Skip to content

Monthly Archives: March 2011

Anchor What?

Janelle In Preah Khan, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Some things live up to the hype. Angkor is one of those things. It’s hard to say this without sounding geeky (impossible, in fact) so here it goes: Angkor is like all my childhood Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings-inspired flights of imagination come to life.

I knew almost nothing about Angkor going in (and only slightly more now), so everything was mysterious and exotic. The massive Angkor Wat temple is the best known, but the ancient monuments of Angkor are actually spread out over a large region. A lot of people explore Angkor via guided bus tour, but for independent-minded folks like us, the most popular way to do it is to buy your pass and then hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day to take you around. There are a couple of common circuits that hit the main monuments, or you can just tell your driver to take you places in whatever order you want. Our guy also had some tips about the best times to go to particular places to avoid the crowds. Your driver drops you off in the parking lot and chills out while you go look around, then takes you to your next destination. A pretty easy way to get around, and the area between the monuments is largely undeveloped, so you’re always taking little trips though forests and rice paddies, which is pleasant.

Angkor Wat is the largest, most famous and best-preserved. It’s a huge fortress-like structure of passageways, towers and courtyards, with moats and causeways and gigantic bas relief scenes of battles, mythical happenings and the underworld. It gets the most visitors, but the high season has wound down, and just by turning down hallways the tour groups don’t use we repeatedly found ourselves alone in stone courtyards and winding temple corridors.

Even more gobsmacking is Ta Prohm, a temple complex that was abandoned to the jungle for centuries. Parts of it have collapsed, and massive white silk cotton and strangler fig trees have been left standing, their trunks and roots winding through the crumbling mossy walls. All around are piles of rubble with bits of bas-relief visible through the moss and lichen. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and the jungle and partial ruins make it much more mazelike and eerie than Angkor Wat. It is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

And best of all? Almost none of Angkor is off-limits. Unlike, say, the catacombs of Paris, you can wander and explore almost anywhere. We would duck down rarely-used hallways, climb up back stairways and over centuries-old piles of rubble. It may be a little selfish to rejoice at this, and I suspect it’ll piss off the archeological establishment, but after a lifetime of going to old buildings and being told DO NOT TOUCH, DO NOT CLIMB, CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC—that I have to stick to a single corridor with all the cool-looking bits roped or gated off—God, it’s refreshing to be able to just explore shit and get lost. I loved it. I felt more connected to the ruins of Angkor than any other historical site I’ve ever been to, just because (a) well, it’s incredibly awesome; but also (b) because I could touch the ancient carvings and sit on the same bench some 12th-century monk sat on.

As great as Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm (and Angkor Thom) are, temple fatigue does still set in. We were in no rush, so we alternated temple days with “hanging out drinking coffee and beer back in town” days, but even so, by day three we found ourselves half-heartedly walking a bunch of samey-feeling temples. But that said, I’m incredibly glad we came to Siem Reap and saw Angkor. (And it doesn’t hurt that Siem Reap is exactly what you want to find in a traveller town: cheap, friendly, lively and unpretentious.) I’m actually also glad we came without really knowing much about Angkor. The scale was far beyond anything we had imagined, and not knowing the history while we exploring made everything all the more mysterious and romantic.

Tomorrow we head to Phnom Penh for, I think, a very different Cambodian experience.

A Holiday in Cambodia

And it’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll do what you’re told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul

–Dead Kennedys

Bus Travel, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

We arrived at the Cambodian border fully expecting to pay our first-ever direct, unambiguous bribe to a government official. I even had a wad of small Thai and US bills ready in my pocket.

