[chinese blood, irish heart] - DEFUNCT: December 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Angkor What?

My trip to Siem Reap summarised in a photo story:
See all of 'em on my Flickr page. All are under Creative Commons so feel free to use/distribute! Just don't forget my credit!

Opening sequence. My first trip on a tuk tuk was far from exciting but was eager to see what Siem Reap has to offer.

A brutal wakeup call, but well worth it! Behold - sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Meet my shutter-totting Singaporese companions: (left-right) Kenneth, Laura and Jasmine.

I stumbled upon this meagre-looking family near Ta Prohm’s gate fishing for whatever the hell’s in that putrid water. I snapped away blissfully at the youngest child holding a bag dirty fish when suddenly a large group of Korean tourists noticed me and came rushing up cooing and ‘awwing’ at the kid.
I backed away quickly like an animal leaving his prey to bigger nastier hunters.

At least they gave him sweets.

The mighty Bayon complex.

Having missed out on a day with my Singaporese campanions, I wandered aimlessly away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. I was fortunate enough to have stumbled upon a mosque where prayers were being said.
I cautiously approached the unsuspecting crowd, only to be temporarily kept at bay by a boy at the gate, staring at me albeit unmenancingly. Carefully tiptoeing over the scattered slippers and sandals I hovered around outside quietly, my shutter flapping away like some annoying sound in the background.

December 7th: The day of the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon.
I clocked in 21km at approx 2hours and 15 mins. Not bad for my first even long distance run.

Sunset at Prohm Bakeng.

What serendipity. I only heard about this MTV EXIT concert 2 weeks before I flew. It's Angkor Wat's first ever rock concert! It was free entry but tickets were issued via an online lottery system for foreigners. I, on the other hand, managed to blag for a media pass and free tickets for my homies!
And how's this: Headlined by Placebo!! I'm a fan alright but not enough as I didn't recognise some of their songs.
So here's what I knew from their setlist: Meds, Teenage Angst, 20 Years, Hang On To Your IQ and Passive Aggressive. More available on my Flickr page.

At a drab-looking teeny village on our way to Kompong Phluk, overturned boats and discarded fishing nets symbolised the harsh dry season that has taken hold. Fishing is the main source of income here and I often inquired whether China’s gargantuan Three Gorges Dam project had any adverse effect on the Mekong. Most were fazed at my questioning, claiming they’ve never heard such an accusation. Well, there’s my attempt at a story gone into humid air.
The people here were so poor the huts barely looked intact. Two naked children frolicked under an upturned boat, languishing in the shade away from the unrelenting sunlight. One seemed to playing with a bowl of mud when I realised it was actually food. “Here”, I thought, “have a vegetable cracker.” He was duly rewarded with a balloon afterwards and I don’t know if he’s seen or much less held a balloon before, but he seemed mesmerised enough to leave us with a rewarding feeling as we left and made way for the enchantingly titled ‘floating village’. More abject poverty awaited us.

A passing smile warmly greets us to Kompong Phluk, 'The Floating Village'.

We shared lunch at a family home where our shy hosts brought pineapple soup, morning glory and possibly the best fish I’ve had in a long time. And I don’t even like fish. But I do hanker for Irish wild smoked salmon. Damn.
I saw a child taking huge gulps of the water under his boat. Looking around the neighbourhood there’s no viable source of fresh water. I mean, the entire village is surrounded by a murky emerald-coloured water. And guess where all those pipes from the homes lead to? All mineral water, beer, soft drinks had to be laboriously transported here. If this is meant to be a tourist destination then it left me with a sobering rather than the usual touristy-rewarding feel afterwards. It feels sometimes that the fact I was born in Ireland, Europe, the First World or whatever dictates I would most likely lead a more comfortable life than the large majority of the world’s population. So in fact it’s like a lottery. An old saying goes ‘the one thing you can’t choose is your parents’, but where do your parents live?

I felt somewhat irked when a hawker tried to sell me notepads and pencils, claiming I buy them to give the local school children. Pointing at passing children and describing their poor fate as I pathetically tried to escape her clutches, she was blatantly playing on tourists’ guilt. And for that she ain’t getting one damn Riel. So mental note, bring lots of pencils and paper with me next time. And chalk. When I visited the classroom the teacher’s last remaining bit of chalk was so small I was careful it didn’t crumble between my fingers. Instead, Jas snatches it to scrawl a Singapore flag on the blackboard. I was bleedin’ mortified.

One of Siem Reap’s children’s hospitals is under the helm of Dr. Beat Richner from Switzerland. Completely independent of the Cambodian health system, Jayavarman VII not only doles out free medicine but is also one of the most cost-effective and efficient hospital in the whole country. Well, for one thing his annual budget is about US$20 million a year from donations while the Cambodian health system gets US$52 million. Buoyed by his fame and successes I went along and donated blood. Got a free Coke too.

A boy observes the long wait he'll have to endure to get free medical treatment.

I found 18 monks lounging at Bo Wat Temple just off the touristified epicentre of SR. Three were smoking under a tree – looking holy and cool, one kicking a football, four seemed to guard a sacred-looking drum and two stared at me as I approached the gate. A brief pause. It was Monny with his effervescent orange robe who sidled up to me first with an emphatic hello, I returned the gesture with relief. After some initial laconic exchanges, I learned he’s 18, studying English and Japanese, loves Jackie Chan films and didn’t know where and what Ireland was. Well, at least he didn’t have to question my dubious accent.
I made it an aim to send my subjects their photographs by email and unfortunately Monny didn’t have one (others before did!). I thrusted him my business card and told him to email me when he gets one. He was taken aback as if I gave him gold and proceeded to study the words, probably trying to deduce just what the heck a ‘multimedia producer’ does. As I manoeuvred around the complex, the sunlight bounced off the effervescent orange robes giving the room a comfortable glow. I left shortly after and waved Monny off, him still clutching my card.

On the way to the airport via tuk tuk speed, it suddenly dawned on me the end is beginning. It was back to the drudgery of work life and the increasingly vexatious cosmopolitan environment. It all sank down my spine with a tendril of melancholy. With my SG companions already back home a few days before my departure, I yearned for someone to say goodbye to. Oh sure, my tuk tuk driver would be polite to say it only after I give him my last crumpled up fistful of greenbacks, but a more heartiful goodbye. What about those numerous kids I gave toothbrushes, biscuits, a ‘shuang’ Coca-Cola postcard left over from Beijing and an MTV EXIT sticker? Ah well, Just the usual travel withdrawal symptoms coming on I guess. Moments later, an overcrowded car full of what seemed to be workers sped past me. I made eye contact with one of them and he waved at me. Because I was a foreigner? Or that he knew I was heading to the airport? Never mind I thought, maybe there’s no reason. But it’s one reason to have this as my parting shot.