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22 May, 2010
Kampot, Cambodia

The car is sitting impatiently behind the oncoming truck, flicking its headlights and honking its horn. Chris zooms past. Nicole zooms past. Just as I go past, however, the driver decides he can’t possibly wait one more second for me to pass, and has to overtake the truck now, right now, squeezing in between the two of us and leaving about an inch of clearance as I rush past in the opposite direction. “Jesus Christ, buddy!” I yell, not that he can hear me, instinctively veering towards the shoulder of the road and gearing down. I look up to see Nicole and Chris far ahead of me, and give the bike some more throttle to catch up, weaving through scooters, bicycles, ox-carts and four-wheel drives.

It’s thirty kilometres back to town. The road is narrow, slick with water from the thunderstorm that just passed, and lined with muddy puddles on either side. I’m wearing shorts, sneakers and a t-shirt, with no safety gear except a helmet. I have less than two days’ experience riding a motorcycle. And I’m becoming very much aware that the drivers of larger vehicles don’t give a flying fuck whether I live or die. This is the most dangerous thing I’ve done in a very long time.

But I’m having an absolute blast.

Three days ago, Chris and I were sitting in our windowless hotel room in Phnom Penh. We were sick to death of South-East Asia, sick of the poverty, sick of the filth, sick of the heat, sick of the boredom. We’d applied for our Chinese visas, and had nothing left to do except sit around waiting for them to clear, dreaming of Himalayan mountain vistas and high altitude temperatures.

The problem was that Cambodia doesn’t border China, and the only flights to southern China were expensively routed through Beijing. We’d resolved to go via Laos, since Vietnam doesn’t issue arrival visas, and to spend no time trying to see the country – just burn through it and get into China as fast as possible.

“Dude,” Chris said, as I was sitting on my bed writing emails and he was sitting on his looking at our Cambodia guidebook, “Laos is pretty big.”

“Yeah,’ I said, “but not the bit we’re going through.” Laos has a panhandle, like an upturned Oklahoma.

“Yeah we are.”

“What? No we’re not. We go to the northern border of Cambodia and that puts us in the bulging bit of Laos.”

“No, no it doesn’t. It puts us at the very southern part of Laos.”

I moved over to his bed and looked at the map. He was right. We’d have to travel through the whole panhandle plus the bulge.

“It also says,” he pointed out, “that most roads are unsealed, so it takes forever to get anywhere, and the only way to travel is by minibus.”

Both of us were quiet for a moment. I knew that, like me, Chris was reliving the agonising four-hour minbus ride from Siem Reap, crammed in between a bunch of fat Australian sex tourists.

“We can probably do it in about a week…” I said dubiously.

Chris’ eyes had flicked to the right, to the long and curving shape of Vietnam. “We could go through Vietnam,” he said. “It’s more modern. They’ve got that railway going up the whole length of the country.”

“We’d have to wait here again to get visas.”

“We can just get rush service. It’ll be cheaper than living costs for three days.”

“Alright,” I said. “Yeah. We’ll go through Vietnam.”

“Actually…” Chris said slowly. “If we’re going to go through Vietnam, why don’t we do it on bikes?”

This was how we ended up in Kampot. I didn’t know how to ride a manual motorcycle, and there was no chance in hell I would learn in the chaotic streets of Phnom Penh, so we researched a quieter country town to go to. Kampot was perfect: it’s relatively nearby, it’s next to Bokor Mountain (which was something I wanted to see anyway), and basically the only activity listed on its Wikitravel article is renting motorcycles. We booked a bus ticket, picked up our passports from the Chinese embassy, dropped them off at the Vietnamese embassy (where the guard out the front tried to scam us into applying for visas through him, for an extra five bucks), and then headed off for a weekend in Kampot.

It’s a nice little town. Don’t believe Lonely Planet when they tell you it’s full of “charming French colonial architecture,” but it is (relatively) clean, and quiet, and friendly, and still large enough to have a few Western amenities around. The day after we arrived, we located a rental shop run by a chain-smoking Cambodian man who rented us an XR250 for ten dollars. I rode pillion while Chris took us around town, looking for a quiet spot for me to practice. Eventually we found a vacant lot along the riverside with plenty of space for turning and getting up to speed. So I spent an hour or two practicing the gear changes, and braking, and taking off, while Chris stood in the sun with his arm shading his eyes, calling out help and advice.

It’s really not hard at all. If you know how to ride a bicycle and how to drive a manual car, driving a motorcycle is pretty easy. After we had lunch, we drove back to the rental place to pick up another bike for Chris, then headed back to the lot for more practice. On the drive there, Chris realised his bike was in shit condition (in particular, it had a brake lever bent half out of shape) and took it back to exchange it. I rode in circles under the sweltering Cambodian sun for half an hour, assuming Chris was having a lengthy argument with the store owner.

He had been, he told me, when he returned on a marginally-less-shit bike, but he’d also been talking to an Icelandic guy. This guy said that if we wanted to talk about motorcycles, we should head to a restaurant just out of town called the Rusty Keyhole. The owner was apparently a Brit who owned four bikes, and also served the best pork ribs in the world.

I needed to practice riding in South-East Asian traffic, and finding this restaurant was a good task to have at hand, so we ventured out onto the roads. It was a little unnerving, but I manage to keep a cool head and avoid any major catastrophes. Of course, Kampot is about a thousand times quieter than Saigon will be.

We did eventually find the restaurant, and spoke to the owner, a jovial English chap named Kristian. He gave us a bit of advice about riding in Vietnam, although he’s never done it himself, and we said we’d be back later that night for dinner.

