18 April 2008

Angkor What?!

I know so many people who fell in love with Cambodia when they went there, who claim it is their favorite country in Southeast Asia if not the world. They enthuse about the gorgeous countryside scenery, the friendliness of the people, the awe-inspiring antiquities, and so much more that made the country for them the most endearing of travel destinations.

I, my friends, am not one of them. But I won't dwell on the negative. Here's what happened:

As I related in my last Vietnam post, I crossed the border by river, trying to feel as much as possible like a young Martin Sheen. On the Vietnamese side, eager gangs of crazed children offered to change our money and sell us Cokes. On the Cambodian side, people were just sort of laying around. After receiving my sticker visa, we were off to the happiest city on Earth, Phnom Penh. Cruel sarcasm aside, I did find Phnom Penh to be a singularly depressing place. I think it's the only city I've been to with dirt roads and no street lighting to speak of--creepy. The main tourist attractions are Tuol Sleng Prison, a converted schoolhouse where the Khmer Rouge tortured to death anyone who wore glasses; and a lovely rural spot outside town known as the Killing Fields, where people were also tortured to death (often with the blunt ends of bamboo poles--nice) and buried in shallow graves. While walking around the Killing Fields, wondering what the hell I was doing there, I often stumbled across bits of cloth and bone poking up through the dust. Like I said, I'm positive many people like this city. I'm just not one of them.

My next stop was Battambang, the second city of Cambodia. Battambang is a bit more chilled out, as the Californians say, but still no street lighting and mostly crickets and tarantulas available for dinner. When I arrived, I was immediately acquired by a tout who escorted me to my intended hotel and then put me on the back of his motorbike (no helmet! no problem!) for a tour of the countryside. This was pretty cool. We set out in the afternoon, so we didn't have much time to travel the 50 km to our first stop: a large cave where the Khmer Rouge tortured people to death (can you detect a theme?). Not really being a genocide buff, I left pretty quickly with moto-dude for our next stop: Wat something or other (does the name actually matter?). En route, we got caught in a bitchin' thunderstorm. The rain came pounding down, drenching us both in seconds, powerful blasts of lightning striking the fields all around us. It being a particularly hot summer day in Cambodia, and having the kind of latent death wish necessary for this sort of travel, I didn't so much mind this. My driver, though, was terrified, and at one point jumped off his bike, looking around for cover. This was the Cambodian countryside, however--treeless and flat as a pancake--so there was no cover (evil laugh). Anyway, we did finally arrive at the temple (kudos to him for not just cancelling it). It was my first Khmer temple, and I was delighted by its awesome size, steepness, and romantic jungle setting. Despite the inclement weather, there was still a woman at the bottom selling soft drinks. Back in Battambang, my driver offered, for $5, to bring me to the "famous" bamboo railway. I'd heard about this before, though I'm still not exactly sure what the hell it is, but I was really attached to my $5, so I demurred.

The next day, I took an extremely packed and overburdened high-speed ferry down the river and across the enormous and picturesque Tonle Sap lake to Siem Reap. This took about seven hours, I think. On the Siem Reap side, I was collected ("for free") by a friend of my driver from Battambang, who brought me to the hotel of my choice ($3/night) on condition that I hire him for the duration of my stay at Angkor. This didn't seem unreasonable, since even I wasn't about to walk from temple to temple in this huge area, so we agreed on a fair price for my multiple-day visit. I even had time on the afternoon I arrived to take a quick sunset look at Angkor Wat itself, where it rained, and I got drenched, again.

OK, here's the thing: I cannot possibly describe this place adequately, not in what is supposed to be a briefish summary post of a previous year's trip. Angkor is huge, just huge, with all the beauty and mystery that could be packed into a lifetime of imagination. It takes days even to see the major sites cursorily, and if you're really that interested in them, I recommend you do some Wikipedia researching, ask me about it in person (I even have photos) or, best of all, go there yourself. For me, it was just a stop on the road, but truly it is (like Petra in Jordan) an experience of a lifetime. It is a bit weird to be admiring these monuments in dumbfounded awe while the descendents of their builders, who live in squalor among them, frantically try to sell you cold drinks ("one dolla!"). This strange contradiction is why I didn't like Cambodia. It's not that I don't like the people (though I am suspicious about the extent of their participation in the Khmer Rouge massacres, most of the perpetrators being still unpunished), it's just not a place in and about which I had good feelings. Mais, c'est la vie.

Angkor was also where I met my Japanese friend, Ryoko. I was quite impressed when I saw her tooling around the ruins on a bicycle--no mean feat in the Cambodian summer given the distances involved--and I wondered if she were, in fact, Japanese since, I figured, only a Japanese person would do this. Not only did she turn out to be Japanese, but she speaks several languages, has been all over the world (even Antarctica), and--perhaps her only ever lapse in judgment--agreed to join me the next day on a laborious walk around the walls of Angkor Thom, a mere 12 km, but under the silent gaze of the stone faces of my favorite Buddhist protector-god, Avalokiteshvara.

Actually, the day before we even did that, I casually mentioned to Ryoko that I was eager to see two Khmer sites hours away from Siem Reap in the jungle, one a pyramid called Koh Ker, the other a misty, jungle-enfolded temple-of-my-dreams called Beng Mealea, but that it was impossible because it was low season and there weren't any groups going. Well did I get my first taste of Japanese effectivity! Ryoko was staying at a Japanese hotel, where she somehow managed to round up six other people to go with us. The entire day trip, not including admission fees, cost $15/person (instead of the $125 or more it would have cost me alone). "Wow," I thought, duly impressed by this display of organization and group power. I was also excited by this turn of events because I ended up making Japanese friends right before going to Japan for a year. I ended up seeing Ryoko quite a few times--she even met me at my hotel the night I arrived in Tokyo--and twice she organized reunion dinners for the "Siem Reap members".

From Siem Reap, I returned to Phnom Penh, thus completing a circuit of the Tonle Sap, but more importantly to catch a cheap flight to Bangkok. There is a bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok, but it's probably the most notoriously awful bus journey on Earth, the mythical stuff of backpacking nightmares. Perhaps the situation has changed in 2008, but I wouldn't be surprised if it hasn't. Take my advice: go Air Asia all the way.

And that's it for Cambodia. I'm sorry my descriptions of Angkor are lacking, but it's really too too much for me even to get into. I'd have to start using expressions like "churning the milk of the cosmos" and "the stunning reliefs of apsara dancers." So you're better off. Trust me. Go see for yourself.


jac said...
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melanie said...

I have never used the term "chilled out," you jersey xenophobe!

The Steve said...