Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cambodian Adventure: Part II

I landed in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, a little over an hour after leaving Bangkok.  The airport is a fraction of the size of BKK, but the chaos was the same.  First I waited in a line to get my passport stamped and then in another to get through customs.  After that it’s the gauntlet: a sea of motorbike, tuk-tuk, and taxi drivers waiting for you like hungry zombies on the other side of the door. 
Leaving the airport in a tuk-tuk.  Ricky Bobby!
“Mista’, Mista’, taxi?  Only $9!”
“OK, OK.  $8!  Special price for you!”
“$7!  Happy Hour price!”
They’ll play this game all day.  I fought my way through the zombies, only getting bit once, until I found a cheap tuk-tuk (*Webster’s defines tuk-tuk as:  3-wheeled-motorcycle-rickshaw-deathcab, usually driven by an inebriated man with 4 teeth and a hidden agenda) to take me to The Mad Monkey, my hostel ($5/night and great).  
I got my free beer with check-in, met some cool people, and debauchery ensued.  The next morning I woke up with a slight headache, ate some breakfast, and waited for the bus to Siem Reap.
Around 11 am, I hopped on the bus with “V.I.P.” written in duct tape on the windshield.  I wasn’t surprised to find that it was crowded with both people and bugs and that the air-conditioning barely worked.  V.I.P. busses are supposed to have A/C and be more comfortable than the standard busses.  However, after traveling all over SE Asia on them, I’ve learned that (1) I am not a Very Important Person; (2) they’re almost always lacking. It’s something you get used to.
What was supposed a to be five-hour bus ride was closer to seven.  Cambodia had been hit hard by flooding and at times it felt more like I was riding in a boat than a bus.  When I was eventually dropped off in Siem Reap, I took a tuk-tuk for 75 cents into town and found a place to stay (Smiley's Guesthouse… again $5/night and shockingly nice).  I bought a Cambodian SIM card for my phone and met up with one of my roommates, Ryan, who had also just arrived there.  


Let me school you with some knowledge right quick…

Siem Reap is a small, old town in northwestern Cambodia.  It’s name means the “Flat defeat of Siam”, referring to a victorious battle the native Khmer people had over the Siamese (of course, Siam is now Thailand).  It’s a quiet town during the day, but starting around 6 pm, there’s a large night market where you can buy anything from a traditional Cambodian scarf to a knock-off Rolex (I bought a fresh Breitling and some Ray-Bans for next to nothing).  Around 9 pm Pub Street comes to life.  This is where the tourists convene and where you’ll find restaurants and bars booming until the early morning hours.
Siem Reap is a popular tourist destination primarily because it’s “the gateway” to the Angkor region (where Angkor Wat is located).  Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries.  The ruins are still there and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, drawing in thousands of visitors each year.
The entrance to Angkor Wat.  Inside... The Temple of Doom.

I ended up spending about a week in Siem Reap and I loved it.  Of course, there’s the usual bombardment of hustlers and beggars and you have to keep your eyes open just like when traveling anywhere else.  But, for the most part, the people are incredibly nice, the food is good, and everything is cheap. 
Oz the Aussie at Angkor What? Bar.
Ryan and I had more than one crazy night out at the bars on Pub Street, which are full of fun and interesting people from all over the place.  Because of the flooding, all of Pub Street was underwater.  Amazingly, however, everything was still open.  On a normal night there’s tons of people coming and going, drinking and dancing.  Even with the flooding, this was still going on, just in knee-deep water, which made for a pretty crazy time… probably best left unmentioned.
It was fun… meeting new people, raging all night, coming out of the bar at 3 am, Michael Jackson blaring in the street from an unknown source, a 9 year-old little Cambodian girl dancing in the knee-deep water (waist-deep for her) and singing along, “Billy Jean is not my lover” followed by, “come on man, give me one dollar” (holding up a basket of bracelets), while I look over and Ryan (a 6’2’’ Ginger) is street-fighting her 7 year-old little brother.  Who punches a 7 year old?  Kidding.  Good times.
She was a lot happier when MJ was blaring.

"Finish Him! ...  Fatality."
But good times can be had at any time, at any bar, anywhere in the world.  The best part of Siem Reap was by far being able to see the 1000-year-old ruins and temples of Angkor.  I have to say that it’s probably one of the coolest thing that I have ever seen in my life.  It’s like the Grand Canyon, words can’t describe it and pictures just don’t do it justice.

