Monday, January 02, 2012

On the River

Last night we took a tuk-tuk from the hotel to Abacus Restaurant, a highly regarded French restaurant in Siem Reap. Because of heavy traffic on the main road, we took some side streets. It was a somewhat experience going over dirt alleys in the back of what looks like a small carriage. For a while, I worried we were being taken for a ride (in a bad way), but instead, we ended up at the restaurant. Because we didn't have a reservation, we were seated outside. Luckily, we both put on our bug spray, though they put a bug repellent candle under our table.

Dad and I ordered the same thing: entrecote bordelaise with sauteed spinach, mushrooms, and potatoes. The only difference: mine was medium rare, dad's was medium. The steak was quite good (better than the one they just served us on the boat), but I like to see what I'm eating. At one point I jumped when what looked like two leopards walked in behind where we were sitting. They were to very large, black dogs, who have the run of the place.

By the way, I asked our guide today why we don't see any cats. He said that cats are kept as pets in Cambodia, but they are considered a higher "caste" than dogs and are kept indoors.

We were pretty full so skipped dessert. There was one tuk-tuk driver waiting out front, so I opened negotiations. "How much?" "Where are you going?" "Sofitel Angkor." "Three dollars." Since it only cost us two dollars to get there, I responded with two. "But very long distance," he replied and dad said he was comfortable with the price. Still, it was a wild experience darting in and out of heavy traffic on dark streets.

One complaint I heard from several guests about the hotel in Siem Reap was that while everyone agreed it was very posh and nice (with a nice pool, too, which I enjoyed in the afternoon), their wifi service leaves a lot to be desired. You have to log in every time and get a new password every day. I can't imagine they will keep this system that long.

This morning we were joined by the other half of the tour. Two almost entirely Australian tour groups from APT, which book their river cruises through AMA Waterways. We learned a new Cambodian word on the bus today: "kroh-BUY" It means oxen, but when applied to a person, means someone who is bull headed and stubborn, who does what they want without concern for others. In order to distinguish him from Frau Fabissiner (who looked quite stylish this evening in her silks she bought in Siem Reap), I'm going to refer to the problematic person from Team Yellow as Mr. Krohbuy.

Apparently, he's been stiffing the guides all along the trip, refusing to tip either the driver or the guides in any place we've been. He tried to join our bus again today, but since the seats are based on the number of people in the group, we sent him back to Team Yellow (who were very disappointed, they told me later, to see him back). We had a 5.5 hour drive to the embarkation point for the boat, and he was very upset about it. I heard him telling his wife that he should have rented a motor boat and do it on their own.

On the way, we were introduced to our new land and boat guide, Mr. Ly. He described his upbringing. We actually drove through his birth village. When he was three, the Khmer Rouge came into power and his entire family was transferred from one village to another, as they moved whole populations around. As a small child, he was somewhat better off than adults, and could get his food directly from the communal pot. He was also lucky in that he only lost two family members. The Yellow group guide lost his entire family.

I had a chance to speak to him one on one and he told me that he after his mother died, he lived as a buddhist monk for two days as his way of mourning for her. He's married and has two children and two pet dogs. Because he's in tourism, he gave them American names: Tony and Sonny.

Traveling through the countryside, we went through numerous small villages, with wooden huts on stilts, some with hammocks hanging underneath, most with small children running about barefoot, playing in muddy ponds. Large ceramic pots lined the sides of the houses, which are used to collect rain water. Often the roads were lined with small carts selling rice in bamboo containers, dried fish, fruit, or gasoline (in one liter soda bottles). Many houses have large piles of straw set up on raised platforms to keep them dry when it floods.

Every hour or so we went through a market town, where the houses were often more built up, with fancy roofs and eaves, and sometimes out of masonry. The space between the road and the shops was dirt, and filled with mopeds and carts, kicking up dust. We often passed mopeds with two or more children hanging on, and on more than one occasion, a cart with 20 or more kids.

