Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Even though we had gone to bed late the night before, we woke up at 6:30 to the sound of the hotel waking up. Staff walking around, chatting and laughing. We hadn’t noticed it the night before but our room window did not face outside the hotel, rather it looked out into a service corridor in the back of the hotel. Although we were able to shut the curtains, there were no glass panels or even shutters to close to keep out the noise. After trying to sleep a bit more, we got up at 7am and decided to look for a new guest house. We grabbed some breakfast at Temple Bar & Restaurant on Pub Street and headed out for the day. Very quickly we realized the city is not very big at all. Cambodia was also a French colony at one point and it had much of the architecture left over, a lot in pretty decent shape. Also, Cambodia is a democratic country (at least it claims to be, reality is probably a bit different) so right away we could feel a change in atmosphere. We liked Siem Reap right away. Not because it was a democratic country, but because right away the people we encountered were much friendlier than they had been anywhere we had been up until this point (with a few exceptions of course). True, the tuk tuk drivers are extremely pesky and don’t leave us alone. (As explained to Andrew’s brother on skype, no we do not carry cameras on our shoulders to indicate we are tourists, we are white, which makes it very easy to indentify us as tourists- walking wallets). We can’t walk 30 meters without a tuk tuk driver asking “tuk tuk sir? Go see temple today? Maybe tomorrow? Very cheap sir”. This is repeated literally hundreds of times per day. I have come to appreciate how annoying it would be to be a celebrity and have everyone constantly recognize you. Of course we’re not celebrities but it is impossible to have a conversation on the street without getting constantly interrupted and, for lack of a better word, harassed. Despite all this we have found people to be extremely friendly and this is the first time in a very long time that we don’t feel like we are walking wallets. Of course people still see you and think they can make a quick buck, but what we didn’t experience was people asking us for money for no reason.

After breakfast we started walking around and looking for another guest house. We were not only looking for cheap but also for quiet and comfortable. Somewhere we could sleep in. That is definitely something we hadn’t done in a while. Usually because of some type of noise coming in from the outside (roosters crowing, loud boats on the river, hotel staff, etc.). We found what we were looking for at Mommy’s Guest House. This is a family run guest house and we were able to get a room for $5 per night. And the best part is that it was on a side street so it was nice and quiet. The owner was very friendly and provided us with a lot of advice on where we should/shouldn’t go. We moved in that day. We spent the rest of the day walking around and discovering Siem Reap. The following day we arranged for the tuk tuk driver from the guest house to take us see the Angkor Temples. Siem Reap is a town which lies about 10km from the Angkor Temples. Those are the temples where Tomb Raider was filmed with Angelina Jolie. I won’t pretend to know too much history on these temples, and really all I can say is that they are very old and they are quite impressive as they have been preserved quite well. Siem Reap, understandably, has built its whole tourist industry on these temples and really the economy revolves around them. There are a lot of temples you can visit and various “loops” you can complete, so we arrange with the tuk tuk driver to take us on the “big” tour, which basically means the temples on the outer perimeter.

We start around 8am and by 9am it is so hot we are sweating. I really couldn’t believe how hot it was. But the temples are beautiful. It’s hard to describe them and to do them justice so below are a couple of pictures. What’s not beautiful are the number of tourists and the locals trying to sell us things. “Sir buy something, anything” But we keep going and by 12:30pm we complete the entire loop. We’re a little disappointed as we were told it would take all day but it turns out we’re fast tourists. So we arrange for the driver to take us to the floating village.

A floating village is exactly like it sounds, a village which exists on boats. Unfortunately we realize right away this will most likely be one of the tourist attractions where we will be ripped off. It turns out we are right. We pay $15 per person! for a boat to take us around. The tour is supposed to last an hour and a half but after 25 minutes we stop in the middle of the lake for our guide to tell us about the village. This basically consists of him telling us there is a school and we can stop there on the way back, and since the kids are very poor we can buy them some supplies. That doesn’t sound like a tourist scam at all. Another boat pulls up to us and starts showing us a cobra snake. I don’t wish to be anywhere near that snake and I start shaking my head but then they ask us for money! There is no way I’m paying them to see a snake I have no desire to be near. After they pull away, the guide is telling us some tourists like to jump in the lake to go swimming. At the same time I notice another boat behind us, and I see a mom is hanging her child overboard and the child is relieving himself. Not of number 1 but of number 2! Once he’s done she just wipes him with the Water and they continue on their way. I don’t know about other tourists, but I’m not planning to even dip my hands in the Water. We start heading back and again are asked if we want to go visit the school to help the children, but we decline. The tour ends after only 45 minutes. This was definitely a rip off!

We head back to the temples as we want to see Angkor Wat, the biggest temple of all the Angkor Temples, at sunset. We arrive around 4:00pm and there are hundreds of people making their way in. Apparently this is not an intimate affair. We are a little disappointed as the front of the Wat is under construction and therefore we will have a hard time getting a nice picture. Once inside the temple there are thousands of people trying to get a good spot for the sunset. There are 200 or 300 people lining up to climb to the very top of the temple. We decide to go to a more remote part of the temple and are rewarded with very few tourists. In fact, the only people there are a few monks. They take an interest in us and we spend some time chatting. It actually feels really peaceful sitting in the largest Wat in Cambodia with monks, who really are the only people that can appreciate how sacred this location is. At that moment it doesn’t feel like a tourist attraction, and I try to think about the meaning of this place. The moment doesn’t last long. Inevitably some tourists show up and like the snap of two fingers, the moment is gone. We don’t bother waiting for the sunset. We will be at Angkor Wat the following morning for sunrise.

