Today was another one of those days when a sequence of small, personal miracles arranged themselves in just the right way, allowing me to pull off a transportational objective that I had no business even aspiring to. I’ve had several of these experiences recently. I’m getting used to flying by the seat of my pants.
But before I get into that, I’ll back up a few days to just after my last entry. I’d arrived in Thailand after a day of frantic business trying to get out of Burma. With only a few more days before I had to be in Mongolia to start the Trans-Siberian, it was looking like I was going to have to back out of Cambodia.
Tom went off by himself with the mission of securing passage to the Cambodian border before noon the next day, and he returned with two train tickets leaving Bangkok at 6am. I was locked into a plan that ran the serious risk of me not making it back in time. To make matters worse, I hadn’t yet actually figured out how I was getting from Bangkok to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, three days hence. I told myself it wouldn’t be a problem – that there are flights leaving for Ulaanbaatar all the time and I could pick one up at the last minute. You know, like the shuttle from Boston to New York.
We took the five-hour trip to the border, then found a place offering an equally long bus ride to a town called Siem Reap, which serves tourism to the ruins of Angkor Wat. The thing about that is, the distance from the border to Siem Reap is nothing. On an interstate highway, it wouldn’t take half an hour. But we were going on one of the worst roads in the world.
We waited for the bus in a storefront surrounded by hyperkinetic children wanting money and candy. Like the living dead, they clawed through the windows, moaning and hollering at us.
We fed them.
The border crossing itself is a road several hundred meters long where no vehicles are allowed. You’ve got to hike it with all your luggage amidst hundreds of locals, busily engaged in unspecified activities all around you. There’s a giant arch in the middle signifying the imaginary line.
There are a few rows of chairs set up right along that line. While we waited for our visas to be processed, I crossed the border between Thailand and Cambodia about seventeen times. I had a conversation, from Cambodia, with Thomas, in Thailand. I read, in Cambodia, from a book, in Thailand. I relaxed, in Cambodia, with my legs reclined, in Thailand.
It’s the simple pleasures.
The bus ride was nigh unbearable. The dirt road was covered in craters so gigantic you’d think they were from landmines.
Oh, wait. They are.
But I’d still put it above the fifteen-hour bus ride from Delhi to Dharamsala, and the twelve-hour ride from Bagan to Inle Lake in the trunk of a car. I’ve definitely had worse.
We had to stop a short way in and pay a road improvement toll. Like a lot of money that enters the country, it doesn’t go anywhere near where it’s supposed to. The road wouldn’t be much worse if it was paved over with thumbtacks and peanut butter.
We stopped a couple times along the way. At one roadside eatery, I got a look at two fellow travelers who reminded me that we were heading toward the pedophilia capital of the world, Phnom Penh. They were both middle-aged, creepy, apparently single men of astonishing ugliness, who looked entirely unsuited to the climate, the cuisine, or any of the other indigenous hassles.
One of them was only slightly balding, but he’d drawn attention to his hair issues by dying what was left an orangey hue. I can only assume he was going for brown. This may look fine on a nose-ringed girlfriend circa 1995, but it made him look like an old man trying to close the apparent age gap between him and his prey.
The other guy had an overbite, small ears, no chin, and nothing but a tuft of hair on the back of his head. He looked like a marginally more socialized version of Sloth from The Goonies.
Also, they were German. No offense to Germans, but…well, you know.
It was only a suspicion. And that’s an awfully cruel thing to lay on someone just based on their appearance. And it’s not like I’ve come across many pedophiles that I’ve been aware of. It’s not like I could give a profile. But still and all, you look at people sometimes, and you just know.
I took a picture of these two guys, surreptitiously. I suppose it’s not very good manners to accuse people of being pedophiles and then post pictures of them on the internet, so I’m not going to do that…but if you want to judge for yourself, send me an email.
There was another guy sitting next to Thomas on the bus. He was in his sixties and wore slacks, a button-down shirt, and suspenders. I pegged him immediately. But Tom had been chatting him up and said he was a nice old man, recently widowed, and he’d decided to do some traveling now that he was on his own. I was forced by feelings of guilt to reconsider. Then, after the next leg of the trip, Tom came back and said the guy was complaining about the cost of hookers in Bangkok. Case closed.
