- 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
In my last missive it was awful of me to call Angkor Wat a “pile of old rocks”. Not just because it was obnoxious and ignorant of me to say such things about a place sacred to an entire people and their national symbol – it’s on their flag, for heaven’s sake – but because it has been an extraordinary source of inspiration for millions. It was not for me, but that’s my issue! So I wholeheartedly and sincerely apologise for that crack. My only defence is that I, too, was hot, sweaty, and rude.
The tuk-tuk took-took us as close to Angkor Wat as the traffic cops would allow, depositing us in a carnival of Cambodians enjoying their holiday. Families feverishly set up the picnics as far as the eye could see, with sticky-rice cake wrapped in banana leaves a central attraction. Sites were being set up for celebrants to participate in various sports and games, including kick-boxing. That struck me as an odd way to celebrate New Years, but then, no stranger than celebrating Boxing Day with a cricket match. The building crowds served notice that as far spirituality went, the visit would be as spiritual as Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Eye of the beholder, and all that.
The temple itself is an eerily impressive structure. It is pushing a thousand years old, and remains relatively intact, something of a miracle given Tricky Dick’s “secret” decision to drop 600,000 tons of explosive on this country. How does one drop 600,000 tons of explosives in secret?
In any case, I have a 45-minute attention span for shrines, not coincidentally the same length as an American TV drama without the commercials. Whether it is Notre Dame in Paris, or the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, I get pretty cynical about places of worship when I consider the amount of money and effort squandered on them. I will admit a soft spot for ancient Greek amphitheatres (the Broadway of 2000 BC) and baseball stadiums.
Where the twenty dollar ticket was required, the locals all but disappeared, leaving us in the company of tourists from all over the world. Up at the top there’s a series of rooms about four rooms square through which visitors mill without instruction or docent. At one point Frank took a left where I took a right, then spending the next forty-five minutes searching for one another, never more than ten metres apart.
No country has a monopoly on the bad behaviour of its citizens abroad. A Japanese tourist clambered up clearly forbidden ledges for the perfect snapshot. A Frenchman was ordered by a guard to stop smoking where he shouldn’t have been, snuffing out his cigarette on sacred stonework. An American loudly bragged about his proud history of taking flash photos where they are prohibited as he flashed those worshipping a Buddha. A Chinese family ploughed through the otherwise orderly procession of those precariously descending steep and dangerous stairs.
We passed a small market on the way out of Angkor Wat, where a young boy flashed a handsome shirt bearing an embroidered likeness of the site around its waistline. “One dollar!” he bellowed, which struck me as amazingly cheap, but I wasn’t in shopping mode, and wasn’t about to start trying on clothes. I made a mental note about the design.
Our next objective was Angkor Thom, about four kilometres further north. Traffic was at a standstill, but the road appeared nicely shaded through a forest, with a pleasant breeze to boot. We decide to hoof it. A good decision, as we walked past the frustrated motorists, excepting the motorcyclists who darted into the woods, weaving through the trees. Two kilometres later Angkor Thom’s narrow bridge and gate, barely two meters wide, revealed itself as the bottleneck.
Angkor Thom covers four times the land mass as Angkor Wat, but is not so well preserved. As we reached its centre, a caravan of elephants passed. Elephants are very clever animals, so, like me, they maintain a low opinion of the human race. Unlike me, throughout much of Asia they regularly stomp humans to death with impunity. We gave them a wide berth.
If I had to choose between Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, I’d choose to be between Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The forest was lovely, the family gatherings spotted here and there were pleasant and welcoming. I think I felt about as Cambodian as I ever will.
The mounting midday heat convinced us to find a tuk-tuk back to our hotel swimming pool. Frank suggested a negotiating strategy. “Don’t tell him our hotel, he’ll want more. What’s you maximum price? I think fifteen bucks should cover it.”
I was circumspect. “Look, we’re talking pennies here. At home we happily pay $75 to get to the airport. Do we really need to dicker about five bucks? The last thing you want to do is piss off your tuk-tuk driver.”
Chastened and more than a bit surprised, Frank agreed. Inexplicably, I did exactly as he had suggested, doing my best to piss off our tuk-tuk driver.
