Where's Your Head At?

Angkor Wat

7-January 2009 to 9-January 2009: By this point I was really getting the chills. While we were busy being herded through security and then quickly walking to our transfer gate at the Hong Kong Airport, my teeth were chattering even though we were moving fast and I was fully clothed in fleece jacket, long pants, a hiking shirt, and wool socks. I was looking forward to the plane ride partially to at least try to get some sleep and fight off this apparent fever. But at the same time, I wasn't looking forward to the flight because it was going to be over 13 hours and if I don't manage to sleep most of the time, it was gonna be one hell of a long flight.

"Honey. That's now the third time you've got food poisoning. When will you learn?" said Julie.

We arrived at the Siem Reap Airport some time around 12:30pm. But we had to wait through a fairly lengthy on-site Visa process that involved long queues and surrendering some $25USD I think per person. All this occurred before Passport Control. When we finally got through all that, we managed to fall for the foreign exchange trap, which we didn't know at the time but quickly learned thereafter that we not only got a bad exchange rate at the airport, but that we'd get dinged again later for using the Cambodian Reals in established areas. In fact, all prices were quoted in US Dollars and they didn't seem any bit interested in their own currency, which was clearly evident.

By 1:45pm, we got settled in at the Casa Angkor after being introduced to our guide Tir and our driver Ruad (who Julie thought was cute). Already one thing that was funny was that they drive on the right but the cars they get here are second-hand from either Thailand or Vietnam so you have a mix of vehicles with steering wheels on either side. I can only imagine how confusing that can be when there's a case where the driver wouldn't sit closest to the middle of the road (a very atypical arrangement).

A big so-called swimming pool near our lunch spot We had a late lunch at 2:15pm at the Khmer Village Restaurant, which sat right next to the so-called "World's Largest Swimming Pool." At this place, we had some loc lac and the familiar hot sour fish soup with tomatoes and pineapples along with other stuff (which was a familiar dish that Julie's mom makes). The beef on the loc lac was a bit tough so we figured they probably make this better in Vietnam.

By the way, it seemed that people prefer to refer to themselves as Khmer instead of Cambodian.

The big swimming pool seemed to be a sink for still water. Although the waters maybe tapped into by a spring, I tried to learn from Tir where the water goes. After all, with no water circulation, the gunk that gets in the pool gets increasingly more concentrated with waste. I don't think my question got answered and was probably lost in translation. All I can say was that I didn't see anyone swimming in it now and I'm betting in the future you're not going to have many more takers.

The entrance to Ta Prohm At 3:15pm, we arrived at the Ta Prohm, which was the place that the Lara Croft movie made famous. This was where trees were spreading roots in and around the ruins. Though what makes this ruin so distinct is also the very thing that's destroying them so there's a campaign going on that intends to cut some of these trees to keep the ruins longer.

Ta Prohm Whether this practice is agreeable or not probably depends on whether you're looking at it from a business standpoint (i.e. keeping this place a cash cow) or you came here mostly because walking around here really does feel like you're being a tomb raider. Amongst the Ta Prohm ruins Adding to the atmosphere was the loud cicadas (a type of cricket-like insect) making sounds reminiscent of a horror movie or some kind of suspenseful thriller.

Trees growing out of the ruins of Ta Prohm But then reality returns when you see how crowded this place is (and Tir said it gets worse because this was one of the "quieter" times of the day). There were also some wooden platforms put in place adjacent to the ruins for picture taking.

Trees growing over the ruins are what makes Ta Prohm In fact, it was because of this that taking the photos we wanted was difficult because there was bound to be someone taking the ruin hostage for their own photos or someone walking into your shot.

More trees and ruins of Ta Prohm It all reminded me of that Basement Jaxx song (that also appeared in the Tomb Raider movie) "Where's Your Head At?" Because you just weren't sure whose head is going to be in your photo nor where your own head is going to be at with all the crowds.

More trees growing out of the ruins at Ta Prohm Lots of trees everywhere in the ruins In either case, we felt rushed. But when we exited the attraction, the tables turned and we rushed towards the van. That was because (in a flash of Egypt all over again) there was hordes of peddlers waiting outside waiting to sell you stuff you don't need. This was hardly seen in Thailand which was why this scene surprised us.

The familiar Lara Croft tree; too bad they're going to cut it down We suspected that this is most likely a result of the degree of poverty in the country. Like in Egypt, when the gap between the rich and poor is very large and the poor constitute a huge majority of the population, you're likely to get more desperation and pushy sales pitches especially when tourists are looked at as walking cash registers (but can you blame them?).

