Here’s another Video Snapshot for our beautiful followers.
Bokor Mountain Hill Station in Kampot province, Cambodia, was built by the colonial French as a resort for their brass at the top of a 3,200 ft peak in the Elephant Mountains.
In the next decades various occupiers used the run-down shell as a strategic outpost to spy for invaders along the Gulf of Thailand to the south. Then the place was simply abandoned, left to be overgrown by thick jungles and surrounded by one of the most diverse arrays of plant and animal species in Cambodia.
But market forces and profit motives made this Edenic state short-lived. Illegal poaching and logging decimated the thick highland old-growth forests and native species like big cats and elephants.
And recently Cambodia’s oil and gas giant Sokimex Investment Group, with it’s Sokha resorts, announced a plan that will lay waste to the rest. The energy monopoly, in league with the government, bought 10% of the land atop the mountain (making the “National Park” moniker meaningless) building roads and vast parking lots for a gigantic private hotel/casino complex that will be the largest in Cambodia.
So far only the Thansavour Hotel is open, so if you want to experience the park with only minimal traffic jams and litter, your time is now: large swathes of rather spooky jungle, plus the impressive multi-cascading Popokvil Falls, are still accessible for now.
(Warning: we strongly recommend hiring a cheap local guide if you would like to do any off-road hiking – unexploded land mines from the Khmer Rouge era still litter the hillsides. Only a local with experience will know which forest trails are safe!)
This final installment in our serial short film takes us on a rather hallucinatory journey through the final temple. Immortalized by the Tomb Raider films, Ta Prohm is an atmospheric, tumble-down wonder that can only be reached via a half-mile pathway through thick jungle.
Stax wanted to get across our total exhaustion, with sweltering 100 degree heat adding to mounting fatigue. The thickness of the heat and the cries of the jungle birds, along with the weirdness of the locale and a relentless stream of comically well-dressed tourists joined together to make this the most colorful of our temple experiences.
After our long journey by bus and tuk tuk, we find ourselves at the Happy Guesthouse, at the end of Street 20 in Siem Reap. Tons of other hostels and guesthouses surround it buty they don’t diminish its secluded and serene atmosphere: a yellow cement three-story structure with curved staircases behind a patio restaurant.
Because we’ve wandered in early, we wait for the room to be ready. Everyone at check-in glued to a small TV above the patio, upon which unfolds a supernatural Thai drama series that looks to have been produced with Sony camcorders in 1989. It has everything that is good: evil gangsters, gunfights, weeping waifs, ghosts popping up in the back seats of cars to exact revenge for their deaths.
The family who runs the guesthouse plays 6 hours of this show a day between serving food and arranging travel, with the other 6 hours devoted to a Chinese drama set in Confucian times. According to the historical records this show consulted, nobody ever smiled in Confucian times, not even once, and in fact always looked as if they had the beginnings of a migraine. The actors do a lot of standing motionless and glaring at each other from across rooms. It’s probably contractual, to avoid damaging the costumes consuming 90% of the show’s budget.
After check-in we discover we are not allowed to wear shoes or flip-flops inside the guesthouse. I’m not sure it’s a Buddhist thing or a hygiene thing (or both), but the family is serious about it. If we forget – okay, I’m the only forgetter, since Stax’ ancestors hails from islands that forbid shoes in the home – the housekeeping girls immediately notice and they jump up and exclaim something in Khmer (while still smiling of course) and point accusingly at your feet. This must have happened 20 times.
We see these two girls scurrying around daily doing laundry and cleaning rooms. At night they sleep in the corner of the ground floor below the guest rooms, on thin mattresses wrapped in mosquito netting. With obliterated backpackers stumbling in and tripping over them all night in the wee hours, it’s beyond me how the poor girls can work all day.
We heartily recommend the Happy Guesthouse, for two reasons:
1. You’ll never twitch a muscle figuring out transportation anywhere. Along with the ever-present tuk tuks and the mountain bikes they rent to get around Siem Reap, the front desk books long distance travel and skips the usual overcharge for commission. Plus they make decent eggs and breakfast baguettes.
