Monday, August 30, 2010

Mile 3152 -- Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- Day 13

Cambodia is a dark country. Approaching by air, the observant passenger can discern the stars in the sky more clearly than the ground. The runway is lit by a single torch in the far distance with little of the dazzling fanfare and extravagant runway lights most passengers expect upon landing in a strange airport. On foot, by night the streets are black save for the darting headlamps on passing motorbikes; there are no streetlamps. Electricity, as we will learn, is expensive here. At night, the nation's lights are put out.

Landing in Siem Reap was, in retrospect, probably a wise decision. It is an unabashed launchpad to Cambodia's ancient temples: an unnaturally swarming amalgam of guesthouses, restaurants (mostly Thai and French, in acknowledgement of the region's colonial administrators) and swarming motorbikes pulling fancifully decorated carriages. These are the tuk-tuks, Cambodia's raucous alternative to public transit, who will carry you every step of your journey across country for a small fee (in USD, naturally) and will dog you mercilessly if you should decide to stretch your legs across town for a short walk. It was an easy transition from the United States as the city lives and dines on tourism; the visitor has merely to arrive in good order to be led (or vigorously seized) by the hand wherever they wish to go.

Siem Reap is collectively charmless, lacking as it does public transit and any sense of urban coherance. It has risen out of the jungle in a haphazard manner over a remarkably short span of time after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Yet many of its entrepreneurs have done well by the city and opened a number of venues posessing great individual merit: the walled temple gardens, open-air cafes and balconied lounges all embody the best of tropical langour and invite one to lounge in the vaporous monsoon air. Khmer cuisine, while less well-known than its regional counterparts, is also thus inspired and seeks to distinguish its stew-like curries with sour notes of lemongrass, jasmine and coconut over fresh fish and shellfish from the murky Mekong waters. Scents and noise stream out of every doorway as traffic revolves in endless circuits; motorbikes are like platelets closing gaps in the wide arteries between Mitsubishi trucks and tour buses. It is otherwise a relaxed and civil place, despite the best efforts of its street hawkers and scavenging tuk-tuk drivers.

Of course, "Angkor" is the magic word on Siem Reap. Uttering it as an exclamation (à la ang-KOR) will get you a beer--another third-world Pilsner, clear and foamy--and cost you about $0.50. A more innocent "Angkor?" in question form will cause you to be whisked away in a cloud of dust by the nearest tuk-tuk driver and amateur tour guide for the famous Angkor Wat ruins, less than 15 kilometers away into the misty jungle, costing you about $35 for the transportation and an identification badge with your photo on it allowing access to the archaeological park. Nearly the size of Manhattan, these sprawling ruins attract tour buses full of French and South Koreans like nothing else to marvel at their splendor. It is rare for such attractions to live up to their own reputation, yet I believe Angkor does just that in spades. While the main temple complexes are indeed heavily touristic* and infested by waif-like children selling postcards and their skulking minders, the outlying ruins are carved straight from the Cambodian jungle in cyclopean forms of immense splendor and utterly deserted at all hours of the day. The sky was angry and overcast as Michelle and I made the jungle trek at 4:30 AM to see the temples at sunrise, yet I count this gray uncertain weather as a blessing--the green lichens and deep-hued sandstone stood out against the sky in sharp relief as if they still hosted processions of Hindu monks doing obeisance before the devaraja of Angkor some thousand years ago.

Nonetheless, I was not unhappy to leave by bus for Phnom Penh the following day.We transitioned through endless acres of rice paddies and the Mekong floodplain where stilted houses rise above the sienna-toned water. The driver was kind enough to curate a wide selection of popular Khmer love ballads on the bus speakers as we progressed, their studio reverb blaring as we lurched through villages on dirt thoroughfares blossoming with dust and lotus petals behind us.

There is less to say of Phnom Penh. It is a quiet capital by south Asian standards; the traffic is the usual scrum of wildly swerving motor vehicles, yet each blast of the horn carries with it a certain restraint and sense of caution that is reinforced by the moderate speed of traffic; a mere 40 kilometers per hour. Even the monkeys are civil, and anyone who feels the busking tuk-tuk drivers and their touts overly aggressive has never visited Delhi or anywhere else in India. Michelle and I felt a certain oddity when strolling the Mekong riverfront park with its French restaurants and lofty hotels. It is indeed odd to think of the city as utterly empty, yet it was so under the Khmer Rouge, who drove its inhabitants from their lives into jungle work camps during their deadly reign. It has since risen again and grown past its optimal size. Corruption it endemic to society here, though the police have little better to do than blow their whistles and tourists in the Wat Phnom park who tread on the temple lawn. There is little money and little investment here: even the most basic exchanges are handled in US dollars instead of the homegrown Cambodian Riel. I have been here almost a week and not even handled a single bill of foreign currency; even the ATMs dispense American dollars, a testament to the Riel's mercurial nature.

Despite the monsoon season, the clouds show little sign of granting us rain enough to wash the streets clean. Cambodia has been a worthwhile venture, yet I look forward to the capitalist paradise that is Vietnam, only a short cruise on the Mekong away. We leave tomorrow, if visas can be arranged: two Americans who long to visit Vietnam, after my father's generation spent so much time and effort to avoid the place.

View Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in a larger map

* That is, for those with the poor sense to visit them during regular park hours. For the modest "administrative fee" of $5, the park staff will suddenly forget your individual presence and you may climb the highest towers of the Angkor Wat complex after sunset unmolested. The guards will helpfully suggest this possibility to you, should it not occur for you to ask.


  1. Daniel,
    A wonderful, insightful blog. Am so glad that your grandmother mentioned it to me.
    Steve Gregg

  2. Love it- can't wait to see Vietnam through your eyes!