Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The tunnel of hate

Oh, my aching pins. It’s bad enough that my knees have been sunburnt for more than a week but now I’ve gone and made my legs all sore and wobbly performing a squatting/crouching/shuffling movement in a Vietcong underground tunnel complex. Will I never learn?

Never mind. I shouldn’t complain. After all, I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the Vietnamese still often call it, and it’s probably a very exciting place if you don’t confine yourself to a hot, stuffy hotel room in the backpacker district for days on end, trying to work up the enthusiasm to start thinking seriously about applying for jobs.

I got as far as preparing a CV, buying a Vietnamese sim card and studying TEFL websites intently. Then I realised that Hanoi in the north sounded more appealing (it’s cultured, reserved and actually gets cold!) and that, dash it all, I still have another month’s travelling in me.

Besides, I need to get back into a TEFL mindset before I arrange any interviews, so I'm going to move on from here tomorrow and refresh my memory of teaching over the next few weeks. Apparently May is a good time to apply for jobs in any case, as that's when the summer schools are starting.

So yeah, Ho Chi Minh City. A boom town. Very modern and capitalistic, but also friendly and quite low-pressure. I haven’t had a single cross word with anyone trying to sell me stuff in the street, although whether that’s down to the amicable environment or me feeling happier with myself, I can’t say.

In the past few days I’ve been to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum (dull), the Reunification Palace (kind of a 1960s office building, albeit with plusher rooms, an underground bunker and a couple of old tanks on the lawn), Notre Dame Cathedral (the number of churches in this country has surprised me, actually) and the Jade Emperor Pagoda (a quaint Chinese temple built about a century ago).

But predictably I suppose, the really interesting stuff relates to the Vietnam War, known over here as the American War. I was only a small child when it ended, so to me it’s always been something of a movie war: an historical event that I equate with the sort of Hollywood earnestness and histrionics so beautifully sent up by Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder a little while back.

The War Remnants Museum has changed all that and made me determined to study the conflict more closely in future. Sure, some of it was heavily biased in favour of the North Vietnamese communists. That’s inevitable; history is written by the winners. However, the gut-wrenching display of photojournalism - much of it American - shocked and impressed me enormously.

The museum pulled no punches. There were photos of GIs blown to pieces. There were case studies of children born hideously deformed due to Agent Orange. And there was a chilling exhibit devoted to the My Lai massacre, which I’d heard of but never read about. Prior to this, I had no idea a US Army photographer had captured images of women, children and old men seconds before they were murdered by his colleagues. That stunned me. I assume the torture, gang rapes and disembowelling happened out of sight.

If anything, this place was more upsetting than the genocide museum in Phnom Penh. Indeed, there was a moment when I nearly lost it. Training my camcorder on an exhibit in one of the glass cases - an American serviceman‘s medals attached to small plaque - I read out the following inscription: “To the people of a united Vietnam. I was wrong. I am sorry.” The last word came out as a strangled sob.

Next day I went on a bus tour to Cu Chi, about 50km out of town, where guerillas based themselves in an astonishing network of tunnels they’d excavated using nothing more than hoes and wicker baskets.

First we were shown a black-and-white communist propaganda film from 1967 featuring amazing footage of the Vietcong in action here. After that, our guide showed us a tunnel entrance hidden in the jungle floor and took us around various exhibits designed to show us what life was like for the rebels.

What I’ll remember most vividly are the gruesome and highly ingenious booby traps laid for the Americans, usually involving holes in the ground, trapdoors, bamboo spikes, planks and nails. The last one our guide showed us was an upside-down wooden cross with six-inch nails sticking out, designed to swing down and impale a GI when he opened a door.

“If he was tall, these would stick in his heart,” he said, gesturing towards the higher-up nails. “These,” he added, pointing closer to groin level, “go somewhere else.” Pause. “No babies.” It was black humour, and I don’t think he meant it maliciously, but in that second my sympathies momentarily transferred to all those poor grunts who’d been sent here to do the politicians’ dirty work.