2. The outdoor pool with swim-up bar right next door at Hotel 20th Street. For 3 measly dollars (as a non-hotel guest), you can spend the entire day swimming and lazing on the shady deck with iced coffee in your hand. In April (summertime in Cambodia) with miles of temples to explore, in 100-degrees-plus after having foolishly declined the A/C in our room, this pool comes in very handy. It’s so nice, some folks settle as long-term guests in the pricey Hotel 20th Street so they never have to leave it.
Now, while Siem Reap is best known for its proximity to the temple complex of Angkor Wat, its second claim to fame is the nightlife.
Street 20 lies 2 km (20 minutes walking, 10 minutes biking) from the famous Pub Street, where many backpackers stay in big hostels to be part of the action. We decide to cycle down the Siem Reap river and check it out despite our low tolerance for watery beer.
The sheer amount of neon light and overall noise level of Pub Street overwhelms. All through the neighborhood, European dance clubs, American blues bars, British wood panel pubs and Aussie dive bars flourish side-by-side. Music blasts from every door.
We walk into The Angkor What?, a rock club claiming to be the oldest pub in Siem Reap. Inside we encounter a dark square of a room with glow-in-the-dark art covering the walls, plus a musty, ingrained patchouli odor which pairs well with the decor.
All around us, expats and tourists crawl out of their shady holes in search of cheap beer, entertainment, shopping bazaars surrounding Pub Street, and food that doesn’t scare them (it boggles the mind that someone would travel across the world only to seek out the cuisine of their home country). They also come out for foot massages at the numerous parlors.
Stax, who has never to my knowledge turned down a foot rub from anyone, settles in for one of the massage sessions. She passes, thankfully, on another incomprehensibly popular Pub Street pastime: a bunch of dirty tanks full of gray water with swarms of little fish inside that eat the dead skin off your feet. “Fish can do massage”, the sign on the tank helpfully suggests.
I have some, ah, concerns about this procedure:
1. Why would you want a bunch of munching fish to deplete the protective layer of dead skin which shields your tender pink new skin from the blazing sun, bugs, manure and filth in the streets? What if said fish carry some hitherto-unknown disease?
2. The tanks themselves are plain unhygienic. I never see any of the women running the place changing the water. Furthermore, everyone plunging their feet in this rancidness has been walking around through the afore-mentioned filth of the streets for days with sweaty feet clad only in flip-flops.
While waiting for Stax to be done with her foot rub, I grab a beer at a place next to three farang guys (foreigners). They’re talking about, of all things, web marketing. Siem Reap would be more attractive for digital nomads, goes the consensus among these lads, if only the city could improve its infrastructure.
Choking down the flat last swig of my watery lager, I suggest that maybe Cambodia should improve their beer and then work up to luring coveted digital nomads with communications towers. Kind of like, if you beer them, they will come. The farang stare at me as if I was an alien.
I feel something suddenly squiggling on my flip flop and then a scratching on the top of my foot. Time slows. With a mounting horror, I swing my head downward. A gigantic, two inch long Southeast Asian flying cockroach is just sitting on my toes like it belongs there, antenna waving merrily, eyes flicking about.
I involuntarily lift my leg and kick, hard. The roach takes to the air, flying off to terrify someone else (or perhaps get a quick bathe in some poor chap’s tea – see below):
I spend the next 20 seconds squeezing my eyes shut and suppressing violent chills seizing my body.
Now, I can handle roaches and bugs generally if I know they’re around – jungle trek, what have you, fine and dandy. But when you’re a little buzzed on a city street, dead tired, and not expecting an insect the size and weight of a field mouse to dive down onto your foot..ahhhhh, can’t even think about it anymore.
So much for Pub Street. It has been a long, LONG day that had started at 4:30 am in Battambang. Tomorrow, we have nothing planned except a long swim and lie-around on deck chairs at the pool, sipping iced coffee and chilling.
