Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The 'Sunrise'®

I have a confession to make. Even though I had travelled all the way to Siem Reap by bus and braved the rains, I wasn't very keen on going to the Angkor temples. It just didn't interest me that much. Yes, yes, people come to Siem Reap to see the wonders that are the Angkor temples and to catch the magnificent 'Sunrise at the Angkor Wat'®. But I just didn't see what the big deal was.

Don't get me wrong - I love history. But most museums and archaeological "ooh-aah" tours bore me no end. There are many archaeological marvels I would love to see in my lifetime, but the Angkor temples weren't one of them. I wasn't particularly excited, to put it mildly. I went because that's what everyone who comes to Siem Reap does. Yes, I shamelessly bowed to public pressure.

5:30 a.m. Shrill piercing sound. Must be a dream. Shrill piercing sound. Is the aircraft losing cabin pressure? Shrill piercing sound. What the heck is going on? Shrill piercing sound. Oh, it's my alarm. Damn.

As I left my room in the pale grey of the early morning and headed towards the reception I was greeted by a groggy tuk-tuk driver named Hout. He was going to be my guide/driver for the day, and he proved to be knowledgeable and patient, and didn't talk too much. The perfect guide.

The Cambodian government (?) has done a relatively good job with the maintenance of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is called 'Angkor'. It is clean, green, and well preserved, at least in the recent past. The lush greenery on either side of the long road into the complex where the Angkor Wat is situated helped build a sense of mystique and grandeur to the occasion. Or it could make an already drowsy person fall asleep. Tomayto - Tomahto.

The word Angkor is derived from the Sanskrit word नगर (nagar) which means city. That is exactly what it used to be. Scholars say that it was the largest city of the ancient world with a population of over 1 million!! That is absolutely staggering. And while that may not seem like much to you at first, imagine sustaining an integrated population (society) of that size with no electricity, mechanisation and telecommunications. It's no mean feat.

As we pulled up to the entrance of the Angkor Wat, Hout told me that he'd be back in 2 hours and would wait for me right there. Two hours? Why would I need 2 hours to see one temple-complex? "You go take pictures of the Sunrise®" was the explanation I was given. And off he went. I turned around, looked at the entrance and all I saw was a small red ball of sun just above the horizon. I had seen better. Hmpf.

I entered the Angkor Wat in blind faith. And also because 4 young Japanese women smiled at me, giggled and then went into the complex. That's odd - my fly wasn't unzipped. I was reminded of Harry Belafonte's song Mama Look-A Boo Boo. Oh well. As I began to walk into the temple complex, I saw scores of people just hanging around and not going into the temple itself. How strange. I went in.

I was beginning to have to revise my earlier assessment - the construction was pretty impressive, but not breathtaking. Yet. While I was wandering in and out of sections of the temple, I felt it get warmer. I moved towards the northern exit and saw that the sun was rising. I decided to leave the temple and get a picture of the 'Sunrise at the Angkor Wat'®. It was worth it. There's no point in me attempting to describe it. Anything I say will be a gross injustice to the sheer magnificence of the 'Sunrise at the Angkor Wat'®.

After seeing all the other sections of the Angkor Wat, including the monstrous Bayon and the intricate Bas Relief Galleries, I found that 2 hours at this architectural wonder was not enough to appreciate it fully.

When I got back into the tuk-tuk I had to swallow some humble pie and tell Hout that he was right - the Angkor Wat was spectacular. With a nonchalant air about him he said, "Yeah, I know. Now we see Angkor Thom!"

As I was leaving the temple complex I bumped into (not literally) a curious Indian man with his daughter...
"Oh hello! You are from India?"
"Yes :)"
"♪AAAaaa♪. Baambay. I am from Chennai. How is it inside the temple?"
"You should come by 6 a.m. to watch the Sunrise®. Believe me, it's worth it."

For the pictures of the Angkor Wat, click here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Of bicycles and sore bums

I hadn't really slept on the way to Siem Reap, so I wasn't really woken up when we got there. After a night in a cramped seat I staggered off the bus like a newborn fawn - dazed and wobbly.

