Cambodia 015 – Churning the Ocean of Milk
March 6, Tuesday, 2007
A complete and utter change of scene. I’m back in Phnom Penh and of course the first thing I did, after getting a place to stay, is go down to the riverside and look for a pizza. I’m just waiting for it to come to my table and am enjoying a Beerlao.
I don’t know about this whole taking a bus business. Well, actually I do know. I don’t like it. But given that I had so little time, I think I made the right choice. Those extra days in Siem Reap were great. I wish I still could have ridden my bike down here.
I guess I just take buses too seriously or something. I get stressed out. With a bike, you leave when you leave. On a bus, I feel like I’ve left ages in advance. Sure, it only took six hours to get down here in the bus, but the bus journey was really much longer than that. For one thing there is the buying of the bus ticket. That wasn’t so bad, but it still takes time and effort. Then you have to go to the bus. In this case, they said they would pick me up at my hotel so I didn’t have to go anywhere. That worked out well because I could then really tear the bike apart and make it into a smaller package. The bus was scheduled to leave at 7:30 and they said they would pick me up at the Bequest Hotel around 6:30. Around 6:30 turned out to be 7:15 which meant I was hanging around outside the hotel for nearly an hour getting more and more stressed and thinking they had forgotten me. The stress began earlier because I was worried about waking up on time. I only had my watch alarm to wake me up and I hadn’t used it in so long, I didn’t trust it. So I ended up barely getting any sleep at all. I also asked the hotel for a wake-up call. They appeared to be quite used to that, as people want to wake up early to catch sunrises at the temple. But my wake-up call didn’t work out not surprisingly. I asked them to call me at 5:30. I set my own alarm for 5:25. Neither was necessary though, because I was wide awake from 4:30 on after barely dozing through the night. But then I ended up in suspense waiting for my wake-up call. I went to take a shower and I had to leave the door open in case they called. I figured they would probably call just as I shampooed my hair or started shaving or something. And if I didn’t answer the phone, I felt sure they would come barging up the stairs and knock on the door and cause all sorts of chaos. The call did come, but not until 6:15. Perhaps the guy’s handwriting wasn’t very legible.
I had everything pretty much ready to go. The bike was a work of art even if I do say so myself. It isn’t easy breaking down a bike and then tying it back together so that it forms some kind of a bundle that makes sense and won’t destroy the wheels. I didn’t have a box for it. I just used a lot of electrical tape. Hopefully it all comes off again.
I put all my other luggage inside three pannier bags and then lashed them together and put them inside the duffel bag. A touring rig once you are no longer touring is quite awkward to handle.
A Mekong Express vehicle finally showed up at 7:15. It wasn’t my bus though, but a mini-bus that was going around to hotels and was then going to take us to the bus station. The bus station was crazier than I’d like. I was glad that the bus was going to pick me up for the very reason that I didn’t want to go to a bus station. But I ended up there anyway. I had this idea that Mekong Express Limousine Bus was a classy organization, but it really wasn’t. The buses were all jammed together with barely any space between them. There was a massive amount of shouting and pushing and chaos as people arrived and got on their buses. They actually took our bags and checked them in as if we were flying. They charged me $5 for the bike, even though it was smaller now than some backpacks. But I knew that was coming and it didn’t annoy me. What did annoy me was how small the seats were. I had this impression that these buses were big and roomy. But it was just a basic bus with seats made for people not quite as tall as me. I had a ticket for the window seat, but it was already taken. I didn’t mind that and I happily sat in the aisle. The guy sitting with me was Cambodian and he spent the entire six hours either napping or playing with his Nokia cell phone. It was a very boring ride and I got through it only because I had my Shuffle. I calculated that when I listened to a certain number of albums, I would be in Phnom Penh and then I just listened to song after song and album after album. The countryside had almost zero variety. It was brown and empty and dry all the way to Phnom Penh. Even the few towns were exact replicas of all the other towns I’d seen, so I didn’t really miss anything in terms of scenery by not riding my bike.
We stopped for lunch in the one main town, but I didn’t have anything to eat or drink. I was in my monastic bus mode.
We arrived in Phnom Penh by going over the bridge that I had cycled across. I was glad of that because it got me oriented. I had plans to go to a hotel by the Russie market, but the bus stopped right by the riverfront. There were dozens of tuk-tuk drivers crowding around and shouting at us. I finally chose one and told him I wanted to go to the Spring Hotel. This was a place I had seen and approved of. He talked me out of it though and said that he knew places right here on the riverfront that were $10 a night. I eventually gave in and he took me to the Angkor International Hotel. I felt like I was being taken advantage of, but I didn’t mind that much. This was my first tuk-tuk ride in fact and I thought I might as well see what happened. The Angkor is not my kind of hotel, but I was there and the room was reasonable and it is close to the riverfront so I took it. I’m only going to be there for two nights and I’m not looking for atmosphere at this point. I just want a place. And once I was settled in, I was glad to be so close to the busy riverfront. My bike is all dismantled and I’m reduced to my feet. It’s a horrible feeling. Here I can at least walk to various restaurants etc.
I have one major task which is to find some cardboard so that I can box up my bike. I don’t know if I will be able to manage it though. I might also go to the National Museum. It is just a short walk away.
March 7, Wednesday 2007 Phnom Penh, Cambodia
First, as always, the setting: I’m in a restaurant on the riverfront. I had some trouble finding a place that suited me now that I’m on foot. Not having the bicycle is like being in a prison combined with a jungle. I’m in a prison because I can’t go anywhere. And I’m in a jungle because now that I’m on foot, I’m prey for everyone trying to sell something. It actually isn’t that bad. The Cambodians are quite polite. They offer the tuk-tuk or whatever it is and then when I say no, they let it go. However, every single tuk-tuk driver asks you and if you reply to them all politely, which I do, you spend most of your time feeling like you’re fending them off. If I had my bike I would have gone to one of the coffee shops that I discovered my first time. This place isn’t so bad, though. It’s just perfectly normal. A normal restaurant. The good thing about it, and why I came in, is that it is indoors and has air conditioning and they have normal tables and chairs. It’s fairly comfortable for setting up one’s NEO. I’ve ordered a cup of coffee and I’ll see if I want breakfast later.
