Sunday, July 23, 2017

July 22 – Disaster(s)

Sometimes a day goes so wrong it makes you think the universe is conspiring against you. Or maybe it’s just a dose of bad luck to balance out the months of heaping good luck. In any case, here’s what happened.

The morning started out fine. We all met for breakfast at the 7th floor rooftop restaurant and had loaded up our plates with all sorts of interesting options from the buffet. Besides the regular breakfast items such as waffles, toast, croissants, bacon, fresh fruit, cereal, sausages and pastries, many of the Asian buffets include more dinner like items. For example, today we had vegetable fried rice, wontons, fried tofu, boiled cabbage, chicken curry and pork stir fry. I was happily munching away on one or more of the above items, when something got stuck in my throat and I could not breathe. I frantically pushed back from the table, clutching at my throat and trying to cough it out, but whatever was lodged in there would not budge. Ana whacked my upper back, trying to dislodge it, but wasn’t working and I think I was starting to black out. Everybody was stunned and paralyzed, not knowing exactly what to do, and from what I remember there was no staff around either. Tony ran behind me, put his arms around my chest and started heaving, going for that Heimlick maneuver that you see on television but never actually see anybody do. And guess what? It worked! Otherwise I might not be writing this. I don’t know if the guilty food item went up or down, but there was no comedic moment of a half chewed sausage launching out of my mouth and landing in somebody’s coffee, although that would have made for a better story. I sucked in wind and brought myself back to life. I was embarrassed, as there were quite a number of people in the restaurant, all looking at me sitting there turning from blue back to white, but happy to be breathing and that my main man Tony was there to give me the big squeeze. I owe him one. But, sadly, the day did not get any better after that.

We gathered up our things and left the hotel, on the way to visit a nearby temple. All of us were walking along the roadside boulevard when we came to a section that had a whole bunch of broken up sidewalk chunks scattered around. As we were tip-toeing through it, Maddy completely lost her footing, tripped, and landed on a piece of rubble, yelling in pain. We went to help her up and she screamed, “NO!” and then rolled over on one side and we could see that her arm was twisted at a very odd angle. She had broken it. Shit. While the ladies were sitting with her Tony and I ran across the street to the closest hotel – I forget which one it was – and told the front desk what had happened and asked them what to do. They were very helpful and said it was better to call an ambulance instead of taking a tuk tuk to the hospital, so they called one while we waited and then told us to just say with her until it arrived. So we went out, crossed the street and told them that a ride was on the way. By now the sun was higher in the sky and extremely hot so we all stood there in a line trying to shadow Maddy as she was in pain and just wanted to stay where she was on the ground. It only took about 15 minutes for the ambulance to arrive, and we decided that since there wasn’t too much space, the Henriques would all go together to the hospital and we’d stay within range of wifi and keep in touch via text (assuming they could get wifi at the hospital). The paramedics helped Maddy up, and by this time she seemed to be doing better, and was able to walk by herself to the ambulance.

We watched the ambulance drive away into the frenzy of traffic and then looked at each other and just said, “Wow.” On the bright side, it was not a compound fracture, and the one paramedic thought it looked like a very simple break, so told everybody not to worry. But we were all pretty rattled by this point.

Ana, the kids and I spent the rest of the morning at the hotel just texting back and forth with Angela as they had Maddy x-ray’d and checked out by the doctors. Things were sounding okay, except that Maddy was definitely going to need a cast so wasn’t going to be as mobile as usual for the last few days of their trip. The other problem was that there looked to be some sort of issue with the travel insurance they had purchased (or thought they had purchased?) and none of the hospital expenses were going to be covered. They estimated the bill was going to be around ten thousand US dollars and, if you can believe this, it had to be paid in cash. Considering we’d only been able to withdraw US$250 per day from the ATMs I had no idea how we were going to get that much cash. But we told them we’d start checking into options.

So in the early afternoon we decided that in addition to checking into the money issue, it was probably a good opportunity to take our passports down to the Vietnamese embassy to get our visas processed, as we planned to go to Vietnam once we parted ways with the Henriques. So we went outside and began walking to the busy tourist area where all the tuk tuks hang out. We have a day bag we use for carrying stuff around, but whenever we carry our passports we always put them into the travel belts that we wear hidden around the waist beneath your clothes. Except that we had recently had all of our passports renewed, and the new Canadian passports have many more pages and a much harder front and back cover, so they are uncomfortable as hell to wear on your body, and they barely fit into it. So we decided to just put them in the day bag and be extra careful. As we were walking along I was carrying the bag on my shoulder and a motorcycle came up from behind us at high speed and ripped the bag from my grasp. And as I was pulled off balance, I smashed into Magnus and knocked him to the ground, where he hit his face right on the pavement, breaking his glasses and getting a big cut across his nose. It was total chaos. Ana, Stella and I stood there, dumbfounded as we watch the two guys on the motorcycle driving away with our bag and poor Magnus with blood dripping down his face. Some of the Cambodians standing nearby had seen everything happen and one of them took off on his motorcycle to try and catch them. We helped Magnus up and he seemed okay except for the cut, but he was more upset about his glasses, as he didn’t have another pair and he really likes wearing them.

One of the Cambodians must have called the police because a single man on a police bike arrived and started talking to the people who had witnessed it and, I assume, was getting a description of the thieves. Ana and I started trying to remember what was in there and our hearts sunk when we realized the bag contained not only our passports, but also her wallet, two of our three phones, and a folder with a bunch of other important travel documents. Considering we are seasoned travelers and have been robbed twice in the past, I just do not know how we could have been so stupid.

Actually, none of the above happened. I recently read a book on Stoicism and one of the things Stoics practice is a mental exercise whereby you imagine bad things happening to you, or losing people or things that are important to you, or any other sort of misfortune you can conjure. The idea is that by imagining such misfortunes, you are much better prepared to deal with them when they invariably do happen. Also, your sense of loss is less, because you have already imagined and muted your reaction to this misfortune many times, but in your mind, so you are better prepared for it. After I read that book I realized I probably am a Stoic, because this mental exercise is something I’ve been doing for years.