Then, while buying water from a supermarket that evening, another motorcycle drove past. A real motorcycle, not one of the tiny automatic scooters that infest South-East Asia like so many disease-ridden cockroaches. It was a KTM 950, with two ammo boxes on the side for saddlebags, adorned with stickers showing flags as far-flung as Spain and India. We’d actually been admiring it outside a riverside restaurant the previous night, but now it was driving around the roundabout and pulling up to park outside the supermarket next to us.

And then, as though we’d walked into a cliched ad or movie of some kind, the rider of this beast of a motorcycle – a machine that put our puny 250s to shame and made our testicles shrivel up – removed their helmet and revealed themselves to be a woman.

Her name is Nicole. She’s a thirty-two year old Swiss woman who rode her bike all the way from Switzerland to South-East Asia, shipping it from India to Malaysia, and she’s been on the road for eleven months. She was a goldmine of information about long-distance riding. She was also wearing Crocs, so she was basically Chris’ dream woman. We invited her to have dinner with us at the Keyhole that night, and then went to return our bikes to the store. This was disheartening, since we then had to get out to the Keyhole by paying two Cambodian men to ride us out there on the back of their scooters.

They were out of ribs, which was disappointing, but we had a great time talking to Nicole and getting all excited about our Vietnam trip, which – with my mastery of the clutch – had transformed from a nice dream into a solid reality. She mentioned that she was going riding with Kristian the next day, and as we were paying the bill he invited us along, also offering to rent us his own dirtbikes, promising they would be in good condition rather than welded together with chicken wire and old saucepans.

Incidentally, here’s a picture of Kristian and his daughter, who looks uncannily like Phoebe did when she was a chubby little baby:

Now, this is both an awkward change of subject and something I wouldn’t usually bring up in public, but I’ve resolved to keep a truthful record of our journey, and I am therefore compelled to inform you that I’ve been constipated for about a week. Yeah, didn’t see that coming. I was totally prepared to deal with traveller’s diarrhea – bought medicine and everything – but did not expect the exact opposite. I’m purging my body of enough matter so that I’m not actually swelling up like a balloon, but I have to fight for it every step of the way, and I still often feel bloated and unwell. I have no idea why – my diet is fine, and on the day we came to Kampot I ate nothing but fruit and an entire packet of digestive biscuits. I bought the bullet yesterday and purchased laxatives from a dodgy open-to-the-road pharmacist, Kampot not exactly having any reputable clinics or chemists. They were apparently packaged in France and haven’t expired yet, so I guess they’re OK.

Now, pop culture has conditioned me to believe that laxatives will produce an immediate and hilarious effect. The instructions told me to take them in the morning on an empty stomach. We were due to meet Kristian and Nicole at 10.00; I woke up at 8.30, mixed them into water and drank it. Then I waited. And waited. And waited.

Either I was sold placebos or they aren’t quite the universal solve-all I thought they were. Nothing happened, and I really wanted to go ride motorcycles with Chris, so we left. “Man, if I took laxatives I wouldn’t risk even leaving the room,” Chris marvelled as we walked down towards the riverfront.

“I don’t think they do what people think they do,” I said. “They just… ease it up a little and make it better next time.”

“How do you know that?”

“I don’t.”

But nothing happened throughout the day. I wasn’t forced to go running into a rural Cambodian squat toilet. I might have preferred to. As it stands I think I’ll be visiting a clinic in Phnom Penh or Saigon.

That was definitelya case of TMI. I’m sorry, but I’m a noble jounalist, and no detail may be spared, however gross or uncomfortable.

Anyway, at 10.00 we all met up along the riverfront, at the former site of Kristian’s restaurant, which he now uses only for storing his bikes. We sat around for about ten minutes watching a dead dog bob up and down in the river, before he arrived and opened the shutters up to reveal his magnificent dirtbikes. These were also 250s, but bigger than the one I’d been using yesterday, and therefore more comfortable on the back and the ass. We went back to the Keyhole for breakfast, then took off into the dry rice paddies and backroads surrounding Kampot.

It was an absolutely awesome day. We rode up to a reservoir,and along a bunch of muddy off-road tracks, with red soil that reminded me of the Outback. I soon gave up on avoiding the puddles, and accepted that my shoes were going to be soaked in red mud by the end of the day.

We were overtaking scooters carrying Buddhist monks in saffron robes, school students on bicycles, ox-carts packed with bags of rice, tuk-tuks with Western tourists and motorcycles carrying crates of live chickens. We rode out to the beachside town of Kep, where longtail boats were drawn up on the muddy shoreline and shy children shook our hands.

The kids are adorable. Everywhere you ride you’ll hear one shout out “hello!” and even though you’re on a rocky trail and should really keep both hands on the handlebars, you still wave at the direction the sound came from.


Later in the day we rode up to a Buddhist shrine hidden in a mountain cave. Kristian left us there and headed back home, while we payed for a teenage girl to guide us up to the shrine. It was nice and all, but it was full of plenty of other Cambodians, one of whom tried to charge us a dollar for the “shrine entry fee, foreigners only.” He obviously hadn’t been in the tout business very long because he sucked at convincing us. We ignored him and went back down to our bikes, resolving to ride back to the Keyhole for dinner. Since the shower in our guesthouse is pretty blocked up, I was also hoping Kristian would have an outdoor hose so I could wash my shoes and socks.

As we rode back into town, we could see huge thunder clouds looming above the hills ahead of us, and it became pretty clear that we were racing against the storm. We lost. It started raining about halfway there. And when you’re riding a motorcycle, rain fucking hurts.

We pulled over into a sort of shack on the side of the road, standing under a crude patio where the resident family of Cambodians were also sheltered, staring suspiciously at us until the rain let up and we left. Thus began the long, nerve-wracking ride back into town along wet roads with insane traffic. First rule of thumb for riding in South-East Asia: give way to anything bigger than you. They don’t give a fuck. They won’t wait a few seconds for you to pass, they’ll try to overtake immediately and expect you to veer into the gravel on the side of the road. Trucks also believe that driving in the middle of the road across both lanes is their birthright. It’s a steep learning curve, but I expect Vietnam to be a vertical wall.

