OK, just a quick note to say that I'm in Laos right now. Haven't gotten around to my observations about Vietnam yet but in the meantime, you might wanna check out my friend Jenni's.
I've gone ahead and booked my flight home from Bangkok to SF on March 6 for an amazing $450. It's on China Airlines though, who had their last crash only three years ago, so keep your fingers crossed for me. I still might move the date back a few days to get my last look at Asia for a while, but should be around then. I look forward greatly to hooking up with all my old friends back in the States and preparing for my next big adventure, probably the biggest one yet, so stay tuned.
OK, it's been a shamefully long time since my last blog entry. I've almost passed thru two countries with barely an entry except to say that I haven't been washed away by the tsunamis. OK, so let's start with Cambodia - I met up with my mates Prash and Jenni in Bangkok, took in the sordid sights of Pat Pong Road and then headed out the next day for the bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia. It's a pretty hellish journey to begin with but the shady conduct of the bus operators just compounds the issue. The tickets from Bangkok to Siem Reap are very cheap, however they have all sorts of ways of squeezing more money out of you. The bus ride to the Thai border is relatively painless, a nice big bus, good roads, however there was the delay of several hours at a roadside shop in the middle of nowhere where they seemed to remove one of the tires of the bus and replace it again without having actually done anything to it. This process took about two hours. Then they stop at a cafe near the border where everyone that wasn't savvy enough or didn't have time to get their visas in advance are given forms to fill out, our passports were taken, along with $25 US, and a man drives off down the road and returns about half an hour later with the passports complete with visa stamps. Upon arrivig at the border, however, we pass the window where we could have filled out the same form, submitted our passports directly, and only have been charged $20 for the visa. After everyone from the bus gets thru the border, we are loaded on another bus, driven 500 meters down the road and told we have to get off to switch buses. The drivers and staff are very evasive when questioned about the reason for changing buses, saying it's up to their boss. But we are strongly encouraged to exchange our Thai baht into Cambodian riels at the place we're brought to, being told that baht is not accepted when we get to Siem Reap (an outright lie). Of course, the exchange rates offered are horrible, but a few unfortunate souls fall for it. So we're waiting another hour or so at that waypoint and getting increasingly restless at being treated so poorly. So finally they herd us onto a bus and we drive another bone-jarring 5 or 6 hours along roads that have not seen any repairs for a good 25 or so years. When we finally arrive in Siem Reap, everyone is so shattered that we agree to stay at the hotel we have been taken to, which is of course the whole reasoning behind the numerous delays. The hotel was actually quite nice and reasonably priced so we did end up staying there for most of our stay in Siem Reap but we would have greatly appreciated a more up-front and direct journey.
Siem Reap is a pretty crazy place. About 80% of the tourists coming into Cambodia come here to see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, considered to be the largest religious monument in the world. The town itself is in the middle of a construction boom. Already there are loads of hotels ranging from lowly backpacker guesthouses to mega-opulent luxury resorts. In between, however, there's loads more being built, so much of the town has the feel of being one big construction area. Jenni and I had promised ourselves a bit of decadence for Xmas when we were originally planning to meet up again in Cambodia. So we spent most of our second day being driven around in a tuk-tuk looking at the various mid to upper range hotel options. The reason it took us so long was because most of the more expensive hotels didn't really seem to offer much value. The rooms were barely distinguishable from your average Motel 6 and yes, they might have had a swimming pool (one of Jenni's requirements), but other than that they didn't really seem that much better than our $7 a night backpacker hotel. After doing some research on the net and trying to find some upper-range bargains that offered something really nice, we decided to check one last one out that seemed very nice from the pictures and was being offered on the net for $70 a night, which was way more than I was originally planning on spending but thought it would at least be worth a look. So off we went. The rooms were quite plush and had beautiful hardwood floors and furniture with a balcony overlooking the gorgeous swimming pool and gardens. The rooms list for $170 a night. We were originally quoted $120, which gradually came down to $90 when it was apparent we were skeptical about dropping so much money. Finally they agreed to honor the $70 price we saw on the net if we could provide them with the address where we had seen it. Apparently that price was news to them. There was also a Christmas buffet dinner and performance that was on offer for $25. Jenni and I were still hesitant to spend so much money on one night and were back in the tuk-tuk on our way back to town before we finally decided to say Fuck It and go for it. After all, $60 a piece for a night in a four star hotel complete with Christmas buffet dinner and performance would be chicken feed back home and we would probably never even consider paying the price it would really cost. So this was a unique opportunity to see how the other half lives. I've gotta say, it was quite worth it. The buffet dinner was scrumptious. The entertainment consisted of traditional Cambodian music and Apsara dancers (the ones with the gold crown-like things on their head), and then some kids from one of the local orphanages singing Christmas Carols. It was all very tastefully done. The next day we spent lazing in bed, watching cable TV and then sunning ourselves by the pool, swimming in the pool/jacuzzi, and melting in the sauna and steam room. It was all quite blissful. Like all good things, however, it came to an end all too soon.
We returned to our backpacker hotel and spent the next several days exploring the Angkor Wat ruins. They are really quite inspiring. It really makes you think about what life must have been like when they were built and how impressive they must have been. Not that they aren't still very impressive but they are definitely ruins and time and the elements (not to mention opportunistic treasure hunters) have definitely taken their toll. One temple that is many people's favorite (and was actually featured in the original Tomb Raider movie) - Ta Prohm, is so charming exactly because of way the jungle has been reclaiming it. Roots of huge trees seem to drip down and climb around the various features of the ruins. Other parts are strewn with huge blocks of solid rock that resemble piles of Lego blocks left behind by some wayward child that neglected to clean up after himself.
One of the more disturbing aspects of Cambodia is the amount of people that approach you for money with missing and deformed limbs, as well as the street kids. You want to help them but tossing them a few riel probably doesn't really help much in the big picture and besides there's just way too many of them. But I gotta say I admire my friend Jenni because she decided to devote herself to something that will genuinely make a difference in people's lives there. After the Xmas performance by the kids from the orphanage we decided to take them up on their public offer for people to come out and say hello and see how they work. It was truly very inspiring. It is run by two main people, some Cambodians that decided to try and do something to help rebuild their country after the devastation that was wreaked upon it for over thirty years. So they set up their orphanage and take care of some of the many children left homeless or otherwise unprovided for. They have many programs to try and teach them farming and auto mechanics so they can become successful members of society. The workshops also help to cover the costs of running the orphanage. Right now, the orphanage is run on a combination of donations, grants, and proceeds from their workshops, but they are aiming to be self-sustainable through the workshops and any additional funds acquired will just be icing on the cake. It is a very ambitious plan but they seem to be well on their way. Anyway, you can find out more information about it here. So, Jenni is there right now, helping to teach English and provide whatever other services she can to help them make a difference. That was one thing that was fairly inspiring to see - in a country wracked by so much turmoil, there do seem to be a lot of organizations dedicated to helping recover. Most of them receive very little funding relative to what they are trying to do, but many seem to get entrepeneurial about teaching skills to the people and then marketing those skills to further fund their work. Another such organization that we were very impressed by was the Friends cafe in Phnom Penh.
More to come soon hopefully. Stand by.