Archive for April, 2007

Siem Reap and Temples of Angkor

Friday, April 27th, 2007

A six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, during which the driver somehow dodged cattle, potholes, dogs, bicycles, motos and other buses, deposited me just outside Siem Reap in the early evening. After a short tuk-tuk ride into town, I was greeted by Cambodia’s tourist mecca, a bit of a shock coming from up-and-coming Phnom Penh, not to mention the rural roads in between. Taking its cues from Thailand, the small town of Siem Reap overloads the senses with western restaurants and bars, air conditioned coffee shops, and a slew of street vendors all selling the same goods and services. While Phnom Penh caters to many westerners, those mostly seem to be ex-pats and NGO workers. Not so here. The crowds are a different breed altogether, ex-pats rooted to the workings of their new home and perhaps more jaded; tourists tan and wearing authentic southeast-asian clothes (I admit to having bought Thai fisherman’s pants. They’re cool.)

The crowds, of course, are here for the many temples in the area, the most famous being Angkor Wat. I had had my heart set on seeing Angkor Wat for a long time, and soon I would be satiated. The following morning I hired a tuk-tuk, and was driven around by the affable Buok Joy. I spent the first day doing most of the traditional small-tour of half a dozen temples, starting with Angkor Thom and ending with Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world.

The temples cover a vast area, mostly nestled in the jungle, and spending several days is really the only way one can take it all in. Even the smallest temple in the area is impressive, and I spent two days taking photos, imagining what the structures may have looked like in their heyday, and generally being impressed.

The biggest annoyance to visiting the temples are the countless vendors, from restaurant owners selling water to the dozens of children selling postcards and bracelets. It is hard to fault them for trying. After all, a parched foreigner, who can afford spending $20 per day for admission to the grounds, is a veritable money tree. One must remain zen about the experience; but with the barely tolerable heat (I heard 104 degrees) it was a definitely a challenge to do so the hundredth time I heard “Mista! Buy some wata!” yelled from a hundred yards away.

Many visitors go early in the morning before it gets too hot. Being a late sleeper, however, I forced myself to cut my losses and endure the cruelties of the mid-day sun and explore. It was most definitely worth it; the creepy stone faces of Angkor Thom, the ruins overgrown with trees (as seen in Tomb Raider) best seen at Ta Phrom and Ta Som, the dried up pools and stately walkways throughout.. and finally stepping beyond the threshold and into Angkor Wat I was reminded exactly why I had come in the first place. The site is spectacularly large — the perimeter wall measures 1025 by 802 meters. It is grand beyond compare, and to think of building such a structure boggles the mind. I was very much reminded of Chichen Itza, from the scale of the grounds and temples, down to stone steps engineered for dolls feet. Perhaps it was simply the sense of history one gets from seeing ruins broken down and are pillaged over time.

It is impossible to do the place justice with words and amateur photographs. For me, it was even impossible to take in such a place with a cursory visit; days later I am still processing what I’ve seen. I will need to come back someday, preferably during the rainy season, to simply sit on the grounds and be.

After a couple of days this time around, however, I experienced serious temple burnout and opted to laze about the town my last day, barely able to move in the heat. Instead, the afternoon was spent drinking late into the night with other travelers at my guest house, including a fellow San Franciscan, who, in selling others on the Bay Area, reminded us of why we live where we do. Faded, I left the party early to pack up for my early morning’s boat trip to Battambang, Cambodia’s Second City.

Phnom Penh

Friday, April 20th, 2007

An early morning flight from Bangkok into Phnom Penh, one quickly realizes how rich Thailand is compared to its neighbor. Cambodia has seen incredible suffering in recent history, and the decrepitude of buildings and infrastructure show it. However, one senses how eagerly the people want to catch up with their neighbors on both sides. Where public transportation is lacking, enterprising motorbike drivers over-eagerly step in; in a place with average per-capita GDP of $2600, western goods are easily found (though the mythical days of being able to purchase an AK-47 on the cheap at the local market are apparently gone.)

