Thy Kingdom Come

DSC00172When I was in Beijing, I tried to visit Chairman Mao, but pink flip-flops don't go down so well with dead communist leaders, apparently, and I wasn't allowed inside the mausoleum in case he accidentally caught a glimpse of my naked toes. In Hanoi, I filed past the security guards outside Ho Chi Minh's tomb, discreetly tugging my dress down past my knees in the hopes that it would be long enough to pass muster. And yesterday at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, the woman in the ticket office shook her head at my tank top and told me I couldn't go inside lest I offend the monks, swaddled tightly in their saffron-colored robes.

There was, however, a solution, she said. Why didn't I rent a t-shirt? Rent a t-shirt? Yes, rent a t-shirt! Some bright spark, apparently, has set up a business loaning cover-ups by the hour to godless young women like me who show up at cultural and religious sites with their shoulders brazenly on display. And all I can say is why didn't I think of that first?


I forked over 25 cents for the pleasure of pulling someone else's enormous, sweaty, well-worn garment over my head and spent the rest of my time at the Royal Palace bemoaning the fact that not only did the other visitors think I was the kind of person who chose to complement a cute floaty skirt with a white men's XL Hanes t-shirt, but that they also thought, no doubt, that I was the kind of person who had no qualms about going out in public with ketchup stains down their front. Personally, I wanted to ask why the man in the FCUK shirt hadn't been asked to change. I mean, really: if you were a Buddhist monk, which would you find more offensive: a pair of shoulders or a person still smirking over an ad campaign from 1998?

Cambodia is totally blowing me away, and I know that's not an eloquent way to put it, but I can't quite find the words I need to describe its beauty and its poverty and its wholly indomitable spirit. The roads are bumpy and dusty, the hassling incessant, and the history gruesome, but the appeal is in the intrigue of the tiniest interactions. We visited Wat Phnom yesterday, a temple on the top of the capital's only hill, and the whole time we were walking around the outside of it, this little barefoot boy was smiling at me, not asking for anything, just smiling and smiling and smiling. Sean and I slipped off our flip-flops haphazardly and stepped inside the temple itself, and when we came out twenty minutes later, there were our flip-flops, lined up perfectly next to one another, their toes touching as if someone had measured the space between them with a ruler in order to make the neatest presentation possible. And there was the little boy, still smiling, smiling, smiling, only now with a glimmer of pride.

It broke my heart that he'd lined our shoes up for us, made them all ready for us for when we came out, and even though he still wasn't asking for anything, I reached inside my purse and handed him the first bill I found. The guidebooks tell you not to give the children money, to give them food instead, but I can't help it and I end up giving them money anyway. We've started wrapping up the food we don't eat at lunch or dinner, and taking it outside to give to the first hungry-looking kid we see. But after the tiny flicker of satisfaction at feeding a child who needed feeding, I feel so goddamn bourgeois, because really, what's a Cambodian street urchin going to do with a piece of carrot cake or a hunk of vintage cheddar?

At the end of the day yesterday, we wandered away from the Royal Palace with the intent of having a drink by the river and watching the sunset, and instead found ourselves in the middle of the most incredible scene: there was some sort of preamble to a festival going on, with hundreds of people gathered at the waterfront, buying and selling and praying and eating and making offerings and swimming in a river that really shouldn't be swum in. I took a few photos but they didn't do it justice, and so I tried to capture it on film, but that didn't really work either:

And if YouTube hasn't caused you to claw your eyes out in frustration yet (I find it's best to wait a minute or so for the whole video to load before pressing play so it doesn't do the stop-start-stop thing), here's another video of a tuk-tuk ride we took down The Bumpiest Road in Cambodia, on the way back from a sobering afternoon at the Killing Fields. Please make sure you have some sort of empty vessel standing by before you press play, as I'm certain the act of just watching this is going to induce a chronic case of travel sickness.

