Sunday, February 14, 2010

Culture Shock Siem Reap Angkor

After our 144km ride we had a well deserved rest day in Kratie which was devoted to some essentials like laundry, reading and just walking around this small town on the Mekong, and of course, since it attracts a fair number of tourists, it also provided a great culinary diversion of a steady diet of noodle soups and fried rice. Not that we are in any way constricting our food intake, but it is quite evident that each day we burn far more calories than we take in, and yet are energetic and as might be expected are shedding a few pounds, not that I am complaining. Likewise with the food, while our ability to point and articulate is limited, we have yet to have a meal that did not taste great. In the back of my mind I can hear diners at home commenting how the pasta was not quite done right, or the egg was not quite runny enough etc. where as here, just the ability to have a meal can at times be a challenge so its culinary quality is hardly noted.

The next day’s ride, while only 36 kms to Chhlong, was quite demanding, since most of the road was either under construction or was a bumpy, dusty red road, that might have made any cruel Khmer Rouge proud. Still, it was most enjoyable since the “road” hugged the Mekong most of the way, with dense habitation on both sides: tall palms and bamboo plants and signs of fishing activity on the river side and rice, tobacco and corn being cultivated on long flat fields away from the river and of course, everywhere the universal greeting of “hello” from people who are at times invisible.

While difficult to generalize, it seems that this part of the world is still highly agrarian since there was a preponderance of ox carts, small ponies pulling wagons and many adults riding bicycles, clearly going to work or to a market. Kids of all ages are also on bikes in long lines in the mornings, in their white shirts and blue skirts or trousers, heading to schools, often on bikes that are too small or big, carrying a passenger and more often than not, pedaling bare feet. Large ice-blocks are manually sawn and kept in plastic coolers for refrigeration which hearken back to my childhood of a half century ago in Hungary, as do the numerous hay stacks in the country side and the presence of all types of domestic animals everywhere.

Chhlong in the 1920’s was an important French administrative center, with numerous once handsome buildings that are now in various state of decline, from being completely abandoned, used for storage and some just as a store front, showing how quickly decay can set in, albeit Chhlong is not anywhere near the scale that we have tasted in the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat that date from the 9th Century.

The next day we continued along the Mekong to Kampong Cham, taking a ferry at one point and watched the dramtics of trucks scalling the steep sandy embankement. What made this streth of particular interest is the present of several Muslim villages, and one with quite a large mosque, the first we have seen in this part of South East Asia.

In town, we stayed in the third or fourth hotel called "Mekong Hotel" one that is popular with group tours. As luck would have it, we met a group of 10 cyclists on an organized tour, who as fellow cyclsits are always impressed by the distances we have covered and afforded us an opportunity to share experiences on the road.

The next day, we were headed in the same direction as the group and we found out that they would be having lunch in Kampong Thom, some 110kms away and which was our overnight destination. The group cycled half the distance before being ferried by bus where as we did the entire stretch, carrying our own gear, and yet, we arrived just past noon, just as the group was in the middle of their lunch. Needless to say they were properly impressed by our feat and the fact that we were still reasonably fresh on arrival! Clearly, we are in pretty great shape and after our monster ride earlier in the week, this seemed pretty easy.

With a 90 km day to Kampong Kdei and another 60kms to Siem Reap, we knew immediatly that we arrived someplace very special not only because of the endless line of hotels large and small, but the the frantic traffic around the new market, not doubt enhanced by anxious shoppers stocking up for Chinese New Year, the following day.

We knew of course that Angkor is a World Heritage Site, but somehow we had imagined that the town of Siem Reap would be like other larger towns in Laos and Cambodia. Our expectations were severely challenged when we discovered a several square block area near the Old Market which is straight out of New Orleans, without the jazz. with endless two-storey restaurants offering the cuisines of the world. What made it particularly special for us is that we had the 18 year old son of friends of ours, who has been living here for three months, speaks a passable Cambodian, had friends everywhere, and in a short time has becomea local, and matured way beyond his age, show us around.

Its definitely a happy place and time for us, having not only reached this destination, but for finding a place, appropriatly called Smiley's Guest House, where the rooms are not only well appointed around a central landscaped courtyard, the food and bar are on a self-kept tab, the service is always with a smile and they included us in their celebration of Chinese New Year yesterday, as if we were part of the family, plying us full of chicken, duck, suckling pig and of course as much beer and wine we cared to consume.

Some of the other tourists in town seem to get happy from the "happy" ingredients in their food, 50 cent beers, happy hour that starts at noon, and the latest rage being Dr. Fish Happy Massage, which consists of dangling your feet in a small tank in which small fish, the size of goldfish, nibble at dead tissues with apparently a pleasing effect on all. The tab is $2 for twenty minutes or $3 for thirty minutes, with a free can of beer or pop included.

The fact that everything here is quoted in US dollars and there is life on the streets after eight in the evening, markets where the asking price is twice or three times the proper selling price of goods, where tourists are mildly pestered by vendors, there are well airconditioned supermarkets with foods from every part of the world, is turning out to be a shock, as much as the scale, grandeur and the sheer magnificance of the ruins which we have now visited in the glorious setting sun yesterday and in the morning today. There is still a huge territy of far flung ruins to see and we will spend a few more days here, since this is the kind of culture shock that one can easily get used to and I would recommend to all.



1 comment:

Julia said...

Andrew, as always your blog inspires me as I read about you and Alison doing things most of only dream of. May you continue to ride safely, eat heartily and enjoy the wonders of a world beyond our imagination.