My journey into the rabbit warren was brief, hot and extremely cramped. Even though the section of the tunnels given over to tourists has been widened (as most foreigners tend to be larger than underfed Vietnamese peasants from the 1960s and 70s), it’s still desperately narrow and claustrophobic, prompting several members of my tour group to turn back just beyond the entrance.

I persevered for several minutes until a particularly narrow section gave me an excuse to use one of the numerous specially built exits. It took a good half an hour under an air vent on the bus to dry the sweat from my clothes, and I’m so glad I left a bundle of laundry with the guest house before I set out.

Oh guest house. Oh laundry service. Oh, those wonderful exits for the tourists.

Oh, how Vietnam has changed in 40 years… and oh my word, isn’t it marvellous.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Whatever floats your boat

Gosh, I’m loving Vietnam at the moment. It’s so colourful! And vibrant! And cheap! The internet is fast! People are really nice! And the bus companies provide a free taxi service when you arrive in a new town, dropping you right at the door of your hotel!

Yep, I could really get to feel at home here. I’m so glad I invested in a three-month tourist visa.

I’m still in the Mekong Delta, in the far south of the country. After my time in Ha Tien I spent a couple of days in Can Tho, which was absolutely bloody marvellous. The city itself is nothing special, but take an eight-hour boat tour (starting at 5.30am) and you get to see stuff like this.

Floating markets, selling just about anything you can think of… but concentrating mostly on fruit.

I took the tour, in a small rowing boat with an outboard motor, with an Australian couple who‘d arrived on the same bus as me. They may well have been in their teens, as both had dropped out of university and were considering what to do next with their lives.

Sadly for him, the guy started puking up over the side of the boat after we’d seen the second market and had to go ashore and catch a moto back to the hotel. It seems he’d eaten something that disagreed with him.

I suffered too. My sunburnt knees have only just stopped hurting.

From Can Tho most tourists take a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, but not I. No, spurred on by my stupid guidebook, I wanted to get off the Saigon bus at Vinh Long. When I made the booking with the guy at my hotel reception, he pulled the sort of face that one of his counterparts in York might, should a tourist decide to delay travelling to Edinburgh for a brief sojourn in Darlington.

Now that I’m in Vinh Long, I can sort of see where he was coming from. There’s nothing actually here, attractions-wise, apart from An Binh island, “a patch of the delta’s most breathtaking scenery”. I went there on the local ferry, which takes about five minutes and costs about 5p each way.

It wasn’t breathtaking at all, although I had a fairly enjoyable couple of hours just rambling around it. Lots of people said hello and wanted to have their photo taken, and not just children this time.

Good grief. I look like the Hulk compared to that wee fella! If only I'd realised, I might have framed the shot a bit better…

Friday, March 19, 2010

Good afternoon Vietnam

The first thing I’ll say about Ha Tien in Vietnam, just across the border from Cambodia, is that it plainly couldn’t care less what Westerners think about it. This has been a terrible shock to me, I can tell you. Most of the places I’ve been to this year have either absorbed Western culture in some way (shopping malls, burger bars, MTV Asia etc) or blatantly set out to attract tourists and by extension the Yankee dollar. By contrast, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam doesn’t seem remotely fussed about all that.

Getting here on the bus from Kampot was the easy part. Getting sorted and settled was another matter. To start with, almost nobody speaks English, not even hotel receptionists. And although Vietnamese is written in Latin script, rather than the unfamiliar squiggly symbols of Thai, Lao and Cambodian, the kind of translations I’m used to on shopfronts and the like are almost entirely absent. So there I was, lugging my stuff around in the midday heat in a largely alien environment and almost wishing that a tout would come over and hassle me in my native language.

I can’t believe I just wrote that.

Actually, something a bit like that happened when a moto guy gave me a lift to a nearby hotel, although his English was extremely basic and the receptionist’s wasn’t a whole lot better. At this time, I didn’t even know the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Vietnamese dong, which meant every time I was quoted a price I had to ask: “What’s that in dollars?” (That’s another thing: for the past month I’ve been using dollars and Cambodian riel interchangeably. Vietnam, not surprisingly given its recent history, doesn‘t dance to the same tune.)