What has struck me, after a few days in this city, is that between the abandoned buildings and young beggars, next to unlit alleyways, often exist shiny new cafes and night-spots. In fact, the popular waterfront strip and surrounds have dozens of eateries with Parisian street-side seating and Western fare. This is surely in no small part due to the influx of UN peace-keeping forces and NGOs that brought occidental tastes and demands starting in the 90s, leaving it with more classy places than I’d seen my entire time in Thailand. Cambodia is not yet completely overrun with tourists, but there is much untapped potential here. It will be very interesting to come back here in ten years and see how it has developed.

My old friend Douglas met me at the airport, impressively negotiated a taxi fare in Khmer and brought me to his old apartment, which he left at my disposal. Having lived here for the last couple of years, working as a journalist at the Cambodia Daily, he recently moved into a new apartment with a month to go on his old lease. Perfectly located near the National Museum and near the Sisowath Quay waterfront, I found myself air-conditioned and cable-ready in a city that would make me sweat with high temperatures and humidity. This is indeed a dangerous combination, for I lazily slept in the next couple of mornings.

What little there is to do in Phnom Penh revolves around the brutal recent history (Killing Fields, etc.), glorious ancient history (National Museum, etc.) and perusing numerous markets. It would make sense for many tourists to quickly leave town for more cosmopolitan destinations after a few nights of trinket shopping and waterfront beers; I was, however, happy to explore the alleyways and busy markets for hours on end. This place is a treasure-trove of photographic opportunity, full of people and places with faces that speak pages; if ever there is a place for the old cliché this is it. The Central Market, a dirty, yellow art-deco winged dome of a building houses vendors peddling everything from fresh fruit and organ meat to photocopied guidebooks, used electronics to pirated DVDs and cheap knock-off clothes (for scooter parts and a better pirated DVD selection, head to the Russian Market.) Nearby, a more modern shopping center recently opened. Being the first building in Cambodia with escalators, there are attendants there to help you on your first ride.

After observing the traffic situation for a day I decided to follow my own advice and rented a scooter. Faithful readers will already be familiar with the difference between driving in the States and rural Thailand. So keep that contrast in mind when I tell you that traffic in Cambodia follows its own set of rules entirely; a dangerous mix of chaos theory and Darwinism. If you decide to drive here, basically shelf any traffic schooling you may have endured as a teenager and revert to more primal instincts. As Doug put it, “Cambodians believe in traffic laws like you and I believe in ghosts”. Drivers don’t obey street signs unless they absolutely have to, whereas foreigners often get pulled over for such offenses as driving with lights on during the day (one would wish that local residents were made to turn on their lights at night, however.) Should a foreigner be stopped, there are rules to follow: a. don’t stop; b. if you did stop, hide the key to your bike or they’ll steal it and seek a bribe; c. pay a small fraction of the bribe they ask for, and ask for a receipt. The absurdity continues when traffic accidents do happen. Douglas, who has heard his share of horrors at the news desk, explained that after collisions occur and the surviving driver has driven off, elders gather around the broken bodies in the street, chanting to ward off spirits and rubbing tiger balm on the wounds.

These points in mind, I set off on the 13km ride to Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, dodging cattle and pigs along the way. By any account a depressing tourist destination, it stands as a brutal memorial to the millions of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Within earshot of a Spanish tour group, I picked up a few too many details of the gory methods employed at the camps. Beaten paths meander around mass graves, with signposts along the way. The site is solemn as it is depressing — with barely anything to see above ground, one is left to ponder the history at one’s feet.

Time spent in Phnom Penh, one isn’t confronted with the brutality of the recent past unless it is sought out. On the contrary, despite widespread corruption, there is much hope here. Though there are many kids trying to make a dime begging or selling books in the streets, many NGOs are empowering underprivileged children by teaching them valuable skills and instilling a sense of entrepreneurship, giving them opportunities their parents did not have.

Optimistic, I save my visit to Tuol Sleng genocide museum for another time, enjoying the local cafes and wine bars before my trip north to Siem Reap.

Songkran in Ayutthaya and Bangkok

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

It may be paranoia writing, but on the air-conditioned afternoon bus from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya, I realized that my morning’s exploration of temple ruins had left me with a film of evaporated sweat, and a slight but unpleasant odor. The lady next to me didn’t seem to appreciate this. I am actively working on not caring about such issues.

