My latest $2 transportation adventure

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
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Trip End Oct 17, 2008


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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cambodia





If you took a look at the ATR journal already, I finally got it fixed properly and all the pictures are there.  I hope everyone I work with enjoyed comparing it to ours.

I've attached 11 pics to this entry and wish I could have put more on but the internet here is SLOOOOOOOW.
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I've met some really fun single travelers from England and Australia to hang with here in Cambodia and it's been a lot of fun.  My friend I was supposed to meet up with this week isn't stuck in Hong Kong anymore but can't get to Cambodia or Vientiane easily now so it looks like for now it's just me and my new friends with cool accents.  Small town Siem Reap is turning out to be one of those places that is relaxing and laid back, too so it's a welcome break from all the big city hustle and bustle the past few weeks.

The one thing that stands out is how polite the people are.  They are so respectful to everyone and at my guesthouse I am getting better service than from a five star hotel.  Cleanliness is an obsession here so it's off with the shoes inside the guesthouse and at many businesses around town.   My room is absolutely spic and span, air conditioned, new and only $15 a night.  If you find yourself inspired to ever visit Siem Reap, the Mandalay Inn is the way to go.

I took you guys to one ancient city last week (Petra for anyone with a short memory) so now it's time to visit another.  The whole point of coming to Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat which is an ancient complex of several temples, Angkor Wat obviously being the main one hence the name (hey, for some people you have to spell it out like that).  I am amazed that ancient cultures thrived simultaneously like the Mayans, Petra, and Angkor Wat yet they didn't know about each other. 

This paragraph is your very brief history lesson as best I can summarize what little I know about the place.  Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples were built between the 8th and 13th centuries by various Hindu and Buddhist rulers.  The name Angkor Wat loosely translates into "city which became a pagoda."  Yes, I too as an English speaker see the similarity between the name and it's meaning.  In the first half of the 15th century a guy named Suryavarman II had Angkor Wat built as the capital of the area and as the temple dedicated to Vishnu.  Almost half a mile of carvings line the temple's walls and there are about 2,000 statues or reliefs. 

In recent times the whole area was closed to foreigners due to troubles at home within Cambodia.  Things have calmed down now and it's become the well known site here even though other temples are just as big and beautiful throught the country.  Now that we are done with the boring stuff I will tell you guys about my little adventure this morning.

There are several ways to visit the Angkor Wat complex and when choosing your preferred mode of transportation you have to take into account your abilities and the fact that the entire place is the size of Manhattan when you include the 5 miles to just get there from Siem Reap.  Now with that in mind you can rent a bike for $2 a day, hire a tuk tuk for $12 or take an organized tour for $50 or so.  There's even a helicoptor option for others but I didn't even bother checking how much it would be to see the place by air.

You guys have been traveling with me for a few weeks now so it should be an easy guess what the Brits and I chose.  Yep, you guessed it...the $2 bikes.  I was just hoping this $2 tour would logistically be smoother than the one in Bangkok inshallah.  We made our arrangements last night and the owner of the guesthouse told us she would have the bikes downstairs in the morning for us.  Evidently seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise is the big thing here so she told us to leave the hotel no later than 0500 to have time to be there by 0630. 

Five in the morning came very early for us and as promised our bikes were waiting out front.  Mine was a silver Chinese made beat up old thing that Mao Tse Tung himself would have been proud to be seen on.  About the only thing that made it a bike were the two wheels and handle bars mounted on it.  The rear tire was bulging under my weight and I wondered if I would be pushing the bike home from 10 miles away. 

For two bucks I wasn't complaining though because think about all the money we were saving.  Oh where to spend all that extra cash now.  These bikes would get us there and back just fine inshallah and we were looking for a different kind of experience anyway.   Now that I think about it, this Mao Tse Tung antique was the two wheel equivalent of that VW rental car in South Africa. 

Now let me just set the stage here for the first leg of our journey here.  Picture it.  A small town in one of the poorest countries in Asia.  Poor equals bad roads with potholes and other hazards we were yet to discover.   It had poured all night long and up to this point my biggest worry was that the seat was wet.   My adventure yesterday in Bangkok had made me a seasoned veteran at navigating strange Asian places so the night before I had gotten a big glossy map in English and Cambodian with some French and German on there for good measure.  There was no way we were going to get lost at this early dark hour.

We never did get lost and actually found our way quite easily in the dark to the ticket office 4 or 5 miles away.  What we didn't take into consideration was that the roads had potholes EVERYWHERE that could sink a small car and overnight they had filled with water.  I remember something from drivers ed where they told us you don't know how deep a pothole is when it's filled with water.  That turns out to be sage advice that I had until now just ignored or had never needed.  To make it even better, there were no streetlights or moonlight to guide our way through the rough streets.  Note to self here or anyone else attempting this...one word...flashlight.  It never even dawned on me that I might need one, and I hadn't even packed one.  I was just so excited that I had remembered a map last night.

Several times we hit potholes that would splash water everwhere and a few times the stuff in my storage basket got knocked out because they were so deep.  It crossed my mind a few times that I might actually crack a tooth from all the jarring.  I also discovered that even though the bike had the handbrake controls, there were no working brakes on it.  Like the stoplights in Delhi that exist in theory but don't really do anything, so was the brake system on my battered old bike.  Stopping involved a lot of preplanning and dragging my shoes in the muddy water on the little solid pavement there was.  Everytime I did that I remembered my mom jumping all over me when I was a kid for dragging and wearing out my shoes when I would ride my bike.  I paid for these shoes though and will do as I want now!!!  And another note to self, don't wear dark clothing while riding a dark bike on dark streets when tuk tuks and tourist vans are flying by.

