Saturday, March 13, 2010


Here I am, sicker than I've been for years, trying to ride my hired bicycle home from an epic day of temple-finding on my last joule of energy before the sun sets on the Cambodian jungle. But I'm getting ahead of myself - I'm still on the bus.

Skipping the crap, I'd taken this bus all the way from the jetty across from Don Det Island in Laos all the way down through Cambodia and back up to Siem Reap for those temples people seem to keep talking about and setting movies in.

This place, Ankor Wat, seemed to be the culmination of a gradual trend in architecture I'd noticed since the Kerinci Valley in Sumatra. Not knowing anything about South East Asian architecture I can be free to unleash my observations unfettered by expected trends... and to be unashamedly wrong.

In central Sumatra there is a particular, and super-awesome, style of vertically tapered building that as you head north gets flatter and blunter. In Malaysia they become thatched and exclusive to museums, and in Thailand they become temples and lose the taper altogether for a stick-on bit at the ends (also, they paint them yellow, like everything else) but retain their roof-layering. Around Chiang Mai this style develops a tall tumour-like growth that juts straight out of the roof, and through Laos this starts to dominate the whole structure, just like Ankor Wat. What am I talking about? Well I know of two major (Buddhist) empires in South East Asia - one with its capital in central Sumatra and the other at Ankor Wat. Looking at the temples at Ankor Wat it seems to me that the builders of the whole region got all their ideas from just these two places and today they all merge together. The only thing now is to check out Wikipedia to see if it all matches up.

Finally getting off the bus late at night in Siem Reap we found ourselves dumped inside a locked holding pen for half an hour while about a dozen tuk-tuk drivers, who had clearly paid to be there, hunted us down for our US dollars like fish in a barrel. The bus group was soon divided into those who liked paying $5 to travel 2 kms into town and the cool backpackers who held their ground at $2 and were willing to walk (although it turned out that tuk-tuks on the street outside were only $1). This group consisted of my Canadian buddies Matt and Troy, two female Canadians they'd met on the bus: Sherry and Christine, a Swiss mate of mine from the old boat trip called Sam and a new Dutch guy called Michael. We were to stay as a group for most of our time in Siem Reap.

A celebratory night of beering it up on saved tuk-tuk dough led to everyone else snoozing it for the next day. Not me though - I got up (sort of) early to hire a bike and buy a three day pass to the temple complex and proceeded to get my money's worth. Ankor Wat itself was the main temple to see, and it was pretty huge I guess, but it seemed basically the same as the millions of temples I'd already crawled through in southern India, including the familiar smell of bat turds. The best temple of the day was that famed temple being torn apart by tree roots. I reserved the 'Grand Circuit' for the next day.

Unfortunately, I woke up feeling completely shithouse. And it turned out I wasn't the only one: four out of our expanded group of nine had contracted similar symptoms over night. Now, I'd already bought a three day pass so I was damned if I wasn't going to use it, despite needing a toilet every hour and a half and feeling like my energy levels had jumped a trillion years into the future and had degraded into background radiation. The fact that I'd left all the tall temples for today certainly did not help, particularly when there'd be a sudden need for an emergency evacuation at the top, if you know what I mean.

In the morning I sporadically bumped into the others from my group, seeing the temples for their first and only day mostly also on bicycle, but the afternoon took me dozens of kilometres off to obscure ones, often swamped by vegetation, occasionally tempting me to ride right through the jungle for elusive shortcuts (these did not end well). By the end of the day I felt so dead I was willing to pay some annoying local kid to dig me a grave, but I knew he'd whack on an extra charge to fill it in again (the bastards know you can't do it yourself). At this stage I basically had to halt fingernail growth to maintain enough power for essential body functions and I was still over thirty kilometres from home.

During an evening in which I fluctuated violently from states of extreme cold to extreme fever, Sherry gave me a pill she could only describe as 'Indian medicine' (ultimately her native land). The next morning not only was I completely recovered, but I seemed to have been paid back all my lost energy from the previous day with interest (at loan-shark rates). So I used my final day's pass and rode way out east for a really early batch of temples which turned out to be some of the best yet (although I spent about three hours searching for about a dozen unmaintained temples only one of which I found - not even the locals know about them).

