Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Siem Reap to Bangkok

I was a bit delayed getting out of Siem Reap. I'd asked the front desk of the King Boutique Hotel to book me a ticket with Nattakan, the bus company which ran the direct Siem Reap-to-Bangkok route (and for just $30!). 

Well, the price was right. Nobody showed up to get me at eight o'clock, so the hotel manager made a call. Twenty minutes later a tuk-tuk showed up to get me to the bus, and a harried-looking young Cambodian woman in business casual took my name and money and helped me stick my luggage in the cargo compartment. The seat I'd reserved was taken, so I sat in the very back of the bus near the lavatory, which suited me just fine. We pulled out of Siem Reap at 8:20 (twenty minutes late). "Looks like this company couldn't find its ass with two hands and a flashlight," I wrote in my journal. 

Matters improved by 10:45, when we hit Poipet. The Thai-Cambodian border was one of the few things about the trip I'd been dreading. I'd heard that Poipet was about as seedy as Cambodia gets, with scammers and four-flushers and pickpockets on every street and around every corner. Worse yet were the rumored passport scams and false visa sellers. Our faithful bus crew spared us that hassle. They steered us dauntlessly through the milling crowd of Thais, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Laotians, Indians, and Chinese at the border, lined us all up in neat rows in front of the actual, factual visa office, and then led us down a kilometer of dusty road, through a series of impressive gates, and over a bridge (which the Brits had paid for and the Thais had built) and into Thailand proper. I was one of the first of the bus passengers through, so I had to wait around in the hot, breezy, overcast day on the much cleaner Thai side for everyone else to pass through. I remember having to pee very badly as I watched heavy trucks loaded with manufactured goods and timber lumber to and fro along the unpaved road and across the border. 

After a microwave lunch aboard the bus, I began to nod off. We breezed through eastern Thailand, which was far cleaner, better kept, and spacier than Cambodia had been. Landscaped medians lined the highways and there wasn't a single piece of garbage in sight. The skinny Brahman cows had disappeared, as had the hammocks; now we saw neat condominiums and farmhouses with green and well-tended rice fields beside them. The only evidence of the coup was the occasional roadblock, where a uniformed military policeman with a crisp camouflage uniform and a pistol at his hip would clamber aboard, give us all a hard look, and then wave the bus onward. I have no idea what the purpose of these roadblocks was. Security? Searching for fugitive insurgents? Keeping tabs on the movements of people around the countryside? I suppose I'll never know, because I was soon distracted by our arrival in Bangkok. 

The place was huge. It took us 30-40 minutes to get from the city's eastern limits to the northern bus terminal. On a highway. The skyline was quite impressive, too: whereas most cities are just a cluster of skyscrapers surrounded by squatter suburbs, Bangkok seemed to be an unending sea of four- and five-story buildings with the occasional impressive spire of a high-rise thrusting up out of it, some of them so far away from the center of town that they were barely visible in the thin blue haze. 

At the northern terminal I leaped off the bus, grabbed my pack out of the storage compartment, and tried to get ahead of the press for taxicabs. Fortunately there were enough hot pink cabs outside the station gates to ferry a convention downtown. One brown, skinny, middle-aged gent with a baseball cap and a polo shirt, whose license card proclaimed him to be a Mr. Senkham, snatched me up and led me to his car. I could barely understand his friendly questions ("You from Rob Angelit?"). I dumped my stuff in the back seat and climbed into the front. With his crooked teeth showing, Senkham handed me his rate card. Yep, Thailand was definitely a richer country than Vietnam or Cambodia: a simple ride into town would be 1200 baht, or nearly $40 American. My jaw hit the floor. Even the Skyliner from Narita Airport to Ueno Station in Tokyo didn't cost that much. My hand clamped down on the door handle and I was about to bail out when Mr. Senkham said "No better rate, boss. All standard." 

It didn't even occur to me to argue or haggle. Tired and bedraggled and just wanting to get to Bangkok already, I closed the door and nodded my head in defeat. Off we went. Forty minutes and forty dollars later, I was standing outside of my hostel, Boxpackers. Mr. Senkham happily took my money and rocketed off. I didn't have enough Thai baht, so I gave him forty U.S. dollars. I didn't tip him, but since 1200 baht was $38.72 in July of 2014, he got a tip and he knew it. 

I had to fill out some silly questionnaire and a thousand other forms at the front desk, but then I got my key and headed upstairs. 

I climbed into my surprisingly spacious cubicle, closed the curtain, updated my journals, remembered that I was thirsty and hungry and went back downstairs and around the corner to the 7-11 for some water and snacks, and then came back upstairs and went to bed. 

The next day would prove to be a very aggravating day...with an unexpected reward at the end. Stay tuned. 

snake wine in Cambodia

First, you should see what it is.

Second, you should see what it looks like.

Third, you should know that I still wanted to try it, even though I understood both of these things in advance. 

I happened to see a souvenir market set up on the broad, palm-shaded grounds of Angkor Wat, so I stopped over to have a look. I had intended to give snake wine a taste in either southern China or Vietnam, where its consumption, I assumed, was more widespread and commonplace. No opportunity presented itself. You may imagine my delight when I saw bottles of snake wine being sold at this Cambodian market, then. I picked a small bottle, talked the saleswoman down from $8 to $5 (though I probably could have gotten it for $4) and took it back to the King Boutique Hotel with me to sample.

Here's the video.

Now, I know what's going through your head. Two thoughts, roughly along the lines of "Eww gross, I wouldn't touch that stuff with a ten-foot pole," and "Why would anyone in their right mind want to drink that?"

