk.  But with all of our bags, the lack of sidewalks, and the roads being as crazy as they are, we decided to take a tuk tuk.  It was easy enough to find a driver that was ready to take our money.  In fact the hotel we were staying at (leaving) had three of them vulturing at the base of the stairs in the lobby.

Mr. Shady: “You want tuk tuk”

Me: “Oh, we’re only going two blocks.  Don’t think you want to drive just two blocks?”

Mr. Shady: “No, no, it’s fine.”

Me: “It’s only two blocks.  It is literally right around the corner.”

Mr. Shady: “It’s ok, it’s ok!”

Me: “Alright, I will give you sixteen hundred.” (almost 50 cents)

Mr. Shady: “Yes, yes, that’s fine.”

We drive the two minutes in traffic to our new hotel.  We thanked the driver for the ridiculously short trip and gave him his money.  He counted it and stated we didn’t give him enough cash.

Mr. Shady: “We agreed on six thousand” ($1.50)

I explained to him there is no fucking way I would agree to pay him six thousand.  I told him we took a tuk tuk from the bus station to the very hotel we just left for two dollars.  That trip took 15+ minutes.  Why would I give him a dollar fifty for a two block trip?  “It’s the principal Smokey!” Anger built up in his voice as he contested my logic with the simplistic counter argument of “You said six thousand”.  The receptionist at our new hotel came out to mitigate.  Suddenly the tuk tuk driver didn’t understand anything I was saying and required the receptionist to translate.  I explained to the receptionist how the entire situation transpired and included my logic behind his clear overcharging (bus trip anecdote).  After we had already agreed on a price.  The receptionist agreed with me that it should not cost $1.50 and translated this to the tuk tuk driver.

Mr. Shady: “Ok, you give me a dollar and we will call it good.”

I was amused that he once again understood English but told him he can take the money we agreed upon or nothing at all.  Again his English went into remission and he turned to the receptionist with a confused look on his face.  The back and forth continued a short while longer until the tuk tuk driver hopped on his tuk tuk in a temper-tantrum and attempted to drive off.  Before he pulled away he shouted some things at the receptionist who beckoned him to wait as he went into the hotel and got Mr. Shady his fucking dollar.

What the fuck is that?  How do these guys get away with this shit?  Every-fucking-time they try something to rip you off.  It was the proverbial straw that broke my back.  They say to keep your enemies closer and that’s what I intended to do.  I decided to research, interview, and better understand how the tuk tuk drivers had tourist transportation by the balls.

With a crisp twenty-dollar bill and a belly full of alcohol, I left Sally at the hotel and ventured out to find a tuk tuk driver willing to give me some insight.  To my surprise there was a strong resistance to giving an interview about the underbelly of the industry, even with twenty American dollars up for grabs.
Several failed attempts later and I found my ‘motivation’ depleted enough that I needed to refuel at a local pub.

Two hours later I found myself no longer possessing the necessary funds to grease the wheels of information (Having spent my $20 on booze).  A discouraged look must have come across my face because the owner of the bar slide over and struck up conversation.  It didn’t take me long to divulge the reason behind my despair.  After a solid ten minutes of expressing my frustration with the tuk tuk industry and asking the one question everyone who has ever utilized this mode of transportation wants answered, (It’s a simple chicken or egg scenario.  Which came first?  The shady personality or the tuk tuk profession?)

“Does this job just attract scum?  Or do people simply become opportunistic once they realize how easy it is to take tourists money?”

The owner eyed me up for several seconds.  Clearly debating whether I was worthy of both the information and his time.  He slid a little closer and lowered his voice.

Bar Owner: “There is a book.  An underground scripture for tuk tuk drivers if you will.  No one knows the original source and very few people have an actual copy.  It’s mostly passed down by word of mouth these days.  Some have taken the time to write down the teachings, but these are mostly incomplete and few and far between.  I have a version I got from my girlfriends father.  I will give you 20 minutes to look it over and that’s it.”

He disappeared through the back door of the bar and returned five minutes later.  He slid a stack of ten hand written tattered papers across the bar discreetly.  They were half composed in Khmer and half in English.  I flipped through the stack and stopped on the fourth page.  The heading was written in Khmer but the bar owner told me it roughly translated to ‘The Tuk Tuk Ten Commandments’.  Each of these commandments were scribbled in both languages.  The alcohol had settled in nicely and the night was getting late.  For this reason I can’t recall verbatim what these commandments stated, but this is what I can remember.