I was shown a room, and very nice it was too, for the price. Then the receptionist asked for my passport and said he’d be keeping it until I checked out. At this, I positively baulked.

Taking my passport back, I went outside and sat down sulkily. I was hot, desperately thirsty and sweating profusely. The moto guy followed me out, phoned a friend who spoke English and passed me his mobile. I explained to his friend what my problem was. The friend said that all hotels in Vietnam did this: it was something to do with the police.

Feeling fed up and confused, I went in search of a bank. (In my two previous destinations I either ‘got some kip’ or ‘got riel'. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be making a similar joke about the Vietnamese currency.) On the way I ran into this young guy who runs a travel agency in town. He’d joined my bus at the border, enabling the bus company’s Cambodian representative to return home. Anyway, he told me that hotels in Vietnam always retain passports so that they can inform the police how many foreigners they have staying each night.

That settled it. After visiting an ATM, I returned a little sheepishly to the place I’d walked out of and checked into my rather swanky, extremely good value room.

Ha Tien, which lies on the Mekong Delta, isn’t anywhere near as pretty as my guidebook makes out but I’ll be staying here another day as my hotel room seems like a great place to knuckle down, prepare a new CV and think about my next job. I’m delighted to report as well that the wifi here is about five times faster than anything I encountered in Cambodia. (Interestingly, the one other person I’ve met in this town who speaks fluent English is a boy of about 13 who was using the computer in the lobby as I endeavoured to prise the password out of a receptionist. The lad ended up translating for us, bless him.)

There’s one snag, though. I can’t access Facebook unless I do something technical and sneaky that I don’t quite understand at the moment.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Out of the frying pan

About ten years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter in Islington, north London, I visited the offices of Tourism Concern. I can’t quite remember what the point of the organisation was - the cynic in me says “to collect grants and provide its staff with a job” - but the general thrust of it was to raise awareness (awful phrase) of how Westerners were pushing their stupid fat white faces into previously unspoilt places around the world and messing things up for the poor innocent locals. Or something along those lines.

Now fast-forward to last month and my arrival in Cambodia from Laos. On a bus full of Westerners, I was engaged for a while in a conversation with two other Brits travelling solo: one an affable bloke in his mid-40s, the other a woman in her early 20s. The man had been to Cambodia a couple of years earlier and was dispensing various pieces of advice. He mentioned that he’d seen the big attractions like Angkor on his previous visit and was planning to stay with a friend who lived in the beach resort of Sihanoukville.

My eyes narrowed fractionally at this. Hadn’t I just read, in the course of my online research, that Sihanoukville had a reputation for attracting paedophiles? “Oh, stop it,” I told myself. “It also attracts lots of perfectly normal people who just want to lie on a beach all day. You mustn’t go jumping to conclusions like that.”

As for the woman, well, she’d been to Laos last year and was shocked at how much it had changed in 12 months. “It seems like there are no more unspoilt places in the world,” she said dolefully, and I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself asking her whether she saw any irony in that statement.

Two days ago, having run out of other tourist resorts to visit, I arrived in Sihanoukville clutching a hotel reservation organised by the guest house in Phnom Penh I’d just left. A moto rider was waiting to collect me from the bus station downtown and off we roared to the beachside district, which I detested almost from the word go.

I ended up taking just two photographs of Sihanoukville, which is probably two too many seeing as I‘d like to wipe the wretched place from my memory. One’s of a beach; the other captures the landmark Golden Lion Roundabout in all its tackiness.

The town is Cambodia’s answer to Corfu. ‘Crass’ barely covers it. I’m usually loath to whip out that snotty old line about being “a traveller, not a tourist”, but I was sorely tempted to as I watched lobster-coloured, beer-bellied representatives of my home nation being boorish, patronising and (in the case of some of the women) highly immodest. I felt like they were sticking two fingers up at Cambodian culture. But hey, who am I to judge? Clearly the Cambodians are happy to take their money.

