“Cambodia’s great”, enthuses the twenty-something gap-year Italian woman in the air-conditioned internet cafe where they bake great croissants. “It’s just that there are too many tourists.”
That’s the trouble with being a tourist: all the other tourists. Whereas *I* am a sensitive seeker after knowledge, a traveller, everyone else is a mere tourist. A particularly twisted manifestation of “I am a traveller NOT a tourist”-itis is to be found by the resentment that many Western tourists feel towards Asian tourists in places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or Wat Pho in Thailand. There’s a particular type of Western tourist I call the “I’m not religious but I’m really spiritual” genus (that is, “I like joss sticks and New Age music but am too lazy for philosophy or reading”). They resent the bus loads of Taiwanese/ Vietnamese/ Korean/ Japanese tourists who come to the temples by the aircon busload and walk around talking excitedly and taking photos of each other in Asian poses. How dare they come by bus instead of tuk-tuk? How dare they obviously enjoy themselves instead of walking around reverently?
We rode off when the tour groups started to come with busloads of loud Japanese and Chinese tourists, most of whom didn’t even bother to look at the temples, preferring to carry on their noisy conversations instead. Where we had spent almost four hours most of the tours were in and out in 15 minutes.
Disgraceful! Asian Buddhists walk around enjoying Asian Buddhist sites, and in a manner not exactly the same as how I do? They should be instantly banned, as only white people have feelings delicate and sensitive enough to enjoy Angkor.
This can lead to a syndrome I’ve noticed in Nepal and Thailand I call “My Personal Yellow People Theme Park”, in which unimaginably wealthy young white people travel thousands of miles to get drunk at full moon parties with other unimaginably wealthy young white people, or go white water rafting, or trekking, or to gawp at long-necked hill tribe people, while their only interaction with the locals is to order food from them, be driven to the next theme park ride by them, or to fuck them (depending on the type of tourist they are).
Of course, I have no high horse to ride. I bargained people down by 30 cents, perhaps depriving them of some food to save me less money than the price of a watery draft beer on Pub Street.
And I had an attack of “I’m not religious but I’m really spiritual”-itis. It’s easy to do in temples as vast as Angkor where it’s possible to find quiet places – or whole temples that are empty – and to sit and reflect. The gigantic temples being overtaken by the jungle can’t help but put you in mind of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, and the fact that we were there as a family to scatter my grandmother’s ashes leads to inevitable introspection about mortality.
It’s been suggested that I’m a boorish idiot without a spiritual bone in my body. I’m not given to flights of fancy or purple prose, but from my vantage point on a ledge at the twelfth century Angkor Wat, I was thinking of how time destroys all and the only constant is change – just as Buddha said – and was moved to write this rap song. Hopefully it communicates something of the beauty and the mystery of Angkor Wat.
My Bangkok next-door neighbour and friend, Steve Van Beek has some spaces left on his fantastic kayak tours in South East Asia. I can absolutely recommend these; Steve has lived in Thailand for thirty years and I’ve met no-one else who knows the language, culture and geography as well as he does.
Prices below cover all accommodations, transportation, inflatable kayaks, equipment, meals, and guiding. They don’t include transportation to the starting point, visa fees, nor accommodation before or after the trip. It also assumes a minimum of five paddlers. Please contact Steve directly if you’re interested.
Jan. 16-29 (Wed.to Sun.) and Feb. 13-17 (Wed.-Sun.): Five days paddling through the 4,000 islands created where the Mekong, barred by a fault line, braids to 14 km. wide. The geologic slip has created Southeast Asia’s largest waterfalls (more water than Niagara) an obstruction which blocks navigation. US$940.
Jan. 25-27 (Fri-Sun), 2008: This trip combines the beauty of the foothills surrounding Luang Prabang with the charm of paddling into one of the most beautiful towns in Asia. We’ll sleep in homestays and experience village life, visit a beautiful waterfall, run some rapids, visit a quiet Buddhist monastery, and pay our respects at the grave of one of Asia’s most fearless explorers, Henri Mouhot. Along the way, we’ll see how villagers and fishermen utilize the river in their daily lives. US$490.
