Sunday, December 19, 2010

nowhere fast

When exhausted, sore, and frustrated there’s only one place in the world that can completely rejuvenate the soul: the beach. And luckily for Siobhan and myself, we arrived in Sihanoukville with the sun high in the sky and were eager to get a piece of it.

Located in the very south of the country, this backpacker’s paradise has grown exponentially over the years, most likely to its own detriment. Throngs of tourists pass through and faces around town change about as rapidly as new business open up and old ones disappear. Yet there is a constant abundance of guesthouses, restaurants, and bars; so much it becomes bit overwhelming. Basically, it’s a smaller, calmer version of Siem Reap…with a beach. Despite my obvious annoyance with the previous tourist packaged town, this place unexpectedly charmed me. Maybe it was the sea air or the quick and cheap moto escape to a secluded beach, but Sihanoukville (pronounced Sha-nook-ville) had a lot more to offer if you bothered getting off the main strip.

With a plethora of beaches to explore, I made it a personal mission to try them all. The obvious first one we ventured to was Serenity Beach, the main drag completely overcome with beach chairs, restaurants, and locals touting everything under the sun. Massages, books, jewelry, sunglasses, fruit, and hair removal were all up on offer and I wish I could say I never indulged. But newbies smell like fresh meat and the children surrounded us making us “free” bracelets, the gimmick being that out of guilt we’d buy something else. (It worked.) But probably the weirdest thing we purchased, really the weirdest thing I’ve ever done on a beach, ever, was threading.

For those uninformed on the pain that is beauty, threading is a hair removal process where dental floss is used in a way that rips hair from skin. It essentially is waxing without all the pain, or that’s how it was sold to me. Despite the gentle demo, threading turned out to be a painful and torturous activity, at least for me. Everyone else kept calm and quiet about the uncomfortable process, but I could not. Every now and again I couldn’t help but flinch and let out a yelp. Not only did the beautician ladies laugh it up, but so did Siobhan, the seller children, and the other patrons near us. The particularly painful bit was getting my armpits threaded. An odd mix of pain and tickling, I couldn’t stop laughing and screaming, thus confusing and entertaining the masses. “It’s all for the blog,” I whimpered as I vowed never, ever to submit myself to such torture again.

After we washed up and got ready, we headed out for a big night on the town. As it turned out, it was Saturday night and a New Moon, which meant day glow party, and Siobhan and I had yet to go out properly since reuniting. So we wore our worst clothes and prepared as best we could because with these nights, you never know what’s going to happen.

What’s day glow you ask? Any Southeast Asia backpacker knows this substance well and stays away from it, unless of course they’re drunk and it’s a moon party. Then you smoother yourself in the neon colored paint and proceed to scream, “woo hoo!!!”. It’s quite popular because you’ll then glow under a black light and it gives you great excuse to meet new people and draw on them. The downfall? The paint is painfully permanent, meaning anything it touches becomes fated as “moon party wear”, never to see the light of day nor the soil of your homeland.

So our first night we loaded up on paint, whiskey buckets, and had an absolute blast meandering back and forth between beach bars. It was only my first night but already found three different bars wanting to hire me in exchange for drinks and accommodation. While most that night has been erased from my memory, I had it together enough to realize I was going to stick around Sihanoukville for a little while.

One of the greatest and worst things about S.ville is the party always goes until sunrise, no matter what night of the week it is. It took me a few days to adjust, but I always thought it was a great idea to come home, change to my bathing suit, and then head out for some early morning rays. That is unless I passed out during the process.

After only a couple of days it was clear I needed a break and luckily for me one was already scheduled in. Siobhan is an avid diver and was eager to go out to one of the many islands for an overnight diving trip. I was excited to join her and be lazy on the beach while she was out being active. So we signed up with a dive company and set out for Koh Rung, a nearly deserted island 2 ½ hours out from shore.

