The Road to Angkor Wat

February 27, 2012

Having spent the first month of my holiday in SE Asia solo, I was joined by Saki for Act II, which would tentatively take us to Cambodia, Laos and then back to Northern Thailand. This, like all of my itineraries, was not set in stone, but she likes to travel with a plan and then deviate from it as circumstances dictate, rather than just float like a leaf in the current, as is my wont. It is a difference in traveling style, to be sure, but not a deal breaker, so I go along to get along.

We had two choices for transportation to Siem Reap, Cambodia, site of Angkor Wat, arguably the most amazing historical site on the planet. (I know, there are those of you who would disagree, citing the Great Wall, Petra, Ephesus or the Pyramids, but I would have to suggest respectfully that you are mistaken.) Anyway, back to the two choices: airplane, at a whopping $270 for a one-hour flight, or bus/taxi, which accomplished the same feat in seven hours, at a cost of only $21. When you factor in the hour-long ride to the airport in Bangkok, not to mention arriving two hours early for the international flight, the travel time difference is pretty minuscule, so we decided to take the bus, pocket the extra cash, and spend it on massages and souvenirs instead.

We had been warned, both by guidebooks and fellow travelers, to avoid the Thailand/Cambodia border at Poipet, as the Cambodian visa facilitators were reputed to be rapacious, often demanding double or
triple the $20 charge to secure the visa, and then, adding insult to injury, routing passengers to taxi drivers who charge double or triple the going rate for the ride from Poipet to Siem Reap. This, we were told, was done with the tacit cooperation of the government, which reputedly turned a blind eye to the doings of the local mafia dudes. I opted to get our visas in Bangkok ahead of time, and to book through transport to Siem Reap, thus skipping some of the most egregious shenanigans. All in all it worked pretty well: we made it to the border, and through immigration, in record time. We had to wait for some time for a taxi, and in the end it turned out to be a rather crowded minivan instead, but it did get us to Siem Reap without incident (although our sleepy driver came close to clipping a cow until I shouted at the last minute; we were never sure if he would have collected it as a distinctive hood ornament, but I was glad to have raised the alarm in any event).

When we got to Siem Reap, we were dropped off at a tuk-tuk stand (for the uninitiated, a tuk-tuk is a motorcycle/trailer affair, which holds a couple of folks and their luggage, pulled behind a 125cc scooter
of dubious lineage, and even more dubious condition). This was not on the itinerary, as we had been promised delivery to our hotel, but it wasn’t a huge deal, so we didn’t make a fuss about it. When we told the tuk-tuk driver where we wanted to go (the Mandalay Inn, which had been recommended by a fellow traveler on the Bangkok-Poipet run), he said “No, mister, you don’t want to go there; it is a long way out of town, and it has very unfriendly management; there is no restaurant; also, it is much too expensive.” I figured he was trying to steer us to a hotel from which he received a commission, so I
reiterated that the Mandalay was indeed where I wanted to go. After some more minor discussion, he agreed to take us there, for free, no less. All he asked was that if we should require the use of a tuk-tuk again while we were in Siem Reap, that we give him a call. That seemed fair enough, so we piled in, and off we went.

Soon we pulled up in front of a hotel which looked fairly reasonable, actually more modern than I had expected. I could not see the name Mandalay Inn anywhere, however; for that matter, I could not see any sign at all. So I asked the driver if this was indeed the Mandalay. “Yes, you should go inside and have a look at the room,” he replied, motioning hastily toward the entry door. “But is it the Mandalay?” I persisted. “Yes, just like the Mandalay,” he said, but there was just the tiniest hint of duplicity in his tone. I was a little bit irritated by now, but mildly amused nonetheless. “So, you mean it is just like the Mandalay, with unfriendly owners, a bad location, no restaurant, and too-high prices?” I asked. He looked more than a bit uncomfortable. “Whatever the case,” I continued, “the Mandalay is where I want to go. If you can take me there, great; if not, I will find another driver who can. Just let me know, because I want to go there now.” He sighed and kick-started the bike, and about two minutes later we arrived at the Mandalay, which proceeded to belie everything our driver had told us about the place: about a block from the center of town; lovely Burmese owners, and exceptionally attentive staff, smiling every step of the way; a restaurant that served up great Western-style breakfasts and tasty Cambodian fare in the evenings for something on the order of $2 per meal; teak furniture and polished marble floors throughout; and all this for $9 (that’s nine, as in the number before ten) per night! Oh, and a pair of great on-call tuk-tuk drivers who drove exceptionally safely, spoke English decently well, and were excellent guides to the Angkor Wat complex. Needless to say, we found no further reason to engage the services of our first driver.