If anything, yesterday was even worse. For one thing, I was woken at 7.30am by the high-decibel thump-thump-thump of music from an event at a school next door. “When’s it going to stop?” I asked the guy at reception.

“Some time tonight,” he said sheepishly.

There and then, I decided to move to a hotel downtown.

Huge mistake. Huuuuuuge mistake.

Not because there was a four-hour power cut last night that left my hotel in darkness and stiflingly hot (unlike most of its neighbours, which weren’t part of the affected block). And not because I had to lie in the dark listening to a pub band perform across the road, after I’d moved out of my old hotel to get a bit of peace and quiet.

I can live with inconveniences like that. What I couldn’t abide was being surrounded by men I suspected of being sex tourists and possibly child molesters.

Look, I know I can be naïve but I’m not stupid. I very soon twigged that something was amiss. Everywhere I turned I saw silver-haired white men sitting outside restaurants and bars or riding past on motorbikes. Young male tourists and Western women were conspicuously absent.

Looking for somewhere to have lunch, I poked my head inside a bar-restaurant opposite my guest house. It contained more old, grizzled, gruff-looking caucasian men (it certainly wasn’t a gay bar), some playing pool with young Cambodian woman.

I went to the Orange Supermarket on the corner and was taken aback to see - piled up at the front of the counter in an in-your-face way that would be startling in Britain, let alone a conservative country like this one - boxes of condoms and KY Jelly.

Proceeding down the main street, past Angkor Maiden Massage and the Hunnybunny Bar, I entered the Star Mart at the petrol station on the corner and bought a snack to keep me going for a while. Again, there were boxes and boxes of condoms at the front of the counter.

All circumstantial evidence, I know, but it was hard to escape the conclusion that there was some kind of all-pervasive sex trade going on and that local businesses were complicit in it.

I’m not being a puritan here, in fact I’m not even arguing about the rights and wrongs of prostitution. I just don’t want to share the same air with people who’d exploit Cambodia’s desperate poverty in this manner, so I left today for the sleepy resort of Kampot.

Was I barking up the wrong tree? As it happens, no. In an effort to verify my suspicions, I Googled the words “Sihanoukville sex tourists” and got some interesting results. Travelfish has a piece about expats who‘ve moved to the town and notes:

The downside of freewheeling Sihanoukville's beaches, charm and cheap living however, is its appeal to Western sex tourists, with the resort building a dubious reputation as a destination for paedophiles.

“If you do a sample of expatriates who live in Sihanoukville, there's a lot of younger people doing good work... at the same time there's a lot of creepy old beer-drinking, past-their-prime guys too,” says [a bookshop owner quoted].

Then there’s Jaunted: The Pop Culture Travel Guide.

I don't like Sihanoukville. Cambodia's boomtown may have nice beaches, but the juxtaposition of obnoxious tourists with grasping poverty, set against a backdrop of fevered development, isn't conducive to relaxation. Yep, the Cambodian coast is awesome but Sihanoukville is a shithole.

Out and about in town a couple of hours ago, I ran into one of my fellow minibus passengers, a semi-retired paediatrician from Vancouver called Stephen. Like me, he’d instantly taken to Kampot. “Sihanoukville is artificial,” he said, “whereas this place is authentic.”

I told him about the wonderfully friendly Cambodians I’d met in Stung Treng and Kratie and about the issues I’d had with Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Sad to say, it was a prima facie case for the corrupting influence of tourism on developing countries.

So apologies to Tourism Concern and that woman on the bus. I guess you had a point after all.

Depressing, isn’t it?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Day of the dead

I’d hate to be recognisably famous as it would mean that everywhere I went there’d be an endless parade of goons shouting, whistling, honking horns and waving at me in the street. It’d be… well, a bit like the past few days in Phnom Penh actually.

