Friday, 12 June 2009

The bus trip from Kumpong Cham to Siam Reap was probably one of the most painless journeys we have made so far. Ignoring the over friendly and over interested individual across the way from us there was nothing to trouble us bar the occasional pothole or brief dirt stretch that penetrated my vacant stare out of the window. On arrival our curious companion from across the aisle thrust his business card into my hand before disappearing on his way. His parting words confirmed my suspicion that he operated local tours and that he hoped that that his painfully ingratiating manner had won him our custom. Unsurprisingly the sell, sell, sell continued as we got into town. Stepping off the bus was not dissimilar to stepping into a scrum. We were jostled by tuk-tuk drivers and motos’s from the nanosecond our feet left the confines of the bus, each of them vying for business before out feet even touched the ground. Immediately it becomes apparent just how much Siam Reap revolves around the tourist dollar and the competition is cut throat. Likewise the prices are initially inflated by double on most things like transport and market goods. We managed to get one tuk-tuk driver aside and within seconds had cut his price down from US$2.00 to $1.00 to take us into town.

Having found accommodation I went to explore Siam Reap which amusingly balances Western consumerism with it’s own unique East Asian idiosyncrasies. For example walking down the main street into the downtown area takes you past stores advertising Armani, DKNY and D&G. And then a motorbike with three wildly squealing pigs bound upside down to the pillion will whistle past this same store. On every street corner tuk-tuk drivers prowl (“Where you go? Temples? Tonle Sap? Cheap price…Maybe tomorrow…?”) and as you head further into town children try to flog you books and bracelets (“Ten for one doellaaar, you buy!”) and postcards. The tuk-tuk driver are mostly good humoured and happy to joke around, the children with their dogged persistence and refusal to take no for an answer are down right exhausting. They are not begging as such - after all they are after a transaction - but nonetheless their persistence comes across as a variation of this. They are just children, many no older than ten our twelve, but already they are part of the local economy, buying and selling books and trinkets and carefully calculating their profits. Further into town brings you to Pub Street where you can buy a pint of draught for fifty cents and around this area are myriad eating options ranging from French cuisine to Italian to Thai and Indian. Guesthouses line the roads and again the competition is crazy, our accommodation costs four American Dollars a night, whilst the one next door is ten dollar s but offers free Wi-Fi, free breakfast and free laundry.

The obvious attraction in Siam Reap and one of the primary reasons (if not the prime reason) that Cambodia gets over 2 million tourists a year is the ancient Angkor Complex. The ticketing system is not terribly friendly, coming in at twenty American dollars for a single days pass, forty for three days and sixty for a week. To rub salt in the wound if you do more than one day then you are forced to go on consecutive days. We have just emerged from three solid days of ruins and we are exhausted. Whilst expensive the tickets do offer value for money as the Angkor Complex is massive. As such a more sensible approach would surely be to allow you to split your days up in order to avoid cultural saturation! The real outrage though is that of the entry charges a mere fraction of the money, a meagre ten percent, goes to the body responsible for preserving and maintaining the complex. The rest goes to the Sokha Hotel Chain who administrate the entry gate and the Finance Ministry, an alledged black hole from which nothing returns.

Our three days at Angkor were rewarding though. The sense of history that abounds and the obvious awe that is inspired by the structures that were created using only "primitive" technology leaves you dumbfounded. It has to be said that from a photographic point of view I failed miserably. In spite of being up at five in the morning every day I seem to have completely botched each sunrise and the sunsets are more pityful still. Angkor is surrounded by jungle, and I learnt the hard way that looking at a place on a map and pointing East is not much good when there are hundred foot trees all around. It is a bit like fishing though, the pleasure lies in hanging out there and if you catch it is just a bonus. As the sun got hotter and brighter I ended up doing more textural work using flashes to create shadows and taking close ups and abstracts. To avoid duplication and repetition I will do an Angkor post with all the un-pretty pictures and descriptions. In a similar way that kids prowl the Westernised streets of the city, the entrance to the monuments are home to a legion of kids and women selling food, drinks, books, bracelets and souvenirs. As you approach they holler from a distance in a nasal, unpunctuated drawl that you have to laugh with or you’ll go crazy. “Heey laydeee-you-wan-waaaaatttterrrr? You-buy-mie-pineaaaapple-only-one-darllaaaar.” and “Heymistaaa-you-want-postcard? Only-tennnn-fa-one-darlaaar?” Everything is one dollar. Bracelets, water, cans of drink, postcards and fruit. And most of this can be very quickly negotiated down by fifty percent. At first I found the constant badgering quite annoying and bordering on harassment, but after a while it became a joke and ninety percent of the people selling the stuff were really good fun. They could take a joke and throw it right back at you with a cheerful laugh. And they were very astute. One young girl aged twelve told us that if we bought a book from her she could tell us the capital city of our county, irrespective of where we came from. We duly bought a book that I had been wanting to read and low and behold she knew the capital of India, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Argentina. We asked her several more in quick succession and she shot the answers back without hesitation. We finally tripped her up on Botswana but her geographical knowledge was probably better than ours. Furthermore her English was brilliant. As opposed to the usual “Where you from?” she eloquently demanded to know our “nationality.” Her English had been gleaned from trading with tourists before and after school. Like most of the kids there she went to school for a few hours a day and then sold books for the rest of the day. It seems a bit sad to sad to me, children of twelve should be being children.

Our other excursion thus far has been to the Landmine Museum just outside town. The museum was set up by Aki Ra in 1997 to illustrate the devastation and grief that mines and unexploded bombs (compliments of the States and Vietnam) cause. Ra, who is unsure of his age, had been a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge Army after his parents were both killed by the same regime. Ironically he had laid landmines for them and liked the mines: in a time when food was scarce and his life was constantly at risk, the landmines frequently killed animals for food and kept him safe when he slept. As he grew older he realized the wickedness of the Khmer Rouge regime and he defected to the Vietnamese Army that later routed the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia. Aware of his past life he found his vocation clearing landmines. Today he estimates that he has cleared more than 50 000 mines and has set up an international NGO that assists Landmine victims. In the evening we went for a foot massage. By fish. Yup, that’s right. You plonk your feet into a tank filled with hundreds of tiny fish that proceed to nibble away and clean you feet. It tickles. A lot. However ten minutes in and it is actually quite soothing, if not a little bizarre.

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