I will apologize to Angela’s mom, because I know she has been following these journals and probably suffered a major panic attack while she was reading this! Rest assured, your babies are all safe and sound.

Today we did visit a nearby temple, and then we tuk tuk’d to the genocide museum and got a very sad tour of a school the Kymer Rouge used as a prison and torture facility, killing many thousands of innocent Cambodians here, and taking photos of each prisoner, which now haunt the walls of the cursed buildings. We then took a hot walk to the Russian Market where we all did some shopping. Ana got a purse, I got an Angkor beer tshirt, Magnus got a switchblade and a tuk tuk tshirt and Stella got exactly what she needed to complete her backpacker look – M.C. Hammer pants. I even played her the “You Can’t Touch Dis” video that evening so she could learn the dance move she needs to rock the pants.

After all of that there was some top level hot tubbing, beer drinking, a walk around an extremely filthy local market, another unavoidable stroll through the red light area to see the hoochies and perverts, and finally a huge dinner at an Indian restaurant.

In other words, an excellent day for this Stoic bastard.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

July 21 – Let’s Go To Phnom Penh

The trip to Phnom Penh was a snap. Fancy mini-bus picked us up at 8:00 and five hours later we were dumped in some unknown location in a commercial district of the capital city Phnom Penh. Of course there was a small throng of tuk-tuks so after gathering up our things we grabbed two of them for an extravagant five bucks each and set off into the concrete jungle. The traffic was a mad frenzy. The people here are masters at finding that extra inch on the road that lets you sneak past somebody else. It’s funny – the drivers are constantly cutting each other off, blatantly, but they all do it with a smile and nobody ever seems to get mad at each other. Don’t be trying that in Brantford, otherwise some big bellied, ham fisted hockey dad will get out of his F150 and punch you in the face.

Our hotel, the Ohana, was located right in the heart of all the action, overlooking the mighty Mekong river. We exploded our stuff all over the room and then went for a swim in the chilly pool on the ground floor. The kids and Ana went to the top of the hotel to explore the spa, and when I went up there I found the three of them sitting in a giant hot tub with an infinity edge spilling over the entire city. Cha-ching!

hey had also made a new friend in the hot tub – John from Barry, Ontario and his lovely family. He had met a Cambodian lady six years previously and had spent that entire time trying to get her and her daughter to Canada, as he had a child from a previous relationship. So far his wife and the baby daughter they had together in Canada were living in Barrie, but her 11 year old daughter was still living in Phnom Penh with relatives, awaiting a visa. He told us much of the administration had been on the Cambodian side, as they have tight controls on allowing children to leave here, to prevent child trafficking. The whole experience sounded very stressful, but he had made 11 trips to Cambodia in recent years to spend with his adopted daughter and his wife’s family.

We went for a walk to see if we could find a place to eat. We seemed to be located in the heart of the red light district, evidenced by the abnormally large number of single, white, 60 year old dudes hanging around bars. And, of course, the bars themselves, with packs of provocatively dressed ladies hanging out front, eyeing up dudes as they passed, beckoning them inside. Our hotel was just off the waterfront so we walked across the street to the giant boulevard, which was similar to the one in Baddambang – exercise equipment and many people, but somehow not quite as nice. We saw a large group of people playing some sort of footbag game, but the thing they were kicking around looked more like a giant badminton birdie. Interesting, must keep an eye open for one of those.

After a bit of wandering we found the Lemongrass restaurant so went in for a nice Thai meal. The prices were a bit higher than what we had become used to, but still very cheap. After eating, the girls and kids wanted to check out the local market so Tony and I found a riverside/trafficside restaurant that offered 75 cent drafts and settled in for drinks and a cigar. We were down to the last two smokes we had bought in the Manila airport, so that would probably be our next big purchase.

The ladies and kids eventually joined us and by this time it was dark and so I introduced them and Phnom Penh to a game I invented a few years ago. It’s called “Gecko Spitballing” and here’s how it works. Find a restaurant with a large, backlight neon sign and request a table directly beneath it. Order at least one fancy cocktail that comes with a straw. Pull out a napkin from the tabletop napkin dispenser. And then you watch…and wait. Soon, geckos will appear on the sign. Slowly reach for your napkin, hold it up to your mouth and take a small bite out of the corner. Chew it well to get it fully moistened and into a cannonball shape. Lift straw to your mouth. Use your tongue to load the projectile into the straw. Now aim the straw at the closest gecko. Inhale deeply. Stay calm and focused. And then blow as hard as you can. The spitball projectile will blast from the straw, and if your aim is straight and true, you will strike the gecko and cause him to lose his sticky foot suction and fall from the sign, hopefully into somebody’s beer or, better yet, in their hair or down their shirt. And then let the frenzy unfold around you.

Sadly, my aim was neither true nor straight, and I just couldn’t hit one. The spitballs came close enough to graze a few of them, but sadly no direct hit. When the waitress caught me doing it, instead of throwing me out, she actually stood nearby cheering and laughing, hoping for me to hit one. Magnus got in on the action too, but he aim was just as sucky as mine so we left the waitress and ourselves disappointed, and with nothing to show for it besides a bunch of spitballs stuck all over the tables, chairs, and ground.

We finished up the evening with a visit to the rooftop hot tub. John from Barrie was up there so we sat and chat with him for a long time and he told us all about his Cambodian family and experiences here with the language, customs and so on. It was also two for one hour so he asked me for help in drinking his second giant jug of Angkor beer. I’m always willing to help out a fellow traveler in need so we polished off the beer, which provided for a lovely headache the next morning.