1) Economics is for tourists.  There is no such thing as too much supply.  If there is a known pick up/drop off location for tourists park and attempt to get business.  It doesn’t matter if there are 20 other drivers there.

2) He who is the most aggressive wins.  If there is a door to a business, bus, or hotel it is your job to crowd around it and be in the face of the tourists.  If necessary grab their bags before they even step onto the street.

3) ‘No’ only means ‘no’ if it is said to you.  The tourist just said ‘no’ to three tuk tuk drivers before you?  Ask again, then again, if they still say no ask them if they have seen the sights: x? y? z? If they still say no you are entitled to make a sarcastic comment or mock them.

4) Always try to get the tourist into your tuk tuk without first determining a price for the journey.  If they are dumb enough not to ask, then you can charge anything you want.

5) If the tourist wants to know how much before they get in, start at 400% over what the rate should be.  That way when the tourist talks you down to half (thinking they’re smart) you still make twice as much as the trip should cost.

6)  While driving the tourist inquire about where they are staying.  Regardless of their reservation, inform them that you know a better place.  Then proceed to take them to a location where you get kick backs.

7) Also while driving, offer tours of all the local attractions.  If they do not want to commit to an attraction offer them bar girls or drugs. (all of these should be offered at the standard 400% mark up)

8) Once you arrive at the destination inform them of how much they owe you.  This amount should be at least double of what the original agreed upon price was.

9) If the tourist objects to the fee, get angry.  Tourists are scared of making people upset.  They also don’t want to cause a scene and will decide the extra couple dollars isn’t worth the hassle.

10) If the tourist doesn’t seem to know the area or exactly where they are going, take them somewhere closer and charge them the same price (i.e. they want to go to x market, but y market is half the distance.  Save yourself the drive and just take them to y market).  Then drive off before they realize they are in the incorrect location.

Just as I lifted my blurry eyes to look around the bar, the owner snagged the stack of papers away from me.

Bar owner:  “Time’s up”

I thanked and sat there for a moment, trying to digest what I had just read.  I had my suspicions that there was a conspiracy against tourists but this really blew my fucking mind!  This is why their behaviors are so consistent and wide-spread.  Before I left I asked him why he didn’t share this with others?  With everybody!?

Me: “I’ve pretty much figured most of this shit out on my own.  But it has taken me some painful learning experiences and some serious time on the road.  I would have liked to have known this shit before the fact, could have saved me some serious headaches.”

Bar owner: “Who am I going to share this shit with?  You think Lonely Planet is going to put it in their book?

Me: “What about the net?”

Bar owner: “What, that Wiki Dick?” Maybe you don’t have a problem with that Wiki-rape turd who is using extradition to avoid getting pounded in the ass in a Swedish prison.  But me, I wouldn’t even share who really killed JFK (if I had it) with that communist bastard.”

Me: “Mmmm.  Good point I guess. . .”

Bar owner: “Plus man. . . . .  there is a fine line between fiction and non-fiction. . . . . and I snorted that up in the 80’s!  Ha-ha-ha!!!!”

 

Battambang

Bret’s insistent campaign of visiting every Mexican restaurant in Siem Reap left me with some kind of bug, which caused us to delay our journey to Battambang by a day.  Rather then spend my time sweating my ass of on a five our bus ride, hoping the infrequent pit-stops match up with my stomachs rejection of bad shredded pork, I spent the day sprawled out on the bed trying to keep whatever I could down.

Twenty-four hours later and I was feeling much better and we were both more than ready to move on after seven days in Siem Reap.  Unfortunately Bret had started feeling sick the morning we were supposed to leave.  Determined not to spend anymore time cooped up in our room, Bret decided to tough it out.  Watching him sway back and forth in obvious pain was enough to make anyone feel pity for his situation.

Upon arrival in Battambang, we beelined it to the hotel and there we stayed for the next three days.  Bret was experiencing all the symptoms of dengue fever and couldn’t do anything but rest.  I ventured out from time to time to pick up food and supplies but otherwise I was holed up with Bret fighting cabin fever.

Seventy-two hours of watching bad T.V. and Bret was almost back to normal.  We were both fed up with being inside and were looking forward to getting out and doing something, anything!  Just as we were heading out of the room it started to rain.  Hard.  We spent the entire day inside unsuccessfully hoping for a break in the rain.  For those of you keeping track at home, that put us stuck in a hotel room for five days straight.  Minus a sweaty five-hour bus ride.

Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia.  There are not a lot of tourist attractions but it is known for its beautiful countryside.  The highlight of our time there was a 15km bike ride out of town to Ek Phnom temple, built in AD 1027.

The main reason behind our Battambang adventure was to catch the Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) circus.  PPS is a cultural organization that offers young people a way out of poverty by training them to become professional artists and performers.  They only do two shows a week so we had planned an immediate exit from Battambang after we were finally able to catch the show.  The circus was about an hour-long and both Bret and I were thoroughly impressed by the level of talent the young performers showed.  They currently have two former students attending the Cirque du Soleil arts school in Montreal.  The circus proved to be worth the trip to Battambang alone.

Battambang Photos

Siem Reap

Getting to Siem Reap was about as easy as winning seven Tour De Frances without doping.  If you didn’t see that one coming then I am guessing you also thought Barry Bonds head just naturally grew to double the original size and that is what gave him super home run strength.

Leaving from Don Khone left us confused and unsure about how long the expected journey was going to take and what was the best way to get there.  The Laos guesthouses that sold the bus tickets seemed to lose track of how things transpired once the bus got across the border.  They only had an ‘expected time range’, which varied by 2-5 hours depending on where you were trying to go.  We had also heard rumours about how bad the border crossing was to get into Cambodia.  Attempting it on your own required a fist full of dollar bills or a considerable amount of time and patience to contest the random charges.  We thought we would get ahead of the game and purchase our visas in Vientiane.  When our bus company came around to collect passports and cash for the border crossing we proudly showed that we already had ours.  The guy gathering the money seemed unamused and stated we still needed to give them $6 each for the ‘crossing fee’.  We weren’t sure if that was going into the bus company’s pocket or toward the immigration officers beer money.  Either way it brought the grand total we overpaid for our visa/border crossing to $25 each.  Turns out our Vientiane guesthouse was more than happy to help us with our visas at a small 190% mark up.

The word on the street was also out on the fact that the Laos/Cambodia international bus companies had no problem patting you down for any extra change the border guards didn’t get.  Supposedly if you get a bus just across the border, then buy a ticket from a Cambodian company to where you want to go in Cambodia, you can save a bit of cash.  We threw the dart at the map and decided on Stung Treng as our layover spot to break up the trip.  The first city the bus passed through on the Cambodian side of the border.  This decision proved to be the equivalent of resting your starters after the first five minutes of the game.  The quick three hours (including border crossing) to Stung Treng left us with a staggering fourteen hour bus trip the following day.  The taxing affair was broken down into two different buses and it was difficult to gauge which one was the more painful experience.

The first bus driver made it very clear he was having a bad day.  In between scowling at passengers that arrived at the ‘bus station’ (side of the street), he spent his time banging on the engine, and throwing bags into the luggage compartment (literally, throwing them with as much force as he possibly could.  We happily loaded our bags onto the bus ourselves.)  Once we were on the road he proceeded to drive like he was Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street 2, driving the school bus into hell.  Flying down the broken up street and laying on the horn every 10 seconds to warn drivers he was taking up what ever portion of the road he pleased.  Causing cars driving in both directions to pull over to the shoulder of the road.

The second bus driver contrasted Evil Kanievel death defying speeds by driving at a pace that Ms. Daisy would be comfortable with.  He had a friendly smile and was happy to allow his bag boy to utilize the television at the front of the bus.  We hopped aboard after their lunch stop and were surprised to be watching the second half of King Kong (with Jack Black) in English.  The problem began when the movie was over.  With 5 hours left until we reached Siem Reap, we discovered the bus was limited on video content, and the kid with the remote wasn’t going to consider riding in silence, not even for a moment.  The next five hours were spent watching the same 20 minute ‘funny clip’ two and a half times (70’s style Asians mimicking Three Stooges type comedy) and four Korean music videos.  No Gangnam Style here unfortunately.  It was the same teenybopper band for all four videos; three 17-year-old Korean Justin Biebers, singing slow and painful love songs, with horribly depressing video plots depicting adultery, best friends back stabbing, and lovers getting killed.  (WTF?)

