Friday, August 9, 2013


Bangkok, Thailand-- So, we find ourselves at the end of another week of our journey which is fast approaching its end. This week we found ourselves in Cambodia and here in Bangkok and I must say that it is VERY different from Japan.

Pari, our tuk tuk driver.
Wow. Cambodia, as expected, was pretty underdeveloped. We stayed in Siem Reap, the "city" a few km from Angkor Wat. Stepping off our tiny prop plane, it was evident we were entering the third world. Our 20 yr old tuk tuk driver from the hotel (who reminded me of a young Muhammad Ali), Pari, met us at the airport. All smiles, he welcomed us to the Kingdom of Cambodia, propped up our bags on the seat and ushered us onto the golden upholstery of his back seat. And away we went, zipping through the dusty red streets of Siem Reap, dodging and weaving around bikes, minibuses, motorcycles, other tuk tuk, pedestrians, cows, chickens and even some real cars. It was a speeding frenzy as no one really payed any attention to the lanes (in either direction) or traffic rules. Pari was clearly a pro, cutting through gas stations and zipping around other tuk tuks with a wink and a smile. He was probably showing off that he had two prized American clients in the back who were overpaying way too much for the fare. Before we knew it, we were at the hotel and we had agreed to a $5 excursion to see the sunset over "the lake" with Pari later that day.
Typical Street in Siem Reap

What we didn't know about the little sunset cruise was that it was actually going to be four and a half hours and that we would also have to pay $50 in ticket fees to get into the lake. At 4:00pm we returned to find Pari waiting for us, all smiles as usual. We raced away into the chaos once again, kicking up more red dust. After a while, about 20 min. or so, Betz and I looked at each other clearly thinking the same thought: "where the hell are we going?" We had turned off the main road a while back and now were winding through some small streets lined with trees and lean-to shacks that were lacking in every modern amenity except television. Wild dogs, cats, cows and chickens roamed freely across the streets and Pari would nonchalantly weave around them and zoom off. Then we realized that we were totally reliant on this guy who we didn't know, in a third world country where the average household income is less than $5000 a year. Every minute felt like five as we pushed farther into the abyss, away from the "civilization" of Siem Reap. The only reason not to panic was that Pari was an official tuk tuk driver from the hotel. When we were about 45min in, we came to the gate of the lake where we were asked to pay $25 per person to enter. After discussing it with each other, we decided not to turn around and pay the tourism fee and continue the journey to see the sunset. Pari felt very guilty. He came off as goofy, oafish, airheaded, genuine and likeable. We didn't think he was trying to take advantage of us, rather he just neglected to tell us about the entry fee. Oh well, we had come this far...
We continued down the bumpiest narrow dirt road that was elevated above the rice fields on either side when we were confronted by a herd of about 300 cattle coming the opposite way. Pari drove right into them, pushing them aside with his hands when necessary. Finally we made it to our boat!
So happy to get a beer for the boat ride!

We were the only ones on the little stream going out to the lake at that point and we would occasionally pass other tourist boats returning. Every time the drivers would be smiling and the tourists had this horrific look on their faces. We laughed, knowing full well that they had the same experience as us. Instead of feeling taken, we decided to shrug it off and do our best to enjoy the sunset. Betz and I felt so lucky to have each other for this harrowing tale that oddly the bumpy ride somehow felt romantic.
The boat wound for half an hour downstream before we saw the first structure. It was a secondary school that was perched on the bank on 25 foot tall wooden stilts. Then more structures, houses, also dozens of feet up. Soon, we were riding through an entire floating village. Naked children were jumping in the water (which was a gross milky brown color) and full grown men were washing up and brushing their teeth. This shrimper colony was teeming with people who were playing, laughing and preparing for the end of the day. Though the Cambodian people are poor, these certainly appeared happy.
Sunset on the lake. Sigh.

We finally reached the lake, which was huge, water at every horizon, with the sun hovering in the west. We were apparently very lucky to have seen such a beautiful sunset because during the rainy season it is a rarity. Our captain tethered us to a floating bush and we watched the sky change to a warm orange as the sun went behind a low cloud. We enjoyed the moment of peace despite the Khmer radio in the background (Pa Woo do my bum krang du!), knowing our 2 hour return journey awaited us.

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