Also, he was Canadian. No offense to Canadians, but…well, you know.
This is an awkward change of subject, but at our next rest stop we were mobbed by another group of local kids.
By this point, I’ve got the kid routine down. We do the see-your-picture-on-the-digitial-camera-screen thing and they get pretty excited. I show them the Three Stooges finger-snapping bit, then try to teach them how to do it. We play that game where you hold your hands out and the other person tries to slap them before you can pull them away. From there it can go in several directions, and with these kids it descended into total anarchy. Tom and I were forced to become human merry-go-rounds, with a kid dangling from each arm being spun around as fast as we could manage. Kids were kicking and punching each other for placement at the front of the cue. Others were pounding their friends in the gut as they were swung around. It got ugly.
The bus took us straight to a guesthouse in Siem Riep. We were herded directly to the manager to book a room. I got uppity, cause there are dozens of other places in town and it was obviously a racket, but with Tom’s prompting I eventually relented. It turned out to be the single cheapest accommodation I’ve stayed in on my entire trip, and a really nice place to boot. We split a double room for $3 a night, and that included free laundry. They had a restaurant downstairs that served really good food at ridiculous prices and had a great, social atmosphere. I would’ve been happy staying there a lot longer.
This one experience in particular really got me, and I will think about it every time I chip in for a 20% tip on a $100 dinner bill, or pay $5 for bottled water. I approached one of the many guys milling about the hotel and asked if there was a place nearby where I could use the internet. He said sure, then pulled out his motorbike and signaled for me to get on. He took me across town to a place and waited outside, staring at the sky for a solid hour while I checked email. When I was done, he took me back. There was no charge, and he didn’t hit me up for money. It was built into the $3 cost of my room. Of course I gave him something, but I don’t think he would’ve been bothered if I hadn’t. Call him a concierge.
My point here is I’m not complaining about the cost of things, I’m just marveling at the discrepancy.
It was deci ded that this would be where Tom and I split up. He wasn’t that interested in riding a train through Siberia, and he had all the time in the world to mill about Asia. I, on the other hand, had one day to see as much of Angkor Wat as possible before heading back to Thailand and points beyond. We booked to have two guys take us around the ruins on motorbikes for a full day. It’s the most efficient way to get around, and though it cost a whopping $6 per person, I agreed.
Here’s some stunt photography.
Angkor Wat is hands down the most astonishing collection of ruins I’ve ever seen. I’d heard about it — it got a lot of hype in the 90s when the country opened for business, and Lara Croft raided tombs there and all – but I really wasn’t prepared for the place. It’s unreal.
Beat that with a stick.
Listen, here’s the thing, if you’re into that sort of stuff – ruins and all – just go. Free up some time, drop the kids off at the neighbor’s, book a flight, and go. There are places in the world that are magical. This is one of them. You need to see it. Go.
There. That’s my plea.
It really knocked my socks off. I wish I’d had more than a day, but I think we did pretty well.
The funny thing about ruins is that sometimes they look better ruined than new. A columned archway is just a columned archway, but when there’s a sixty-foot tree growing on top of it and the thing is just barely holding together under its roots – that’s really beautiful.
I don’t know much about the Khmer empire that built all this stuff. I think it’s another one of those things where no one knows all that much about them. They were big around the twelfth century, they stretched all the way to Burma, Indonesia, China, and Vietnam. They did great things with rocks and they weren’t big on writing things down. There’s probably a lot more, but that’s all I’ve got.
I get the sense though, that that’s more than most Cambodians know. Their connection to their heritage was shredded long ago by various marauding armies, then later swept under the carpet by the French. But whatever was left was absolutely obliterated in 1975 when Pol Pot took over and declared Year Zero – a total reboot of history. A radical agrarian, if such a term can exist, he killed off everyone who knew anything about anything. What remains now is a people totally disconnected from their past. They’ve got this thing in their backyard – some pretty rock piles that foreigners will pay money to look at. Wanna buy some pot?