After a six-hour ride I was the only one to get off at Ayuttahya, the bus continuing on to Bangkok, and instead of a bus terminal, I was let off on the side of the highway a few kilometers from the town center. I must note, once again, the infuriating affairs of hiring transport in Thailand. When you don’t want a tuk-tuk, you are inevitably going to be approached by someone offering you a tour of the city or x-rated ping-pong show for a very good price. When you are half a block away from your accommodations you are accosted by scooter-taxis, offering to take you wherever you need to go. However, when you are in actual need of transport, especially when stranded, the drivers get coy and pretend to ignore you when you don’t agree to their quote. Despite my best efforts to negotiate a price, the scooter-taxi driver wouldn’t budge from his exorbitant 100 Baht fee, all for taking me and my overweight pack on a deathride on the highway.

Luckily, I managed to persuade a very nice couple to let me ride in the back of their pickup the six kilometers into town, refusing payment upon dropping me off. Easily finding a guest house for the night, I was struck at the eery quiet in the streets. Most shops were closed, and the streets lacked the nightlife typical of Thai towns. The city was gearing up for Songkran, Thailand’s multi-day New Year’s celebration.

Waking up the following morning I had an agenda consisting of seeing the vast and manicured ruins of this former Thai capital city. Camera in hand, and everything in my pack wrapped in plastic bags, I set out to brave the commencing celebrations. Songkran, as I understand it, originally was a New Year’s celebration where families would gather and pay respect to one another with blessings of water. Likewise, holy Buddha statues often get taken out of town wats and paraded through the streets to let people wash them.

Today, Songkran is much more of a party, in Chiang Mai lasting almost a week this year. In Ayutthaya I was quickly drenched by mobs of bandit children, commanding the streets, Rambo style, wielding plastic water guns seemingly too big for their small frames. Groups of teenagers pack pickup trucks and crawl the streets, engaging in a country-wide water fight. My guest house even ran hoses that pumped water from the adjacent river to soak passers-by. Add to all of this the tradition of patting strangers’ faces with paste, and the celebration quickly becomes a messy, wet affair.

I did manage to snap a few pictures of the ruins and other historical stuff — thankfully these grounds were off-limits to drenching. But the day was mostly spent getting into the spirit of things. In 95 degree heat, the water is refreshing; and once you let go of western trepidation about getting wet, it is really quite fun. There are floats, beauty pageants, masks, street food and alcohol: really all you could ask for on New Year’s.

After several good soakings and a filling meal, I decided to head down to Bangkok a day early, having seen as much as I reasonably could. Waiting for a train, I met a Anglo-Estonian couple whom I’d recognized from up in Chiang Mai — I’d seen them in costume, riding double-decker bicycles. Apparently, they’ve been traveling the region, playing old jazz tunes on guitars and saxophone. We even got to pass the time with an impromptu Capoeira game.

Arriving in Bangkok, and hoping to run into the musical couple later, I headed out into every agoraphobe’s nightmare: Songkran celebration on Kao San road. I had convinced myself to book a hotel in backpacker central, to experience things from a different perspective than my last stay in BKK. Little did I know at the time that this is Songkran central. Multiple streets filled with young revelers, where nobody is safe from a soak.

I invite you to look at some of the pictures of the crowds, and picture me among twice as many people, trying to navigate like flotsam in a nearly-frozen sea, wearing a giant backpack, trying hard to be zen about the experience. At a snail’s pace, going from waterbucket fight to street rock concert (if only I’d known the words the songs, I’d have moshed, too), some internal GPS-radar-compass thing kicked in. I took an alley shortcut, went around the bend, and lo and behold, found the hotel. I’ve never been more proud of myself.

Able to settle into more comfortable clothes, I soon joined the party, ice-cold water in hand, seeking revenge on any sniper who dared shoot first. Three days into it, I had enough of the whole thing about 2 days ago; but Songkran is actually a lot of fun. One simply has to resign oneself to being soaked and dirty for a while. Not a bad way to end my time here in Thailand.