Friday, July 21, 2017

July 20 – Day Tripping Around Baddambang

Yesterday we hired Mr. Blue and Mr. Sam to tour us around the Battambang countryside for the day. They arrived promptly at 9:30, which gave us plenty of time in the morning to lounge around a bit and have a big breakfast at the hotel. It turned out that Mr. Sam couldn’t make it, so he sent his uncle (let’s call him Uncle Sam), who would be the Olson’s guide and driver for the day.

After zipping through the streets of Baddambang the level of roadside development started to thin slightly, and soon we were in the countryside. Our first stop was in front of a large temple complex, but before entering Mr. Blue introduced us to a roadside vendor who was selling these thick bamboo rods full of…something. He picked one up and showed us that inside was a dessert item of sticky rice, beans and coconut milk. We purchased one to share and peeled back strips of the bamboo to expose the firm rice mixture. It was good – chewy, not too sweet, nice morning snack.

The temple turned out to be a memorial site for the thousands of Cambodians that were killed here during the four years of Kymer Rouge rule in the 70’s. Around the memorial were depictions of some of the atrocities that were committed by the Khymer Rouge during this time – throats being slashed with palm leaves, decapitations, women being raped, babies being killed, cannibalism, torture. It was worthy of a horror novel but, sadly, very real. Also in the memorial was a collection of skulls and bones that were reclaimed from a nearby well where they used to throw in the murder victims. Mr. Blue was born just after this era, but he told us a story about his father, who was a monk at the time, and monks, along with educated people and the elite, such as doctors, teachers, administrators, artists, musicians, property owners and business people, were systematically executed or worked and starved to death. Mr. Blue’s father nearly died of starvation at his lowest point, and was only able to survive by eating the arm of one of the dead.

From this sobering start we continued onto a crocodile farm. Upon entering we were shown a large paid that had a dozen freshly hatched crocodiles and we were invited to pick them up and hold them. Most of us dove in and grabbed a small handful of lizard – it was pretty neat. We also held a larger one, but not before the owner used an elastic to hold its mouth shut. With the compound were something in the neighbourhood of 700 crocodiles, all raised commercially to be turned into purses, boots, jackets or pizza toppings. There were at least a dozen separate concrete enclosures and we were able to walk across the top of them and look down to see the mostly still crocs, many with their mouths permanently hung open, showing off their sharp teeth. At one point a dopey chicken somehow got on top of the enclosure and dropped into the cage and was snapped up by one of the crocs in an instant. A croc fight nearly ensured, but the successful croc slithered off and found a nice quiet place in the corner of the space to gloat over his good fortune.

The next stop along the way was a fish processing facility. We could smell it well before we got there. There were hundreds of butterflied fish lying out on drying racks in the hot sun. A chicken stood atop of one of the racks and pecked away at the fish, unmolested. There was a covered fish processing area that had many workers in an assembly line fashion, bringing in buckets of fish, using cleavers to hack off gills and fins, and then fins, remove guts and then butterfly them into the required shape for drying. There was also a large vat of slowly putrifying fish, which would be used as the base for a fish sauce, though the entire process takes several months. A Toyota Camry  pulled up across the street and they started unloading fish. But not just from the trunk. All the seats had been removed, except for the drivers seat, and the fish were literally piled up to the windows. The lads pulled the fish out of the car and heaved them into buckets to await processing. Most of them were in leaky bags, but many were loose in the car so it took a while to get them all. Towards the end, we could see a steady stream of fish slime and guts oozing out of the doors of the car onto the ground and slowly puddling up, but likely evaporating quickly in the hot sun. “Hey, the good news with your new position in the company, is that you get a company car? The bad news? Well, it’s the fish car.” Mr. Blue told us that the fish actually had to be driven from a fish farm that was about two hours away. Just imagine.

Our next stop was the rice wine maker. A family had set up a small processing facility for making rice wine. It was nothing fancy – some wood burning ovens, evaporators and small vats with rice wine dripping out into buckets. There were two jars to sample from; one with rice wind soaked in grapefruits and one with rice wine soaked in cobra snakes. I tried both. The fruit wine was boozy, but drinkable. The snake wine was strong, harsh and gave me an instant erection, just like Mr. Blue said it would. We got the hell out of there.

The final stop for the morning was the rice paper maker. Again, a small, family run facility where they husked rice and then turned the grains into a powder that was made into a floury paste and then cooled crepe-style on a hot pan. These were extremely thin and put out on bamboo racks to dry. After drying they become hard, so to use them for making spring rolls you have to dip it into water for a brief moment, which instantly softens it and allows you to roll it up. When we arrived there were at least two dozen bicyclists there, so we had to wait a while for our tour, and while we waited we sampled the raw and fried spring rolls, along with their fish sauce. Delicious.

By now it was around 1:00 so our drivers took us back into town and dropped us off at a restaurant, with the agreement that they would pick us up at our hotel at 3:30 for the second part of our trip – to see the killing caves and great nightly bat exodus. The restaurant they dropped us at was one that we hadn’t previously seen, and the food was cheap and decent. It’s still hard to get over how inexpensive things are here – lunch for 8 including a few beers was less than thirty bucks.

After lunch we walked over to one of the busy streets to get tuk tuks and Magnus the scavenger found a ten thousand dollar riel note (about $2.50 US) so with his windfall he treated us to the tuk tuk ride back to the hotel. We had an afternoon chill out there and were back on the road at 3:30 sharp with our fine drivers.

In the morning all of our stops were north of the city, but in the afternoon we headed south. It took about 30 minutes in the tuk tuk to reach our destination, and along the way we pulled over at a roadside stall to check out the grilled rats. I won’t even say I was tempted – if I ate a grilled rat Ana wouldn’t touch me for weeks, or perhaps ever.