My first step off the bus was into slush. It had poured all night, and thankfully I was met by a tuk-tuk driver from the Berlin-Angkor Guesthouse. I doffed an imaginary cap to the French couple, and off we went.

Moist. Damp. Wet. Puddles. Pools. WHOA! - an entire market was thigh-deep in water, and so were many by-lanes! People were wading through the water trying to save their goods from what would be a devastating loss. It was a sobering introduction to the daily life of the less affluent side of Cambodia. This was no metropolis. No traffic. Barely any fancy cars, and a hand-to-mouth existence for most of the populace.

The Berlin-Angkor Guesthouse was a short distance outside the heart of Siem Reap, off Sivatha Boulevard and little way down a semi-metalled pothole-ridden bumpy road. I was greeted by a couple of Cambodian men working there and then by the owner - Ralph. Ralph is a 61 year old German who grew up in Mönchengladbach. But, as I was to find out later, Ralph had traveled the world extensively and was full of hilarious and often very risqué tales.

I was surprised to find Cuban music playing at the breakfast area. It was the kind of music that makes you give it verbal and hand-gesture compliments as though it were a person sitting right in front of you. No? Just me then.

I inquired about the trip to the Angkor temples and was promptly sniggered at! If I wanted to see the temples I was advised to wake up at 5 a.m. so that I could see the famed 'Sunrise at the Angkor Wat'®. It was 11 a.m.

After a shower, I rented a bicycle from the guesthouse and made my way into the heart of town. It was much further than I had initially thought it was. But I had decided to spend my day wandering around the town instead of getting some much needed sleep. Who needs sleep? But seriously, who needs sleep?

I cycled down Sivatha Boulevard until the houses got smaller, thatched and a bit too spread out for my liking. I had cycled out of town. I turned around and made my way back. It was hot, my t-shirt was drenched in sweat and the bicycle seat hurt my arse a great deal. After aimlessly cycling around the town for an unmeasured amount of time, I chanced upon an Irish pub. My past experiences in Irish pubs in Cambodia were fantastic to say the least, so I thought I'd pop in for some food. 'Food'.

After about an hour in the pub, I struck up a conversation with a Frenchman at the bar. He was the owner. "'ey, why don't you come back in the evening. We have a jazz band playing 'ere tonight." A multi-national jazz band? In Cambodia? I had to come see this!

And so I returned the bicycle to the guesthouse. My arse hurt. I watched a bit of TV and then left my room. But before I left, Ralph introduced me to Angelo Vecchio. The first, and craziest, of the few Italians I met in Siem Reap. 'How rude', I heard you say. Well I'll tell you just one thing about him (and there were many) - he had cycled 92 kilometers the previous day, roaming around almost all the Angkor temples. People don't even do that on motorbikes! Why did he do this? What did he gain from this feat? "Naathing. But-a it was-a crayyzie, eh?"

This is one reason why I love backpacking on my own. You get to meet the most interesting bunch of adventurers, goofballs, conspiracy theorists and downright lunatics imaginable. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Back at Molly Malone's (the Irish pub), the jazz band blew me away. Initially. They played some great stuff by Herbie Hancock and they were very, very good. Then they began to play stuff by the Rolling Stones and I got bored. But I met the owner, Thierry, again, and we spent a while chatting over dinner.

I had to wake up pretty early the next morning if I wanted to see the 'Sunrise at the Angkor Wat'®. Problem is, I'm not a morning person. I am not a morning person. I set the alarm on my über-cool disco watch and faded away.

My bum still hurt. I haven't ridden a bicycle since.

For the pictures of Siem Reap, click here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Pearl of Asia

Phnom Penh is hot. And so are its women.

I decided to wander around in Phnom Penh for a few hours and eventually make my way to the National Museum. After a breakfast of pancakes with chocolate sauce, I sauntered out of the hostel towards the 'Wat Phnom'.