Tomorrow morning I fly to Cambodia to meet up with an old friend, whose only warnings have been to expect a very different world from Thailand. I eagerly anticipate culture shock.


Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Worried about how my travel would be affected by upcoming Songkran celebrations, I left Chiang Mai a few days earlier than originally planned. I headed down to the bus station, where I’d been informed, much to my frustration a few days before, that one can’t book a bus in advance. Luckily, I was able to get a seat on the spot, leaving right away. I met a couple of American girls who are studying development for a few months in Thailand; they told me a little bit about rural communities trying to stop dam building, and homestays with protective Thai families.

A few hours later we found ourselves in Sukhothai, a small town on the River Yom, situated a dozen kilometers from historic old Sukhothai, capital of the Sukhothai kingdom centuries ago. The old town is now a historical park, a roughly three-kilometer-square rectangle, whose old city walls are overgrown. The many wats in this and adjacent parks are spread out over groomed parkland, and the best way to see them all is by bicycle. Spending several hours there, an inner child within me found glee in pedaling about, amongst old temple ruins, some with grand moats along their perimeters. Riding around, it is hard not to imagine what the city looked like inhabited, bustling with newfound independence from the Khmer empire. With images such as these I am reminded of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes, in exacting detail, the many varied cities within Genghis Khan’s kingdom, and the emotions they each evoke.

There is little more to see in this town, and its manageable size provided a welcome respite for my wallet. [I do have to second Lonely Planet’s recommendation of the Thai restaurant in town, where, seated among antiquities, you can sample various Thai herbal liquor remedies with your meal.] After a day here, it is time for me to catch an afternoon bus down to Ayutthaya, another important capital city in Thailand’s history.

Chiang Mai and Surrounds

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

People seem to have a love affair with Chiang Mai. My guidebook flatly asks if you’ve yet been asked about it by other travelers (“Have you been to Chiang Mai yet??”)

With high expectations I took a second overnight train (see previous entry) from Bangkok and headed north. My initial impressions of the town were that it is a typical, almost sleepy, Thai town. Medium in size, it has its share of traffic, especially around the central, older part of town, whose decaying, ancient walls and moat cause traffic flow to be circuitous.

It took me a few days of urban surfing to find the spots I’d been hoping to run across, but there they were, hidden behind dark alleys or sandwiched between expat bars. Chiang Mai may be an ancient and historic town, but what I realized is that it is the Thai equivalent of the Bay Area, filled with lively nightlife and hippie influence. There is a confluence of raggae bars where a few alleys meet, where lanky dreadlocked Thai musicians rock, and the odd wandering trumpet player drops in to jam. Daytime offers numerous Yoga studios and a huge number of vegetarian restaurants and book shops. In addition to the quotidian night market, weekly night markets take over entire streets, such as the one near my guest house. Block after block of people, food, wares and music, drove home my impressions that while this city seems to sleep much of the time, it really lives often, and with verve.

For me, these are the cherries on a city that already offers so much to see. One can easily lose a few days wandering the numerous temples in the area, and tourists flock here for trekking expeditions to the hills, where between lengthy hikes they have their choice of touristsploitation: elephant rides, meeting “hill tribe” people, etc.

Unsure of how I would spend my exploitation dollars in the days to come, I first opted to take a Thai cooking course. In the morning our class went to a local market to explore the offerings, picking up some fresh vegetables along the way. We spent the following several hours learning to prepare numerous dishes, with mine adjusted to be “jay” (vegetarian). After a full day of cooking and eating, I could barely finish the spring rolls and noodles I’d made for dinner, and passed out cold and early.

Renting a scooter, I set off to explore Doi Suthep, am impressive temple sitting three hundred steps up a hillside in the mountains some 15 km from the town center. They say that the view from there is impressive, and I had to settle for imagination, as the area has been battling a bad case of haze, caused by slash-and-burn fires in Thailand, Burma and Laos. Though not magnificent a day for a landscape, I welcomed the excursion, riding twisties half an hour up the mountain, chugging along as best a 125cc scooter can, and taking in what little I could see along the way.