Since my bad decision making skills are legendary, no one should be surprised to hear I stayed out all night partying only to come home with less than 10 minutes to pack and get ready to go for 3-4 days to the island. Of course Siobhan was livid as she was certain she wasn’t going to see me and was unsure what to do. I threw everything in together, still drunk and not answering questions, and off we ran to catch our ride. I was feeling fine, certain I would sneak some sleep on the boat, until that is I saw the pile of wood.

Not only was there no place to rest my head, but the waves were high, the wind strong, and it was obviously a bad day to be out at sea. No matter, we began our journey with spirits high. After a period of time I became intensely seasick and did my best to hold back the vomit. Some fun was poked at me until everyone saw just how awful I felt and began to show their concern. Suddenly I couldn’t hold it anymore and decided to make my way to the back of the boat so less people would witness the experience, or at least they would be downwind of it.

This proved another bad decision as I had no balancing skills with the boat rocking up and down, back and forth, and I was quickly thrown to the ground with my dress torn and my back scrapped pretty badly. With the wind knocked out of me and my back throbbing, I no longer had to vomit, but still had to endure another hour of tortuous high seas. And there went my theory I was a pirate in another life.

I have never been so happy to see solid ground and promptly laid down attempting to sleep off the seasickness/hangover I was stuck in. By the afternoon I was well enough to walk to the part of the island with the bungalows we were to sleep in. I was still sick, but completely able to appreciate the absolutely stunning scenery around me.

Nestled into the hillside and directly next to the beach, each individual bungalow had its own rustic bathroom and balcony equipped with a hammock and spectacular view. There was only one restaurant on the island and that was the one associated with both our dive shop and guesthouse, only a stone’s throw from our little abode. On our full day there together, after a solid and much needed sleep, Siobhan and I ventured to discover a secluded white sand beach. We walked along the water and through a mini jungle, ducking trees and jumping mud pits. We went until we reached the end of dry ground and even then we had to walk through chest high water to find our perfect beach. Eventually we made it.

Before us lay a long stretch of white super soft sand without a soul in site, the beach curved in a ‘U’ shape, meaning if anyone did walk past us we would see them from far away. It also gave me the absolutely secluded beach I had been seeking my entire time in Asia, or at least since I had read ‘The Beach’. So off came my top and out came my spliff, because I wasn’t going to miss a golden opportunity like this to utterly relax and tan beyond restrictive bikini lines.

Unfortunately, nature has to find balance and there was really only one catch, although it was a pretty awful one: sandflies. Now they sound harmless but truly these are the demonic cousins of mosquitoes. While mosquito bites instantly swell, if you don’t itch them, they go away. But sandfly bites are of another world. They leave only a tiny red dot and aren’t terribly irritating at first. It’s only after you’ve left the scene of the crime and showered that you realize how totally and utterly itchy you are.

While this might be annoying to some, it’s awful for me. You know those people with sweet blood who always get bit more than anyone else in the group? There’s always one and that unfortunate soul is me. While Siobhan suffered a few annoying bites, I was absolutely entirely covered in bright red bumps. The little fuckers preferred my legs to the rest of me, but still managed to get just about everything they could. Not only are these bites obvious and foul looking, but they seemingly never go away. They never stop itching and they itch so fiercely you end up creating scabs, which you will later scratch off as well, and eventually leave you covered in little white scars. Don’t worry, those will itch, too. It has officially been six weeks since the tragedy and I’m still itching. Really. (And yes, that’s how behind on my blog I am.)

So why are sandfly bites worth such a long tangent? Because for the following few weeks if I ever wore shorts I had to deal with people gasping and saying, “My God, what has happened to you?!?”. Their pitiful stares and apologies didn’t make up for the fact that I was now the leper on the beach. Nice timing for me to live in a beach town, eh?

And that was the plan. I decided to settle in S.ville for a week or so bartending while Siobhan headed towards Vietnam. We headed back the next day on a perfectly smooth and gentle boat ride that I could nap through (oh the irony), and spent our last full day together indulging it up with more beach and western food. We even splurged and went to see a movie, the second one I’ve gone to in eight months. This “theater” was simply a large room with papasan chairs that showed pirated new movies. Completely comfortable and relaxed, they offered services such as ordering pizza, free of charge, as was the added “happiness”. And with mini tables equipped with ashtrays, I knew I’d come back to this $3 a flick sweet spot.

