Not So Great, But All In All, Not Really So Terrible Either. Some happened to me, some happened to others. Read on:
1)A few nights ago, in Battambang, Cambodia, after chumming it up with an English bloke named Hugh during a morning cooking class, where I learned to make Cambodian coconut-milk curry, chicken/basil/morning glory stir-fry, and beef lok lak, we
decided to rent (he says "hire") some bikes and head out to the KILLING CAVES where Pol Pot's cronies used to execute people, or maybe just dump the bodies. The moto-drivers, inveterably if understandably pushy, told us the roads were bad and it was
too far anyway. But hey, figured Hugh and I, if we can save 3 bucks (Moto ride 5 bucks, Bike ride 2) by biking 15 kilometers each way, why not? Not like we had any pressing business. So, we hired two cruddy bikes and rode for about 3 kilometers
towards the caves, when the road stopped being covered with asphalt and started being covered with bumps and rocks and other impedances, not to mention unmentionable quantities of dust. We briefly debated turning back and eating our words, but, of course, we figured we could handle it. We forged on, bikes ready to crumble at any moment, getting passed by motos, cars, and trucks, all of which kicked up nice unmentionable quantities of dust into our faces and lungs. Not having a watch, I had no clue how long it had taken us to get to the little village where we stopped to ask directions. The man told us that there were two ways, both equally decent; and yet, we managed to take the wrong one. It took us past an even smaller village - though no matter how small, cute little rag-clad Cambodian kids have been taught to cheer and wave and say "hello" and wave and hope for a dollar or some candy - and eventually to a formidable set of stairs. Our guidebook mentioned an "enchanted staircase flanked by greenery," and though something told me Karl Popper wouldn't accept that statement, I took it at face value and headed up. Hugh waited below to protect our bikes from the 3 kiddos on our trails. From the bottom, the staircase looked to be about 100 stairs high, but each time I reached a landing, the top of the hill receded - it wound up taking me nearly 10 minutes to get up. Up on the top of the mountain were a few deserted shacks and a Buddhist temple. As if the afternoon didn't already feel like a David Lynch film, a monk with an orange robe and elepahntitis-ravaged nose appeared and pointed me to a younger brethren, who told me we were close and who offred to be our guide. But, the bikes were at the bottom of the stairs, with no locks, and kids, so I said maybe and descended. I asked the monk how many stairs and he said "hundred", but according to my count, it's 470. Seriously, how do you live in a mountain temple and meditate and eat vegetables all day and never once get bored enough to count the most obviously countable thing around?
To make a long story short, we had indeed gone not quite the right way, so we went the other way, found the caves, which were not that special, then went up to another temple, also not that interesting, saw some monkeys and kids with slingshots, went
back down, and started our way home. At this point, it was dusk, so there was a huge stream of bats flying out of one of the cave mouths, doing some sweet curly-q pig tail formations. I kid you not. Actually, I was very happy to see said bats,
because when I was at Gunung Mulu national park, with some of the hugest caves in the world, the night I went to see this very same bad phenomenon, they randomly neglected to come out, forcing me into the once-regrettable-now-remedied state of
having missed a Highlight. Afer dusk comes dark, which is exactly how I would like to describe the bike ride home. No more red dust on the ground, brown thatched-roof stilt houses along the road, no lush and verdant foliage. Just black, with a
little moonlight, and some cars and motos to help (if headed the same way) or blind (if headed the opposite way) me. Also, did I mention Hugh is tall and bikes as a hobby and apparently doesn't like to wait for slow people? The result: me, biking
alone, in the dark, with a squeaky bike with only one gear and no gel in the seat, unable to dodge potholes or rocks or puddles, and also unable to see 5 feet in front of me. There were still houses every so often, with TVs hooked up to car
batteries or just some people sitting around by a fire, so I wasn't in a terrible bind, and I knew that I just had to go straight for a while, but still! It was perhaps the longest hour of my life. It took my knees and unmentionables several
days to recover, and I may eventually post a picture of how insanely dirty I became.
I really didn't convey how terrible that experience was.
2)I'll try for a more minimalist style on this one.
6:15AM, Phnom Penh
Waiting in front of guest house
bus to Saigon at 6:30
shuttle bus due to pick me up by 6
apprehensive; don't wanna miss my bus, but everything's always late here
anyway there's nothing i can do
moto driver, 2 whities.
one looks like dad from "that 70s show"
other looks like a skinhead
that means jean shorts, shaved head, tattoos, wifebeater, also a nice beer belly
doesn't sound like a native english speaker
both clearly beyond drunk
maybe i look at them too much.
after all, they're talking about finding somehwere to drink a little more.
skinhead: you going somehwere?
me: (hrm, how does one deal with this situation?) yeah, Ho Chi Minh City
s: where's that?
s: ah, right. you have your passport and two color photos?
m: huh? yeah, atually i got my visa in advance, you have to to get into vietnam.
s: show me your passport
m: uh. no, i don't think so.
s: show it to me
m: no, i don't think i'm going to do that (getting nervous...)
s: you're a (expletive) liar
m: huh? no, i did it. you have to.
s: don't (expletive) lie to me.
70s: (thankfully takes my side)you don't know that, man.
s: he's (expletive) lying to me.
70s: that's not for you to decide
s: yeah, but he's a (expletive) liar.
70s: no, that's not for you to decide.
3)On these long bus rides, the bus stops at a few rest stops, where there are inevitably and again understandably groups of people trying to sell you refreshments like fruit, bottled drinks, eggs, sticky rice in bamboo or coconut leaf wrappings,
cookies, whatever. However, this time, one of the women in her pointy little farmer hat is squatting down, bum just about on the ground, head almost between her knees, involuntarily emptying the contents of her stomach in a gushy fashion.
