A mere 7km from one of the world’s great attractions, Siem Reap is yet another physical assault. Crossing the street is almost impossible, and walking along the street is no easier. Food, massage parlours, ugly dogs and broken cats, mobile phone stalls and South East Asian madness is everywhere you step. It is all amplified by the heat. Indiana Jones in a pit full of snakes is me trying to get down a road in Siem Reap.
Potential harm does not lurk here, it runs up, drives up, collects around you and insists by sheer weight of numbers. Anyone who owns a set of wheels wants to drive you somewhere, and if you say no (if I say no) they instead offer you the delights of Cambodian women. On my second day, I walked down the main street and discovered that the massage girls will actually stand in front of you, three abreast, and put their hands on your chest to physically stop you from going any further. This isn’t a sensuous experience, but like the prelude to a mugging. Shouting at them merely results in them shouting back. This is no different to anywhere else in South East Asia, and I think I was disappointed because I went there to see Angkor Wat. Silly me.
On the Thursday I booked a guided tour of the temple for Saturday morning, 5am, sunrise. On Friday morning, while still asleep, the phone by my hotel bed began ringing at 4:45am. I ignored it. Surely a dozy night porter had dropped a sleepy forehead on the button to my room.
When I was actually awake some five hours later, I realised that it was probably the tour people trying to pick me up on the wrong day. I went to check. No, they have the right day, Saturday. It’s here, look, see? Okay.
Friday night I lay awake all night. I tend not to get to sleep until about 3am and I was told to be ready by 4:30am, so why bother sleeping? At 4:30am I was outside the hotel encouraging mosquitoes to bite me. They bit me until 5:15am, when I decided that the tour was not coming, had in fact arrived a day early, and I might as well take my bleeding lumpy ankles back to bed. I went back to the tour company. Oh, they said. They must have made a mistake.
On Sunday, after two nights without sleep, the bus arrived and drove me and six others off to see the sun rise behind the world’s largest temple complex. The tour guide was young, funny, and the least politically correct person currently working outside of the White House. Seven kilometres away, after hearing about how all white people look the same to him and he didn’t understand why Hindus had to break everything and he was pleased to say that the Muslims he knows stick to chickens when they have a desire to kill something, we saw the pine-cone towers of Angkor Wat in the slowly brightening dawn sky. Pre-dawn was the nicest part of the morning actually, because the sun came up behind cloud and the thronging masses, there to see a marvel of architecture but excited to see a daily event that happens no matter where you are, seemed cheated.
Inside Angkor Wat our tour began. To be honest, I would rather have just been there myself and not had the distraction of a tour guide, but it was good. It was good the way the Sistine Chapel was good – very busy, glad to have been there, but feeling very little in the way of emotional contact because of tourists, and guides, and where to put your feet. There was no wow moment. That would have to come later, when at some dinner party I could say I’ve been to Angkor Wat.
The sunrise trip was followed by hours of plodding through Siem Reap because I had checked out of the hotel at noon and the bus was going at 7:45pm. At 7:45pm I was still in the hotel lobby waiting to be picked up and decided that it was the wrong date all over again. But no! I was picked up a mere 10 minutes after the bus should have left and a group of us, all convinced we’d missed the fastest moving bedroom in the world, were driven to the bus station, climbed aboard the bus and got into bed.
Before getting into the bus I asked a man if this was the bus to Sihanoukville, and he didn’t answer me. I asked if I should shove my enormous bag into the hold myself, and he didn’t answer me. This communication technique was employed by all members of the bus staff for the entire journey and presented a problem when suffering from a full bladder. There was no toilet. Getting out of a top bunk in the dark when hammocks were slung in aisle was a challenge, and wanting to know if the bus would be stopping long enough to pee was greeted with silence. I peed against an ATM for the first time in my life, needing to be close enough to the bus to prevent it from simply driving away and leaving me without luggage in the middle of Cambodia. I was not the only person to do such things.
Was it a good way to travel? Yes. And No. I don’t want to do it again so I think no wins.
Sihanoukville is by the sea and the sea is warm and the sand golden and, at the time, was covered in half of Cambodia. It was Buddha’s birthday I think. Or a holiday of some kind. I got this information from the manager of the restaurant at the hotel by the sea, who engaged me in long conversations in completely incomprehensible English. At one point, recognising only such words as “Love,” and “Poison,” I wondered if I was being introduced to a cult. This uneasy feeling was compounded by his insistence on staring at me while I ate, his hooded eyes and grim voodoo countenance not wavering while I worked my way through something with rice, or something with noodles. I think at one point I upset him. Walking into the restaurant one evening I noticed that the cook lady and the cook’s assistant lady and the five waitress girls were lined up on small blue plastic chairs watching an Asian film on the TV. They were transfixed by it, but THE MAN IN CHARGE got up from his voodoo sitting position and changed the channel to something Hollywood, and the spell was broken. He did it because I walked in, though he knew I had a book and wouldn’t be watching it anyway. The next night the same thing happened but I said no, please, don’t change the channel just for me, everyone seems to be really into this badly acted saga of moustaches and polyester suits. And he looked annoyed while the girls said (I gathered) “He said no need to change the channel!” and so his supremacy was challenged by the only person who could do such a thing. A paying guest. He then glared at me with greater intensity and I suspect the mutineers would pay later with longer hours and less pay.
But now I write from a sunny deck beside a calm Cambodian river, the kind of river one might expect to see a young Martin Sheen boating his way to find a mad Marlon Brando lording it up in a jungle of lampshade hats. I have taken a wicker hut with a fan and a mattress on the floor, an outside loo with a frog on the cold-water shower head, a wicker window held up with a bamboo stick, and a mosquito net. There’s a small fan – the first room I’ve taken without AC during this unusually hot period. But I like it. The place is run by a French couple and he makes the best food I’ve had since arriving in Cambodia. Maybe the best food since January. The river is home to longboats that head out to sea in the evening to catch shrimp in the waters that border Cambodia and Vietnam, and return at 4 in the morning. They are incredibly loud, long and functional and I asked if they ever take passengers to spend a night catching shrimp, but my French host says no. They invade another country’s waters, as the Vietnamese invade Cambodian waters, and having white passengers just isn’t a thing they can do. A shame. I watch them go as the moon rises and I want to be on one.
I don’t know how long I shall stay on this sunny breezy deck with the good people of France. The only logical place to go from here is Phnom Penh, where I already have a ticket to Kuala Lumpur and the last stage of the journey. I want to see Phnom Penh for only two reasons. Firstly, there’s an airport that will get me back to where my flight home will take me back on May 2nd. The other reason is to see the Killing Fields Memorial and museum and a whole lot of tragedy. I don't want to see it, don't want those images in my brain, but it's important I think. The trouble is, it’s the Cambodian New Year in a few days’ time and it is the worst time to be going to Phnom Penh. Everything is closed and all the prices double. Everything, including the museum, will be unavailable for another five days and so, stranded with excellent food, I have just been working out how long I should stay.
I shall keep you posted
[ps...Have you tried the Armchair Detective Challenge yet?]
Slovenia, writing, other things