Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Whoa! Crazy old Cambodia! It’s a lot like being back in India: dusty, polluted, crazy traffic (although that still pales in comparison to India), the constant harassment to buy things / give money to beggars, and the distinct waft of poo when the wind is blowing certain directions. And also like India, it’s a country where I feel I can’t really stop to look at anything (instantly swarmed by tuk tuk drivers etc.) or take photographs of daily life. They are, for the most part, so disadvantaged and poor that it feels invasive or exploitive to photograph them. The “land of smiles” this is not. But, it’s not fair to compare Cambodia to Thailand. What the people here have endured – and so recently – sets them apart from their neighbours on all sides. We got it full-force today when we toured the Tuol Sleng museum and the Killing Fields, getting up close and personal with the reign of terror that was the Khmer Rouge. Hard to believe that I was already alive and kicking when this was all going on. A bit of a depressing day, but essential to understanding even a fraction of the national psyche here. So, we tried to be compassionate when the very first remorque-moto driver we hired out of the airport tried to scam us big-time….but it ain’t easy. After only one night in Phnom Penh we headed straight for Siem Reap (also known as “The Dust Bowl”) the next day, launch pad for touring the mighty Angkor. The six-hour bus ride was interesting, with Cambodian karaoke blasting on the TV the entire way…..that was entertaining for about 8 minutes, followed by 5 hours and 52 min of mild torture. The only break I got was watching Fab eat a tarantula. Actually, I couldn’t even watch. Or listen. He tried to convince me to try “juste une patte” (“just one leg!”). No. Nope. Nuh-uh. Once there, we opted for pedal power instead of hiring a moto taxi for the day (illegal to rent scooters in SR for some reason, and anyway, we needed the exercise). We arose at 5:30 and arrived at Angkor just after sunrise. It was lovely to be able to set our own pace for touring all of the sites (and outsmart the busloads of tour groups!). As fascinating as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom were, it was Ta Prohm that truly captivated me. To see the power of nature, to see how she is taking back the land that belonged to her by literally swallowing the structures that were built on her, was astounding. (Yeah and it was cool to see the “Tomb Raider” tree where Angelina Jolie picked the orchid!) It was a sporting day, what with all the cycling around and clambering to the top of precariously steep ancient stairways of the many temples (and back down again – often more challenging). We only arrived back at our base camp in Siem Reap ($10 a night including TV and – wait for it – hot water!) at about 5 pm. Lucky for us, happy hour is a big deal in SR and they take it seriously, with 2 for 1 drink specials. A great way to unwind after a long day. Imported alcohol isn’t taxed at 100% (!) like it is in Thailand, so the drinks are actually really tasty and quite affordable. I still prefer Thailand’s Chang and Singha beers to Cambodia’s Angkor beer (what’s that? Cara – drinking beer? Yes, after a 20-year hiatus, I am back to drinking beer – but only with a lot of ice. What can I say….it’s the cheapest option.) But Cambodia rocks in the mixed drinks department. Wine is still off the radar, sadly. Now, if I could just figure out the money situation. Everything is in USD$ here. Even the bank machines give out US money. But the local currency is the riel. You can pay for things in any combination of the two, at a flat and standard rate of 4000 riel per US dollar…and you will also receive change back in any combination of the two. You can even use Thai baht in some places. All this to say, how much I am actually paying for anything is a mystery. But I’m pretty sure someone’s coming out ahead of the game, and I’m willing to bet it’s not me. Still, at $1.00 for a plate of steaming hot noodles and veg, it’s hard to complain. The french influence still holds strong here, which means great iced coffees (a bit of an addiction that even Fab, a non-coffee-drinker, has joined in on), baguettes, pastries, ice cream….darn, and I was doing so well on the Thai diet! Snake is next on Fab’s list. They serve it up nice and grilled, on a stick. Luckily they have no legs for him to try to convince me to taste. After 2 days in SR, we boarded the Karaoke Bus back to big, busy, noisy Phnom Penh. All in all, we’re not feelin’ Cambodia too much. Since Fab only has 2 weeks left before he heads back to France, and he flies out of Bangkok anyway, we’ve decided to spend our remaining time together back in our favourite place – Northern Thailand…specifically, Pai. Some might think this to be redundant or a waste of time, since I’ve already been there, done that. But that’s the beauty of this entire adventure. It isn’t about doing what makes sense (clearly, as I am both jobless and homeless). It’s about doing what brings me joy, and what brings me joy right now is to spend my last few days with Fab in a place we love. Theft update: I was wrong, they DID manage to get something from me when they rummaged through my pack on the bus to KPN…one of my secret stashes of American money, buried way inside a bag inside a bag at the bottom of my backpack. How they found it, I don’t know, but I guess that’s what makes them professional theives. Anyway it was only $60. They still missed the other secret stash! ha!