It’s a misconception that roosters crow at dawn. Actually, they get cock-a-doodle-dooing much earlier, at 2:37 a.m. to be precise. I know this because last night at this time, the damn chickens living in the backyard woke me up. Not that it was hard to do. The humidity of a Cambodian March night had me tossing and turning; the generator powering the grotty fan in our room had given up hours ago.

We had forsaken our guesthouse, opting instead to spend our last nights in Cambodia staying in a village 15 km north of Battambang. Gone were the luxuries of running water, electricity, a ceiling fan, 80-channel cable television. How did I, a certified city princess, end up here?

We stepped off the bus in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. Motorbike taxi drivers waited to ferry us to our hotel. Normally, I would have rejected their services, but the midday heat along with their offer to drive us for free hooked me. My driver’s name was Sambath, or Bath, and he spoke immaculate English. He asked me the usual questions: how long have you been in Cambodia, how long will you stay in Battambang, where are you from? I told him, as I tell everyone, “I’m an American, but I live in Japan.” He smiled and said an American living in Japan had just stayed with him, in the homestay he ran. My ears perked up.

I asked him to tell me more about his homestay and he said that his family lives 15 km outside of the city, in a village called Tapon. The homestay would last for two days and two nights. There would be no running water or electricity, although his home did have a Western-style toilet, the only one, he added, in the entire village. The cost for room and board, and his guide and transportation services for two days? A very reasonable $35 per person.

It only took a bit of deliberation. Ninety percent of me was curious about experiencing life with a real Cambodian family, eating what they ate, peeking into the routine of their daily lives. The other ten percent recoiled at the idea of no running water! No electricity!! Living amongst bugs and the oppressive heat!!! But I told my inner princess to stop being a wuss and we signed up for Bath’s homestay the next night.

A little bit about our host: Bath is 37 years old and the father of three kids. He has an incandescent smile and mischievous eyes, the personality of a joker, and indeed, throughout our stay, he must have told us hundreds of jokes. He speaks flawless English, which he learned at school and perfected by driving tourists around for seven years. He is passionate about his job at a motorbike driver-cum-guide and has big dreams to open up his own resort and expand his homestay business.

We agreed to meet Bath at 1 p.m. outside of our hotel to make the 30-minute drive through the sweltering midday heat, past bakingdsc02405.jpg countryside, to Tapon. Driving past the village marketplace, we received surprised laughter and countless double takes. We arrived at our homestay house and shortly after, a bevy of children and neighbors came around, not wanting to talk to us, but rather to glimpse at the two barang, or foreigners, in their midst. We received the grand tour of the village – the temple, the pool tables set up outside the temples, the market, the rice mill, the crocodile farm, the leafy backstreets.

Our host family consisted of Bath’s aunt and uncle, a gruff, muscular man and a woman with shorn hair who wore an old-fashioned brasserie as a top. Both were in their seventies. On the property, in another house, were Bath’s cousin and his family – a policeman, his wife who had just given birth a week ago, and their kids. Another cousin and his family lived in another house. Bath actually lived in Battambang city, but his wife made the trip into the village both nights to prepare us an authentic Khmer dinner before returning to take care of their three children. There were a few other faces who kept showing up, but whose relationship to Bath I never could figure out. There were neighbors, too, people like family, who popped over several times a day to chit-chat.

A bonafide city girl, I thought country life moved at a slower pace than in the city. But, our host family was always busy preparing meals, cleaning up, carrying water from the river in heavy buckets, chopping firewood, and performing countless other chores. They were up at 5 a.m. and in bed by 9 p.m. Bath told us that at this time of year, when there was no rice to plant or harvest, they were relatively relaxed. In the rice season, they were up at 3 a.m. and in the fields by 6 a.m.

I thought the countryside would be quieter than it was. There were always children around, crying or yelling or playing in the fruit orchard. Chickens and chicks peeping around our feet. The chanting of monks from the local temple and the competing call to prayer from the mosque at the other side of town. Karaoke at night, wedding receptions at 6 a.m. Crickets and cicadas.

dsc02460.jpgDespite the noise, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. We “showered” in the open-air by scooping water over ourselves. The toilet was in a separate outhouse. The only electric-powered appliances in the house were one fluorescent light and the fan in our room, both run on a small electric battery. The women of the house did the dishes by candlelight. We ate fruit picked from the garden that morning. At night, dozens of fireflies blinked around the backyard. There was no escape from the soupy heat; all of the time, morning and night, sweat streamed off my face and neck.