Lots of people at Ta Prohm Usually, that's a function of corruption in the government and apparently there's no shortage of it in Cambodia, which we were about to see later in this trip. It's also apparent that our own government (especially if it's Republican-based) tends to move things in this direction where the rich get richer and everyone else is left to fend for themselves whether your status is merit-based or not. In other words, you have to know the right people if you want to get anywhere regardless of whether you provide any real value to society or not.

Approaching Angkor Wat At 4:15pm, we left Ta Prohm and arrived at the much anticipated Angkor Wat about 15 minutes later. This was the very reason that Julie wanted to visit Cambodia in the first place.

As expected, there were hordes of people throughout the Angkor Wat complex.

Angkor Wat moat area Tir made this the last place to visit for the day because he wanted to time it for afternoon light. I think that was a good call for the most part though shadows were a real nuissance.

There was a big moat surrounding the complex spanned by the Rainbow Bridge at the main entrance. You could see there was a real uneven side of the bridge which was the only part of the bridge either left or has yet to be restored by the French.

Prangs towering over the courtyard area Once we got past one of several frontal entrances (we picked a quieter one with a statue in it) we could see the prangs of Angkor Wat glowing in the afternoon light along with a very large courtyard area.

Familiar postcard view of Angkor Wat As we walked along the main walkway towards the main center, we detoured as we noticed still ponds with some lotus buds in them. This offered those signature Angkor Wat reflection shots you see in many postcards. An Angkor Wat prang and moon Then, we walked into the heart of Angkor Wat, which was quite extensive with many steps (aided by wooden steps built over them to reduce steepness). Once you got to the main inner portion, the prangs loom large over you. Some statues and altars inside Angkor Wat Here was where Tir explained further about the significance of the place before we sidetracked him a bit about what happened during the Khmer Rouge. In hindsight, we'll probably have to read up on the internet literature about what Tir was trying to communicate to us.

Within the stone structures of Angkor Wat While Tir explained that the genocide that occurred was the result of an unfortunate circumstance of the Cultural Revolution from China mixed with the misinterpretation of subordinates to eliminate any and all people thought to be intellectuals (and this was very loosely interpreted), this only increased our desire to want to read up on the topic further when we have internet access.

Sunset over Angkor Wat By 6pm with the sun already set and with the staff kicking people out of the main area so the monks can do their chanting, we were back in the car.

Later on in the evening, we decided to take a tuk tuk to the French Quarter, which was a happening spot full of night markets and lots of restaurants. It was pretty clear that the area was made into something touristy. That's because there weren't any locals who were punters at these places. They were only workers.

We eventually had some Khmer curry dishes (Khmer amok) along with some kind of banana leaf salad at the Khmer Family Restaurant. It was a bit difficult to communicate the order (they even called in additional dishes thinking we had already made up our minds while we were still ordering), which was pretty much the story of this trip (that english is not all that well-spoken in these parts).

Afterwards, we wandered around the "Noon Night Market," which was an oxymoron considering it was closer to midnight than noon. We were looking for some clothes for Julie's mom, but we had to try to filter out incessant pleas of "Hey lady, Hey sir, You want shopping?"

The rest of the evening passed uneventfully for the most part except for Julie's pet peeve that the place didn't have hot water showers. It was lukewarm at best (which was better than nothing), but annoyed the hell out of her.

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Julie was hoping to take a hot shower this morning, but when the water was still cold, she called in to complain. This was exacerbated by a giant spider nearly the size of the shower head that showed up. Clearly, this wasn't a good morning for her.

Big spider Eventually, one of the hotel staff finally showed up and managed to crush it and deposit it outside. Clearly, the locals must've been used to spiders this size because he didn't seem at all fazed by the size of the spider.

Approaching the Bayon Gate of Angkor Thom After a quick breakfast, we met up with Tir and Ruad again at 8am. Then, we left for Angkor Thom. This was supposed to be the largest of the ancient ruins in the area. It was said to literally mean "Great City" and we were about to find out for ourselves why.

Lots of faces before the Bayon Gate of Angkor Thom During the drive, Tir told us that Siem Reap was only stable since 1998 when the Khmer Rouge Leader died. All tourist infrastructure were typically no older than 10 years. That was because the Khmer Rouge was still hiding out only 100km north of Siem Reap. Plus there were still unexploded land mines strewn through the jungles here.