Overland travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap involves crossing the border between the markets at Aranyaprathet, Thailand and Poipet, Cambodia. This is one of the more notorious stretches of the modern backpacker trail.  You basically have to deal with a convoluted border crossing involving

  1. a five-hour bus ride to an empty lot several kilometers from the actual border
  2. hiring a sketchy tuk-tuk and convincing the driver to take you to the vicinity of the border instead of an official-looking fake office
  3. walking through commercial border traffic (i.e. a kilometer-long line of trucks and push-carts)
  4. going through Thai customs
  5. walking a no-man’s-land of Cambodian casinos, beggars and pick-pockets
  6. bribing the Cambodian border guards to process your visa on the spot when they threaten to mail your passport to Phnom Penh
  7. dealing with Cambodian touts, drivers and con-artists who will promise to get you where you’re going and then deliver you somewhere else to collect commissions

Welcome to Scambodia.

A couple hours of Googling the anecdotes and warnings about the border crossing left us feeling more than a little nervous about the whole thing.  “Sick with terror” is a bit strong, but might be more apt.  The bus trip from Bangkok was like walking to your own execution. Why can’t we just fly everywhere, like rich people?

Actually, it wasn’t that bad in the end.  It definitely helped to have done our homework: the tuk-tuk driver tried to deliver us to the infamous fake Cambodian visa office (which gets you your visa on the Thai side of the border, but with a huge commission attached), but we’d read about that and told him we already had visas.  A lie, of course–we are chronically incapable of planning that far ahead–but it worked. He took us straight to the border after that.

Once we got through Thai customs (on the last day of our Thai visas, which raised a few customs official eyebrows), we were met by a friendly Cambodian teenager holding a piece of paper with our names on it. We’d arranged a driver to Siem Reap through the guest house, and I guess he had arranged for the kid to meet us. He took us through the Cambodian side of the border, and whether it was his presence (possibly), Janelle’s “fuck with me and I will finish you” scowl (a long shot) or the fact the Cambodian customs agents were having lunch when we showed up (almost certainly), but they didn’t try to shake us down at all.  I was actually genuinely disappointed.  We spent the evening playing pub trivia with some friendly backpackers who had been forced to pay up at the same crossing, and we had no stories to swap. So much for corruption tourism.

A bus ride out of Poipet to a nearby rest stop where we rendezvoused with our driver was a bit worrisome, as we hadn’t been expecting it, but it was all above board.  We found out later it was probably to save the driver a few bucks worth of bribes, as taxis leaving Poipet are expected to kick back a chunk of their fares to the local cops. Our driver was pleasant, even chatty, but by that point I was too tired to do much but take a nap while we rolled through the prairie-flat western Cambodian countryside to Siem Reap.

Poipet, incidentally, is pretty awful.  We didn’t see many beggars, but it is dirty, dusty, filled with garbage and reeks of corruption and shady dealings.  It’s a border market town, rather than a place you might want to live. Once we got out of there, Cambodia got a lot prettier.  Poor, of course, compared to Canada or even Thailand (which has about four times Cambodia’s per capita GDP) but really not unpleasant to drive through.

Even though we managed to dodge the corruption (this time), it’s hard to miss. Cambodia ranks 158th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. I know it’s not a nuanced or original view, but it’s depressing to see such a poor country–particularly one so ravaged by the legacies of war, and where orphans and amputees are ubiquitous–where officialdom is actively working against the people they should be serving.

Breakfast On The River Kwai

Breakfast On The River Kwai, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Kanchanaburi is the kind of place you could plan to visit for a couple of days and end up staying a couple of weeks.  About two hours from Bangkok by bus, but a world away in terms of pace, it’s a town whose tourism industry is built on, of all things, the infamous bridge on the River Kwai.  Of course, there are other things to do, as well, including sitting on a bamboo patio drinking coffee while reading the Lonely Planet Cambodia and watching the river go by.  Also, cooking classes.  We took an all-day Thai cooking class and learned how to make spicy pork salad, tom yum and green curry, as well as the theory of Thai cuisine.  Definitely a day well-spent.  We are well-equipped to be the heroes of the next pot-luck we are invited to.

