Sunday, 2:15 pm
The day began like any other day. The sun rose. We ate breakfast. But we had no idea what brilliance the next 13 hours held for us. Theara picked us up at around 10. We decided to go to the Floating Village outside of town. The ride was pretty damn bumpy and probably not the best idea to take a tuk-tuk on such rough terrain. The floating village is basically people who live on the river - all rent free because they are so poor. They use the river as their livelihood.
Every house on the river either is an old boat or has a small boat tethered to it. Some people had alligators in boxes floating on the river. Some even had some floating cages with pigs. The gov't makes tons of money on tourists paying to see the poverty. It would be like a bunch of foreign tourists paying the US gov't money to take tours of East St. Louis. Very strange. But completely fascinating to watch the people go about their daily business. Even more interesting was there there was a community newspaper housed on one of the boats.
We were taken out by two young villagers in an old boat with a Toyota steering wheel. We passed fisherman, kids playing, people sleeping in hammocks, women rowing small boats weighted down with boxes full of goods, a kid riding in a bucket trying to get a dollar from tourists who want to take his picture, and many other fascinating sights. The river ended at the humongous Tonle Sap (The Great Lake) that you can take all the way to Phnom Penh. Our guides cut the motor and we just relaxed for a few minutes. At the mouth of the lake was an old boat converted into a guesthouse. The deck of the boat was covered in plants and was used as a restaurant. Next time, next time.
Our guides asked Jason if he wanted to drive the boat for a few minutes. They didn't ask me. I guess that those soldiers in Phnom Penh had called ahead and told these guys what a big baby I was.
After the village, Theara took us to a great restaurant that tourists don't usually frequent. It was built on stilts above swampy water. We sat on the floor, which was okay for me because I had space to spread out. The place had dozens of hammocks to lie around in after eating. Theara ordered us a roasted chicken and a huge bowl of fresh shrimp. We gorged on the food and hung out on hammocks for at least two hours. It was exactly what we were looking for after the tiring day exploring temples the day before.
Theara filed us in on his life. When he was five, his parents almost moved to the U.S. but his grandmother got sick so they stayed. Recently, his old friends who did make the move came back to visit and couldn't believe how fit and American they were. He became increasingly sad at what could have been. He desperately wants to come to the U.S. but has no idea how to do it.
Back in '97, his parents forced him to get married to a daughter of family friends. Many of his friends had recently died of AIDS and they wanted him to settle down. He only knew her for an hour before getting married. He had to break up with his girlfriend, his one true love. Actually, he continued to date her for awhile after getting married but his wife found out and told him to stop. He has a three-year-old son who he adores. He says that his wife is a good woman, but he does not love her.
He works all the time, 7 days a week except when he goes to English class. Most of the people in his class are rich and don't associate with him because he is just a poor tuk-tuk driver. It costs $2.50 a day to rent the tuk-tuk. In a good week, he will get tourists to take around for a whole day or two. He hates French tourists with a passion. And Germans too. But the French he saves his true venom for. They don't tip, they are too demanding, and they don't like that he doesn't speak French. His response, "We have been independent of you since 1954, I don't have to speak your language."
He likes the American and English restaurant and guesthouse owners because they make friends with Cambodians. But the French just stick with themselves and are rude to Cambodians. He also isn't a big fan of the Vietnamese and insists that all of the prostitutes in Cambodia are from Vietnam.
We had to tear ourselves from the hammocks and head back to town. We hung out at the guesthouse for a little bit before heading to dinner. The dinner was good and there were shadow puppets! Then, the main event - kickboxing. I had been to kickboxing when I was in Thailand in 2000 but that was pretty lame. This was the real deal.
Theara navigated us through the crowd to get there. It was not just kick-boxing at this place. There were balloon games, some sort of gravitron with lights all around and a 2 sided screen showing a movie. The place was packed. It was pretty damn dark though because there weren't too many overhead lights anywhere. Theara had to do some sweet talking to get us into the kickboxing, housed behind a perimeter of green tarp. The price - five bucks for us, three for him. We paid for him and went in. It was kind of a rough crowd. Theara was visibly nervous and repeatedly told us to be careful of pickpockets. Upon entry, you grab your own red plastic chair and find a place to sit.