Faces before the South Gate of Angkor Thom Speaking of what was north of Siem Reap, apparently, much of the material to build the temples in the area were from the mountains there. He even said there was a waterfall up there. Unfortunately, there were still unexploded land mines and he said that few tourists (if any) go up that way. Clearly, we weren't going to go up that way to tie in waterfalling with these grand ruins that we were seeing.

The impressive Angkor Thom At 8:25am, we arrived at Angkor Thom. The first stop was the South Gate where there was a whole line of faces on either side of the bridge leading up to the entrance gate. It was kind of interesting to look at and apparently many tourists thought so to.

Inscriptions on the wall and lots of people Angkor Thom Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom Then, we resumed the drive inside and stopped closer to the main attractions. Here there was another tall ruin full of tall prangs with Buddha faces on them. In fact, there were several hundred of these Buddha faces throughout the complex, which seemed to be a Khmer trademark that was visibly absent in the Thai ruins.

More impressively tight ruins at the Angkor Thom Once again, taking photos of this place was difficult with all the people walking in and out of photos. Yep, where's your head at?

More views of a particular prang at Angkor Thom There were even a few seemingly hired costumed people ready to collect money for a picture with them. One trio of guys were dressed as monks. There was another group of lovely ladies dressed in traditional Khmer garb having you do similar Buddhist poses during photographs.

More faces blending in with the Khmer buildings Angkor Thom outer wall Angkor Thom outer wall

We then wandered around some other less gaudy ruins before reaching the outer walls with elephant statues on them. That was where we awaited our car and had ourselves some uniquely Khmer fruit called milkfruit, which really reminded Julie of persimmons, except these were purple and exceptionally tasty. I'd later learn that these were more officially known as star apples.

Milkfruit or Star Apple Unfortunately, you don't see these exported because they spoil easily with worms and they have a very short 1-2 month growing/harvest season. The lady sold us 3 milkfruits for what amounted to $1USD. And it turned out (because we went to a large fruit stand later that day) that this was actually on the expensive side, which is saying something.

In fact, it seemed most things were cheaper in Cambodia than in Thailand and the merchandise sold were quite similar. However, Thailand did have a greater selection.

Passing elephants while we're riding in the replacement car out of Angkor Thom It turned out that somehow the car battery died on our van. I'm guessing the alternator died or somehow the lights were left on (the latter I doubt). In any case, we got a ride from an alternate driver from our tour company and he took us back to our hotel in Siem Reap.

So we were left to our own devices for most of the day before meeting up with Tir again later in the afternoon at around 3pm.

This time with the broad daylight, we actually walked around town. First, we checked out the Lucky Mall, which was nothing more than a modern mall with a grocery store. This was one of those places where paying with Reals netted an exchange rate of 4300:1 instead of 4000:1 (we exchanged at the airport for 3800:1). Do the math. You think the Khmer people really want their own currency?

Fruit stand in Siem Reap We then continued walking all the way to a line of fruit vendors. Here was where Julie finally got her wish to try fresh durian. The ones back at home are picked when they're too young so they could be exported. So she was really looking forward to this. It's actually not that bad of a fruit, but the big problem is the aftertaste and the smell.

But to Julie, it's all yummy. I still find it funny that this is one thing the Bizarre Foods guy on the Travel Channel Andrew Zimmern couldn't eat (and this guy can eat Icelandic hakarl, intensely rotten Taiwanese tofu, all sorts of creepy crawlies, etc). Even I took multiple bites of durian.

Closer look at a sticky mangostine In addition to the durian, we also bought some fresh mangostines as well as some fresh rambutans. And since we couldn't bring durian back to the hotel to eat, we just picked a spot besides a building on a street corner and ate our fruits. The end result was purply sticky hands and a bag full of peeled skin of mangostines and rambutans.

We got numerous stares from tourists passing by in tuk tuks probably because we looked like tourist beggars. Hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, right?

Another strange thing about us munching on durian, mangostines, milk fruits, and rambutans were that throughout Thailand, none of this stuff was available. We were repeatedly told they were only available in the dry season. If Cambodia had similar dry and wet season months, why are they still abundant in Cambodia? Another mystery of life, I guess?

We then walked another block or so back into the French Quarter where we lunched on some Cambodian BBQ at this place called Le Tigre de Papier (Paper Tiger?). Here, we tried snake and ostrich.