Hmm. Good choice. The coffee is wonderful. So I’m happy. It’s good and strong, almost too strong, but at least you know you’re drinking coffee. The stuff I had in Siem Reap in the restaurants didn’t even taste like coffee. Only the stuff at the gas station was good. They tend to make coffee the French style which means it’s very strong and often ends up with lots of coffee grinds in the coffee. You can taste it and feel it.
There are some good things about not having the bike anymore. I got to go on my first tuk-tuk rides. The first one was from the bus station to the Angkor International Hotel. I mentioned that there were lots of tuk-tuk drivers crowding around the bus when it arrived. The bus didn’t stop at an actual bus station. They stopped on a street where they had their office, and they had put up barriers on the sidewalk so that they created a little space of sidewalk where you could come down out of the bus and then get your luggage. They put several long tables on the sidewalk paralleling the bus and then they simply opened the luggage doors and pulled out all the luggage and piled it on the table. Then we had to go up to them with our tickets and claim our bags. I appreciate the professionalism that this system implies. However, there wasn’t much room and the crush of people and luggage was pretty extreme. Luckily there were some chairs ranged against the wall of the building, and I could sit there and wait for the crowds to thin out a bit. I was quite close to the tuk-tuk drivers and they were shouting and shouting and shouting. There was no reason to believe that they were shouting at me specifically, so I didn’t feel rude simply looking away and watching the luggage and keeping an eye out for my bag and bike.
Then one of the tuk-tuk drivers came through the barrier and sat beside me. You’d think all this would be very annoying, but it wasn’t. He was a very friendly fellow in perhaps his late forties. He had a big smile on his face and seemed a trustworthy guy as all these tuk-tuk and moto and cyclo drivers do. They’re just trying to make a living. Either that, or I’ve just been so relaxed during my time here that I’m more approachable. In either case, we chatted for a bit and talked about hotels. I think I also mentioned yesterday that I told him I wanted to go to the Spring Hotel. I asked him how much it would cost to take me there. He said $2. That sounded exactly right for that distance. Bargaining probably could have brought it down to $1 or $1.50, but when you take into account transporting my bicycle as well, $2 seemed fine and I agreed to it.
I’ve been enjoying many of the ex-pat type magazines here, and one article I read was an interview with a random tuk-tuk driver. He was asked during the interview all about his life and the problems he faced and how much money he could make and all of that. The interviewer asked him towards the end if he ever had trouble with foreigners. The fellow said that he rarely did, but sometimes there was trouble over the fare, especially when a fare wasn’t established at the beginning of the ride. Sometimes the foreigner would think he was being ripped off and would get angry. He told one story about taking a fellow to the Russian Market from the riverfront and said that the normal fare for that was $1.50 or $2. He asked for that, and the foreigner got upset and said that he would pay only $1, that he knew what the correct fare was from his guidebook. The foreigner eventually tossed him $1 and walked away. The tuk-tuk driver said that sometimes happened because foreigners used guidebooks that were out of date. He cited the price of gasoline which had gone up dramatically in the last few years since most of these guidebooks were published. The rates for tuk-tuks have gone up accordingly, but foreigners aren’t aware of that.
A lot of people have championed tuk-tuk drivers. I’ve read of a number of organizations founded by NGOs to help tuk-tuk drivers. Apparently, many of them don’t have homes. Their tuk-tuks are their homes, and they sleep in them when they aren’t looking for passengers. This makes them vulnerable to robberies at night. They also have trouble keeping clean and doing other things. One organization I read about tried to address these issues by creating a kind of tuk-tuk driver service center. This place offered the tuk-tuk drivers a free banking service where they could keep their money instead of having it on them on the tuk-tuk. They could go to this place and have a shower and get a haircut and do other things. They also offered loans for people who wanted to purchase a tuk-tuk. Many of them are rented and much of their profit goes toward paying the rent. They have to make the rent every day before they can start making money for themselves.
I have no idea what my tuk-tuk driver’s situation is. I didn’t grill him, but he did say that taking me to the hotel was his first job in three days. I find that hard to believe. This is still the high season after all and there are lots of foreigners here. In terms of time and distance, he ended up getting a pretty good deal from me. We’d agreed on $2 to take me to the Spring Hotel which is a fair distance away. He even said that he would take me to the Spring and then if I didn’t like it, he would then take me back here to the riverfront to look at the Angkor, where he wanted to take me in the first place. By this point I was thinking that it might be an advantage to stay at a place near the riverfront. The only reason I wanted to go to the Spring was that it was near the Russie Market and there were a lot of bike shops there. I thought that would be the ideal place to find a bike box. It occurred to me, however, that there might not be any bike boxes. I had seen some bikes being delivered to one of these shops and there were simply a hundred bikes stacked up in the back of a truck. They weren’t boxed at all. Plus, I remembered that none of these people spoke English. I couldn’t even make myself understood when it came to locating tires and patch kits. I don’t imagine I’d have had better luck asking for a box.
All of this flashed through my mind, and I told Sigh, my tuk-tuk driver, that we could go look at the Angkor first. It was only two or three blocks away and I paid him the full $2 anyway. When Sigh told me about the Angkor, it sounded like a reasonable place. Another tuk-tuk driver, however, gave me second thoughts. He jumped in on my conversation with Sigh to support him I guess, and he also praised the Angkor and pooh-poohed the Spring. This second tuk-tuk driver, though, was not to my liking. He was a younger guy, very slick and smooth and he was too insistent. He never came right out and said it, but he was implying that the Angkor was a place for a swinging young man like me. It had a bar, for example, while the Spring had nothing and was far away. He was pushing it so hard, that I actually started to resist the idea. But inertia is a very powerful force when you are on foot and lugging around a dismantled bicycle. When we got to the Angkor and I knew that in two minutes I could be safely ensconced in a room, I was inclined to just stay there no matter what I thought of the place. The Spring might have been a paradise on earth, but it was now far away and the last thing I wanted to do was get picky and get back in the tuk-tuk and drive all over the place.