Of course there was another night out with memories lost to the buckets we consumed, but it was all well enjoyed nonetheless. The next morning we parted ways, permanently this time, and I was ready to begin the next chapter of my journey. Bartending for bed is not unknown to me and has been something I’d been searching for my entire time in Asia. I resisted the tempting offer in Vang Vieng, but a bar on the beach is not something I could deny. And so I settled in for a week (or so) of complete and utter alcoholism.

Monday, December 13, 2010

black or white

Some people seek out electronics, some diamond jewelry, but I’m on the hunt for a new liver on the black market. Because after all the antics of Vang Vieng, even a detox can’t remedy the damage I’ve done to my body. But since that isn’t an option (at least not until I get back to Bangkok), I opted for rest and relaxation at 4000 Islands. Or so I thought.

Located at the southern border of Laos sits a maze of small rustic islands speckled throughout the Mekong. Up until very recently, even electricity wasn’t available except on the main big island. But as tourism grows on Don Det, the backpacker haven most flock to, everyday brings more modern comforts of home.

Yet despite the increasing number of tourists, there still lacks an ATM machine. This in turn determines a limited amount of time as money eventually runs dry. Of course there are ways around this annoyance as the locals will often sell bus tickets on “credit” and will take you to an ATM promptly when you cross the border into Cambodia or elsewhere. Luckily for me, I was aware of this problem (some are not) and brought an extra emergency fund which extended my four days into over a week. A week of more the same same shenanigans I’d been akin to. It’s not my fault though; I blame the various hooligans I’d been drinking with in Vang Vieng who showed up to “detox” as well, naturally.

While I intended on solitude on Don Det, the Universe had other plans for me. For starters, two girls I met in Vang Vieng showed up on my bus and it was clear calmness wouldn’t be around for the first few days. Luckily, we held it together in the beginning, but mostly because we signed up for an all day kayaking adventure. A tiny splurge I tried to resist, but in the end I was glad I indulged. A full day of exercise, fresh air, and natural beauty is exactly what I needed. Afterwards of course we did our best to resist temptation but truly, the three of us were not to be trusted with each other.

One would think the 11 pm strict curfew would curtail any shenanigans for foreigners, but alas, we always find a way. A porch and bottle of cheap whisky is really all you need. This curfew isn’t really enforced anyway; it’s more or less just the closing time for absolutely everything on the island. Annoying yes, but respectable as the all of the islanders had agreed that peace and quiet is worth more than any amount of money anyone can make from catering to whims of backpackers.

Life is slow on Don Det. There are no main roads as the rocky dirt paths are used by motos, bicycles, feet and nothing more. Water buffalos are trotted back and forth for new grazing and children pile on bikes far too big for them. Time does not exist in the specific form, rather in time periods as “dinner” or “morningish”. Corner shops are the extent of shopping and the only electronic entertainment available is the internet, and for such a steep price it’s best just avoided. Besides, that’s not what Don Det is about.

For some, the island is boring. For me, adaptation wasn’t even necessary as sleeping in, reading in hammocks, long strolls, and late night smokes are apart of my preferred life. I don’t mind not having a schedule or “accomplishing” much as life without obligations is more enjoyable for me. Essentially, this is the spirit of 4000 Islands. Virtually every bungalow comes with a hammock and the best ones are built right over the Mekong River so you can sit back, relax, and relish the beauty and serenity that surrounds you. Despite the peacefulness available everywhere, I did hunt out a particular favorite lounge zone, and it only took a couple of days.

Mama Rasta is the sweetest, craziest old lady on the island and if her joyful spirit doesn’t draw you in, then her cheap delicious food will. Her restaurant’s location is what brought me in but her hearty laugh through her black toothed smile is why I retuned. She has a charm that’s hard to describe and her laid back attitude and desire to please is undeniable. Truly, it is her family that runs the business but without her spirit, they would have nothing. Oh yeah, and they let you smoke freely on the back balcony.