The Wat Phnom is a Buddhist temple built sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries A.D. The city gets its name from this structure, and it is the centre of celebrations during the Khmer New Year. The Khmer New Year is celebrated on the 13th or 14th of April and the celebrations last for three days (Maha Songkran, Virak Wanabat, Tngay Leang Saka).

Khmer New Year celebrations are said to be one of the highlights of visiting Cambodia with people dancing on street-corners, music playing everywhere, and several fascinating Cambodian games. Of course, due to my impeccable timing (as displayed in Singapore), I had left Cambodia before the Khmer New Year and missed all the fun.

I then saw a very broad squat building - a massive structure with a thick, high wall around the perimeter. I was about to take a picture (from across the road) when a security guard hollered, "No picture! No picture!"

What? WHY??. Ahhh! American consulate, is it?. Hey wait a minute - do I look like a terrorist to you??? Oh ok, I guess I do.

With my dignity intact, I made my way to Preah Monivong Boulevard and then past the railway station to the Central Market. On Preah Monivong Boulevard I saw a Lexus Land Cruiser on sale for about $14,500. Wow! But changing gears is difficult with paws. So I walked on.

The Central Market was a fantastic mix of stimuli that tingled my visual and olfactory senses. It seemed you could buy anything there. And it wasn't a mall! I'm so sick of malls. It was bustling, not too noisy, and choc-a-bloc with little shops. But I was here for a reason. It wasn't just happenstance that brought me to this place. I was here on a mission. A mission to sort out my most immediate need - the ability to gauge time. Basically I needed a watch.

So in I went looking for a little shop that would sell cheap watches. I needed the watch to last just a little over two weeks. But what I found was brilliant. It wasn't a little shop by any means! There were rows and piles of watches as far as the eye could see. The eye of a half-blind old man. Nevertheless, my Indian eye spotted the cheapest looking one in a matter of seconds. I picked it up and asked the lady standing behind one pile of watches, "How much?"

"6 Dola"
"Nooo, 1 Dollar"
"5 Dola"
"1½ Dollars"
"Hmpf. No"
"2 Dollars?"
"4 Dola"
"Sree? Okay"

SOLD! For 3 dola dollars. I still wear the watch, and I love the 'disco' lights.

Armed [*snigger*] with my new watch I wandered down a series of criss-crossing streets in the direction of the National Museum. These streets of Phnom Penh are so interesting and were well worth the walk in the near 40ºC heat.

The National Museum was interesting, but not extraordinary. They mainly have collections of artifacts from the Angkor temples. Yet again I saw carvings of the feathered serpent ('Quetzalcoatl' in Mexico). I've now seen evidence of this in India, Vietnam, Cambodia and Mexico. And I genuinely believe that there's far more to this than meets the eye.

After I left the museum, I decided to visit the Royal Palace near the riverside. Unfortunately it was closed for the afternoon. I was tired, sweaty and I needed a place to rest for awhile. On my way towards the riverside, I saw an Irish pub called 'Rory's Pub'. "I can sit here for a few minutes and maybe even eat something as well." I ended up leaving the pub at 10 p.m.

Rory's Pub was an absolute blast. I met so many interesting people under that one roof. An old Irishman was telling everyone that the Great Recession in 2008 took place because the Mexican cartels pulled their drug money out of the American banks. The owner, an American, grew up very close to where my brother lives, and so we had a fair bit to talk about. Then there was the young Canadian who had been working with Médecins Sans Frontières in Sudan. And the Scotsman who was reading 'Twilight'. He was reading it because he thought it would help him understand his teenage daughter. Hah! But he was a Gooner, so all is forgiven. Needless to say, I had a great time there.

I headed back to the hostel very pleased with my accomplishments for the day. A well deserved rest - you bet! But we seldom get what we deserve. So I packed my bags and headed to the bus station at 11 p.m. I was going to go to Siem Reap to see the Angkor temples!

