Triplogue - Holiday in Cambodia
|Bangkok, Pattaya and
Angkor, halloween 1998 (a)
"Bad idea!" everybody had pronounced when we voiced our intention to cycle across Cambodia. Their reactions reminded me of when our proposed traversal of Romania was nipped in the bud over a year ago, causing us to make a huge detour through the non-Serbian remnants of Titos Yugoslavia, including the Herzegovina part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The issue, of course, is safety; and its probably true that were particularly vulnerable to the sleazebag element (e.g. bandits, kidnappers, corrupt officials or religious maniacs) when we travel by bicycle. Still, I liked the idea of riding through a land as exotic, car-less and unBigMacified as I imagined Cambodia to be. And nearly two years of riding through strange lands has surely built up my confidence in myself, as well as the belief that people everywhere are basically good, and that the idea of harming us would be the furthest thing from most Cambodians minds. So the plan had been this: we would fly from Shanghai to Ho Chi Minh City (wed even procured the necessary visas), thereby getting another taste of wonderful Vietnam before heading west to Phnom Penh, only a couple of cycling days away. In Phnom Penh we could test the waters before heading across Cambodia to Bangkok, via the reportedly magnificent archaeological site of Angkor Wat. It would be an adventure which was exactly what my brain was craving after weeks and months of predictable gray Chinese cities.
But when we told our plan to Randy, American manager of our hotel in Yuyao, a startled look crossed his pudgy countenance, changing his expression from jocular to solemn in two beats. "Oh, you cant go there," he stated gravely, "I read on the Internet today how two tourists were just kidnapped in Phnom Penh, and the rest of the country is supposed to be even more dangerous. With the political situation the way it is there right now, you probably dont even want to be flying over that country."
"Oh," was all I could manage in response, all my dreams of biking through primitive villages sprouting out of luminous fields of rice having just been dashed to bits. Fred was always a little leery of my intended Trans-Khmer plans, and now I knew that there would be no convincing him. Cambodia would have to wait for another trip. A week later we had booked a flight from Shanghai to Bangkok, and maybe, just maybe, we could finagle a sidetrip to Angkor from there. Someone had told us there was a direct flight, and that while the area around Angkor was rife with Khmer Rouge activity, the temples themselves were kept safe for tourists.
And within twelve hours of landing in Bangkok, still disoriented by the extra-strong dose of tolerance and abandon after so long in the repressive PRC, and more than a little fuzzy from the previous nights excesses, we found ourselves sitting in a plush German-run travel agency, negotiating not a trip but a whole tour of Angkor. Four days including flights, lodging, meals, a guide and a driver in one tidy little package. They sure werent giving it away either, but we rationalized the costs with the fact that it wasnt every day we went to Cambodia; and in our hung-over state our minds didnt consider the option of simply booking the flight and doing the rest independently.
Of course in retrospect thats probably what we should have done. Being ferried around by a guide hardly constitutes BikeBrats-style travel, after all. Nevertheless, we were relieved to learn that ours would be a private tour, and not with a big group as I had first imagined. A guide, a car and a driver all to ourselves! Quel luxe!
Since our tour didnt begin for another few days we decided to check out nearby Pattaya for a friend of mine who wants to open a nightclub there. The next day we loaded our still-dragging asses onto a bus full of pleasure-seeking Europeans and their young Thai ...um ...escorts. Supposedly a two-hour trip, it took easily twice as long, due to highway construction and Bangkok traffic in general.
Pattaya is a beach resort developed during the Vietnam War as an R&R stopover for weary American soldiers, a town built on drugs, booze and sex. I had been there once before many years ago and found the place utterly reviling, a slimy miasma of the kingdoms most desperate and downtrodden and the drunken Teutonic pedophiles to whom they cater. But all the homos we met in Bangkok had been raving about Pattaya and I wondered if it had changed. Of course it had, but for the worse, to my mind. At the bus station we were wedged into the back of a miniature pickup truck along with a dozen other bewildered tourists and taken on an extended tour of Pattayas hideous backstreets a jumble of half-finished concrete structures, mud streets and ubiquitous power lines that makes Balis Kuta beach look like a masterpiece of urban planning.