“How much to take us to Siem Reap?” I began the negotiations.
“Which hotel?” the prospective driver enquired.
“Right in the middle. On National Road Number 6.” I answered, avoiding naming our hotel with painful obviousness.
“Twenty dollars!” he offered.
“Forget it!” I barked back, turning away.
“Eighteen dollars!” he compromised. “Many many people! Very busy! Best price!”
I kept walking. Frank was aghast. “What is with you? Why are you doing this? What did you just tell me?”
I stopped in my tracks. Good question. What the hell was I doing?
I turned back towards the driver, nodding. “Done.”
Luckily, tuk-tuk drivers are hard to piss off. He smiled broadly and motioned us into his vehicle. Once aboard we enjoyed a lengthy and circuitous ride over hill and dale on rough and dusty dirt roads, presumably to avoid traffic. Thirty minutes later we were rinsing off the dust in the hotel’s salt water pool.
We dined at a place called The Grey Khmer Grille, attracted by the wafting warm weather melodies of Antônio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim. The Aussie artist Arty was something of a showman as well as singer and flugelhornist. It was happy hour, which seems to last most of the day in Siem Reap, so we got duly happy at reduced prices.
We devoured a seven course Khmer degustation menu, essentially grilled seasoned meats: chicken, snakefish, squid, pork, beef, crocodile, and something else we failed to identify despite lengthy discussion with our server. The grill was mounted with a hotpot stocked with veggies below catching the drippings, making for a highly delectable soup at meal’s end. I think I ate a slab of pork fat I mistook for meat, but was none the wiser until the waiter seemed puzzled by its sudden disappearance when he came to prepare the next course.
After dinner we wandered through the Night Market, which was wrapping up for the evening. I spotted my embroidered shirt again. “How much?” I asked.
“Twelve dollars!” came the eager response from the young lady.
“Ha! You ain’t even in the ballpark!” I snarled, insulted, walking away.
She chased me, grabbing my arm. “Ten dollars! Eight! Seven dollars! Seven!!”
I pulled my arm away from her, this time I didn’t turn back. Frank caught up with me. “What is with you? She went down to five bucks. You really upset her. You know the last sale of the day is really important to these people.”
He was right. I may have been insulted that she tried to sell me something for twelve dollars that could be had for one. Or had I misheard the kid that morning, had he said ten dollars? It really didn’t matter. What did matter was that I needed to revisit my negotiating strategy, as my current one was making me something of a dickhead.
There is no doubt that a little dickering is appropriate in the markets of Cambodia, as with most of the world. The question is: how hardnosed should one be? My American upbringing leaves me with a tactical negotiating vocabulary of “playing hardball”, “cards on the table”, and “my way or the highway”. The gentle people of Cambodia, though, embrace the concepts of community and harmony, even in bargaining. Confrontation in any form is reviled, a stark contrast to western culture’s reverence for it. It was time to reconsider my approach.
That Cambodians have remained a gentle people is a testimony to the strength of their culture. The past fifty years have foisted one atrocity after another upon them, some the result of internal politics, others from the vagaries of international military-industrial imperialism. Cambodians appear to have shrugged it all off.
Walking home down a darkened footpath in the parkland by the river, a group of teenage boys approached with mischief in their eyes. Two came at us with raised hands. Frank, who saw it coming, ducked and covered, avoiding the assault. I was oblivious to the situation until I felt the warm hands of a young man rubbing something across my face. The group broke into gales of laughter, the two assailants stepping back, nodding respectfully, flat hands together to the nosetip in the wai greeting gesture.
Oddly, I never felt threatened in any way. Had that happened, say, in New York City, I may have struck out in self-defence. Instead, we smiled and went on our way, eventually determining that the stuff was probably talcum powder. Later it was explained that smearing an elder with watered down chalk powder was a New Year’s tradition called Sraung Preah, generally assuring good luck. On this occasion it was good luck for all involved that I didn’t clock the kid.
Back at the hotel we cranked the AC, turned on the TV and flopped on the bed just as the electricity for the entire complex browned, then failed with the audible groan of frustrated appliances. Good timing.