Sunday, April 7, 2013

"I get my kicks above the waistline, Sunshine!"

I realize this blog called "ATK in India" is turning more into a blog about ATK everywhere but India. Perhaps after a year in India things that used to seem odd or at the very least blog worthy are now just everyday things. Who knows?  Anyways, this installation will continue in that non-India vein as I regale you with tales of the ATK family's recent trip to Thailand and Cambodia.

But first, in honor of Thailand, I bid you watch this 1980s classic video. Only mildly offensive.

So, Thailand--Bangkok, to be specific.  We had nine days planned for vacation, but because the flight between Bangkok and Siem Reap, Cambodia is ridiculously expensive, we decided to travel over land to cross the border. This meant that we had five consecutive days in Cambodia sandwiched between four days in Bangkok. The two day increments in Thailand meant we couldn't really leave the city to see other parts of the country. It was okay, though, because there is a lot to see in Bangkok (even if you ignore the creepy sex tourism.*)

Some Thailand highlights:
  •  Tourist/backpacker haven Khao San Road. You can buy almost anything here. Chances are none of it is real, though.

  • Floating market outside of Bangkok. Very cool, though very touristy. The market itself is generally on the shore, though there are some floating vendors. It's pretty amusing because if you look too long or point or indicate any semblance of interest in someone's wares, they use a hook on a stick to pull your boat in. We saw a Thai vendor in a shirt with a Nazi flag that said 'White Power'.  He ended up pulling our boat in most likely because of all the hubbub with the whole boat pointing, saying "Holy crap! Is that guy wearing a 'white power' shirt?" and the ensuing debate. I wonder if he wears the shirt as a conversation piece.

  • Delicious, delicious street food! Pad thai, chicken satay with peanut sauce, spring rolls, fried insects (if that's your thing), smoothies, coconut ice cream, fresh fruit. You might get dysentary, but c'mon, it's totally worth it.

  • Grand Palace. Which is beautiful, but hot and extremely crowded. We seemed to have arrived about five minutes after 10 bus loads of Chinese tourists. Also, as we were walking there, one clever tout tried to convince us the palace wasn't opened yet as it was early on a Sunday. Plausible since it was about 8:30 am (and already 100 degrees). But we declined his offer of a tour of the harbor and river wandered down the palace wall a bit more and, lo and behold! the palace was totally open!

After the first two days in Bangkok, we traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. Over land. This was probably the least enjoyable part of the entire trip. And what's worse is we had to do it twice. Ugh.

The process of going to Cambodia from Bangkok involves:
  • Getting a visa (which we did beforehand and it was relatively easy. You can do it at the border, but it's pricier.)
  • Taking a bus from Bangkok to the border
  • Going through Thai and Cambodia immigration. The immigration line on the Cambodian side is way worse as there is no air conditioning and they take a full set of fingerprints (digitally, but still) and it just takes forever. 
  • Then you need to go wait at the government bus stop for a free bus that will take you to the bus station. Also, here there are a ton of touts trying to sell you stuff, most noticeably they try to get you to change your Thai Bhaat for the practically worthless Cambodian Riel. Since everything in Siem Reap is in US Dollars, the riel is not worth the investment.  You actually get riel in lieu of US coins as change. (1,000 riels = a quarter).
  • Then you take the free bus to the next bus station, where you can take bus or a taxi to Siem Reap. Of course, the bus requires waiting and the taxis cost $48 US dollars for the two hour ride (which breaks down to $12 per person). We did haven't any traveling friends to fill up a cab and we wanted to arrive before night, so we negotiated $40 for the taxi for a direct drop off at the hotel.
Now, we had read a ton on this process, especially about all the scams out there and how you shouldn't believe a company saying they can take you direct from Bangkok to Siem Reap (or vice versa). So, while we saw a few advertisements around Khao San Road for direct services and I even saw an advertisement at the bus station for a direct trip, we decided to do it ad hoc. We later learned that while you obviously need to get out at the border and go through immigration (the buses can't go directly because they drive on opposite sides of the road in Thailand and Cambodia), a single company will take you to the border, snag you after you cross the border, take you to another vehicle and deliver you to the main bus station in Siem Reap. So we kind of shot ourselves in the foot by being too distrusting, because our trip ended up being considerably more expensive and a pain in the ass.

You see, our $40 taxi ended up taking us not to our hotel as promised but to a random tuk tuk stand. Upon arrival we protested that we were to go to our hotel as agreed. Jack the Tuk Tuk Leader poked his head in the window and explained that all minibuses and taxis stop here and tuk tuks take you to your hotel free of charge. Why we did not realize this was a preposterous scenario, I do not know.  Mr. ATK and I are pretty well traveled and in my Peace Corps days, I would have seen through something like this in a heartbeat. But instead we got out and got into the tuk tuk while Jack the Tuk Tuk Leader started yapping about how we come to Cambodia and pay very little and blah blah blah tuk tuk drivers. Finally, Mr. ATK was like "We've already arranged for a driver so we aren't hiring you.  Now can we go to our hotel?" This lead to the following exchange:

Jack the Tuk Tuk Leader: Yes you can go to your hotel. But you will have to pay.

Mr. ATK: You said the ride to the hotel was free.

Jack: Yes.

Mr. ATK: So you lied?

Jack: Yes. 