It would be fun to stay two weeks, but Janelle has more dental work back in Bangkok (more!) to squeeze in before our visas run out.  We’re making a dash for the Cambodian border on Friday.  

The border itself, we hear, is a mad, lawless, Mos Eisley kind of place without the charm.  But that’s for another blog post.

Guest Post: Adventures in Thai Dentistry

Special guest post by Janelle!

I am not an adventurous person, and consider myself to be overly cautious in most things. However, the promise of cheap dental treatment in Bangkok seemed too good to pass up. I read all the sites on the net. Relief from a niggling tooth that was the oral equivalent of a timebomb was a third of the price I might pay in Australia.  You also need to know that I have an unconventional interest in dentistry. I watch YouTube videos of procedures, always try to watch what’s going on during my procedures in the reflections of the dentist’s goggles, and, if I had my time over, would have loved to pursued it as a career. It just interests me, is all. 

Eric knows all about my tooth. Last time he visited me in Australia, we ended up in a Melbourne hospital waiting room well after midnight, he manfully holding my hand as I doused my gums with water repeatedly to try to numb the excruciating pain I was in. (Oxycodone, by the way, is incredible. Heroin must be awesome!) A course of prescribed antibiotics, and I was right as rain. Except I knew that the blasted tooth was going to blow, and the prospect of it exploding while we were stuck in some Indian, Cambodian or Sri Lankan border town… Well, it might make for a great blog post, but we figured we had to get this taken care of in civilized Bangkok. 

The internet has assured me that ‘going to the dentist in Thailand is exactly the same as at home’. Let me tell you- it’s not. The best way I can describe the experience is that it is like visiting the dentist back in 1978.  Don’t get me wrong, the care taken by these girls (and I do mean girls- more on that in a moment) is businesslike, but attentive. I was seen to promptly- as soon as I entered the surgery. No waiting for 45 mins after your scheduled appointment in Thailand, no sirree! I was pleasantly surprised. After filling in the requisite form with spotted small misguided translational mistakes (question -“what is your main dental concern”; my answer – “tooth needs to be fixed”), I was ushered through the corridor by a tiny masked girl in scrubs, wearing blue rubber crocs on her feet that were shaped like dinosaur claws. I mean, seriously, she looked 12. But, I held steadfast to my trust in the net- everything was going to be *exactly* the same. 

The surgery looked clean enough. If I squinted, I could ignore the dirty marks on the walls. There were all the usual things you might see at first glance in a dental surgery. I took comfort in the familiar sights as they presented themselves to me. Dentist chair, not plush, but fine enough; overhead light, check; computer, alright; spitty water bubbler thing, all in order; instrument tray, yep- *looks* sterile… Hmmm… That cloth under the instruments is kinda frayed… But it’s Asia, I’m sure it’s fine. Looked at the instruments themselves. Yep, there’s the pointy hook things, familiar drill thingys, cigarette lighter, dental floss, more sharp things…. Wait. Did I just see a freaking lighter?!

The dentist was talking to me by this stage, so I had to let that one go. She was young as well, and talked to me through her mask in broken, but polite English. I have to say, it’s much harder to understand broken English when you can’t actually see the mouth doing the breaking. I told her the story of my tooth, and she proceeded to have a look. I settled back into the chair, ready to be lowered into position. The tiny dino-girl nurse placed a bib around my neck, and then promptly lifted the edge to cover my face. I then realized there was a hole in the bib for my mouth. Obviously, they didn’t want to look into the eyes of those they were tormenting in this dental horror surgery. I started to worry. 

