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.

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