Everyone was curious, but no one really spoke to us. With our nonexistent Khmer skills and their nonexistent English skills, we relied on Bath to field communication. When he wasn’t around, we just grinned awkwardly at each other. I began to feel frustrated. I wanted to ask them questions, get to know more about our hosts. All I could say was “My name is Jessica. I’m from America. This is delicious. Thank you.” Although I could sense the questions in their heads, too, and caught a few interested stares, I began to wonder whether our host family had become blasé about foreigners living with them, as will inevitably happen with any experienced host family.

But, on our second and last night there, they threw us a party. A cooler filled with a cocktail of ginseng wine and coconut juice, and spicy duck as a side dish. We gathered around the table, clinking glasses every few minutes, with us trying to eke out a few Khmer words and them cracking up at our awful pronunciation. Thankfully, Bath acted as translator and mediator for all. And even when he was busy, we could still understand the gist of what was being said. Oh, she’s American but she lives in Japan. His eyes look Chinese, but his skin is so dark, he could be Khmer. Gestures and tone of voice communicate so much.

This being the countryside, the party was over by 8:30 p.m., an hour after it had started; there were chores in the morning for which no hangover would wait. We said good-bye and good luck to our friends and headed off to bed ourselves, exhausted by the heat. The half-moon’s light through the window was as bright as a Times Square billboard, but I was sleeping within minutes. Until the chickens woke me up.

The next morning, we packed hurriedly. Back in Battambang, we had a taxi to pick us up and take us to the border, where we would leave behind Cambodia for Thailand. I felt nostalgic. I had arrived three weeks earlier in this country, stunned and frightened by the dirt and poverty. The dry, scorched landscape had made everything seem bleak. But, after Vietnam, we had enjoyed Cambodia the most – with it’s relaxed vibe, friendly people, interesting history, and still undeveloped tourist attractions like Kampot, Kep, and Battambang.

dsc02456.jpgIn town, we bade Bath goodbye and thanked him and his family for being such generous hosts. He smiled one of his 100-watt smiles and said he hoped to see us back in Cambodia again in the future. I said I hoped so, too, and meant it.

dsc02248.JPGOne of the highlights of my trip to SE Asia was Angkor Wat. For the past two months, whenever I met someone who had already been, I picked their brain about where they went, what they liked, and did they have any tips to share. I bought a book on Angkor Wat. Still, I was confused – just how long did I really need? What was worth seeing and what did people see only because they felt obligated to? Once in Siem Reap, frustration set in. Paying American prices for nasty pizza, constant nagging by tuk-tuk drivers and children selling tacky bracelets, getting stuck behind the herds of pack tourists at nearly all of the temples.

Especially for the budget-minded, independent traveler, a visit to Angkor Wat can be complicated. In the off-moments, sitting back in the tuk-tuk in the evenings on the way home from a busy day of sightseeing, I thought about what went well, what didn’t, and how I could have made my time more enjoyable. Hopefully, these tips will help other backpackers make the most out of the temples.

Transportation

We hired a tuk-tuk for three days. To see all of the temples in the Angkor Archeological Park cost us $12 a day (as of March 2007). Some friends of ours paid $10. To go to Banteay Srei (38 km outside of Siem Reap) cost $18. To do Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, and Beng Melea in one day would have cost us $35, so to cut costs we only chose the first. To hire a private car to see the afore-mentioned three temples would have cost $60 per day.

With that said, to save money, we could have gotten away with hiring a tuk-tuk for only two days. The Small Circuit is compact enough to see on a bicycle. Most guesthouses rent them out for only $2 a day. Keep in mind that starting from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., it is rip-roaringly hot, and during these times, I was grateful for the tuk-tuk’s protection from the sun.

If arriving into Siem Reap by bus, you will be swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers wanting to take you to your guesthouse for free, in the hopes that you will hire them for the remainder of your stay in the city. This is perfectly legit and friends who have done this were very satisfied with their drivers.

