Battambang and Beyond

While in Battambang we rode the rails of the Bamboo Railway, a bamboo platform, recycled wheels and motorcycle engine careening down a bumpy railway track at up to 50 mph. The ingenious transport can be disassembled quickly and turned around. It’s a tourist attraction that’s expected to be closed by year’s end. The aim? A national rail system like Thailand’s. Our Cambodian guide looked skeptical.smallbamboorailway2

In Kampot, we stayed at the Natural Bungalows a short distance from town. Low key resorts on stilts dot the river creating bucolic scenes. Except, in early February, a 25-year-old French women went missing and was found the next day floating in the river, an apparent homicide.

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kampotdeckssmallBy the time I saw that on Twitter, I was back in Phnom Penh on my own; a vigilant tourist at the best of times. I rarely felt unsafe in Cambodia  but the city’s frenzied pace and the continual, “Madame, Tuk Tuk? left me on guard, initially.

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Kampot makes a great base to explore. We visited an organic pepper farm in a region known internationally for its organically grown red, black and green peppers grown  in rows of  tee pee tall vines. Handpicked, the seeds are shipped worldwide and Kampot Pepper Crab is to die for.

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We also visited a temple and White Elephant cave near Kampot.

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Along a bumpy dirt road, we headed to seaside Kep, a 1950’s resort town of former glory where mansions, derelict and abandoned behind ornate cemented walls neighbour updated resorts such as the Kep Lodge bungalows and Knai Bang Chatt, a modernist villa.kepwalls

In town, a strip of cafes/shop, with a view of Vietnam in the distance, we devoured a seafood lunch stuffing ourselves on broths of fat shrimp, white fish, tail and head intact, and  plump melt-in-your-mouth squid. Earlier, we’d stopped by a town where Buddhists lived on one side of the canal, Muslims  (Cham people) on the other, have co-existed peacefully for centuries.fixingnetssmall

Eventually, it was south to Sihanoukville, a party town. Lots of beaches to choose from:  Otres, Serendipity, Hawaii, Independence, Victory, Sokha, Ocheteaul. An hour away, Cambodian islands and we found paradise on Koh Ta Kiev. The azure blue pea-soup warm water, white sands and tropical bungalows make a great weekend escape. At $20 per night with a large open-air restaurant/bar, you’re set. Arrange the return trip with the boat before you get there for about $35.bungalowsatkohtakiev

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Back in the capital,  the cremation ceremonies for the late King Norodom Sihanouk were a wrap. I sat sipping a draft Angor Wat beer ($1US) watching a huge crane dismantle the splendorous site located between the Grand Palace and the National Museum. Flat-bed trucks carted off the palatial, leaving a red-steel skeleton while vendors got in their last minute hawking of place-mat sized photographs of the royal couple in their younger days.

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During the last few days in Phnom Penh,  I signed on with Grasshopper Adventures for a half-day cycling tour on the Mekong Islands across the river. A harrowing two kilometer cycle and 10-minute ferry crossing deposited us into rural tranquility.  We rode on earthen red roads, visited a silk farm, devoured mangoes, bananas, papayas, jack fruit and could not resist yet another  scarf, the signature Krama, a Khmer gingham fabric used  to protect from sun, wind and dust.

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One more quick ferry ride, and we arrived on another island that time seems to have forgotten. Just a few temples with brightly coloured ceilings, a few monks, a courtyard of carved wooden figures and five traditional wooden dragon boats undercover, awaiting next year’s annual water festival.

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Back in the city, I debated between a nightcap at Le Moon Terrace Bar in the Amanjaya hotel, the FCC perched above the riverside, or Friends, an NGO that trains marginalized youth in hospitality.

It was the perfect end to two weeks in a small country with a sad, yet fascinating history that has attracted more than 3.58 million tourists in 2012.

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.”

Walking Interruptus in Phnom Penh

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Walking down the street in Phnom Penh isn’t really what those of us who grew up on Lucy and Leave it to Beaver re-runs imagine when we think to ourselves, mmmm, I think I’ll just take a little stroll down the street. You don’t just walk down the street in Cambodia’s capital city because that would imply that you’ll take a carefree little jaunt  in a straight line.

No. No. No. Instead, you take some steps, you look around, and in the middle of the busiest tourist area near the Royal Palace and the National Museum, you can not walk down Sisowath Quay without being continuously approached, but in the nicest way, mind you.

“Tuk, Tuk? Tuk Tuk, Madame?” Where you going? I can take you there. Where are you going later? How about tomorrow? I could take you on a city tour?”

