Up Close on Cambodia’s Sangkae River

The long wooden river boat was jammed. Me the Canuck, seven Brits, a Tasmanian, two Americans, our Cambodian guide and oh look, I note with a quick glance upward, just six life jackets. Let’s not even mention the “happy place” or toilet, just a bucket.

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We head north on a narrow stream that dwindles to make river travel impassable in the dry season.

“Hello. Hello.” Naked, dark-brown children dart forward on the riverbank. Squat men wading waist deep, check their nets. A woman slaps wet clothes against a flat boulder on the shoreline as we glide past shack after bamboo shack on stilts.manwadingsmall

We’re leaving Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, moving down the intestinal-like stream of the khaki brown Sangkae River that drains into the Tonlé Sap, the largest fresh water lake in S.E. sia.Markonboatsmall

We’re on our way to Siem Reap, home of the world’s oldest Hindu temples and the UNESCO World Heritage site: Angkor Wat.

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smallelephanttuktukforwebAngkor Thom and the Bayon Temple are also on the day’s itinerary as is the dramatic Ta Prohm under seige, it seems, by the roots of Spung trees. Angeline Jolie filmed Tomb Raider there, and then my favourite, Banteay Srei, or ‘Citadel of Women’, pink sandstone structures glowing more vibrant in the late afternoon sun.

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Later, we head north to Sambor Prei Kuk, a  pre-Angkorian complex, 30 km past Kampong Thom; crumbling standstone monuments a mirror suggestion of their former glory, looted during civil war, and the destination of our overnight homestay to see how the locals really live.

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At the halfway mark, pulling into a floating corner store to grab lunch,  I bite down  into a baguette I’d bought from a street vendor the day before. On the second bite, I look more closely at the black dots I mistook for poppy seeds. Why are they undulating? Ants. Pfhaff! Very busy ones.  Amy, the Tasmanian yells at me like a mother. “Spit it out. Spit it out.” I react like an obedient child, scooping the chewed sludge from my mouth and after a minute, “Just ants,” I say. “Tiny ones.”deckinriversmall

What’s a little ant in a country where, out of necessity, desperate, starving families ate tarantulas, crickets, June bugs and whatever they could get to survive during Pol Pot’s barbaric regime (1975-79). In contrast, throughout the trip, we’d dine on local favourites: Fish Amok, (a coconut curry), Morning glory and Lok Lak (stir-fried marinated, cubed beef served with fresh red onions on lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes dipped in lime juice, sea salt and black Kampot pepper). An expensive meal set me back $3-5 US.

Culinary extremists, if you must, drop by Skuon on Hwy 6. Vendors, seated beside the hole- in-the-wall lunch stop offer crispy black tarantulas spooning in foot-high piles that look eerily similar to the eggshell-coloured human skulls piled high at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial 17 kms from Phnom Penh.  Killingfields-small

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We’d put Cambodia’s unhappy history behind us on day one starting at Tuol Sleng or S-21, the high school turned torture chambers. A War Crimes Tribunal has crept along, frought with delay, as the former Khmer Rouge leaders have escaped with death from old age with only two elderly alleged war criminals potentially able to experience justice. Or Not.

Standing in front of a large white wooden board in the courtyard,  large black and white photos of the former leaders and in front of them, under shade, the oldest survivor,  artist Bou Meng, signs books about his experience. Our guide looked around nervously while he explained the trial.  “If you have any political questions, don’t ask them in public,” he warned on the bus before we arrived. “There’s an election coming up in the spring but we already know the outcome.”

Angor Wat or Alone with Chocolate?

Angkor_Wat photo from Wikipedia.

Unlike so many in the world, I haven’t actually travelled very much or very far in terms of mileage, unless you count Finland. For me, getting on a plane is still a very big deal; something to consider with wariness and lots of Ativan of which I have none.

