A foot massage and three beers later…

OK, so I was kinda cranky when I posted before. This place had really gotten to me, and I suppose it didn’t help that I was tired and hot and sore and that a tuk-tuk *hit* me (and ran over my foot!), leaving a nasty bruise on my leg. So today, instead of spending my last day at the temples, I opted to wander in town a bit, have an hour-long foot massage (ahhhhhh) and then have a few beers with a late lunch. I’m much more cheerful now.

I’m back into the mode of traveling alone, and I have to say that in many ways I prefer it. I’ve met and chatted with dozens of other travelers and locals since Marjan and I parted ways just 5 days ago. I suspect that part of my current relief is that Marjan wasn’t my perfect match in terms of travel companion, though we got on just fine. I’m just happy to be doing my own thing again.

For example, in Phnom Penh I met a Dutch man who’s teaching English for a year in the Cambodian countryside as part of a volunteer program with an NGO. He said he doesn’t know that he or NGOs in general are doing much good here. There’s terrible poverty in rural areas, and families can’t afford to send their children to school – let alone feed them well enough to pay attention to their studies. But when an NGO comes in to help (he says) Cabmodians view it as an opportunity to get a swankier school rather than to increase the number of children who go to school. People live for appearances *right now* rather than investing in the future of the country via education. “It’s an interesting problem,” he said. “In Honduras, for example, there was no NGO help [because of a general boycott] and they did a great job of helping themselves.” He also said that it’s different in Vietnam, where people have national pride “because they defeated the Americans.”

Today I met a man from New York – he lives right down the street from me, in Stuy-town – who’s here fro three weeks. He and his travel buddy were sitting next to me at lunch. He was drinking a diet Coke out of a can, and there was a small homeless boy hanging around, gesticulating at him and his drink and making a drinking motion. He boy wanted the guy to hurry up and drink the Coke so that he could have the can. He absolutely refused to leave until the guy finally finished.

The whole situation was annoying for us, as you might imagine, because we couldn’t have an uninterrupted conversation (and I had to pay half my attention to the boy’s proximity to my backpack). But forget us – what about the boy (and the dozens of others around town)? On the one hand, collecting cans is definitely more productive than simply panhandling or out-and-out stealing. (An education would be even better, of course.) On the other hand, he’s learning a lesson early that all Siem Reap area citizens seem to know: If you whine and pester and annoy tourists long enough, eventually they’ll give you the can (or buy your postcard or bottle of water or guide book) just to make you go away. Speaking of going away: I can’t wait to get out of here, and I’m completely disinclined to buy any souvenirs at all because I’m sick of being harassed about them.

This whole question about tourism and developing economies is an interesting one. It comes up a lot when scuba diving. If there is a beautiful, untouched reef somewhere, scuba shops open up to bring tourists there. The tourists come in greater and greater numbers, requiring more hotels (and resulting in more deforestation and then runoff when it rains, which kills the reef). At least one person (and often many more) in every dive group touches the coral either accidentally or because they’re a poor or stupid diver. When you touch coral it dies, and it takes weeks for that little bit to grow back. The regrowth can’t keep up with the tourist volume, the reef suffers, it can’t support aquatic life, the diving starts to suck…and we divers move on to the next “untouched” spot. Replace “touch the reef” with “brush against ancient carvings on Angkor Wat” or “trod on Mayan ruins” or “trek through virgin rain forest” and the whole thing gets depressing quite quickly. Makes you think you should just stay home and watch the Discovery Channel – let the professionals do it!

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Oy vey – what’s with the doom and gloom today? I better shut the eff up.

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And what of Cambodia?

Oh yeah. The country I’m in. I suppose I should say a bit about it.

Well, to be honest I’m not a huge fan. I think the problem is that I’m only visiting the two tourist areas: Phnom Penh and the ridiculous tourist mecca of Siem Reap. Every 3 steps some guy steps in front of you and says, “hello lady need tuk-tuk? need moto? where you going?” If you’re walking along it’s as if the motorcycle drivers swerve to come as close to you as possible, for no real reason except (I suspect) to fuck with you. Evidently this village has undergone a gold rush-like tourist boom in the last few years, so perhaps the locals are taking out latent frustrations on tourists. I can’t blame them, but it makes this place quite uninviting.

In any event, on Tuesday and Wednesday I rented a bike to tour the incredible Temples of Angkor. The bike ride itself was an adventure – cars and motos deliberately try to cut you off and the drivers laugh in your face if you have to stop short and fall off the seat. But I’m still glad I did it by bike. First, I got a ton of excercise – I did around 35 km the first day and around 20 the second, not including climbing up and down and around the temples. Plus I was able to go at my own pace, without a tuk-tuk driver bugging me. And it was cheap $1.50/day instead of the $20 charged by tuk-tuk drivers. That, at least, offset the outrageous $40 that the Cambodians charge for a 3-day pass ($20 for one day). Yes, the money that doesn’t get siphoned into government pockets goes toward the upkeep and renovation of the temples, but it’s a pretty steep charge, IMHO.

Anyway, the temples themselves are quite impressive – the architecture, the wall carvings. I’d describe the temples as a whole in a state of atmospheric decay – trees, moss, animals and rain are slowly reclaming the sandstone structures and the ground they’re built on. I won’t bother trying to explain. Wait for the photos…though the internet is so slow in this cafe that I’m going to give up and try to upload more pics later.

Anyway, I’m glad to be leaving tomorrow morning. Finally….to Bali, beach and scuba!