Points for honesty, I guess, but we were both pretty pissed and I just felt stupid. Of course, the taxi had driven away by this time and we were on the outskirts of town. The driver charged us 100 Thai Bhaat per person which is like $4 per person. It probably doesn't seem like much, but it is way over the market rate (example we paid our official tuk tuk driver $14 a day. That's for 8 hours of work.)  I don't begrudge people trying to make a buck, but I really don't like being scammed.

Anyways, after that nightmare, we enjoyed 5 fun-filled, very hot days, in Cambodia.

Some highlights:

  • Angkor Wat (duh!) I think this is as good a place as any to lodge the same complaint the Mr. ATK has had to hear at least 10 times in the past 6 months. Apparently in 2007, some organization decided to pick the "new" seven wonders. (Ricky Gervais' show "An Idiot Abroad" chronicles Karl Pilkington's visits to these new seven wonders.)  Anyways, one of these wonders is Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer's inclusion on this list, which I think is ridiculous. Now, I'm not saying it's not impressive, but really, it's just a statue on a hill. It's not even the tallest Jesus statue in the world (or Latin America--shout out to Cochambamba, Bolivia's Cristo statue.)  I cannot believe it is considered a "wonder" of the world and Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples are not. To me, a wonder it something that when you see it, you are like, "Wow! How did they do that?" When I see the Christ the Redeemer, I think, "That's very picturesque," not "How on earth did they build that?" Also a "wonder" is usually really old. The other wonders are The Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza, Macchu Pichu, Petra, Taj Mahal, Chichen Itza, and the Colosseum. Christ the Redeemer does not fit in that list. Angkor Wat does. Rant over.

  •  Angkor Thom. Especially Bayon Temple. There are like 216 of those Buddha faces carved in the sandstone.  It's very cool. Unfortunately, I actually got sick the morning we went to Bayon. It was nothing a little Immodium AD couldn't control, but I wasn't able to spend quite so much time climbing and exploring. I dragged Mr. ATK down a bit this day, but lucky for me he was a very sympathetic and supportive husband.

  • Ta Prohm. A temple that is consistently described as "something out of Indiana Jones." I'm not sure which Indiana Jones movie, though. Maybe Temple of Doom or the fourth one. I haven't seen those. It didn't remind me of the other two. It is cool because it's got giant trees growing out of and on top of the stone. Also, scenes from the Angelina Jolie classic Lara Craft: Tomb Raider were filmed there. Unfortunately, we only watched The Killing Fields before going to Cambodia. Totally forgot about modern classic Tomb Raider.**

  • The floating village, which has an actual name that escapes me now.  We were there in the dry season, which is not the best time to go as the water is muddy and the channel leading to the lake is shallow.  But the village itself is interesting. It's a fishing village (shocking, I know) in Tonle Sap--the largest lake in Southeast Asia. Everything floats on the lake. It's odd seeing a floating basketball court, a floating school, a floating church...  Inside the houses, you could see dogs. I thought, "Those poor dogs!"  I wonder if they go for swims instead of walks. Do they pee and poop in the water?  And the kids. How do they go and play with each other? (That question was partly answered by the picture below.)  I did not see any life jackets in this village.  I assume everyone is a strong swimmer.

  •  Fish pedicures, foot rubs, and all the other good stuff in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a pretty awesome town. It's developed and touristy, but not overdeveloped (in my opinion.) Also the Cambodian government has keep a nice buffer zone of forest between the temples and the city. (None of those "hotel right next to famous monument" situations.)  It can be pretty raucous in Siem Reap, with bars and nightclubs, shopping and restaurants. However, Mr. ATK and I are pretty boring people so we didn't really take advantage of the bars and nightclubs. We did enjoy the foot massages and other things, though.

One night, while we were out and about in town, we had an amusing encounter with a tuk tuk driver.

Tuk tuk driver: Tuk tuk?

ATKs: No, thank you.

Tuk tuk driver: Marijuana?

ATKs: Nope.

Tuk Tuk driver: Cocaine?

ATKs: No, thanks.

I just thought, "Oh buddy, you are totally going the wrong way."  We kept walking during this whole exchange so we didn't actually stop to engage, but I wonder what the next products/services he offers are. Heroin? Prostitutes? Babies? I don't know. It was all very blatant yet hush hush. The guy walking behind us ended up buying 3 joints for $1. I have no idea if that's a good price or not. It was just weird to be around drug deals.

We also went to the Landmine Museum, which was started by and is run by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier who defected and, after fighting the Khmer Rouge with the Vietnamese, starting disarming mines. As you may or may not know, landmines and other unexploded devices dropped on Cambodia during the war are a huge problem now as farmers and children continue to stumble across them, seriously wounding themselves. If you are interested in knowing more about landmines and the Cambodian Landmine Museum, check out their website here.

Various landmines used in Cambodia.

So overall, two thumbs up for Thailand and Cambodia (or four thumbs, I suppose, if we count Mr. ATk's.) Highly recommend it.  Just embrace the sweating.

*These twenty-somethings who were in our tour van going to the floating market kept badgering the tour guide to get them into a "ping pong show." Gross douchebags.  I won't link to it, but if you are curious I recommend not googling it while you are at work.

**We tried to watch Tomb Raider after we got home. Couldn't make it through despite a young Daniel Craig and the guy who says "khaleesi" all the time in Game of Thrones.