Sunday, April 02, 2006
Seeing the sights of Cambodia, meeting Cambodians, mingling with a few expats & investigating some of the nightlife nevertheless made for a memorable month, & I'd certainly recommend it as a place to visit. The Cambodian people are a delight, especially so when seen in the context of what the country went through during the horrors of the Pol Pot regime. Part of its charm is a sort of 'wild west' aspect to it - entrenched corruption, minimal public health services, limited laws & regulations ...
Oh, and a word of warning: Cambodians are the worst launderers in the world! I'm not quite sure why I continued to do this, but I'd hand over some clothing to staff of wherever I was staying, asking if it could be washed (usually in those places where I was feeling lazy, or there were no obvious clothes drying spots in or near my rooom) . Unfailingly, the clothes would be returned in a much worse condition than when handed over, usually sporting smears of washing powder and an impossible amount of crinkles & creases. I think I'd have done a better job if I'd worn them while I'd showered & then thrown them in the bottom of my pack to dry. So, I think there's an untapped market for some enterprising local or expat to develop.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
Today's my last day here. Just had the bike washed at a local 'carwash' - as I left, the washers were all squabbling over how to divide up what I paid (a dollar, whereas I think it probably only cost 25 cents)When I go cycling, people are always asking me to pick up a small gift or two to bring back to Australia for them
I've been to a few bars/nightclubs over the past 2 nights - something I don't usually do. On Wednesday evening I went with Kevin (he's lived here for about 8 years & has produced a book of his photographs: Phnom Penh People. Check out some examples here) to a very pleasant bar across the river, run by an Australian fellow, 'Snow'. ('Snow' had a small role as an Australian expat in Matt Dillon's City of Ghosts) It's apparently the only bar on the east bank; there's no sign out the front, at the request of the local police, but it's known as "Maxine's on the River", "Snow's Bar" or the "Blue House" (by the French). Lots of lights, bells, mirrors, a lovely breeze & good music. We later went to Bar 51 (I think) and the Pickled Parrot. These were basically bars at which you can chill out, and have a beer & a chat. I drank rather more than I usually do but no ill effects the next day.
In contrast to these establishments, Martini's, which I visited last night with another local, Ian, followed by Walkabout and then the Heart of Darkness, was an eye-opener. Martini's was full of scores & scores of so-called "working girls" - many more of them than customers, it seemed. As you walk in, you are virtually engulfed by numerous women smiling & moving suggestively, giving you shoulder rubs & so on in the hope that you'll employ them for something more substantial later on. The experience was both astonishing & just a little unsettling. Walkabout was a much smaller, more low key venue, but with a similar program. Heart of Darkness seemed to be pretty much a nightclub with a lot of Cambodians in attendance, and loud thumping dance music being played by a DJ.
So perhaps tonight, my last evening here, should be a quiet one, spent reflecting on my stay here & preparing for departure tomorrow morning.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Pursat to Kompong Chhnang
Distance: 98.6 km
Ridetime: 6:02 hrs
Average speed: 16.64 km/hr
Max: 23.1 km/hr
Between Towns Total: 540km
Odometer Total 760km
Day 7 cycling:
Kompong Chhnang to Phnom Penh
Distance: 95.1 km
Ridetime: 6:25 hrs
Average speed: 15:03 km/hr
Max: 22.0 km/hr
Between Towns Total: 635km
Odometer Total 855km
Back in Phnom Penh, and at the Last Home Guest House
The ride to Kompong Chhnang was as gruelling as the previous stretch, but I eventually made it to the Sokha Guest House. It was $8 for a fan room & an additional $4 for aircon, which I unwisely declined - I had a hot & sleepless night, and seemed in poor shape for yet another 100km ride when I arose the next morning. The $2 breakfast provided was solid (2 bread rolls, jam, omelette, milk coffee). This, coupled with much cooler weather - it seemed all morning that it was going to rain at some stage - resulted in an easier day's cycling than I'd feared. But now of course another issue arose - the buttocks began to get quite sore - I must do something about that seat!
