Saturday, March 05, 2005

Erin in Cambodia

Erin is currently trekking/backpacking from Thailand to Cambodia and then on to Vietnam. Here's the second installment in the life of an intrepid traveler and a truly gifted writer.

Hi everyone.
I've been trying unsuccessfully to get online for about a week here; it's a strange southeast asian phenomenon that the internet seems to be good only within 50 yards of the ocean.

It's been a while since I've writen; I have an entire country under my belt, so forgive me if this gets a bit lengthy. I last wrote in Thailand after the tsunami-aid fiasco; the next day I boarded an air-conditioned video super mega coach (the only kind they have in thailand, anymore) and headed for the Cambodian border. Walking across the border was very much like walking through a time portal. The smooth pavement ended in a dusty, gravelly crater. The green irrigated fields of Thailand abruptly turned to the brown of rice paddies out of season, and I was swarmed by filthy beggar children, pleading for money with one hand and trying to get the other into any unguarded pocket, while dripping with sweat we all waited hours to be processed through the one open window with the sleepy and unhurried customs guy. Borders are the worst...

The bus was ancient and rickety, but with big windows which afforded a good view of the countryside. It's dry season in Cambodia, and a drought to boot, so the landscape is a bleak brown, or black of burned rice paddies. It's statlingly flat, the only break in the horizon is distant palm trees. The houses are constructed of thatch, and are on stilts: it's very poor and very picturesque. Everything is coated with a thick red dust, everything. The people, cattle, houses, merchandise in the roadside markets, the leaves on the trees, so much so that you want to adjust the color on your goggles. The only splotches of color are the brilliant red day-blooming hibiscus flowers. Even the sun sinks into the haze about thirty degrees above the horizon every night.

The first destination is the city of Siem Reap, and at about 75 miles from the border it is a six hour drive: the roads are that bad. It's Cambodia's second largest city and the home to its premier tourist attraction, the ancient temples dotting the countryside and collectively known as Angkor Wat. The town has two stoplights, widely disregarded by the slow-moving, chaotic traffic, and is shockingly polarized between the insular five star hotels and the riverside shantytowns. There are many western-catering restaurants and bars, but sitting there you are constantly plagued by children begging, with smaller children on their hips, landmine amputees begging. It's a difficult thing to witness, difficult to decide who to give a little money to, or food, or cigarettes. The kids seem thrilled to be played with, just to act like proper children for a few minutes, but the hungry dollar signs never quite leave their eyes.

I spent three days touring Angkor Wat. Not having done any of my homework, I was pleased to discover that these are primarily Hindu temples in dedication and derivation, though converted to buddhist more recently. They date from the 8th to 11th centuries, and I've no words to descibe how amazing, how monumental and intricate they are, except to maybe say they make Stonehenge look sort of like a preschooler's effort with building blocks. They sit in various stages of decay and preservation, and my favorite was one which has largely been left to the surrounding jungle. Partly crumbled, it has quite an atmosphere of mystery and history. Enormous trees growing right on top of the walls give a true sense of its age, as their weblike roots slowly force the blocks apart in an indomitable reach for the earth.

Another attraction of Siem Reap, without getting too depressing, is the landmine museum, documenting one man's effort to rid Cambodia of this plague one mine at a time. He houses about a dozen child amputees, many of then orphaned, and pays for their schooling through donations. Its such a powerful juxtaposition of inspiring and heartrending, the history of Cambodia.

Let's see, next I moved on to the capitol, Phnom Penh. It's a bit more bustling, but surrounding a very polluted (but lovely shade of green) lade, with plenty of relaxed accomodations featuring hammocks, and apparently permanent home to many leftover and burned out vets still puffing joints, drinking beer in the a.m., and watching war movies. Spent another day touring war remains, primarily of the Khmer Rouge era. Some very hard stuff to witness, and they spare none of the brutality in the depiction. On the upside a few new friends and I checked out a locals nightclub, and while being very funny to watch (and listen, eeecchhkk) it was great to see people so recently oppressed excercising their relatively newfound freedom of self expression.

After this I went south, to the beach area of Sihanoukville on the gulf of thailand. I found a place to stay for free (on a sandy pallet in a thatch beach hut doubling as the bar storeroom, in between cases of redbull) in exchange for bartending their full moon party. Nice enough beach, but demonstrating the peculiar asian phenomenon of extrapolating one good idea (nice little beach hut bar) far, far beyond it's logical sustainability. There were over 100 little beach hut bars right on top of each other, each one with less atmosphere and character than the next, until finally they reached the beachside equivalent of a cafeteria, with one dangling flourescent light and a few plastic chairs. It would have been peaceful anyway if not for the hundreds of vendors endlessly plying their wares: fresh fruit manicure massage spring rolls grilled squid books lobster bracelet sea shell.....exhausting.

And now I'm in Vietnam. It's been about a week, began in Saigon and progressing to the north...but I think I'll save this for the next update! Hope all is well with everybody, and as always I love to hear from you what's new and in the news. Take care and I'll write again when the internet works.

p.s.-I ate crickets. Fried in garlic. You have to pick off the wings and the back legs, but they aren't bad...the locals looked on with the disdain they must surely reserve for westerners trying insects for the first time, and then polished off the leftovers in record time. But even they told me the canary-sized fried cockroaches weren't very good....

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