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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Contrasts of Cambodia

My last night in Thailand was a good one. I stayed with a Warmshowers host about 10km from the border, in the little town of Aranyaprathet. She isn't a cyclist, but she sees so many cyclists coming through on their way to or from the border, that she just decided she needed to start taking them in. When I arrived, after being greeted by her rambunctious dogs, she helped me get settled in and provided me with this interesting bean soup, made of multiple kinds of beans, of her creation, then leaving for a little while to run errands. Before dinner, we headed to the nearby store on her scooter (my first ever time on one, and it was not as worrying as I expected), pumping up the low tire so it could get us there, where we each had a beer and shared some roasted watermelon seeds (which I couldn't seem to get the knack of eating). Afterwards we headed back for a really delicious and extensive vegetarian meal, and she scoffed when I said it was the best I'd had in Thailand. There were even banana leaves stuffed with sticky rice and pudding and cookies for dessert. She kept feeding me past the point I was full, which with the way I have lost weight, is probably something I needed. We had good conversations too, about how my state of Nebraska is dead last for tourism and our slogan of "Honestly not for everyone", which gave her great amusement, about how the roads are better in Thailand than the US and in a way, drivers are friendlier, none of which she could believe, about Thai culture, about how I apparently need to get home and have babies, about how Americans with our influence have a responsibility to figure things out, lots of things. It was a good night. I messed up my laundry by unwittingly hanging it on a dirty rack, and she felt way too bad over my mistake, but that was the only small source of stress, and I dealt with it the next day. She earned me that she wouldn't be up in the morning, and left things out to make breakfast. But I ended up getting around slowly, and by the time I headed out the door, her dogs barking at me like crazy, she got up to see me off.

The border was madness. I don't even know where to begin. I didn't have many miles to go that day, but I found it incredibly exhausting. There were huge trucks and cars and ox carts and motorcyclists, lined up for a long ways back, and this was apparently outside peak hours. As a motorcyclist or bicyclist, I learned that I was meant to weave my way through any available space to get to the front. I got in trouble a few times for not going through spaces I felt uncomfortable squeezing through, when the daring motorcyclists saw it as no problem. It was one of the more stressful experiences I have undergone, and I am not looking forward to future border crossings. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing, and I found myself the ignorant American in need of constant direction. Going into Cambodia, my passport cover I had gotten together with Rachael at the night market on our last evening in Chiang Mai became an unfortunate casualty. It was taken to scan my passport and not given back, and when I asked the agent for it, he seemed to have no clue what I was talking about. I got it for 100 baht, and despite the sentimental value (and practical protection too), it just was not something I was going to make a scene about. I still find it sad to have lost it though.

Cambodia came as an immediate culture shock from Thailand, in ways that Thailand from the US just wasn't. Children of 5 or 6 walking barefoot in school clothes along the side of the highway, children of 8 or 10 riding motorcycles, children doing labor and selling me alcohol at the store... Trash everywhere, even at temples. Signs of extensive poverty everywhere I looked. As I was messaging my sister trying to process, she assured me it would get better in town and further from the border. It did in some ways, reaching Sisophon felt much different from the countryside before it, but there is no escaping the reality of the poverty here. There is also no arguing the beauty of the scenery here, the bright green fields partially submerged, the water sparkling in the hot sun. Cambodia is persistently beautiful across all the countryside I have seen across most the width of the country. It contrasts so sharply with the piles of trash and signs of impoverished living in the foreground of these gorgeous landscapes.

Toward the latter half of my second day riding in Cambodia, I got the rare treat of being able to ride with a couple other cyclists. They were Korean, father and daughter, on a bike tour vacation starting from Vientiane about the same time as I started from Chiang Mai, and they, just like me, were headed to Siem Reap. But unlike me, Siem Reap was not just one step on their route, but the end of their journey. Even if we couldn't understand each other very well, and most conversation was a bit of a struggle, it was really fun riding together, and they also kept me at a good pace. He was also nice enough to buy me a soda at one stand and a coconut at another, cut open with a straw, then cracked open to scoop out the innards. I found it sad to part with them once we got to Siem Reap, after getting to experience a little time not being all on my own. But well, that is the nature of solo bike touring.