We ride our rented bikes back up the river to the Happy Guesthouse and creep past the fitfully sleeping lobby girls wrapped in their mosquito nets. We spend the rest of the night tossing and sweating in our stifling hot room, wishing we had sprung extra for the A/C.
To the south lay the remote Cardamom range, to the north Tiger Peak, and farther still the distant Thai border. Tigers reportedly still roam this border, but you’re much more likely to catch malaria than a swipe from a cat’s paw there.
Below our feet are massive caverns that practically hollow out the mountain’s core. Each night at the same time, a swarm of 2 million bats shoot out into the sky – in a twisting, unbroken stream lasting 20 minutes, appearing as one sinuous organism – to feed on the evening insects.
Closer to the where we stand here, the so-called Killing Caves bear witness to a dark Khmer Rouge era. Buddhist monks perform daily blessings at the bottom of the 70 foot deep cave for the ancestors of the local people, thousands of whom died there – most by being casually tossed into the pit along with their children and babies.
Nearby the caves stand Russian-made artillery guns used to shoot at deserters 1000 feet below who were attempting to flee across the Thai border. Later we met an ex-soldier in Phnom Penh whose sister survived that run just 40 years ago.
On a lighter note, the kid in the tree is our self-appointed guide and protector. He lived at the temple you see in the video, and is calling to his friends across the canyon. He insisted on accompanying us, then became increasingly exasperated with our slow pace and frequent photo stops. Wherever you are, kid…sorry for our clueless farang ways!
After an obscenely early morning and an unusual bus trip from Battambang, we were ready to crash for the night at 2 pm when we pulled into Siem Reap. The weather made that simple aspiration laughable, though, as we hauled our bags out of the bus and directly into a monster pre-monsoon rain storm.
Our plan had been to walk a kilometer through the back-alleys from the bus station to the Happy Guesthouse. But with this downpour, even our water-resistant gear bags would get soaked, so we reluctantly flagged the first tuk tuk we saw.
Tuk tuk rule #1: Nail down the price first with the driver (in our case about $2 U.S.). Make sure he hears you and agrees, and then repeat it three or four times. This doesn’t guarantee you won’t be haggling at the drop-off – especially if you are in a tourist area (which Siem Reap surely is). But it at least reduces the chances.
Tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia aren’t generally a dishonest bunch – lying and cajoling goes against accepted cultural behavior – and they won’t get visibly disgusted or belligerent like moto taxis in Vietnam. But Cambodia is a poor country by most standards, and anyone would want to make an extra buck or two if they can.
We had just brought our bags into the covered carriage out of the rain and settled in for our ride when the downpour turned into a virtual waterfall. The noise of it became deafening. The driver, drowning on his motorbike seat, pulled over and cut the engine. He hopped off his bike. In a moment the flap of our vinyl carriage cover rolled up, and he joined us in our dry oasis.
“Need to wait out the bad storm,” he explained. “Can be dangerous.”
We accepted this logic. Spring squalls (unlike the summer monsoons) didn’t last long anyway.
The driver was super friendly and he made what small talk he could. We covered where we lived – New York, ah! He had a cousin there (every last soul in Southeast Asia seemed to have a cousin there.) What did we do for Khmer New Year? The Siem Reap celebration he described with fireworks and music sparked a twinge of jealousy. Though we dug the water fights and festivities at Ek Phnom temple, Battambang city proper doesn’t do up Khmer New Year, as most people there live spread out through the river villages and many don’t have electricity.
An awkward silence prevailed as we ran out of things to say. The driver smiled broadly at us. The rain pounded outside. Warm water began to leak in through the plastic seams on the windows and plop onto our legs.
Finally he got down to it. If we so wished, he could be our dedicated tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap for just $15 a day. He would wait outside our guesthouse in the alley if we needed him, take us to Angkor Wat or Tonle Sap – the vast shallow lake several kilometers to the south where American planes once dropped millions of pounds of unspent ordinance returning from bombing missions in Laos – and just be generally on call for us whenever.