Siem Reap flirts with that finite line of providing all the amenities a westerner could ever want and over doing it to become a tourist trap that has no remnants of true Cambodian culture.  You have the infamous Pub Street that is a Koh San Road in the making.  The block of bars lure you in with their happy hour specials and late night clubbing.  The street its self located in central Siem Reap the area as a whole  provides plenty of cheap drinking spots, a massive array of food, and plenty of the mass-produced ‘souvenir’ shops with pushy owners.  You can find everything from $1.50 Khemer food to $12 filet dinners.  Every place has a happy hour with 50 cent draft beers and dollar mixed drinks that are enough to grab any travelers attention as they make their way to Pub Street.  The various markets seem to have the same wholesale provider and marketing agency.  The standard compliment of being a beautiful lady or handsome man is spoken loudly and used as the opening line for the two-minute single breath sales pitch.  Showing you everything they have on display as you walk by and of course making you that special offer that is reserved just for you.  If you dare to actually walk into one of the covered markets you will be met with a constant high-pitched noise of several vendors trying to compete for your attention.  The merchandise is of course pretty much the same at every stall you go to but the Cambodians seem less enthused with the bartering process then their Thai counter parts and will usually cut their price by half if you simply show a little interest in an item then start to walk away.  No back and forth necessary here.

We stayed the first night in a guest house that was right in the mix of it all.  But once we decided we were going to stay in Siem Reap for the week we quickly changed locations.  The staff at the first guesthouse was good enough so we didn’t mention the filthy floors, rat poop, and the fact that we paid for breakfast and didn’t get it.  But left it at the fact that we wanted to be able to venture in and out of the madness as we pleased.  Giving us the ability to not get bombarded as soon as we walked out the door.

After four hours of walking around and checking out seven different hotels we finally found a guesthouse that shinned above the rest (Sam So).  It’s a really nice family run operation and everyone is involved in making sure you are comfortable and happy.  We found it refreshing that every time we walked into the compound we were greeted by everyone and even the kids seem to take a genuine interest in your presence.  Their smiles and waves make you feel like you are an old family friend coming by to visit.

To some of our readers dismay, we didn’t come all the way to Siem Reap just to eat western food and drink ourselves stupid. . . .  We also caught a movie! They have a mall with a mini movie theater that allows you to watch any movie you want, at any time!

The world-renowned temples of Angkor rightfully serve as a great point of pride for the Cambodian people.  The amazing Angkor Wat has even made its way onto the country’s flag.  The ruins themselves are in various states of restoration and some still serve as active places of worship.  The amazing architecture aside, the Khmers rich history of Hindu and Buddhist fusion created and displayed in some of these temples is clearly a lesson of acceptance that unfortunately seems to have been lost in the pages of history.

There is no better way to prepare yourself for the trip into the sacred grounds then to visit the National Museum.  The well-funded and detailed exhibit explains the spiritual convictions of the Khmer people, their purpose in designing the temples, and what each of the very detailed statues and wall carvings represent.  We spent several hours walking through the seven different wings and found it to be a great prerequisite to visiting the temples.  Though noted that our interest would have dissipated if completed in reverse order.

The short 5km trip from Siem Reap to the temples was close enough to the city to entice us to grab some bicycles and make a day of it.  Unfortunately discouraged in some of the hotel reviews (Tripadvisor) the bike ride itself is actually extremely simple and easy.  It took us 15 minutes on a straight road out-of-town to reach the ticket gate and only an additional 10 minutes to find ourselves at the door step of Angkor Wat.

It is always amazing to observe the extraordinary architectural ability man possessed before we became obsessed with the bottom line.  It seems the world of today is more interested in touching the sky rather than leaving a structure that will last and impress for thousands of years.

The main ruins (known as the short circuit) are overrun with tourist groups and unfortunately provide that same claustrophobic, over populated feeling, that can be achieved when trying to battle upstream against the lemmings that frequent Machu Picchu.  The narrow hallways are jammed packed with large groups of high frequency photographers that are attempting to compensate for their condensed tour with an overwhelmingly large amount of pictures.  They obliviously push you into a corner as they snap their way through the corridor and attempt to halfway absorb the tour guides dissemination of information.  I am not sure they will really marvel at what they are witnessing until they are flipping through photos with family friends over Christmas dinner half a year later.

If you are patient enough to wait for the hordes of cattle to trample their way through the amazing relics of history, you are left with a peaceful and meaningful glimpse into the past.  The delicate detail that was put into the stone work is overwhelming and it clearly demonstrates the acceptance of time as part of the equation, rather than a foe that needs to be confronted with expedited labor.

