Sunday, October 24, 2010

Travel Tips: Cambodia

Ah Cambodia, or Kampuchea for those of us who were born before the 1990s. The name alone conjures up visions of ancient temples, jungles and Maddox Jolie-Pitt.

As part of my recent sojourn to the area (which I have dubbed "South East Asia: Unsubmitted") I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in this fabulous country and, as always, am here to give you a little advice, Montebellucci-style.

My wife and I arrived full of anticipation at the Siem Reap International Airport after a few idyllic days in Luang Prabang, Laos (also known as The Best Place In The World). Compared to Luang Prabang's "airport" which consisted of 5 cerulean colored chairs and a woman who checked our luggage manually, Siem Reap seemed like a bastion of modernity.

*an aside: although the airport itself was slightly behind the times, its awesome policy of walking across open tarmac does make one feel like Mick Jagger, or a convict being transported by JPATS.

At Siem Reap airport you will use an E-Visa, get your luggage off a modern carousel and note that immigration is a real place, not just a man with a hairy mole who takes bribes in Baht, Kip, US dollars and snake whiskey. We went outside and let a friendly gold-toothed man at the taxi stand hail us a car for a measly $7.

Our driver tried very hard to engage us with Siem Reap-related pleasantries. He explained in great detail how difficult it is to find work driving, as well as the various tours one could take of Angkor Wat - With him! Right now!

As we listened politely to his prattle my wife began filing her nails with the elephant tusk emory board she had bought at a back-street night market, while I tried going through the usual  routine I use when realizing one's hairdresser, cab driver or airplane seatmate is a "chatter".
1. responding in kind
2. smiling and nodding
3. murmuring faintly
4. going to my "happy place"
5. submitting to the darkness and killing everything that moves, before coming to my senses with my hand in a pile of goo that used to be their face.

I was at about level 4 and a half before I thought to distract myself by looking at the scenery passing by outside.

The city of Siem Reap is, in fact, a holding area for some millions of tourists who visit Angkor Wat every year. It is also one of the poorest cities in Cambodia. Because of this, it feels like some sort of post-apocalyptic version of Orlando, Florida. Except that instead of  Hooters, outlet malls and a Ripley's Believe it or Not! they have a Landmine Victims Orchestra, maimed beggars and child prostitutes to entertain the masses. Fun.

* The dulcet tones of the Landmine Victims' Orchestra

Giant hotel after giant hotel zoomed by, straddling a highway populated by bikes, tuk-tuks and babies riding scooters.

 *Don't get ripped off like the guy on the back; that baby charged him 80,000 kip.

Everything has an air of Third World New about it - meaning things have popped up like fungus, or the new 90210, with no thought to continuity or design. Mobile phone stores, "restos", fish massage tanks and more beckon from every direction. It is also approximately 1000000000 degrees celcius.

As you wait for your driver to take you to your lodgings, he will inevitably decide you should check out some other digs on the way. You know, just in case. Because, as any visitor to South East Asia knows, whatever hotel one originally asks to go to is, oddly, always closed or under construction. Finish your perusal and bluntly tell your driver (who seems to be stuffing a wad of cash into his pocket) that you are not interested and to take you to the Mandalay Inn in no uncertain terms. Readers, you are in for a treat.

We arrived at the fancy orange storm gates of The Mandalay Inn (which were lovingly adorned with rotting posters) and knew we were in paradise. After pestering us for the best part of our check-in and realizing that we would not in fact require his services for our entire vacation, our driver kindly bid us adieu calling us "fucks" and "shits". He must have really liked us because 1 hour later he was still waiting for us until the owner and our spiritual protector (pictured below at left) shooed him away with threats of police intervention and severe bodily harm.

Take a moment to appreciate the magnificent surrounds of the Mandalay Inn. Your luxury straw mattresses will be bedecked in glorious gnome haberdashery.

*Figuring out which cities each gnome is visiting makes a fun game to distract yourselves with while you are barricaded in your room awaiting the safety of daylight. As my wife sagely noted, none of the cities are Siem Reap.

Perhaps the most valuable take away from my entire trip to Cambodia is the information helpfully displayed in the sign posted in your room. I dubbed these "The Rules of Life":

* Don't sex with children! We would also find out why one should not "encourage for joiner" in a most unfortunate manner which ultimately resulted in us designing, and burning, an effigy. Heed the sign, people!