Well, there's two things you should know. Number one, I am not in my right mind. I've been eating strange things on this blog for five years now. Number two, snake wine is a thing in Southeast Asia, because...

...well, like so many other weird foods and exotic animal products in the Orient, snake wine is believed to be a cure-all. The Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and other-ese loudly insist that the stuff will fix everything from hair loss to farsightedness. Oh, and it increases male sexual performance as well. Holy schla-moly, if I had a nickel for every nostrum that the Asians claim improves male stamina, I wouldn't be sitting here in a hipster café off Gwangnaru Road writing about it. 

Anyway, I just thought you should see me drinking a bottle of bathtub tequila with a dead cobra in it. Don't you feel special?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Angkor Wat and environs

I won't say much about the bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It was long and dull. I wanted to take the speedboat up the Tonlé Sap Lake, but my timing was bad—the water wasn't high enough. Even during the peak season there's still a good chance of running aground, I was told. So I gave it up, bought a bus ticket and spent a rather dull six hours in transit. 

I stayed at the King Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap. I later found out that "boutique hotel" is a slightly more upscale and discreet version of a love motel in Southeast Asia. That explains the starkness of my room. No decorations, no paintings, no wallpaper, nothing. Just a bed, a bathroom, a nicked, gouged wooden wardrobe painted all in black, and four white walls. 

Anyway, I didn't come here to tell you that. I came here to tell you about Angkor Wat. 

It's laughably easy to get around in Siem Reap, folks: fifteen dollars to hire a tuk-tuk for the day, and they'll take you anywhere. You can tour the great ruins of the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor on either a full-day (large circle) tour or the half-day (small circle) one. I did the small circle, starting with Angkor Wat itself. 

Let me explain something: "wat" means "temple." "Angkor" means "city," so Angkor Wat is literally "city temple." I know what you're thinking: Why did the ancient Cambodians live in a city named "City"? Beats me. Maybe because the names "Dikshit" and "Long Dong" were already taken

My tuk-tuk driver was named Yot. He pronounced it "yutz," and I labored hard to avoid stigmatizing him on that basis. His English was barely comprehensible, but fortunately he was a man of few words. He had a sneaky, shifty air about him that I didn't like. Nonetheless he was capable and patient, and drove me around Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and Ta Prohm with a brief stop for lunch in between. We established a routine: he'd drive me to a locale, I'd hop out and arrange a time to meet up with him, and he'd go park in the shade and unstring his hammock for a nap. I'd wander about the jungle-clad temples, gawping like a moron, for 45 minutes or so, and then off we'd go again. In this way I saw the Bayon...

...and Ta Prohm, the so-called "Tomb Raider temple," because it had the grievous misfortune of having an Angelina Jolie movie made there. 

This place was far prettier and more astounding than Angkor Wat. 

I was told that I'd feel like Indiana Jones walking around Ta Prohm, and boy, did I ever. 

I have no idea who this guy is, but his girlfriend was standing right next to me, taking his picture. 

It was after we got back to Siem Reap that Yot lived up to his unfortunate name. I got out of his tuk-tuk and turned to find him standing there, hand held out. I forked over his fifteen smacks, but he remained where he was, palm-up. 

"Tip, please," he said. 

The nerve of this character, I thought. 

"We agreed on a flat rate," I told him. You yutz, I added in my head. 

"Tip," he insisted. "Twenty dollars."

To this day I'm not sure whether Yot was asking me for five U.S. dollars, which would have brought his total fee to twenty, or for a further frickin' twenty bucks, a 133% bonus. Either way, I was incensed. I told him, as politely as I knew how, to go take a flying leap on a rolling doughnut.

I felt an acute need for another human's company (and a chronic need for a beer), so I walked from my hotel to the Old Market and Pub Street. I was bitterly disappointed with both: nothing but crappy souvenirs in the former and overpriced, foreign-themed cocktail bars full of phonies in the latter. I bought the most masculine-looking notebook I could find (my previous journal being filled to capacity) and went home to catch some bad Asian dramas and a little shuteye before I bugged out for Thailand in the morning. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

a day in Phnom Penh

Travel Truth #4: If you skimp on research, you will pay for it later. 

My only day in Phnom Penh began with a major letdown. My first priority was to visit Kingdom Breweries, Cambodia's premier craft brewery, founded by Leopard Capital and headed up by a German brewmaster. The legend printed on every bottle will happily inform drinkers that every Kingdom brew "blends Europe's finest ingredients with purified water from Cambodia's largest lake to create a traditional yet unmatched flavor."

Yeah, whatever. I just wanted to be able to say that I'd toured the brewery, chatted with the brewmaster, and had a couple of Cambodia's premier craft beers direct from the source. 

I was foiled in that ambition. The date was Sunday, July 20. The brewery was closed on Sundays. 


So I went to the National Palace instead. 

The Silver Pagoda, so called because its floor is one solid sheet of the stuff. You can't see it, though. The curators covered it up with a carpet, the bastards. Apparently it's so tarnished these days that you can't tell what kind of metal it is anyway. 

And then I went to the Foreign Correspondent's Club on the banks of the Tonlé Sap River for some chicken and beef satay, prawn shooters with sweet chili aioli and salsa, and some Kingdom pilsener. Even if the brewery was closed, a lot of watering holes along the riverfront still served its products. 

Then I saw the National Museum. I had to buy postcards somewhere, you know. 

Selfies with Siddhartha is going to be the title of my autobiography. 

I rode a tuk-tuk back to Amber House, filled out said postcards, rode another tuk-tuk to the post office, mailed 'em, and then managed to scoot my butt back to FCC for some beef lok-lak and a Hemingway Special for dinner before the evening monsoons broke. 

Phnom Penh accomplished.