she said (Cambodia): "TUK TUK? NO? WANNA GET STONED?"
April 19, 2015
Bridger and I had one day in Bangkok before shipping out so we went to go catch the water taxi down the river...it cost 50 cents. I think most people take this boat to actually get places but we just took it to look at stuff.
We got off at the end of the line to a trendy little riverfront area full of Chinese tourists (who are everywhere by the way-the Chinese LOVE to travel!). We wanted some cheap street food so went looking and stumbled into this little zone with a few stalls. We were treading lightly not sure if we were going to stay but this Thai vendor immediately called us in and started chatting to us and before we knew it he had given us some free soup to try...oh my god, being gut sick so much this trip, I'm so scared of contaminated water so really really wouldn't have chosen to eat soup under normal circumstances but also didn't want to be rude and refuse his kind gesture. On top of that, there was some fleshy veggie/fruit in there that I had to close my nose and just get enough down to not be offensive! Anyways, he was absolutely so kind and we just ate chicken and rice and chatted for a long while...he was the first really kind, genuine local Thai person we met and a nice reminder about how amazing Thai's can be outside of Khao San Road! I can make myself nauseous just by thinking about being nauseous (wonderful gift right?!) and feeling scared about being nauseous so shortly after this lovely authentic encounter, we got back on the boat to get a head start of the river of shit that was inevitably going to come (it didn't). On our walk back from the pier to the hostel we passed the Grand Palace which was now closed...and the family of rats of all sizes that had made the front lawn their home were scurrying about picking up the food scraps all over the ground. And then we passed a man in a public park facing a tree who had his hands down his pants readjusting and then he just walked away like it was nothing at all. Special sights! During that day I was also walking down Khao San and a guy stopped me and said "today is your lucky day" so I asked why and he said some stuff and then showed me some sort of a card indicating he was a fortune teller and he was selling fortune reading-but then he immediately jumped into telling me my fortune while looking at my forehead..."you have a long line on your face so...blah blah". Wait, did he really just start an interaction with me by pointing out and talking about my wrinkles?!? Yes, yes, that's exactly what happened! I said good humouredly, "man, you can't just start talking to a woman and immediately comment on her forehead wrinkles!!". and that was the end of that. Also, Bridger got totally ripped off at 7-11 in Bangkok when he paid for a few dollars worth of stuff with a 1000 Baht bill (about $30) which is a common thing, especially around this area. He didn't realize until he got home that he got stiffed about 800B or something so the admirably assertive thing that he is, packed up the garbage (because by this time he had finished the drink and food that he bought), marched right back to 7-11 and much to the skepticism of every traveller in there who gave him a sarcastic "good luck", pleasantly explained his situation while showing the garbage and the change and asked politely for the right change back...which he got!!! I'd say it was an incredible win for travelers everywhere!
Next morning we were up at 3 am to catch the train to the Cambodian border which left at 5:55 am but we had to be there at 5 to buy a ticket. The ticket for the 7ish hour train ride cost a grand total of 1.50ish. When we got on, Bridger was putting my pack up in the overhead storage and the train police (I don't know what else to call them...they wore uniforms and managed everyone on the train) was really angry at him and kept saying "no no"...turns out he didn't like that my shoes and sandals were clipped by carabeener (spelling?) to the outside and were dangling above people's heads. He made me take them off and put them under my seat instead. I should have known better bc Thai's think feet are very dirty and its disrespectful to point your feet towards anyone but didn't even think of it in the chaos of the early morning. Either way, felt like a little child getting scolded!
The train was definitely slower than the bus but way cheaper and so so awesome! It looked exactly like what you'd imagine an "olden days" train to look like with light yellow wooden bench seats and big windows on each side that were wide open with a breeze blowing in the whole trip. The train literally clacked away the whole way, the cars loosely connected to eachother so they swayed back and forth. You could literally walk between the cars while the train was moving and see the ground through the wide open doors on each side. Very charming!