At around four o’clock we rolled up at the Keyhole with muddy feet, calluses on our hands and painful ass blisters, to the welcome reward of a fantastic BLT sandwich. I washed my socks and shoes as best I could underneath the outdoor tap, and marvelled at how wrinkled my feet had become after four hours encased in moisture. It was an absolutely brilliant day, the highlight of the trip so far, and I am now really fucking looking forward to Vietnam.

I think I can do it, too. The hardest part will be getting out of the traffic of Saigon. After that it’s just one long, sweet highway to Hanoi. That’s the beautiful thing about Vietnam: it’s got one big city in the north, one big city in the south, and it’s a fairly skinny country in between the two. Perfect. The only other countries I can think of that are like that are Chile (but lacking the polarised big cities) and the USA (lacking the skinniness).

Of course, we have to buy bikes, get them serviced, buy gear, buy saddlebags, figure out how to strap our bags down, learn to handle the traffic… but once we get out there, on that road, man oh man. I’ve been frustrated with Chris over the past few weeks for his insistence that motorcycles are the only decent way to travel, but now I get it. I understand. I’m dreaming of the two of us riding across the Americas from tip-to-tip in years to come. I’m dreaming of riding around Ireland with my Dad. I’m dreaming of MOTORCYCLES, VROOM VROOM!

Now if you’ll excuse me, we have to go back to the Rusty Keyhole for dinner, where the cooks have promised to set aside a pair of delicious pork ribs. Good day to you, sir!


18 May, 2010
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

There’s a supermarket near our hotel that stocks Cadbury chocolate for $3.80 US. I keep buying it. My rationalisation is that I’m paying roughly the same for it as I would back home. Besides, I need some pleasure. I was saving for this trip for so long in Perth that I rarely bought chocolate or alcohol or went out or afforded myself any luxury. I’m tired of that. I want to live like I did in Korea: encapsulating myself from the heat and foreigners outside, and filling my body with booze and chocolate. Yes, that seems healthy.

I applied for my Chinese visa yesterday (alone, since Chris was too weak to get out of bed). The Chinese embassy is a fortress-like structure topped with barbed wire, surrounded by guards and with what looks like a hasty brick wall cosntructed over its only driveway. Here I found that it was only possible to apply for a 30-day visa, not a 60-day visa like I wanted. The signs on the wall said you can apply for a 60-day visa with special supporting documentation, but I didn’t feel like arguing with a curt Chinese bureacrat behind a thick wall of bulletproof glass, so a 30-day visa it is. You can extend them once inside the country, and at the rate we’re burning through places we may not be there a month anyway.

I also picked up a bunch of amusing propaganda leaflets, such as “HOT NEWS: Tibetan And Other Ethnic Minority Cadres Have Become The Mainstay Of The Tibet Autonomous Region; Tibetan People Enjoy Full Decision-Making Power Over The Development Of The Economy And Society.” I’m not making any of that up; not even HOT NEWS.

This pamphlet informed me that “Tibet was peacefully liberated in 1951” and that, prior to this generous act of altruism by the Chinese government, “the lords could freely beat, punish, sell, present, or even lock up and kill the serfs.” Thank goodness China put a stop to all that!

I suppose this is just a taste of what’s to come. I also suppose that I’ll have to watch what I write while I’m in China. Expect an outflow of what I really think once I’ve left.

Went with Chris to the SOS International Clinic yesterday, where he spent some time with a European doctor of indeterminate nationality and found out that he has a bacterial infection. He’s on antibiotics now, so hopefully he can get red of the unrelenting exhaustion that’s been plaguing him since Bangkok.

Eating dinner at a steakhouse later that night, we had a long conversation about what we’re going to do. Chris has been sick for more than a week now, and being sick will not do much to endear you to a foreign country you dislike to begin with. And he didn’t experience the same uplifting of spirits that I did at Angkor Wat.

Chris and I are very different people and we’re on this trip for very different reasons. I was content at home. I felt some dissatisfaction, and certainly felt that I needed to either focus on a career or go be somewhere else, but I certainly didn’t have anything like the intolerable ennui that he felt. I am likewise content here; while I dislike Phnom Penh and South-East Asia in general, I’m content to wait around for a Chinese visa and continue backpacking. There are three things I dislike about this place:

1. The heat.
2. The overwhelming poverty and squalor.
3. The lack of anything interesting to see and do.

Take away any one of those factors (as happened at Angkor Wat, where 3 was removed) and I can probably tolerate the other two. I’m content to simply be in these places, to be on the move, to be somewhere other than Perth. I’d prefer to be more than just “content,” obviously, but I’ll settle for long periods of contentness intersparsed with a few days of awesomeness.

Chris won’t. He hates getting in buses and trains, and he hates cities, and he hates travelling the way we have been. He wants a motorcycle and he wants to be out in the wild away from everyone. This is why he was (and still is) strongly considering scratching Asia and flying straight to North America to purchase a bike and head down through the states and into South America. He’s not on this trip just to see something of the world, like I am; he’s trying to fill a hole, a hole of dissastisfaction. The only time he ever managed to fill that hole was while working in the Kimberley, at a remote eco-resort, out in the wild. It seems logical, therefore, for him to go and live in a similar place in Canada (also, fortunately, a country where an Australian can easily and legally purchase and ride a motorcycle).