Siem Reap

Everything is expensive – internet, laundry, food, lodging, I mean everything. The rich package tourists have spoiled everything for us cheapies. We paid $8 a night for our guesthouse (Two Dragons), when we’ve been paying $5 everywhere else in Cambodia. Fortunately, we had free WiFi and water, which helped us save a few dollars in the end.

For cheap food, there are several inexpensive local dives on the west side of the Old Market and food stalls on the east riverbank, north of National Highway 6.

And for God’s sake, don’t only eat at the places recommended in the guidebooks. It seems Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and Travelfish were all too lazy to do anything more than read each other, since they all recommended the same crapola places. Just walk around town and pick somewhere that looks good – you may win, you may lose – but your odds are just as good (bad?) if you’re going to blindly trust a guidebook.

Seeing the Temples

I love temples, I love ruins, I love old things. I thought about buying a one-week pass to Angkor. Whatever you do, do NOT do this unless you are getting your Ph.D. in Angkor temples. The three-day pass was more than sufficient.

In three days, you can see:

Day 1: Small Circuit, with either Angkor Wat or Angkor Tom (don’t do both in one day!)
Day 2: Big Circuit, including whichever Angkor you left out the day before
Day 3: Outlying temples like the Roulos Group, Banteay Srei, Beng Melea, etc.

Don’t rush! You have plenty of time. Aim to take at least one 10-20 minute break in each temple you visit. This gives you a chance to soak up the atmosphere and will also keep your batteries charged.

Take snacks and a big bottle of water when you see the temples. Food and drink is double price in the park.

Go home mid-day. Start early and return for lunch, take a shower and a nap, eat some ice cream, then go back out around 3 p.m. You will thank yourself.

If you want to go to the outlying temples, check out your transportation options as soon as you arrive in Siem Reap. Because the temples are so far from the city, the best option is going by car, but you’ll need four people to keep your costs down. Tours are also offered, but not everyday. Check out the Peace of Angkor Guesthouse and The Villa at Siem Reap. They were some of the only places that offered affordable day-trips to far-away temples. For Banteay Srei and Kbal Speal, you need the Angkor pass. For Beng Melea, you don’t need the pass and entrance is $5.

Avoiding the Crowds

In the words of Scotty from Star Trek, “You just can’t do it.”

To a certain extent. Certain places to avoid are Phnom Bakheng at sunset and Angkor Wat after sunrise. Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei in the morning are supposed to be packed.

We did, however, have a few strategies to beat the hordes. First, leave early. The temples are pretty peaceful before 8 a.m. (except for Angkor Wat.) Second, go late. While many of the tour groups are still at it around 4 p.m., I noticed that the pace seemed more relaxed. After 5 p.m. was great – cooler temperatures, soft, beautiful sunlight, and very few people around.

dsc02231.JPGCheck alternative sunrise and sunset places. We were at Pre Rup and it was populated, but definitely wasn’t as crowded as Phnom Bakheng. Sunrise at Angkor Wat, while crowded, is manageable because the temple is just so huge.

Many people advise going out during mid-day to avoid the bus-loads of tourists. I would only recommend this in the cool season, unless you’re itching to get heat stroke. Just wake up early. It won’t kill you.

With all of this said, I don’t regret the money I spent at Angkor Wat. I know some travelers who only went for one day to save $20 on the expensive entrance fee, yet blow $5-10 every night at bars. Um, there are bars at home. There’s only one Angkor Wat. There are times to be cheap, and there are times to spend money. So shell some of it out knowing that after three days of nothing but temples and ruins, you won’t need to see another one again for a very, very long time. A bargain, really, when you think about it.

How Local Can You Go?

March 21, 2007

It’s been an expensive few days.

Cambodia has probably been the least expensive country we’ve visited so far. Our budget has hovered around $35-40 a day for the both of us, whereas in Vietnam we struggled to cap our spending at $50. However, with the cooking class we took yesterday ($20/person), the shadow puppet show tonight ($6/person), the monstrously expensive Angkor Wat pass ($40/person), and transportation around the temples for 3 days ($12-35/day), we’re trying to eliminate everything but the bare necessities.