This is a common scheme in Siem Reap, and we saw many groups of sunburned, elephant-panted backpackers taking advantage of it. If you’re one to frequent Pub Streets, descend into incoherent drunkenness and lose your bearings – or like many visitors to Siem Reap, you remain buzzed all times of the day and don’t know where you are most of the time – it’s great, because your drivers waits around outside of guesthouses or bars, chatting to other drivers and listening to radios and making their locations very obvious so that even their drunkest customers can find them again when they need a ride back.
It seems frankly mind-numbing for the drivers, but the stability of a daily rate probably beats constantly chasing down single fares in the competitive tuk tuk world. Which is why our guy was so insistent that we avail ourselves of his services.
But we weren’t sure when we’d be visiting Angkor Wat, had no room in the budget for drunken escapades, and were renting bikes to get around. Our refusal engendered quite a bit more salesmanship from our driver, but we wouldn’t relent, so he gave us his card and told us to call him.
The rain let up and we were back on our way. We tipped him a dollar extra for heaving our heavy bags over the deep puddles in front of our guesthouse. As we walked into the courtyard toward our guesthouse reception we saw him strategically park his tuk tuk down the street so as to better keep an eye out for backpackers from the hostel entrances.
Stax waved, and he waved energetically back, smiling so widely his face must have ached afterward.
We said goodbye to Battambang at the crack of dawn. We had to catch a tuk tuk to the bus station and our reserved seats for Siem Reap. We bid adieu to our gracious host Jen and a couple of cooks that were up at this hour and hurried to make the departure time our booking company gave us.
It turns out we could have slept in. When the driver dropped us off at a station on the far side of town (a common spatial arrangement whereby the bus driver’s cousin’s tuk tuk service gets business hauling tourists downtown – which is ingenious) the sweating clerk already seemed harried. The temperature had already reached the mid-80s by 6:30 am, and the ticket station was just a metal desk outside.
He stared blankly at our printed schedule. Then he simply shook his head. “No bus.”
We stared back. He pointed at a schedule scratched in chalk on a board above his desk. The board indicated the earliest Siem Reap bus at 10:45 – almost 4 hours.
As is sometimes the case when you book something over the phone in Cambodia without obtaining eye contact with an agent, the schedules quoted by the bus booking agency were off. So far off, they could have just as easily been created by consulting astrological charts as travel times.
The bus he’d pointed to didn’t have the same name as our company-issued ticket. Still we reckoned we’d see what happened, resolving to sit in the steadily climbing heat and dust and and hope for the best
Large families sat resigned and silent on the benches lined up across the lot, their luggage consisting of taped cardboard boxes and used rice bags, their children draped like so many garment bags over the laps of mothers and grandmothers. Stoic faces hinted that these benches had been their homes for some time.
A couple of scrawny chickens with matted feathers squawked and ran breakneck between the benches, zigzagging around skinny legs, chasing each other like schoolkids at recess.
Two masked trash collectors – tiny resilent-looking and silent women in at least their sixties – parked their pushcarts near the curb and began sweeping. Here in Battambang at least, collectors have no special equipment or trucks. They gather the trash with scraggly rake-thingies, bend down and pick it up -often bare-handed – and toss it in their pushcarts.
I watched them until everything grew bleary. I longed to lean back in the shade and get some shut-eye (like Stax was), but worry about missing whatever bus might suddenly arrive prevented sleep.
At around 9 am, a guy and a girl with faded little Canadian flags sewn to their packs arrived at the station and waited on a nearby bench. Girl: scrawny with the ubiquitous billowy elephant pants and Angkor Beer tank top. Guy: grubby polo, beer gut and full-on yak beard. These guys were Siem Reap-bound for sure. I kept a close, but carefully non-invasive, eye on their movements. If they perked up when a bus arrived, I perked up right along with them, half-reaching for my bag.
When a Siem Reap bus did eventually come at 9:30 – over an hour early- nobody even looked at our ticket. It soon became clear that things were…well, different….on this bus. For one thing, the balding and heavy-set driver was, from the moment we all sat down, engaged in an epic, totally one-sided rant that lasted for hours. As the bus banged out of the potholed lot, his sharp yelling reached everybody seated.