I began to really enjoy some of the roadside drinks you encounter on the way. Almost as enjoyable were the reactions of incredulity when I stopped & ordered one. Sugar cane juice squeezed from the cane between a set of rollers is refreshing; even more so was the drink made from shaved ice, to which was added syrup (green, red...) and maybe some condensed milk or some other fluid ladled into the mixture. Whatever it was, it was a nice change, as there's only so much Coke; yellow, green, orange or pink Fanta; 7-Up/Sprite; Red Bull; or canned Lychee juice that one can take.
It seems that ice may be OK here, unlike in many other southeast asian countries where you're cautioned against having it in drinks. Overall, and I've not been super-careful, I've had no gastric concerns during my time here.
Battambang to Pursat
7:02 hrs ridetime
Average speed: 16.09 km/hr
Total (between towns): 441km ;
Odometer total (i.e includes within towns): 662km
Today's cycling was a struggle, and especially gruelling in the heat. I zipped along for the first 60km, but then just seemed to run out of puff. I plodded on, inch by inch ... the last 20 km was an eternity - like a line that never quite reached the asymptote ... nearer & nearer... 101...102 ... "omigod ... will this never end ..." .. and then the last 10km... the last 5km .. and so on ...
Finally reached the destination - Pursat, and checked in to the Phnom Pich Hotel. Such relief, such an oasis. It was a superb room, very quiet hotel, quiet town, no other tourists to be seen. I decide to take the next day off from cycling, and spent the time washing clothes, reading, and generally resting. The prospect of a further 2 x 100km rides was not pleasing.
The next day, I strolled (well, toiled is perhaps more apt - it was like being inside a huge sauna) downtown for some lunch & arrived at the Tep Machha Restaurant (also known as the Magic Fish Restaurant, as mentioned in the LP guide). The stir fried vegetable dish (5000 R) was uninspiring but the view of the river out the window was fabulous - people swimming, fishing, washing ...
People here are so very friendly, and as noted previously, while cycling along you're constantly bombarded with "hello" (and the occasional "what is your name?"), usually accompanied by delightful smiles & waves (in fact, the kids enthusiasm sometimes seemed to border on hysteria - was it really that exciting to see me (at times I felt like a cross between Santa Claus, Mr Whippy & Lady Di returned from the grave) ... perhaps they were just bored...?). I estimated that on average about 3 people a kilometre said "hello" - and typically, especially if kids, they would yell this out at least 3 times .... so during a 100km journey you're confronted with near enough to 900 "hello's"... Sweet, and well meant, to be sure, but like the so-called Chinese water torture, each "hello" became like an arrow to the brain after a few hours. It was a good challenge for me to try and remain graceful about it all.
Friday, March 24, 2006
I had a relaxed look around town yesterday, visiting 2 Buddhist wats & the museum - rather overpriced at $1 for what was on offer.
A day of superlatives followed, commencing with a massage at the Seeing Hand Massage, again done by blind people, and possibly connected to similar sounding places in Siem Reap & Phnom Penh. I went through the same blue pajamas routine, and was asked by the masseur, a young bloke, if I wanted "medium or strong" - naturally I elected to go for "strong". Sweet mother of Jesus it was strong! At times it felt as if he'd slipped a pair of pliers into his hands, or even a vise. He tugged at extremities, yanked muscles & nerves, dug with steely fingertips .... yikes!! Still, he did manage to locate several trouble spots (as well as probably create a few others). But surely something that painful must be good for you! I avoided tears in the eyes ... until I hit the Smokin' Pot - a local restaurant, diagonally opposite from the White Rose. It has a good reputation, an deven runs cooking classes for interested tourists. I went for the spicy chicken with basil ... the menu said it came "with more or less spice". When I said I wanted it spicy, I think they thought I meant "much more". After the first few mouthfuls, my eyes began to water, lips began to tingle .... I was on fire!!! Is this what they meant by "Smokin'"? Hot, but tasty nevertheless.
The room at Chhaya is windowless - functional but charmless. I suppose I could change rooms, but I can't really be bothered.
I had some breakfast at the Sunrise Coffee House - very western food, which I tend to eat only sparingly when in SE Asia, but pleasant.