Case in point, the previously mentioned puppet show. Every Wednesday, La Noria, a stylish boutique hotel in Siem Reap, holds a shadow puppet show to support a local NGO. We paid $6 for admission, which didn’t include food. Taking one look at the menu, however, we decided to be the kind of cheapskates that all waiters loathe, and ordered one drink, the cheapest on the menu.  The food there, you see, was a luxury we could not afford, with entrees priced astronomically at $3. No matter, thought we. After the show, we’ll simply head down the street to the food stalls where all of the locals ate.

I’m not a brave person. I don’t scuba dive, or parasail, or stay in hotels without electricty. I hate bugs and mice and am scared of most animals that are not cats or dogs. There is one area, however, where my courage surpases even the hardiest of men, and that is food. I will eat anything.

Some of the most memorable meals I have had been taken off of red plastic chairs and makeshift wooden tables in the middle of the sidewalk. They have come from huge, steaming vats that have been sitting out in the pollution of Southeast Asia’s streets for the entire day. Vendors have taken my money while swatting away at swarms of flies. I have sucked down drinks cooled by the perilous ice that all the guidebooks caution against.

In part, my bravery comes in a little, green pill I take every morning to prevent malaria. It’s an antibiotic, one side effect being that it kills a wealth of pesky bacteria, including anything I’d get from food. It’s not only the meds, though. The other aspect to my bravery is the trade-off I would have to make sticking to the backpacker restaurants – do I want rubbery banana pancakes and hard french fries every day, or do I want food that tastes good?

But I’ve gotten sidetracked here.

So we were cheap and starved through the puppet show. By the time it ended, however, most of the local restaurants had either closed or run out of food. That left us slim pickings. We should have resigned ourselves and eaten in our guesthouse’s restaurant, but where was the fun in that, right?

I reached my limit tonight. The point where even I, the Human Garbage Can, starving, refused to eat the food put in front of me.

We chose a stall whose “dining area” was set on a small lot. Opting for fried fish and chicken curry, I sat in anticipation. The cold, soggy fish came. It tasted dank, like it had been fried in three-day-old oil. The chicken curry was actually chicken bone curry served on a bed of fresh herbs. I was afraid I’d choke and die on the small, jagged pieces of bone crunching around in my teeth every time I chewed. The flourescent light from the other stalls barely reached our table; I could have been eaten curried rusty nails and wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. To top it all off, half-way through the meal, I noticed something small and black scurrying not two feet from where I sat.  Cockroaches. Here’s my idea for the next diet fad: it’s called, The There-Are-Cockroaches-Under-My-Feet-While-I’m-Eating Diet, and it’s 100% guaranteed to get rid of any inkling of an appetite you may have had.

We paid ($1.50 for everything) and left. It will be one of those nights, again. The kind of night where you pray to any God listening that you please don’t get sick the next day, the next time, I swear, I won’t eat those noodles/vegetables/chicken bits, just please, I can’t get sick tomorrow, any other day but tomorrow.

Cambodia is teeming with NGOs, or non-governmental organizations. Years of war has given the country a lot to deal with – orphans and street children, the blind and disfigured victims of landmines, heartbreaking, desperate poverty – and the Cambodian government either can’t or won’t deal with these issues yet. This leaves private and foreign-aid organizations to fill in the gaps.

Most efforts are your garden variety, government- or UN-sponsored “give aid money to build a bridge/building/road.” The Japanese government sponsors many of these kinds of projects, I’ve noticed. The abundance of signs and plaques never lets you forget it.

Smaller, non-governmental bodies, however, run projects with more pizzazz, that are aimed at the tourist and expat markets with money to burn. Many of these take on the form of small businesses – restaurants, boutiques, bakeries, bookstores, etc. – where the profits go towards related NGOs and charities. The prices at these places are slightly higher than what most backpackers would like to pay, but that warm-fuzzy feeling of contributing to a positive cause is very rare on the tourist route.

In our few days in Cambodia, so far we have eaten dinner at the Boddhi Tree in Phnom Penh, a restaurant that trains and employs street children. The menu featured creative, tapas-style dishes that were a little bit Khmer, a little bit Western. We ordered squid in mustard-cream sauce, a spinach, feta, and chickpea salad, and Khmer fish curry that probably would have cost $30 at some too-cool-for-school South Beach brasserie. We paid $8.