We had booked a room at a gay-run hotel recommended by a friend in Bangkok, located in a seedy little alleyway with a concentration of gay establishments known as Boystown. Directly beneath our lodgings was a nightclub called BoysBoysBoys, clearly advertising the bars principle commodity. The whole ambiance was a little rich for our blood, so we penetrated into straight Pattaya for dinner. After walking down a pedestrian mall past countless bars, rebuffing the aggressive invitations of whole squadrons of B-girls, we found a surprisingly good Italian restaurant where all the other diners were ex-pat Italians: all male and all arriving on little Vespas. What a strange place, I kept thinking: an international, libertine retirement community revolving around plentiful and reasonably-priced bonkortunities, masquerading as a beach resort. A post-dinner stroll revealed that Pattayas ghettos dont stop at Boystown. Whole sections of town cater exclusively to Arabs (we walked past one place where men sat cross-legged on pillows smoking waterpipes), while others are overrun with Chinese. In the latter area we stopped at a legitimate-looking foot massage parlor, an almost religious experience. While a woman pummeled my feet with little mallets, I began to think how maybe Pattaya wasnt so bad after all
"Amazing Thailand" is the Thai National Tourist Boards publicity slogan for 1998. My offering for next year would be "Even You Can Get Laid in Thailand." The beachside promenade was predictably laced with whores on the make, so we sought refuge back in Boystown. At the first bar we entered literally dozens of boys in underwear were swaying limply to cheesy disco-music on a circular stage in the middle of the room, slowly revolving in a clockwise direction to be viewed by all the customers. It reminded both Fred and me of sushi restaurants where small plates of food are transported in front of customers by means of a conveyer belt. Within minutes of our arriving an obese, flamboyant creature in heavy makeup and semi-drag nestled beside us and identified herself as "Mama-san", the manager of the establishment. She asked us the usual questions and tried in earnest to make us feel more comfortable not an easy task. "Its a busy night tonight," Mama-san bragged, "its only eleven and more than forty boys have already been checked out. Are there any that interest you?" When we politely demurred, our friend told us she hoped wed come back before moving on to the next table.
BoysBoysBoys is apparently where everyone ends up, and it was hopping when we arrived. More rotating sushi was on offer, but there was also a friendly Western-style bar area where one felt less like a john, a mark, a quarry, a lech. And the drag show was pretty good, too.
The next day we called on Tui, whom another friend in Bangkok had insisted we look up. Friendly, relaxed and decidedly sexy, Tui met his Belgian boyfriend while working as his driver in Bangkok. Their restaurant, Tuis Place, is located well to the south of Pattaya town on a quiet beach frequented almost exclusively by gays. He also rents rooms, and when we learned this, we decided instantly to bale on our less savory accommodations in the center of Pattayas sex factory and decamp to Tuis.
Tui proved to be the perfect host in the heretofore-alienating world of Pattaya. He took us out to fantastic restaurants, a spectacularly good drag show, the gym, a movie, and the piano bar where he likes to sing cheesy Lionel Ritchie songs.
A couple of days later we were back in Bangkok preparing for our trip to Cambodia. We left early in the morning of November first, which meant that we missed out on much of the Halloween madness in Patpong. Fine by us, since neither of had costumes. Besides, every day is Halloween in Patpong. On our first night just off the plane from Shanghai-- wed seen a club habitué with a shaven head dressed up in an elaborate black feathered ensemble accessorized with a caged (live) tarantula dangling from a little chain. Muscle queens mincing about in sequined shorts and nothing else, fashion victims from all corners of the globe and drag queens of every stripe: all are everyday sights in amazing Bangkok.