I left my bike and bag in the tuk-tuk (I’m very trusting apparently), and went into the Angkor to see what there was to see. The place didn’t seem like my kind of place. It did have a bar, but it was dark and gloomy and there were signs everywhere for the “Special” massage – “$5 for 1 out.” I’m not sure what an “out” is, but I didn’t want to find out. The woman at the counter was also a bit abrupt. She did her job and all of that, but she did it grudgingly. I got the impression that she’d seen it all and what she’d seen wasn’t very nice, so she didn’t think it was any part of her job to be nice to guests.
A young man was dispatched to go with me and show me a room. He took me up to the second floor and brought me all the way to the end of the hall where there were rooms with a view. My first impression was the same as my impression of the hotel – not good. It just felt sleazy and a little grimy. I wasn’t that thrilled with the windows either. They barely closed and assuming that a person could climb up or down to the second floor, it would be a simple matter to just pop them open and climb inside. I think I was looking for trouble simply because coming to this hotel wasn’t my idea. It was sort of forced on me and that instantly makes a person paranoid and I started looking for all the ways that this could be a scam or a set-up. Perhaps they’d sized me up for a sucker right from the bus station and had deliberately given me the room with the broken windows and everyone was in on it and when I was robbed, they would all take their cut of the loot. But I told myself to calm down. If there was such a massive conspiracy to steal my bicycle (which was now barely even recognizable as a bike) they would simply open the door and take it. It’s not like they don’t have the keys to the room.
I took the room and over the evening and night I started to actually like it and the location. The room was a bit cramped and small considering how much furniture they’d jammed into it, but that is perhaps good training for being back in Rooftop Paradise. The furnishings also didn’t seem worth the price of admission. The fellow demonstrated the TV and the air conditioner. Neither seemed very enthusiastic about its job. The TV took forever to warm up and then gave a bad picture. The air conditioner kind of sputtered and hummed and I could feel the faintest of warm breezes coming out of it. I wasn’t happy at this point, because this room, the one with the “view” and air conditioning was a $15 room as opposed to the $10 room we had been talking about. I took it despite my reservations. The view wasn’t much, but the $10 rooms, with no windows at all, were very claustrophobic, not to mention very smelly. I also went for the air conditioning because there was a good chance I’d be doing some serious bicycle packing and that is a very hot and sweaty chore. I decided to give this room a chance and I took it. These are also my last two nights in Cambodia and I wasn’t that worried about forking over the rather exorbitant amount of $15 a night. Whenever I have problems spending this money, I always have the trick of contrasting what I spent in Taiwan on my two or three bike trips. I paid as much as NT$3,000 a night there.
It didn’t take long for me to become quite fond of my room at the Angkor International Hotel. I was glad to add it to the collection of bizarre and unusual places I’ve stayed in. And during the evening, I discovered all kinds of features that made it a better and better deal. For one thing, the air conditioner really did work. It just needed a good two hours to get warmed up and settle down to its work. I was busy working on the bike and I realized that I wasn’t sweating. I held my hand up to the air conditioner and to my surprise, the light warm breeze had turned into a light cold breeze – quite enough to cool down the room quite comfortably. The TV also buckled down and started to work. I’d had a TV in quite a few of my rooms here, but haven’t used them at all. Last night, though, I flipped through the channels and found that on one channel they were playing DVD’s from the lobby. They just happened to be playing a DVD from Season 7 of the original CSI. Boxing up the bike was a long and difficult process and I was glad of the CSI episodes to keep me company. I hadn’t seen any of Season 7, so this was a bonus.
The bathroom was also pretty funky. It was typical in that the design was not exactly logical. You had to be a contortionist to get in there and then close the door behind you. You couldn’t leave the door open, because then there was no room to move around at all. And I can’t imagine how it came to be, but the bathroom also had a giant bathtub and a big modern showerhead – it made me think of the Commando 4,000 or whatever it was from Seinfeld. It never even occurred to me to fill the tub and stretch out in it. I’m with Kramer on that one. Baths strike me as lying in a tepid pool of your own filth. A Jacuzzi is a different story. But baths never appealed to me. I climbed into this tub and marveled at the giant spray of water coming out of the showerhead. It was a bit chilly because the room was quite air conditioned at this point. I soaked myself and soaped up, and then when I went to rinse I found that the water had gone from ice cold to blistering hot. Like everything else in Room 105, the water system just needed some time to warm up. Be patient and Room 105 would deliver.
I went for a pizza after settling into the room. I had a beer with the pizza, which probably wasn’t the wisest of choices. I’d had nothing to eat or drink all day and that beer went straight to my brain and made me a bit sleepy and out of it. It was delicious though.
I then went for a walk, keeping my eyes open for anyplace that had boxes. I was surprised to discover that lots of places had boxes. Unfortunately, there was the language barrier to contend with and I couldn’t get anyone to understand that I wanted to beg, borrow, steal, or buy some of these boxes. There was no way I was going to find an actual bike box. All I could do was get as much cardboard as I could and then build my own. I saw some nice boxes at a big woodworking shop. I went inside and made a fool of myself trying to get them to understand what I wanted. My efforts produced a huge amount of laughter as they mimicked me and made fun of me, but no boxes. I then went past a recycling center. They had cardboard stacked to the rafters, but no one could understand what I wanted. I wandered the streets for a while looking for someone who could speak English to act as an interpreter, but I was greeted with just more laughter. It was odd. I didn’t remember this much hilarity at my expense on my arrival. It felt good-natured though and I didn’t get prickly or irritable. I just kept trying.
I finally gave up and decided to go back to the hotel. I still had another entire day after all and I thought if I started fresh I could get something done then. When I got back to the hotel, I asked the woman at the counter if she had any ideas. Perhaps by some miracle, the hotel had stacks of cardboard somewhere. She was not exactly eager to help me, but she did have a good suggestion. I explained that I had found lots of boxes, but no one spoke English. I was sort of thinking she might detail one of the boys from the hotel to help me. But then she suggested that I hire a driver – a tuk-tuk driver – to take me around. I had thought of that myself earlier. Tuk-tuk drivers who work in this area have serviceable English. I was just hoping to avoid that complication. It seemed overkill when there were stacks of boxes all around me. I just needed two minutes of interpretation out of someone.