When we got to the Thai side of the border we took the back of a truck full of people from the train to the immigration office. This cost us about 50 cents. So btwn the tuk tuk to the train station, the train ticket and the truck, we paid about $3.50 to get the whole way to the border which is astronomically cheap! Then the notorious border crossing...the Thai-Cambodian is known to be full of scams, rip offs and bribes (fake immigration offices that charge more, people trying to get you a visa faster...that cost more, "processing fees", bullshit "medical checks" etc) so we were expecting the worst. Walked to the Thai immigration office and got stamped out of Thailand and then walked over to the Cambodian immigration to apply for an entry visa. Everything went so so straightforward and smooth that when it came time to pay my also bullshit "processing fee" (I.e. Cash for their pocket) which I promised myself I was going to question and refuse profusely, I just coughed up the 2 extra bucks or whatever and went on my way bc I was just so thankful so be through with so little hassle.
Then came the bus stop where we needed transport from the border to Siem Reap, our end destination. We had met a couple and a bro and sis on the train so decided to share a ride with them. The bus people asked for $10 pp and the couple we were with decided to play hardball and go for $5 pp or nothing and it got tense! The bus people refused, so the guy said that were all leaving the bus station bc its a rip off and we're gonna try to find out own ride to which the bus people countered with the conditions that if we leave the bus station now they will not sell us a ticket if we come back. So all 6 of us start to leave the bus station and literally a train of frenzied bus people followed us out trying to convince us to take their bus and then starting to angrily threaten us when it became clear that we were not planning to. Now, I'm all for saving a few bucks but somehow got caught up in this and felt really rotten about all of it and if I'd been on my own I'd have paid the $10 bus and be done with it. First because in such a poor country I felt bad whittling down to below what the service was worth. And more importantly, because a lot of sketchy stuff can happen in Cambodia (tons of reports of robberies, reports of drivers stopping in the middle of nowhere demanding more money to keep going etc) and I didn't really like the idea of playing "is this random Cambodian driver that we found off the street honest" roulette while carrying everything I have with me in this world. I've always been a little more cautious in transit when I have all my stuff bc everyone knows that it would be a great time to rob someone as you know they have all their valuables on them. That's why so many countries have official airport taxis that are regulated, the only ones allowed to pick up passengers from the main taxi stand at the airport. Anyways, I've always been a little more conservative in these situations and don't play with fire so I was happy when bus people eventually caved and begrudgingly let us all go for $5 each.
We arrived in Siem Reap with a hostel booked, but once again, absolutely no idea where it was so we just picked up a tuk tuk who charged us a few bucks and went. As we got oriented to the neighborhood a bit more, it was clearly apparent that at that time we were super close to our hotel and our tuk tuk just drove around for a bit so it didn't seem like we were the 30 second ride away that we were haha. Good on him...entrepreneur :) On a related note, where Thai tuk tuks are like a tricycle with one seat in the back, Cambodian tuk tuk's are so much more charming. They literally look like a little carriage with seats on both sides and drivers seem to individualize their rig-- some have wood paneling, some have them decorated with different color fabrics etc. Our driver had his decorated out with all sorts of tacky colors/wedding like decorations so we got a nice picture!
Now let me just start by saying that I absolutely LOVE Cambodia. And for reasons that I can't yet really even understand or articulate. I am just drawn to it magnetically. I remember on my first SE Asia trip in 2006, Sally and I stopped over in Cambodia for literally two days on route between Malaysia and Vietnam. We only stopped in the capital Phnom Penh which at that time (or maybe just where we were staying) was a bit of a run down, tourist empty, a little bit scary kind of place where we left our hotel room at 6 pm and quickly decided it was a sketchy plan bc nobody was around and returned to our hotel room for the rest of the night. Even then I felt like there was this crazy and unique energy in Cambodia that I had not experienced before and I was in love and couldn't wait to come back someday. Happily for me, I'm back and even with my short time here, I absolutely feel the exact same draw and positivity towards it that I experienced before (I'm writing this retroactively so I'm reflecting on longer in Cambodia than this post suggests!). It's definitely among the more gritty places in SE Asia and a place where you need to be vigilant or you most certainly run a very real chance of being robbed, scammed or taken advantage of. I've met several a person along my way who has a story of having their bag snatched right off their shoulder, their phone pickpocketed or all their bags stolen right out of their hotel room in Cambodia so it is pretty well essential to be aware of your stuff, your money and your person or you may get taken. That being said, it is one of the poorest w one of the most corrupt government countries in SE Asia. You don't go far without meeting someone, locals, expats and tourists who will incidentally speak to this fact. Further, Cambodia has a horrific and violent not so far back past where a quarter of their population was murdered under the Khmer Rouge rule and with it, it's social infrastructure, education, medical care etc. collapsed. Yet, the Khmer people somehow continue to be some of the most warm, resilient, hardworking and so friendly people even though you would imagine they must be hardened and indifferent with what they have endured. What I love about the Khmer people that I have not particularly experienced elsewhere in my travels is how readily they make eye contact and just simply smile at you as you interact or walk by and what a lovely and cheeky sense of humour they seem to have! I remember reading about Cambodia in Lonely Planet SE Asia and being struck by it saying something like "blah blah the landscape and places are beautiful, but the real treasure of Cambodia is the Khmer people..." and it was so interesting to read because a) that's exactly in line with my impressions and b) obviously there is something inherently different about the Khmer's that warrants a shout out like that in a book filled with info about all the countries in SE Asia.