That night, to celebrate my triumphant return to full health... and Chinese New Year... I hit the town in one of my biggest nights yet. My Siem Reap group had all gone down to the beach by now, but who should I run into but my old Irish pals Morgan and Shane, both keen to repay me all the drinks I'd bought them when they were saving their dollars for Cambodian border bribes. Together with an English pair we drank and danced the night away to timeless classics such as the Black Eyed Peas' 'I've Gotta Feeling' and The Killers' 'Brightside'. I had just enough time to run home and stuff my possessions in my pack before hitting my 6 a.m. deadline to catch the boat to Phnom Penn.

I'd got this boat ticket, at eight times the cost of the equivalent bus ride, to compensate for my failure to float down the Mekong after Luang Prabang, but it ended up being not entirely worth it - not because the floating villages weren't surreal and incredible, nor because the vast lake connecting Siem Reap and the capital Phnom Penn wasn't a spectacular mockery of the ocean, but because I was so fatigued from the previous night that I could feel my brain consuming itself so as to allow my body to be fixed permanently to the boat's hull like a sea squirt preparing for its adult phase.

But Phnom Penn was an eye-opener. The first thing I did in my dazed state after alighting from the boat was to walk straight into a brothel named 'Candy' and ask for a room. I realised with a start where I was half-way through this request, but it was already too late to back out. The ground level of this establishment was some kind of 'swinger's bar' and everything a den of sin should be: dark and dingy, lewed posters, seedy music, scantily-clad dames of the night wrapping themselves around anything a penis might be attached to and, as always, a loud pair of Americans telling each other how they're not violent people but they keep finding people they've just beaten up.

I was taken to see the room at the top floor and I was amazed at how awesome it was. Extremely clean, well-designed and built, balcony with a view - I had to have it. And before you ask, it did take a fair effort to convince the hotel girl that I wanted the room without a happy ending, but I succeeded.

It being still quite early in the afternoon, and having regained some of my energies, and most importantly of all it being Valentine's Day, I decided to jump on the back of a motorbike and see Pol Pot's Killing Fields. Now, at least one person has suggested I use this blog to try to encapsure the exact horror and disgust I felt at being at the scene of thousands of indiscriminately murdered Cambodians. But this is a feeling I get when I think about this period of the country's history - actually being there didn't really enhance it for me, except as an anatomy lesson from the skulls. The simulated wolf-cries loud-speakered over the bones didn't help with the sombrerity either. I went back and watched 'Bee Movie' on HBO for Valentine's Day night.

In the morning I took another boat to Chau Doc in Vietnam, which I enjoyed a lot more than the previous day's. This one had contained an awesome bunch of backpackers like a mini version of the boat in Laos and we traveled the narrow waterways of the Mekong Delta across the border, drank a few beers and listened to one backpacker describe his adventures both traveling on a makeshift bamboo train in Cambodia and horse-touring in Mongolia while another one played Spanish classical guitar. What a trip.

As for my contribution, I've noticed something happen to me over the months when I talk about Australia, and in particular Victoria, to my fellow-travelers: I've become tediously patriotic.

"Have I mentioned that in VICTORIA there are beaches that are so remote you can walk along them for days without seeing ANYONE ELSE? Or that in VICTORIA we have a place called the Kiewa Valley that has the BEST MILK EVER MADE? Or that there's a band from MELBOURNE called Architecture in Helsinki that is Bruce Willis' THIRD FAVOURITE BAND IN THE WORLD?!!"

"Yes Felix. You've told all of us all of those things already many times." It must be part of some sort of creeping homesickness lurking back there.

After hitting the meagre night scene of Chau Doc and then cramming into a single hotel room to save money we all went our separate ways the next morning. Three of us took the bus to Ho Chi Min City which ended up taking all day and introduced me for the first time to drinking coffee. It must be the way the Vietnamese make it because I'm hooked. It only took 26 years (although I'm still yet to try it without ice).

In Ho Chi Minh City we quickly found the local backpacker area and settled into a hotel above a silk shop. Within minutes I'd managed to spot from a restaurant balcony my four Canadian friends from Cambodia and Laos, all now traveling together and up for a big night. I was up for one too, because tomorrow my old pals from home were about to join me for an epic three week cycle tour through southern Vietnam.


  1. Your blogs are the best travel blogs in the world, and coincidentally describe perfectly how my perception of the region was as well ;) Sick in Siem Reap (i celebrated Chinese new year with whiskey and a roasted pig at 10am), cycling to remote temples and racing back before darkness, and hungover on the boat to Phnom Penh. Haven't seen Bee movie though, sounds like a highlight.

  2. I am astounded you spelt penis wrong. That is all (except to say that it is as usual a brilliant read, Felix).