I went up to room 105 thinking that I was done for the day. I was going to shower and relax and then perhaps head out for a drink somewhere later. But once I got up there, I got a fresh burst of energy. I realized that I didn’t really have the energy to enjoy myself that night. I might as well spend it packing. I also realized that if I got the bike all dealt with then, I would have a complete and free night and day to enjoy. If I left this bike business hanging, it would haunt me.
So I hauled myself up off the bed, shut down the gasping, wheezing air conditioner (it still hadn’t warmed up enough yet) and went back outside to put my life in the hands of a tuk-tuk driver. Finding a tuk-tuk driver isn’t a problem, that’s for sure. Half a dozen of them were waiting outside the Angkor International Hotel. The problem is often choosing one. By choosing one, I’m rejecting five. I never feel good about that. They all shout at the same time, so it’s no good choosing the one that shouts first. I experienced rather a funny moment this time. The Angkor bar and lobby area is arranged in such a way that when I came to the bottom of the stairs, I was looking down a long, narrow hallway that led right to the open front doors. The hallway was very dark while the opening of the doors was lit up by the sun, which was still pretty high in the sky. It was a very dramatic scene and highlighted in that brilliantly lit square of light were all the tuk-tuk drivers ranged across the other side of the street. They have incredible senses and eyesight when it comes to seeing the foreigner exiting a hotel, restaurant, bar, temple, Internet café, or whatever. They’ve been stalking foreigners so long that they almost seem to have a sixth sense of when one is going to emerge. It’s almost like a pride of lions relaxing in the shade near a herd of antelope. When one antelope starts to drift away and separate itself from the herd, all the lions start to stir and take notice.
I don’t know how these tuk-tuk drivers could see from that bright sunlight down into this dark tunnel hallway, but they spotted me right when I reached the bottom of the stairs. I was still a good fifty feet from the door and they were already on their feet and shouting and gesturing at me.
I don’t know how I ended up speaking to one tuk-tuk driver as opposed to the half-dozen who descended on me, but I found myself talking to another older fellow. He had a giant tuk-tuk – the kind with two big benches facing each other – meant for four people. We had the most difficult time communicating, though. His English wasn’t up to the specifics of what I wanted. He was listening for all the standard things a foreigner might want a tuk-tuk driver for – to go to the Killing Fields, to go to Tuol Sleng, to go to the National Museum, to go to the airport. A phrase like “buy a box for my bicycle” simply didn’t register no matter how often I said it and how many different ways I said it. All of the tuk-tuk drivers had joined in by this point. They knew I was the property of this guy with the giant tuk-tuk, but they all wanted to help. They’re good that way. They compete with each other, but there never seem to be any hard feelings.
At one point, a man on a moto zoomed up to the Angkor with a small cardboard box strapped to the back. I dashed across the road and pointed to the cardboard box and indicated I wanted one of these, but much bigger. At this point, I just wanted to be able to direct one of these guys back into the market area so I could get him to the woodworking shop or the recycling center and then use him as an interpreter. However, even having a cardboard box right there didn’t help, and I was met with just blank stares. I gave up at that point and just walked away, thinking I’d have another try on my own at the recycling center. I’d only gone twenty feet, though, when a tuk-tuk driver ran up behind me. He was very excited and stammered out in English something like, “You buy box. Big box for bicycle!”
“Yes,” I said eagerly. I don’t know how he suddenly grasped the idea, but he seemed to have finally gotten it and he said he knew a place with all kinds of boxes – every size. And he indicated all the different sizes with his arms. I still wasn’t sure he knew what I meant, but it sounded like he had the idea and I asked him about the price for this expedition. I had no idea where we were going, so I had no basis for judging what he said. But when he said $4, that felt like too much, especially when there was lots of cardboard just a block or two away. I bargained with the guy and said that $2 seemed pretty reasonable. He countered with $3, but I stood my ground to the point of shaking my head and walking away. I don’t know why I was giving him such a hard time over a dollar, but I think it was because I was already suffering being in this touristy area on foot. I’d only been here for a few hours, but already I felt largely like a walking wallet. I suppose that mood started in Siem Reap. I wanted to assert myself and declare that I wasn’t a fool soon to be parted from his money. The fellow agreed to $2 and I climbed into his tuk-tuk.
Once I was in his tuk-tuk, I started to feel bad about my bargaining. Wherever or whatever this paradise of boxes was, it was much farther away than I had anticipated. We drove out into traffic and drove and drove and drove. It was also rush hour and the intersections were bedlam. It was turning into a very long trip. I reflected that I was getting two journeys here. One trip to the box place and then a second trip back to my hotel. Plus, I was getting his services as a guide to locate the box place, and then I was assuming that he would act as an interpreter once there. That’s a lot of service for $2. I comforted myself by thinking that I could always tip the guy at the end. In a way, that was a much better way to go about this. I could bargain hard and get a good deal on something. Then I wouldn’t feel like I was being taken advantage of. And at the end, if I felt the service was worth more, I could then pay more. If I started off at the beginning paying a lot, then I’d just feel like a fool and get no brownie points at the end.
I enjoyed the experience of being in a tuk-tuk during rush hour. I’d much prefer having my own transportation, but I’d seen hundreds of foreigners being trundled around in these things. Now I got to know what it felt like.
The main thing it felt like was slow. I don’t know if this guy’s tuk-tuk was underpowered, but we were the slowest thing out there. On my bike, I’d have gone three or four times as fast. We were being passed by everything and yet the engine on his motorbike was revved up to the breaking point. If the sound of his engine was anything to go by, we should have been going a million miles an hour. There also seemed to be a heating problem. I didn’t notice it till much later, but he had a big container of water sitting up there on the motorbike with him. This container had some bizarre feeding mechanism that sent water down a tube. The tube simply hung over the engine block and poured water on the engine constantly to keep it cool. These engines are air-cooled of course. They don’t have water radiators. But I guess this guy’s engine overheated, and he had come up with this system to simply pour water over the engine to cool it down. On our trip back, he had to stop at a place to get his jug of water refilled. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.
