Thursday, January 14, 2010

Welcome to Siem Reap

Welcome to Siam Reap – you may remember it as “that place people come to buy stuff they don't need, and get drunk.” Well that does sound like South East Asia, doesn't it?

No, I'm not really that jaded. Well, not entirely. But we'll get to that. First lets look back at this morning, when the world was bright, and wondrous, and I was just headed to 7-11 to grab a breakfast consisting of a random assortment of treats from the rolls, and cakes, and sandwiches ready and waiting for my purchase. Over the past week I've eaten my way through just about every item there. And I'm not complaining. I quite like my breakfasty treats. It's nice to know that they're always there waiting for my consumption.

Then I headed back to the common room and tried to internet me some magic that would explain how to get from the hostel to the airport. Therre was a bus, of course, but I could only find the route displayed for travel between the airport and Bangkok, not the other way around. And you might think that you can get on at all the drop off spots, but this is not so. I had no real desire to walk all the way down to the end of Khoa San Road either, carrying my pack again. So I gave up.

A lovely American girl tried to help me out with some fantastic map she had purchased on the advice of her guide, but it didn't pan out into anything. It was at this point that I realized I've been quite anti-social lately.

[authors note: pardon this interjection, but it is quite possibly hotter here in Cambodia, at night, then it ever was in Bangkok. This is a terrible terrible thing. And it's winter – winter! - don't they know winter should have snow, ice, and sweaters? Even Florida seems to have gotten that message this year.]

I've not really made the effort to get to know people, or hang out with others since the end of Africa. Well since the end of GAP really, because my Livingstone and Joburg trips were quite solo too. If not for Colin, I'd have probably boarded myself off from the world, and just waited out the week.

Now, sure, I'll watch movies with people in the common room, and talk with them there – but never really attempt to connect. But I'm going to excuse this on the account that schedules didn't match up. A few people I met were only around for a night, and then others I met on my last night – so there's not much hope to hang out. So, there, I feel better. But my anti-socialness continued at the airport.

Though, at this point I was still more concerned with actually getting to the airport than the going ons that might transpire there. I gave up, checked the taxi prices on the interwebs (350 – 450 baht) and committed to that. I stood in the middle of the street for three seconds, four seconds, and was passed by about seven cabs. Finally one stopped, and jumping in it took only three requests to get him to turn on his meter.

Off we went to the airport. Well, kind-of-sort-of. First we had to deal with Bangkok local traffic. We clocked thirteen minutes of non-movement. Thirteen minutes of sitting completely still. I was becoming nervous as to how much this ride was going to end up costing. But, what choice did I have? I gave up on the bus, and made my choice.

We zipped past the Bangkok outskirts where Cape Townesque shanty towns were built of metal panels, supported by stilts on the river. It's a part of the local life that you have no real knowledge of, tucked away safe within the city streets. But this lower-class surrounding exists in all towns. Replace the rope-tied walls with crumbling concrete and government housing projects, and it's all really the same.

[authors note: seriously – it's really hot, and there's no fans, and Notorious BIG won't shut up, except when he switches out with Snoop Dee Oh double Gee. And there are bugs. The bugs. I could live with the sweat if I wasn't being bitten by invisible mosquitoes. Hurray for anti-malarials!]

O.K. so there I was headed to the airport, and then I was at the airport. But it was hard to tell, because – aside from the vast number of planes taking off and landing, and the sign that said “arrivals terminal” I couldn't quite be sure. The taxi meter only read 245B. You see why this is confusing? As it's so much less than the quoted price I'd heard thrown around. Without the stalls, it might only have been 200. Far less than two bus tickets. It makes no sense, then, for people travelling together to take the bus.

So I was in the airport, and got through security, and had my Thailand visa exit stamped (really hope I can get back into the country in a week – tee hee... seriously.) That only took fifteen minutes. What fun! And then it was off to gate D5 where I tried, oh how I tried, to stay awake and alert. But it wasn't happening. I laid down on three chairs and within a second an employee came up to me: Hey! Are you tired! ... uh, yes sir? Sorry sir? Tired are you?! You should go – go where? I'm sorry. I'll be good – to or Bangkok Air lounge.

Ohh – the lounge? Really? Why wasn't I told about this before? Awesome. That's much better than getting yelled at for sleeping where people could be sitting.

So off I trekked to the lounge where I was greeted by beautiful Thai women offering me all the juice, hot chocolate, and mini sandwiches I could desire. Had I been a platinum member they would have offered me alcohol and massages too. But, sigh, that would cost extra. It always does.

At any rate, juice of an orange colour, and hot chocolate are my favourites. It compared not, of course, to Chef's hot chocolate – but it was a passable substitute. And as for mini sandwiches? Eaten in the right quantity they can become whole sandwiches!

And there I was minding my own sandwich-face-stuffing-business when out of nowhere someone said “are you taking anti-malarial?” It was an open question, so it seemed – and after hearing some background answering I decided to join it claiming that I was on Doxy.