The Killing Caves are a place where the Kymer Rouge used to execute people and dump their bodies. There were three caves; one in which they threw the dead babies and children, one in which they tossed the older people and one for the adults. Years after those dark days had past, the government exhumed thousands of skulls and bones and put some of them into a small pagoda as a memorial to all of the people who died there. It was a chilling site, sad, and unbelievable. But it is good they keep these places available to the public as a reminder of the terrible things that happened there. We had hired a guide to take us up the mountain and show us around the sites and he did a great job explaining everything.

After the caves we moved a little bit further up the mountain to see a grouping of large, golden temples. There were also a lot of tourists, monks, and monkeys, and one of the monkeys was looking for a bit of afternoon delight (a.k.a – Monkey Bang Bang) so got to work on his tree-mate in full view of us lucky visitors. Ana videotaped the whole thing - she is such a pervy.

At last, the time came to see the bats. We finished up our tour of the caves and temple and drove back down the hill and got seated at one of the dozens of tables set up for the evening bat spectacle. We were all seated at a roadside across from a sheer cliff with a big cave opening. We were told the bats usually come out around 6pm, and at exactly 6pm we saw a few bats starting to flutter out of the cave, which was the start of the tsunami. For the twenty minutes that we stayed, a steady stream of bats exploded out of the cave. Although it is pretty hard to estimate, I’m thinking there must have been at least hundred bats per second coming out. So for twenty minutes that makes 120,000 bats, and they were still pouring out when we left. The bats would split off into groups, creating contorting, dancing clouds of batness over the nearby fields and forests. It was extraordinary, and unlike anything I have ever seen. Our tuk tuk driver told us that the bats leave at this time to go out into the forest to feed, and then they all stream back into the cave at around 4am. But we would not be coming back to witness their triumphant return.

We drove back into town and were dropped off near Olly’s Pomme restaurant, and our host Olly once again greeted us warmly. We went in, got seated (on the floor) at a table and got the games out and started playing. Right away we noticed the French girl Veronica  we had met at Madison’s the day before, was in the restaurant with a guy, so we sat near them and struck up a conversation. He was an American named David, on a souls-searching, worldwide mission after quitting his job in California three months previous. We learned that Veronica was a teacher and had worked at many French schools around the world, and was on a short break before starting her new contract in Laos.

We had a few drinks, ordered a bit of food, and played a game or two, while chatting with our new friends. By 9pm Stella was sleeping on the floor, so we decided to call it a night and hired a tuk-tuk to give us a ride home. I believe he may have been the slowest tuk-tuk in Baddambang as his little motorbike could barely pull the two person tuk-tuk that the four of us were packed into, and the rest of the vehicles were whizzing by us as we crawled down the busy road. But I was glad we had chosen this particular underdog tuk-tuk, because who doesn’t like cheering for the underdog?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

July 19th – Baddambang

By 8am we were fed, watered, checked out of Indra Porak, and loaded onto a bus headed for the town of Baddambang. Siem Reap is a great place, buzzing with energy, so we were sad to leave but excited at the prospect of exploring a new town. I think our only regret was that we didn’t find the Pot and Pan restaurant earlier.

We were braced for a 5 hour bus ride, but it only took about 3.5 hours, and the trip was good. We saw a little of the Cambodian countryside, and a lot of small villages, I am sure with their own particular charms, but all we could really see from the road were beaten up houses with plenty of garbage strewn about. What is beautiful, though, are all the Cambodian children, always smiling, waving and having fun. Ana saw two little boys, holding hands, wearing no pants, smiling and watching the bus pass by, and Angela noticed a group of schoolchildren, wearing impeccably clean school uniforms, walking along the highway, possibly on their way home for lunch.

We arrived in Baddambang to a throng of tuk-tuk drivers holding up “ Tuk-tuk – 50 cents anywhere!” signs and they mobbed the passengers as we departed the bus. After collecting our bags, and thoughts, we settled on two of them (Mr. Blue and Mr. Sam) and were whisked off into this unknown city. It was a short ride to the King Fey Hotel, which was to be our home for two nights, and it looked to be a decades old, classy hotel, but perhaps a bit run down. We checked in and took the elevator up to our rooms, which we found had large balconies overlooking the river and downtown, great beds and antique mahogany furniture that weighed a ton and would have fetched thousands for a single chair in an antique shop back home.

Our first order of business, as it always is in a new place, is to start wandering around, so we gathered our forces and set out walking. We almost immediately found a temple so went for a wander around the grounds. The various wats and pagodas were a little beaten up and didn’t look well maintained, similarly the grounds were pretty messy. There were a number of monks wandering around who paid us no attention, so we assumed they were okay with our loitering.

We continued across the bridge into town and turned left, looking for a place to have lunch. This brought us into a gritty, commercial area with a never-ending string of businesses such as tire shops, mechanics, scooter dealers, hardware stores, phone shops, welders,housewares, and so on. We were feeling like Baddambang was going to be a major disappointment, but after changing direction, things started to improve and we could feel like we were getting closer to the action. Our first hit was a streetside restaurant called “Madison” run by a French chap who coaxed us in with promises of the best crepes in Cambodia. We didn’t need much convincing as we were hot, sweaty and in need of liquid refreshments.

We enjoyed a cold pitcher of beer and a decent lunch and got the lowdown on Baddambang from the charismatic owner, who actually used to be a local celebrity as he would dress up a superhero called “Pancake Man” and walk around the streets making crepes for people on the portable grill strapped to his midsection, fueled by a propane cylinder slung across his back. He dug out a small stack of old, wrinkled, faded photographs of himself in costume entertaining children, and showed them us proudly.

After lunch, the kids decided they had seen enough and walked together back to the hotel to go for a swim. We continued exploring and finally found the “cool” area with French style architecture, restaurants and neat shops. We passed one place and the English owner, Olly Smith, came right out, introduced himself and asked our names. He gave us a rundown of the area and said he would be open all night if we wanted to come back later for drinks or food. I had a feeling we would.