I don’t know how far we went exactly. It felt like a long way because of our slow pace and the heavy traffic. But suddenly he angled to the left across traffic. I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw what can only be described as a box store. How this guy knew about this place, I can’t imagine. I certainly hadn’t seen anything like it. I’d seen tons of recycling centers with massive amounts of broken-down boxes, but I’d never seen a place like this before. It was essentially a packing center. They had new boxes of all different sizes. Some of them were big enough and heavy enough to hold probably a scooter. This was the box I was shown originally, because when it was assembled it would have been the size of a complete bicycle. It was certainly an impressive box, but it was way too big and heavy. The cardboard had to be an inch thick. The box weighed more than the bike I wanted to put inside it. My tuk-tuk driver’s English was breaking down again and he wasn’t much help when it came to talking to the people at this shop, but it was no problem. There were stacks of boxes everywhere all out in the open and on the sidewalk and I just wandered around till I saw something that might work. I had no hopes of finding a perfect bicycle box. That would have been hoping for too much. So I was looking for a large box that could be cut up, or two boxes that could be cut up and put together like a top and a bottom. I’d done this before of course. At times, I feel like I’ve spent most of my life either packing or unpacking. For whatever reason I seem to be doing a lot of it.
I eventually settled on two big boxes that, as far as I can make out, were originally used to carry toilets or plumbing fixtures. They weren’t new, of course, but they were in good shape and I thought with some juggling I could come up with a bike box. I also bought some packing tape and a big roll of plastic twine. It was one-stop shopping, and I left there very pleased. I would have been more pleased if I could have just ridden my bike back to the airport as planned, but I guess I’ll have to keep looking into that to find the one airline that is friendly to cyclists. I’m glad I’m enjoying the unique parts of being on foot right now – the tuk-tuk rides etc – and I’m glad I’m at the riverfront so being on foot isn’t a big problem. I’m glad, because if there were no advantages, I’d be a bit annoyed. Disassembling a bike and putting it in a box is no easy task, I’ll tell you. I already spent an entire night in Siem Reap taking the bike apart, cleaning all the parts, and then taping and roping it all together into one bundle. One problem with that I quickly discovered is that I wasn’t making my bundle to fit inside a box. I didn’t have a box yet. Normally you start with the bike box. Then you stick the frame inside and then fiddle for hours trying to get the two wheels inside in a reasonable way. This time, I simply lashed the wheels to the frame trying to make as compact and square a shape as possible. I didn’t do too badly, but it still wasn’t great. Now I had to spend a second night trying to cut up these boxes and make my own box to fit around this awkward chunk of steel and rubber I’d built. I could have cut the wheels loose at this point and tried to adjust things, but I really didn’t want to do that. So I cut open the cardboard boxes and laid them on the bed flat. Then I picked up the bike and laid it on top of the cardboard and tried to find a way to cut and fold and tape and essentially mold the cardboard to the bike’s shape and have it come out square. I ended up having to do this twice, because one box wasn’t nearly large enough to enclose the box with the forks and handlebar stem sticking out awkwardly. I formed the bottom half of a bike box out of the one cardboard box. Once it was completed, I then had to do the same thing with the other box to make the top half. But this half had to be slightly larger so that it would fit snugly over the bottom half and I could push them together. It couldn’t be too tight or it wouldn’t fit. It couldn’t be too loose either, or the box wouldn’t be secure. I think DaVinci would have been stumped by this project. I needed a draftsman, an engineer, and AutoCAD. Yet, a miracle occurred and some hours later (literally) I had a very serviceable box. I put the bike inside along with all the spare hunks of steel I’d removed from the bike, like the seat, the pedals, the kickstand, and one crank arm. It wasn’t quite as tight and compact as it could be. In fact, it struck me as a pretty big box compared to other creations I’d come up with in my lifetime. However, that could be just because the frame of this bike is a bit longer and sticks out in more awkward directions. Anyway, the airline will just have to deal with it.
Once the box was built and the bike inside, I put the top on and started to seal it up. That wasn’t an easy job itself. I think I was into my fifth episode of CSI by this point. I taped up the box as best as I could, and then I started to tie it up with the plastic twine. I cringe when I think of how many times I’ve done this in my life – not just with bikes, but with books and other things. I wish I’d realized early on at some point that I’d be moving on so much and that there really was no point in doing all of that. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. I’m thinking in particular of all the times I’d shipped boxes around the world. I’ve literally spent days boxing up things from Korea and other places and shipping them. I imagined one day having a place where I could finally collect all my books together and just have them there – a base where I could live. But that never came about and after all that effort and expense I simply had to let them all go. My life would have been a lot easier if I’d just made the decision early on to simply not keep books and other things.
This morning, my hands are all bruised and sore. It’s a familiar feeling to me and it comes from all that cutting and pulling and wrapping twine around the box and tying elaborate knots. The odd thing is that taking the bike out of the box will be the work of seconds. You simply cut the twine, cut the tape, and lift it out of the box. You’re done. Unpacking never seems to match the huge effort that went into packing. With a bike, much of it wouldn’t occur to a non-cyclist. For example, you can’t just simply take off the wheels and jam them in the box. They have to be placed very carefully and exactly so that the weight of everything rests on the rims and not on the spokes. The rims have to touch the frame of the bike all the way around with no pressure on the spokes. That is almost impossible to do without a perfect set-up. The problem is that if the wheels are in there improperly, the pressure goes on the spokes, and the wheel is twisted out of shape. It’s very easy to do, as I’ve learned. I love cycling and know that almost everything that came out of this trip that I enjoyed was a result of having the bike. I do wish, however, that getting a bike onto an airplane was not as difficult as it always is. Don’t even mention what I went through in going to Ethiopia.