Cute Lute of Bangkok
With Tui in Pattaya
Magnificent Angkor Wat
Package tourism, Cambodian style
|The flight from Bangkok
to Siam Reap is extremely short, but it separates two
very different worlds. I looked out the planes
window as we came in for our landing to see clusters of
little reed huts among unruly ricefields and wild jungle.
Not a speck of concrete was to be seen anywhere. No power
lines, no cars, no signs that Cambodia had entered the 20th
century. I couldnt help but imagine myself biking
through such a dreamlike environment
Siam Reap airport is not much bigger than your average-sized mobile home. Languorous bureaucrats in frayed and faded military attire gave us forms to fill out and issued visas ($20 apiece, cash only please). Outside, a handsome, broad faced young man was holding a sign with our names on it. He introduced himself as Bonat and shepherded us to a waiting white Toyota, driven by one Mr. Lee. "Cambodia is a poor country" was one of Bonats first utterances as we rattled slowly along the tree-lined road that led towards town. But our first (and lasting) impressions of Cambodia were how magnificently simple and slow-moving everything seemed to be; it was the most gloriously undeveloped place wed been in since Laos many months ago.
While it was still morning, the heat had already begun, so Bonat proposed that we rest at our nondescript hotel until 2:30 in the afternoon. "I have a wedding to go to anyway," he said, adding by way of explanation, "you see the monks have been staying in the temples fasting for the last month, and now they all come out, so everyone weddings now." This plan suited us just fine, as we were both in desperate need of a nap. Still, I immediately felt the pangs of longing for a more independent itinerary, regretting having fallen into the role of package tourists.
At 2:30 the car was waiting, and as soon as Mr. Lee saw us he leapt out and opened the doors for us, thus underlining our situations colonial aspect. We rolled torpidly through tiny central Siam Reap, past the appropriately named Grand Hotel dAngkor a colonial relic recently refurbished into a five-star propertyand down the long avenue leading to the ancient town and temples of Angkor. First stop was the most famous attraction in the whole kingdom: Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, this huge temple ranks among the most awesome structures Ive ever laid eyes upon. It is huge, covering an area of 500 acres, surrounded by a 5 ½-kilometer moat, and rising to 700 feet above the ground at its highest point. And every wall of which there are manyis covered with carvings and bas-reliefs, most of them amazingly well-preserved.
We spent hours there and only scratched the surface. Bonat pointed out the highlights and told us the stories behind the massive murals, most of them culled from the twin Hindu epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabarata. By no means were we the only tourists there. Since it was one of the biggest Cambodian holidays of the year (I forget its name, but it involves water and a Brahmin-Buddhist idea of purification) most of our fellow tourists were Cambodian. Many were picnicking beside the moat or perusing the tacky souvenir items for sale by aggressive locals. As we walked around the complex, we picked up a few "gnats" --little village boys who would fan us and point out details that Bonat had neglected.
From Angkor Wat we went to a nearby hill to watch the sunset. The place was covered with more aggressive vendors selling a variety of useless items, but the views were fantastic. A huge carpet of jungle spread in every direction, with verdant hills looming in the distance.
Later in the evening Bonat picked us up and deposited us at a funky outdoor restaurant, where we sampled Khmer fish dishes. We met some English aid workers living in nearby Battambang at the table next to us and asked them what they thought about the possibilities of cycling across Cambodia. When they stated that it would be tough but doable, my mind began to whir with plans for a future trip.
After dinner we went out in search of nightlife on foot. Boys and men on scooters kept pulling alongside us asking if we wanted rides (the Siem Reap version of taxis), and most offered girls too. When I told one that we werent interested in girls, he surprised me by saying without missing a beat, "Oh, if you like boys, I can get you one of those too. Nice massage, and very good sex afterwards." Uptight Americans that we are, we graciously declined his generous offer, and moved on to check out the dark riverside promenade, an amazingly bourgeois-looking park reminiscent of Paris Parc Monceau and the Grand Hotel dAngkor which faces it. Inside the glamorous old palace we found tasty deserts but skipped the sanitized bar. We wanted something more authentic, but we didnt find it that night. Fatigue set in pretty fast as we wandered aimlessly through the abandoned night streets. When the umpteenth motorcycle taxis offered us their services we hopped on and were beneath our sheets by ten-thirty or so.
|The next morning we were
up at dawn. Our program for the day was the "petit
circuit", an itinerary developed by the French
archeologists who renovated Angkor in the 30s.