The ladies found a huge, covered market so we told them they could meet us at the first beer serving establishment down the street. We walked for a block, and amazingly there were no such places, so we actually had to dip into the market to find a small vendor that looked to have beer. It was an older lady who was extremely short, had a malfunctioning leg, and some sort of condition that had left her body covered in large warts. And, of course, she wore a huge smile on her face. She told us her name and also the name of her grandson and we told her ours. She gave us two plastic chairs to sit on and we asked her for two beers. We didn’t see her speak or motion to anybody, and yet a couple of minutes later a young boy came running from across the street with a thin plastic bag containing two cans of Leo beer and two straws handed them to us, as we handed her the requested price of one dollar. We cracked open our cans and sat watched the world happening around us. Here is what it looked like.

The grandson of the owner was sitting on the table where she was also selling these miniature candy apple treats, and he slammed his whole hand into the syrup she dipped the apples in. Fortunately he did not wipe the sticky hand on his pants, because he was wearing no pants, and he was whisked away by a young girl and taken to the nearest water source. Two other children were standing nearby and started laughing. The ceiling of the market was just over six feet high so we felt very closed in and truly a part of the action. Across from us and to the right was a jewelry vendor, and to the left a food vendor but we couldn’t really tell what he was cooking. A steady stream of people poured into the market and were challenged by a current of people heading the opposite direction, creating a dance-like shuffle, but one in which everybody got to where they were they wanted to go. From deep within the market emerged a man driving a scooter, swerving around people, carrying a smallish, portable Buddhist temple, wrapped in plastic, on the back of his bike. A lady a few feet away from us had a charcoal fire burning and was cooking chicken skewers on it, as well as chopping vegetables on a board, while sitting on the dirt floor. An old man, a young lady, a teenager, and a young child, all sat around her on wooden blocks as she served them small plates of food – the grilled chicken, sticky rice and fresh vegetables, and they all ate silently. It looked good and smelled delicious. Another scooter came rolling through from the street and parked in behind the jewelry vendor and then the owner disappeared into the bowels of the market. We kept hearing cat sounds, but couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. Soon, a little kitten came walking down the row in front of us, like he was patrolling the market. His little buddy wasn’t too far behind him, also patrolling. Both had cropped tails, but one had a slightly longer one than the other, making him feel superior. Looking around we saw concrete, dirt, steel, cloth fabric, wood, tarps and poles. We saw girls, boys, moms, dads - sometimes all on the same motorcycle. In fact another scooter came ripping through with a mom and an older child in front of her and her three year standing barefoot on the seat behind her, holding onto her mom’s shoulders, laughing wildly. We watched them disappear into the smear of traffic outside, and down a road that had a thousand signs hanging from all levels, written in Kymer, Chinese, Thai and English.

“That’s what I love about Asia,” I said to Tony, as we finished up the last sip of our beers, and noticed the girls approaching us from one of the market pathways. “All you have to do is sit down and watch the action unfold around you.”  We thanked our hostess, joined the girls and continued our wandering.

As the mayor of any small sized city in Canada, my first action would be to send my entire staff of urban planners to Baddambang to see how they have designed their town centre (actually, it was the French who designed it, many decades before when Cambodia was a French protectorate). Baddambang is a river town, and the river slices it neatly into two. Adjacent to the river, on both sides, is a strip of natural growth area, full of plants and trees that serves as a natural buffer for the river, and probably disappears when the water runs high. Next to this runs a pedestrian only boulevard that is likely more than ten metres wide. This boulevard contains a tiled pedestrian walkway, a long line of grassy parks, well maintained exercise equipment and many, many trees. In two spots we found reflexology walks, which are poured walkways with two or three concentric paths containing small stones sticking up on end, providing a surface that can we walked with bare feet, giving participants the benefits of a rigorous reflexology treatment. The outside ring contains the most painful rocks, but the paths got easier the closer you got to the middle. We did a bare foot walk around the outside and I actually made it (but needed a few breaks). The exercise and playground equipment was all being used, as were the nice sitting benches installed liberally throughout and there were people everywhere, making use of everything. Beside the boulevard was a narrow, two lane roadway that was fairly congested with vehicle traffic – mostly scooters – and the traffic moved slow but steady, yet not fast enough to seriously injure anybody that may have the misfortune of being struck. Having so much activity around a street naturally and automatically reduces traffic speed because drivers instinctually know it is not safe to drive fast, so there is no need for speed limit signs. This lies in stark contrast to our downtown roads in Canada that are built so wide they look and feel like race tracks and unwittingly invite drivers to drive well beyond the posted limits because it feels perfectly safe to do so. But God help the hapless pedestrian who stumbles out into the road and gets hit.

Beside the traffic street were shops with a large sidewalk in front, many which had some sort of sidewalk feature like seating, tables, food carts or display boards. On the other side of the river – the less busy side – was a similar boulevard, but once we walked over there (passing many boys fishing from the bridge) we found a flurry of citizen activity. In one section there was a full band playing music and street performers putting on a show, for tips, for a huge number of bystanders. In another part there was a large crowd of people doing aerobics and, though we didn’t walk down far enough to see it, we were told that every afternoon dozens upon dozens of people do some sort of pattern dance called the Madison.

In short, the place was electric. And this was a Wednesday afternoon. What do most Canadian cities look like on a Wednesday afternoon at 5 pm? We have a few things to learn.

