To Siem Reap, Part II: Tuk Tukking it

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.

Continued in Pt 3…

 

Here Be Dragons: There be Great People

BY BEEJ

The time came for us of course to leave the town of Battambang.

It was a reluctant good-bye:  a place we had gone on a total whim to investigate a possible segment for our Web series became one of our fondest memories of Southeast Asia and a must-return destination. The town and surrounding areas were the real draw, of course, and we’ve written loads about them already. But we would be remiss if we didn’t mention how much fun we had at Here Be Dragons.

The greatness of this backpacker hangout lies in the constant events they put on; the enthusiasm, conviviality, and creativity of the owners; and last but not least, the bar’s effortless Cheers-like atmosphere where indeed, everybody knew your name – though, par for the course for me, I can only remember a few of those names that everyone else knew. (I won’t even use the names I do know in this article, though, both to protect the guilty and because I haven’t asked anyone’s permission).

IMG_3073In our week and a half at Here Be Dragons, we watched rooftop movies (forgotten Outkast vanity film Idlewild, anyone?), participated in absurd trivia nights, danced to live bands, sucked at poker games, and gorged ourselves at the weekly barbecues that seemingly drew the whole town.

In fact, we liked it so much that we came back unannounced a couple of weeks later, this time as part of the Kampot Playboys’ entourage – more on this later.

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Movin’ and groovin’ at Here Be Dragons, Battambang. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto for Misadventurist Media

Now, it sounds like a cliche (ok it IS a cliche), but the people really were the best part about Here Be Dragons. They can be roughly divided into:

1. The English expats:
a. The guy who taught science at a local school by day, was the bar’s counterpart to Cheers‘ “Norm” the rest of the time. This guy was all intellectual-like, a fountain of knowledge about the region’s politics and history. He and I got into some hair-raising discussions about U.S. interventions in Cambodia (uh, yeah we Yanks didn’t think that through too well).)

b. Owner 1: An anarchist-leaning bartender and motorcycle enthusiast. He watched Fox News online just so he could yell at the screen. He also slung cocktails and made good-natured fun of America. Glad, he said, to have left the “boring” “hellhole” of England, his mind brimmed with conspiracy theories (most of which I believe he espoused solely to have a laugh at getting a rise out of people).

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c. Owner 2: A mellow blond artist who laughed easily and was chock full of generous vibes and curiosity about her guests. A lot of the elaborate paintings covering the walls could be attributed to her artistry and I believe most of the theme holiday parties (robot-costumed New Years Eve, etc) are of her concoction. And when Stax limped in covered in scrapes and bruises from the motorbike crash, she was genuinely concerned and helped us find provisions.
Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.36.49 PMd. The bartender, who wasn’t really English at all, but an Aussie from Perth (yes, I know I just offended all of Australia, who are rising up as a nation right now and wondering where they can find this….let me consult my Oz slang book….”dopey Seppo bastard” and “bail him up”.). She was friendly and hilarious and possibly had a “few roos loose in the top paddock”, but she “barbied” (barbecued) up the best ribs we had in all of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.

2. The crack kitchen staff
They prepared delicious Thai Red Curry and Amok (whitefish steamed in banana leaf) after we stumbled in exhausted from riding all day. Judging from her giggles and head-shaking, the counter assistant found our traditional wedding project dubious if not downright wrongheaded. But she dispensed invaluable advice on all the places we should explore.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.36.03 PM 13.  The on-call tattoo artist, massage therapist, and tuk-tuk driver
Even though we never used any of their services, we heard good things from other guests about these people. And it’s cool that they were there for us if the urge ever struck to be inked, soothed, or driven about town. The tattoo artist hung out in the restaurant a lot and was so cool he intimidated me a bit – I’m used to being the hippest cat in any room.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 9.27.50 PMHere Be Dragons became our home in Battambang. It was a place to recuperate and have a laugh, to recover from heat and mosquito bites. Or, to simply chill with other travelers and the friendly staff. Out of nearly a year of travel through 18 countries, it’s saying something that they stand out as one of the highlights. We’ll be going back.

VIDEO: Khmer New Year at Wat Ek Phnom!

While Stax recuperates from several days of excitement back in the guesthouse, Beej ventures out by motorbike through rural riverside villages to capture some of the experience of Khmer New Year.

Ek Phnom is a destination for New Year revelers around Cambodia, and the Misadventurists have heard that they may even be holding mock marriage ceremonies there – a perfect addition to the episode. But almost 15 kilometers of (water) war-torn landscape lies between Battambang and this temple: a daunting prospect on the New Year.

Lines of marauding water-bag chuckers immediately ambush Beej from either side of the dirt road.on his motorbike; almost all grinning pixie-ish toddlers who, seeing pale skin and bushy beard a mile away, scream a chorus of cute “HE-LLO”s as they fling plastic bags of nasty river water at him.