But by ten p.m. I was all done. I had a beautiful and sturdy bike in a box. The box might be a bit big, and the wheels might not be in there quite as safely as I’d like, but it’s done. I’m not that worried about the bike anyway. Even if the wheels do end up all warped, I can have them rebuilt in Taipei. Coming here would have been a different story. I wouldn’t have wanted to arrive here with a damaged bike. Going back to Taipei it isn’t quite as serious a matter.
I didn’t quite finish my tuk-tuk story. After I got my two boxes and all my tape and twine, I paid for them. The woman wanted $1 for each box and then some smaller amounts for the tape and twine. Is that a lot or the regular price? I have no idea. More and more, though, I’m realizing how this using the US dollar business is bad for us tourists. It really makes things more expensive. Prices just naturally go up by round units of a dollar. When you’re bargaining with a tuk-tuk driver, you are arguing over prices that go up by an entire dollar each time. $1 or $2? That’s a difference of 100%. If we were talking about the local currency, the bargaining would not be so dramatic. One dollar is worth 4,000 riel. The guy might say 8,000 riel. You counter with 2,000. Then you go back and forth adding or subtracting 1,000 riels. You’d always end up paying less because the increments are smaller. It would be unreasonable for someone to bargain, for example, and jump up or down by 4,000 riels. You say 4,000. He says 12,000. That wouldn’t happen. But it seems perfectly reasonable to offer $1 and have the person counter with $3. The difference doesn’t seem that dramatic. The end result is that we end up paying extra dollars here and there and that really add up by the end of your trip. I know that Michelle was quite shocked at how much their trip ended up costing them. I think much of that is because every single day they were taking several tuk-tuk rides. That’s going to cost you a few dollars each time. So by the end of a week you end up paying as much for tuk-tuk rides as you did for your meals or hotel.
On the way back with my boxes, I decided to stop off and pick up a couple of rolls of slide film. I’d purchased a lot of film, but I’d shot so much at Angkor that I’d run out. I wasn’t sure that I would have time or the desire to take any pictures in Phnom Penh, but I thought I’d regret it if I wanted to take a picture but had no film. So I had my guy stop off at some Fuji places. When I was here before, I was surprised to see that so many places had Fuji slide film – even Velvia – the better type. But this time they were all sold out. I eventually found a shop that had some Fuji Sensia, but it was the fourth shop we stopped at. The tuk-tuk driver was more than happy to take me on these errands even if it meant cutting across six lanes of traffic the wrong way and causing total gridlock. He had no shame at all when it came to driving. He knew where he wanted to go and he just went there no matter how many u-turns and traffic jams it involved.
Once I got my film (I only bought two rolls and already I’m regretting that) I let him take me back to the hotel. I paid him the $2 we agreed on plus a $1 tip. That made him very happy. I was a bit disorganized at this point and I almost gave him a $10 bill in amongst the $1’s. The thing is that up until now I’ve mostly used riels. I changed $200 in Phnom Penh long ago and that 800,000 has kept me going for a long time. But just yesterday, I used up the last of the riels and now I’m paying in dollars, and I’m just not used to that. I felt better paying in riels, though in most places it involved a lot of calculation. They would present the bill in dollars and then you’d have to convert it to riels. Normally that was easy, but occasionally when I was tired or flustered I’d sit there stammering and unsure of how much I had to pay.
I bought a bottle of cold water at the bar in my hotel and went up to the famous Room 105. Once there, I realized I’d left my hard-won boxes in the bar. So down I went and got them. I showered and then gathered myself for the huge effort that I knew boxing my bike would be. I went to bed and to sleep almost immediately after finishing, and I slept fairly well. Another wonderful touch in this room that only became apparent after a while were the curtains. They were heavy blackout curtains that cut off almost all the external light. I appreciated that in the morning when I wasn’t woken up by the light the second the sun peeped over the horizon. The room stayed comfortably dark and cozy and cool until I opened my eyes and wanted to get up. It was still pretty early. It was 6:30 and I showered and shaved and admired my box a little. Then I grabbed my knapsack and camera and went out to find a cup of coffee.
The Angkor International Hotel is near the riverfront, but not actually on it. It’s about two or three long blocks away. To get to the riverfront I have to thread my way through a big traditional market. I can’t vouch for the results – I was just shooting at random and not worrying about getting up close and personal – but I took pictures as I walked through the market. When I did this in other places, I always got down low and took pictures of people and their wares. I just haven’t done that in Cambodia and I didn’t this morning either. I stood back and took wider shots. I realized after a dozen or so that I wasn’t checking the shutter speed, so many of them might be terribly exposed or out of focus. We’ll see. There should be at least one or two classic “market” shots. I got a huge kick out of the fish sellers. There is one kind of fish here – I think it’s the river mud fish – that survives a long time out of the water and it is extremely athletic. They had them in wide shallow tubs without any water in them at all and yet these fish were capable of the most astounding leaps. They’d suddenly spring out of the tubs and go flying in all directions. They’d land in tubs of other fish or even go sailing right out of that area and land in the vegetable display next door. The women had to keep corralling them and chasing them down and tossing them back into the tub. They’d chase down one fish and by the time they returned it, two or three more had made their bid for freedom. They were more like grasshoppers than fish.
I walked all the way through the market and enjoyed it so much that I turned around and went through it again. I took nearly 30 pictures in just a few minutes. I don’t have much hope for them, but as I said, one or two might capture a little of the flavor of the place. I also took a picture on a side street of a cyclo that was jammed with bananas. Shots like that make me think there is room in this world for a web site that has nothing but pictures of giant or comical loads from around the world. Every traveler has at least one classic picture of a bicycle with a hundred ducks on it or a truck piled twenty feet into the air with plastic buckets. Cambodia is loaded with such images and I spent some time pondering it. Life on the streets and highways here really is just a constant stream of things being carried around. You see so much of it that you wonder why it is necessary. You would never see even one load like that in Canada. But imagine if you took everything in Canada that was shipped by train and by transport truck and then had it all delivered by bicycle and motorcycle and tractor. Then you would get pretty much what you see here. The difference is that in Canada all the shipping is done by transport truck and we just don’t see it.