By our first day in Siem Reap it had been so embarrassingly long that I'd done laundry that I literally had to drop most all my clothes off and most definitely every single last one of my underwear and bathing suit bottoms. No problem, I'll just go commando with my pants today. Well...problem. Because then you use public bathrooms and remember how I told you there is rarely toilet paper in public bathrooms in SE Asia so you just drip dry? Well the drip dry technique is highly flawed with no underwear because there's no "buffer zone" so you drip dry right through your pants and then you have to pull your tank top down really far to cover the drops...of pee.
Anyway, the main reason tourists go to Siem Reap is bc its the base town to see the ginormous ancient temples of Angkor Wat, an absolute staple attraction on the SE Asia tourist trail. The first day we were in Siem Reap I had this brilliant idea that we could go to the Angkor National Museum and get some good background info about the temples so that we didn't need to pay a guide when we went to Angkor Wat the next day because both B and I hate guided tours (very poor attention spans). Well this was the worst idea ever. We paid US $12 each and unless you LOVE museums (we don't...very poor attention spans) it was TERRIBLE, SO boring and didn't at all give us any info about the temples. Worst money I've spent on this trip so far hands down which makes us sick because we're kind of on a budget and only want to spend money on things we actually like! One plus was that Bridger found a sign there that said "legend revealed" so he felt like he's finally been recognized for what he is :)
Another plus was that when we were walking there ,there was a street vendor selling cages of birds (caged birds are everywhere in Asia, not quite sure what the purpose is)... As we walked by I saw that one of the poor birds somehow had gotten both wings lodged in the cage bars and it was stuck belly to cage so I took my camera case and untangled it. Haha not sure what the vendor lady must have been thinking about this bleeding heart tourist but she didn't say anything and let me continue my rescue mission. After feeling museum money depressed, we decided that we deserved to eat Mexican food (well Bridger did and I said no and then we got in a fight about it so then I decided ok, we could eat Mexican food and then in true B form, he spitefully refused to eat Mexican food until I begged him to eat Mexican food which we then did). We had been doing so so good at eating local food (its always cheaper, less likely to make you sick and actually mostly delicious) BUT after a month straight of eating ricey and noodley stuff, it felt good to just eat something else! But, as the universe would have it, while eating our delicious Mexican food, a gecko fell off the roof and landed in my hair...which in real time, I was unaware of, all I knew was that an unknown something thwacked onto my head and that was probably not good so of course I jumped up and flapped at my head while Bridger laughed at me and mildly attempted to help me! Since we walked to dinner and its not that far from out hotel, without a second thought we just walked home. Well what was a bright, busy street in the day was actually a really dark and empty street in the night and for the first time, I felt quite scared that we fully have the potential to get robbed here and in all honestly if that happened, it would have totally been our fault and couldn't even blame the robber! I don't think I've ever walked so fast on vacation and pretty well left Bridger behind because he didn't feel the fear like I did (but he doesn't know!). We did get home ok but I was pretty jittery for awhile after and still kicking myself for a bad choice.
The next day we were up at 4:30 am and got picked up by a tuk tuk driver and drove to Angkor Wat temples in the pitch black.