Their religion has been beaten out of them too. Cambodia is a nominally Buddhist country, and yeah, you’ll still see some monks around. But their piety is totally casual compared to places like Burma, and it’s obvious from the surroundings that their spiritual nature was once much more pronounced. I’m not much of a proponent for organized religion, but I’m with Einstein in that if I had to get behind one, it would definitely be Buddhism. So it makes me sad.
Restoration is one area where the fees do seem to be going to the right place. There are signs of work being done everywhere. This is understandable, because aside from fifteen-year-old girls, Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s biggest draw.
My apologies to anyone who’s offended by that comment, but it’s true.
Despite the work though, the sites are apparently in rapid decline. I find it hard to believe that foot traffic is causing much of the damage, but people tell me this is the case. Whatever’s causing it, the ruins are getting more ruined every year.
One contributing factor may be their almost total permissiveness. You can go wherever you want, climb on whatever you want, no one really cares.
Again, I don’t think it really contributes all that much to the decay, but it’s certainly more lenient than what you’d find in, say, Windsor Castle.
As the sun was setting on our whirlwind tour, we headed back to Siem Reip. We passed by throngs of locals on the road who were going out to the ruins to claim spots for their picnic festivities. It’s a weekly thing they do on Saturday nights for no particular reason other than that it’s fun and they like being social. This struck me as surprisingly different from their neighbors in Vietnam, who wouldn’t think of congregating for any reason other than to sell stuff to each other. It’s a clear and frequently made distinction between the sibling cultures. Cambodians don’t really care all that much about money. They like to have a good time.
On the way back, we stopped at a market and picked up some gifts. Tom got himself a nice souvenir.
Later on, we went out for our last night together. We joined up with an English girl we met at the guesthouse. We had a good time. Tom got fairly intoxicated. He passed out on his bed, was unresponsive the next morning, and as a result I never actually got to say goodbye. So here it is.
When I went downstairs to negotiate transportation to the border, I realized how much my technique had developed s ince the start of my trip. The conversation went som ething like this:
“How much for the ticket?” I say.
“$15,” says the guy.
“That’s crap. What’s the real price?”
“You don’t like the price, go into town and find another bus.”
“Try me. I paid $8 to get over here, how much is it going to cost to get back?”
“$10,” says the guy.
“That’s more like it,” I say.
I didn’t used to talk like that.
I later realized that the reason they wanted such a toweringly outrageous fee was because no one else was on the bus. I had the whole thing to myself. I tried to stretch out and get some sleep during the ride, which was a little like trying to get some sleep while reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
The bus dropped me off at the required hundred meters from the border, and I had to make the crossing by myself with all my bags hanging off me. About halfway toward the big arch, I felt something squirming in my pocket. I looked down and there was a hand in there that wasn’t mine. Without really thinking, I spun around and grabbed it. The hand belonged to a little boy. I made him open his fists and show me his palms. They were empty. I yelled at him to “Fuck off!” and he did.
I was immediately hit with a wide assortment of different emotions. Some of it was anger, some paranoia — part of me wanted to chase him down and give the kid a couple bucks.
As luck would have it, there was nothing in my left pocket. My wallet, which had everything but my passport, was in my right pocket that day, and had he picked that side, he almost certainly would’ve gotten it. I had three huge bags I was lugging and it would’ve been foolish for me to drop them and try to chase him down. My trip would’ve probably been over right there.
As I later heard, this is exactly what happened to Tom in Phnom Penh only a few days after we split up. He had nothing left and had to catch a flight home. I haven’t talked to him about it, so I don’t know the exact details, but I was a coin flip away from being in the same situation.
I took the afternoon train back to Bangkok, a city I’ve passed through six times now and am getting fairly used to. I checked in at the same daggy flophouse with the transvestite receptionist and caught the late show of Terminator 3. My primary response to the film was embarrassment for Arnie, who is old, and shouldn’t be pretending to be a killer robot anymore.
The next morning, this morning, I woke up as early as I could manage and went to Singapore Airlines to figure out how I was going to get to Ulaanbataar by tomorrow afternoon. My original booking had me flying to Beijing several days ago, and from there I was to take the train to Mongolia. But the tour agency I booked the train trip through cancelled the Beijing leg months ago because of SARS, and I’d been too tangled up with whatever else I was doing to deal with it until right then and there.