I'd thought of doing some cycling today, but instead hired a man & a motorcycle - the first time I've done so, being somewhat of a cycling purist. $8 for 2/3 day seemed reasonable, so off we headed to Phnom Sampeau, then Wat Banan, and then went for a ride on the "bamboo train" or "norry" - this is basically a vehicle comprising 2 sets of wheels, a bamboo platform and an ouboard motor to drive the thing. They use the train tracks to transport people & goods up & down the line, although obviously not when the official train runs (which is maybe only once a week). When two norries travelling in opposite directions meet, the smaller one gives way - it is quickly disassembled then reassembled when the larger one has passed. It was daft, but sorta fun.
Bamboo train or "norry"
The odd thing for me about visiting Phnom Sampeau - the location of the so-called "killing caves" - was how little emotion it managed to elicit from me. In the caves, in wire containers, were scores of skulls & bones of people who'd been pushed to their deaths by the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps I'm just desensitised or a bit knocked off, but I did find it hard to relate to the obvious horror of it all. For me, the S-21 school, with all the photographs of its victims and implements of torture, remains the most disturbing & distressing example of the regime's reign of terror.
The people here now apparently enjoy 'democracy', but everyone you speak to talks with dismay & sense of powerlessness about the widespread corruption in the country - politicians, police, public servants, business people .... Tragic really, but I suppose it's better than it has been.
It was an incredibly dusty trip, but it was nice to see a bit of colour return to my beard, albeit temporarily. It's currently raining - only the second time since I've been here - and it sure is welcome.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
The trip from Siem Reap to here by boat was ... an experience. It started off as a sheer delight - after a 5.30 pickup from the guesthouse & trip down to the port at Siem Reap, I, a few Cambodians and about a dozen or more other tourists got on the boat (the local visitor's guide notes that the boats "in no way meet international safety standards" & they are notorious for breaking down mid-journey). The bike, for which I had to pay $5 extra, was on the roof of the boat, and for a while I sat atop also. For some reason the other passengers were reticent to do which meant I had it to myself for much of the journey. The view was delightful - we passed numerous floating villages, fishing nets, people fishing, folk sailing by in various craft, and for once it wasn't overly hot. After about 4 hours, we pulled in to a floating shop, where we were told that because the water level was too low at Battambang we'd have to get off & complete the journey by road. After our initial suspicion that this was nonsense had been negated by another tourist who'd just arrived from Battambang, we all disembarked via a narrow 10 metre bamboo gangway (me with bicycle in one hand, 2 panniers in the other). All the luggage, including my bike was strapped into a pickup truck, and about a dozen people also crammed in, leaving 4 of us plus a few Cambodians, standing around (I wasn't that keen to jostle my way aboard the pickup). After some strenuous debate that the rest of us could not/would not possibly fit aboard the pickup, another one mysteriously materialised & we clambered aboard. Thus began the journey from hell... along a narrow, potholed, bumpy track - it was the dustiest, bumpiest, roughest trip I think I've ever done in a vehicle - ww were whipped by branches, pounded up & down in the tray of the truck, slashed by the dust ... for about 2 hours, at top speed, enveloped in the usual heat & humidity. People lost hats, one Cambodian had his shirt ripped by the passing branches, I was slashed on the face & arms and even had cuts on my back from the branches. Even talking was difficult - I sounded a bit like Donald Duck at one point, as the vigourous bumping made it hard to breathe normally. I looked like I'd had a session with an S&M exponent during an inspection prior to having a shower after eventually reaching our destination. Today I have an enormous swelling on one buttock and a smaller one on the other from the pounding received from the edge of the tray truck on which I'd attempted to sit
... so today I'm recuperating here in Battambang (I think the name means something like "pounded mercilessly on the arse with a stick"...), which seems like a pleasant, low key sort of place. With about 8 or 9 days to go, I'm now in a quandary as to whether to "kick back", spend another day here & then, after taking my time to cycle the 300 km back to Phnom Penh, spend another week hanging around there, or cycle like blazes & go down to Kampot & Sihanoukville (riverfront & beach regions), and get the bus back ..
Monday, March 20, 2006
After the afternoon massage I walked over to take a look at "Miniature Replicas of Angkor's Temples" - of Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and Banteay Srei - in the garden of a local sculptor. He seemed a nice old bloke, and proudly showed me various certificates & photos, a silver cup & a self-portrait he'd painted, and told me that today was his 70th birthday. I think he said that it took him 4 years to do all the drawings of Angkor Wat before he got down to construction. It did leave me wondering ... "why?".