Behind the restaurant is a row of only five rooms for rent but unlike all the other bungalows on the island, these are connected by a giant porch equipped with many hammocks and a table which lends itself to a much more social atmosphere. And with the freedom to smoke, food on hand, and lack of 11 pm curfew, this became the perfect place for me and the crew to hang out. What crew you ask? Why, my favorite alcoholics from Vang Vieng turned up the day the very same day the girls left.

As I was writing my last blog, I left a cliffhanger insinuating I would run into friends on 4000 Islands. The truth was, I hadn’t yet seen anyone other than the two girls, but something inside me knew I wouldn’t be alone long. Roughly 20 minutes after I wrote that last line, a couple of motorbikes drove past and I shouted at them as they were three of my friends from the boat crew: Hoover the plate licker and Ban and Death, my favorite British couple whom I inevitably run into every place I go.

They had rented motos and only had a few days on the island but before they left my favorite alcoholic boys showed up. Four of whom I had met way back in Thailand and two newbies picked up along the way. I quickly showed them to Mama Rasta’s and thus the base camp was set up. This was also the point at which I realized I wasn’t leaving, l wasn’t writing, and should no longer be held responsible for my actions.

Days became even lazier, nights more cloudy, and I couldn’t be happier. Opportunities to have a gang of good friends you’re super comfortable with while laughing at old jokes don’t come around often when one is on the road. And I’ve never been on such a tight schedule I couldn’t add a few extra days for good friends.

We had such a great time together on our last night that I managed to sleep through my bus to Cambodia the following morning. Luckily, people are so laid back on the island they barely batted an eye and simply said, “Yeah, well, go tomorrow.” That simple. No extra costs, new ticket, or hassle. Just an extra day to relax.

The next day I managed to wake up in time for my boat off the island and was ready to begin a new adventure in Cambodia. The journey from one destination to another is often used trying to sleep on an uncomfortable bus and hold your pee. This adventure was no different but involved several bus changes and a border crossing so naturally, some scamming would be involved.

After customs on both sides swindled everyone out of a few dollars for “weekend overtime tax” or whatever they said that day, the bus full of weary travelers bound mostly for Siem Reap was forced to wait an obnoxious amount of time for nothing in particular. During this time, a pleasant well spoken Cambodian made his way around selling tickets to upgrade the bus journey to Siem Reap. Being that this destination is one of the biggest tourist draws in all of Southeast Asia (Angkor Wat’s fault), we should have all seen it coming. Unfortunately, only six of us did.

Everyone else on the bus easily forked over the $3 to upgrade their ticket to a “more comfortable and faster” bus. The group of five Dutch girls sitting behind me and myself didn’t buy the ticket, nor the bullshit the guy was selling. He really tried with us as well, giving us a special discount offered to no one else. We insisted our already purchased tickets would get us to Siem Reap and even if it wasn’t until 4 in the morning, we were backpackers and well prepared for the adventure. I’m glad I stayed strong with the girls because when the bus stopped for dinner and for everyone to change to their comfortable bus, it became clear everyone had been bamboozled.

There was no special upgrade bus. The salesman had mysteriously disappeared with everyone’s cash and left them with nothing but useless paper tickets and a lesson well learned. We all piled on the same bus, everyone patting us on the back for seeing through his convincing argument, and arrived inconveniently after midnight and after 16 hours of exhausting traveling.

Being that I was already enmeshed with the Dutch girls, we stayed together in a hotel for a couple of nights while I located my friend Siobhan who I knew was somewhere in town. Pronounced nearly like ‘Shivon’, this English girl with the crazy Irish name and I had met months ago on my first day in Pai, Thailand. We clicked right away and had originally planned to meet up sometime in Laos. But as I move quite slowly and she bounded around constantly, I had assumed I’d never see her again, unless it was in her hometown of Manchester. But somehow it worked out that she bad been to twice as many places as I and was settling for one week to volunteer at an orphanage roughly the same time I’d be cruising through Siem Reap.

