Friday, December 29, 2006

Majestic Angkor Day 1 (Dave): Mr. T's Wild Ride

4 Nov 06: Singapore to Siem Reap, Cambodia

After the previous day’s trip to Malaysia, I went to grab a bite of supper at a hawker stall, and then checked and send a couple of emails (and updated the blog). I wandered around for a while, before heading back to Bugis Backpacker’s to hit the hay.

Up at about 6, I left to make the most of a few hours before having to fly. I went out for a quick wander through Little India for an hour or so. After passing a place that sold curried fish head and graffiti indicating that a particular wall was not a restroom, I spent a fair amount of time looking at the detail on the different Hindu Temples in the area...fascinating, to say the least. In addition to the Hindu Temples, there was an interesting mosque as well, right next door to a place called the Hasbiyallah Cafe, which, due to the suspiciously close spelling to a certain Lebanese group that caused a lot of trouble over the summer, I did not stop for a cup of coffee. Instead, I went for a cup of coffee and bite of breakfast at Coffee Bean, a Starbucks-ish coffee place. I read for a while, and then headed back to the hostel to finish packing up before check out. With about 30 minutes to spare, I decided to take a quick run over to the Raffles The Plaza hotel to confirm our reservation for about a week later, and to get a feel for using the MRT (metro) system. I wandered around for a few minutes and took a few pictures, before finding my way to the hotel. As it turns out, it was a good thing that I checked, as the reservation I had made on line apparently wasn't registering. After reconfirming, I headed back to the hostel.

The airport transfer guy picked me up promptly at 11, and before 1130 I was at the airport and checked in. I browsed the airport bookstore, blissfully chock full of English titles, and made a couple of purchases before heading through immigration into the shopping mall like atmosphere of Changi Airport.

In all my travels, I don’t think that I’ve ever been to a nicer airport. Clean, well designed with nice spaces, artwork, convenient food and shopping areas, free internet access, it’s a great airport if you have to be stuck somewhere for a while. Most of the good stuff is past immigration. Even the way that they handled security screening was efficient. Instead of having one or two security checkpoints, each gate had its own screening station that would be manned one hour before the flight. I thought that it worked pretty well. Of course, other security measures were in place as well, such as the teams of Gurkhas patrolling the airport with their MP5s and wickedly curved kukris. I felt pretty safe.

After clearing security at the gate, it was just a short while before boarding the flight to Siem Reap. I spent the time filling out my immigration paperwork, handed to me on the way into the gate. The flight was heading on to Vietnam afterward, so I kept a copy of the paperwork for when we’d head there a few days later. The flight was only a couple of hours, and before long, we were descending over the greenery of Cambodia.

Siem Reap International Airport was pretty small. The planes park, and everyone gets off via the rolling staircase and meanders to the terminal. All around me, folks were stopping to take pictures of themselves with the plane in the background before moving into the customs and immigration area. Since I had a visa already and had nothing to declare, I got through pretty quickly. I changed about 15000 yen into 900,000 riels or so and went to find a ride into town.

I didn't really know how much to expect for a taxi, and didn't want to get ripped off any more than necessary. But, I needn't have worried.

Just as I came out of the airport, expecting to be confronted by a seething mass of taxi drivers, legitimate and otherwise, there was a small taxi stand. I walked up to the counter, and asked the guy what it would cost to get into town.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"Bun Nath Guest you know where that is?" I replied.

" many bags do you have?"

"Just one, and this small backpack."

"OK. I think that a motorbike will do fine for you. That will be one dollar."

Stunned, as I'd been expecting much more, I forked over the cash, he gave me a ticket, and called over a young man in a pair of blue pants and a light blue shirt.

" is your driver, he'll take you into town." He said. "Have a nice stay."

"Thanks." I replied, and walked off with the motorbike driver.

Thy (pronounced "Tee"), was his name ("As in 'Mr. T,' the movie star?" I asked, getting a sort of blank look in return. "OK...guess you've never seen the show The A-Team, eh?").

Thy grabbed my bag and put it in front of him, and I climbed on the back. Not having been on the back of a motorcycle since my Scouting days at the Vise Family Farm, I wasn't quite sure where to hold on. Eventually, I got to the point where I felt relatively comfortable, and not like I was going to drop off in the middle of the road at any moment. I just said a prayer, and told myself, "Well, Dave, that's why you got that travel insurance."

In a moment, we were off, driving out the airport parking lot, and into the afternoon traffic of Siem Reap. Thy was a pretty skilled driver, weaving his way in and out of the sporadic traffic. The whole way in to town, he kept up a lively patter about what we were seeing on the sides of the road, and a little bit of his personal history. I found out that he aspired to becoming one of the official Angkor Wat tour guides, but was having a hard time breaking in due to a lack of connections. I guess that there's an old boy network still at work that makes for job security for those who already have the jobs...