First stop was on of the magnificent gates to Angkor
Thom, the old capital. At the precise center of the old
city is a huge and highly distinctive temple known as the
Bayon, a massive pile of rocks punctuated by 54 towers,
each of these bearing four huge faces. Highly detailed
bas-reliefs decorate the walls below, and here Bonat
proved his worth as a guide, giving the background
history of the various wars and stories depicted in the
stone. The scenes of everyday life were the best part for
me: monkeys in a coconut tree, wedding scenes, Chinese
traders, women removing lice from each others hair, a
cockfight, fishermen on Tonle Sap lake, a monk climbing a
tree to escape a tiger all carved with spectacular
Nearby we saw the Elephant Terrace --from which the king would view elephant fightsthe Terrace of the Leper King, and the japor (just another pile of rocks) remnants of the royal palace. And after relatively rushed visits to the beautiful temples of Thomanon and Ta Keo we spent the remainder of the morning in the magical temple of Ta Promh, Bonats favorite.
"It is my favorite because it is engulfed by the roots of trees that look like giant snakes," he told us. Apparently the French left this particular temple alone so visitors could see what Angkor looked like before being renovated. We walked among the multiple courtyards of the vast temple marveling at the giant roots of banyan trees flowing down the stone walls, wedging them slowly apart. Its the kind of place you could spend hours lingering in if youre not on a guided tour, that is.
But our guide proved to be more flexible than most. Wed told him that we really wanted to do some cycling, and were thrilled to learn that he himself had a "racing bike" and was an avid cyclist. And yes, he could get other bikes too. I envisioned him leading us along the shaded roads of Angkor in the eerie jungle silence, but he apparently had other plans. Only two bikes were provided, however; the second involved following the drivers nephew on a complicated trek through an urban village, watching out for loose farm animals with every step. Bonat said hed meet up with us at dinnertime and suggested a trip out to the temples near Roulos, some twenty kilometers away. "Just make sure youre back in town before it gets dark," our guide warned us, "its very dangerous at night in the countryside." Wed heard the same from other people wed met and made a solemn promise to obey.
It sounded like a great plan actually, and we hit the road as early as we thought prudent (the sun here being truly vicious). Bonats "racing bike" had "12 speeds" decaled all over it, but I quickly ascertained that this was exaggerated by eleven (Im sure a Cambodian would claim it did indeed have twelve speeds, depending on how fast you pedal). And Lees nephews bike was a cheap Vietnamese specimen, designed for miniature peasants. We decided wed switch off once we reached our destination, thereby distributing the two different kinds of butt torture equally.
Heading east out of Siem Reap on National Highway 6 was an awesome experience, making me wish once again that wed ridden all the way through this remarkable kingdom. The scenes of village life were unparalleled, and the people positively glowed with amiability. Cheap bicycles like ours were the primary mode of transportation, with slow-motion oxcarts a close second. I was in heaven, even though the temperature still hovered somewhere between unbearable and deadly. I noticed a couple of dark clouds on the horizon and wondered if theyd provide relief, or maybe rain.
The first drops began to fall while we were walking through the ruins of an interesting temple complex called Preah Ko, inhabited by far more grazing cattle than camera-toting tourists. We sought shelter under a rickety bamboo drinks stand, and when the drops finally subsided we headed further down the dirt road to a much more imposing temple called Bakong, built in the 9th century by Indravarman I. Here we were besieged by the usual battalion of souvenir-selling urchins; they followed us all the way to the top of the massive pile of rocks before giving us a moments peace. Back down below we peeked into an active wat and flirted with the monks a little bit while waiting for the rain to subside again.