Cambodian buses are rarely on time (so I've heard, and witnessed). The bus was about 1½ hours late. While waiting at the bus station I made friends with some Khmer people who didn't seem as frustrated as I was. All they did was look at their watches, sigh, shrug their shoulders, and smile. All I could do was look at my watch and grin at the 'disco' lights.

Just a few minutes before the bus arrived, a French couple shuffled in to the bus station. They hadn't booked tickets in advance, so the man sat on the floor (for the overnight journey!!) and the woman sat next to me on the last row. French lady had pointy elbows and every time the bus shook they tested the strength of my ribs. If I leaned away from her, the window latch tested the strength of my skull. This was going to be an uncomfortable ride. I thought I heard rain outside as the bus barreled along the highway. But I didn't care. I wanted to sleep.

Elbow. Latch. Elbow. Latch. Latch. LATCH. OWWW!

I didn't sleep much that night.

Click here for the pictures.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Land of Sorrow

When I set out for the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison) in the ouskirts of Phnom Penh I knew what lay in store - a solemn reminder of the tragic past of a beautiful people. I had watched the documentaries and read about the history of the genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. But nothing, and I mean nothing will prepare you for the detailed documentation of mass murder at these two sites.

I set out by tuk-tuk in the late morning and headed out to the Killing Fields first. As you enter you're greeted by silence. I thought I understood it at first. But when I saw the monument up ahead filled with human skulls, I fell speechless. Wandering the surrounding area riddled with mass graves, I was testament to the sheer scale of this unimaginable bloodbath. What makes this uniquely awful was that the victims weren't shot or gassed. Their executions were primitive, slow and gruesome.

One grave had had the bodies of 450 people. Another one had the bodies of only women and children. And there is the tree. A tree against the trunk of which the heads of children and infants were smashed. The twisted thinking behind this was that murdering these children would stop them taking revenge for the deaths of their parents. Many victims were also forced to dig their own graves. I have never seen anything like this. And I hope I never see something like this again.

In the tuk-tuk on the way to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison) I just sat quiet, watching the people who went about their daily chores. Most people in Cambodia smile if you smile at them. I'm sure most people know at least one person who was murdered during the genocide. It couldn't get worse than the Killing Fields, could it?. It did.

The Security Prison 21 (S-21) used to be the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, but the Khmer Rouge converted the classrooms into holding cells and torture chambers. The walls of the compound are laced with barbed wire. The rooms are musty and reek of death. Again, this is like no other prison or museum, because every person who passed through this prison was photographed and required to give an account of their lives.

Today, photographs of the people who were imprisoned here are displayed through several rooms. Men, women and children were all brutally tortured and executed. For what? An ideology. An ideology which wanted Cambodia to return to an agrarian utopia. The cost? The lives of over 2 million people.

Two million is just a number. And when such tragedies are reduced to a statistic, we sigh and shake our heads for awhile. But what do we really feel? Sadness? Pity? Two million is just a number. Two million families were affected. Two million lives cut short.

Two million.

Two. Million.

For an ideology.

The man who was in charge of the S-21 prison when the Khmer Rouge was in power was known as Comrade Duch. His real name is Kang Kek Iev (pronounced Kaing Guek Eav). He was responsible for the torture and death of most people who passed through the prison. In 2010 he was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried in a court of law. His sentence - 35 years in prison. Comrade Duch is the only former Khmer Rouge leader who is repentant. He begs forgiveness, but does not expect it.

Other leaders on trial haven't shown an ounce of remorse for the systematic slaughter of their own people. All for an ideology.

People say that man is innately good. Rubbish. Man is fundamentally evil. Evil courses through his veins from the time he is born. The Khmer Rouge is a glimpse into the deepest recesses of human nature. Nobody taught them to do what they did. But they went about their 'business' with ruthless efficiency.

Over 17,000 people passed through S-21. Seven survived. But then again, seventeen-thousand is just another number.

Click here for the pictures.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Land of Surprises

Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

It's way down the list in the GDP rankings. Generally known as a poor country that is still pulling itself out of the grim shadow of the murderous Khmer Rouge and the genocide over 30 years ago.