Tonight I had a meal at the Dead Fish Tower, as suggested in the Comments section - it was sort of fun. It's a slightly quirky place, and the food - Thai - wasn't bad. The best part was the entertainment - a trio doing some sort of repetitious Khmer dance, with emphasis on the hand movements, and then two female singers with American accents singing all those karaoke favourites - Whitney Houston, Cher, and so on. It oscillated between being great fun & a little cringeworthy.
Both on my way to the restaurant & on the way back, numerous young fellows lounging about in the street kindly enquired if I wanted a "tuk tuk" (a form of transport) and then, in a lower voice, if I wanted a "lady massage". I presumed that they weren't the ones who were going to give me the massage, and that this was undoubtedly a "special massage" that was being offered ...
Counsellors sometimes use "minimal encouragers" - appropriate eye contact, occasional nods, "hmm"'s, "uh-huh"'s & other indicators that suggest interest. To deal with being regularly importuned for tuk-tuk, motorcycle and so on, I suggest the use of "minimal discouragers" i.e limited eye contact & maybe minimal acknowledgement, rather than becoming annoyed (although this is not always easy). I try & remind myself that they're just trying to earn a living & that it's not personal, and to endeavour to be good humoured about it.
Sunday, March 19, 2006
I've just spent a further 2 days exploring - cycling & walking - the temples. Perhaps unbelievably, I've cycled nearly 90km around the temple complex & I've walked countless km at each of the temples, and taken god-knows-how-many photos (in fact, my 1Gb card failed, due to overuse I'm sure. Luckily a fellow in a camera shop had the right software to recover the photos & burn them onto a CD, for a small fee).
Admittedly I am one of them, but there seem to be unbelievable numbers of tourists tromping around the temples. It is possible to avoid the crowds to a good extent by timing things differently (i.e to not be at the expected place to view sunset or sunrise, or to continue visiting places at lunchtime), and it's often rewarding to wander off the well-beaten track eg Preah Palilay was virtually deserted compared to the Terrace of the Leper King next door, which was covered with tourists - the image was like a horde of white soldier ants killing their prey.
Amusing to stop at a temple-side restaurant for a meal yesterday - I was presented with a menu; when I said the prices were ridiculous, they presented me with an alternative, cheaper priced menu (same meals listed). When I said it was still too expensive, thw young woman said she'd give me a 'discounted' price. This was $1.50 for some fried rice, down from $2.50, and a Coke for 0.50 cents (= 2,000 R; 'reduced'from 3,500R on the first menu).
Typically, Coke, Fanta etc are about 1,500R; a 950 ml bottle of water (in the cheap plastic bottles, which seems sometimes to taint the water a little) costs about 500R. If you're assertive about it, you can usually buy it for this price even at the temples. (By assertive, I do mean also being a little light-hearted & maybe humorous about it ... it's hardly worth getting het up about 13 cents - and you'll need more water to cool back down!). You can usually eat well at a restaurant for about $6.00, including drinks.
Last night I went to the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant (I preferred the Arun, as there were far fewer other tourists there). It was pretty tasty - I had the Amoc chicken (like chicken curry) & rice, and a few drinks, and finished with a milk coffee & sugar - the good-old tinned condensed milk was added to the coffee. So far, zero ill effects from anything I've eaten or drunk.
I've just started reading Voices from S-21: Terror & history in Pol Pot's secret prison by David Chandler - I feel I should try & understand a little about what happened during those years. It seems so hard to put together the horror & barbarism of this with the apparent sweetness & openness of the Cambodian people that you meet. It's extraordinary how many people smile & say 'hello' as you cycle by or stop to buy a drink ... I'm struck by how, for the first time in years (well, to be honest, it's never much happened), young women will smile, or even seem to flirt a little - such a delight - I can see this as one reason why so many of the expats here like the place. But I can't quite put this all together .... have they always been like this? is it some sort of reaction to the horrors that've occurred? Where did the savagery come from ?? Something to chew over .... On the other hand, maybe that's just daft. I suspect that, given the circumstances, savagery can emerge from any group of people, anywhere ...