A few locals glanced at each other, but no one seemed concerned. They’d likely seen this before. They were familiar of course with traffic in Cambodia. If I had to drive a huge wide Korean-made bus everyday with motorbikes swarming and cutting me off on narrow lanes, constantly delayed by potholes and road repairs and flooding and the ubiquitous “tourist police” shaking me down for bribes, I’d be a basket case too.
The two young bus assistants, lanky and floppy haired and flip-flopped like all bus assistants, seemed deeply amused at the driver’s apoplexy. They kept covering their mouths to hide their laughter . He’d pause for a breath, and one of them would lean down and comment slyly to him, starting him off again.
I could have dismissed it all as harmless eccentricity if he didn’t also insist on using our bus to emphasize his points. He swung the steering wheel in wide turns; steel screeched against steel as he ground the clutch to the nub. The rear axle nearly bottomed out several times on potholes he hardly slowed for.
Long strings of syllables flew out. His hammy fists pounded on the dash to emphasize something or other I couldn’t hope to comprehend.
Eventually even the assistants grew bored of egging him on and sunk into their smartphones. That didn’t stop him. The ride to Siem Reap lasted over four hours, and he babbled on for a good three of those hours. If I had to guess, I’d say he was in the midst of a prolonged nervous breakdown. It was like being at a Trump rally, but the words made slightly more sense to me.
Of course, Stax slept peacefully and profoundly through all of this. Her head had hit the back of the seat and BAM! She was out. I was left awake to ponder how a person comes to the state in their lives to which this driver had come.
Notwithstanding the craziness, we eventually did arrive in Siem Reap safely. Any bus trip in Cambodia that ends with you in one piece, at your destination, and not on fire in any way, can be counted as a success (see an earlier post about the burned-out and still-smoking shell of a bus we passed on the way to Battambang).
(This film is a complement to our last essay from the Transfagarasan Highway in Transylvania, a route made famous by the UK’s Top Gear. Stax shot the driving footage (GoPro Hero Black 3 and Canon 60D) and Beej shot much of the scenery with his trusty Lumix GH2. Edited by Stax, who found very cool music by Brooklyn/San Diego duo The Fucked Up Beat and Brooklyn/Los Angeles duo High Places (both used via the Free Music Archive fair use license and attributed accordingly). The video was fun to put together and made the (very) cold trip worth it. Watch below and if you like it, Subscribe to our Youtube channel to get all our new videos!
Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu pushed through construction of the Transfagarasan Highway in 1970. By all accounts the construction was hellishly difficult and brutal. Legend said he was spooked by the Soviet invasion of the former Czechoslovakia and wanted to build a military route to head off any similar invasion by his “comrades” in Russia.
But more likely, Ceausescu wanted to add the conquering of an incredibly rugged mountain range in the independent region of Transylvania – an area often resistant to his 20-year autocracy – to his list of “achievements”.
The country can point to the road as a success in at least one way: it brings thousands of motorheads from all around the world every year to Transilvania to race along the its wacky curves and hair-raising cliffside tunnels.
The road calls adventure freaks like the Sirens called Odysseus (Stax and Beej would jointly be Odysseus in this scenario. And Carla and Megs, two adventurous Australian girls from the hostel in Sibiu, would be our trusty crewmates. Don’t worry, no one drowned. But at one point Beej did have be lashed to the hood.)
We took a driving break for Megs and Carla to say hello to a wandering Romanian sheepdog on the side of the road, probably on a break from guarding his flock. These sheepdogs are massive and resemble small bears (I thought it was a Romanian brown bear from a distance).
Our ascent of the Fagaras pass ended at the summit of the road, Lake Balea (2046 meters or 6712 feet).
At the lakeside we froze in high winds tinged with ice and just to warm our hands up, scarfed down hot -off-the-fire balmos or mamaliga (not really sure which – there are tons of iterations of these traditional corn cakes in Romania).