We worked our way back to the hotel, found the kids and had a chill-out session for a couple of hours. But then we headed back into town to see how it fared after dark. Turns out, it was comparatively slow. The downtown area was lit up and there were a lot of people around, and a smallish night market, but many of the shops were closed, and even many of the restaurants, and it was only about 9pm. We learned later that during the high season the level of nighttime activity increases substantially. So we returned to Pomme to take advantage of our new friend Olly’s hospitality and hear more of his outstanding, customized, hand-cut playlist of fine music. He was indeed glad to see us, and even remembered all of our names. There we played some awesome board games, which was made better by a table setup whereby the legs were mostly cut off allowing you to sit on the floor. The restaurant and bar were having a rather slow night so Olly hung out all evening with us, giving us the ins and outs of running an international hosteling empire (he has one in Thailand and this one in Cambodia) and his plans for the expansion of Pomme. He also treated us to a poetry reading from his recently published book of poetry called “Pooems”. That is, poems all about poo. I’d only known the guy for a day and I felt like taking him home to join the Olson family. By the end of the night we had eaten some great food, drank a lot of Anchor beer, tried a new French drink called “Pastis”, listened to some kick-ass music, and Olly had promised to get Magnus the name of a shop in Bangkok that sold Magic the Gathering cards.

Everybody went to bed happy.

July 18 – Cocoons, Monkeys, and Lady Boom Boom

Magnus has always been a scavenger. When he walks he is constantly scanning the ground for interesting things and has found a lot of stuff over the years, including money. This morning as we were walking into town he found a US hundred dollar bill. He ran over to us and was so excited that I could see the spending plans already beginning to take shape in his mind. He gave me the bill to look at and it appeared sort of real, but the paper just seemed a little flimsy and it was an older bill without all the security features. I told him it was probably a fake, but he wouldn’t throw in the towel until he had independent verification, so he ran into the first money changer he could find and showed them the bill and was immediately shooed away. He wasn’t happy with their evaluation of the authenticity of the bill so found another currency exchange place and the clerk could see from ten feet away that the bill was a fake. He wasn’t too disappointed as I think he had his doubts too that he would be able to find a hundred bucks on the road that the thousands of poverty stricken locals had somehow missed. We found out later that these fake hundreds are used for fun at weddings and also to put as offerings at Buddhist temples. He says he is going to keep it as a souvenir instead, but I think he will try to spend it the next time we are in Buffalo.

Our immediate mission for the morning was to get myself a haircut and Tony a shave. He hadn’t shaved for a week so was starting to get the salt and pepper Sean Connery look, making him irresistible to women, so I guess Angela told him it was time to scrape off the sex appeal. We found a barber and the girls and kids continued on walking while I stepped up to the plate and Tony got on deck. I asked the barber, with hand motions, to trim it all up, especially the top. So he got to work on that while I sat back and relaxed. He buzzed the sides just fine but didn’t cut a lot off the top so I asked him to take off some more, but he seemed reluctant to do so, so I put my trust in his judgement. As he finished, I motioned for him to trim up the goatee as it was getting a little scruffy. Using my best hand motions I indicated for him to trim it up slightly and pointed to the electric clippers. He gave me a nod indicating he understood completely and then rocked my chair back, grabbed a straight razor and before I knew it half of my chin fluff was lying on the floor. There was no stopping him now so I just relaxed and enjoyed the dance of the straight razor, and when I emerged I was clean and hairless.

Tony was up next and the barber went to work with the straight razor, using neither hot water nor shaving foam. I was expecting we’d both be covered in razor burn but that did not happen. We’re thinking that since we were already hot and sweating there wasn’t much need for anything else. Don’t try that in Canada on a cold February morning.

We continued on and caught up with the ladies who were immediately stunned at my new look. Ana said she felt like she just got her old boyfriend back so I was good with that. Stella wasn’t too happy as she seems to prefer me with facial hair, but I am sure she will get used to it. We continued walking with the girls and we must have gone at least 25 steps before they found another shop to go into so we waited outside while they went browsing. A tuk-tuk driver walked up to us and tried selling us a ride, or a day trip, or even to lay in his hammock strung across the machine, but despite his persistence just wouldn’t buy anything from him.

“You like some Lady Boom Boom?” he asked.

“Lady Boom Boom?” I inquired. “Sounds good but I’ll have to check with my wife.” His English didn’t extend far enough to understand my joke.

“Lady Boom Boom, right now, no problem!”  he persisted. Tony and I just looked at each other and laughed. Then this pack of kids and wives came out and joined us and all humour on this guy’s face dropped, and was replaced with sheer embarrassment.

“Hey, this guy going to get us some Lady Boom Boom, you girls okay with that?” I asked Ana and Angela. They looked at the tuk tuk driver and then back at us and started shaking their heads. The tuk-tuk driver could tell what going on, and all of a sudden he pointed at his buddy (who hadn’t said a word the entire time) and says, “It was his idea, not mine!” Then buddy, mystified at how he had suddenly been dragged into this, shook his head vigorously and reassigned the blame. Cambodians are the greatest.

We stopped for fifty cent drafts and overpriced juice at one of the places on Pub Street while the shopping expedition continued. Our plan for the day was to visit Angkor Artisans which is an organization that trains young Cambodians to become craftsmen, and also runs a Silk Farm. After walking around downtown for a while, asking various people for directions, we soon found it and were able to walk through the various workshops watching the young carvers at work. They produce a lot of small tourist stuff, such as Buddha heads and Kymer images, but also do large projects such as reconstructing stone carvings at local and international archaeological sites.

We had booked ourselves on the free shuttle bus to the silk farm, and on the bus we met a lovely Danish family and talked with them non-stop the entire way. Their names were Alex and Signe and they had two beautiful young daughters. I really impressed the girls with my extensive knowledge of the Danish language (about 6 words), which they thought was pretty funny as I completely mangled the pronunciation.

We had visited this silk farm the last time we were here, but we loved coming for a second time as it was very hard to understand how the whole process works; even now I still have questions. But from what I gather, they grow acres of mulberry trees, trim the leaves, feed the leaves to the silk worms housed in baskets, the worms spin cocoons and then 80% of them are left out in the sun to kill the worms and the other 20% are allowed to metamorphosize into moths to be used for breeding and producing eggs. The cocoons are then put through processes to remove the raw silk and fine silk which are transformed into coloured thread and then weaved into all sorts of intricate patterns. The tour takes you through each step of the process, and by the end you are feeling that paying fifty bucks for a small scarf is a very good deal indeed considering the intensive manual labour that went into making it.