The next day, hire some bicycles and ride the leisurely 30 minute cycle to Angkor Wat. If you're smart enough to ask directions from some friendly locals, you might end up getting to ride through a back-road construction site. Enjoy the lilting laughter and giggles of the onlookers as the piles of grit and sand prove to be mighty obstacles for the 1970s era tires on your bicycle.

Once at Angkor Wat don't bother paying the US$20 for a certified tour guide. All they're going to do is take your money and regale you with an accurate and interesting history of this World Heritage site. No! Simply rouse a local policeman from his nap on a historical statue and he'll gladly radio his 14 year-old nephew to come and show you around. If you're lucky he'll be clad in a T-shirt which proclaims your own personal mantra:

* My wife and tween tour guide soak in the history...

For only US$10 your tween guide will illuminate you with such interesting trivia as where every scene in the popular motion picture Tomb Raider was filmed, and which exact trees were used by the Khmer Rouge to slaughter innocents. Do not attempt to inquire about any Angkor Wat history before the year 1995 as you will only receive complicated answers involving Ganesha and wild monkeys.

As for the complex itself - venerable libraries....

...old buildings made out of hundreds of carved heads...

*Always time for an inappropriate jumping photo!

...ancient gates with massive trees growing out of them...

M'eh, it's no Tomb Raider.

After a culturally satisfying day, it's back to Siem Reap. Amuse yourself in the evening by chatting with the local street urchins. They'll tell you you have a "big fat mouth like a monster" or that they "hope your plane falls out of the sky and you die". Kids, they say the darndest things! Escape their bony clutches and return to The Mandalay where you will obey the trusty sign and double lock all of your doors and windows before hunkering down for some shut-eye - there's a big day coming up!

If you have the opportunity and 17-20 hours free, consider taking the overland route back from Siem Reap to Bangkok. The lovely staff at the Mandalay will be more than happy to organize it for you. For around the price of 2 frappuccinos you get an international trip - bargain!

My wife and I boarded the rickety yellow school bus which collected us at dawn and were immediately rendered infertile from the impromptu hysterectomies delivered to us gratis by the exposed springs in our seats. "No matter",  I thought to myself, "one Manimal is enough for the world". As we made more and more stops we picked up more and more of what appeared to be refugees from British Phish concerts:

* Look at these d-bags, I'd gladly deliver a swift "up elbow" to them if I had my druthers. Seriously, is it a law that one has to wear fisherman pants and a headscarf in order to travel in South East Asia? 

As the stinky hippies piled up, so did their obscenely oversized backpacks which were shoved in every available nook and cranny until we were encased in a patchouli-scented death machine. Luckily for us, we were seated next to someone who spent 4 hours talking about his studies at Yale. I found myself wondering what the Manimal was up to in Brooklyn....

Just chillin' 

While being shunted from road side hovel to road side hovel, we slowly made our way toward the safety of Thailand. Fifteen or so hours later we descended in a state of primordial frenzy fueled only by seaweed flavored Pringles and Coke Light onto the border town of Poipet.

* Beautiful downtown Poipet

Our bus driver grunted and affixed strange red stickers onto our lapels. From that moment we ceased to be humans and, rather, became 'red sticker people'. "Red sticker people! Over there!" they would yell at us, "Shut up Red Sticker people!!" and so on. We would all huddle together as our guides fended off hordes of touts who looked at us the way a homeless man looks at a dead pigeon: it's kind of gross, but you know you have to seize the opportunity. Amusingly, being a Red Sticker Person was the only time our guides gave a shit about us. I later realized that this was because it was our one moment to escape and join up with another operation.

We were finally delivered to the immigration patrol where I fulfilled my life long dream of walking across a border. I managed to dodge the bee keeper people and spider vendors, the last obstacle between myself and Thailand which shimmered like a well-amened oasis in the distance:

And thus, our trip to Cambodia ended and the next leg of our journey, a rollicking good time filled with joiners, weapons and ladyboys began.


  1. Hi,

    I got a bottle on this website, is it the same kind of Snake wine that you got ?

    Thanks for any info where to buy different bottles with beasts :-) inside.

  2. Hi,

    Wow! is amazing!

    I did not purchase my snake wine there however I think it will be my go-to for beasts in bottles for the future.

    I simply purchased my snake wine the good ol' fashioned way: in some Laotian shanty town.

    Unfortunately, I am not an oracle on bottles with beasts, however if you can get your hands on some Korean Baby Mice Wine or even some Three Lizard Liquor let me know immediately!

  3. Very entertaining post, thank you. I laughed at the "Red Sticker People" mention, which reminds me of some routes in Thailand. Indeed, we cease to become people. Now we're just tagged cattle.