Dec 6, 2010
Just like last time, I couldn’t sleep before my flight. So, it will be a long 1.5 day of flying and waiting during layovers. I did have an “interesting” time (lack of a better word) during my taxi ride. After exchanging some pleasantries between two complete strangers, my driver started to tell me about his life. He is in the process of getting divorced. However, next year, he will be flying to the Philippines with his buddy to find a wife. He already has one in mind, as they have been getting to know each other online (as much as one can know another person online) and she seems to be his ideal mate because she can cook, “domesticated”, and will know that as a man, he has sexual needs that she MUST satisfy. Short of those requirements, he will divorce her and get her booted out of the US. I really don’t understand why people find it necessary to tell me this. His story disturbs me because I find it hard to believe that person like him exists and furthermore, unabashedly openly tells a complete stranger these things.
Listening to my iphone’s mp3s while sitting at almost the same spot I sat in the airport a few months ago, I can see how life moves by fast. It seems like it was only recently that I was this anxious boy waiting to fly to Africa. Taking stock, I guess I can consider myself now grown up to be a teenager. This trip may be interesting yet. We will see.
7:30AM O’Hare is huge. However, a combination of 1 hour of sleep on the plane and flying into snow-covered Chicago slowly illuminated by the rising sun is a treat. I am now partially awake. It is beautiful to see the contrast between the gray buildings and naked trees and the horizon adorned with a gradient of pink-reddish hue. Next stop will be Seoul, S. Korea.
Phew made it to Siem Reap, aka Jinja with MUCH more tourists. Must be like 20% tourists here. A little tired but am in Developing country mode so all is good.
OK hate HATE the flying part. 27 hours not soo cool. Mild "uh oh" moment, making it to Seoul with only 25mins to the next flight on the other end of the concourse. But, couldn't deplane until 15mins left. Ran down 22 gates to the last gate.... Made it with 1 min left and I was huffing and puffing while recover on a 737 to Siem Reap.
As I the plane captain announced, we are descending and will land shortly, I looked out the window and thought, "why is it pitched black and we are about to land?" Then as the plane started to land, I see little dim lights here and there and suddenly, I remember "er, you are in a developing country". Funny how living in the US makes you forget a few things like lights everywhere. I have to admit though, Siem Reap airport is small, about the size of Entebbe, but brand spanking new. As in WOW newer than US airport new. Yay for tourism.
Driving from REP (Siem Reap airport) to Siem Reap town at night (I arrived 2 hours ago at 9:20pm), I notice similarities with Uganda. The main road from the airport to town is brand new. New advertisement signs etc.. Street lamps are nice. But as you go further out (takes 15mins ride via tuk-tuk), road is still nice but lamps started to get more scarce. There are the small shack shops with dimly lit neon lights along the road. Main transport here seems to be the motorcycles (UG's version of boda-boda), tuk-tuks (motorcycle with a canopied rickshaw thingiemajik attached, vans (like matatus), and longer buses. Reminds me of Uganda.
First interesting Cambodian thing: cost of visa is $20. But, had to present my passport to a passport official who saw my Vietnamese name and started to speak to me in Vietnamese (softly). He then softly hinted to me "yeah help a person out with coffee money". It was so soft, I didn't hear it, so I asked, in English, excuse me? He held onto my passport, looking at it over and over and over and over. Then repeated in soft Vietnamese "help me out with coffee money". And so, my official visa cost is $20 but unofficially, it costed me $25.
Tuk-tuk ride is cool and boda-boda drivers here are crazy too. My tuk-tuk driver who will also be my guide while I am here is How (sp?). Seems like a friendly guy. I asked him all the pertinent question (safe to walk at night, what currency should we use, etc.). Siem Reap is a bustling town about the size of Jinja with basically a few main roads. THere are tons and TONs of tourists here and things seems safe to walk at night as they are everywhere. Because of the tourism here, basically everything is in Khmer and English. Lots of neon-signed restaurants, bars, souvenir shops etc..Although I was tired, I did take a walk around the town to get my bearings. Everything here can be purchased or sold in American dollar and forget about bargaining, the tourists here have killed any sense of a proper price structure.
I went to a street restaurant (one of those places that have a canopy on top and the cook just cook right there outside) because well, I was hungry. Apparently, a lot of Europeans are here along with those Frenchies. I guess because Cambodians still speak somewhat french, there are tons of Frenchies. A group of tourist next to me were french. I struck up a conversation with a Korean tourist and picked his brains on his experience from the last 2 days that he has been here. there are tons of Koreans here too. Speaking of Korean, apparently everywhere I go, I am called a Korean. In Uganda, I was either China or Korean. In Seoul everyone who talked to me started with Korean, and here in Cambodia, they think I am Korean also. Just once, I would like to be called a Vietnamese American.
After the meal, I walked the street a little more. People here are polite but there are beggars from adults to kids. Sad but that seems to be a common theme in developing countries.