After the tour we joined up with our new Danish friends for drinks and a meal at a restaurant we found called Pot and Pan and we ate what most agreed was the best meal in Cambodia so far. We had a great chat with Alex and Signe and by the end of the meal felt as if we’d known them for years. They even invited us to stay with them in Denmark some time, and you just can’t beat staying with friends when traveling.

As we were eating we got hit with a torrential downpour that lasted longer and dumped more rain than most of the ones we had in Thailand. Until now we hadn’t had much rain at all in Cambodia, but it seemed to be trying to catch up. The Henriques decided to go back to the hotel so they got in a rain-proofed tuk-tuk and paddled away. We said goodbye to our new friends and waited for a break in the rain to run down the street to the cinema and made it just in time for the 6:30 showing of “War for the Planet of the Apes”. During our trip three years ago, we also went to see the latest release of this series, so it was all feeling very familiar.

After the movie (which was fantastic) we tuk-tuk’d back to the hotel, did some final packing for tomorrow’s departure, and called it a night.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

July 17 – Angkor Wat

Yesterday we hired our airport mini-bus driver Bross to take us to Angkor Wat today, as his rate was reasonable $40 for the entire day for all 8 of us. We had an early breakfast, served up by the ever smiling hotel staff and were on our way to Angkor by 8am.

The driver told us that there had been some sort of ownership change at the park, or organizational change, and as a result the ticket prices had gone up. The one day pass that was $20 three years ago was now $37, but kids under the age of 12 still got in for free. The better deal was the three day pass at $67 but we all agreed that one day would probably be sufficient.As this was our second visit to the park, we knew what to expect and probably did not experience the overwhelming sense of wonder we did when seeing it for the first time. Nevertheless, it was still amazing seeing it for the second time. The scale of the temples is massive, and the intricate carvings on millions of individual sandstone rocks seem simply impossible, yet there it is in front of you. For our first visit here three years ago we hired a tuk-tuk to take us around from temple to temple, but I am sure glad we got a mini-van this time as having a periodic break in an air conditioned space was welcome. We got lucky with the weather as it was overcast the entire day so were spared being scorched by the full force sun.

We visited four temples in total, and by the time we finished with the magnum opus Angkor Wat temple, the group was pretty much satisfied, so we had Bross take us back to the hotel. Like last time I’m reluctant to write too much about Angkor as I think it is a place that everybody who has the means to visit, should visit, as there is no other place like it on earth.

During our hotel chill down, Stella spent much of it feeding and playing with the five pet bunnies that were kept in a cage in the hotel. She even gave them names: Snowball, Ice, Lilly, Luna and Loner, and she commanded us to feed them at least one leaf every time we passed by the cage on the way up to our room. Oh, and to check that their water bottle was filled too.

Before we knew it we were back on Pub Street, wandering the streets, watching people and being asked every 20 seconds if we needed a tuk-tuk. We had a backpacker dinner of soup and fruit back in the hotel, so weren’t looking for a big meal, but we did have some snacks at one place, along with those great value 50 cent drafts, that you just never tire of.

We spent some time walking through the giant night market, and at one point I got distracted by a book vendor and fell behind the rest of the group. I was haggling with the owner on a counterfeit Vietnam Lonely Planet book that she was willing to sell for five bucks, but I just didn’t think I needed another book to carry around, as I still haven’t finished that damn Moby Dick that I brought with me, so told her I was going to ask my wife first. As I was walking to catch up I passed by a classy joint called “Master Hand Massage” and was practically tackled to the ground by two ladies, or perhaps lady-boys, anxious to enlist me as a customer, assuming I was a lonely bachelor. I believe Tony had the same experience, because as I managed to slip away from them I looked ahead to see Tony looking back, laughing at me. As I reached the group half a block later, I started telling Ana about the Lonely Planet book and lo and behold, the vendor was standing right beside me holding the book up. Man, these guys know how to make a sale! Yes, I bought it. How could I not?

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

July 16 – Siem Reap, Cambodia

Now that we’re fully adjusted to the time, getting up at 3:30 am was a real pain in the ass. I think we may have misjudged how much time we would need, because when we arrived at 4:15 the Air Asia counter had just opened and we were the only ones in line, and the check in lady told us that security didn’t even open until 5. A few of the shops in the departure lounge were open, but nearly all of the employees had their heads down at the counter, sound asleep.

The Henriques arrived shortly after us and we lounged around until security opened and then we went through and got settled near our gate. I met a nice couple there – the wife was from France and the husband from Germany and we had a great chat about the current political situation in their respective countries and what the effects of the Syrian migration had had on each. Those damn Europeans always make us look bad – both of them spoke perfect French, German and English, and probably a couple more languages besides that.

The Air Asia flight departed on time and the hour and twenty minute flight felt like nothing, especially since filling out all of the required Cambodian arrival documents took up half of that time. We arrived in Siem Reap, paid US$30 each for our visas, hired a mini-bus and were headed for our hotel – the Indra Porak. Getting to the hotel was a bit tricky, as it is very close to a busy local market, so the driver could only inch his way along the too-narrow road, which was also congested with motorbikes, tuk-tuks, vendors, pedestrians, dogs, chickens, and surely rodents, as there was an awful lot of discarded food laying around.

We did eventually get to the hotel, but he had to take a back way around that took us across a shaky wooden bridge that spanned a small creek, which may have doubled as a sewage canal. It’s funny how these little, quaint, serene, boutique hotels are located right in the middle of crazy, congested areas, but once you add in a brick wall and a lot of greenery, you are perfectly shielded from the chaos, but the chaos is only steps away if you feel inclined to participate.

