Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Keeping it riel

Face to face, through forced perspective, with the Buddha of love. (To be fair, I haven't been called that in years but that's one lucky statue alright.)

Whether it was evident from the somewhat panicked tone of my last post Laos was probably the highlight of my trip so far so it was with the familiar misery of leaving people and places that we flew into Phnom Penh, Cambodia from it's capital Vientiane. I think we decided against liking or trying to like Asian capitals after Bangkok and having landed in the capital of Cambodia faced with the task of getting to Siem Reap (something which we thought could be arranged at the airport) and finding out heading into the city centre was the only way to do it I think it's fair to say the apprehension was rife. Rightly so it turns out, taxi drivers circle you like hungry wolves all claiming to intimately know the place you want to be taken, usually something from a list in the yellow bible (lonely planet guide to south east asia), and of course not having a notion. The city streets in Phnom Penh bring to mind something of the back alleys in Bangkok and it's not a place either of us wanted to confirm our distaste for further. The driver we finally settled on, after my employment of a newfound firmness in my voice (probable indiscernible to everyone else but there in spirit in my mind) he actually took us right there. Of course his brother ran a better travel agent, his brother in law would take us all the way to Siem Reap for half what the bus would end up costing and he knew at least three or four hotels in the city where we would be treated like royalty and given weed, opium and the ubiquitous 'boom-boom' but to his credit after repeated polite declinations he brought us to the right place.
Turns out we arrived in Cambodia at a very interesting time. It was the day of government elections and not surprisingly a lot of the Cambodian people are less than pleased with their leader. The streets were almost deserted in comparison to their usual bustle, we were told because everyone was off voting, and we arrived just in time for the only bus to Siem Reap that day. A bus which was laid on for the locals who wanted to return home (a six hour commute made only to vote against the sort of person who makes you commute six hours to vote) from angrily performing their civic duty and there were a couple of seats left. So six U.S. dollars buys us a seat. Delighted.
Sitting there by the counter is an innocuous looking local dude, affable enough, but when he finds out we're heading to Siem Reap it's all, you stay in my guest house. I've spoken before about how some of the less reputable people around this part of the world put you on the back foot with people who may turn out in the end to be genuine and this was most certainly a case of that. Thomas was his name and he turned out to be, bar none, the nicest local we've met since we left home. He happened to work for a guest house called Bakong Lodge, and also work as a guide around the Angkor Wat temples. We agreed on the bus to at least take a look at the place and he didn't insist but we get there and he gives us a good price on a nice room with air con and a hot shower, happy days.

Amazingly he happens to also be the only tuk tuk driver/ guide in Siem Reap with Irish connections. He drove the one pictured below.

I can't speak highly enough of this guy. For two days he took us all over the Angkor Wat temple site, told us stories about each temple and explained what they were originally constructed for and so on. He told us where to eat locally and what was good (I discovered a magnificent local specialty called Lok Lak which I'll be seeking out again), took us to a military base where they gave me (yes, me) a loaded AK-47 to play with and most importantly he taught me what it's like to be a Cambodian. He's one of the most passionate people I've met in ages. Vehemently anti-government (who are corrupt as it gets apparently; proof is available on one's ticket to Angkor Wat where it clearly states the name of a Vietnamese hotel chain who are controlling and charging entry fees and doing nothing to maintain the place; sold off by some government officials for their personal enrichment) and anti-police but still hopeful of a change in power and a better future for his country, evidenced by the fact that he was coming back from the gruelling trip to the capital just to make his mark on the ballot. A guy like Thomas doesn't make a lot of money it seems and yet still at one of the stops along the way when I asked him what a local girl was selling at a stall he insisted on buying me one and explaining. (Dumpling filled with fried pork and onions; sweet but pretty nice and certainly different) Wouldn't hear of me paying; a cynic could say this was playing the long game but when we had already agreed to stay at his place and have him be our guide through the temples he still called us over to his table in the lobby when we got back from the pub and with his friends continually filled our glassed with the local beer shouting Boren Sap (possibly mispelled but meaning: 'down in one').

To co-incide with the political unrest in his country we arrived in the middle of a border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand. They're laying claim to a temple in Privihear in the north and sent armed forces into Thailand. The owner of Bakong Lodge was previously an official in the hideously underequipped Cambodian army and the stories he told us you just wouldn't believe. There are soliders in their army now who don't have uniforms or guns, stationed without food or money hunting and eating, I swear to God, frogs to cook and eat. Disbelieve and laugh if you want, I didn't, we'd seen enough that it wasn't out of the question. Thomas had, after a few Boren Saps more than we were able for, at least provisionally enlisted us to head to the border the next day and drive the Siem (Thai) back into their own land.

On our last night he told us about a hotel that ran a buffet and had some traditional dance show. We said cool, he hadn't put us wrong yet, and when it came to getting tickets I asked him how many times he'd seen the show himself. Never he said, too expensive, only for tourists. So we ask him to come along as our guests for once and I really felt bad at how grateful he seemed. He got dressed up and everything and before the show took us to the local park to watch the bats who drop from 6 trees there every night like clock work at 7pm to go hunting. (The sky was black with them and they were huge.) It was probably the equivalent of a night at Bunratty Folk Park but we enjoyed it and the food was good and it was nice to be able to say thanks to such a genuinely nice guy, one who improved an already beautiful country and people exponentially.

A few collections of pixels that illustrate better than words, some things from Cambodia:

A Cambodian gas station, Thomas told us, shaking his head, pissed off with the government. A four year old boy empties a whiskey bottle of petrol into his tuk tuk. He used these local ones to spread the wealth among the people and not give it to big companies I think.

The two boys outside the truly stunning Angkor Wat Temple.

What turned out to be one of my favourite temples just because of the name. It translates to Body Chain and was where all the kings of the ancient Khmer Empire were cremated. Their bones were stored in seperate towers a few of which I snapped above.

Massive trees choking the temple of Brahma, the site where some of the first Tomb Raider movie was filmed. Incidentally apparently Angelina Jolie ate in a restaurant while filming called the Red Piano in Siem Reap where I had dinner a couple of nights ago. She invented (or transported the recipe from the west for) a cocktail which is now called the Tomb Raider. It was great.

A postscript to explain the admittedly oblique reference in the title: The currency in Cambodia is offically the riel. Not as bad as kip (12,500 to the euro) at 4,400 to the euro but vastly outdone by the infuriating Dong (yes I know, haha) which I found out on arrival here in Saigon not two hours ago you get 20,000 of for a single lonely pathetic euro.

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