Thursday, May 26, 2005

Cambodia - Pol Pot Pol Pot Pol Pot

I last wrote half way through Cuba, where I was off on my own for two weeks. I found beautiful colonial towns; determined methods to shake the blokes of my back (I would sit on a bench half in the sun so they would wilt within minutes of sitting with me); ate like the locals and thus started to develop a bum like the them; people watched for hours in fascination of their intermingled lives but never really got the "Cuban" experience I hoped for. So if you go, learn Spanish so you can talk to people other than those wanting you to buy them a drink, and take someone with you, preferable of the opposite sex. It isn't a great place to be solo, on the wallet and the ears.

Now I am in South East Asia. The bum and just about every fluid in me has melted off in the suffocating humidity. I am with Mick, my boyfriend, and we just finished two weeks in Cambodia. I am afraid he might drown in his sweat one day.

Cambodia. Some things where what I expected, some not.

The people are remarkable. I would look at anyone old enough to have lived through the seventies, and not be able to comprehend the horror they must have seen. And they still have smiles firmly fixed. We have learnt a lot about the carnage of various wars, particularly the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, and have seen torture chambers that evil dreamt up. But, as a whole Cambodians are polite, always cheerful, smiling and charming. No one talks about the horrors; they want to move on.

Hordes of tourist touts descended on us at certain points. When I had three young guys inches from my face shouting the benefits of their hotels in only a very small village, I realised Cambodia is far from the "emerging" travel spot I naively imagined. It is so well trodden it is a highway. This was especially evident one night, 3am, when the paper thin fibro wall to our left started vibrating from an argument in some pommy accent, while the wall to the right started shaking from a couple banging away so violently our bed shook with them. We have avoided backpacker ghettos since.

Angkor Wat was magic. We splashed out on a guide for two days. He was worth his weight in gold for what he taught us about the intricate stories carved into the sandstone. We saw temples being strangled by trees, flaming saffron monks flitting amongst the grey stones, and exquisitely carved dancing women with jewels in their hair and voluptuous chests. It is as good as you think it would be.

Mick with our charming guide at one of the ruins of Angkor Wat

We spent a lot more money than I have ever thought I would in a third world country. I have truly moved up from arse-hanging-out-of-my-shorts traveller to someone who runs into an airport and pays a premium to jump on the first plane, gets guides in most areas to give us insights into their culture and to pretend to be our friend, buys silks worth a local's yearly wage, while at the same time still insisting on talking down the room for the night from $5 to $4 and feeling proud of it. But, I think moving up the budget rung is worth it in Cambodia, it isn't as cheap as its neighbouring countries, and we have got a lot more out of our time and the experience by spending that bit more.

There was one area that lived up to the remote jungle and tribes I had envisioned: Ratanakiri in the North East. We hung around at a twisted, collapsed bridge while waiting for our car to be floated across the river on a raft.

An enterprising ferry business that popped up overnight as the bridge in the background completely collapsed.

The road in was like a rally track. We had an entire
eco lodge to ourselves; flies and geckos kept us entertained at night. We swam in a crater lake surrounded by lush jungle. We were guided through an indigenous tribe's farms and homes where they still live quite traditionally. We rode an elephant. Only when I was three metres up on his back did it cross my mind he might have a mind of his own. Just like a horse he didn't want to go, constantly stopped to pull down trees, and sped up when he knew he was on the home stretch.

We crossed from Cambodia into Laos in the bush. Two very basic little huts, each a one-man-band without uniforms. No problems. No attitude. They were the nicest immigration guys I've met in a while. Hang on, maybe that should have been expected.

We are in Laos now, it is going great, but I will take up your time about that later.