Cambodia: Siem Reap recommendations
While I’m busy recommending South-East Asian fun, I recall that I had a tricky time finding recommendations about Cambodia that weren’t aimed at cheapskate backpackers or sex tourists. So here’s my recommendations; I don’t claim that these are cheaper or better than their competitors, only that they met my needs. They were accurate in August 2007.
Siem Reap hotel
I stayed at the Golden Orange hotel. It’s US$1 by tuk-tuk to the main bar street or a 15 minute amble, and costs US$20 per night (for the twin room, rather than per person). I booked three nights and got a free airport pickup and free breakfast every day.
Rooms were very clean, with aircon and ensuite with hot shower, a fridge and free water. There was free internet. The staff arranged my tuktuk driver for three days, my bus to Phnom Penh and a massage, all at decent prices. I was so comfortable, I extended my stay by a night.
Only slight downside is that the owner’s wife has a small pet dog which patrols the second floor at night. It’s entirely harmless, but can bark occasionally so light sleepers should ask for a different floor.
Siem Reap restaurant and dancing
I thoroughly enjoyed the apsara dancing upstairs at the Temple Bar. It was free to those eating or drinking. The US$5 Khmer buffet was very good, too— as was the fish amok served in a coconut.
I was very well fed round the corner from my hotel at La Volpaia, which was recommended to me by an Aussie NGO worker. I had great Italian food in aircon splendour, and a glass of good (chilled!) red wine, for about US$12.
For breakfast, I enjoyed watching the world passing by on Sisowath Quay from the pavement tables of Rendezvous, a French establishment.
it’s a waste of money, which is criminal when so many people have so little.
What I do instead is choose a charidee that means something to me and give it the cash that I used to spend on cards and postage. This year, it’s the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
But I’ve warmed to it today. There’s some wonderful old colonial buildings, some photogenically tumbledown, so I had a nice hour snapping them until I remembered that why they’re so tumbledown – the Khmer Rouge destroyed many when they forcibly evacuated the city in 1975.
Then I went to the Tuol Sleng (gallery) detention and torture centre that the Khmer Rouge established in an old high school. When the Vietnamese liberated it,there were only seven people alive out of an estimated 17–20,000 souls who entered. The horrifying tiny cells are still there; the iron beds that people were shackled to for electric shocks are there. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, kept meticulous records of their genocide, so one of the most harrowing aspects of the exhibition is all the detainees’ mugshots. Some are children.
And then you realise that the Khmer Rouge were not just an aberration, and that the world isn’t any more vigilant or anxious to protect the weak now than it was in 1975—think of Rwanda, the massacres at Srebrenica, and the current genocide at Darfur.
Then, you thank your gods or your lucky stars that you live in a country where that kind of thing couldn’t happen – and then you wonder whether, given the right circumstances, you might not be floating the corpses of the women you’ve raped and the children you’ve slaughtered down the Thames, or the Rhine, or the Seine.
And then you wonder whether beneath each of our fragile veneers of civilisation, we aren’t each a grinning monster that would smash another human’s skull with a hammer just for enjoyment.
And then, if you’re like me, you go to the nearest bar that plays music and is full of the sound of conversation and laughter, and you drink until you stop thinking.
I’m all templed out, and red as a lobster from the remorseless sun, so decided today to go to the Siem Reap landmine museum.
Cambodia is the nation with the highest number of disabled people, and the vast majority of disabilities are caused by landmines. Cambodia was heavily mined by the USA, Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge during its recent bloodlettings and, when the ceasefire was declared, nobody told the landmines – so between five and ten million of the devices just lie there in the jungle and in farms, waiting to be stepped on. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reports
In 2005, there were 875 new landmine/UXO [unexploded ordnance] casualties, maintaining the daily average of two new casualties since 2000.