It is imperative that you smile and remain as pleasant as possible all the while continuing to say “No thanks” while one eye maintains an awareness of what your feet are doing to avoid stepping in dog shit or tripping over broken pavement or avoiding the wires dangling down, or slipping on the coconut husks that haven’t been picked up from the pile near the curb or the kind of slant in the pavement that the wrong shoes could translate into a broken arm.

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“Tuk Tuk? Tuk Tuk, Madame?”

It doesn’t matter whether you have said “No” to the four tuk tuk drivers parked ahead of him and he’s seen and heard you decline, one after the other, the most ambitious soul will  just keep asking as if maybe you just didn’t like the looks of the first three and that gives him hope beyond hope that you will change your mind because surely you will see that he is a superior being in comparison to them. Sometimes, even from a distance, far enough away without the use of binoculars or any other device, one will spot you and his arm will raise even though you are half a block away. “Tuk Tuk?” You have to admire the tenacity. It becomes a bit of a joke but only after you find yourself saying, like your father would have in your short-tempered way, “Jesus, if I wanted a tuk tuk, I think I’d just ask for one. Harumph!”

At night if you sit in one of the open air cafes along the main strip near the riverside, little children carting red plastic bins of photocopied books with titles like, First They Killed My Father, about the Pol Pot regime, will try and sell you a copy. If you are foolish enough to buy just one, a swarm of children materialize from the ether to try and sell you more and different titles as if they think the library in your mansion back home in America needs populating. Only when you are energetically resolved and steadfast in your “No” and they sense it, only then will they leave you alone if you have refused to buy their books, and bracelets and scarves.

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“You’re mean. Do you see that I have no leg?” asked the little girl. Actually I hadn’t noticed.  Looking down, wondering if that would have made a difference to me, thinking that yes, indeed, it would have.

You will always have to look both ways before you cross the street, not just once or twice as you would in any major urban centre in the world, but at least three times, and quickly, as if you’re playing a game of musical chairs with traffic. When you feel it is not safe, because it is definitely not safe, but let’s say then that when you determine that your chances of being killed by a scooter carrying a monk or a naked baby being held by its mother or a motorbike with two men balancing a refrigerator vertically between them, or one man balancing two double mattresses and a picture to be framed, or another with PVC tubing balanced on his shoulder like a trapeze, only then, when your chances are lesser, do you then take a deep breath, step out and keep moving, without ever looking behind you, and just having faith that Buddha is on your side and praying that Mercury is not in Retrograde that week.

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You must step around vendors selling the most exotic array of fruit, step in between parked tuk tuks  and other tourists holding maps and wandering like drunken zombies and Land Rovers parked half on/half off the sidewalk and you must get out of the way of the man pushing his cart of small fresh snails that are drying on racks propped at a 45 degree angle.

Nearing the end of my trip, I stayed in a neighborhood about 15 minutes away from the tourist area. I came out on the street one morning only to hear a loud crash. I looked across at what looked like a bank where it would appear half the ceiling had fallen down. A dubious construction or renovation project perhaps?  All the people, an entire extended family, made their way out, en masse, from the shop next door as if they were tied together, wanting to see what all the ruckus was about. When they took it in, saw no casualties,  they laughed and joked among themselves in a language that I couldn’t understand, probably Khmer, and then turned around and went back inside.marketsmallchickens

The smells that sometimes assault you are so pungent, a combination of pavement and sweat and shit and humanity and exhaust and dried fish and breezes off the Mekong, that they catch you off guard; I have never smelled anything as putrid as what would sometimes sneak up one nostril and race down and out the other side.

When you walk down the street with your money belt around your waist and your purse slung across your body, you feel as if you might as well be wearing a flashing neon sign: Bank of America, right here. Open. Discount. And you can’t help but think about the poor young tourist who was dragged to her death a few years back when gangs  on scooters snatched her bag and she couldn’t untangle from it. When you have that thought,  you change the position of your bag to the other shoulder, away from the street-side.

But, after all that, on an evening when you’re alone, and a little sick of your own company, you think, well, maybe I’ll just get a tuk tuk, for entertainment, to observe, to feel the breeze, and so you do, but not, of course, without negotiating the price first which is a comical exercise when the price is almost always just two bucks U.S.

Asia Rookie wide-eyed with Cambodia and Thailand

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I’ve been home for a week from a fascinating 33 days away in Thailand and Cambodia. It’s now time to get even more real than sitting in a Tuk Tuk in the middle of Phnom Penh can be. Feeling so present, then, in the vortex of scooters, motorcycles, and NGO Land Rovers and Toyotas. Movement. Human beings two stepping through the symphony of motion across four lanes, Gangnam-style, leaving me holding my breath as I watched their safe arrival to the other side.  There really should be  umpires on sidewalks  in Phnom Penh yelling “Safe” when you make it, alive.