Five minutes of poking and probing, and the dentist sat me up again, stern eyes over her mask. “Have you used floss before?” she queried, deadpan. I stammered, “well, yes, I do know what floss is, and I, uh, have used it before”. “but no everyday!” she interrupted sharply. I had to sheepishly concur, and was then subjected to a gentle lecture about flossing. X-ray was then required. That involved me being ushered into another room, where dino-girl attached the little X-ray blocking piece of card to a plastic instrument that was not remotely mouth shaped, with what looked like a magnifying glass attached to one end. They shoved it in my mouth, said “bite!” and I did, as well as I could, considering it was a piece of centimeter wide plastic with a card stuck on it, shoved into the back of my mouth. This was the first of approximately 8 X-rays I would have that day, performed in the same way, with the same plastic thing, that I assumed was placed in everyone’s mouth. No sterilizing agent visible in the X-ray room! Argh!

The result of the dentist looking at the picture was that she confirmed what I already knew. Root canal for Janelle. She asked me when I was leaving Thailand, and oohed and ahhed that maybe I would have no time to do the procedure as our tourist visa runs out in 7 days. It was decided that she would go in, clean it up a bit, and refill it temporarily, while they checked to see if I could have the operation in time. The next 60 minutes were pretty standard as far as dental visits go. Maybe a bit more drilling than usual, but no pain, and the dentist seemed very good. One hour later, I was strolling calmly out of the surgery doors to Eric, looking cool and collected. I had done it. Yeah. I rock. He was suitably impressed by my bravery, and we laughed about the lighter I had seen on the instrument tray. I felt good. And it was only 470 baht for the treatment I had. That’s about $16 AUD. I almost giggled.  The receptionist told me that I could come back at 5pm that day to have the root canal done. Balloon bust. Oh. Sure! Great. Dread filled, we traipsed home to our guesthouse room for a nap. 

We returned dutifully at 5pm, Eric setting himself up for the wait with his trusty kindle, and an assurance that he may go for a walk, but he would be back by 6pm to pick me up. The wait to be seen by the dentist was again, non-existent. As soon as I showed, dino-girl was ushering me in again. I thought it was sad that she and the receptionist had obviously been there all day, and were still going strong into the night. Maybe 8 hour days don’t happen in Thailand. I was met by a different masked dentist who went through the procedure as best she could. I just nodded, and wished it to be over. I lay down in the chair, and waited as they tied a piece of rubber over my mouth hole. Started to panic when they didn’t leave me a space to breathe through my nose, but this was soon relieved by a snip of scissors. That’s right. They cut me an airhole. Weird. The rubber at least gave me something to rest my tired open jaws on. It’s actually kind of painful and stressful to have to keep your mouth open that wide and for that long, with strange tooth root filing sensations going on. At the risk of sounding like a baby, I felt like I wasn’t going to get through it. 

And then, I just let it happen. Like I had gotten to the preverbial ‘wall’ like a marathon runner. Periodically, I was sat up and ushered into the x-ray room, rubber and cloth sticking out of my mouth, drool spilling down my front. ‘Please not to close mouth as instruments are still there’. My mind started to wander to other things than what was happening to my oral cavity. Drilling, sawing, filing.  My mouth was agape and numb, I was mentally exhausted, and then- off came the rubber! It was over. I had been in the chair for nearly two and a half hours. I saw E’s face, he looked so relieved I was finally finished. My tooth felt fine and we made plans to eat as soon as the doc came out to give us the bill.

We waited. About 20 mins. I figured they were letting me wait to see that I wasn’t going to keel over before going home. Then- another dentist came out. ‘which one is the patient?’ E quickly gestured to me. I’m sure he didn’t want to be next in line. ‘you come in’. I was bemused, but followed her in. ‘ok, so now we going to put post in, you want to eat first?’ I was surprised, so I asked how long more. ‘oh, one and one half hours at least.’I was devastated. They had filled my tooth, but now they were going to dig out the filling they just put in, in order to put in a post. If I was stronger by this stage, I would have asked why they filled the tooth, when they were just going to rip the filling out 20 mins later, but I was weak, man.  I pleaded with them to let me go out to tell E to go out and eat, and felt terrible that he had such a long time to wait. Poor thing, he said he would be back at 9pm. 