So imagine my surprise when the first 7 cars I saw outside the airport were - Toyota Camry, Lexus Land Cruiser, Lexus, Lexus, Mercedes, Toyota Tundra (huge pickup), Lexus. I had two raised eyebrows. I've noticed that the Lexus is quite common. Not because it's cheap, and not because most people are rich. Many people in the capital have 'alternate' sources of income. That's what I've been told. I took a tuk-tuk from the airport to the hostel. And I'm glad I did.

I quite like Cambodia so far. Hawkers and tuk-tuk drivers never ask more than once and always smile even if you say, "No, thank you". People smile a lot. I could get used to this. What's hard to get used to is the fact that I can't take my bag or camera with me when I go for a walk after sunset or for dinner in the evening. This, I'm told, would definitely invite bike-riding bag-snatchers and thieves. But this is not for the whole of Phnom Penh. Just for the street I'm living on. Hmm.

I once read somewhere that Cambodian women aren't too pretty. The author of that article obviously has no taste in women, or must be gay. The percentage of good-looking women is ridiculously high. Seriously. And no, I'm not in heat. I quite like Cambodia so far.

Speaking of the heat - it's like a sauna here. But not unbearable. If you've got a fan near you, you'll be fine. If not, you need a towel. Or a fan.

If you've been to Cambodia or read about it, you might know that the driving here is atrocious. Some of the motorbikes weaving their way through traffic look more like they're wobbling. Like a drunk elephant trying to ride a bicycle with it's trunk. Women seem to be better drivers here. Yeah, I said it. And no, I'm not in heat.

The food, oh the food. I ate 'Eastern Luc Lak' for dinner. It was sumptuous. It is stir fried sliced beef with special home-made onion sauce, fried egg, fried vegetables with lemon pepper dipping, served with fragrant rice. *drools*

Good food, warm people, beautiful women, horrendous driving (which makes crossing the road quite interesting) - what more could this dog want? Ah yes, a place to lay my head. And I have that. The hostel I'm staying at is quite nice. You sleep on a mattress on the floor, it's clean and the owner is full of useful advice. Martin came to Cambodia 13 years ago and worked with a few NGOs before he took over the hostel. He speaks fluent Khmer and is a great help with booking buses and tuk-tuks. Nice chap.

I quite like Cambodia so far.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Bad Start

When a little child turns to you and says, "Noooo! Don't leave me. Take me with you!", it's heart wrenching. Looking into those eyes that think the world of you as you walk away. The outstretched arms. The fact that the child can't understand why you would leave them. It's an overwhelming feeling, isn't it?

Nope. I don't think so.

Especially when you've never seen the kid before and he says this (aloud) in a crowded airport. Especially when the kid tells you he's traveling alone, and you see him with his grandmother 10 minutes later. And especially when people start raising their eyebrows at you as though you're some sort of child-abandoner type person.

I ought to find that kid and...and...tell his grandmother. That's the diplomatic and PG-rated answer I shall give you. I wonder if he's done it before. I wonder why he picked me. Must a stray dog always get kicked? Why can't people kick pet dogs. Kick poodles I say. Yes, poodles should be kicked. Hard. And pomeranians too. Then they have an excuse to yap on and on. But I digress...

I now stand (yes, stand) at an internet kiosk at Changi Airport writing this. I didn't sleep properly during my flight to Singapore because the movie I was watching was very interesting. Unfortunately I dozed off at the climax, so I don't know how it ends. And because I didn't sleep properly during the flight, I dozed off in one of the lounges and missed my free tour of Singapore. Did I mention that it was free? Well it was. If I had gone on it. Now it's just free because I didn't go. Shut up, that makes sense.

The Filipino woman standing at the computer next to me keeps looking over at my screen wondering why I'm writing so much. Does she know that I haven't really done anything so far? Female intuition? Or maybe I'm interesting. Sometimes people glance at stray dogs wondering how they bite their tails or why the lick their....noses.