The landmine museum was started by a Cambodian gentleman with the Japanese-sounding name of Aki Ra. As a child, he was forced by the Vietnamese to lay mines, and later worked for the United Nations de-mining. With the money he earned, he set up a small museum where he houses paintings, photos and lots of empty landmine shells. (Photo gallery)
He continues to voluntarily defuse mines that people alert him to, and claims to have made 50,000 safe. Using the $1 museum entrance fee and donations, Mr Aki Ra and his wife take in orphans and children who’ve been disabled by mines, housing them in the museum grounds where they teach them a trade so they don’t need to beg.
Here’s a impressionistic 30 second video taken today of Ta Phrom in the rain, a landmine-crippled Khmer band playing outside Ta Phrom and the Terrace of the Leper King.
Stinky, wonderful Bangkok is the exception, but generally if I’m in South East Asia and travelling in a town for pleasure, I use open vehicles rather than enclosed, air-conditioned vehicles.
There’s something about the smell of South East Asia that I love, particularly in rainy season: a mix of mud, moist vegetation, decomposing garbage and car fumes, cowshit and coriander, all in that sauna-like humidity. You might mock, but that smell defines the region for me.
So, to travel round to the temples, I’ve chartered a tuk-tuk for the last couple of days. My driver is named Nhan (pronounced “Nyen” or ”Nee-en”), and the hotel use him to pick up guests from the airport, so I figured that if they trust him, I can. He’s seems a good guy; he’s genuinely enthusiastic about the temples and artefacts, he drives safely, he’s on time, he quotes sensible prices and he’s pretty mellow about not always trying to sell me stuff.
Sure, he’s tried; he understood my disinclination to go to the shooting range, where you buy a live cow and rent an AK47 to kill it with (it’s apparently very popular with Americans, so I just said, “I’m not American” and he accepted that). He probably thinks I’m mad that I didn’t accept his offer of taking me for a “boom-boom massage”, particularly when he’d already gleaned that my wife is in a different country. I can’t blame him for trying, though; in a country where the average annual income is hundreds rather than thousands of dollars, commerce is commerce.
Nhan’s quite a character. He giggles to himself and points every time we pass western woman with huge breasts, which is most of them in comparison to the very petite Cambodian women. It’s tricky not to warm someone who chuckles with glee at the sight of enormous ladybumps, and you’d think the novelty would have worn off by now – there’s lots of tourists in Siem Reap.
Another great thing about Nhan is his motorcycle helmet. I liked that he had one and wore it, as any man who actually wears a helmet cares about his own personal safety, and as I’m on a small vehicle being towed behind him, it means that I too will hopefully benefit from that care.
While staring at the back of it as we bumped down some entertainingly-surfaced track, I noticed that it was branded ”Space Crown”. I immediately felt massive respect for the anonymous marketing manager in some South-East Asian helmet factory, for he had done to me what every soap-powder advertiser dreams of: he’d made the mundane exotic.
I’d been thinking of boring motorcycle helmets, but those two words ”Space Crown” made me think of exotic, heavily-armoured royal headgear worn by warring intergalactic emperors. I tried to think if I could devise a similarly exciting brand-name that might make me a crash helmet millionaire on my return to the UK.
All I could come up with was ”The James Bond Bionic Time-Travel Tiara” which should be even more thrilling, but I feel its potency is diluted by all those syllables.
Phew. My first day in Siem Reap, Cambodia is coming to an end. Up early to see Angkor Wat, Bayon and finally Ta Phrom has exhausted me – five marvellous hours wandering kilometers in 30+ celcius and humidity.
The tumble-down temples are breathtaking – and perfectly, albeit ironically, exemplify the buddhist idea that everything is impermanent.
Then a massage followed by food and some live apsara dancing – and just time for beer before bed and doing it all again tomorrow.