In between, we passed rice paddies, some with fresh, bright green rice newly planted, but most with dried straw waiting to be collected. We passed many thin, scrawny cows and some water buffalo. At this time of year, the cattle are set free to graze, but later are rounded up to work the fields.

The whole sight makes one very humble, aware of how blessed and privileged we are to live in such a wealthy country with as many benefits as we have. I don't remember if I've written this earlier, but on several occasions on this trip, I've really felt as if I'm on the other side of the world: in Ha Long Bay, at the Angkor Temples, and on the road to the boat, and now on the river.

We stopped twice on the road: the first was to visit a "happy room," in Kompong Thom. Of course, the line for the women's room was more than twice as long for the men's. I should add that there was no toilet paper in the stalls, only a hand-held bidet (but nothing to dry oneself with afterwards). There were sinks, but just one towel on the wall. I chose to air dry them by waving my hands back and forth. I knew we had three hours to go, so I bought a Nestle ice cream bar. The problem was I couldn't tell what the flavors were (one was lavender, the other white). I was pretty sure one was coconut, but I couldn't figure out the second. I showed the wrapper to the guide, but he said it was in Thai.

The second stop was to see a really wild food market in Skoun. The guide told us about how eating crickets and tarantulas were delicacies, but it was another thing to see people selling and eating them. I took a ton of pictures. I figure this was their way of making us not too hungry since it was after noon, and lunch was still over an hour and a half away.

The last 40 kilometers were off the main highway on a side road that was only partially paved (the left half). That meant all the traffic on our side drove on the dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust that lasted 45 minutes. The dust cloud was like a fog, and every now and then a truck or moped would suddenly loom out of the haze and be upon us. The road was also heavily pot holed, and I think I heard at least one scream after a particularly violent lurch and dip.

We finally reached the ship around 1:45 pm. Because AMA Lotus has a draught of over 2 meters, it can't navigate the shallowest part of the Tonle Sap lake. That's why we had to take this bus transfer. In fact, this ship can only navigate the entire distance for maybe two months a year. I'm not sure if the other vessel, La Margarite, which is shallower is a better option.

From the bus, we walked across a field of reeds until we reached the gangplank for the boat. The cabin is very nice and larger than the one dad and I had in the Galapagos. There is a small veranda with a chair bolted to the deck. I washed some shirts and put out one of my pants for laundry (I need my blue jeans for our visit to the pagoda tomorrow afternoon, after which, I will have them laundered as well).

Lunch was good, with a mix of salads, including a rather amusingly labeled "crap cake" (the menu described it as "crab cake"). After our first briefing, we had the safety drill. Dad's life vest was very tight on him, while mine fit fine. I told him that was a sign he needed to lose weight. He suggested we change vests.

Up on deck, I found that there are three Israeli couples in the Yellow group, so we had a very nice conversation in Hebrew. Dad then went down to take a nap, and I explored the ship. The library is small, but they have dozens of dvds to watch on the monitors in our room. There's also a jacuzzi on the sun deck. I got a beer and watched the sunset, while chatting with some of the guests.

At dinner we sat with Greg and Irene (from Australia) and Kevin and Ann Louise Fischer (from South Africa). It turns out that the South Africans know my father's urologist! Dad can't wait to tell him when we get back.

The dinner was ok. I liked the starter of pineapple and prawn salad, followed by cream of cauliflower, but the Aussie beef loin with pepper sauce was rather tough (though Kathy pointed out, it would have been better if we had been given something other than butter knives to cut it with). Dad enjoyed his consumme soup, and really liked the flavorings in the rice. Since dad can't drink caffeine, they made him a special ginger tea with slices of fresh ginger. He liked it.

Tomorrow morning we have an excursion to see a floating village of 6,000 people, but if we're up at 6 am, we can see the water taxi. Since I've been waking up early as it is, I may try to see it tomorrow.

Finally, internet will be very spotty until we reach Phnom Penh. I've been trying for several hours, but this is the first I was able to get through.

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