Siem Reap was incredible. I hesitate to describe it because I can not do it justice. I enjoyed it immensely, from the vegetarian only restaurant I went to, to the beautifully lit up night market with too pushy vendors. It didn't hurt that I managed to get a really fancy boutique hotel on a deal for a lower price than most the chintzy ones I've gotten in small towns. And Angkor? Damn, I've never seen anything to compare. Even the roads there, lined by tall trees, felt magical. ...A little less on the second and third time, because I messed up and didn't get my ticket and had to go back a long ways to the ticket office. But it was an enjoyable ride all the same. I only had the one day (I really should have taken another), and I took it to see Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, and Ta Prohm. There are so many more temples I could have seen, but I at least managed to see many of the major ones. I'm not going to rant to you about the feeling of magnitude being amongst the multitude crossing the rubber bridge to reach Angkor Wat, the incredible detail of the reliefs all around it and the stories they tell, the wonder of the Hindu complex preserved by Buddhists so long, the sickening feeling of seeing all the Buddha heads missing from such a short time ago thanks to Khmer Rouge and other pillagers, the awe of seeing another temple after another... Just go. Of all the places I have ever been that I think everyone must see, it is Angkor. ...Also, if ancient temples don't do it for you, I saw a whole bunch of monkeys on the way to Angkor Thom, including parents with a baby. Every part of the day was incredible.

The next day I rode to the small town of Stoung, with not a whole lot happening on the way or once I got there. I stayed at the only overpriced hotel in town, and probably stressed a little unduly about leaving my bike in the hotel lobby, because as I have learned recently, the hotel staff usually sleeps in the lobby. I ate baked goods for dinner and breakfast because it was too hard to find anything else. That was pretty much it.

I had thought I had brought more USD than I did (that is the de facto currency in Cambodia by the way, 1 dollar equals about 4000 Riel, which is used in a lot of transactions just as change for dollars), and realized I desperately needed an ATM. I tried to hit one in town, but for reasons I don't understand, it rejected my Pin and a bank employee was looming over me while I used it. I got out fast and immediately changed my pin, before getting the heck out of town. About halfway through the day, I stopped and got lunch at an interesting tourist spot at a lake that is apparently a popular stopping point for tour buses, with a restaurant, overpriced imported food, and various tourist goods sold. When I got to my hotel, I had one of the most humbling moments of my life. I thought I had just enough cash, so I could get my hotel, drop off my bike (they gave me ground floor so I could put it in the room, which I appreciated), and then hit an ATM for real. But torn dollars don't spend here, and a couple of my dollars were rejected. I didn't have enough to pay the $9 for my room. I was allowed to go in anyways, and run to the ATM to get the rest of what I owed. It was really kind and I felt a warmth inside that was more than just embarrassment. That evening I went to the Love Cafe, a spot run by an American, who cooked me up a veggie burger and fries, my first real taste of home. It was damn good. ...Though the image of America was made a little too complete by the annoying crazy American patron who showed up on motorcycle playing shitty music, ranting about whether he could say Jesus or needed to say Buddha, and bitching that he spoke American, not English. Yeah...great look for my country.

Most of my impression of the next day was just feeling really damn hot. At one point while I was stopped in a town, a man walked up to me  and gave me a lychee drink. It was kind of him, but it also felt awkward. I had a bad experience accepting a drink from a stranger once that turned to the worst sexual harassment of my life (don't want to talk about it), and while I am generally trusting, there's some concerns taking things from strangers. I was thirsty and hot and didn't want to be rude, so I drank it as he urged me to drink faster. He kept pointing at indeterminate things as I kept my eyes toward him, and part of me wonders if there was meant to be a grift. I ultimately paid him a fair price for the drink, because it felt better than taking it for free, which he took, and I headed on my way. My overpriced small town hotel that night in Skun had a sink whose pipe was on the floor, so all the water that drained from it likewise ended up on the floor, the bathroom smelling terrible, and also an electric water heater with exposed wires. It was pretty bad.

Yesterday I arrived at last in Phnom Penh. It was a gorgeous and restful ride with the wind at my back for once on the way to the city outskirts. It was a stressful as hell ride through increasingly thick traffic once I got there. Finally getting to the hotel and getting off the bike was a considerable relief. It was more of a relief when I talked the receptionist into letting me put my bike inside the hotel with the words, "What is the hotel's responsibility if my bike gets stolen?" It was not a relief when I told him there are stains on my sheets that look a lot like blood, and seeing them he insisted they were something else and I was worrying unduly. ...Yeah, not great.

I checked out the local Specialized store where I got followed uncomfortably by the sales people who, even with language barriers aside, didn't seem to know too much, and suddenly offered 50% off on clothes when I was about to leave. I could use an extra pair of socks, so I said the heck with it, and got them. Then I made my way to the mall, which involved a number of problematic dead ends from Google's routing and took much longer than expected. They had a lot familiar imported food, but all at rather high prices. I wanted vitamins, but they cost 5x as much as in the US. After the hassle of getting there, I sucked it up and got a tuk tuk to get back to the hotel.

And today...today was a lot. I went to S21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. I may talk about it here down the line. But not now. I need more time and distance before I can try to write about the attrocities I saw and learned about today. Traveling by bike often involves amazing reminders of the depth of human kindness, but today was a reminder of the depths of human depravity.

Tomorrow, tomorrow is another day.

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