Sunday, August 23, 2009

Check out this delicious street food from Battambang...

Once you've enjoyed that, you can read this, which was written yesterday:

Our boat slowly cruises down the muddy river channel, fisherman's boats and raised houses on either side. The man at shoulder's length presumably cannot read what's being written, but if so then hopefully he enjoys this shout-out. The journey from Battambang to Siem Riep, by speedboat (make sure to thoroughly de-emphasize the 1st syllable), takes between 5 and 9 hours depending on water level, and also apparently if nets get caught in the motor (which already happened). As the heat of the day increases, the shade within the boat equally decreases, and for once we're rather pleased to have awoken before 6am. We have yet to smell the river, the overpowering stench of petrol is inescapable, and our headphones are serving more as earplugs than music-listening devices. That said, the scenery is beautiful, the fresh baguettes we bought this morning delicious, and the people are as friendly as always.
Cambodia, the land of “hello” and “goodbye,” puts Thailand's waving masses to shame. We have traveled from the border at Pong Nam Ron, to Pailin, and then onto Battambang, and everywhere we have been has been delightful. For sure, the dirt roads are brutal and dusty, and the fact that this was quite recently a war-zone is always apparent, but that hasn't managed to dampen anyone's mood, ours or the masses of smiling children of all ages we meet along the way. Something about five sweaty whiteys is pretty hilarious, no doubt, but the most common emotion we encounter is excitement.
Last night we enjoyed a fantastic authentic Khmer meal, with a tuk-tuk driver we met named (well, abreved) “T” and his extended family. His young wife (23 and the mother of two – 6 & 3 years old) prepared a multitude of delicious dishes; cooked vegetables, an egg and beef dish, a Khmer-style fish curry (sans coconut), as well as an interesting Cambodian cheese dish mixed with smelly fish and bacon, all dazzled us, as did the constant flow of whiskey and soda. We're already pretty confident it will be the best meal we eat here in Cambodia, and we've only been here for 3 full days now!
Truly, it was a fantastic evening, and by the end of the night we felt like old friends relaxing under the tin roof's protection from the rain. We learned so much about modern Cambodian life, and enjoyed an atmosphere – as well as a gaggle of children – that no restaurant can compete with. Not that we aren't looking forward to tonight's Happy Pizza mind you, but we travel to experience all aspects of a country's culture, not just the touristic.
So far we've biked around 135 km en route while in Cambodia, for a total of over 450 km, which doesn't count a 30+ km jaunt yesterday to see a bunch of sights around Battambang. What sights you ask? Patience, we're going to sort this all out chronologically....
From Pong Nam Ron, Thailand, we headed due east on Tuesday morning, getting hit by the rain showers mentioned in our previous post, before missing our turn to the border. Yes, we biked a few kilometers past, because there were no English signs indicating where the turnoff from the highway to the border was. Even though there were a plethora of English everywhere else, the actual border was apparently not deemed important enough to signpost! Thankfully some helpful ladies on a motor-scooter understood our gesturing, and were able to clear things up for us, though Blaise did have to grudgingly pedal back up a hill that he'd caught a free ride down by hanging onto a truck.
The border crossing itself was relatively smooth, the Thai side stamped us out without problem, and the overly complicated Cambodian side (three different booths for three different forms) worked out reasonably well also, after they realized we were going to only pay the correct amount of $20, and not 1200 Baht, or $22, or 800 Baht, or whatever. We did pay plenty in smiles though, and fortunately Agent 007 appreciated our James Bond-related humor.
After crossing over, we played the oh-so-appropriate, yet lyrically inappropriate Dead Kennedy's song “Holiday in Cambodia.” Yes, we really do cycle around while listening to an iHome stereo, that's just how we roll.