The Cambodian staff members who greeted us were the kindest and gentlest people you could imagine. If you have ever read anything about the history of Cambodia in the 20th century, you would know that these people have been to hell and back, a couple of times, so the fact that they are so incredibly hospitable and friendly is a real testament to their spirit, their nature, and their ability to somehow move on from tragedy and despair. I read that the book, “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung is being released as a movie or documentary soon. I hope it does justice to the book, as it is one of the saddest and most powerful I have ever read.

The rooms were not ready for us yet, as we arrived well before the normal check-in time, so we took seats in the restaurant and ordered breakfast. The breakfast was okay, except for the croissants, which were reported as the best anybody in the group has ever eaten.

The staff announced that our rooms were ready and we hauled all of our gear up the staircase to the second floor where they were located. They were large, roomy, had a massive bathroom and shower area, and the beds felt fantastic. While we were waiting the ladies were perusing the spa menu and were oh so pleased to discover that a 60 minute massage could be had for 8 dollars, so they booked the four parents in for an early afternoon rub-down. Actually, Ana went for the facial, which was an extravagant 14 dollars, but we’re big spenders here in the Holrique gang.

The spa girls arrived at our rooms and we sent the kiddies away to entertain themselves for an hour. One of them started lathering up Ana’s face with green stuff while the other jumped on top of me and started kneading, rubbing and stretching my body into all sorts of unrecognizable shapes and contortions. It was awesome. Somehow, during one of the less intensive phases of the therapy, I fell asleep and cranked out one big snore which caused the two Cambodian girls to break out in laughter, which woke me up and kept me awake for the remainder of the massage.

For our first day in Siem Reap we decided to chill out by the pool and relax until closer to dinner time, at which point we’d head into town. Our hotel was a two dollar tuk-tuk ride from the centre so around 6pm we grabbed two of them and were dropped off on Pub Street within ten minutes. The standard Cambodian tuk-tuk is a small motorcycle towing a buggy that holds four passengers. The buggy itself has a cover on top for the rain, but no sides so you can hang your arms and legs out as the driver whips you around corners, threads you through traffic, speeds you through intersections, drags you through puddles, winds you round round-a-bouts, and finally screeches you to a halt at your final destination, which is usually either a restaurant or a market.

Before leaving for downtown Magnus and I took a stroll through the local market that was close to our hotel. The dirt roads had turned to muddy pits in the lower spots and the constant flow of motorcycles, tuk-tuks and pedestrians spread the muddy mixture throughout. The majority of the vendors were selling food and household items. Fruit vendors had large bowls with dragon fruits, bananas, rambutans, pineapples, mangosteens, papayas and many others I couldn’t identify. One vendor had a table with the parts from a single butchered chicken, which she fanned constantly to thwart the flies attempts at landing. The air was heavy with so many smells; sometimes a strong whiff of gasoline exhaust, then a burst of turned meat, then the penetrating sniff of incense and always, the ever present odour of durian, even though we couldn’t see a damn durian anywhere. Magnus found a vendor selling bundles of incense sticks and asked how much it was for a bundle of about 50. She gave us the price in Cambodian reals, and if I remembered the conversion correction it was about 50 cents, so I gave her an American one dollar bill and she gave me back 2000 reals. We then stopped at a fruit vendor, I pointed at the rambutans, held out a 1000 note bills and she gave me a bag of six of them. With the remaining 1000 bill I stopped at another vendor, pointed at the bananas, and was given a full bunch. This was enough fruit to snack on for two days and enough incense for a year. Not bad for a buck.

The tuk-tuks dropped us off on Pub Street, which is the heart of the action in Siem Reap. It was only about 5pm, so the place was hours away from its peak, yet already full of people walking around and exploring the many shops, restaurants, bars, massage parlours, and exotic bug snack vendors. I picked up a one dollar bag of fried crickets, which gave me about 50 or 60 of them. Did I get any takers? Magnus tried one, Stella tried one, and Tony and I popped them like peanuts. I couldn’t convince the others to, but I would continue to do so unsuccessfully until the end of the evening. You simply cannot visit Cambodia without sampling insects. I think I was being easy on everybody with my choice of crickets, considering they were also selling tarantulas on a stick, fried frogs, roasted snakes, and steam cooked cockroaches – all of which had a higher brain and guts content then our easily snackable dried cricket treats.

Tony and I got seated in comfy chairs at the Temple bar while the rest of the group went to explore the market. The sign out front said “50 cent draft” and sure enough they served us tall glasses of Angkor lager for the low, low price of fifty cents, which paired perfectly with the crickets. We met an Aussie couple whom we chatted with for a long while, and before too long Mackenzie turned up, bored by the shopping experience.

The girls arrived, proudly showing off their purchased treasures, which included scarves, dresses, purses, and a three headed elephant figure that Magnus negotiated the vendor down from five bucks to a dollar-fifty. We all had a drink together rand then set off in search of a feesh spa. Siam Reap simply has the best feesh spas anywhere as they are located right on the street edge and they serve you beer while you are sitting there having your feet sucked and nibbled on by fish of all shapes, sizes and varieties. During our previous visit the fish spas usually had only small fish, but the one we found had much larger ones and immediately after submerging my feet, two largish bottom feeding catfish-type creatures each took hold of a pinky toe and started sucking away. It felt strange, but wonderful, and soon a dozen other hungry fish had joined their companions in scouring the goodies off my feet, as well as the feet of my companions, except Stella who, although brave enough to sign up, just couldn’t handle the ticklish sensation, so she just sat beside us on the tank, hovering her feet over the water, cautiously dipping her feet in, then then yanking them out the moment a toe sucker got too close.

We settled on an Italian place for dinner and the servers set us up with a table for 8 right on the street, but we didn’t stay long as it started to pour rain so we moved inside to a large, comfortable booth. The food was decent, but Ana had been feeling progressively worse and worse and by the end of the meal she could barely keep her eyes open so we grabbed a pair of tuk-tuks and tucked it back to the hotel, putting the wraps on another big day.