"Tomb Raider temple"
We rented bikes for a buck and paid $40 for a 3-day pass and saw just about everything that there is to see.  If Indian Jones and Lara Croft had an extraordinarily good-looking love child, it would be me (*Speaking of Tomb Raider, they filmed it in Angkor).  Some of the temples, buildings, and walkways have been restored but most of it has been left basically untouched for the best part of a thousand years.   It was like being inside of Mortal Kombat.  I was half-expecting Scorpion to run around the corner looking for Sub-zero, “Hey man.  You seen a ninja ‘round here… wears a blue mask… likes to freeze shit?”

... more really, really, really, really old stuff.

This monkey attacked me about 10 minutes later.  True story.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cambodian Adventure Part I: Flight of the Ogre

Teaching in Thailand has many of the same perks as teaching in America does.  The best, in my opinion, is the vacation time.  In the States, most teachers get holidays and the summer months off.  In Thailand, we’re off from the beginning of March to mid-May (Thai summer is hot, especially with no A/C and 55 students per class), as well as all of October (when the rainy season hits the hardest).  This bonus allowed me to travel for four weeks last month, paid.  I went diving in Koh Tao, raged in Bangkok, experienced the filthy skeeze that is Pattaya, watched a fire show in Koh Samet (my eyebrows were nearly singed by a disobedient, flaming bow-staff that decided my face was a better landing target than its owner’s hands), and hiked a five-tier waterfall in Kanchanaburi.  I don’t have the memory (thank you, Singha beer) nor the patience to write about each and every one of these places.   I do, however, want to share a little bit about final leg of my October travels, which was to Cambodia. 
            I was only able to spend about a week in good ol’ Cambo and I wish that I’d had more time.  To me it’s the wild west of SE Asia.  Still recovering from the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, it is not nearly as developed as its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam.  The air is constantly filled with dust from the unpaved roads, waterways flood because of the lacking infrastructure, and there’s evidence everywhere illuminating the unbelievably widespread poverty.  My roommate, co-worker, and travel dude-bro, Ryan gave a pretty accurate, yet not-so-delicate description, “Cambodia is a dirtier, cheaper version of Thailand”.  This is true, but Cambodia is also a lot more. 
Everywhere I went the people were exceedingly friendly and genuinely happy.  In guesthouses and restaurants the service was far better than in Thailand (but the food didn’t hold a candle).   Everything costs a dollar or less.  Everything.  Draft beer, 50 cents.  Food, a dollar.  Tuk-tuk, a dollar.  You can even find dorm-style hostels to stay in for… a dollar.
Because of the floods and my loathing of 15-hour bus rides, I decided to pay the extra 50 bucks and take a flight from big, bad Bangkok to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.  The flight only took 55 minutes, but short of crashing into the Gulf, it couldn’t have been much worse. 