I have one of those round-the-world ticket things, and although it has many annoying downsides, one of the really great things is you can miss your flight without even telling them, then show up a week later and ask them to book you a new one on a different date and there are no penalty fees. I do this frequently, and at times deliberately, as revenge for all the restricted fares I’ve booked and then wanted to change but couldn’t, as well as a number of other crimes the airlines have committed against me over the years and I’m now using as rationalization. Whatever. It’s fun. I missed my flight to India three times in a week and they never even got pissy.
So I tell them I want a ticket to Ulaanbataar and they look at me like I just made the place up. Singapore Airlines doesn’t fly there. Nobody flies there. Okay, China Airlines does, but that’s it.
Fine, book me on the next plane to Beijing and give me the address of the China Airlines office in Bangkok.
One cab ride later, I’m trying to book a connecting flight to a place I can’t pronounce with a woman who doesn’t speak my language and I’ve got to be at the airport in an hour.
She quotes me a price of $1200 for a flight leaving the next morning. I gesture the universal symbol for “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” She presses some buttons and yes, she was kidding me. It’s $300. I think to myself, “What would Phileas Fogg do?”
I realize that Phileas Fogg would try to buy the plane, and I’m in no position to do that, but his backup plan would be to take the ticket and damn the consequences. That’s what I do.
For the same amount, I could’ve stayed in that Siem Reap guesthouse for the better part of a year. Money is funny.
I hop in another cab, yell at the driver until I get the right price to the airport, and then I remember a thing Tom pointed out to me while we were on our way to Cambodia: I don’t have a Chinese visa. Americans can’t go to China without a Chinese visa.
I decide I’ll sleep in the airport. At this point, that’d be a step up from what I’m used to.
I catch the flight, I get into Beijing, and I find out you can get a twenty-four hour visa on the spot if you have a ticket that departs the next day. Who knew?
So I suddenly find myself with 16 hours in which to see Beijing; the original Chinatown. I book a hotel and a car to take me there, and by six in the evening I’m walking the streets.
I really didn’t have all that much time to do anything. I went to the food markets at the main thoroughfare and got a sense of the very broad definition the Chinese have for the word ‘meat’.
Anyone for fried scorpion on a stick? How about some dung beetle larvae? Seahorses maybe?
Grasshoppers? How about some large cockroach-looking thing that any sensible person wouldn’t even want to step on?
Squid-kebab! Come on, who doesn’t love whole massive squid-kebab?
Ah, something familiar. Chicken.
Oh no, wait, these are speared baby chickens with their eyeballs still on and their brains and bones and everything and you’re supposed to eat them whole.
I made it to Tiananmen square as the sun was setting. It’s the largest city square in the world, for those of you who were wondering what the largest city square in the world was.
There’s a picture that was taken here during the protests in 1989. It’s one of my favorite pictures ever.
He’s just this humdrum, everyman sorta guy standing there defiantly before a row of tanks while the lead tank commander yells at him to move out of the way or he’s going to get crushed. I read up on it, and apparently the guy was never caught. He disappeared into the crowd and people protected him until he got away. No one ever ID’d him. I just thought I’d mention that. I really like that story.
Here are a couple p ictures of the outside of the Forbidden Palace.
They’re not very good pictures. I’m showing them a) to prove that I was there, and b) to make use of the phenomenal capabilities of Photoshop at rescuing bad pictures. Both of these were taken in the dark. I mean the sky was black. But I click on some stuff and suddenly I’m shooting in broad daylight with a really grainy, mediocre camera.
I walked around some more. The SARS crisis is still going on here, and I’m amused to see signs on ATMs and elevator buttons saying they get disinfected every hour. Aside from that, everything is normal and people don’t seem to be freaking out at all.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that the commercial district of Beijing looks pretty much like everywhere else. You can buy an Eminem album. You can eat KFC. Now stop complaining and get back to work.
After tomorrow, I’ll have slept in a different country every night for six nights in a row: Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Thailand again, China, Mongolia. You’d think I was on tour.
It feels normal. It feels good. I like it. I like it a lot.