The wild, wild East

Trip Start Jul 26, 2006
Trip End Apr 01, 2008

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

My first full day of travel without Jennifer, and what a near-disaster it was!  First off, I arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and the primary transfer point to Siem Reap (SR), too late to catch the last bus or boat.  I had really hoped to make it to SR that night so I could get started on checking out Angkor Wat first thing the next morning, and had already reserved a room there.  I thought maybe I could take a "share taxi" (basically a long-distance carpool) up to SR, but due to misinformation from a hostel owner/travel agent-who preferred me to stay the night at his place and book my travel through him-it was looking like I was stuck in Phnom Penh.  Being the stubborn ass I am though, I went walking around town till I found the area where all the taxi drivers gather and signed myself up for a share taxi.  After almost getting into a brawl with the hostel owner because he then wouldn't refund my money, I jumped into a beat-up car with five strangers bound for SR.
I realized at some point between Phnom Penh and SR that one of the women I was sharing the taxi with was terribly ill-like ebola virus ill.  Needless to say, this discovery was a bit disconcerting, but I could only hope that all the dust and fumes blowing in through the windows would snuff whatever communicable germs she might be spewing in my direction.  After arriving in SR four or five hours later, we dropped the other passengers off, then proceeded to my hostel, only to find guessed it, one of my bags was missing.  It appears that the really sick woman had left one of her bags behind and taken mine, which just proves how ill she was because the bags looked nothing alike.  This switch-up might not have been a problem except that we'd dropped the woman off at a street corner rather than a residence, so we had no idea how to find her.  The driver, a young guy who obviously felt very bad but who was also quite tired after a nerve-wracking, lengthy drive, then spent the next two hours pretty much going door-to-door with me trying to find the woman and my bag.  Finally, both of us exhausted and getting increasingly cranky, I gave up on ever finding my bag and sent him home to sleep.
Part of my rationale was that I was beginning to feel a bit under the weather myself, which was rather worrisome considering how ill my fellow passenger had seemed.  I finally checked in to my hostel (at this point it was >11:30 p.m. and I'd been traveling since probably around 6 a.m.), feeling exhausted, dismayed, somewhat feverish, and...that's right, covered in red spots.  Like over most of my lower body.  It was one of the weirdest things I've ever seen.  I didn't know what I could do about it however, and the missing bag included my medical kit, so I resolved that today was simply my day to die and just went to bed.
The next morning bright and early came a knock at the door.  I thought at first it might be the Grim Reaper, but it was only the taxi driver from the night before.  It turns out he'd felt truly horrible about losing my bag, hadn't been able to sleep all night, and had gone back to the neighborhood where he dropped the lady off, found her, and switched bags.  A true angel.
And what a fitting introduction to Cambodia-a fascinating, beautiful, and sorta rough place; but like Vietnam, populated by an awful lot of really sweet people (except for that jack-ass back at the Riverside Guest House in Phnom Penh).  You could see the difference pretty much immediately upon crossing the border.  The people looked different, and the place just immediately had a very unique feel to it.  For one thing, Cambodia is about the poorest nation in ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations).  It has the highest infant mortality rate, one of the highest poverty rates, and one of the lowest life expectancies of ASEAN, and you can feel it just traveling through the country.  It really felt a lot like being back in India in that respect.  The roads are busted and chaotic, utilized by all manner of vehicle and draft animal simultaneously.  Barefoot kids run wild, proper sanitation facilities are sparse, and the housing situation looks decidedly sub-par.  Cambodia also has a brutal, thoroughly depressing recent history, which is such a paradox considering that its biggest tourist draw is this magnificent temple complex that was once the seat of a vast and mighty empire. 
The Angkor empire, a succession of kings that lasted more than four hundred years (from roughly the ninth to the thirteenth centuries A.D.), at its height controlled all of modern-day Cambodia, most of Laos and Thailand, and the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam.  You can see their handiwork and enduring influence in the form of these very ornate and uniquely-styled temples almost as soon as you cross the border; it was enough to keep my eyes open and glued to the scenery for pretty much the entire trip, which is saying a lot.  And the countryside is truly spectacular, as I would learn more fully once I'd had a chance to do a little rambling.
On my first full day in SR I mostly just laid around, despite my initial intentions.  The red spots had now spread to my neck and face, so I wasn't feeling too social.  At the same time, all of the horrific tropical diseases discussed in my medical book that mentioned red spots as symptoms included lots and lots of itching, and I had none of that.  So I just took it easy, dealt with a few logistical issues, and finally managed to bike my way out for a peek at an Angkor Wat sunset.  The rest is history...
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