He’s decided to see China, at least, partly because of an obligation to geographical convenience and partly because we think it may offer the things he wants. He’s not alone; I’m certainly looking forward to getting out of this equatorial sweat-box and escaping to high-altitude temperatures and dramatic mountain vistas. It’s still inevitable that we’re going to split up at some point. That sucks, obviously, but what I really want – both of us to be having an awesome time – is apparently no longer going to happen. And I’d rather travel alone than travel with a miserable Chris (which is a moot point anyway, since if he’s miserable he’ll leave).

Whatever happens, happens. Maybe one day we’ll meet up again and ride motorcycles from Murchison Promontory to Cape Froward. Or maybe we’ll both love China, and Mongolia, and carry on with the original plan after all.

If he does go off on his own he better fucking write his own journal and contribute to this blog. Otherwise the title will just look silly.

This is an odd change of subject, but we also went to the genocide museum today; Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, a former high school that was converted to a prison and torture camp under the Khmer Rouge.

Cliff’s notes for the Khmer Rouge: A communist group that seized power in Cambodia in 1975, led by Pol Pot. Declared Year Zero and forced everyone out of the cities to work in the fields in the hope of achieving an idyllic agrarian state. As with all communist regimes, it either couldn’t or wouldn’t try to achieve this goal without also removing freedoms of every kind. Ridiculous rice quotas were set that resulted in mass starvation. The regime was also extremely paranoid and hated “elitists,” defined as anybody who was connected to the previous government or was “educated” (i.e. could read, wore glasses, had been abroad…) All of these people were methodically tortured and killed, and as the Khmer Rouge’s paranoia deepened, it started to turn on itself and send its own officials to these concentration camps. One of the worst genocides in history, with an estimated one third of the Cambodian population killed, it was finally ended in 1979 when Vietnam invaded and put a stop to it.

The museum has exhibits on the history of the Khmer Rouge as well as showcasing what went on in this awful place. There are countless rooms containing iron bedframes and torture implements, with photos showing the corpses found strapped to them by a Vietnamese photojournalist.

Everyone who arrived at S-21 had a mug shot taken, and there are hundreds of these photos lining the walls in some rooms. Every single person you see was tortured and killed. Other rooms contain torture implements, paintings depicting what would happen there, human skulls, and illustrations of the Killing Fields – where soldiers would slam baby’s heads against trees or throw them up into the air to shoot at them. There are signs around asking you not to smile, which I thought was just a tad unneccesary.

Like the Hiroshima museum, it made me think a lot – largely about the guards, and how they could possibly do such things. There’s another room which explains that many of the guards were indoctrinated teenagers, who lived in constant fear of being imprisoned and tortured themselves. The paintings depict them as stern-faced, committed to the communist regime, brainwashed, utterly ruthless and uncaring. But I wonder if in reality they were nauseous, wracked with guilt, avoiding eye contact with their victims just as I avoid eye contact with the deformed beggars in the streets.

Of course, even if they were pushed into it with fear and threats, somebody was making those threats, somebody was frightening them. The buck has to stop somewhere. Like Hiroshima, you simply cannot comprehend how a human could do that to another human, directly or indirectly.

In spite of the signs asking you not to, people write shit on the walls, mostly American claptrap about God loving and saving the victims, or messages of peace and understanding – pleas not to let this ever happen again.

That’s the point of turning such a grisly piece of history into a tourist attraction, of course. As with Hiroshima, the message is: Look. Listen. Understand. Take note, because the more people who are horrified by these atrocities, the less chance there is that they will ever happen again.

The thing is, that while nuclear war has been successfully averted so far – possibly because everybody in the world saw what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and fully understood the consequences – genocide and torture and unjust imprisonment continues to happen today. The planet is, in fact, absolutely rife with it. It happens in the Congo, in the Sudan, in Burma, in North Korea, in Chechnya, in Tibet…

…and, of course, in the United States.

Go ahead and tell me that it’s okay, because the people the CIA tortures are (alleged) terrorists. The Khmer Rouge’s preferred buzzwords were “traitors” or “enemies of the state.”

It was also, incidentally, the United States that bombed Cambodia to shit throughout the early 70’s and contributed greatly to the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power.

Anyway, there’s something annoying about tourists going through this place, writing stuff like “never let it happen again!” and then doing nothing about the same atrocities that are being committed, perhaps by their own government, even as they scrawl their message on the wall. It’s just naive. I know I’m also doing nothing – that I continue, in fact, to buy expensive chocolate while beggars plead for money on the streets – but at least I have the decency to acknowledge it, and to feel somewhat bad about it.

You know, poverty is one thing, but deliberate cruelty is another. If you ever have money to donate, give it to Amnesty International.

16 May, 2010
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We left Siem Reap yesterday in the early afternoon, aboard one of the ubiquitous “buses” (minivans) that ferry tourists across South-East Asia. I’ve come to despise these minivans as the absolute lowest form of travel. They’re always overcrowded. The air-conditioning is always broken. The driver will always, without fail, simply toss your bags onto a spare seat when he knows damn well that there are another ten or so people to pick up and he’s going to have to move them into the storage area anyway, chewing up more time. And they’re cramped. Impossibly, intolerably, infuriatingly cramped. The stress positions these buses force you into would make a Guantanamo Bay torturer proud.

This ride was even more unpleasant because we were stuffed in with four fat, loud, crude, boisterous, middle-aged Australian and British sex tourists of exceptional ugliness. Chris and I ended up crammed onto opposite sides of the back seat, the wheel wells robbing us of the miniscule leg space available so that we had to tuck them up against our chests. The sex tourists, on the other hand, spread their collective corpulent mass out between us with aplomb, all the while complaining loudly about the limited space. “Yeah, you’ve got it rough,” Chris said later. “Cramming some kid up against the window while you stretch your legs out in the aisle.” When they demanded the driver stop the minivan so they could take a piss, I was fervently wishing one of them (or ideally all of them) would step on a landmine.

