Thursday, February 25, 2010

Swimming with sharks

A couple of weeks ago I wrote some libertarian nonsense about how the motorcyclists of southeast Asia can get by quite happily without crash helmets, and only just stopped short of concluding that their UK counterparts should fling theirs aside in a James Dean-like show of bravado. That was before I rode a motorbike myself, obviously...

As anticipated, I’d moved to another hotel in Kratie, but only after making a slight dick of myself at the one I was storming out of. The annoying woman who ran it tried to overcharge me for the room and the meal I‘d had, which was enough to get me worked up into a lather about what a thief she was and how dare she try to sneak into my room when she thought I was out etc.

This was stupid of me because (a) it’s bad form to lose your temper in a culture that revolves around the concept of saving face and (b) her English wasn’t up to it. The second we’d sorted the finances out, she grinned at me and asked: “You want something to eat?”

As it turned out, the other hotel was so much nicer (my room had a telly, with BBC World!) that I stayed for two whole days, not doing much at all. I went on the internet quite a lot, trying to resolve some problems my laptop has (I knew I should have taken it back to the shop when these became apparent within 48 hours of me buying it - oh well, it’ll still be under guarantee when I get back). And I decided I’d better do the only remotely touristy thing it’s possible to do in Kratie, which is to go and look at dolphins.

These marvellous mammals - endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, no less - live about 20km away in a stretch of the River Mekong that flows through a place called Kampie. To get there, I had to take a moto, ie ride on the back of someone’s motorbike. The hotel’s fixer, a young man who speaks very good English, told me his brother could take me there but that said sibling lived in a village about 5km away. So Mr Fixit took me to this settlement on the back of his motorbike.

It was a new and moderately alarming experience for me. I mean, I’d owned a moped in the mid-1990s for the purposes of work, but riding on the back of a motorbike? Mr Fixit giggled as I nervously put my arms around the front of his abdomen and clasped my hands together. Within five minutes, more out of embarrassment than confidence, I’d moved my hands to my thighs, all the while thinking: “Oh lordy. I wish I was wearing a crash helmet right now.”

At Kampie I was taken out on a boat, which I had to myself. Every now and then the young man piloting it would say: “Hello,” and point in the general direction of a ripple he’d spotted. A couple of minutes later, what usually happened was this: I’d hear a snort from the dolphin’s blowhole and catch a glimpse of its back and dorsal fins as I wheeled around. This was the best I could hope for, quite honestly, although I had been nursing the forlorn hope that at least one would pop its head out of the water right next to my boat, ideally clapping its flippers together and chittering So Long and Thanks for All the Fish from that abysmal Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy film.

Returning to Kratie I found I’d become quite relaxed about this moto-riding lark. What sticks in my mind more vividly is the sight of two glamorous teenage girls we overtook, evidently on their way to some kind of school prom night. Heavily made up and wearing gold lame evening dresses, they made an incongruous spectacle - the elder girl concentrating on the road while her sister sat side-saddle behind her, nonchalantly playing with her own hair.

Yesterday I moved on to Siem Reap, the town that lies on the doorstep of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s premier tourist attraction. It took nine hours and involved one change of bus. On the first bus, however, there was a problem: I’d been assigned a seat next to a Cambodian man who’d brought along his daughter (aged about eight, I guess) despite having only the one ticket.

We managed for awhile with the girl sitting on her father’s knee, but after a refreshment stop the guy started to take the piss somewhat. I returned to the bus to find that father and daughter were sitting next to each other, leaving me with half a seat to play with. In rather less than an hour my right buttock could take no more and I had to insist, through the medium of sign language, that they shove up. This of course made me feel like a mean-spirited scumsucker.

I’ve felt like that several times since I arrived in Siem Reap, as it’s a tourist trap that sends foreigners on guilt trips with suspicious regularity.

A young tuk-tuk driver brings me from the bus station into town and finds me a guest house that isn’t full, despite it being high season and the late afternoon. “I would like to drive you to the temple tomorrow,” he says. “Only $20 a day.” I demur, not wanting to be bounced into making transport arrangements too hastily. “But I’m not working at the bus station after today,” he says. “What am I going to do?”

I’m looking at T-shirts on a market stall. The stallholder is trying to get me to haggle but I’m not that keen. “Sir, I’d be so grateful,” he says. “Business has been very bad lately.”

As I’m leaving my guest house this morning, another tuk-tuk driver asks me for work. Again, I’m not ready. “I just lost my job two weeks ago,” he says.

Three sob stories in 24 hours versus none in the less touristed towns I’ve been to? Sounds like a ploy to me. Sounds like bullshit.

No, make that four, because this afternoon I was followed by a good ten minutes by a little boy who repeated the same phrase ad nauseam: “Please, I want to buy some food.”

Was he genuine or an Artful Dodger? I’ve heard that there are Fagins here and naturally it puts me in mind of Slumdog Millionaire. So, after our first contact, I didn’t even glance down at this dirty, raggedy kid. I just carried on walking and blanked him. The word ‘buy’ was significant, I thought. It’s a scam. Got to be.

But I didn’t know for sure.

I hope Angkor Wat is as amazing as they say, because in some ways Siem Reap is making me feel like shit.

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