But the rain didnt subside. Instead, it intensified. We realized that to make do on our promise to be back by nightfall wed have to bite the bullet and ride in a steady rain. Neither of us had a watch, though, and we miscalculated. Not only did we not make it back by nightfall, but the steady rain turned into a steady downpour, making the ride home cooler but far, far dirtier. And did I mention the road? Most of it could hardly qualify as such, since decades worth of massive potholes had merged to make one big muddy, bumpy mess, a swathe of brown separating the green fields of rice on either side. The ride back seemed twice as long, too, partly because I had changed to the more worthless of the two bikes. Even when I pedaled at full force Fred kept getting far ahead of me and had to stop periodically to wait. By the time we finally reached the outskirts of town with a huge sigh of reliefit was pitch dark, all available light from the moon and stars obscured by clouds and falling rain. The last few kilometers the only way to proceed had been to follow the taillights of motorscooters and hope they didnt lead us through the deepest of the potholes. All in all, it was quite an adventure, and when we arrived back in our hotel we were positively soaking wet and covered with mud.
Bonat showed up late, looking redder than usual and strangely preoccupied. Lee wasnt with him, either. "Lee is too drunk. We both went to another party and drank so many beers. I also am very drunk, but Lee, he sleeps. So we have another driver; hes not so drunk." Bonat led us to a different restaurant which was set up for weddings and seemingly ill-prepared to deal with foreign guests. Ordering the food was quite an ordeal, due in part to the staffs indifference and incompetence, and further complicated by Bonats drunken involvement in the matter. As we waited for our food he sat across the table from us, swaying back and forth, glassy-eyed and barely capable of speech. He left before the food arrived, possibly to avoid hearing the inevitable complaints; most of the dishes tasted like leftovers youd throw to pigs. When wed finished picking out whatever edible tidbits we could find among the mush, we searched around for our new driver with no success. This wasnt a problem since our hotel was only a short distance away. We ambled off onto the dark silence of the road for another early nights sleep.
Bonat shows us the Bayon
Ta Promh being swallowed by trees
Gateway to Banteay Kdei
Floating village on the Tonle Sap
|"I think maybe
youre not happy with dinner last night," Bonat
read our minds the next morning, "tonight Ill
take you guys someplace special. I promise that you will
"And what happened last night?" he continued, "the driver he waited for you but then you no longer there. You walked again back to hotel? I hope youre not angry with me because last night I was very drunk. Too many parties these days "
Mr. Lee was looking a little worse for the wear today, suffering, no doubt, from a brutal hangover. He drove us slowly along the path of the "grand circuit" past the now-familiar Angkor Wat, right through Angkor Thom, and then further north to yet more wondrous temples: the mysterious, overgrown and vast jumble of stones known as Preah Khan ("the sacred sword"), developed by architecture-mad king Jayavarman VII in the 12th century; Neak Pean, a small and elegant structure surrounded by five symmetrical and symbolic ponds; the massive and impeccably-restored Pre Rup, associated with funerary rites and famous for its huge elephant statues; and finally the unrestored and largely collapsed Banteay Kdei ("citadel of cells"), full of exquisitely carved chunks and dark passageways a haven for snakes and other critters. This last temple is located beside Srah Srang, the royal swimming pool, still full of water and measuring 700x300 meters. These Khmer kings really knew how to live.
We had finished the temple tramping portion of our itinerary, and it was with sentimental regret that we passed Angkor Wat for the last time. It had without a doubt been the most magnificent archeological site wed visited on this whole endless trip of ours. More impressive than Petra in Jordan, more elaborate than Turkeys Ephesus; more mysterious than Tikal in Guatemala.
