- 01. To The Rescue
- 02. Last Minute Minutia
- 03. Spiritual Me
- 04. A New Approach
- 05. Cruising Cambodia
- 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
- 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
- 08. A Day on the River Limbo
- 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
- 10. Saigon Reunification
- 11. The Way to Huế
- 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
- 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
- 14. Southeast Asian Rescue
The two hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap had more empty seats than occupied, a cricket team of twenty-something farm boys from Pakistan providing all the in-flight entertainment one could ask for. We debarked across a baking tarmac into sleepy Siem Reap International Airport where a single serious-looking customs and immigration official reviewed paperwork and stamped things furiously. Despite this age of supposed globalisation, the visa and entry process from one country to the next still varies considerably.
Malaysia’s visa and entry process is admirably electronic. Not a scrap of paper changed hands except the passport itself, and even that was only so it could be swiped through the electronic reader. All they wanted was electronic index-finger prints, and off we went.
Cambodia’s visa application process was conveniently online, making its paper-intensive entry process (passport, arrival card, departure card, arrival visa, departure visa, contagious disease declaration, customs declaration, each a different scrap of paper with much the same details to be filled in by hand) something of a disappointment. Then they wanted all ten of my finger prints.
While Vietnam was amazingly efficient in processing our visas, nevertheless their process still requires one to actually deliver the passport to their consulate well in advance of arrival. Notably, the cruise on which we will enter Vietnam next week puts aside an entire afternoon for the border crossing. I am hoping to avoid a body cavity search, although writing crap like this probably isn’t going to help my case.
The ASEAN nations, which includes these countries as well as Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore, amongst others, are planning to commence a “European Union-like” affiliation in 2016. Notwithstanding that it is a sad commentary on governmental efficiency worldwide that nations aspire to be “European Union-like”, I have to think they are in for some teething problems.
The Cambodian Customs official stamped us through, and our pre-arranged driver was there to greet us for the twelve dollar ride to the hotel. Before leaving the airport, since I didn’t have a Cambodian Riel to my name, I was pleased to spot a cash machine from the Public Bank of Cambodia with a re-assuring Cirrus™ logo. I could not resist the opportunity to get screwed by a government institution, currency speculators, and an international banking cartel all in one go. I expected the machine to spit out thousands of grimy, incomprehensible Riel. Imagine my disappointment to receive instead a stack of crisp, new US ten dollar bills, Alexander Hamilton himself smirking knowingly on each.
The driver, Phuong, explained “Siem Reap is an international city. Dollars accepted everywhere. Preferred. Pnom Penh, too.” Indeed we would discover that everything was priced in US Dollars, payment was expected in US dollars, the Riel appearing only in lieu of US coinage when change less than one dollar was required. Merchants inspect the bills carefully, sometimes rejecting torn or worn currency. It left me wondering where the Public Bank of Cambodia – and all the other banks, for that matter –got all these crisp clean bills. And who, by the way, fulfilled the role of Alexander Hamilton’s Federal Reserve Bank of removing worn currency from circulation. A mystery.
Just after leaving the airport, Phuong tapped the digital clock on the dashboard, shouting “Happy New Year!” Noting our looks of puzzlement, he explained, “The New Year starts today at two-oh-two!” as the clock read. “Start of five day holiday – very busy, many, many Cambodian people come to Siem Reap.”
New Year’s in April? Really? This was gonna be interesting.
Phuong was a font of useful and interesting information, none of which I recall, having been on the go for the previous twenty-four hours. He suggested taking us on a private tour the next day—a major public holiday, mind you – for $40. That seemed reasonable enough, but I was not in decision-making mode, instead getting his card. Watching the tuk-tuks and motorbikes fly past us through traffic on our twenty minute ride from the airport, it occurred to me a car may not be the best way to get around.
The Sokha Angkor Resort was a splendid five-star hotel with a lovely pool area that our room overlooked. Frankly, so long as the air conditioner worked, they could have put me in a shipping container and I would have been happy. We had booked it simply because it was where we were to be picked up by the cruise folks two days hence. At $160 a night, it wasn’t cheap for Cambodia, but certainly affordable.
Cambodia’s premiere tourist destination, Angkor Wat, lay about six kilometres to our north. It is the best preserved temple of about a billion in the UNESCO World Heritage area surrounding it and bearing its name. I’ve known a number of people who have visited, each of whom raved about their spiritual awakening and the blissful splendour awaiting all comers. I have to admit that listening to these people, my mind would wander to matters of more immediate import, such as the ball game. I mean, really, I’m going to take advice from somebody who goes to Cambodia to look at temples? I don’t think so.
Yet, here I was, wishing I had. I did recall that sunrise and sunset seemed to get a lot of hype. The American phenomenon of large crowds gathering to loudly cheer the setting sun has always struck me as unfortunate, having experienced all my favourite sunsets quietly in the company of a small group, preferably of two. Yet the “Sunset by Mob” approach, which I believe first occurred in Key West, has spread the world over, much to the dismay of the romantic.
Whether it had reached Angkor Wat was a bit of a moot issue on this day, as by five o’clock we’d had a dip in the pool and were sound asleep, napping through the six o’clock sunset.
One advantage to five-star accommodation is the availability of a concierge to offer good advice and bad prices. Invariably, this provides a benchmark for the absolute maximum anybody should pay for any service proposed. Ours confirmed that Phuong’s forty dollar offer was the going rate, except for the next few days. “Very busy, many, many people, take longer, cost more.”
It took twenty minutes to do the “ten minute walk” to the Siem Reap precinct suggested for its wide variety of restaurants. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Pub Street was quite English in character, the main attraction being four dollar jugs of beer. We were drawn into a lovely establishment named Sear by the placard promise of a bacon-wrapped filet mignon for eight bucks. Inside we found it was the tarted-up back room of a dingy pub named Mollie Malone’s. Happily, the French influence was evident even on pub food, and we could not complain about the price.
Over dinner we debated the idea of catching the sunrise. The obvious difficulty was that it requires one to rise before the sun does, and both of us was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. We decided to play it by ear. Needless to say, we did not see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
We were up and out by seven thirty, though, a relatively cool morning with reasonable humidity and a pleasant breeze. A tuk-tuk driver assailed us, and a ten dollar fare to Angkor Wat negotiated. I had never taken-taken a tuk-tuk before, so we climbed in with some excitement and sped off in a cloud of dust. I briefly considered the terms of our travel insurance coverage for such modes of transport.
It may surprise you to know that I consider myself a spiritual person. Not religious, as in “Let’s take advantage of poor and stupid people”, but spiritual, as in “I have no idea what is going on but it seems we’re all in this together.”
As we approached Angkor Wat, a gathering storm of humanage surged with us. Buses, trucks, cars, tuk-tuks, scooters, pedestrians, whizzed willy-nilly, to and fro, down the wrong side of the street, onto footpaths, through red lights, ignoring the unflappable traffic cops. Like a disturbed nest of ants, it blossomed with chaotic synchronicity, each participant thinking only of itself, no sense of care nor consideration nor rage nor wrongdoing, yet not a whiff of harm done. It was truly spiritual.
Well, more spiritual than the pile of old rocks called Angkor Wat I found being trampled on by hot, sweaty, rude people from remarkably diverse cultural backgrounds.
OK, maybe I’m not so spiritual after all.