South East Asia on a Hamstring – March 10

Siem Reap, Cambodia – March 10, 2000

We had a 6:30am start to the “fast boat” to Siem Reap.

“If we’re lucky,” said Stuart, “it will take four hours. If we’re not, it could be six.”

We weren’t lucky.

The boat itself was a 50-seat speedboat with plenty of space on the roof for sun-worshipping tourists. I sat there for the first two hours but the sun chased me below. This boat, unlike our Mekong boat, had a WC but visiting it was a strange sensation. The tiny closet was short so you had to hunch over to get in the door. The toilet was located just next to the engine so you steadily roasted over the course of your visit.

Finally, we pulled up at a shantytown on stilts that looked distinctively like Waterworld. Touts mobbed the boat from boats of their own. Hotel reps waved paper signs that greeted their guests – “welcome to Siem Reap, Mr. Jones.” Somewhere in the fray, Stuart conveyed a message to us – get on that other boat. We all managed to clamber over and our bags followed, with Julia’s and mine coming last. We chugged off. A man yelled at us, waving a paper mailing tube. “Our map!” I said and Stuart waved to the public water taxi to pick it up and bring it along.

We left Waterworld and motored towards the mainland, a 15-minute journey. There was a kid working on the boat. He sat down next to me and put out his palm. I shook my head no and asked him for a dollar. He giggled. He feigned hunger. Emma was sitting next to me and she had some digestive biscuits – plain cookies, basically, and she fed them to the kid. He offered me half of the last one. I declined, indicating that I wasn’t hungry. The kid slowly ate the biscuits and then asked me for Pikachu.

I clutched Pikachu close – no, Pikachu was mine!! I gave the kid a Spider-man stickpin, hoping fervently that it would be enough.

It was. The kid put the pin on and smiled, posing for a photo.

We motored on, passing more houses and schools built on stilts above the water. Upon arrival at the mainland, we were instructed to hop from boat to boat to reach dry ground. This wasn’t so easy once I’d strapped on my pack and loaded up my 28 new items of clothing from Hoi An. In the process of avoiding stomping on a woman’s boxes of strawberries, I managed to get my ankle smashed in between two boats.

Ankle throbbing, I hit land and a horrific stench. We walked up the dirt beach to the waiting tourist bus, which was air-conditioned and blaring Danny Kaye singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” We drove to Siem Reap, while I tried to convince everyone to sing along to “Old McDonald.”

The poverty and need in Cambodia is far more obvious than in any other country I’ve visited on this trip. Shantytowns lined the road from the smelly pier to Siem Reap, the inhabitants listlessly rocking their raggedy hammocks in the blazing afternoon sun. The soundtrack over the PA in our tourist minibus made the experience surreal – Danny Kaye was singing happy children’s songs that seemed ludicrous against the Cambodian backdrop.

Siem Reap itself was a short, dusty town but the rooms at the Freedom Hotel had 52-channels of satellite television and air-conditioning that worked like a charm so long as the electrical power didn’t cut out. Lochie showered while I studied my first glimpse of CNN in days.

US and China tense over Taiwan. Super Tuesday over. A lawyer shot in Pakistan. A Khatami-ally shot in Iran. Maybe I should just stay in Cambodia and travel some more, keeping my head in the sand!

It’s true. I didn’t want to go home. I would’ve happily left Southeast Asia when I was in DeCaprio’s Thailand but the raw, untouristed, vibrant cultures of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia had sucked me in. The travel was more and more stimulating and I wanted desperately to split from the safe cocoon of the group, make my way back to Vietnam, and stay in one place for a while. I could make websites for Hoi An businesses in exchange for room and board, maybe.

Realistically, though, my frequent flyer ticket runs out on March 17 and my bags are too heavy, burdened with my many purchases. Coloring must be done, taxes filed, and I have to see if the girls who rented my apartment cleaned me out or not.

Home again, home again, jiggedy jig, leaving the inconveniences and charms of the developing world behind me.

We left the Freedom Hotel to watch the sunset over Angkor Wat from the nearby hillside temple of Phnom Bakheng. I climbed up to a rock and positioned myself strategically, anticipating a cooperative sun. A Cambodian family sat in front of me. They giggled and stared and their little boy played a bamboo flute with his nose. I snapped a photo and the flash went off, startling him. The family went into hysterics.

The little girl of the family screamed “hello” at me and then buried her face in her mother’s dress. The boy found a spare, unopened bottle of cold water and offered it to me, his family looking on approvingly. I said, “ar kun” (thank you in Cambodian) and shook my head no, motioning to my full water bottle. The boy giggled some more and looked away.

The sun went down behind a gray haze, quite unspectacularly. Disappointed, we walked down the steep dirt hill, past the “elephant crossing” sign and the limbless beggars, dropping small rial notes in hats as we went. Dinner was a group meal and for me it was a tasty chicken curry and boredom. I had more than my share of groups lately and was too tired to make smalltalk.

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