I’m referring, of course, to my old friends the tuk-tuk guys - and the moto guys, I mustn’t forget the moto guys. They’re worse than the ones in Siem Reap, if that’s possible. I can’t have a five-second rest without them pestering me. They even do it when I stop to cross a main road (which, in a busy Asian city like this, can take some time, as you need to seize a moment of relative calm and zigzag through the moving mass of cars and motorbikes like Jackie Chan performing one of his daredevil stunts).

I’ve been so irritated that I’ve reneged on my vow not to be a rude, obnoxious arsehole on this trip, no matter how stressed I am. Yes, for the first time since I set out two months ago, I’ve been telling the more persistent and irritating fuckers to fuck off.

This is my fourth day in the capital, although the first doesn’t really count, since I spent most of it either on the bus from Siem Reap or flaked out in my new hotel room. The only time I breathed any fresh air was on the journey from bus station to guest house. On a moto, naturally.

The hotel in Siem Reap had booked the place on my behalf, which meant a guy was waiting to pick me up and transport me there in a scene straight out of The French Connection (I‘m exaggerating, but it did feel like that as we were weaving through traffic). My big bag rested between us on the seat with my right hand holding it in place. My left hand, meanwhile, was gripping the base of the seat for dear life.

That evening I had dinner in the hotel restaurant watching The Killing Fields, a film I hadn’t seen since the mid-1980s. I don’t think I’d quite grasped the full horror of it then, as an adolescent. In any case, seeing it again brought the tragedies of 1970s Cambodia alive for me. (Later on I had to laugh, hollowly, reading comments on the movie website IMDb from staunchly patriotic Americans who think Nixon secretly bombing the shit out of a neutral country was unconnected with the subsequent rise of Pol Pot.)

The following morning I set out to visit the ‘nice’ attractions of Phnom Penh, in particular the Royal Palace, not realising that it’s closed from 11am to 2pm. By the time midday rolled around I was hot, hungry, disorientated and very, very thirsty, so I stopped for some lunch and decided to get my thick, shaggy hair cut at the barbershop two doors down.

As far as I can recall I’ve had this done twice in developing countries, in Egypt and Turkey in 1996. Both times were an experience and the results were severe but pleasing. On each occasion I was also shaved with a cutthroat razor, leaving my chin smoother than it had been since puberty hit. So when the Cambodian hairdresser started wielding his blade, I readily agreed to him using it.

Scrape, scrape, scrape. Discomfort, discomfort, discomfort. Isn't he going to use any bloomin' shaving cream?

It was the worst shave I think I‘ve ever had, leaving my chin feeling raw, sore and dotted with random patches of stubble. Still, for $2 the haircut wasn’t bad.

The Royal Palace wasn’t exactly shabby, either, and neither was its Silver Pagoda (a big religious building with silver floor tiles), although for the life of me I can’t understand why my not-so-trusty guidebook, The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia, places it top of its “35 things not to miss”. Bangkok’s Grand Palace wipes the floor with it, as do Angkor and several other place I can think of.

I’ll even venture to say that if there’s anything that’s unmissable in Phnom Penh, it’s Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, which formed part of a harrowing tour of not-so-nice tourist sites yesterday. The former secondary school, used as a Khmer Rouge torture chamber and prison from 1975-79, ranks alongside Auschwitz as the most grisly place I’ve ever set foot in. But for anyone interested in modern history or the Cambodian people - damn it, anyone interested in human nature - it offers a fascinating, if horribly disturbing, insight into how political ideology can turn human beings into monsters.

Stepping into some of the former classrooms of block A, you’re confronted in each instance with a bare metal bedstead fitted with manacles. Sometimes above it there’s a large black-and-white photograph (mercifully not that well defined) of one of the 14 mutilated bodies discovered here by the Vietnamese when they invaded Cambodia in 1979. On top of each bed there are instruments of torture, usually poker-like rods used for beatings and the remains of batteries for inflicting electric shocks.

