South East Asia on a Hamstring – March 12

Banteay Srei, Cambodia – March 12, 2000

Our morning excursion to the “best temple” took us to Banteay Srei, the pink temple.

I didn’t agree with Mr. Omnoth – I preferred the jungle temple – but the intricate sandstone reliefs of the pink temple were very detailed and masterfully carved. Apparently, Banteay Srei was built by women, but it was spiritually tarnished by having been used as a Khmer Rouge prison in the 70’s.

A band played cheerful Khmer music at the temple’s entrance, a fitting accompaniment to the cries of “postcard, madam” that had followed us from the parking lot. The band was unusual, in that every member was an amputee. Some had wooden legs, propped up on nearby trees while their owners sat comfortably at the edge of a large blue tarp.

The heat, humidity, and persistent peddlers overwhelmed us rapidly and we all made beelines for the minibus. We stopped at one last temple – Preah Khan, a second, smaller jungle temple – and then we’d had enough Khmer temples for this trip.

Stuart had the bus drop us in town so that we could get some food and last-minute Tin Tin shirts. Half of the group headed to the Ivy Bar for baguettes and pasta. Our lunch arrived concurrently with three scrappy urchins who appeared suddenly, crawling through a hole in the fence and all begging in the same high-squeaky voices. We’d just seen their accommodations – shacks with tarpulin roofs, built in the shadow of the three-hundred-dollar-a-night Grand Hotel. Stuart donated half his baguette and the rest of us followed his example.

The kids grabbed their food and scrambled back through the fence before the waitress could throw them out. They got braver as their tummies filled up and before you knew it, they were standing at our table drinking all the water in sight. We let them drink, undeterred by the knowledge that we were making future restaurant-diners lives more difficult. No doubt the kids would repeat themselves after this major success.

We left the kids decked out in Spider-Man pins, munching on bread heels and being chastised by the waitress.

Stuart and Intrepid were active in a small nearby village school and we had all kicked in five dollars each to buy the kids some school supplies. We had pencils, notebooks, and the map of the world to deliver to the kiddies, so we loaded up the minibus and drove out to the countryside with the teacher. Our bus was almost too big to make it and the driver had to ask several people to move their motorbikes or tractors to let us through.

The schoolhouse was a small, functional building with several classrooms in a row. Approximately 200 students studied there and a small group of them had gathered on this Sunday afternoon to rehearse a dance for us.

Next weekend was the school pageant – we were going to miss that but this was essentially the dress rehearsal.

Six 7-to-11 year old girls dressed in near-rags meticulously performed a traditional Cambodian dance. They twirled their fingers and hands in tight circles and moved carefully in choreographed patterns. Occasionally, one girl would make a mistake and giggle shyly and then get back into line.

Soon, three boys joined in. Afterwards, we thanked them and our group left but I poked my head back in to see a group of boys excitedly staring at the X-Men and Wolverine comics I’d left them. I wanted to leave Pikachu here too… but didn’t want to cause a mini-riot but only having one Pikachu for 200 kids. He went home with me instead.

Later that night, we had our final group meal. I went and ate a tasty vegetable curry from a coconut. But my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to go to home and to work (yes, I need to quit coloring comic books) but I certainly didn’t want to put on a smile and pretend I cared about the final goodbyes. This leg had been six days – not really enough time to get to know anyone, and even if it had been longer, I was tired of getting to know a new group of tourists every few weeks.

Furthermore, I was paranoid about Intrepid. I knew they’d passed on some information about me to both Mark and Stuart but both of them were too tight-lipped to let me know if Intrepid said “take care of her, she had a bad trip in Malaysia” or if Intrepid had said that I was one of those tourists-from-hell that come along once in every leader’s career and “be nice to this bitch because she’s got a website.”

There was no way of knowing. And their reaction to my complaint would be the ultimate determining factor in whether I would recommend them or not.

I do think that price-wise, Intrepid offers the best trips in Southeast Asia. And (I’ve said this before, in April’s “Escape” magazine, in fact, check it out on page 84) you can “cover a lot of distance in a small time for a reasonable amount of money.” You can still have a good trip with a “bad” group, but ultimately, a good trip depends on how flexible, knowledgable and capable your individual leader is.

I didn’t bother going out for the group for the last drink, instead going back to the hotel to pack alone.

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