For breakfast, we munched on French toast and fruit salad at a bakery, Epic Arts Café, that employs and supports NGOs for the deaf and disabled. Many of the waitresses were deaf and the menu featured a page of sign language diagrams to facilitate communication. The café also sponsors an dance project for the physically disabled and an organization that trains sign language interpreters. In one corner of the store, they sold cotton t-shirts, hats, and bags made by local Kampot women.

Later today, we also got a massage at Seeing Hands Massage 5, in Kampot. All of the masseuses are blind. With branches across Cambodia, this NGO has proved very popular with the hot and worn-out tourist sector – and also with Cambodians, too. My masseuse, Mr. Dara joked that while many seeing Cambodians can’t find a job, the blind ones are happy because they can. He also runs the Cambodia Music Association for Disability, which sells concert CDs for his orchestra of blind musicians.

The makeshift gift shop in our guesthouse, Blissful, sells cute toiletry and shoulder bags made by Cambodian street children. Different to the usual hempy, organicy handmade crafts for sale, these are brightly colored and funky. I’m seriously tempted to buy one. They are made by the organization, Friends, based in Phnom Penh.

I’ve never been disappointed with the services I’ve gotten from these NGOs-cum-small businesses. Not only have I noshed on a dark, rich chocolate brownie and had my muscles beaten and kneaded into relaxation (for only $4 per hour!), I’ve been happy to part with my money. Perhaps spending for a good cause makes the brownie that much sweeter, allows the healing touch to reach that much farther to the core.

We’re in Phnom Penh now, Cambodia’s capital. After two days of the requisite palace-pagoda-museum sightseeing triumvirate, we decided to be “independent” and do something “off the beaten path” and make our way out to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary, 45 km (about 20 miles) out of the city center.

“Independent” and “off the beaten path” are two prized phrases amongst the backpacking crowd. The worst thing a place can be isn’t expensive or dirty or unsafe, but rather “touristy.” The backpacker kiss o’ death. Well, here is my take on it. There is a reason paths are beaten to certain areas and a reason paths to others remain dusty, bumpy roads in the middle of nowhere.

It was on the latter where we found ourselves today.

I was expecting the sanctuary to be something like the Endangered Primate Research Center outside of Ninh Binh, Vietnam – lush grounds where monkeys played in their pens, a guide to show us around and explain the work behind animal rescue, or, at the very least a gift shop.

The sandy road leading up to the wildlife sanctuary was lined with beggars and weird men in 8-foot tall Carnivale-esque costumes. We arrived to a place that was dusty and brown, with little separating it from the surrounding flatlands. Entrance cost $5, exorbitant in Cambodia, especially when the locals only had to pay $1. At the entrance to the zoo, children selling bamboo hats and fruit swarmed around us and, for the rest of our time there, we were followed by the same children trying to sell us either coconuts or their guide services.

It was so stinking hot with so few trees and water that the animals went on strike. The only animals that showed some sign of a pulse were the otters, who blissfully rolled around in their murky pool of water, and the monkeys, who can always be depended upon to go bananas (har har har.)

As if that weren’t crappy enough, no “adventure” that I undertake would be complete without a mechanical failure of some sort. This excursion would be no different. On the way to the sanctuary, our tuk-tuk (an open-air wagon pulled by a motorbike) started bouncing like the ghettomobiles in Carol City. An inspection revealed not one, but two flat tires. Fortunately, a few yards down the road was a repair shop.

Perhaps that ended too easily for because on the way home from the sanctuary on the same creepy road with all of the beggars, our tuk-tuk ran out of gas. So we got out and pushed. Truthfully, I was nervous at first because I thought that again, we would be swarmed by old folks and children wanting money, but actually the beggars turned out to be plainclothes monks and nuns collecting alms. They were tickled by the sight we made: two foreigners in the scorching afternoon pushing the transportation they’d hired for the day. I admit, I even thought we made a ridiculous scene. Their cackling followed us all the way down that dusty road until we found another shop selling gasoline out of soda bottles. Our driver bought us a bag of fruit to apologize.

Lessons learned? 1) Don’t take a tuk-tuk to any location out of Phnom Penh. 2) There may be less spontaneity on the beaten path, but at least it’s paved and most of the time, dust-free. 3) Save the zoos for Singapore.