The balmos were crazy filling – thick flame-roasted corn cakes, much like gooey polenta, with mountains of sour pasty sheep cheese pooled inside. The cheese was so strong, I could barely finish the thing.
Along the way down we spied the towers of Poenari Citadel clinging to a rocky cliff high above the road. In this citadel in the 16th century, the real-life inspiration for Dracula (Prince Vlad Tepes, who ruled the South) actually lived for a time.
Now it’s a spectacularly crumbling ruin you can climb up to. Unfortunately due to time and being cold and one of our car-mates being sick with a migraine, we couldn’t hike to the top. Next time, Vlad Dracul. Next time!
After a windy descent through autumn forests and across glacial streams, we reluctantly parted ways with the Transfagarasan Highway at the massive dam on Lake Vidraru – an appropriately scenic send-off to one of the most transcendent stretches of road I’ve ever driven.
After we attended the practice wedding in Oncesti, we sat down over coffee with our unofficial fixer, Bud.
Bud told us there would be a traditional wedding in the village of Budesti the next weekend, and that he would even be bringing Japanese tourists there to catch the festivities. (Japanese tourism in this area is big.)
So, just days before our rental car was due in Cluj-Napoca, we found ourselves at an elementary school in Budesti that doubled as a cultural museum, searching for a woman named Maria, the principal there, who we’d been told could point us to possible translators. We battled through hordes of wild little Romanian kids to get to her office (the risks we take for this job, the derring-do!)
We ended up recording a long interview with Adrian, a teacher at the school, and his father, Petru. Adrian explained a lot of the history and culture behind wedding traditions, while Petru shared tales of weddings 30 years before, during the communist era.
Problem is, nobody in Budesti seemed to know about any wedding happening that weekend. And we talked to A LOT of people from Budesti – teachers at the school, shop owners, church attendants, and the principal Maria herself.
Nonetheless, with hope in our hearts and a Korean hostelmate, Hyoshin, in tow, we showed up last-ditch on the appointed morning and asked around all the churches. No wedding today.
We were a bit crushed, as was Hyoshin, who’d wanted to experience a wedding before she went off to Moldova.
We decided to salvage our last day in Budesti anyway and check out the interior of the1 6th century wooden church. The church attendant reconfirmed: no wedding. But, there would be a large traditional wedding here in two weeks, she said. On Oct. 31- Halloween Night. (Side note: they don’t really celebrate Halloween here.)
We vowed then and there to return to Budesti, connect with the family, and film this wedding. And now you can all see how best-laid plans can be quite mangled by the reality of documentary filmmaking.
We returned the car and wandered about Transylvania, having adventures both high and low, before bee-lining it back to Cluj Napoca to rent the same little bubbly Ford Ka we had rented before. As if the past two weeks had never happened, suddenly we were back in Maramures. Not such a bad place to be, really!
All we knew was that the wedding would take place in the villages of Budesti and Mara. No one could tell us where in town the groom’s pre-wedding parties, processions and dances would happen.
But having experienced this before, we knew if we just walked around Budesti’s narrow lanes in the early afternoon and listened for the traditional fiddle and horn music, our ears would take us where we wanted to go. We reached the groom’s festivities just in time for his uncle to fill our hands with dumplings, cakes and shots of Horinca.
It was a crazy day that we’ll try to capture in Episode 2.
But for now, after several epic train and bus journeys and two flights; after witnessing historic protests of the good kind (in Romania) and the not-so-good kind (in Warsaw, Poland), and the filming of yet another wedding (this one just as a favor for our friends in County Donegal, Ireland), we find ourselves house-sitting and wrangling our footage together in a quiet (and ordered) corner of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) in Germany.
Here there are no protests. Few distractions, in fact, besides watering our friends’ plants, making pumpkin bread from the pumpkins on the back porch, watching the early snow-showers fall outside – and of course, editing away hours on end for the first two episodes of “A Wedding of Cultures” (“AWOC” for short).
There will be much more soon! Watch for more video and blog updates!