OK that should be it. Meeting with How tomorrow for some sightseeing.
Oh Ankgor beer is pretty nice. Tastes like Nile beer and Budweiser.
I have to admire how the vendors here are able to convert Cambodian Rie (sp?) to US dollars, Euros, Thai Bahts, Aussie dollars, and Vietnam Dongs virtually instantaneously. Sorry, they don't accept Laotian Kip as it is v...irtually useless outside of Laos.
Heavy set foreign men (seen a few white ones last night) in their late 50s to early 60s walking around town looking happy, holding hands with their (not sure of age but barely above 20) local "honeys". Hmmm, I wonder besides money and gifts, what else are being exchanged.
Joh (the young Korean friend I met last night) told me of these "beautiful girls, the most beautiful I have seen" in Bangkok. Except they aren't really "girls". "They must have operations because how can they be so beautiful?". I think Joh for 3000Bahts may have been closer to those "girls" than he wanted to. So he warns me of their potential existence here (walking the streets, in bars, and in massage parlors). By the way, to my young American female friends, if you are looking for a traveling university-age Korean, Joh is available and loves American women ("they are soooooo beautiful. Do they actually date Asians there?"). Joh is hilarious.
So far today, I did 1 touristy thing and 2 non-touristy things.
I went and saw the floating village on the Great Lake. You know a lake is huge when you cannot see the other side. The trip down the Siem Reap River to see the village is intere...sting. It is basically made up of floating homes (shacks really). There are schools, church, shops, etc.. all floating. Some of the homes, just like homes in Uganda, defy typical western understanding. Yet people live in them. As I sit on the boat with tons of boats behind me, in front of me, and going the from the other direction, I realize that on this same river, tons of money is being spent by the tons of tourists. Yet, it is imperative that the people who live in the homes that we see and pay money to see, remain that way. Their miseries benefit too many people (trying to be politically sensitive here as who knows who else is reading this besides my friends). The tourist industry here is mostly state run and state regulated. Half way through the tour, I went stopped by the local floating fish market. The 2 things that happened shooked me:
a. I saw a few small families that spoke Vietnamese. They must be truly poor as they immigrated from Vietnam to here for a better living. Their better living is floating on one of those barely floating canoes. A girl of about 8 was begging on the river by floating herself on an aluminum container barely larger than she was. Hearing their Vietnamese truly bothered me. I was born in Vietnam and yet here I am and there they are. So, I came up to them and talked to them. The older woman (in her 60s) in her own canoe told me, "if you give money and you will only give to one of us, please give money to that one (pointing to a young woman in her 20s who was rocking a new born baby on her own canoe), she has a child". So, I gave her, the lady with child and another woman money. They thanked me and I felt so ashamed so I told them, please don't thank me, thank you for accepting. It hurts me when people like these thank me, seemingly so grateful because as far as I am concerned, the only difference between us were a few luck of the draws.
b. I saw a little vietnamese boy on a canoe with his father. He was fishing with a small net. The boy couldn't be more than 6 or 7 years old. Again everything that his father and him own are on that canoe about 10-12ft long and 2-3ft wide. Looking at him talking to his father, smiling, while floating along the Siem Reap river, it reminded me of me and my own father years ago. Years ago, my father and I had floated down a similar river (Hau Giang) in Vietnam under the illumination of the moonlight. Back then, we were trying to escape from Vietnam and we had to float down the river to the sea where we would board a bigger boat. Watching that boy I am reminded of all the international aid workers that we met while at a Refugee camps in Malaysia and Phillippines (UNICEF). Without those people, I wondered to myself, how similar would my life would have been to that boy and father? Life is funny sometimes. I guess, that is one main reason why I want to be an international aid worker. I owe those that came before me so much. In a way, for those of us that are more fortunate than others, we all OWE the world and others for our current status. We may not want to acknowledge it, but that debt is there. Just like any debt, we all must repay it somehow.
c. Earlier in the morning, I had asked my tuk-tuk driver, Hav, whom I come to know better and trust, to find a legitimate orphanage for me. Just like many places, Siem Reap is full of orphanages and you have to talk to the locals that you trust to tell you a legitimate one. Well, after my floating village experience, I decided to visit that the orphange, Akodo orphanage. We first went into town to purchase rice, fish sauce, hot sauce, and instant noodles to donate. The school is a well run one. They don't have a teacher, so the children are only taught when volunteers from abroad come. Come this saturday, the children will be out of a teacher as their teacher is returning home. In looking at how that school is run, I learned a few decent ideas for the schools I know in Uganda. Before leaving, I donated the rice, sauces, instant noodles and was asked to leave a record. Under the reason for donating, I put:
"This is all done based on the wishes and on behalf of Ashley A. N (full name written out), who couldn't be here".
It is only fitting for so many reasons. Now, despite A.N.N. not being here, on record, she has!