And this opened me to conversation, not really with he who asked the question, but with the mother/daughter team that were travelling together. One, a quite goggle search for her blog – but failing in that regards – seems to be a masseuse. But I'm telling this tale out of order. So I started talking to this duo, and it turned out they were from Portant Oregon (I've heard nothing but the best of this city. Sure I had no idea where or what it was a year ago, but lately it has been heralded as the mecca of American travel.)

We talked and chatted, and it seems that they travel differently from me. They travel at the sharp end, ladies and gentle men, and I do not begrudge them this. But I do envy it. And, you know, I've been thinking how I'd like to take my parents to see some of this fantastic world that I've visited. Perchance they'd be able to pay for me to travel at the sharp end as I show them a “whole new world,” but probably not. They're too busy in icy cold Florida. And I question their desire to travel. It seems to exist, but in such odd faded increments, where it comes and goes, and is enjoyed when it happens, then is quickly packed away like so many empty wine bottles in a basement far cleaner than it is ever made out to be.

They were doing South East Asia properly – in the same amount of time that I was doing it. Ugh. I have failed in my SEA quest, but I have gained valuable knoweldge, and I know how to do it now. Next time will be different, and overland, and cheaper, and – I'm so mad with how much better I know this area of the world now... but didn't a week ago when I confirmed flight plans. I mean, 300 for a return trip to and from Siem Reap didn't seem all that awful, until I discovered a safe, confirmed, way to do it properly for 22 bucks overland. Bah.

Daughter, you see, hosteled through Europe back in the mid nineties. This shocked me, cause I had pegged her not much older than me, but clearly she surpassed me by a decade at least. I am getting really bad at this age guessing game.

I had little time to talk about it, before they headed off for massages, and all those other oriental (are we in the orient here?) delights.

But imagine backpacking a decade and a half ago. Every moment would be a great adventure. Just finding a place to sleep for the night would have been a well-won quest. Personal contacts, books, and sheer luck would have amounted to so much. There was no internet, no hostel world, no “+'top ten things to do in' +[city name]” google search. Heck, back in 1995, discovering existed was a big deal to me! I wonder if it still exists? It's probably porn now.

And this was the world she explored. Where travel took courage, and commitment, and effort. Today? Anyone can do it. And everyone should. This is both good and bad. And Cambodia, Siem Reap, anyway, exemplifies this to the fullest.

Up into the air I flew, 35 minutes later, back to the ground I fell. Stupid 300 dollar round trip quick fight. Stupid Bangkok Air and their monopoly on the route. Ohh well – the lounge was good. And the people there, a delight, which may have broke me from my anti-social trends.

Once through Cambodian customs, having bought my brand new visa, I was ready to meet meet my tuk-tuk driver from the hostel. He was not there. I booked a taxi easy enough, and was soon enough on the road to the place I would call home for the next six nghts. Six nights? Really? Four nights – tops... let that be a lesson to the rest of you.

As I drove to my hostel I was quickly overcome with the feeling that i was “someplace else” now. The palm trees around small shacks, and many many people on bicycles made me aware that I was in another part of the world, and not the same part that housed Bangkok. This was far different. And it had a culture all its own.

But then I reached Siem Reap, and my hostel, and everything started to fade. After checking in, and being given a key that I needed to keep in a special socket by the door, to make th aircon run, I headed out to explore the town.

And within three minutes I was assaulted by “hey mister”s and other such come ons to buy things, or receive massages, or put my feet in a pool of fish that seemed more than willing to eat my dead supposedly dead skin. Even with the enticement of free beer during this 2 dollar, twenty minute, experience I stayed away. No fish shall ever taste my man flesh!

Stepping outside your hostel or hotel doors subjects you to the world that is now Siem Reap. It's a world of commercialism, and a culture devoted to seeing you stuff you just don't need. Here's the thing though, it's probably good for them.

Yeah – for me – who wants to see these people are they may have been seen back in 1995, I am missing out on something. Back when Siem Reap used to be a town in its own right, rather than the stepping stone to Angkor Watt. But would I have even come here otherwise? And could these people afford to live if not for the tourist dollars flowing in daily? So – yes – for me, these markets and tacky and touristy, but they are crucial to the survival of those that live here.

The thing that does upset me though is the number of Aussies, and Americans (because they may not travel the rest of the word, but they're out in S.E.A. in force) that will go home and talk about how amazing this part of the world is, based on how cheaply they got drunk (why I think Spain is seen so glowingly) and how many great deals they got at the market. These people will competently miss the poverty, real life, and urroundings of those whom they interacted with here.

But hey, I'm old and cranky, and in need of some transition day sleep. So who am I to talk? We'll see how I feel in the morning. But as for right now? I don't know – these tourists... they need some perspectve.

Well – 8:30, when I meet my tuk-tuk driver who will rake me around Angkor Wat for the day, isn't getting further away. So – to bed with me.

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