The following day we wake up at 4am. We arrive at Angkor Wat by 4:45am. Even at this early hour there are hundreds of people making their way in. Unlike the day before, everyone wants to be at the front of the Wat to obtain a good picture with the sun rising right behind the Wat, and its shadow reflecting off the pond. Even though there are a lot of tourists, we are still able to get a good spot. Andrew settles in by sitting right at the edge of the pond. I stand just to the side of him. My camera is a point and shoot so I don’t receive a lot of respect from the other photographers. Everyone else, including Andrew, have a camera worthy of a professional photographer. It’s not long before I’m more or less pushed out of the way. I don’t mind. The sunrise is not as exciting as you might imagine. There is no point where you say, okay, the sun has risen. The truth is, the sun is constantly rising. My legs are hurting as I’ve been standing for an hour so I look for a place to sit. Once Andrew is done taking all the pictures his heart desires, we ask someone to take a photo with the both of us. It’s 6am and it is already hot. We walk around the temple and take a few more photos but we’re done with this Wat. We move on.

That day we complete the “small” tour which is all the Wats closest to Angkor Wat. These are a lot more impressive than the ones we had seen the day before. While there Andrew decided to build an inukshuk to add a bit of Canadian flare to the temples. He actually did a pretty good job. We complete our tour by 12:30pm and we are exhausted. It has already been a full day. We go out for a pizza and meet a French guy who has come to Cambodia to film a documentary about his friend that came to Cambodia and decided to stay. We exchange some stories and he tells us how while filming the documentary they also go to a school. By the teacher they are told all the kids are poor and that they don’t have money for school supplies. So the film crew pitch in and buy some crayons along with other supplies (which are of course readily available at the school) and they distribute them to the kids. The kids are all very excited and happy. They spend some more time with the kids and after getting enough material for the documentary they decide to leave. But the cameras are still rolling as everyone leaves, and they capture the teacher collecting all the crayons and supplies the film crew had just distributed. When questioned, the teacher all of a sudden doesn’t speak English. Apparently this is a very common tourist trap. The tourist is guilted into buying school supplies to the poor students (because who doesn’t feel bad about kids not having supplies to learn?), and the supplies are of course readily available right then and there, the tourists feel good for helping the kids but as soon as they leave the supplies are collected and re-sold to the next tourist who comes to help the poor kids. So the same crayons can be sold hundreds if not thousands of times.
The following day we go see some more temples on the “remote” tour. These temples are about 40km from Siem Reap. But this tour is different. Somehow Andrew has found out that in addition to the temples and the Land Mine Museum, there is also a shooting range we can stop at. Of course that is the first stop of the day. At the shooting range they have a lot of different guns. I won’t pretend to know which ones but apparently it’s a good selection. In addition to guns you can also detonate a grenade. All this of course comes at a price. To detonate a grenade you have to pay $40US! Andrew opts to shoot 50 rounds from an M18. My job is to take pictures. This is my first time around a real gun and I’m literally shaking. Not because I think I’m in danger but even with sound proof ear muffs the shots are deafening and I can feel the power of the gun. I don’t even want to think about what it would feel like to have the gun pointed at me. 50 rounds turns out to last all of 30 seconds. After that Andrew spends a lot of time posing in front of the wall of guns so I can capture this moment on film, and he poses with bullet chains hung around his shoulders while holding various guns. All this while wearing his Chuck Norris T-Shirt which he got as a birthday gift before we left (thanks M&M…it’s his favourite T-shirt), and has the caption “Chuck Norris has 2 speeds: Walk & Kill”. He looked tough alright. But I think overall we are quite disappointed. Mainly because it’s so expensive (the 50 rounds costs $50US) and also because it’s all over so quickly. I know this is something Andrew was looking forward to and it sucks that it’s over so fast. But we don’t have time to dwell and we go see some temples.

On the way back we stop at the Cambodian Land Mine Museum. This is an interesting museum because it brings out conflicting feelings. The typical horror of learning how a land mine can kill or maim, but also skepticism. The founder of the museum was a child soldier with the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for killing millions of Cambodians in the mid 70’s and wiping out the whole capital of Phnom Penh. While he was with the Khmer Rouge he laid down thousands of the land mines he now tries to find and remove. I say skepticism because I think it’s always easy to do something and then when it’s all over to say, I’m sorry, I was made to do it and now I want to help. Maybe that makes me a cynic but I just can’t help it. I know he has now helped a lot of kids and cleared a lot of land mines and he has won the CNN Hero Award in 2010, but my skepticism is still there. The museum gives a very good impression of just how many landmines are still out there and the damage they can cause. It’s tough to see the damage a landmine can cause a person. Once we finished touring the museum the day was done. The next day we left for Phnom Penh.

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