I had them pegged as pedophiles, of course, though after my iPod battery died I heard one of them discussing his Thai bride and how he’d lavished her village with gifts and money. The idea of a fat, old and ugly Westerner essentially purchasing a bride off a village is still distasteful, but better than what I had them marked as. Still. They were gross and the concept of Asian brides is gross. At the airport bookstore in Phuket there were entire shelves full of books about how to get yourself a Thai girlfriend. I don’t… urggh. It’s weird. I guess if both parties are happy with the outcome it’s fine.

I still hated those fat rude fuckers on the bus. It only took about one hour on that minivan to completely wipe away my Angkor Wat buzz and make me hate South-East Asia again. I’d rank it slightly above the Tiger Airways flight out of Perth, but only just.

We arrived in Phnom Penh after nightfall, and I got hit by a beggar literally three seconds off the bus, as I opened my bag to get my notebook out and she saw the piece of bread the travel company gave us to stave off starvation on the long ride. “Yum-yum,” she said. She looked pretty grubby and desperate, and was annoying, so I gave it to her. Chris, meanwhile, was climbing into a tuk-tuk with a guy who’d hailed us right in the doorway of the bus.

Here’s a good travel tip which I’m sure I’ve already mentioned: never ever ever ever ever accept a ride from somebody at the airport/bus station/train station. They’re all scam artists who will take you directly to a guesthouse that pays them a commission, and will usually charge far more just for the ride itself.

We both know this, but the alternative is to walk fifty metres down the road lugging all your shit with you and hail a new guy. After that bus ride from hell, neither of us were in the mood. I just wanted to find a guesthouse, check in, and drown myself in the toilet. So I threw my bags in with him and we set off towards the riverfront guesthouse strip.

We hadn’t really researched anywhere to stay in Phnom Penh, which neither of us had an excuse for, since we had four days with wifi in Siem Reap. After the tuk-tuk driver did his predictable “no, you stay here, very nice!” routine, we had him take us all the way to the south end of the city, where Chris had looked up a single place. They were full, but they sent us down to a hotel called the Green House, where we finally got rid of that fuckhead con artist and got to put our bags down and get out of the heat for a minute.

The tuk-tuk driver had told us this part of the city was largely deserted, with no good restaurants nearby, which I naturally assumed was a lie so that we’d settle for one of his guesthouses. Turns out it wasn’t. We had to pay about six bucks just to get up to the restaurant strip and back. Food in Phnom Penh is pricier too. Maybe I’m an asshole for complaining about paying $6 US for a meal in a nice alfresco restuarant when beggar children are trying to sell me flowers as I eat, but it was a long day and I’d had enough.

It was also Saturday night, which meant that the bars and restaurants around our thin-walled hotel were playing loud music until the wee hours of the morning. Directly outside our window was a projector screen playing non-stop music videos to an empty courtyard. I could have tolerated this if it was decent music, but it was all whining, meandering love ballads. They sounded like they were being sung by an Indian guy wearing loose white clothing, handing a carefully plucked flower to a blushing young woman. It’s the Asian equivalent of what people were listening to in the 30’s and 40’s. I guess some parts of the world never had a rock revolution.

Also, Chris says he woke up about 3 am and heard what he described as “a team of horses pulling a sea container down the road.” So, yeah, don’t stay at the Green House.

Today we moved back up into the central part of the city, trying to track down a hotel Chris’ girlfriend suggested to us after she came here in January. This place (the Angkor Bright, by the way Elisha, not the Angkor Reach) should do us fine for now, with air-con and wifi.

We’re in Phnom Penh because we have to be, not because we want to be. We need to apply for Chinese visas, which may take some time. Also, Chris is sick and needs to see a doctor. He’s been weak and tired and sometimes feverish ever since Phuket, but he’s also a typical Australian male who believes, contrary to all available evidence, that doctors are useless and will not fix your illness. Now that he’s reached the point where he barely has the strength to carry his backpack, he’s relented. I booked an appointment for him tomorrow at the SOS International Clinic, for a staggering $80 US, which we hope his travel insurance will cover.

Until these things are cleared up we’re stuck in this wretched third-world city of heat, poverty, filth, sweat, crime, drugs, and naked beggar-children picking through the garbage in the gutters. I suppose we’ll visit the genocide museum and maybe go to a shooting range, but for now we’re holed up in our hotel room researching China. I sort of wanted to go see Bokor National Park, but this place robs me of the desire to do anything except leave.

14 May, 2010
Siem Reap, Cambodia

There are three reasons people come to Cambodia. One is child prostitution, as discussed earlier. The second is drugs – I’ve been offered weed at least three times, and while I was walking to a nearby Caltex yesterday to buy some water a guy pulled up beside me on a motorcycle and tried to sell me opium, coke and “skunk,” whatever that is. The third is Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is used as shorthand for the entire complex of ruins to the north and east of Siem Reap. It’s an absolutely massive place, spread out across many square kilometres of jungle and forest. The correct term is Angkor Archaeological Park; Angkor Wat itself is merely the largest and grandest temple.

It’s also the shittest, because it’s covered in writhing swarms of tourists and it’s being extensively restored, which means another run-in with fucking scaffolding. This was a real problem at many of the larger temples: scaffolding, wooden beams, cement, “restoration.” A travesty committed by authorities who obviously don’t understand the allure of a ruin.

Take Ta Prohm, for example, the temple where they filmed Tomb Raider. Travel resources describe as the most amazing and atmospheric ruin in the whole place, because it’s overgrown with jungle… or at least it was, before 2010, when the powers that be decided to clear it all out.

