It's the Heat - and the Humanity!

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
Trip End May 10, 2005

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Sunday, February 20, 2005

Well, I've found it - the smelliest place on earth. And the winner of this dubious title is: Siem Reap, Cambodia!

After all of our adventures on the bus and because we hadn't yet explored any rivers, we decided to take a speedboat to Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat. The boat is also the fastest way to go, taking 5 1/2 hours as compared to 7 by bus.

Just like the bus, they pack 'em on. There were tourists underneath in the air-conditioned compartments, hanging on to the railings all around the boat and sitting on the top of the boat next to a hugh pile of luggage, covered with a tarp and secured with ropes.

The top was the most pleasant place to be and afforded the best views, but there was no protection from the sun. Martin sat up there for the entire trip, but I had to call it quits about half way to cool down in the bowels of the boat. The air conditioned cabin was similar to sitting in a bit oil drum with plexiglass windows (and smelled just as nice). Between the vibrations of the engine and the icy air-conditioning, it set your teeth to chattering. That's the problem with the climate here - you often have to choose between the searing heat or walk-in freezer-type air-conditioning.

The Tonle Sap River is one of the rivers that make up the Mekong River system. There was a flurry of activity on the river, mostly fishers setting or pulling up their nets. Empty aerosol cans, 2 litre pop bottles or small pieces of wood served as floats.

There was a wide age range of travellers on the boat, but the vast majority were young backpackers. The cool young female backpacker is dressed in causal loose fitting pants and wears skimpy sleeveless tops; her hair is long and pulled or pinned up on her head. Cool young guys wear the long shorts in various styles. (There's probably a name for them, but I don't know it.) Often they are adorned with a tattoo or two and various piercings. Thongs (i.e., flip-flops) are popular with the 20-something Australian crowd, though walking all day in those things would be mighty hard on the feet/legs. Hats are definitely not cool (but a scarf wrapped around your head is); the young women wear sarongs at the beach or occasionally, a shorter skirt. The cool older crowd are dressed in various shades of khaki and mud, Tilley apparel and expensive travel wear - $200 hiking shoes and pants that zip off above the knee. Once again, we don't seem to fit into either group.

I've noticed that, along with the "coolness", younger travellers often have this youthful arrogance that transcends most conversations I attempt. It's as if because we're older we're not interesting. Or not fun. Or not something (cool maybe???). Perhaps it's all a facade.

On our arrival at Siem Reap, chaos ensued. Because it's the dry season, the river is very low and we had to unload into smaller boats to dock. About eight boats surrounded the speedboat while passengers madly tried to dig out their bags. Martin loaded me and three of our four bags into one boat and was left behind looking for the fourth. I still have a picture in my mind of him on top of the boat seaching for the last bag. I wish I'd taken a photo, but in my anxiety as to how I was going to find him I didn't even think of it.

The little creek we travelled (probably a full-fleged river in the rainy season), was the most dirty and disgusting riverway I've very travelled. (The Ganges River in India smelled like roses compared to this.) Between putrefying fish and sewer gas, it made you gag. The hundreds of small boats served to stir it up even more. I've been to a lot of foul-smelling places in my lifetime, but this one takes the prize. And there were people fishing in it! Not the place for a person with an overly developed sense of smell!

My anxiety increased as we reached the docking area. The boats were haphazardly driven to the shore and there was a long line of them - who knew wear Martin would end up. I also had three bags to try to lug to shore without stepping in the slimy water.

Luckily, a young Cambodian helped me ashore, but then I was bombarded by tuk-tuk and motocycle drivers searching for fares and offering to find accommodation. I persistently shook my head and stayed put with my bags to wait for Martin.

We had booked our hotel from Phnom Penh and had been told we would be picked up at the dock. I was never so happy when a tuk-tuk driver showed up with our names written on a sign! I explained the situation (that Martin and I had become separated) and, after I gave him a description, he assured me he would find him. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, Martin floated into view and docked a little further down. I could hardly wait to get out of there.

Unfortunately, the stink didn't completely disappear in the city. We had to keep our bathroom door closed because you can smell it. You can taste it in your mouth. It's kind of sweet and metallic. It clings to your skin and your clothes. Our showers have been short and cold to keep the odour down. I'm waiting until Bangkok to wash my hair!