I’m very glad to have this last day in Phnom Penh. It’s nice to get the contrast – seeing Phnom Penh when I arrived and now seeing it again after traveling around the country. I had the same experience in Siem Reap. I don’t think I wrote about it yet, but on my last day I did in fact return to Angkor Wat. I first went to some other temples that I had overlooked. They were as wonderful as all of them had been. The main one was the place where everyone goes to take their sunset pictures. It was at the top of a hill that took twenty minutes to climb. It wasn’t hard, but it was hot work. I loved the temple. It had a central tower right at the top of this massive pyramid structure and there was something about this tower that really stood out. I took several pictures of it and I hope the drama of the setting comes across.
Once I was up there, I wondered why it was so popular for sunset pictures. You could see Angkor Wat, but it was 1.3 kilometers away and you could barely make it out. You’d have to have a powerful telephoto lens to even see the place. The view was impressive in that you could see for a long way across the treetops. But there was nothing so striking as to justify hundreds of people climbing up there.
I had the whole place to myself the entire time I was up there. I guess most people are smarter than to climb up there and wander around in the middle of the day when the sun is scorching your brain. On my way down, however, I passed a Korean couple on their way up. A few minutes later I found the woman’s Angkor pass on the ground. I got my brownie points by sitting in the shade and waiting for them to return so I could give it to her. I thought they would be very concerned if the guard at the temple had asked to see their passes. But it turns out they didn’t even make it to the top and so didn’t realize they’d lost a pass. They said that some strange Cambodian men had been following them and threatening them. They asked if I had seen them, but I hadn’t. I gave her the pass and she just took it without comment. They were so freaked out by the men following them that they had had no thoughts for anything else. I can’t imagine what they had experienced. There’s nothing in the air here to suggest any kind of menace or threat. I do find, however, that the Koreans and Japanese somehow invite this kind of harassment. I remember in Quito how every second Japanese backpacker ended up in trouble. Scam artists and thieves just seemed to pick them out for special treatment. They often seem hesitant and nervous, like they’re seeing threats in every shadow.
I ran into a few long distance cyclists that day. I freaked them out in turn with my eager questions about their route and their gear. I don’t think they’re used to people picking them out so easily as bike tourers, so they aren’t prepared for the quiz. Of course if they have all their luggage on the bike, it’s easy to see what they are. But at Angkor they just had knapsacks on. I know they’re bike tourers because I can see they have a touring bike with pannier racks and all the rest of it. Perhaps everyone can see that. In any event, they seemed not quite open to conversation and I didn’t get much out of those encounters. They were all German, though, and that might have had something to do with it. We didn’t have any common ground as cyclists. Their bikes and gear were all unfamiliar to me, since they were unavailable in North America, but to them it was just normal stuff. They were also very uninterested in me though I’m sure they recognized from my bike that I was something of a cyclist as well. The only people who seemed willing to talk were the Dutch couple I’d run into around Kep. The Germans seem to outnumber everyone here except for the Koreans and Japanese. That’s my impression anyway from the amount of German I hear spoken all around me.
Perhaps it is time to leave my air conditioned comfort and go see what there is to see. I have plans to go to the National Museum. It is only a short distance away and I’d read that it contains many statues that were removed from the temples at Angkor.
Oh, I was going to say something about my return trip to Angkor Wat. I just thought it would be interesting to take a second look at the place after visiting all the other temples, and I was right. It was fascinating to revisit it. I spent most of my time wandering around the outer edges and taking more pictures. Both its size and its good condition really struck me this time. No other temple I had seen was anywhere close to the scale of Angkor Wat. It really is massive. I just didn’t see it that clearly since it was the first one I went to and I had nothing to compare it to. It is also in amazing condition. Most of the temples were barely standing. I think it’s a standing joke with most tourists who visit Angkor. We are all suitably impressed and amazed, but then we all say that we would be more impressed if they actually built something that didn’t fall down right afterward. You’ve got to give them an A+ for effort when it comes to building temples, but if how much of it had fallen apart is anything to go by, they really weren’t that skilled.
Angkor Wat is something of an exception in this because it was still largely still standing. And that’s one of the things that make it so impressive. I don’t know how much of it has been rebuilt, but it is in far better shape than any other temple there.
I found myself looking at the damage to a lot of the temples and trying to figure out how it occurred. I can understand towers and arches and things like that collapsing over time. But a lot of the walls and foundations that were in pieces didn’t seem to me to have any reason to be in pieces. I could only see that kind of damage taking place if an army went at it with crowbars, explosives, and bulldozers. Maybe that’s what happened. At the sunset temple, I noticed one poor lion that was lying on his side. He hadn’t just fallen over. His feet were snapped off at the ankle. I took a picture of him with a lion still standing right beside him. How had this happened? Someone must have deliberately broken his legs with a sledgehammer or something. And why would anyone do that? Most of the lions had their faces and upper jaws snapped off and missing. I wondered about that, too. I wondered if there was a flaw in their sculpting so that there was a weak point there and they just snapped over time. But that couldn’t be. I saw some lions that were complete and their faces and jaws looked strong. I think at some point, people went around and just brought heavy objects down on their snouts. Since their jaws were carved open, there was a weak point there and their entire faces just snapped off. But again, why would anyone do that? I guess there doesn’t have to be a why. People just like to smash things whether they’re in armies or just wandering around looking for trouble.