I cannot understand a mindset that looks at this incredible decaying jungle temple and says “Right, let’s clean this thing up! Scrape all the lichen off, put some cement stairs and wooden walkways in, and fix all those crumbling blocks. And get rid of all those trees. I want this place looking brand new!” As with the bleached coral in Thailand, it’s depressing, because it gives you the sense that you’re a decade too late to appreciate the place.

The other annoying thing about Angkor Wat is the hawkers. I know this is a desperately poor country and they need whatever they can get, but after hearing SIR COLD DRIIIIINK? ONE DOLLAAAAA? fifty or sixty times, my patience was wearing thin. They’re a stronger breed than the garden-variety hawker, too. They’ll lock onto you from sixty or seventy metres away.

Having gotten those two gripes out of the way, I’ll mention that Angkor Wat was nonetheless amazing. I needed something awesome to restore my faith in this trip and, praise be to Saint Christopher, this was it.

We bought three-day passes for US $40, and rented bicycles for a dollar a day, since most of the major temple complexes are within riding distance. After being disappointed with Angkor Wat, we ventured a little further afield, and found that there are dozens of other sites that are completely secluded. No hawkers and no other tourists whatsoever. This here is either the Victory Gate or the East Gate of Angkor Thom:

This was absolutely deserted, hundreds of metres away from anyone or anywhere.

Another fantastic thing about the more remote sites (and even some of the major ones) is that you’re allowed to climb all over them. No velvet ropes, no guards. You can scramble up a pile of fallen blocks, walk along the walls, go nuts. This probably isn’t good for the ruins, but it suits me just fine. It’s like Shadow of the Colossus in real life.

For the record, yes, that is sweat drenching my back. This is typical when walking down the street in South-East Asia, let alone when riding thirty-five kilometres on a bike and then jumping around on ruined temples.

Chris is sick, unfortunately, which meant he didn’t really have the energy for riding his bike, let alone temple athletics. At one point he nearly fainted/vomited. This was after climbing to the top of a very steep and very high temple, and then sitting with his legs dangling over the fifty metre drop at the edge of the platform. Oh Chris! So on the second day he stayed in bed, while I ignored my ass blisters and rented a bike again to try to take in some of the northernmost temples.

That day, however, was a public holiday commemorating the king’s birthday. The King of Cambodia doesn’t have nearly as much of a public image as the King of Thailand, who likes to shovel himself down people’s throats, but apparently his birthday is a big deal. There were a lot of Cambodians seeing the ruins on their day off. The road between Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, a long stretch lined with huge fig trees, was a pleasant cycle when Chris and I went down it on our first day.

On the second day I felt like I was in India. Parked utes, minivans and tuk-tuks lined the side of the road, and the narrow part left for traffic was crawling along at a metre a minute. I got stuck behind a van going at a sloth’s pace, carrying about thirty Cambodians. At one point a pair of elephants went past. It was annoying, but also kind of cool. I mean, you don’t get elephants on the Mitchell Freeway. And fortunately the Cambodian holiday crowd was all centred around that one road for some reason, with the other ruins being as deserted as the first day.

I wasn’t kidding about thirty people to a van, by the way. This country really knows how to get the most from its vehicles. I’ve seen up to five people on a single motorcycle. The average is three, and lone riders are a rare anomaly.

Traffic is, as always, chaotic. Due to the ass blisters I was generally riding while leaning forward with my arms crossed over the handlebars, which is a lot more comfortable but gives me less control. Which was not good when four-wheel drives came barrelling past with about ten centimetres of clearance.

There’s also a lot of Korean tourists here, on “HANATOUR.” When I fled Korea I thought I’d never have to see a frizzy perm and sun visor again, but there you go. But, as I said, it’s easy to get away from the crowd and go eat your lunch on top of a big, crumbling tower.

I don’t know a lot about Angkor Wat’s history. I know it was built around the 12th century by the Angkor empire, which stretched across much of South-East Asia. They were originally Hindu temples but later converted to Buddhist purposes. The Angkor empire eventually declined as the Thais and the Vietnamese ate up its territory, and the temples fell into disrepair. They were rediscovered by the French colonists in the 19th century and thus began the odious process of “restoration.”

There’s information signs all over the place and you can hire guides to explain the historical significance and artwork. Stuff that. If I want to learn about the history I’ll look it up on the Internet. I’m here to indulge my inner Indiana Jones.

I came to one ruin, Preah Khan or something, which was surrounded by a wall about a kilometre in every direction. After walking through the actual ruins, I decided to follow the northern wall back to where my bike was, rather than retrace my steps.

I kept thinking about landmines. Cambodia is rife with them, and while the odds of there still being any left anywhere near Angkor Wat is astronomical, I still found myself sticking to the ruined flagstones wherever possible.

As I was walking along, I suddenly noticed a pair of black dogs on the path ahead of me, standing there staring at me. I wasn’t sure if they were domesticated or strays, and since this was rabies country, I decided to quickly scramble up a statue of a garuda onto the wall. I walked with some difficulty along it, since it was sharply crenellated, and eventually looked down at the dogs. They barked and then ran off into the undergrowth, leaving me stranded on top of a five metre wall (the statue having been thoughtlessly designed so that it was possible to climb up, but not down).

Eventually I came to a spot where the wall had partially collapsed, so I could easily hop down the rubble to the ground. Angkor is such a swell place.

I took about three hundred photos. They all come out looking the same, of course, but there’s just something photogenic about the place. I can’t look at a fig tree growing out of an eight-hundred year old wall, its roots intertwining seamlessly into the stonework, and not take a photograph of it. Even if I already have twenty-two other photos of the exact same thing.

