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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Elephant Smiles

Cambodia is great, if a little tiring, beguiling (that's right), and trying. I woke up early this morning to be at Angkor Wat (the temple to see in Cambodia, it's like the Machu Picchu of Angkor), and I was there in the pitch black at 5:30 am to nab a good spot in front of the reflecting pool. I wish I had some pics to share, but alas. Just as well, because the sunrise was one of those hour-long spectaculars that no single picture can ever do justice.

My experiences here in Cambodia are a lot like that: seeing a picture is one thing, but being here, seeing that sun rise, crawling and clawing your way to the top of one of these ruined and abandoned temples, and standing under the elephantine trunks of the spong trees that have deformed and destroyed said temples over the centuries ... they're all experiences and images that you really have to witness yourself. Seeing pictures just won't do.

I know a lot of things are like that, especially when it comes to traveling. You can see however many pictures of the Sistine Chapel as you want, but actually seeing it for real, in person, truly is breathtaking. But to be honest, I was getting a little worried that some of my more recent travel destinations were like living in postcards. All the energy and excitement of the place and culture seemed to be exaclty what I was expecting; in short, I was bored, because I was living some cliche, some bullshit Margaritaville version of that country and culture. I don't know why that is, or what's changed, but it's certainly nice to be awed again.

Cambodia is poor, and travling to so many minor temples today has really shown just how poor. Every new temple (they're maybe half a mile apart) has entire families worth of women and children shoving postcards, t-shirts, and drinks in your face. "Hello mister you want cool drink? You want postcard, OK you buy ten for one dolluh, good price for you Ok you buy OK." It's depressing as all held to literally wade your way through these mobs all goddamn day. Even when I do a job I hate, nothing makes it worse than when people treat you like you're not even there, so I can't help but respond with polite "no thanks" all the time, and that little bit of interest sinks their teeth in and they walk with you for a half a mile. They're kids, so it's easy to chat with them and ask them questions that deflect the sales pitch long enough to make them laugh, but it's still terrible. Then there are kids and students that hide within the temples and assualt you with salvos of greetings upon entering, and before you know it, a simple hello has turned into a guide of the temple, with payment due at the end.

In short, to see what you came to see, you have to be an asshole just to be left alone. And that's not right. And it's certainly more not right (shall we say less right) that these kids have to do this for a living. They actually tier the schoolday so that some kids go to school in the morning and work in the afternoons, while others work in the morning and go to school in the afternoons. With that kind of concern coming from the government, I don't think Cambodia will be getting tough on child labor any time soon.

What else? You can ride elephants here. I think that if you ever get to a point in your life where simply seeing an elephant doesn't make you smile, you should go lay down, because man, you're already dead.

Avoid slow-drip Vietnamese coffee. It's like Coffee Lite, plus kitty litter extract.

Tomorrow is my last day at Angkor, and I am still trying to arrange a motorcycle trip to Northern Cambodia, to see some wild stuff up there. Everything's going great, and this place is a lot moure tourist-safe (I'd almost say too tourist-safe) than my Lonely Planet guide had me believe.

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