We were the only Westerners in sight and we got some very wary looks. There were some women and children but there were also some gangster types there too. Jason's camera drew a lot of attention. We were all packed together and Theara kept sizing up the people who got close to us. After awhile, people warmed up to us and Jason's camera was a hit. The guy behind him and the kid in front (who also took the time to mock me by making the universal four-eyes hand gesture to me) kept leaning over to look at the pictures Jason took when he was going through them to delete the bad ones between rounds.
The ring was lit by hanging fluorescent lights dangling above. The announcer and the music was played through a big bullhorn. In between rounds, great 60's Cambodian rock by Sinn Sisamouth (killed by the Khmer Rouge) played. During the bouts, some crazy intense traditional kickboxing music playing on the bai? blared through the bullhorn.
The fighting was incredibly violent. Many times, fighters fell out of the ring. All night, the bouts pitted Cambodian boxers vs. Thai boxers. There was also a bout with two female boxers. The crowd hooted and hollered whenever the ref would stop action to pull their hair out of their faces. Some thought the ref was sweet on them.
One bout featured a guy who kept tauting his opponent. One bout featured a Cambodian who had lost his last two matches to the Thai fighter he was fighting. When the Cambodian won, he walked around and appreciative people handed him cash. After 5 rounds, if there wasn't a knockout, the ringside judges handed in their cards to the ref who declared a winner. After the last match of five or six, Jason rushed up to the ringside and took an amazing shot of the victorious boxer as he posed for the camera while the defeated boxer was attended to while lying on his back, still in the ring where he had been knocked out.
As we climbed back into the tuk-tuk, a glue-sniffing kid came up to me and mumbled for money. He was hiding something in his shirt as he grabbed me with his free hand. Theara warned him to back off and he did. Jason and Theara both think that he had a knife hidden in his shirt and might have cut my arm in an attempt to scare me to get my money. Wonderful.
After the fighting, Jason and I decided to have a beer at the guesthouse outdoor bar. There was nobody there except the giggly bartender. She told us she worked there six days a week from 6 am - midnight. She also lived there and slept whenever she could. The American guesthouse owner came out and drank with us for a spell.
The first thing we noticed when we arrived at the place on Tuesday were the pictures of him and his Cambodian wife? on the front desk. One featured the two of them in traditional Cambodian dress and in the other, they were dressed in Western clothes. However, we never saw his wife while we were there.
This dude had a lot to say.
1. He's from Berkeley, man. Things were happening in the 60's man before Bill Graham commercialized that shit.
2. He retired from his lucrative "business" right over the Mexican border in '95.
3. He spent five years travelling the world, dude.
4. He loves the nudist clubs in Germany, man. 50 euros, you can stay all day. Eat and drink all you want. Rooms available too. But the pussy ain't free.
5. Man, he left his 8 acre pad on a lake in Austin to travel the world.
6. His favorite band is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. When he was bored in the States, he and his oldest son travelled all around the country seeing them play. Tom Petty is "foot stomping rock."
7. He loves the Georgia Satellites. What ever happened to them, man?
8. He has an ex-wife in the States and five grown kids. (Not sure if they all have the same mom.)
9. He owned a very successful hotel/restaurant in Phnom Penh. He partied there until 5 am every single night. He had open mic night every Wed and Sat. It was wildly successful. You'd never guess how many wandering musicians there are around the world, man, who just want to get on stage and show their stuff. There was one guy from Finland who, listen to this, sounded just like John Cougar Mellencamp. No shit.
10. His favorite place in Phnom Penh is some French bar where the waitresses wear mini-skirts and no panties.
11. Mexico ain't what it used to be.
12. He moved to Siem Reap about a year ago after selling his hotel in Phnom Penh.
The entire time he was rambling on, the bartender was making faces about how lame he was. He had a super gravelly voice and smoked at least five cigarettes in the few moments we spent with him. He must have been in his late 50's, had a paunch, glasses, and a bad haircut. Jason described him as "basically a sex tourist who put down roots."
A few parting thoughts about Siem Reap.
-Favorite dumb bar name in Siem Reap: Angkor What?
-Favorite store name that had nothing to do with sex: Boom Boom Room
-Favorite t-shirt that I saw a Cambodian wearing that we couldn't find in the market: "Officials are now honest. You no longer need to bribe."
-Cambodia easily has the most difficult water bottles to open. Basically, you have to smash the top to then twist it off.
-All the people peddling stuff ask us where we are from. Theara told us to tell them that we are from Cambodia. They usually smile back at us and then insist that we are really from Canada.
Friday morning, we flew into Laos.
For more Youthlarge food writing, check here and here.
3 days ago