So I moved hotels as the two of us got on a lot better and I’m not akin to traveling in a large group of girls. (They move too slowly, can’t make decisions, and never bullshit as much as I enjoy.) So while Siobhan spent the days being helpful and productive, I slept in, relished the wifi access in the room, and explored the tourist trap that is Siem Reap.

Being that I just came from quiet, peaceful, and secluded 4000 Islands, Siem Reap was a rude awakening of poverty, dirtiness, scams, and an endless stream of people selling crap. From postcards to massages, all the children and legless men never stop hassling the continuous stream of tourists pile driving through town.

For those unaware, this is because the ancient ruins and impossible to miss Angkor Wat is located just outside of town. While this generates steady income for Cambodians in the area, it has also created an environment of ‘sell, sell, sell’ that I simply have no interest it. On my first full day I actually started to sprint away at one point shouting “no means no!”, and thus why I found sanctuary in our chilled out hotel.

At some point, I needed to venture out and actually visit these ruins I truly was fascinated to see. I hired a cheap moto driver for the day and hummed the Indiana Jones theme the whole day while flying through the seemingly endless ruins. Spread out over miles of flat terrain, this place is easy enough to navigate on a bike, but only if you buy the three day ticket. Time, money, and patience didn’t allow for this with me and I opted for the quickie one day tour of the most fascinating and beautiful temples.

The Temples of Angkor were built in the early 12th century and are spread out over a large area. These religious buildings were apart of daily life in this once bustling metropolis center of the ancient world. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat and while this is only one of many temples, it is the namesake for which travelers identify the entire area. It is indeed the most well-intact temple I’ve ever seen but most famous for being the world’s largest religious site. Time had forgotten other sites though as nature overtook what it pleased, the massive structures entwined with monstrous trees and vines.

Before visiting, I had conjured up images of Tomb Raider and Congo, yet there was nothing dangerously exciting about these ruins. Just hordes of old, fanny pack wearing, incessant picture taking tour groups blocking all my shots. I tried to borrow a couple of them to take pictures of me but they seemed to misunderstand what I wanted as my feet made the photo, but the ruins did not.

Don’t take my cynicism the wrong way: the Temples of Angkor are an overwhelmingly beautiful place I’d highly recommend someone traveling through Asia to visit. But the throngs of tourists and beggar children can’t help but ruin a bit of the grandiose splendor that is Angkor Wat.

While Siem Reap is the problem, it is also the cure. Achy feet soothed by cheap massages, weary souls filled by delicious western food, and an endless supply of 50 cent beer to cure just about any ailment. Despite the extremely obvious poverty, this is the place to indulge. And if you couldn’t be bothered to even think about money conversions, you don’t have to. Cambodia reales aren’t worthless, but they might as well be.

Dollars are the choice of currency and shoeless children pander whatever they can get (accompanied with a sad puppy face) begging for “one doll-aaar miss”. Sure it is only one dollar, but it also encourages these kids to skip school and not develop a craft or skill. It should also be noted the money never goes to the children directly because their parents are usually nearby with an eagle eye taking whatever they get as soon as they get it. If you want to help, you’re better off buying them some food or donating to an orphanage directly.

When the time came for us to leave Siem Reap, I was more than ready to go. I had been seeking the beach for a couple months and I was now only a bus ride away. With a final wander down tourist alley we regenerated ourselves with food and shopping and prepared to leave this oxymoron two faced town of Siem Reap. Siobhan and I had decided to stay together for another leg to Sihanoukville before inevitably parting ways again. We drove right through the gritty capital of Phnom Penh (ok, not drove through. Another bus scam left us with 4 hours to spare in the crack of dawn with nothing to do but try and sleep on some uncomfortable chairs. Somehow not surprised). When we finally arrived in Sihanoukville nearly 6 hours later than expected, we were tired and desperate for sand and sun. And of course, shenanigans. And shenanigans is what we got.