4)When you and your Irish pal, whom you had met a week before at the guest house outside Angkor Wat, and whom you just again met, rather serendipitously, at the immigration checkpoint on the Cambodia-Vietnam border, and with whom you had more or less decided to share a room for a few days, arrive at said room, one of the members of the usual crowd of moto drivers lurking in front of hotels jokes around and makes a good impression and tells you his name is Phong (sounds like sung) and he works for the hotel. You think he's a little odd and have learned to be wary of exceedingly friendly people, but the line between plain good-natured and easily friendly is not always easy to discern, so you give him the benefit of the doubt. He asks if he can take you anywhere but you say you and your pal are just going to walk around on your first night to kind of figure out what this part of Saigon is all about. He says if you need him for a tour to the war tunnles or anywhere else tomorrow, to let him know, and then you're on your way. The next morning, you want to go to the Laos embassy to get your visa. He tells you it's far, but you have seen a map and know that it's only 10 minutes past the market you walked to last night, itself only 10 minutes away, so you tell him you'll go on your own but that you may need him later when you go to prep your Thai visa. The Laos stuff is surprisingly straightforward and you get the visa in about 30 minutes, though your hotel had offered to do it for 5 dollars more over a period of 2-3 days. You think, man, everone has their little tricks to get a little more of your money. You feel somewhat angry, or at least miffed, but then you remember how many tons of landmines, bombs, and agent orange your country dumped on Vietnamese civilians a few decades ago and figure you've got it pretty good. As planned, you meet the Irish fella and [an american girl he met somewhere] for lunch at the central market (bowl of noodles and vegetables and some lime juice, for a buck fifty), but she goes off to do her own thing and he's not feeling so hot, so he wants to go have a rest. You find Phong and ask him to take you to the Thai embassy, which rejects your visa request since you don't have your ticket to Thailand yet, nevermind the fact that you are going to buy that in Laos in 3 weeks, and nevermind the fact that the Laos embassy didn't need any entry or exit info before giving you a visa. So you leave and gripe with him as he takes you to your next stop, the War Remnants museum, formerly known as "The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes." Lots of photos( almost all from American sources) of war crimes and other atrocities committed by American soldiers, photos of babies deformed because of agent orange, experimental grenades that shoot out thousands of darts, varities of guns and torture rooms and devices, and bombs the size of 10 men. After that museum, you ask Phong to take you
by the Jade Garden Temple, which is supposed to be cool, according to Lonely Planet. He pulls out all the stops on the way (pun unavoidable), driving on the sidewalk and driving into oncoming traffic and honking a lot, but hey, he had given you a helmet, and besides, there's not a driver here who doesn't do that stuff. You look at the temple, leave, he takes you home, and on the way you think about the taxi fare. He seemed like a nice guy, so you figure, even though you didn't settle on a price beforehand, he'd probably charge you something reasonable. At most, say, 100,000 Duong, but if he charged you less, you'd tip him. Then you get back to the hotel, thank him for driving, ask how much. 300,000, he says. No way. You shell out, but go up to your room and explain to the Irishman that this Phong is a charlatan and a rogue and a scoundrel and several other things (anatomical in nature) on top of that and let's not patronize him anymore. The Irishman, to whom none of these vituperations apply, agrees. A later conference with the hotel owner reveals that Phong does not "work for the hotel" so much as he "looks for work around the hotel." And that 80000 would have been a standard fare.
I am deliberately not telling you the exchange rate so that you will be astounded by the difference (WOW, 200K) and not consider how petty I am being.
5)The following things, which I saw and photographed in a side room the Jade Garden Temple, were engraved on panels, as a set called then "Ten Halls of Hell," and come from some fusion Buddhism, Taodism and Sadism. Being bound and threatened, or perhaps scolded; Being whipped by a whip that has a cheetah's head on the end; Being squished into a tiny bathtub, then one man clubs you in the face and another pounds a crucifix into your chest; Being choked by a man with rope instead of a hand; Having your hands bound, being thrown on the ground, and being speared in the neck; Getting mauled by a lion while in the prone position; Being made to sit naked on a slab of rock; Being chained to something while someone prepares to smack you with what appears to be a lollipop the size of your torso; Being caught up in swirly waves, and devils smack you with clubs or stab you with tridents when you surface; Being placed into a hollow cube-wheelbarrow contraption, with only your head sticking out, and nobody hits you but something bad will probably happen, because nothing good can come of being forced into a cube with a hole for your head, and after all you're in hell and a demon is pulling you around; Having one man fan you and another stick a dagger in your eye; Being carried in a grim palanquin procession; Being pushed towards a bridge, off of which demons will throw you, but if you try to scale the other wall, feral cats will knock you back down; Having a giant bird maul your face; Having your chest stepped on and your throat speared (at a different angle from last time); Being dumped headfirst into some kind of meat-grinder or buttern-churn; Being dumped upside-down into some sort of chimeny, and when your head and flailing hands come out of the fireplace at the bottom, someone stuff you back in with a log; Being held in midair, then having your face put over a roaring fire; Being tied to a pole, naked, upside-down, and maybe some demon can hit you in the gut with a mace, or perhaps flay you; Being made to sit with your friends in a wooden stilt house with fires lit beneath you; Being held in place by a large man-vise, then being sawed (sawn????) in half (alone the vertical axis, the result being that each half would have one eye, one nostril, one ear, etc); Being thrown, naked, face first, onto a wall of spikes long enough to pierce all the way through your thighs.
Don't worry, I'll be sure not to forget to post the scenes eventually. Just wait till March!
Oh, and for an update, I left Angkor Wat, then went to Battambang, then to Phnom Penh, then left Cambodia for Vietnam. I'm now in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City and will go frolic in the Mekong Delta shortly and, alas, also briefly.