While many of these disease sacks sploosh harmlessly between his spokes or sail above his head, many find their marks perfectly on his bum, torso and helmet. And they are not as painless as water balloons. The plastic smacks stingingly before they explode.

What one must go through for Art.

For over an hour Beej weaves through knock-down, drag-out, epic water wars between what seems like whole villages – pickups with 10 teenagers in the back, standing and screaming, sound systems regurgitating deafening, hyped-up Cambodian pop as they man water cannons against their foes on the ground and in other trucks. Nearer the Wat, nefarious colleagues join the water-truck hooligans: skinny-jeaned, floppy-sandaled teens who run out in the road and form human chains to physically stop cars and motorbikes. Their dark purpose? To smear what appears to be Johnson’s Baby Powder all over the faces and necks of innocent motorists.

Very likely, the New Years shenanigans have a fascinating cultural or folkloric root in the mists of Cambodian history. But you can be sure that Beej is not contemplating this academically as he brakes, weaves, and struggles to avoid hitting people hell-bent on being hit by somebody.

(For a great overview of the Khmer New Year experience by another expat in Battambang, please check out this article by Jocelyn Post from worldnextdoor.org – it’s really well-written and is accompanied by fantastic images of the kind that Beej was too busy struggling to not fall over to take).

Finally, soaked through and dripping, beard dusted white, Beej arrives and parks his bike safe and sound at the Wat.

DALAT, VIETNAM: Weirdness at Datanla Falls, Part II

Scenes from the hike along the gorge below Datanla Falls, south of Dalat City, Vietnam.

Overlooking the lower falls. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spen
Overlooking the lower falls. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Butterfly at Datanla Falls. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
Butterfly. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
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Platform shoes. Image (C) Stacy Libokmeto
“Knock. Knock. Who’s there? Nobody!” A fake “minority” house Walt Disney would be proud of! Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
Restricted Area. (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
This is where I’m pretty sure the official told us to go. Maybe he was actually saying, “Only go there if you want to die.” We really need to work on our communication skills. Image (c) 2014 Stacy Libokmeto
Beej, happy to be alive! (c) Stacy Libokmeto
Beej, happy to be alive! Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto
Rapids at lower falls. (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Rapids at lower falls. Beej takes a moment from treehugging to take a phot.o Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

 

They look plastic, but they're not! Really! (c) Stacy LIbokmeto
They look plastic, but they’re not! Really! Image (c) Stacy LIbokmeto

 

We got some swimmers! (c) Benjamin J Spencer
We got some swimmers! (c) Benjamin J Spencer
(c) Benjamin Spencer
Beej catches Stax secretly relaxing conveniently in front of his camera. (c) Benjamin Spencer

 

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Welcome to HCMC Part 2

And I never saw Beej again.

Just kidding.

I’m sitting at Highlands Coffee (a major chain in Vietnam), taking big gulps of my Vietnamese style iced coffee (syrupy and strong coffee, sweetened, and then sweetened some more with sweetened condensed milk).

Highlands Coffee Shop in Hcmc
Typical Highlands Coffee. Image courtesy vietnamonline.com

The big gulps serve two purposes. One, I’m thirsty and it’s freaking hot out here. Two, I keep forgetting that ice, while nice on a hot day, can contribute to gastrointestinal dysfunction. I actually say that lightly. As we are traveling through so many countries with so many different levels of disease factors, I’m assuming that I will catch something, I just don’t know when or where. But if I recall correctly, Vietnam is fairly good when it comes to cleanliness and disease control as compared to some of its neighbors.

But I digress. The point is, Ben is on an adventure. And I’m sitting here with nothing to do but lollygag. As you may recall from my previous post, Ben has hopped on the back of a motorbike to chase after a bus and retrieve the camera he loves before it falls into the wrong hands. Such high drama!

I’m hoping they find the bus and the driver. Losing that camera will be a big blow to our budgets if we have to buy another one for our doc shoot.

For now, I will sit in the a/c, drink my iced coffee, think about the cost of a new camera, think about mosquitoes, bide my time, and wait for Ben’s return.

Update: Ben has just returned, big grin on his face, his camera grasped triumphantly in his hands.

He raises his camera case high so I can’t miss it, much like Gollum raises the One Ring after a long and trying separation.

“I got it!” he exclaims.

What a relief.

Hong Kong: Lantau Island

A Note about this post: This isn’t a proper post about the project, but just something to let you know what we’ve been up to for the past few weeks. Greetings from Southeast Asia!

It’s been awhile since you last heard from yours truly – but there’s a good reason for that.

During that time, we sold off, stored with obliging relatives, or mailed all of the possessions save those that fit into two giant backpacks; gave two weeks notice at our cushy jobs in Manhattan; handed the keys to our Bushwick sublease reluctantly back to the owner (herself just back from Ghana); arranged to film a couple of traditional Khmer wedding ceremonies for our documentary project; and spent two weeks driving a Ford hybrid rental into the ground all around Oregon, mostly visiting friends and relatives (the highlight of which was watching our friends Brian and Heidi kill the room at Suki’s in downtown PDX with their dead on karaoke cover of the B52s’ “Love Shack”).