On the third day, today, we hired a tuk-tuk driver for $12 to take us around for the afternoon. It was a welcome respite for our asses. We drove out to the outlying Roluos temples (which weren’t worth the bother) and revisited one of the better parts of Angkor Thom, playing chess on top of a crumbling old archway. We also had children come up to us and tie flowers onto our fingers, then beg for money. Not to mention the blind musicians, or the woman cradling her deformed baby on the path up to the sunset hill. Sometimes this country feels like one huge guilt-trip.

I don’t feel anything about that, and that in turn doesn’t make me feel anything either. Yes, I have $20,000 to blow on private travel pursuits, and if I were to give that to a person here they could live like a king for the rest of their life. The fact that I earned that money by working for it does little to mitigate that – compared to most of the world, I was born into incredible luxury. If you’re reading this right now, on a computer, so were you.

There’s a massive imbalance in the spread of wealth, opportunity and living standards across the human race. Even when confronted with it, I don’t feel particularly compelled to do anything about it. Perhaps because there’s nothing I can do to alter the big picture. Perhaps because I’m just not ready to do so yet. Or perhaps simply because I’m selfish; like Henry Goose, I feel only gratitude that my maker cast me on the winning side.

Nonetheless, I’m at least going to acknowledge the privileges that my Western birth granted me, and make the most of them.

We’re moving on to Phnom Penh tomorrow, the capital. From there we need to look into getting Chinese visas (and Laos visas, to get there). I’d also like to see the genocide museum, and Bokor Mountain.

Chris is still dissatisfied. Angkor Wat didn’t particularly enthuse him, and he’s strongly considering going to North America, even having applied for a job on a ranch in Canada. I won’t be following him. I still want to see China. He still sort of wants to see Mongolia, so if he sticks around through China and leaves from Beijing I may go with him. I’m not sure what I’d do in Canada, though, nor am I interested in working again just yet. I might take the Trans-Siberian west, go through Europe a little bit, maybe work in Ireland. I’d have to travel on my own for a while to see if I was ready for a solo trip through Africa.

I don’t know. We’ll see. I don’t like the idea of travelling alone, but I’d rather be alone than be with Chris when he’s not enjoying himself, miserable and hostile.

In any case, we’re in Cambodia for a while yet. I like Cambodia better than Thailand, and not just because of Angkor Wat. It’s cheaper, and Cambodians also seem friendlier. People say hello when you pass them in the street. Thais will only say hello if they’re trying to sell you something.

I’m never sure of how to wrap these things up. Let’s finish with a photo of the reassuring sign on the wall of our first guesthouse:

10 May, 2010
Siem Reap, Cambodia

We decided to leave Bangkok after one day of walking around paying for temple admission fees under the unforgiving sun. The Grand Palace was closed to us because we were wearing shorts, but we got into Wat Pho to see the giant reclining Buddha. I guess it was pretty big. I dunno. Temples are okay, but not something I have a huge urge to go see, especially in sweltering heat.

Back at the hostel we decided to at least give Cambodia a shot before writing off South-East Asia entirely. A train leaves for the border every morning at 6 am, but buses leave a little later in the day, so we opted for one of those. At Wat Pho we’d run into a girl Chris used to work with, and her boyfriend, and we ended up hanging out with them later that night until about 1 am. So we didn’t drag ourselves out of bed until about 8.30, and we didn’t arrive at Mo Chit bus station unil just before ten.

Fortunately there was a bus leaving about ten minutes after we got there, so we climbed aboard and were on our way. It was about a four or five hour trip, which was particularly unpleasant since the A/C was broken and neither of us had eaten yet. It stopped off at a 7-11 around noon and I bought some shitty packaged croissants and cookies, which wasn’t much of a meal, but made my stomach shut up.

Everything I’d read or heard about the Cambodian border crossing warned that it’s one long, difficult slog through a human corridor of touts and conmen trying to fuck you over at every step. This proved to be correct. We were assailed by tuk-tuk drivers as soon as we got off the bus in Aranyaprathet, the town on the Thai side of the border. They offered 80 baht to take us to the border, several kilometres away, which seemed reasonable.

Of course, they didn’t actually take us to the border – they took us to the Cambodian consulate in Aranyaprathet, where an official-looking man sat us down in a garage-like structure next door and told us we would have to pay 1500 baht (about 50 AUD) for the privilege of Cambodian visas, stamps and immigration cards. Neither of us are particularly wily travellers yet, but this was an instant red flag, since everything we’d read said you could geta visa on arrival at the border. I told him this, and he claimed we were at the border, which we clearly weren’t.

There was a Danish couple nearby who’d also been taken straight there by the tuk-tuk driver, and the male in the pair (whose name I believe was Megan, lol) agreed that this was bullshit. The man insisted over and over that we were at the border and that we needed to pay for shit like immigration cards, which is not true anywhere in the world. “I don’t think that’s right,” I said. “We’ll go to the border and look ourselves. If we’re wrong we’ll come back here and you can laugh at us, but first we’ll go see for ourselves.” We had to repeat stuff along those lines several times, because conversations are always great fun when the person you’re talking to doesn’t speak English too well, but eventually he must have realised he was sprung because he went silent and was staring down at the papers on the desk. As we were about to walk away he called us back and quietly admitted that the border fee was really only 1000 baht. This sounded more like it, but I didn’t see the point in getting a visa there if we could get one at the border, particularly since this asshole had already been lying to us.

So both we and the Danes jumped back into our tuk-tuks and instructed the drivers (who were, of course, in cahoots with the “visa officials”) to take us straight to the border. Instead they drove us to the Cambodian consulate. The one that was next door, literally five metres away.

“What are you doing?” we said. “If we wanted to come here we would have walked. Take us to the border.” We had to listen to a whole spiel of “no, this place, you get visa, come inside, I take care you,” but we stood firm and eventually she relented and drove us to the border. She only stopped once more along the way at another fake visa office – this one a fucking stall on the roadside – but this time we didn’t even bother getting out. She drove us along the road another hundred metres or so, to the real border crossing, and begrudgingly accepted our 80 baht fare.