The amount of drilling done during this stage was frightening. I prayed it would be quicker than she said. The nurses had been there all day- and it was now almost 9pm. They seemed chirpy, though, as they chatted in Thai throughout the procedure. It was a Friday night, and the surgery is closed on a Saturday, so I busied my mind imagining their patter to be about what they were getting up to later that night. “I’m wearing… Oh nice!… He’s gorgeous… Oh I know!…”. That sort of thing. 

Then. I was done. The dentist asked me what kind of crown I wanted. I have no idea, so  I pick the second cheapest option, using the same technique I use when choosing unfamiliar wine at a restaurant. Well, it always seems to work at dinner. I need to go back on Wednesday to have the crown fitted. All up the procedure has cost me 23,220 baht. This is about 850 Aussie dollars, once you factor in exchange rates and fees. I started to feel better about the whole thing. I saved a fortune! The cost was just the last of the differences between dentistry here and at home. It was not the same at all, like the Internet promised me, but I think I can deal with it. It was an experience, that’s for sure. 

Playing Cards and French Fries

Bangkok Traffic, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Okay, while I find Bangkok kind of fascinating, we’re currently feeling a bit trapped and lost here.  Janelle semi-unexpectedly had to get some dental work done here resulting in a root canal and new crown.  So instead of leaving a day or two ago for eastern Thailand en route to Cambodia, we were booking appointments.  Yesterday, Janelle submitted to around five solid hours of Thai dentistry (she promises to write a blog post about the experience), and we still have at one or two sessions to go, meaning we will probably be leaving Bangkok and making for the Cambodian border next Friday, which also happens to be the day our Thai visas run out.

While Bangers is probably easier than any other southeast Asian big city to get around in, we are hardly seasoned travellers.  It wears on you, especially when your days are kind of aimless because you’ve already been to all the tourist places and done all the tourist things years ago.  The size, the crowds, the 24-7 buzz of motorcycle and tuk-tuk engines outside your window.  The beggars, the aggressive taxi drivers, the pollution.  None of them is singly all that bad, really, but each takes a small toll.  

Then there’s the frustration of just not being able to do things. Like shopping for a deck of playing cards.  Without much to do in the guesthouse and a lot of traveling ahead, we decided being able to play a few rounds of shithead was in order.  But where do you buy a deck of cards in Bangkok?  If you guessed a department store, a pharmacy, a grocery or a travel store… you would be wrong.  We checked there.  At a massive, multistory bookstore, our attempts to mime dealing cards got us sent to a display of dozens of different tarot decks, but no playing cards.  Seriously, there were Asian pop star theme tarot decks, but nothing with an eight of hearts or a jack of clubs.  Do they not exist in Bangkok?  Are they inexplicably illegal, like selling beer from a convenience store between 2PM and 5PM is? Or are they, perhaps, hidden behind some nearly-decipherable cultural gap?  Maybe Thais buy cards in home furnishing stores, or from a certain street in Chinatown.  Like in Canada, if you want to buy a mah jong set.

It’s like the more complicated food stalls on the street.  I’m fine with the ones where I can point at what I want and then pay a few baht for something tasty.  But then there are the made-to-order ones.  They smell great, but what, exactly, is up with the little handwritten notepads being passed around?  If I just walk up and start pointing at ingredients, will I embarrass myself?  Or worse, the nice lady doing the cooking?  Will I get something inedible, toss it immediately and reinforce every bad impression of farang? I genuinely worry about these things and freeze up and end up eating at McDonalds–and Thailand McDonalds is even worse than regular McDonalds!  The fries don’t have that special smell and taste here!  They’re just like any other fast food fries!  And they’re really expensive, too!

Why is it so hard for me to just jump in with both feet and live the life of the confident (but never arrogant!) traveller?  Why can’t I seize every experience, seek out adventure and be unafraid to look the fool?  Why can’t I be who the Lonely Planet wants me to be?