I haven’t experienced severe cultural differences, the kind that come from travelling to developing countries. The closest I’ve been to severe poverty is Chiapas, Mexico and even then, as a tourist, how close do you really get? It was 1997 and a massacre happened, December 22, in Acteal,  not that far from where we were staying in San Cristobal de las Casas. It didn’t seem to phase me.

Tiny little dark-skinned women were selling Zapatista dolls in the zocalo and overnight, after the Acteal massacre, there were men in green army clothing with machine guns surrounding the main square and covered trucks rumbling, one after the other, along the roads in and out of town. At one point, the military boarded the bus we were on and asked for everyone’s passports. That was slightly alarming. What the hell was wrong with me then?  I felt invincible. I must have told myself something like, Hey, I’m a tourist. I don’t live here. What’s it got to do with me? That was my ridiculous, invincible thought process back then.

Fast forward 16 years.

With about a week to go before I board a plane to Thailand and Cambodia, my anxiety level is rising. I want to go. I really want to go. I just don’t want to get on a plane to do it. It’s such a LONG flight. I hate long flights.

Going on this trip is a good idea. I’m not that young anymore. A few year’s back a friend said,  “Do you realize, there’s only about a decade, maybe 15 years when you and I might still be well enough, strong enough, motivated enough to get on a plane and wander around.” Really? OMG. Shut your mouth.  I had never thought of that before. And, so, in the last while, feeling myself slipping into complacency, I really believe that it’s important to rage against that in whatever form it takes.  Having said that, I wasn’t thinking about what would be required in terms of going on a major trip. I’ll be gone 34 days.  Preparing for this trip in the past few weeks has been a trip in itself.

I said I couldn’t go on this trip until I finished writing my Salt Spring stories. Well, they are now at 155 pages and I gotta go even though I’m not done.  The writing has come to a standstill. My focus has shifted, although I am still committed to finishing the project upon my return, somehow.

But for now. Researching. Glued to Booking.com and TripAdvisor  Reading reviews. Shopping. Oh my god. I am practically carrying a small Shoppers Drug Mart.  I haven’t bought this much stuff, maybe ever.  Shots. You  mean I have to get a needle or two? Typhoid. Hep A & B. Pills. Malaria for when I enter Cambodia. Antibiotics for that dreaded Travellers diarrhea  A money belt, because hey, like I need an extra bit of padding around my middle at the moment. A pair of special socks to prevent a blood clot going to my brain or heart and killing me while  I’m about to dig into curried rice on Cathay Pacific.

A whole day searching Robson street for the perfect bag, one that’s small, that can conceal my camera but perfect in all the right ways that I deem it to be.  A new bathing suit, and finding one practically required a booster therapy session.  Researching jet lag. Researching Melatonin.  Buying Deet lotion. Learning about the different types of mosquitoes: night biters and day biters. Familiarizing myself with the train schedules out of Bangkok. Passport photos for a Visa to get into Cambodia.   Should I get an e-visa or just do it there?

Trying on every piece of clothing to determine what I think I’m going to wear to be sure I will be comfortable and not look like the tourist I won’t be able to help looking like while not wilting with the heat even though that’s inevitable. Worry about how I’m going to deal with the withdrawal from my iPhone and Twitter which I will not be taking. Learning about Go-Sim and sim cards and phone companies in Bangkok and thinking I don’t need a phone, not really since I barely use a phone even when I’m here.  Debating where I’m going to go in between the tour of Northern Thailand and the 15 days in Cambodia. Booking the hotel for the time alone back in Bangkok and 2 days alone in Cambodia at the end. Paying all the bills. Getting extra credit cards and bank cards. Researching exchange rates. Can I lie down now?

Wimpering in the corner.

Somebody just get me a bottle of Shiraz, some chocolate, turn on Oprah and maybe I’ll  just sit alone in my apartment; maybe I’ll just stay home.  You know what I mean?

That you see, that way of thinking is exactly why I have to go, why it’s critical.  Oh, and I am really looking forward to seeing Angor Wat  and meeting all those people that one never imagines they’d ever meet before they set foot on a plane.

Got any travel tips for me?