The change between Thailand and Cambodia was immediately apparent. Thailand's road was paved, and its air clean. Cambodia's road, as mentioned, was rocky and full of potholes, dust being kicked up constantly by all vehicles, while all alongside children shouted and waved. Thailand feels sanitized, Cambodia is real, like India is. The travel here is raw, the cold water more greatly appreciated, the currency so low in value and reliability that the Khmer people primarily deal in US dollars. That's right, we buy things in dollars and receive Camodian riel in change. Not that the riel is worthless mind you, everything has a price in riel as well – but that fluctuates between 3300 and 4200 per dollar, and at least in western Cambodia the Thai baht is also accepted as a valid and preferred currency. So in theory we could pay with our leftover baht, and then get dollars and a small amount of riel as our change. How normal.
Our boat is still cutting through the water, though now the river has opened up expansively, as we steadily approach Tonle Sap, Cambodia's largest lake, and the source of much of its agriculture might (be that as it may). As always, we're the only North Americans around, the rest of the boat is about half European and half Khmer, and even here there are plenty of children. Half of Cambodia's population is under the age of 16, which is great in that the country needs to revitalize its population following the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, but worrisome so far as the lack of contraception and HIV/AIDS awareness is concerned. So now we are almost stuck in the river's thick vegetation, tarps have been pulled down on the sides, and we are in a claustrophobic nightmare, stuck inching along the tight channel within a veritable river garden, albeit one that looks as poky as tangled rose bushes. The heat is also rapidly increasing, both from the passing time and the absence of wind, so we can only hope we emerge soon from this prickly prison. Luke's trying (and failing) to sleep on the floor, Anderson is channeling his inner (OK, by now it's outer) nerd, and Liz, Blaise & Christine are sitting as calmly as one can given the circumstances.
Back to the journey recap, the last 20-odd km to Pailin (NOT like the former governor – and hopefully former politician, it's pronounced PIE-Lynn) went by fast enough, and outside of town we found a very relaxed guesthouse called Bam Boo. A later cruise through town verified that it was the best accommodation available, by far. The food was great, too, we had a family-style dinner after Anderson & Luke returned from the house of a local man who wanted to use his limited English skills on some captive (feel free to interpret that word either way) foreigners.
After a decent night sleep, preceded by laundry and a few Angkor beers – though not for Blaise, his upset stomach was still wreaking havoc at the time, we ate a quick breakfast of omelets and iced coffee before departing at the (somehow-early-for-us) time of 9:30 am. The brutal heat and humidity, such a nasty and constant combination here, kicked in right away. It may be the rainy season, but it isn't raining like it usually does – in one month we've only seen a couple true rainstorms. Thankfully, even in rural Cambodia, there are small shops along the road selling water and other beverages. Refrigeration is, when available, provided by large ice blocks, which are also carved up into smaller hunks for resale. But after even an hour on the road, our bottles of water are practically boiling, so even room-temperature (shaded) water feels blessedly cool by comparison. Do we love what we are doing? Of course, but that doesn't mean that pouring liters of sweat out of every orifice constantly is always enjoyable. Just like the choking petrol fumes right now are much more nauseating than any semblance of fun.
The day of cycling to Battambang was quite possibly the most hellish yet, only the last 10km up into the hills of Thailand is at all comparable. The 85km proceeded slowly, the road actually worse than the day before, at times looking like land mines might have recently altered the landscape. Bridges were dubious at best, some held together by ragged pieces of wood, making us glad we weren't driving a truck or something equally weighty. The countryside was full of natural beauty, though the storm brewing on the horizon trumped all else, and by “hello” five-hundred our enthusiasm for waving was waning just a bit. But the kilos flew by, if only our weights would change so quickly, and by late afternoon we were at least almost to our destination. Putting aside thoughts of stopping early, we pedaled onwards, for about an hour directly racing the oncoming rain (we succeeded). Only an hour before dark we finally saw dirt change to pavement, and soon enough we found ourselves at the Spring Park Hotel.

Priced at $6/room/night, the price was right, though the place looked 20 years old, not its actual age of only four. Kindly staff, and at least our shower worked even if the drain didn't. The water was reddish-brown from dust, and our bikes themselves are eagerly awaiting a bath and tune-up in Siem Reap. Oh, and the hotel has an elevator, which we immediately got stuck in. Lights out and between floors – par for the course.
A pizza dinner and then a pass-out were all we could muster, but by noontime the next day we were grudgingly ready for a little adventuring. The town's museum was underwhelming; while some statues were nice most were just jumbled on the floor. Next on the agenda was the bamboo train, Battanbang's unusual claim-to-fame.