After another day of chilling in the city I took a day trip to the Elephant Nature Camp, a sanctuary for abused elephants. It was started by a woman who is trying to change centuries-old traditions that break elephants using days of starvation, beating and torture. This has traditionally been done for the purposes of construction, but since Thailand abolished logging, elephants are now mainly used for entertainment, performing shows and offering rides to the general public, who is largely unaware of the barbaric practices that have tamed the large animals. With the volunteer slots booked up far in advance, I was unable to stay for more than one day at the camp. So, instead of getting to do lots of daily chores, I spent the day learning about the elephants’ tragic stories, feeding them fruits and vegetables at lunchtime, and bathing them a couple of times in the river.

It surely unnecessary for me to say that elephants are big, but you have no idea just how big they are until you see them laying on their sides in the river as you scrub their leathery skin with a tiny brush. For all the awkwardness that comes with their scale, they are as gentle and graceful as can possibly be. Most impressively is that despite their legendary memories, most are able to forgive the terrible episodes they have suffered in their lifetimes (and a couple are over seventy years of age!) I’m talking about traumas dealing with forced labor during pregnancy, broken spines due to [elephant] rape, being tied to a post (at a temple, no less) for two years, unable to move… that these clearly emotional (for they are emotive, and social) animals do not ambush all humans they encounter breaks my heart, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to briefly interact with them in the way I did — the center does not, unlike other elephant “camps”, offer rides or have them do tricks. It is their goal to have the elephants be, well, elephants; and our quirky tour guide spent much of the day telling us about their many many soap operas (he likes her, and this one is jealous, but they’re hanging out together anyway, after much coaxing………) It turns out that being an elephant is much like being on daytime TV, but with more bananas and dust baths.

My last day in Chiang Mai, I took a bus tour farther north, to the Golden Triangle. Now, I thought I’d signed up for a trek of some sort, but it turned out to be more of a tour of various shopping areas hours from Chiang Mai. Nevertheless, it was pretty cool to see where Thailand, Burma (err.. sorry.. Myanmar) and Laos meet, at the Mekhong River. Historically known for opium production, this spot is now a mooring where tourists to Thailand can take a boat trip to a tourist trap in Laos for thirty minutes to purchase cheap cigarettes. I opted not to spend the extra ten bucks to see that.

After lunch we went to the Thailand-Burma border crossing, where stall after stall sells all manner of jewelry, cheap knock-off watches and other Chinese imports. Actually, this is an important trade destination, which has for a long long time seen Burmese, Thais and Chinese from Yun Nan converge to trade wares.

Thankfully not staying here for long, we were soon shuttled to a less-than-authentic hill tribe village, where Karen, Akha and Lahu people (mostly women) sell their various scarves, hats, jewelry and opium pipes to tourists. If I sound cynical it is because I’m a little jaded at the whole hill-tribe/tourist situation. I am happy to have gotten to see people I would normally never see, and a certain curiosity was satisfied; but there is little authenticity to the experience. There is evidence that the women I met do actually live there (laundry, livestock, satellite dish), but it is clearly an experienced manufactured for tourist dollars; a little strip of Epcot in Northern Thailand, exactly as I expected. I did not go on an extended hike up in the mountains, but I understand that guided treks in the area make exactly the same photo-op pit stops, with the added bonus of sleeping under the same thatched roofs. Therefore, I must resign myself to the whole experience. I am very much a tourist in their land, and bring the promise of income to people do not even benefit from Thai citizenship. To their dismay, however, I did not purchase anything, despite their best puppy-dog eyes. They cursed me in languages I cannot begin to understand.

So, Chiang Mai.. it offers a quality of life that makes an extended stay tempting. It has a verve similar to Bangkok’s, with less bustle; it’s got endless eco-tourist and extreme-sports opportunities; it’s got a laid back atmosphere that I enjoyed very much. With my only complaint being lack of ocean, I will definitely come back some day to experience more of it, and hopefully head into Laos and Myanmar.

Now, with only a few days left of my stay in Thailand and huge New Year’s celebrations prepping throughout the country, I will start heading back south to Bangkok, with a couple of stops along the way.