It turned out that the French Quarter was actually walking distance from the Casa Angkor and a tuk tuk wasn't necessary. But we figured we'll use it to support the locals anyways as it's only about $2USD each way assuming you're not being ripped off.

Fruits and veggies in the old marketplace After the lunch, we headed into the old marketplace. There wasn't anything really of interest here. Just a large food section which challenges any Westerners' notion of what sanitary and edible conditions are as well as numerous goods we've seen in other markets.

At 2:30pm, we tuk tuk'ed back to the Casa Angkor and promptly continued our tour with Tir and Ruad (in a Camry now) towards the Floating Village.

Trees that can withstand flood About a half-hour later, we got to an entrance gate where Tir went to pay for tickets as well as pay additional "gifts" (i.e. bribes) to the police officer at the post. I think that was the first real tangible evidence of a side of Cambodia most tourists don't bother to see. I said earlier Cambodia has no shortage of corruption and this was just scratching the surface.

Context of a chunk of the floating village Shortly thereafter, we reached the banks of what looked to be the Mekong River. There were buildings on stilts here, but Tir told us that we were about to see homes that were truly floating on water. And that this practice has been going on for 2000 years predating even the dynastic regimes responsible for the ruins the Siem Reap vicinity is known for.

Floating Village So we boarded a long boat and motored deeper towards the Sea of Fresh Water. It was only as you got closer to the Sea of Fresh Water did we truly start to appreciate the aquatic lifestyle of these peoples. Though I'm sure the motorized boats facilitated what used to be done by manual labor to move.

Literally floating buildings are what makes the Floating Village But after viewing the amount of litter on the launching area (where we started this tour) and how the locals here probably dump all their waste into the river/sea, I wondered how much pollution this body of water is taking in. I'm sure this is being exacerbated by the diesel and fumes from the motorized boats.

There were even trees that seemed to be able to survive submergence during the ebb and flow of the rising and falling waters of the monsoon. If only trees had this ability in places destroyed by manmade dams.

A young boa Tir mentioned that during the monsoon, the swollen Mekong River feeds the Sea of Fresh Water, but during the dry season, the sea actually feeds back into the Lower Mekong. Ultimately, the sea dumps into the South China Sea near Vietnam.

A young boa On the way back, the little boy helping out the driver (who I imagine is his father) brought out his young boa, which was lying quietly in a white sack beneath some steps. Knowing how big these things can get, I guess this snake had to be young and small otherwise the boy might end up being squeezed to death. Still, he treated this snake like his own and was totally comfortable handling it.

Lots of litter along the Mekong banks By 4:15pm, we were back at the car. As we were taken back to the Casa Angkor, I inquired about the mountain with the waterfall, which Tir said was some 50km north of Siem Reap. The mountain had significance because the raw materials were excavated from that mountain while the contents were brought by elephant to formulate the likes of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, etc. That would've been a great waterfall to visit, but Tir said it'd take all day because the tourist infrastructure for it doesn't exist yet. Plus, there's still land mines to be cleared and corruption (i.e. bribes) to deal with.

Speaking of which, the discussion turned to the education system in Cambodia. Tir said graduates from College in Cambodia can't get jobs or get equivalent credits compared with other international institutions. The only people who succeed know someone tied to the government. The rest have to work a hard life, and this was consistent with the hard, pushy peddlers as well as the lower standard of living.

I was getting the sense that tourism may be opening Cambodia to the world, but it's also making the people aware of where they stand with the tourists who come to visit. Even though the people are weary of the Khmer Rouge regime and don't have much will or anger left to revolt, you wonder if future generations further removed from that memory will begin to act for change. Or will China's investment in Cambodia in the form of cheap labor keep enough people just happy enough to delay the uprising.

Busy scene at night in Siem Reap Well hearing the truth from a local certainly affirmed to us the value of travel. You're not going to appreciate this until you see firsthand what's going on and put the pieces together. And by the time we arrived back at the Casa Angkor, we were left to our own devices, but even more fully aware and appreciate of the people we're trying to say no (peddling things we don't need) and people we're trying to support (offering services we do need/want).

Back at the French Quarter So we promptly returned to the French Quarter to have one last dinner at the Cambodian Soup Restaurant where their fish soup was probably on par with Julie's mom's version of the same dish. Meanwhile the dinner gave us additional time to reflect on what we've learned and to put into perspective the whole of this trip (including the Thailand portion).

Back at the hotel, we got packed and ready for tomorrow's departure. But in a bit of a surprise, when I showered late at night, I actually got hot water! I was sympathetic to Julie who showered earlier and didn't have it.