So . . . why did we come here??? Oh, yeah, Angkor Wat, one of the seven man-made wonders of the world. It is incredible. Worth enduring the assault on the nasal passages. We purchased a three-day pass and it was worth every moment.

Angkor Wat is the pride of the Khmer people and an architectural marvel. It must of taken thousands of people scores of years to build. Most of the temples were built between the 9th and 13th centuries by a succession of Khmer kings. The French have been instrumental in restoring the ancient structures. During Pol Pot's term of terror, restoration efforts were thwarted. One temple that had been taken apart to be reconstructed was deserted for those four years, the records destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. It has thus become the world's largest jigsaw puzzle. Attempts to recontruct it continue.

The setting of the ancient city of Angkor is magnificent and mysterious. Huge trees loom over the temples. Cicadas buzz in the trees, a million tiny castanets. There is the haunting calls of birds, sounding like some sort of magical flute. It is magical and awe-inspiring.

Of course, there are hordes of children selling souvenirs, drinks and various geegaws. You are assaulted by the throngs outside of each of the temples: "Buy book? You buy T-shirt? You want cold drink? You buy bracelet? You buy postcard? You buy something from me . . . a neverending litany of requests. Making eye contact is dangerous as is letting your gaze drift towards something for sale that they have clutched in their hand. Martin and I have become very adept at "tag-team" shopping. One person tempers the crowd and keeps a look out while the other person does the haggling.

It is interesting to note that much of Thai culture is Cambodian in origin. This is evident in the architecture and the culture. In 1432, Thais sacked Angkor and made of with artisans, dancers and fighters from Cambodia. Thus there are many similarities between the two countries: kick-boxing, traditional dance, music, language, culture . . . . (The Thais definitely have a leg up on the food, however; by comparison, Cambodian cuisine is bland and uninspiring.) There is also no love lost between the two nations who have a long history of disputes and wars. Siem Reap means "Siamese Defeated". This gives you an indication of their rivalry - and we are fairly close to the Thai border here.

Our tuk-tuk driver has driven us the 8 km out to the site each day and waits for us at each of the temples. The first day the sun is scorching - we skuttle from tree to tree looking for shade. The refreshment sellers do very well here in the sweltering heat. Our second day was more pleasant because it was overcast and there was a bit of a breeze. Now if it would only rain to kill some of the stench . . . wishful thinking! We have both suffered from a queasy stomach here, if not from the air or the water, from the food (that is prepared in the rank air and water).

Our driver's name is Ra and he is 22 years old. He and his wife are expecting their first child next week. We explain that we have no children and he responds, "Too bad for you!" (The other common response is "Bad luck for you!") Ra told us the Khmer Rouge made his parents marry. He, too, like nearly everyone is Cambodia, ost members of his family during those years of terror.

By 8 am each morning, the temples are crawling with visitors. That's also the coolest time of day. We have encountered throngs of Japanese/Korean tourists on organized tours. There are also many Cambodians making their pilgrimages to Angkor Wat.

The city of Angkor is made up of many different temples that are spread over a large area, Angkor Wat being the largest. In fact, Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world. The sheer size of it is very impressive. The whole site itself is kept very clean; there are women sweeping up garbage and leaves. Luckily, you can't smell the city from the grounds.

I've enjoyed using my digital camera on this trip. It's nice to be able to erase photos that don't turn out and to retake them. (Martin, however, isn't so sure about this because it takes more time than the "point and shoot" type of camera. All he takes photos of are bats, but they usually don't turn out because they're usually in high, dark places.) I've also appreciated how compact it is and easy to carry. Of course, it's been wonderful for our travelogue as well. My only complaint is that it's not as responsive as a film camera - there's always a delay when you open the shutter and between shots.

We visited Angkor Wat today (Sunday). There are many Buddhist monks and teenage boys there talking to tourists and trying to improve their English. Many young people study English at night school. It is $5 USD/month for two hours of English instruction a day.

Besides reeking from the stench of the river, Siem Reap is also very dusty. Our hotel is located at the end of a dirt road; passing motorbikes cover you in red dust. Seems like, between the heat, the rank smells and the dust, we're in perpetual need of a shower! I can't imagine what it would be like to live here. It would be akin to living next to a toxic waste dump. I wonder if people here have ever really breathed fresh air . . . ? Travelling always makes you appreciate home more!
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