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The Motorcycle Accident

February 27, 2012
Even in tiny Edens, serpents can be found; in my case, the fanged culprit was a small Honda scooter (piloted by the owner of my bungalow, and with me riding pillion). I had earlier opted to forego the use of a scooter on this idyllic isle, figuring that most of my fellow riders would be woefully inexperienced, as well as unused to driving on the left side of the road. Couple that with narrow unmarked pathways, and a complete lack of “rules of the road” (other than the general rule of driving in Asia, “me first”), and all in all I felt safer walking. That said, the birthday party scheduled for later that evening was on the other side of the island, and that would have entailed walking a couple of miles on badly illuminated roads after dark, so I capitulated when Remo offered me a ride. It was a decision I would come to regret within minutes, as he downshifted abruptly and accelerated to negotiate a steep grade. The combination of the hill, too much gas, and the unaccustomed passenger on the back sent the front wheel of the scooter into the air with gusto, much in the manner that the wonder horse Silver reared during the opening credits of “The Lone Ranger”. Unfortunately, I was a) not prepared for this in any form or fashion, and b) not gifted with the coordination of the aforementioned Ranger, so I was dumped rather unceremoniously onto my bottom, which made contact with the rough pavement with what seemed to me to be a resounding thud. A cursory examination of the affected area seemed to suggest that nothing had been broken, apart perhaps from my desire to continue on to the birthday party, so I re-boarded another scooter for the few-hundred-meter trip back to my bungalow (the thought of getting on another scooter was singularly unappealing, but the thought of walking back was even more so); there I retired for the night, liberally dosed with aspirin, and found my way into a fitful sleep.

By morning, the pain had subsided a bit, although I had what could only be described as an epic bruise, about the size of a saucer (if anything, I am under-exaggerating here), in shades of purple, pink and red that would have done justice to a Los Angeles sunset. Sorry, no pictures. Although I had planned to leave the island within the following couple of days, I decided to postpone my return to Bangkok until I felt a bit more up for an overnight bus trip, which is not something my posterior would welcome even at the best of times. In the event, I wound up securing a place on a luxo-bus with seats which reclined almost flat, so the trip was really pretty gentle, all things considered, and I arrived in Bangkok, if not in total comfort, at least not in screaming pain. Now, two weeks on, the bruise is still there, although only a shadow of its former self, its initial aubergine hue having faded to the muted chartreuse of, say, pea soup, with small bits of ham strewn here and there throughout. I can still feel a bit of tenderness from time to time, but I am basically back to about 98%, for which I am inordinately thankful. It could have been exponentially worse.

I wasn’t wearing a helmet, although it must be said that a helmet would not have helped much in this case; also, I have yet to see a helmet sized to fit my butt. Still, the down time has given me the opportunity to reconsider my long-held anti-helmet stance; while I still would not support a law requiring the use of a helmet, I will wear one from this point forward when riding a motorcycle. Close calls can often have that sort of “wake-up call” effect. Surprisingly, I had no other injuries, no dents, no dings, no road rash. Even my camera made it through intact. Remo, who was riding barefoot, suffered a few small scratches on his feet and ankles, but was otherwise unscathed. The bike was fine too, save for a few remnants of roadside vegetation poking out from fenders and wheels. So, all’s well that ends well, I guess, but next time I think I will stick to  my guns in opting out of riding a motorbike in SE Asia.