Another block consists of tiny cells, some wooden, some brick. Others contain the museum’s exhibits, among them hundreds of victims’ photographs.

For me the most upsetting part was overhearing a tour group’s guide describing the murders of small children. One common method was to smash their heads against trees.

Then, too, there were transcripts of interviews with former Khmer Rouge loyalists who’d been recruited as teens and worked at the prison. Most consisted of: “It wasn’t me, guv, I didn’t kill anyone, honest, and anyway, why haven‘t they prosecuted the Khmer Rouge leadership yet?“ I wasn’t sympathetic, although I suppose the fact that they were brainwashed when young might count as mitigation.

Another room detailed the experiences of four idealistic Swedes who came to Cambodia on a fact-finding mission in 1978 and had the wool well and truly pulled over their eyes by the crafty Khmer Rouge, who recognised a group of useful idiots when they saw them. Some of the Swedes’ naïve, contemporaneous comments are listed beneath the photos they took at the time, along with their more sober reflections 30 years later. It would be wryly amusing if it wasn’t so tragic.

About 15km out of town, Choeung Ek is one of the numerous killing fields dotted around Cambodia. I went there yesterday morning before I visited Toul Sleng. There’s not much to see - it’s just fields with the positions of mass graves marked out - but there is a Buddhist stupa in memory of those who died. Until I got up close I didn’t realise what was piled high inside it, and when I did I gasped in shock.

The thing is, I’m well aware that seeing all this puts my moans and niggles into context. Put against the suffering of the Cambodians, I’ve led an incredibly charmed life. So, after briefly mulling things over, I thought I’d try to condemn a little less, understand a little more and tone down my irritability. (I don’t know where it’s springing from, to be honest, though I suspect that worries about my planned career change might have something to do with it. I‘m not feeling very secure at the moment.)

Then it hit me. Just this afternoon, as I was coming back from the Vietnamese embassy with my newly acquired tourist visa.

I’m the only person in Phnom Penh who walks anywhere.

At least, I think I am. I rarely see anyone else wandering about. They’ve either got transport of their own, or they’re on a moto or in a tuk-tuk, or they're confined to one place such as the shop they work in.

I must really stick out: the tall white guy in the hat, walking around in the sweltering heat, doing his best to stick to the shady parts of the pavement and scowling at every offer of a ride.

And with that, I took to turning down moto guys and tuk-tuk guys with the best smile I could muster. It’s a pained smile, I grant you, but at least I‘m not telling them to go forth and multiply.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Look back at Angkor

I sometimes bemoan the fact that most tourism nowadays seems to be nothing more than a glorified amateur photography session, even though I know full well that I’m throwing stones in a glass house.

Do I care about the history of the places I visit? Yes, if it’s modern and relevant, like apartheid or the Holocaust, for instance, but not if it’s ancient stuff about the Middle Ages and whatnot. I mean, honestly, who gives a toss?

That’s one of the reasons I never hire guides. As someone who’s spent his whole life staving off boredom with an endless string of distractions, I think I can safely say that listening to a guide is one of the few things that has me struggling to suppress my yawns. I always want to stop them and say: “Look, I’m sorry but my eyes are glazing over here. I doubt if I’ll remember the details of what you’ve told me in a week, let alone in years to come, so can we just stop now? There are some pretty pictures I want to take.”

This overview of the temples of Angkor will therefore be brief and mainly pictorial.

There are dozens of Khmer monuments scattered around the countryside near Siem Reap, mostly from the 12th and 13th centuries, the headline-grabber being the vast Hindu mausoleum and temple of Angkor Wat.

A couple of kilometres away is the walled city of Angkor Thom, which perhaps housed a million people 800 years ago. Its gateways are truly bizarre

and offer a foretaste of one of the temples inside. Known as the Bayon, it contains 54 towers, each of them adorned with four giant carved faces pointing north, south, east and west. One theory is that they’re the face of the then king, Jayavarman VII.

Nearby you’ll find the Terrace of the Elephants (used by the king for addressing his subjects)

and the Terrace of the Leper King, although how this got its name is a bit of a mystery.