We went through Thai customs, convinced that it was the real one this time by the queues and counters and signs warning us against precisely what we’d just been through (which might have been useful back at the bus station, guys). On the other side we crossed a bridge and went through Cambodian customs, with a polite and helpful young man assisting us all the way. He spoke good English and seemed to be on the level, telling us many times that the Thai side of the border was crawling with rip-off artists, but that “Cambodia freedom” and that he was an official tourist bureau guide. This was, of course, a signal that he was eventually going to fuck us over. We got onto the free bus with him, which took us to the bus depot, with him yammering on the whole way about how we could use dollars or riel and how “Cambodia freedom.”

Poipet didn’t seem as seedy as I thought it would be. It was slightly dirtier than Thailand, and covered in casinos, but on the whole it wasn’t the third-world shithole I imagined in my head. Still a thoroughly undesirable place to stay any longer than you have to.

When we got out at the bus station it was about four o’clock, and we had the option of either taking the slow bus to Siem Reap, or taking a much faster taxi. With four of us we figured we could get a pretty good price for a taxi, but Mr. “Tourist Guide” placed himself as our intermediary, and insisted that each of us pay 500 baht (16 AUD, a ridiculous sum). He went on about how petrol was expensive (despite the fact that the car clearly ran on LPG) and how the taxi driver was starving and so on. We eventually got him down to 300 each, and were holding out for 250, but he wouldn’t budge. I was willing to relent, since Chris and I had exactly 600 baht left between us, but the Danes were more stingy.

Our alleged benefactor was getting increasingly frustrated with us, as we told him we couldn’t afford it, and he asked us how we could afford to be travelling. Which is a fair point. I don’t like the idea of haggling with poverty. I’m spending $20,000 on an ultimately selfish backpacking trip, and 50 baht equals about $1.50. That’s nothing for us, but it’s a lot for them. I wasn’t too cut up about it, though, since the guy had essentially lied to us about who he was and what his job entailed. I was just tired of arguing and wanted to get into Siem Reap. Eventually we convinced the Danes that $10 each for a two hour taxi ride is a pretty good deal, and we were on our way.

The road between Poipet and Siem Reap was sealed last year, so it was a pretty smooth trip. Apparently it used to be a rocky road covered in landmine craters. Now it’s one long stretch of bitumen across the plains. Well actually I think they were fields, although nothing seemed to be growing in them, and the gathering storm ahead of us was whipping up huge clouds of topsoil.

We passed a lot of motorycles performing Herculean feats of load-bearing. A whole bunch of dead chikens, two dead pigs; one even had huge boxes covered in tarps suspended on either side, an entire ute tray worth of cargo balanced precariously on a motorbike. We also saw a lot of kids. I can’t remember the exact figure, but a huge percentage of Cambodia’s population is uner the age of 25, I guess because most of the baby boomer generation was killed off by the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s.

Cambodia is also, incidentally, the country with the worst rate of child sex slavery in the world. It’s entirely a market for Western pedophiles who fly here to take advanatage of it. There’s posters up about it and a hotline you can call and everything.

The thing is, even if I saw someone whom I was personally convinced was a Western sex predator, I still wouldn’t be able to call that hotline. What if you were wrong? You’d need absolutely damning evidence before bringing that down on a person.

Anyway, the scamming wasn’t over yet – the taxi took us straight to a stand of tuk-tuks, who gave us a free ride to a commission-paying guesthouse. It was actually a pretty nice guesthouse, though ($6 US each for for an air-con twin with wifi and private bathroom), so we agreed to stay there. Then we went out for dinner and came back to find that despite the air-con having been on full blast for an hour, the room was still stinking hot and the ceiling fan screeched when you turned it on. The wifi was also weak, although I suspect that’s going to be the case everywhere.

We needed some form of cooling apparatus, so we lugged our backpacks down the road to another place, where a nervous young man fiddled with the keys to our new room for about ten minues before we could get in. I was in the shower when Chris came back and announced that this guy didn’t normally work here and couldn’t tell him the wifi password or how to get the air-con working properly, so we were leaving. I towelled myself off and followed him down the road again, a looming thunderstorm threatening to break out any minute.

We found a place just in time called the Family Guesthouse, or something. It’s in a pretty crummy building but it’s nonetheless better (and cheaper) than our digs in Bangkok. The wifi is still weak and the room not as nice as the other two places we tried, but the air-con manages to struggle feebly against the heat, which is the most important thing. We’ll probably try to look for a better place tomorrow morning. For now we just need some sleep. Our hostel in Bangkok had the air-con stuck on the most freezing setting and our mattresses were rock-hard, so last night was not very refreshing.

One final irritation to round off the day was that my Mastercard has stopped working. God bless you, Bankwest. It worked just fine two days ago on Khao San Road. They better be able to fix it, or I’ll be relying on Chris all through Cambodia.

Incidentally, the de facto Cambodian currency is the US dollar, which is the first time I’ve ever seen one. They sure are stupid – they’re all green, so you can’t tell them apart at a glance, and they’re all the same size, so I don’t know how blind people are meant to tell them apart. Plus they’re made of paper. Get it together, guys.

This was a really boring blog entry. Having people treat you like the biggest rube on the planet isn’t much fun, but I doubt reading about it is either. I’ll try to do something more interesting tomorrow. We’ll be visiting Angkor Wat sometime over the next few days, which is the first thing on our very loose itinerary that I really want to do, so that should be good. Until then I can sleep satisfied knowing that we made it through the gauntlet without being scammed too heavily.

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