Saturday, June 27, 2009

In a Cosmic Sleep /

Between Cosmic Eras / On a Cosmic Ocean: In this manner the leaning Vishnu at the National Museum in Phnom Penh resides.

Cambodia's attractions include some of the best and worst accomplishments of humanity: Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge' s Choeng Ek Genocidal Center / S21 Prison. It is a little disconcerting when your guesthouse has daily showings of a National Geographic special on the "Mysteries of Angkor Wat" followed by documentaries on S21, in which former prison guards stoically conduct reenactments of their daily prisoner abuses, and The Killing Fields, a well-known documentary about the longan orchard where all but 7 of the detainees from S21 were taken to be killed. It is a little strange to walk out of National Museum, riding high on the cultural accomplishments of the Khmer people, only to fend off tuk tuk drivers who want to cut you a package deal on a ride to S21 and the killing fields. Cheap, cheap. People need to make a living and the world needs to not forget what happened to Cambodia, but the glib commercialization of such a tragedy is a little nauseating.

Angkor Wat is amazing though. I would not have guessed that the god-kings that built these temples had inherited Hinduism (and curry!) from Indian merchants blown across the Andaman Sea by monsoon winds. At Angkor, I learned some of the basics of Hindu mythology, like the creation story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, an epic tug-of-war between the demons and the gods that released countless topless goddesses into the sky. Or so it seemed from the bas-reliefs. I was particularly impressed by the "elephant gates" that I thought would have elephant statues but were actually doorways with no stairs used for mounting elephants!

On our way to Siem Reap we were treated to Khmer hip hop karaoke videos. In the darkness outside we saw fields of black lights strung on top of vertical tarps, sometimes one in front of house, sometimes whole fields of them as far as the eye could see. After drinking bottled water in Lao that was labeled as "disinfected by UV light," we thought it might be for the collection and purification of rainwater. But we later learned that the locals use the elaborate set-up to catch crickets, which they like to deep-fry and eat. They also enjoy deep-fried large furry spiders. We were too chicken to try it out, but a Frenchman told us they take like liver. Ew.

Strangely enough all of the cats in Cambodia have tail deformities, which I was first worried was actually the result of sadistic cat torture. Apparently it is the result of southeast asian cat inbreeding? Some have normal tails, but alot of have truncated tails, some with tips that are perpendicular to the rest, some like corkscrews! and some with stubs. And of course, geckos are everywhere. I tried to catch an already tail-less gecko and failed because trying to catch geckos is like trying to shoot squirrels in Oregon Trail.

Despite visiting around seven places in Lao, we only managed to visit three in Cambodia (not including bus snack breaks): Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and the coastal beach community named after the former king, Sihanoukville.

After untangling ourselves from the mess of moto drivers at the Sihanoukville bus station, we managed to get a ride to a certain guesthouse on the main drag off the beach, but it had just sold off its last room. The driver told us he had a guesthouse in mind and took us down the beach to another place, which was also full. No matter, he carted us across the street to Chiva's Shack and we were relieved to get a room since they seemed like a hot commodity. The room was only $4, but the room was also a plywood box with a fan in what was basically a corrugated metal garage, but still we were grateful. We got some Angkor beer, swam in the incredibly warm water, read some 'Count of Monte Cristo' on a beach chair, fended off girls hawking bracelets, who were determined to "thread" the 2mm long hairs off my legs by force. They tell you they are just going to show you what it is, then all the sudden the girl and her friend have you spread eagle for an hour... it was mortifying, but now my legs are *very* smooth!

There were some warning signs that Chiva's Shack was more than meets the eye: red bull cocktails sold in bucket-sized proportions, signs that said "Music all night" and "Don't start motos next to guest's rooms," and booty jams and strobe lights going during dinner, but we went to bed thinking the music would die down around midnight or at the latest 2am. Unfortunately ear plugs were no match for their sound system. We might have been more amicable to partying but hadn't gotten a good night's sleep in days on account of the ungodly screams that began at 3am from the pig slaughterhouse adjacent to our hotel in Siem Reap. Around 4am, I went out into Chiva's Shack to investigate, expecting the dj and his two friends as we had left them after dinner, but the place was packed with locals and foreigners swaying around on the dance floor, playing pool, scooting away on motos parked outside our door. I think I finally fell asleep around 5am, only to be woken up at 6am when the British girls next door settled in for the evening.

The next morning we switched hotels. We saw our British neighbors that night down the beach promoting "a really great 'full moon' party at Chiva's Shack" and did not take their flyer. Full Moon parties are a famous Thai invention that actually take place once a month on an island. This party took place every night in a shack and was hopefully not as fun as the real thing. Time will tell.

Adieu, Cambodge, adieu.

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