Wednesday, August 15, 2007

We gotta get outta this place

from Saturday, June 30, 2007

Today has been an uneventful, yet eventful day indeed. The journey between Siem Reap, Cambodia and Bangkok, Thailand is notorious (among backpackers in SE Asia, anyway) for being a hell of a ride. The Lonely Planet Guidebook refers to it as "The Boulevard of Broken Backsides." Not exactly a journey anyone looks forward to.

Of course, one could fly. . .and that's what they're banking on. Evidently some sneaky airline company is paying off the Cambodian government to stall an upgrade on the heavily trafficed road between Siem Reap and Poipet (a small Cambodian city next to the Thai border). During the wet season (July thru October) the road is so flooded and muddy it can take days to get to the border. Thank God it's not yet the wet season.

Just to note: The distance from Siem Reap to Poipet is roughly 100 miles and from Poipet to Bangkok about another 100 miles. All together 200 miles. It is my estimation that in America, traveling 200 miles, by car or bus, between two major cities would take four hours or less. On our trip we had to go through customs, so that adds another hour. Five hours tops. But this is not America.

6:40am We are picked up by a shuttle that will take us to our bus.
6:45am We stop at a guesthouse to pick up some people.
6:55am We stop at another guesthouse to pick up some people.
7:10am We stop at another guesthouse to pick up some people.
7:25am Yes! We arrive at the bus station, just in time for our 7:30 departure. Oh, no! Only people going to Phnom Penh get off here. We must go somewhere else to catch the bus to Poipet.
7:40am We arrive at the proper place and soon board the bus. We hit the road just before 8am. The bus has air-conditioning, one of modern day life's small miracles.
8:30am Bus driver stops the bus, gets out, and looks under the bus. He looks worried.
9:05am see previous
9:10am Bus driver stops near a village to put on the spare. Two male, Cambodian passengers help him. None of the dozen foreign men lift a finger.
9:55am We are on the road again.
10:45am We stop at a series of concession stands frequented by those traveling through. As soon as we get off the bus it pulls away. We hope its going to get the tire replaced and that we haven't been left stranded in rural Cambodia.
11:20am The bus is back. We're off!
12:00pm The road is bumpy in a vibrating kind of way (think rumble strips on the side of the freeway) with the occassional big bump (think speed bump in a parking lot), but otherwise its smooth sailing. However, some idiot has his window open and it's 100 degrees on the bus!!
12:30pm I spoke too soon. There is another flat tire. The spare needs to be put on and people are not happy. I'm rather amused. One girl starts nagging at the driver while he's changing the tire in the blistering heat. Not a good idea. Words are exchanged which leads to the girl's boyfriend stepping in. There is almost, ALMOST a fist fight.
12:50pm Here we go!
1:00pm We stop at a restaurant. We know the drill. . .the bus has left us yet again to change the flat to a new tire. I eat yucky Ramen-like noodles. Flashbacks to the UWM dorms.
1:30pm On the road again.
3:30pm We arrive in Poipet!!! Two flat tires and 8 hours later. Get me into freakin' Thailand!
4:30pm Got through customs. We are now in a huge, comfy, air-conditioned coach bus and on our way to Bangkok. The roads are paved and there's nothing that can stop us now.
9:00pm Actually, there is something that can stop us. Bangkok traffic. Every hour is rush hour here. But we are nearly downtown.
10:30pm After getting a ride from downtown to our guesthouse I can now safely say we have made it!!

Monday, August 06, 2007

more of the story (trekking Thai style)

I've been home for just over a month now and I don't want to leave things unfinished, so I will try to recap the rest of my trip over the next few blogs.

From my journal: Saturday, June 9th

We've had an exhausting couple of days. Yesterday our trekking guide, a local Thai woman named Chan, picked us up at our guesthouse at 8:30. She dropped us off at a nearby mountain top temple while she went to go register her truck with the local authorities. Not the most professional thing to do, but we are in Asia so it wasn't too surprising. After wandering around the quaint Buddhist temple Chan picked us up and took us to her village, on the outskirts of the town. From there we hiked for ages, past farmers and fields and through small streams. My socks were soaked and we were fighting of mosquitos at every turn. It was exhausting. We eventually stopped for lunch by one of the many streams. I sat on a dirty log while Chan whiddled us some spoons out of bamboo. We dined on delicious rice she had cooked that morning and mangos she picked along the way.

The trek didn't become any easier from there. We climbed up and down the mountain sides and the mosquitos were eating Katalin alive. We asked Chan if malaria was prevelent in the area. "Yes, you can get a little bit of malaria," she replied. A little bit of malaria? That sounds like a little bit too much for my liking. But my immediate concern was the dirty sweat running down every crevice of my body. I wasn't the only one suffering. Chan's dog, who had followed us the whole way, was also completely exhausted. He was having trouble keeping up. But Chan assured us we were nearing the Karen (long neck) village. She was hardly breaking a sweat!
As we descended the final mountain we spotted an elephant in the river below. When we at last arrived at the Karen village, Chan left us to get her truck (her friend came to pick her up via motorbike). The Karen village was small. I felt rather uncomfortable entering it. . .there's a fine line between being a tourist and being a spectator. I know the Karen's are accustom to tourism and it's their livelihood, but I'm undecided whether that's good or bad. The tribe has sought political asylum in Thailand from their native country of Burma. Now they have more comfortable lives, but they must share those lives with hordes of tourists.

All the women there were selling crafts, mostly handmade woven scarves. The first women we saw was gorgeous. She looked so young, but said she was thirty and her 7-year-old daughter sat with her. Both had gold coils around their necks. The coils push down the collarbone and the ribs to create the appearance of a long neck. They aren't exactly sure how the custom began, but it's believe to have been around for nearly one thousand years.

After leaving the village we sat aroudn waiting for Chan for over one hour. The road (ok, really it's more like a path) up the mountain had been under construction and she had trouble getting her truck through. But really that's small potatos compared to the waiting we did today. . .

We began this morning with a one-hour elephant ride. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Ok, I am sure. I feel a bit guilty. Katalin points out that people ride horses all the time. But I still feel bad these huge and amazing animals are being taken out of their natural environment. The ride itself was rather terrifying. The man who guided our elephant sat on the elephant's head while humping it, which gets the elephant moving. Strange.

Once the ride ended Chan was suppose to be waiting for us at the designated ending point. Surprise, surprise, she wasn't there. After waiting an hour by the side of a rustic road, we asked some local girls to give us ride back into town (about 3 miles). There was a flurry of excitement amoung them and I'm almost sorry to say that just as we got on the backs of the bikes Chan pulled up. Chan was as apologetic as an Asian can be (admiting to fault usually means losing face, not good.) She even bought us lunch to compensate.

The rest of the trek was pretty low key. We insisted Chan drives us everywhere after all the hellish walking we did yesterday. Next we visited another ethnic village, the Lisu tribe. They lived, like the Karens, in a small and humble village. The men were away farming and the women and child hung around the village huts. They also sold crafts. Last we went to a country club and had a bath in a mineral pool (for just $1.50!). The pool and its surrounding were gorgeous-paradise.