Then at the dawn of St. Patrick’s Day, we boarded the Bolt Bus from downtown Portland to Seattle, cruised to Sea-Tac on the airport tram, and flew 16 hours from Seattle – via Tokyo – to Hong Kong.
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March 17-20, 2014

The cabin explodes in applause upon our final approach at Tokyo-Narita, because amid 20 mph crosswinds our Airbus 330 drops, twists, and fishes wildly as if in a seizure until right about when we touch the tarmac.  Nice bit of flying.

Partly because of the winds tossing about everything with wings all over the Pacific Rim, we land very late (after 1 am) in Hong Kong International. The only option is to cab it to our hotel and hope  they left the light on.

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The cab driver barrels around 20km curves at a dead 60 km and strains up steep mountainsides in an old 1980s Chinese junker sedan. He almost leaves the engine block dropped through the chassis behind us on a few of his climbs.

A highlight of the ride: a giant black water buffalo with massive horns looms out of the darkness with his rear end to our cab, tail twitching,  lounging and chewing his cud on a sidewalk in front of a darkened shop.
Tourists-meet-Mui-Wos-water-buffalos.-Photo-by-Steven-Knipp-INLINE

Then SCREEEEEEEEEECH we’re there. Luckily the hotel has anticipated our lateness and left the light on. We gingerly navigate a narrow alley strewn with boxes behind a restaurant, catching whiffs of fish and old vegetables and the unmistakeable tang of the salt sea.
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So you may have noticed by now that we like to do things in opposite order. Call us contrary, but because of how the timing worked out with the first Khmer wedding ceremony (and the joys of nonrefundable plane tickets), we’re starting our trip with a vacation first – and not starting proper work until about two weeks in. I know, rough life, right?

Our first two days in Hong Kong are not actually in the towering, buzzing city everyone pictures, but in Mui Wo on southeastern Lantau Island. A town that not even many Hong Kong residents go (most of them head to Disneyland Hong Kong just north at Discovery Bay), Mui Wo doesn’t rate on most tourists’ to-do lists. But we end up digging the quirky village and its super-friendly locals, and of course its uncrowded and laid-back beach, Silvermine Bay.

Silvermine Bay Beach
Silvermine Bay Beach. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
More Silvermine Bay. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
More Silvermine Bay. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

It’s a perfect place to shake off the jet lag.

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For two days we laze by the tidal canals:

Regatta de Lantau. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Regatta de Lantau. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

, eat on the cheap in seafood restaurants overlooking the bay, enjoy sunny mountain views from atop Nam Shan

The view from the Old Village Path down Nam Shan to Mui Wo. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
The view from the Old Village Path down Nam Shan to Mui Wo. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

, and climb steep, ancient forest trails to a funky hillside village – where the architecture resembles shades of Dr. Seuss:

Mui Wo Village has some interesting condo association rules. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
Mui Wo Village has some interesting condo association rules. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer

beat-up bicycles are the main form of transport, and amateur bird enthusiasts place cloth-covered cages up under trees so their budgies’ cries can attract flocks from all over the island.

But of the island’s famous resident water buffaloes, which reportedly cause traffic jams, are employed in various festivals and races, and otherwise wander anywhere they wish unimpeded by locals, we see nary a sign. The expat British owner of Caffe Paradiso – the best cafe in town, where gut-busting English style breakfasts and strong cappuccinos are the order of the day – disgustedly indicates a familiar culprit.

Eager real estate developers, Hong Kong dollar signs cha-chinging in their collective eyes, consider the buffaloes an obstacle and have won Lantau’s blessing to herd them out of the way to the marshy lowlands over Nam Shan, the southern mountain. And now even the marshlands are in their crosshairs.

The cafe owner sponsors a Lantau Buffalos youth rugby team:

Image courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/SLBrugB
The vicious, hardened South Lantau Buffaloes rugby squad practices. Courtesy of South Lantau Buffalo FB pg.

He also sells T-shirts (Keep South Lantau Horny!) with proceeds directly toward preserving the buffalos’ habitat (for more info on this great organization check out http://lantaubuffalo.wordpress.com/). But sadly the prospects don’t seem good for the beasts.

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Our final morning in Mui Wo we hang out on the ferry quay and wait for the boat to Hong Kong Island. We depart the lazy shores of Lantau knowing that we’ll see them again someday, whether in official capacity as filmmakers or as grateful return visitors.

But now it’s time to board the so-called “Ordinary Ferry” (read: slow boat) toward the craziness of Hong Kong Central. But that’s for the next post, which I swear will be more timely than the last….

The slow boat to China. Heh heh. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer
The slow boat to China. Heh heh. Image (c) Benjamin J Spencer