I spent quite a while at Angkor Wat on that second visit. I was there so long in fact that I thought about staying another hour and waiting for the sunset light. But the circus was already getting underway and I decided I wanted to remember Angkor the way I had seen it and not with hundreds and hundreds of people jostling for a vantage point to get that perfect sunset picture of Angkor Wat reflected in the pool of water. I took that picture as well, but I was the only person there at the time. On this second visit, tour groups were already starting to arrive and they all rushed to that spot to get their pictures taken standing in front of the temple. I wonder a little about photography these days. A good digital camera can take pictures as good as that of a good film camera. But most people don’t have good digital cameras. They just have cheap little pocket digitals. Yet, they put a huge amount of effort into getting to Angkor Wat at sunset to get that perfect picture. It seems to me that if the goal was to get a better picture, then they’d have been better off buying a better camera and then just going at any time of the day. My camera in broad daylight is going to take a better picture than any of those digital things in the most perfect light. Pictures were not the ultimate goal of these people. They came to see Angkor Wat. But they certainly organized their days to be able to take the best possible pictures – at dusk and dawn when the light is best. Given that much effort, you’d think they’d get a better camera. I saw a number of these pictures on the computers at the Internet cafes and they were all resoundingly awful. Hardly worth the effort of taking them when you could simply buy postcards with much better pictures on them. (Of course I’m saying all this with absolutely no idea what kind of pictures I’ve been taking. Perhaps all this shooting in daylight will mean that every single picture will be totally washed out and flat. Well, that would be okay. I’m actually not that concerned about it. I’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of the pictures however they turn out, but even if I were to lose them all, I wouldn’t really worry about it that much. I’ll be glad just to have seen the temples.)
Some of my energy has worn off from this morning, and I’ve had to stop for a hopefully cold, cold bottle of beer. It took me a while to actually come to a stop. I was looking for the FCCC – which I believe stands for the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia. It is on my maps and I remember passing it a couple of times on my bike rides back when I first arrived. I also remember then trying to go there for a drink (it’s a famous place) and then I couldn’t find it. Today, I’ve walked up and down these streets two or three times and I just can’t find it again. Yet I know it’s right there. While looking for it, I was bothered quite a bit by the tuk-tuk drivers and other folks and finally I just gave up. I’ve said that they aren’t that bad, and they aren’t, but it still wears you down after a while to constantly have to say no, no, no, no. Then there are a few that are overly friendly. They’ve seen thousands and thousands of foreigners with their knapsacks and cameras, and so they feel like they know us personally. Their comments and approaches then can get very breezy and personal as if we are good friends. Then it strikes me as inappropriate and I feel they are in my space. At least in this part of the city there is a little bit of an escape. One can cross the road and walk through the park by the river. From there you can survey the entire row of buildings and assess the various restaurants and bars from a distance, pick one out and figure out how to get in there. Sometimes it isn’t that apparent when you get up close and once you stop and look around, it is open season on bothering you. So I gave up on the FCCC and I crossed the road and walked along the river again. Then I spotted a nice second story verandah and figured out where the stairs were. And here I am sitting at a fairly nice table with a beautiful view of the river. It’s nice and cool up here as well. Alas, the beer isn’t that cold. You don’t often get everything. Also, while crossing the grass in the park to get here, I was busy pretending that I knew exactly where I was going so people wouldn’t bother me and I stepped into an area of sodden grass from a leaky tap and got one foot all muddy. I shudder to think what else is mixed in with that water. I washed it off in the bathroom here as soon as I could.
My adventure for the morning (perhaps the day, other than the market this morning) was a visit to the National Museum. It took me a surprisingly long time to locate it. There’s something about this river area that confuses me. It cost three dollars to get in, and it was well worth it. I don’t usually get much from museums that have a lot of pottery and such things in them. In fact, I didn’t get much out of this museum in the normal sense either, but it was in a beautiful building and it was a pleasure to just stroll around in it. All the main displays were in halls and rooms set around a beautiful inner garden courtyard. It would be worth $3 just to see the building and absorb the atmosphere. The main draw here, however, was not the display of pottery and such things. The main draw was the collection of statues and carvings. No single piece was overwhelming. I didn’t find myself in awe of the art work. Nor was I overly informed about all the history and all the different periods represented. However, I really enjoyed the sculptures as a whole especially when combined with the occasional photograph of the temple where they came from. I don’t think I saw a single statue like these remaining in all of the temples I saw. It makes you wonder what the temples would have looked like with all the statues still in place – not just these few, but all the hundreds and probably thousands of statues that were looted and are in museums and in private collections all around the world. Most of them were quite delicate by comparison with what I saw at the temples. I was used to seeing giant blocks of stone that would require a strong crane to move. These statues, however, were of Vishnu and Shiva and Ganesh and Buddha and were delicate human forms with arms and legs and that kind of thing. If the giant blocks I saw at the temples could not withstand whatever forces had destroyed them and toppled them, it’s amazing that any of these statues and carvings survived in even remotely complete shape. I understand that most of these statues were found in pieces and that what I saw at the museum was the result of careful reconstruction.
A couple of the statues did make an impression on me, however. I was most impressed with any representation of the Buddha being protected by a Naga. A Naga, apparently, is some kind of powerful snake-like creature with a wide hood like a cobra. Buddha would be sitting there contemplating the universe and there would be a huge hooded creature hovering above him and telling everyone to piss off and leave the Buddha alone. I figure we could all use a Naga of our own sometimes.
The other statue that impressed me was a much more than life-sized representation of Shiva with his eight arms. (I think it was Shiva. I can never remember the difference between Shiva and Vishnu.) Again, I think what impressed me was the sense of strength that I got from the statue. I had the feeling it could easily come to life and move around. If that thing stepped down from its pedestal and asserted itself, well, the universe would snap to attention.
The other symbolism I came across in the museum that spoke to me was something called “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.” I first became aware of this at Angkor Wat, and I feel that it is going to become a permanent feature of my life. I can see myself walking into the 7-11 many times in the future and telling the poor clerk that I am in the mood to Churn the Ocean of Milk, and don’t mess with me. I saw this represented in a huge bas-relief at Angkor Wat. Apparently there were thousands of Gods and thousands of demons on opposite sides of an ocean. They each had hold of a giant snake and they were pulling back and forth on the snake. Through this tug of war, they churned up the ocean and the milk of immortality rose to the surface. The gods got to the milk first, drank it, and became immortal. Many of the gates to the various temples, particularly the gates to the walled city of Angkor Thom, were adorned with a long line of statues busy Churning the Ocean of Milk. I don’t think I ever got a good picture of it. It’s a hard thing to frame especially when the light isn’t good, but the image made an impression on me.