Nice sculptures, though.

Having been abandoned to the jungle, the temples were rediscovered by French explorers in the mid-19th century. Far from being restored, Ta Phrom has been left in a ravaged state and is all the more wonderful for it. It’s like entering a world where the Triffids reign supreme.

Other temples have their own unique charms but after three days I’d seen enough. They were starting to get a bit samey, frankly, although one of the joys of touring around was that you never knew when another corker was going to crop up.

Back in Siem Reap, I’m much happier now that I’ve seen the monuments. The town is still a tourist trap - funny to think that not that long ago it was a scattered group of villages - but it doesn’t seem as threatening now that I’ve run the gauntlet of tuk-tuk guys and survived.

I certainly don’t think it’s any more poverty-stricken than other places in Cambodia. All I know is that it’s full of tourists and that the locals, understandably, see a chance to make a buck. At every temple it was the same story. Children trying to sell me sets of postcards or paperback books about Cambodia; women and children touting T-shirts, sunhats and silk scarves, “cheap price”; and women with refreshment stalls employing the same old patter with one or two modifications. “Hello sir. You want cold drink when you finish? Coke, Fanta, Sprite, water, only one dollar. Stall number four. Remember the orange hat.” And they accept a polite rejection with such good grace and humour when it comes.

It’s much harder to ignore this country’s amputees, some of whom form chamber orchestras and perform traditional music on the long paths leading to several of the temples. As I understand it, about 200 people a year stumble upon an unexploded golf-ball-sized bomb, dropped during the secret, illegal carpet-bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. How Henry Kissinger lives with himself, I’ll never know.

You see the amputees in town as well, often carrying an A4-sized laminated white card that describes their plight in English. They’ll sometimes approach you when you’re eating a meal, as the restaurants here tend to be open-fronted. Children - with all their limbs, and often quite neat and well turned out - do the same. They usually have a book of ten postcards to sell for a dollar and I always turn them down, having bought such a item from a guy with malformed legs on a wheelchair/bike contraption last week.

A couple of days ago, two scruffy little lads approached me and I regret to say I turned them away a little too dismissively. However, at the next table were two young women who had the bright idea of buying food for the boys, thereby circumventing any Fagins who might be waiting in the wings. Minutes later a diminutive girl came in and as per usual I declined her offer of postcards. But she was persistent. “Buy me food,” she said. “In here.”

She was thrilled to bits when I agreed, although I’m pretty sure she never thanked me. Awkwardly, I tried to make conversation and learned that she was a ten-year-old called Noi. Her mother worked nearby and expected Noi to sell five books of postcards a day to tourists. She showed me them in her kiddie handbag.

Did she go to school? In the morning, she said, in Phnom Penh. Which is impossible, as the capital is hours away. For the most part I let her get on with eating in silence, uncomfortably aware that I was treating a 10-year-old girl to a meal in Cambodia. If it had been a boy, I’d have looked just as suspicious. The only other person in the restaurant, a 60-ish white guy, chose to shun this newfound pastime, ‘buying food for a ragamuffin’. Possibly because, like me, he wasn’t keen on being mistaken for the next Gary Glitter.

When she was halfway through her meal I got up to leave. “Well, it was nice meeting you, Noi. Enjoy the rest of your meal. I hope you sell some postcards,” I said. Loudly.

Today I bought some small souvenirs in an indoor market, using US dollars as is the norm here, and was offered change in $2 bills. The stallholder had a sheaf of them in her purse, featuring a picture of some presidential-looking guy in an 18th or 19th-century wig. I just laughed. They weren’t quite the joke $3 bills with Bill Clinton on them but they weren’t all that far off. I’m surprised I reacted so good-naturedly, considering that she was attempting a petty theft. I must be in a good mood.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The big giant heads

Anyone get the 3rd Rock from the Sun reference there? Excellent. I thought I’d go for a humorous heading as I’m in a good mood at the moment. That’s in contrast to a few days ago, when I was planning to write a blog entitled “A wretched hive of scum and villainy” (quoting from Star Wars, fact fans).