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On my own, at night in Bangkok, I felt the alienation of sitting in an open air hole in the wall, every ubiquitous red plastic chair taken, except for the one I claimed, the only female, the only Caucasian surrounded by feasting Asians who must have wondered what that woman – me – was doing there, alone. Like them, I was hungry after a day of jostling on the commuter boats that plow up and down the klongs depositing the world to one famous golden site after another.

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At the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, I touched their grey suede skin and felt the strength in the gait of the one  I sat on, high in a basket on its back,  as it plodded down an incline into a lake.

I arrived in Phnom Penh early evening and caught a taxi with a woman I met at the airport, also in line because she’d missed the plane. Maggie Fletcher of Scotch Creek, B.C., in the Shuswap, returning to Cambodia after renewing her visa and happy to re-experience the amazement with me, the newbie, as I stared wide eyed and let out at few expletives experiencing the orchestrated chaos for the first time from the back of my first Tuk Tuk ride. I will never forget that.

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In Phnom Penh I heard unbelievable tales of torture inflicted by Pol Pot’s regime couldn’t help but notice how the guide looked around too nervously as he spoke near the end of our time there. I visited the killing fields and wondered about the silo of human skulls and hundreds of  friendship bracelets hanging along the fences and the senselessness of absolute power’s corruption.

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Then  Siem Reap, rising like a movie set, Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world and all those Buddhist monks and nuns sitting in shadows ready to exchange coloured strings they’d wrap around my wrist mumbling their blessings in the Khmer language through particles of cloudy incense.

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I sat with 10 others in a river boat that had just a bucket for the “happy place” that left Battambang on a seven hour visual documentary of rural poverty.  Halfway through the journey, I bit into a dry baguette purchased from a street vendor the day before and noticed, after I’d eaten it,  very busy black ants undulating. Phafff! Thought they were poppy seeds at first. No big deal, really, especially after seeing the crispy tarantulas piled high along the rest stop at Skuon, for some a delicacy. Just ask Chef Gordon Ramsey. And, the markets, oh the markets and the assaulting aromas that arise from them.

MrTengsmallIn a homestay in Sambor Prei Kuk, close to where the oldest ( 7th – 9th Century A.D) temples are crumbling or were destroyed by civil war, twelve of us slept side by side, mosquito nets draped, while barking dogs underneath the house on stilts made it almost impossible to get any shut eye and then just as I dropped off, Cambodians, up early, ready to work. Always hustling. Our interpreter, Mr. Teng, so proud to show us his one room palm-sided house, the well he made, his village of 1,543. So proud that he could explain his history in English. Hope. Distinctly hopeful  in a country that based on its history, should have none left.

limestonesmallI was blessed to receive a tip from David Murphy, a man who traveled with my friend Mac in the 70s who came across my blog and decided to invite me via e-mail for a drink in Chiang Mai, a few days too late, but then directed me to a wonderful little town called Prachuap Khiri Khan when I said I despised Hua Hin. He then  recommended a hotel with an unobstructed view across the Gulf of Thailand with captivating limestone mountains in the distance. It was there that I raised my beer in a low-key nod to myself as I ticked off another year, older, all the while recognizing how lucky I was because I am not some young thing on a gap year but decades past that and still here, still exploring, even by taking a ride to see the sunset on the precarious Bamboo Railway.

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I returned every single urgent and excited high-pitched greeting, “Hello, Hello” of small dark-skinned children who ran towards me as I cycled the bumpy red roads of Mekong Island as part of a Grasshopper Adventure tour and found a place that’s as close to my definition of paradise as I could ever imagine I’d visit at  Koh Ta Kiev.

Already, I’m pining for the endless supply of white rice, spicy green and red curries, the subtle flavours of coconut Amok and the freshly sliced mangoes,  papayas, bananas, Jack fruit, pineapple often available with sweet chilli sugar.  I ate so much moist fresh-water fish, catfish and barracuda and delicate shrimp and calamaari and became addicted to the subtle flavours of lemon grass and lime, Lok Lak and Morning Glory. Eating is an Olympic sport in Asia.

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This of course, doesn’t even come close to detailing the experiences. Travel is just so life affirming, even on those days when it’s not.

Is there a scene from your own travels that sticks with you. Describe it. I’m curious. Leave a comment (above).

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?