But further attractions still awaited us. In the scorching noonday heat before lunch we stopped at a dilapidated old monastery marking the place of Siem Reaps "killing fields", where Pol Pots evil Khmer Rouge regime had made a systematic attempt to exterminate all undesirable elements which included the educated classes. Bonat told us how his own father had been killed here. He had been sent out to work in the jungle and the Khmer Rouge soldiers had asked members of a work unit how many kilos of coconuts they had picked. When Bonats father made a fair guess of it, indicating his educated, elite status, they killed him on the spot. A little shrine full of human skulls sat in the middle of a dusty field, not far from a monks dormitory supposedly housing thousands of unclaimed, anonymous skeletons. Bonat pointed at one of the skulls and said matter-of-factly, "That could be my fathers." Apparently nearly every family in Cambodia has been affected in some awful way by the excesses of Pol Pot, and one wonders how this country will ever put itself back together again.
The afternoons excursion was less depressing: the "floating villages" on Tonle Sap river-lake, a unique body of water created by the rivers yearly reverse in flow due to high water on the Mekong (which it joins) in the rainy season. To get there we passed through a part of Siem Reap we hadnt seen before, a deliciously leafy neighborhood built along torpid backwaters. As per usual, I wished I was gliding through this tasty landscape on my bike rather than in an air-conditioned, tinted-windowed Toyota. At the point where the road gave out we boarded a boat which puttered its way past floating homes, floating restaurants, floating supermarkets (many of these were paddled from door to door), even a floating police station. A little further towards the open water was the Vietnamese village, peopled by settlers who stayed on after the Vietnamese regime (officially) pulled out. When we finally reached the huge lake itself, I put on my trunks and jumped in. The cool water felt divine, though Fred reminded me that it must be partly composed of sewage from the two villages upstream. On the way back upstream we stopped at a floating fish farm set up for small tourist groups. Cold drinks were available, as well as a pet python for photo ops. We had run out of film at this point, which is a shame since the dramatic sky and golden late afternoon light was truly magical.
When we got back to our hotel, the staff was setting up a table in front of the door for some kind of ceremony. There were two bowls of rice, a coconut, sugar and a couple of other items. Bonat explained that at the point where the full moon was directly overhead (around midnight) the ingredients were mixed and part of it hand fed from one person to another while the rest was offered to the land. When we walked around after dinner (not as special as Bonat had led us to believe, but definitely an improvement) we noticed that nearly every table had set up identical tables, each lit with the flames of twin candles. A power failure (not a rarity here) made the whole scene especially picturesque.
One establishment that hadnt been affected by the power outage was the local nightclub. We had been meaning to check it out since our first night here, but didnt get around to it until our last. Inside it was even darker than outside; we were seated at a table near the door, already inhabited by a small group of hookers just barely distinguishable in the gloom. The girls made a half-hearted attempt to pick us up before abandoning the idea, which we met with welcome relief. The whole experience was uncannily reminiscent of the bars we went to in Savannakhet, Laos. Uniformed waiters served us with a high degree of obsequiousness; b-girls looked at us and giggled; musicians could barely be seen on the dark stage, though the sounds they made were amplified to the point of eardrum-bursting; and everyone would leave the dancefloor as soon as a song ended, only to return immediately when the next number began. The place had a prosperous, nouveau riche (Cambodian style) feeling to it. While the clientele was composed entirely of locals (we two whities being the glaring exception), I ventured to guess that most of them had made their money on tourist-related enterprises. Siem Reap, due to its influx of foreign capital, must be a relatively rich town in Cambodia; we tried imagining what the rest of the country looked like.
Waiting to board our plane at the airport the next morning, we met a pair of young American homos --Bob and Mike-- the only other Americans wed seen at all here. Like us theyd booked a tour with the German travel agency, though they raved about their guide and considered him a friend by the end of their one-week tour. They too were on an extended tour of Asia, freshly out of India and on their way to northern Thailand. We tried to convince them to give Laos a try while they prepared a whole list of addresses for us in India. We got so caught up in our gossipy exchange of information and general homo banter that I hardly noticed Cambodia slip out from beneath the airplanes wheels. No matter, though; I knew Id be back some day.
© 1997 Frederick Felman and Andrew Broan, All rights reserved. No part of this web site may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from authors or their agents.