At one point my large bottle of water went overboard into a pothole and I rolled backwards to retrieve it.  Again, no brakes on this thing so I rolled backwards right over it and pushed it deep into the mud and popped the lid off it.  I lost half my water in that unfortunate incident.  And to think we were just five minutes into the ride.

About an hour later we were at the Angkor Wat temple in the dark with a ton of Japanese tourists and a scattering of everyone else.  I honestly think I was the only American so I took that as a good sign for the sunrise to come since we don't usually go off the beaten path to the really good stuff.  All people talked about was how cool the temple looks when it glows orange from the rising sun reflecting on it and we were waiting for it with bated breath.

Well sunrise came and went and I asked my British friends if something more was supposed to happen.  I wasn't expecting the skies to open up and Buddha himself to pop out of the buildings or anything but I mean nothing neat happened.  Nada.  I woke up at 0430 and rode some death trap Mao Tse Tung 5 miles over muddy potholed streets for this?   Actually it turns out this morning that it was cloudy and the stone had turned dark from the rain overnight.  You win some and lose some in traveling. But as the sun came up some more, I saw how awesome the temple is and later on trust me, I would definitely win one. 

The one thing that will always stand out in my mind about Angkor Wat was the smell of incense inside it.  People were burning it as an offering to Buddha and it just added to the mystique of the place.  The quietness of the place combined with the burning incense really made me realize that I was somewhere special that the average person will never get to see.

The main Angkor Wat temple site within the Manhattan sized complex is 1.5 by 1.3 kilometers and is surrounded by a huge moat.  You have to see the place in person to really appreciate the work that went into it.  The relief sculptures in all the walls were amazing and so were the carvings.  At sunrise the crowds dispersed and we had the whole place to ourselves.  It gets really busy late morning but for now we were rewarded nicely for getting up early.   Trying to see the sunrise was the best decision we could have made because of the lack of crowds and the heat hadn't started yet (just the humidity).

Again the whole area of temples is about the size of Manhattan, and I was ready to see the other ones.  The British guys said that they had overestimated their abilities and couldn't handle anything more than riding downhill back into town.  I didn't pay $20 to get all day access to the entire place for nothing so I told them I'd meet them later in the afternoon back at the hotel.

I think I logged about 25 miles total and renting the bikes rather than a tuk tuk was the best choice we could have made.  Sure it was hard sweaty work pedaling 185 pounds of me around in the sun and heat, but I was on my own schedule and could do what I wanted without having to try to talk broken English with a tuk tuk driver.  Plus a bike is quiet with no tuk tuk four stroke motor fumes or constant noise.  I am left with one question though.  How can you ride 25 miles and 24 of them seemed uphill?

Chhosing this 20+ mile grand tour committed me to it once reaching the halfway point as there are no side roads or shortcuts back to the starting line.   After seeing several temples they honestly all started looking alike and my butt,neck and knees were hurting from this bike designed for someone half my size.  But I got to the halfway point with several more hours to go and decided to just push on.  I am so glad I did because I came into an area of rural Cambodia I never in a million years would have found otherwise and got an awesome glimpse into life here.  The best experiences are those you never plan for and that just sneak up on you like this.

I passed rice paddies being worked by hand and saw people who live in tiny huts.  Boys were walking their water buffalos along the road and all were friendly and waved at me as I went by.  (the kids that is...water buffalo are a vicious animal). I guess it's not everyday that someone like me comes cycling by since most people take the tuk tuk route.   And most people don't even venture this far into the ruins by tuk tuk. By now I was all templed out, hot and drenched in a combination of sweat, bugspray and sunscreen and just wanted to get back.  I would pass some really small ruins and just began thinking these things were becoming a dime a dozen.  Plus when you stopped at one, ladies and kids selling stuff would bother you with, "You need my water mistuh.  One dollah," or "You eat my breakfer mistuh.  I make for you."  These people didn't have a pot to pee in but had mastered enough English to hustle a buck out of tourists. 

As much as I was annoyed by this constant barrage I was impressed they do what they have to do to make a buck.  But seriously, how in the world am I supposed to carry a five by ten painting of Buddha with me on this tiny bike with no brakes 10 miles back into town?  Ok, stupid question now that I think about it.  These are the same ladies I have seen maneuvering their own bikes and mopeds around with their 3 kids somehow perched on board.  Obviously I don't have the dexterity or balance to be Cambodian so I will just stick with what I know. 

On the way back I saw this giant yellow balloon tethered to the ground and wondered what in the world it was.  So I cycled my trusty but brakeless Mao Tse Tung over there and found out that  $15 buys a ten minute ride in it to take in the whole area from above.  See, the money I saved by renting the bike and pushing myself around all morning saved me enough money to make the huge splurge here.  Seriously though, I do think $15 was an awesome bargain for the view I got.  Imagine this giant yellow ball with a metal carriage attached to it.  And then a metal cable that comes from underground keeps the whole thing from floating away and it did cross my mind a few times that I may very well end up across the border in some other country in this thing.  Wherever the most weight was, that is where the carriage leaned and tilted you towards the earth.  It came back to the ground with a good thud that actually bent my knees a little.  In restrospect I wonder just how safe that thing was.

I've got the bike all day so the British guys and I may ride back to Angkor Wat to see the sunset.  Sunrise didn't deliver so maybe sunset will.  It's been raining all afternoon and it's been a good chance to rest up from the 7 hour bike ride.  We had some absolutely delicious Cambodian food, and the local cuisine is called Khmer (like back home when you see Canton or Mandarin styles of Chinese).  I had curried vegetables and some stir fry beef (dog maybe?) and green beans.  Dog or not it hit the spot after all that riding.

Tomorrow morning I am off to Vientiane, Laos via a Lao Airlines ATR 72.   I will see you there.
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