Friday, April 25, 2008

Cambodia (fake police, overstuffed pickups, prostitutes, abandoned french hill stations) - March 1st - March 11

Yeah yeah, the temples of Angkor were fancy schmancy. We decided one day was enough to see what we wanted to see, and while the sites were impressive, the scores of other tourists made it difficult to feel like Indiana Jones. There was also our dramatic DIY attempt at seeing the nearby floating villages met with a tuk tuk driver in collusion with a fake police officer, Freja’s conclusion that the villages didn’t constitute authentic culture, and a shady private boat operator with a penchant for spitting. All the trouble seemed a little silly when our trip to Battambang the next day took us the same route anyway. The scenic boat ride to Battambang was followed by an adventurous drive in a pickup over non-existent road with 17 other folks crammed in the flatbed. One evening was all we spent in Cambodia’s second largest city. We did eat at a rather nice cafĂ©. By the morning sun of the following day, we were headed to Phnom Penh. During a pit stop, the bus took off and gave us a good scare. To our relief, it returned 10 minutes later with a full tank of gas. The first morning in Phnom Penh, I was awakened very early while it was still dark outside to the sounds of sweeping. It’s ironic considering how dirty the capital city still is notwithstanding 5am sweepings. I dreamt of Emily and woke up feeling dour. I hoped that a visit to the horror sites of S-21 and the Killing Fields would make my personal romantic anguish seem trivial in comparison to the greater suffering of man. After stepping out of the first room at S-21, a once elementary school transformed into the most infamous torture center during the Khmer Rouge, my mind was just beginning to refocus and process the gravity of historical events. And then, with one more step, I ran smack dab into Damien Kennedy, the oafish womanizing neighbor of mine from 3 years ago in Melbourne. My brain immediately shifted from thoughts of genocide to those of paltry gossip in the snap of a finger. Being reunited with an old friend can make attempts at somberness difficult, and we spent the rest of the day together. Kennedy is built like a teddy bear, talks funny even for an Australian, and is ripe for being picked on by eleven year old Cambodian kids selling bootleg books. While we were eating, they came up to him and started smacking his face, poking him in the side, and making mock attempts at spilling water on his head. I never could understand how he did so well with the ladies. Probably has something to do with a fearlessness of rejection.
Into the wee hours of the morning, there was no rejection to be had, but rather only to be administered on our end as we danced and frolicked and nothing more with prostitutes at Heart of Darkness, Phnom Penh’s infamous nighttime venue.

Phnom Penh is a city of grit and poverty and Lexus SUVs. Brendan B, one our hosts (along with the gracious Andrew), was/is a fast-talking rookie writer for the respectable weekly paper. He either qualifies or disclaims every statement or question escaping from his mouth. Behind his visage that bears a striking similarity to a more hipster Haley Joel Osment is a hamster wheel of a brain that is spinning much too fast. And while I blame Damien Kennedy for landing me in Heart of Darkness that first night, Brendan Brady is to blame for putting me there the second night with yet another prostitute for a dance partner. And despite the pestering of a stranger telling me it would be the biggest mistake of my life to not take her home for a meager sum of $20, I sadly declined, opting instead to skip out on the AIDS epidemic.
During the days in the city, we walked around and frequented super yuppie cafes for meals, looking as though they had just been transplanted from NYC – an odd juxtaposition amidst the surrounding squalor.
From Phnom Penh we headed south to the laid back riverside city of Kampot. We checked into our accommodation at this place called Bodhi Villa, a cesspool of stoned backpackers who seem to have gotten stuck and forgotten they’re in Cambodia, not Jamaica. There are signs everywhere instructing you to “chill out”, and just asking a question of how to get into a town is a good way to be met with ridicule and laughter that you could be so uptight. As Brendan put it, “There’s nothing that stresses me out more than when people are telling me to chill out.” Our room was a bare bones bungalow with partial curtains instead of an actual door. We rented a motorbike and zipped around town a bit before booking an ‘illegal’ tour up Bokor Mountain, though the tours are publicly advertised in front of every guesthouse. It’s illegal because the government officially closed the mountain a month ago after selling the impressive and historical real estate to a private Korean company to make way for a multi-billion dollar resort catering to rich Asian tourists. On the tour the next day, things were fine if you don’t count the fact that the truck broke down on the way up, we were left stranded for two hours at the top while they struggled to locate the truck, and at the end of the day when it was time to go home, the only road out was obstructed by yet another broken down vehicle. That said, the decaying buildings – constructed by the French back in the 1920’s before abandonment in the 1950’ – were an imaginative child’s dream come true to explore, plus the view up there of nearby Phu Quoc Island and the endless stretches of flat Cambodian landscape below weren’t too shabby. Once back in town, we discovered our motorbike was missing from where we’d parked it early that morning. Ben and I looked at each, started to cry, and threw up our arms in defeat. Cambodia had hit us where it hurt. You can be as rugged as you want, but when your rented motorcycle gets stolen, Huntington Woods doesn’t sound so bad anymore. We dragged ourselves into the nearby guesthouse for shots of their strongest rice wine only to learn that the guy who’d rented us the bike had actually stolen it from us after seeing it parked in plain view as the sun was going down. Good tactic for boosting customer relations. He returned the bike with a mild reprimand, though I still don’t understand what the hell we should’ve done if not parked it in front of the tour agency as advised; and if that wasn’t silly enough, we were further scolded by the desk guy working back at the Villa.
“Uhh, so I got a call from your motorbike rental guy last night and heard you were irresponsible with the bike” he said to us the next morning as we were checking out. Ben and I looked at each other, then back at the guy. In unison we responded, “Chill out.” On the bus back to Phnom Penh, we just barely got on as the decrepit vehicle was pulling out. It was inexplicably leaving 30 minutes early, so we didn’t have the chance to purchase tickets beforehand. The bus continued to pick up more and more passengers on route, and it only took 15 minutes before Ben and I had to relinquish our seats. For the next five hours we were relegated to these mini plastic stools – the kind used for putting three year olds in time-out – wedged in the aisles lacking enough space to properly situate my butt. For five hours, my knees performed torturous deep tissue massage on all the wrong parts of Ben’s back while the guy behind me was kind enough to return the favor.