By 5:30 we had gotten there, bought our ticket and joined the rest of the human zoo (Bridger compared it to a music festival because there were so many people congregated in one place) outside one of the main temples to watch sunrise come over the temple...an incredibly exceptional sight that we intended to capture with our GoPro camera and then speed up so you could see the change quickly. Nope, sorry halfway through the GoPro quit recording...we forgot to change the memory card to one that actually had space on it, dammit! Lesson learned! Regardless, the sunrise was spectacular and it made for some absolutely stunning pictures and serene moments as the rays moved through the temples.
Going there so early also let us move about a hugely touristed site without hordes of people so it felt like we had the temple to ourselves for awhile (the zoo watching the sunrise dispersed across the huge grounds so thinned out considerably) and gave us a possibility of getting some pictures without random strangers in it, a definitely certainty later in the day.
Passes to the temples are sold in 1, 3 and like 7 or something day increments and any reading you do about the temples sounds like you'll need at least two or three days to explore all of them. Since we're not huge history/temple people and were short on time and money, we opted to do a single day and only do the big/main temples and really make a solid day, sunrise to sunset. So we visited the main temples of Angkor Wat (most famous), Bauyon which was my favorite because it was a towering structure with a bunch of rock faces over it and Ta Promh (my other favorite), its claim to fame being the place where parts of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were filmed.(I also don't know if I've spelled any of those temples correctly). The last was particularly neat because the huge roots of the jungle trees had started to grow over the walls of the temple in several places so it was literally being consumed by the jungle.
The area where these temples are is absolutely sprawling so we explored one temple, sweat buckets and then got in our tuk tuk who waited for us and drove us to the next stop. There were also people who were really awesome and not as lazy or as sweaty as us, bicycling between the temples which was pretty insane to both Bridger and I! In addition to the main temples, there were also several smaller temples to look at, climb and explore. It was really surreal and neat to see these massive structures in various states of restoration and we enjoyed wandering about for several hours.
We explored and climbed and put in a solid effort for about 6 hours and then got to a really high temple that you could climb to the top...but after so many hours we were just too sore, hot and exhausted to be excited about climbing more...so instead we did something that I'm not sure has ever been done in the history of Angkor Wat tours...we laid down on the concrete steps at the bottom and I had a nap (so deeply I was dreaming!). Further proof that I can literally sleep anywhere. And because there was so much talk about 3+ days of exploring, even though we were totally, totally done and "templed out" (its a thing, google it) after we wondered why we were such failures and wondered what was wrong with us that we just wanted to go home...but then we talked to other backpackers that night (and more along the way since with similar stories) and they left after 3 hours so we felt ok again! After a day of templing, we came home, immediately passed out on the bed and fell asleep within minutes!
Given the poverty and circumstances in Cambodia, there are alot of NGO's and other development initiatives in the area that aim to support the people in building more promising futures than poverty. One among them is Artisans D'Angkor which is a school where people with disabilities or people living in poorer rural communities come to be trained and apprentice in a traditional Cambodian (Khmer) art form and then the art work is sold at the store. We visited here one day and you could literally watch the people create the art right in front of you. There was a ton of beautiful stuff but we have problems a) we couldn't afford it and b) we didn't have any space to pack it around if we did. We felt bad because we wanted to contribute but alas, so goes the life of a long term backpacker where I've had to work really hard to curb my addiction to buying local handicrafts, artwork and jewelry because these are my favorite things I own in my regular life.
We found a few gem of places in Siem Reap that were really nice on the budget! One restaurant we found, we could literally eat lunch for $2 including drinks, amazing! The other had happy hour cocktails for $1 so we ended up having a few too many there. At one point during drinks, Bridger neutrally, flatly and out of nowhere said "I have a feeling something bad is going to happen here". Wait, what?! Why, what are you talking about?! Tell me more! You're freaking me out! Particularly alarming because a statement like that is SO out of character for him! Anyways, we kept drinking and nothing bad did happen except maybe when we went to the market after and I ended up buying TWO hats instead of the one I was after because in my tipsy state I thought "why not!" and Bridger mysteriously lost about $30 USD whether by losing track of how many drinks he really did buy, getting ripped off on change back or getting pickpocketed...all of these things we could handle and don't count as "bad" in traveling world.
The next day it was time to get out of Siem Riep so we went to a travel agency to book a ticket out and saw that in addition to bike, boat, bus, plane and tour tickets, in Cambodia you could ALSO book a chance to shoot pretty well any guns you wanted (think AK-47's and even rockets) if you had the exorbitant cash flow of hundreds of USD! Travel agent lady said that it's the Russians who mostly partake...