Bun Nath Guest house wasn't too far away, and we were there within about 20 minutes. As we drove in, Thy mentioned that he was for hire if I wanted to have him take me around, and could scare up a few friends with bikes too if we wanted to go for a look at other temples on our free day. I told him that I'd think about it, and check with Melody. I also asked him if he would show me around, if after checking into the hotel, Melody wasn't there yet. He was done for the day at the airport, so he agreed.

As I checked in, I discovered that, sure enough, the Imaginative Traveller group that Melody and Lori had joined in Thailand hadn't yet shown up (they were stuck in a traffic jam traversing a mud hole at the time...hopefully a story to come.). So, I dropped off my stuff, grabbed my camera, and headed out with Thy to see sunset over Tonle Sap lake to the south.

We took a right onto the airport road, drove about 50 meters, and turned right again onto the main drag through town. Before long, we were out of the downtown area, and speeding to try to beat the sun before it hit the horizon. We had to make one quick stop to get some gas from the strangest gas station I'd ever seen. It was a cart with about 3-4 shelves of glass beer bottles filled with gasoline. Thy gave the proprietor some cash, and the guy dumped a liter bottle of gas into his tank. A few seconds later, we were off again.

The road wound through some woods before emerging on a broad plain that led to the lake. Ahead of us was a lone hill that overlooked the lake. Just before the hill, Thy stopped so that I could pay about $20 to get a boat ride on the lake. The transaction complete, I hopped back on the bike, and we headed to the boat launch where I handed my ticket to a young boat driver, and got on. Thy waited as I went out with the driver and his assistant, an even younger kid of about 8 years old.

It was perfect timing, as the sun was a handspan or two above the horizon as we left the dock. We meandered past a series of houseboats. In fact, the place was a floating village that actually moves with the lake level. The Tonle Sap Lake feeds into the Tonle Sap River, which, for part of the year actually flows backward into the lake as snowmelt from the Himalayas dumps into the Mekong. That, combined with the rainy season, makes for a veritable "Waterworld" as the village moves to the north end of the lake. Then, as the dry season occurs, and the water level drops, the village moves south. In any case, it was pretty cool.

I rode around on the lake with the two kids for about an hour, including a brief stop to get a can of coke (one for each of us) from a floating Vietnamese convenience store. While drinking it, the part of my brain that is normally germophobic started asking, "Where's that can been?" Visions of shistosomes and filaria and other creepy crawlies that certainly creeped and crawled in the lake just a few inches below me started creeping and crawling into my consciousness, which I promptly sprayed with a can of mental Raid (tm) before they convinced me not to drink my Coke. For those of you who know my aversion to Pepsi products, you can be assured that it was, indeed, a Coke. And, though it had been sitting in a box filled with tepid lake water, and was barely colder than the ambient temperature, it was good. For me, there's something about Coca Cola bought outside of the US. It may just be my imagination, but they seem to taste better, almost like the "old Coke" of my youth, especially if it comes in a bottle. This tepid Coke tasted great.

Eventually, we had to start heading back, because I expected Melody and the group to get back sometime around 7 PM or so. I had left a note at the front desk and in the room, but didn't want to miss her. So, we headed back.

Thy was there on the bank as we arrived. I tipped the drivers a couple of bucks, and hopped back on to the back of the bike. We headed off into the gathering dark, dodging other bikes, cars, and people wandering on the road. I kept my sunglasses on, since the bugs were out in full force. I managed to swallow a few of them, but not enough to ruin my appetite. The streets of downtown Siem Reap were even busier with tuktuks and motorbikes more than once bringing traffic to a stop on the way back to the guesthouse. Once back, I gave Thy $5 for his services, and we arranged for him to meet us to take us around on our free day 2 days later.

Back at Bun Nath Guesthouse, I discovered that the group hadn't yet made it in. While I waited, I sat with an Angkor Beer, and drank the customary toast to my buddy Greg, a fellow traveling man. It was another 2 hours before everyone arrived, coated in fine red dust from the drive. After Melody took a quick shower that left the bathroom red (she was washing red dirt out of her hair and ears for a couple of got everywhere), we headed out to join the group to go out for supper. I finally met the leader and a few of the other group members as we hopped into tuktuks to ride into town to the Soup Dragon restaurant. Dinner (Khmer food) was delicious, tasting all the better because we were all pretty famished. The restaurant overlooked the main tourist district of Siem Reap, and had a nice view of the restaurants and bars along the street.

Once we finished and paid the bill, we headed back to the guesthouse where we hit the rack. The next day would be starting before the sun came up, as we were headed for the awesome temples of Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. It was good that we got our rest, as the next day was a long one.

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