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We got to sleep in a little bit and take some extra time to prepare for today's flight. We weren't taken to the airport until around 11am.

When we got to the airport some 15 minutes later, we said our farewells to both Tir and Ruad in the familiar bowing with hands in prayer position gesture saying "Ah kohn." That gesture is the same as what's used in Thailand and I reckon it must be a trait of the Buddhist-influenced societies prevalent in these parts of southeast Asia.

The flight via Bangkok Air to the Suvarnabhumi Airport was smooth and without incident. We had a nearly 5 hour layover at this airport so I took that time to blog and compose these travel story entries.

We had one last round of Thai food at one of their restaurants on the 4th floor, but this one was the worst of the lot. We had pad thai and som tam as well as a pair of Thai iced tea. It was overpriced, too.

When it was almost 5pm, we waited by our gate for our departure to Hong Kong by Cathay Air just a half-hour later. I chose to use this time to brush my teeth though we didn't have any drinking water with us.

I started to get the chills as we were about the board the plane. While we were on this 2.5-hour flight, the chills worsened quickly and suddenly everything felt cold. The chills intensified especially towards the end of the flight.

We had a short 1-hour layover in Hong Kong. So while we worried about being tied up in security and in long queues, I was also glad I didn't have to wait long before our flight.

By this point I was really getting the chills. While we were busy being herded through security and then quickly walking to our transfer gate, my teeth were chattering even though we were moving fast and I was fully clothed in fleece jacket, long pants, a hiking shirt, and wool socks.

I was looking forward to the plane ride partially to at least try to get some sleep and fight off this apparent fever. But at the same time, I wasn't looking forward to the flight because it was going to be over 13 hours and if I don't manage to sleep most of the time, it was gonna be one hell of a long flight.

"Honey. That's now the third time you've got food poisoning. When will you learn?" said Julie.

We boarded our 11:45pm flight on time, but as I was trying to get settled and try to will myself to sleep with chills, nausea, etc. we were apparently stuck in the plane for another hour or so due to a malfunctioning antenna or whatever the captain said that hindered communications with air traffic control. So we had to wait for the part to show up and get installed.

Eventually, the flight did take off (I lost track of time at that point).

The first 5 or so hours of the flight was spent sleeping. When I got to the point of being unable to sleep for prolonged periods, there was still about 8 hours to go. That was when I felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The seats were cramped, my back was sore, my buttocks was sore, and I was very sweaty.

In between bouts of sleeping for a few minutes, I'd have to bug Julie so I could get up and go to the bathroom to diarrhea and alleviate some stomach pain.

My consistently bothersome shoulderblade and lack of leg room made it difficult to endure this flight.

When the Cathay Pacific attendants served food, I had lost my appetite and I couldn't take a bite out of anything. My head was still heavy. Where's your head at, now? I wondered.

Even though this particular Cathay Pacific jet had electrical plugs, which I was hoping to use for blogging away the extended time in the air, I was certainly in no shape to do so. I was simply too sick, too nauseated, too uncomfortable.

I finally had to strength to at least watch one of their movies towards the end of the flight, which happened to be "Eagle Eye." It was basically another one of those supercomputers with self-intelligence things, but the commercials did a real good job of piquing interest in the movie.

Eventually at around 8:45pm PST, we mercifully arrived at LAX. But with my chills persisting, the wait to deplane seemed like it took forever.

Then we had to endure the long walk all the way to the Immigrations kiosks. There were already long lines here so even the wait here seemed like it took forever.

Then, we had to wait for our bags. I swear this was the longest time I ever had to wait for a bag (outside of the time my bag with camping gear was misrouted to San Jose and delayed our trip for a night in Salt Lake City). Other passengers echoed the same sentiment.

That part lasted at least an hour and was quite painful.

Then, there was another queue for Customs. After that was over, we could then wait for our Airport Shuttle, and eventually get back to our car. Then I could reconnect the car battery and drive home despite my weakened state.

When all was said and done, we ended at home at around 11:30pm.

Greeting us at home were a pile of mail, a bunch of dead crickets, and realizing that we had no internet, television, nor phone service. Why does this always happen to us when we come back from trips?

I was still able to shower and brush my teeth though. But the sleep came uneasily as I not only had to contend with food poisoning but jetlag as well!

Then, Julie started to complain she was getting the chills. Uh oh. Looks like she's got it too...

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