            As I waited to board the plane in Suvarnaphumi International Airport, I couldn’t help but notice a fat, sweaty, googly-eyed, middle-aged European oaf bumbling around the gate.  Air Asia is known for its tiny seats and I instantly felt bad for whoever had to sit next to this caricature of an oversized troll, probably named Igor or Bruno or something of the like. I will say that he had the most vicious, greasy, salt-and-pepper mullet that I have ever seen.  Gotta respect the mullet.
The plane began to board at 5:00 p.m.  Two stereotypically beautiful Thai stewardesses greeted me with fake smiles, Sawadee Kaa, as I entered the aircraft.  23F.  Sweet, a window seat.  I sat down and buckled up.  The ogre looked confused as he lurched and searched for his assigned accommodation, getting closer and closer to me, struggling to ram his way down the aisle, invading the space of everyone he passed with his protruding side-fat.  I already knew where he would end up.
Bruno Trolldude stowed away his carry-on after a brief struggle with the overhead compartment.  I don’t know what he had in there.  Probably a small assortment of Speedos to show off his impressive Euro-body, a camera so he could show pictures to his friends back home of the beautiful Asian women that he didn’t pay for, and maybe a bottle of his favorite vodka recently purchased at the airport duty-free shop.   Whatever was in the bag, it definitely wasn’t deodorant. 
He sat down in the seat next to me; amazingly fitting between the two armrests, yet instantly overflowing in to my bubble, trapping me against the window.  He then raised his tentacle revealing a beautiful sweaty armpit that smelled like Cheetos, so that he could make sure that all of the air conditioning fans above were on blast and pointed directly at his perspiring dome piece.  Suck it up, I thought.  It would only be an hour-long flight and at least I’d have a nice view of the smog as I ascended out of Bangkok at twilight.
It was like watching a drunken turtle on its back as he thrashed about trying to reach the seatbelt underneath him.  I could smell the booze as he took short, heavy breaths the way that only overweight, two-pack-a-day smokers do.  Fortunately, the wheezing only lasted ten minutes.  Then, the ogre slept.  Unfortunately, the snoring began.  Ugh, the snoring.  I’ve had the experience of standing on a runway for the take-off of a fighter jet, endured booming thunderstorms, shot machine guns, and it all pales in comparison to the roaring rumble that came from that congested nasal passageway.
Within a few minutes, everyone in proximity was marveling at the sight and sounds of seat 23E.  First, the other passengers shook their heads and delivered dirty looks.  Then, they stared.  Then, they laughed and pointed.  Some people yelled indicative comments, but nothing would wake up Bear-pig-man. I figured that once the plane took off, he’d wake up and reset.  30 minutes in to Air Asia flight FD-3081, this proved false.  Eventually, two young English guys across the aisle began blowing up the paper barf bags provided by the airline, and popping them next to his ear, laughing hysterically the whole time.  Still nothing.  Even the airhostess that served my $5 Coke to me, attempted to wake him with a polite nudge, but gave up quickly, probably for fear that he might eat her.  At that point people stopped looking at him and started looking at me.  With pity, I assume.
The only thing that could wake the beast was itself.  Eventually, it was his own coughing fit that would bring him out of slumber.  It was one of the grossest things I’ve ever witnessed… and I’ve seen some grimy shit.  It began with a single cough.  Probably a piece of phlegm stuck in Fatboy’s windpipe.  Then, a short-lived pause as he inhaled oxygen signified the end of the snoring and the beginning of a violent session that would ultimately serve as an alarm clock to his mile-high siesta. 
At the beginning of the coughing fit/seizure/Discovery Channel special, he was still asleep.  His arms flailed, hitting me at least twice.  His legs bucked, pressing his already fully reclined seat even further back in to the knees of the old lady behind him.  He mumbled unrecognizable nothings in a language that I can only imagine to be Hobgoblin.  Fee Fi Fo Fum.  Every gulp of air he sucked in was immediately followed by a crackling cough as he sprayed entire lungfuls of phlegm on to the seatback in front of him.  It lasted maybe two minutes and as he finally came to consciousness he noticed that all eyes were on him, but didn’t seem to care.  He panted and gasped for a moment; clearing his throat and catching his breath as he wiped the drool off his chin and sweat off his horned forehead.  The beast was awake.  I expected a wave of applause, but there was none.  At this point no one was amused, only disgusted.  But at least it was all over.
The pilot came on the loudspeaker announcing that we were on our final descent.  A stewardess past by and told me that when I finished my $5 Coke (now contaminated), I had to put my tray up.  “No problem.”  Then a large, furry appendage from beside me reached across and raised my tray, locking it in to position on the seat in front of me…  “You put up tray now!”
I nodded.  “Sorry to disturb you, Bruno.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

437 Days Abroad

437 days.  That’s how long it’s been since I left my friends, my family, and my comfort zone for the adventure of Southeast Asia.  A lot has happened in those 437 days.  I’ve ridden an old Russian motorcycle across the entire length of Vietnam.  I’ve eaten the beating heart out of a snake.  I’ve gone SCUBA diving off of some of the most beautiful islands in the world.  I’ve explored thousand-year-old tombs and temples in Cambodia.  I’ve spent two long days slowly floating through Laos on the Mekong River.  I’ve drank one too many beers, one too many times, with some great friends from across the globe.  I’ve jumped off of waterfalls and I’ve trekked the green jungles of Thailand.  I’ve lit up a coconut with an AK-47.  I’ve found out the hard way that there is no place on your body that is safe from a hungry leech… no place.  I’ve been chased by gangsters and by lady boys and I’m not sure which one is more frightening.  I’ve trained at a backyard Muay Thai gym, taken a bucket shower out of a trash can, been attacked by a monkey, and started to learn a new language that I originally thought was impossible.

Being half way around the world it can be hard to find the time to share all that has happened with family and friends.  So after 437 days and countless misadventures I’ve finally made a blog.   We’ll see how it goes, but I’ll do my best to post frequently enough to keep everyone up to date with what’s going on in Blake’s world.  Thanks for reading!