I censored myself because I didn’t think that ranting about Siem Reap’s faults would be very constructive. Besides, with a little Googling I discovered that another blogger had managed it, more wittily than I could, a couple of years ago.

Here’s Kevin Murphy of texturbation on the Cambodian national character:
Would it be racist to say that Cambodian people are very friendly?

I mean, it’s a blanket statement about a nation’s entire people, based on four days of the flimsiest anecdotal evidence.

So yeah, probably racist. I’m racist, sue me.

Cambodian people are very friendly.

Days later he decides that Siem Reap’s tuk-tuk drivers are the most aggressive he’s ever met. Their behaviour, he says, is borderline psychotic.
Only one of the following true stories is a made-up lie:
1. I’ve been literally chased, running, for a block, by an hysterically laughing tuk-tuk guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

2. I’ve been offered a tuk-tuk by men who have just seen me climbing out of a tuk-tuk.

3. I’ve been offered a tuk-tuk whilst already in a tuk-tuk.

4. I’ve been offered a tuk-tuk by a tuk-tuk guy who already had passengers in his tuk-tuk.

5. Three tuk-tuk guys parked a few feet away from each other. They all see me coming a block away. The first guy offers me a tuk-tuk, which I decline. The second guy, who one second earlier has seen me decline his friend’s tuk-tuk, asks me if I want a tuk-tuk, as if I may have changed my mind in the meantime. The third guy, having seen me decline two offers of tuk-tuks in as many seconds, asks me if I want a tuk-tuk.

What Murphy writes, I might add, is no exaggeration.

What is more, I was going to have to deal with these people in order to see Angkor, commonly regarded as the most spectacular sight in southeast Asia.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I’d had it all planned out, ever since chatting to the French Canadian motorcyclist in Stung Treng. All I had to do was hire a motorbike, buy a seven-day entry ticket, set out with a map very early each day to beat the crowds and return to the guest house around midday, just as it was getting uncomfortably hot.

No-one told me foreigners are banned from hiring motorbikes in Siem Reap (a sensible move, considering how crazy the traffic is), so late one afternoon I rented a pushbike and attempted to cycle to Angkor. It practically killed me. Even if I’d had the energy, in the scorching daytime heat I would have needed to have pulled a trailer of bottled water behind me or bought it on the move from stallholders, which would have been more expensive than hiring a tuk-tuk in the first place.

I couldn’t see any way around it. So I sulked in my room for four whole days, keeping busy with laborious jobs like uploading my photos of Laos on to Facebook.

On Saturday night I ventured out to watch a parade of Cambodian kids and giant puppets that appeared to have been organised by charitable Westerners.

Afterwards I took a walk along Pub Street - the clue’s in the name - which is pretty much a tourist ghetto, with tuk-tuk drivers banned from entering. If you’re a lone male like me, a tuk-tuk guy will surreptitiously offer you “boom boom” within seconds of you emerging.

“That’s sex with a prostitute,” I told my sister on Skype the next day.

“Yes,” she said. “I gathered that.”

By now it should be obvious that I have a raging prejudice against tuk-tuk guys. In my experience they’ll rip you off as soon as look at you. In Siem Reap they come loaded with extra seediness. I don’t relish having to depend on scum like that. And the fares being bandied about for three days of ferrying a tourist around sounded extortionate to me.

To cut a long story short, yesterday I engaged the services of a tuk-tuk guy called Kia and so far he’s been smashing: a really nice, helpful young bloke. There's a moral in there somewhere.

Angkor’s fabulous too. It’s



and even, when I was at Angkor Wat yesterday,

Having whetted your appetite, I’m off to get ready for an early start tomorrow. It’s the third and final day of my Angkor odyssey and I’m really looking forward to it… so much so that I might force myself to sit through Tomb Raider again when I get the chance, just to watch the scenes that were filmed in these parts.