Dealing with money while traveling can sometimes be a total pain in the ass and Cambodia was no exception! It's really interesting because Cambodia operates on USD for the most part (which on it's own is a really lovely and straightforward conversation rate) but for anything under a dollar or between dollars, they give change in their local currently the Riel (4000 R = 1USD approx). So throw in regular conversion rates and math-doing before buying anything and then double that brain work because you now have to think and do math in two currencies...Ok, I have to get rid of all my Riel, I have 10,500R left and I want to buy lunch for 4.50 American, so how much American do I need left to make sure that I can pay for it but also don't get more Riel in change, ah! To compound things further, the ATMs shoot out such ridiculously large bills so you sometimes have the equivalent of absolutely 0 money even though you just took out $200 because nobody can break it! One time we went to an ATM, Bridger went first and got all $50's which is a really big denomination for a culture that exists in $1-3 for the most part! Knowing this was a $50 dispensing ATM, I decided (much to Bridger's frustration) to go to another ATM that might possibly spit out $20's instead. Well once again, the universe spits in my face because I got a $100 and two $50 bills...Right on, now we have to break $400 in 50/100's! Haha Bridger really doesn't think its as big of a deal as I do but he's much better at going to businesses and just directly and unapologetically giving them a 50 to pay for a few dollar bill and rolling with whatever happens after that. Me on the other hand am not so comfortable with the eye rolls, groans and reluctant digging through the cash register for every smaller bill they can find that often comes with these transactions so my approach goes something a little more like tentatively passing a $50...sheepish asking "is this ok?!"...waiting uncomfortably where I can read they don't want to do it and they can probably read that I do have a few smaller bills left...change-making uncomfortable stalemate...me collapsing under the pressure and saying "it's ok, here you go" while passing over my last small bill!
Also the tuk tuk's in Cambodia are also insanely...assertive... in getting your business. They park all along the street and constantly ask "tuk tuk?" as you walk by...like really, walking down one street you might be asked about 10 times and heaven forbid you're going on a half hour walk to get somewhere. Haha sometimes they nap in their tuk tuk until an unsuspecting tourist walks by and they literally leap to their feet faster than you can blink and there it is, "tuk tuk?". It's enough to drive you mad sometimes because you have to decline hundreds of times a day. And really, if I wanted a tuk tuk, I can SEE you...I would ask myself! You asking me doesn't make me need a tuk tuk any more than I would if I just DECIDED myself I need a tuk tuk! Now I can see why people literally just stop responding all together and ignore them but it just feels so wrong and undignified to blatantly ignore another human speaking to you who is really only trying to make a living so we always make an effort to look a them, smile and say "no thank you". I'm not sure if I've said this before but Bridger is a complete nad absolute ogre in heat. Like I mean, a hands down sweaty, grumpy, snappy, complainy asshole almost consistently anytime he has to walk outside anywhere when it's hot. And bless him, even he always, always says a polite "no thank you" which is something I really appreciate about him. Now I'd say about 100% of the tuk tuks in Siem Reap (and everywhere else I would later come to realize) also operate a little business on the side...called drug dealing. Many conversations went in some variant of this: "tuk tuk?" "no thank you" "weed, cocaine, MDMA?" still "no thank you"...over and over, every day.