Basically a bamboo-raft laid on top of twin axles, with the wheels powered by a cheap motor and a thick rubber band, the “train” bumps down ancient French-laid tracks from a long-past era. Now it's almost exclusively a tourist trap, as our heated price negotiations proved, but once we were finally moving (at $2/person) the ride was nice, though the scenery was limited, at the only destination was a store selling beers at the “end of the line” 15 minutes away. Good work, Lonely Planet, on the hype job. Is stimulating the local economy, at the price of feigning a cultural experience, beneficial to Cambodia? Or beneficial to we tourists? Hmmm....

That night we ate some great fried beef-and-noodles at a local restaurant down the road, lathered in a slightly spicy red sauce they were fresh and delicious, all the while an apparently-important Cambodian kickboxing match blared on the television's long-shattered speakers. Later in the evening, we checked out the surprisingly classy Sky Club, which featured some sort of buy four beers and get one free deal, though the language barrier made the explanation of that quite complicated. The club had a sweet sound-system, thankfully since any sort of a lesser system would not have been able to handle the relentless bass that the weird mix of happy-hardcore techno and Khmer love-songs required. Plus the average clubber's age was no more than 18, giving the whole place some sort of weird high-school dance feel, though one where the BPMs fear no upper-limit. From the “We Will Rock You” remix when we entered, to the crooning slow-dances, it was a bizarre musical night to say the least. But the people were all friendly, and (we're pretty sure) due to their general wealth/class, they all spoke an amazingly high level of English. We met a guy from Siem Riep who works at a guesthouse there, so we've got a hookup for tonight's lodging, and we've discovered that Cambodia seems to be much more accepting of the idea of gayness, in the men-with-men sense, while Thailand was only thoroughly caught-up in the whole “lady-boy” phenomenon. Political borders really seem to mean a lot in this part of the world... in more ways than we could have initially imagined.
Yesterday, as in Friday, was spent doing a bit of a cycling circuit outside of Battambang, which meant we saw a lot of strange and different things. First up was getting our boat tickets for today, $20 + a $3 bicycle charge and that was easily taken care of, plus we met our now-friend “T” who was hanging out looking for customers. Next we checked out an abandoned Pepsi plant, left for ruin in the mid-70s when the Khmer Rouge ran amok in Cambodia. The buildings are still standing, apparently now the home for an elderly man, and plenty of vintage glass soda bottles were stacked up and strewn about. After a bit of an adventure through some dirt-path side-streets, we found our next destination: a completely unmarked crocodile farm, where about 100 of the beasts laid in the shade or hid in the water. The utter lack of safety was a touch frighteningly, but we managed not to fall into their lair – what would our insurance carrier have said about that one?!
Oddly enough, the entire trip was on the best-paved Cambodian road we've seen yet, so apparently our final destination, the ruined temple of Wat Ek Phrom, gets a decent amount of traffic. The setting was quite nice, a modern temple in front, a lotus-filled pond to the side, and crumbling rocks piled all about, with flags and flowers emerging out of the wreckage. Dating from the 10th century, now the inner sanctum is still in use as both a place of offering and a man's bedroom. A few children acted as impromptu guides, our beverage purchase price decreased by 50% when we switched from dollars to riel, and thanks to our fine negotiating skills we got the previously unknown cyclist-discount, of $2 off our total admission fee. We even managed to have a P-Funk dance party for a few minutes, before getting back on our cycles to return to Battambang.

That's that then, hopefully we'll be in Siem Reap shortly, though our boat is rather unusual in that a Canadian film crew, following a young Khmer girl's return to her ethnic homeland, is onboard and shooting extensive video footage, so perhaps we'll be inadvertently featured in their documentary! Or maybe they'll realize our story is equally interesting, and switch projects mid-way... yeah, right.


So now we are actually in Siem Reap, settled into our rooms at Lee Phallean Guesthouse, conveniently located - for Luke - across the street from a "for men" steam room/gym/massage facility. Later today (Sunday) we will go out get our one-week passes to Angkor, though we plan on doing so after 5pm so that tonight will be free. Our next days will then be filled with extensive temple madness, some cycling to get to the closer temples, are probably one day of riding in a tuk-tuk in order to see the more outer-lying temples. Gonna be exhausting and fun, for both us and our cameras!

And now for your moment of zen, from Wat Ek Phrom temple outside of Battambang:

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