The bikes provided us the ability to venture our way through a majority of the temples in the Angkor Wat region (known as the short circuit and the long circuit).  We were pleasantly reminded that our choice to avoid a tuk tuk driver is always the correct one, when we stopped for a water break and observed an English couple reaching their limit.
The man was storming away from the tuk tuk and screaming that he was fucking tired of being asked if he wanted to eat at the drivers friends restaurant, he didn’t want to buy any fucking souvenirs, and he already had a hotel, so shut the fuck up about the ‘deals’ you can get.  “I already paid you, so just do your fucking your job!”  The outburst caused several concerned looks from those enjoying their hotel catered tours.  But those of us that have been in SEA (South East Asia) for a while smiled to ourselves and congratulated him on saying what was on everyone’s mind.

Once you get to the big circuit the heavy traffic dies down tremendously.  The temples are equally amazing in their own right and being on our own really gave us the chance to sit down and observe our surroundings.  Unfortunately there is the contention of the local sales crew that has managed to lace virtually every nook and cranny they can find.  Your emotions become torn between frustration and compassion for the 8-year-old girls that harass you for ten, unrelenting minutes as you try to make your way through the courtyard.  Their mother found fast asleep in a hammock as they try to sell you trinkets from the local market.  The annoying persistance is obviously driven by boredom and their desire to meet their parents expectations.  You struggle to smile because you know they should be in school and hold back an eye roll because it is your fifth time dealing with the situation.  You know your dollar would go a long way for them but the Pandora’s box it would open would leave you struggling to gain some alone time.

The experience as a whole was tremendous.  Even with the soliciting locals that pulled at your heart-strings, while testing your patience, and the crowded adult Disney Land feeling created by the photo snapping ‘flash tourists’.  The power of the Khmer architecture found a way to shine through and overwhelm you with its beauty.

The ten-hour bike ridding extravaganza left Sally and I yearning for the creature comforts of home and feeling like we deserved to reward ourselves.  Half a bottle of Jack Daniels later, we found ourselves strolling to the popular Mexican restaurant El Camino.  This is due to the fact that I have an insurmountable struggle to not sample any place attempting to throw out my favorite cousin in a foreign country.  Most attempts leave me feeling like I just watched ‘The Dictator’ and was expecting the quality of ‘Ali G Indahouse’ or ‘Borat’ (This analogy might be lost on some of you.  So allow me to relate it in a more straight forward manner in which you might be more comfortable.  Its like expecting a delectable dish of soul touching Mexican food and getting served dog shit instead).  El Camino proved to be worthy of its Tripadvisor praise and we happily found ourselves overindulging in their cheap drinks while munching on their excellent fajitas.  The American owner makes himself known as he over-watches the service and ensures his critical Yankee patrons are enjoying themselves.

It took us five days to realize we may have booked too much time in Siem Reap and a day of sitting around with nothing to do left us struggling not to break our budget and partake in our favorite pastime.  Our guesthouse helped us move our bus tickets up a day and a quick internet search had us hanging out poolside at the River Garden Hotel.  The hotel is kind enough to share their pool, bar, and restaurant with the public.  You only need to order something off of their menu to justify kicking back for the entire day.  A feat that was only accomplished with the perseverance to struggle our way through three jugs (pitchers) of beer.  The pool creating enough of an excuse for us to justify an afternoon filled with our shared hobby.

Our time at the pool had us ready to hit up Pub Street and continue the overindulging.  A few poorly made cocktails and 50 cent beers later we found our way into the other Mexican restaurant in Siem Reap, Viva.  The owner of El Camino mentioned that he had started the restaurant several years earlier and sold it prior to opening the competition.  A direct comparison was not just a desire, it was a necessity.  At least that was the drunken one-sided argument I presented to Sally.  A plate of nachos and a shredded pork wet burrito later, the verdict was in.  Siem Reap is the place to get American Mexican food!  El Camino has a culinary graduate (the owner) creating a unique spin on the classical dishes.  The flour tortillas for the fajitas could be found at any upscale dining establishment.  While Viva turns out the large portioned familiar tastes with a salsa that is on point.  Nothing is more depressing then tasting a Pace Picante style ‘salsa’ tainting a would be excellent dish.  I would eat at both several more times if given the opportunity.  Of course the $2 margaritas don’t detour one from making the visit either. . .

Siem Reap / Angkor Photos