As I explained before, Cambodia is a very poor country (Ironically Bridger just passed on this fact the other day that in spite of this, Cambodia has one of the lowest unemployment rates in SE Asia...what do you make of that). Because of that, you definitely need to know what you're doing, where you are and where you're going and what you have more than in other places because, even though the majority of Cambodians are honest, lovely and hardworking people, there are always people who are ready to create or take advantage of an opportunity to profit off you if you allow it, for the most part sneakily rather than forcefully, especially in a town as touristed as Siem Reap. We had a few kind of shady but interesting experiences! Though I usually know pretty well where I am and where I need to get to, at one point I wasn't totally sure exactly where I was and if the street I was on actually connected to the one I needed to get on or whether it was a dead end. Of course, a tuk tuk driver was conveniently immediately there to offer his assistance. I asked my question while literally showing him a map and he told me "it's far away" and he'd take me there for $3. I laughed and said that I know it's very close and I was walking and once he realized he wasn't going to take me for a ride, quite literally, he denied that it was close and then pointed me in what I knew was the complete opposite direction not to mention a parallel street so had I listened, I would have pretty well walked forever and not gotten where I needed to go, little asshole! Another time (this didn't happen in Siem Reap but the next town, but again, I write retroactively!) I was buying a few dollars worth of stuff and I paid with a $20. At the same time as I was paying and the elderly woman who worked there had taken out a $10 bill and was was digging around for more change, I happened to pass Bridger a $10 bill that I owed him. Well when I got back my change it was also $10 short. When I asked her about it, in broken English and gestures, she basically gestured that I had already given it to Bridger. When I explained that i pulled that bill out of my purse she didn't put up any resistance, apologized and gave me the right change. Not sure exactly what this was, whether it was an innocent mistake or a quick thinking attempt to capitalize on an opportunity--if the latter, you almost have to commend her for being so swift in seeing me coincidentally pass Bridger a bill at the same time I'm getting change, recognizing that she could make an extra 10 bucks, sweeping the $10 she was going to give me back off the table and nonchalantly giving me the rest of the change... who knows! Anyways, we also had some questionable experiences with the sheisters at our hostel...
What to do with valuables while traveling/moving about is always such a tricky thing to figure out--best practice and what non-travelers or conservative travel books or people working at Atmosphere will tell you is to NEVER leave valuables in your room/carry them with you and always wear your money belt when you're out. I consider myself pretty conservative by nature but it is quite laughable just how impractical and totally unrealistic and unsustainable this is!! And also, there is plenty of opportunity for theft off your body so this is not totally secure either. So what are your options...leave stuff in your room in random places or a locked bag (both of which are not that effective if someone breaks in actively looking for stuff), leave it in the room safe (which most rooms don't have or turns out are not that secure anyways because someone always has a master key) or leave it in the hotel front desk safe (which multiple people have access to). Throughout our trip we've done a combo of these things depending on where we're at. In Siem Reap, because we were going to be gone for full days, we decided to check it into the hotel safe on two different days. They give you a receipt of everything in there and they want to count your cash while you check it--makes sense for me so we know whats there, makes sense for them so that we cant come back and lie and claim that they took cash to make some money. The first time, the girl counting counted a few bucks (like $5) short of my earlier count. I didn't think much of it and just thought i was out a few bucks, easy enough and almost just said ya whatever but then Bridger counted and my original count was right. Girl apologized and put down the right number. The next time we checked stuff, the guy counted and was out by like $20 some but again recounted and apologized and put the right number. The next day, Bridger checked out even though I had been the one dealing with payment all along and had paid a few days (clearly labelled paid on the bill) and then others were just outstanding on the tab. When Bridger checked out, the guy told him he owed $55 dollars (the total bill, some of which had been paid) which he paid even though we only owed like $20 some bucks. I marched back there and got our money back without too much problem so it was fine. Ok so, mistakes happen and perhaps that maybe was an innocent mistake, but when the same kind of thing happens over and over it does make you wonder whether they were just trying to create a situation where they could skim a few bucks unnoticed? That being said, I also feel horrible that these people have to look at and count outrageous amounts of tourist money every day and I'm sure after awhile you would get jaded and feel like taking a cut. So conflicted because it pisses me off when people try to rip you off but it also really felt horrible to check my stuff and flaunt your wealth in front of people who don't have it.
Now that being said, along the way I can't even count how many times people literally chased after us with correct change, even when we didn't even know we'd get change. One time at a bus stop we were trying to buy a cup of noodles and I just think the guy didn't know the english number words for what it costed bc the first time he told us the price seemed so high so we clarified and the next time he told us it was a totally different number-this went on for a few more turns. Eventually we just passed our bills over not really knowing how freaking much the soup was but that it couldn't be THAT much. The guy was insistent that we wait for a minute and sure enough he ran all over the restaurant trying to find the right change to give back to us because we had grossly overpaid! Every time this happens it's always a little charming and alot inspiring,especially so because we're in a country where ever dollar counts to the locals. Haha maybe I'm making too big a deal of when this stuff happens but I always feel like it is another testament to the inherent goodness of humanity...a reminder that we all need every now and again!