The Cambodians, we've found, are an incredibly kind-hearted people; unlike in Vietnam, they're not all out to run you down with their motorbikes, and theý'll often stop you on the street to say hello and practice their English. In an Internet cafe a few days ago, a man tapped me on the shoulder, showed me his cell phone---with a half-completed text message on the screen---and asked me shyly if he'd spelled the word "aisle" correctly. At dinner tonight, the same man---a waiter, apparently, at the place we were eating at---came up to me with a huge smile, said he recognized me from the other night, and asked me if this time I could help him spell "laugh." Everywhere we've been in Phnom Penh, people have greeted us with smiles and waves and kind words. It is, however, apparently not the best place to vacation if you're a sex tourist:

sex tourists

(What is a sex tourist, anyway? A hooker who's redeeming all her SkyMiles?)

Here, to take your mind off that unsavory mental image, have a look at who we ran into yesterday, at the bottom of Wat Phnom. Because you know what? I can tell you all about the sunsets and the temples and the children with their grubby feet and mega-watt smiles, but if these two don't make you want to come to Cambodia, I don't know what will.



Sep 16, 2006

Your description of the little sparkly-eyed shoe arranger made my heart hurt.

I want your adventures to be a book so I can flip the page and keep reading. Awesome stuff.

Sep 16, 2006

Actually? That first little fellow? The one on the left? Not making me want to go there, so much. Perhaps more elephants with cute rugs on their backs will...

Sep 16, 2006

Yay for hearing your voice :) I read so many American blogs it was nice to hear an English accent for a change (not that you Americans aren't all delicious). I'm with Sheila - that monkey with the very big fangs is not a big draw for me! But I'm sure he has a great personality ;)

Sep 16, 2006

Fangs! Fangs on the monkey!!

Sep 16, 2006

So you made it to Cambodia... As I seem to have made it a habit to visit everywhere you go about a month before you do I will offer my best Cambodian knowledge to you...

In Phnom Penh you should go for Happy Hour at the Foreign Correspondants Club and eat at Friends (it's a really cool Tapas restaurant where all the workers are street kids and they all learn to cook the foor AND wait tables)

Also, I don't know where you are staying but if you are staying in Lakeside you should go to the shop that makes posters out of photos (random, I know) and ask about the kids club thing. Its a thing they run a few afternoons a week and you get to entertain all the local kids which is really good fun.

In Siem Reap go to Ankor Wat after 4.30 the day before you want to go and your one day ticket is valid that evening and all the next day which means you can watch sunset (and Sean can take some great photos) and then visit all the temples the next day (try to go for sunrise too!). Ankor Wat is a bit of a tourist circus but try not to let that put you off!

Sep 17, 2006

The little boy at Wat Phnom made me weep. And then that monkey scared the shit out of me.

Good job.

Sep 17, 2006

What is this talk of hearing English accents? I've watched those videos over and over, and I heard no such things.

Sep 17, 2006

The picture of the smiling monk makes me want to visit Cambodia much more than the picture of the monkey picking his arse.

Actually, the movie "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" made me want to visit Cambodia even more than the monk picture... the Angkor Wat temple is simply AMAZING!

Are you going there?

jenny lee
Sep 17, 2006

i totally missed the accent lol i guess i didn't pay attention. and you're getting closer with the elephants. WILD one next time ;) i check in every day. sometimes 5 times a day to see if you update. (no, i'm not kidding) (shut up! i'm serious!) (yes!! 5 times!) (a day) and each time you update you have this amazing story of your travels.
and i feel so blah about my daily routine. and when i look out the window, i don't see elephants...just birds. i mean, come on, i'm from wisconsin and if i saw an elephant in my backyard i'd freak. take pictures, but then freak lol. thank you for sharing your travels. do you have the places where you're going listed on your blog some place? do you have a home base there? i mean, are you traveling all the time with all of your stuff to each place or is there one place you start and then return? say if someone wanted to send you something, could they? just curious.

Horrible Warning
Sep 17, 2006

Maybe the monkey isn't dangerous, but rather has a raging case of 'roids. Don't think I'd want to get close enough to find out, though...

Nothing But Bonfires
Sep 18, 2006

Marcheline -- yes, we went to Angkor Wat today, and then to Ta Prohm which is apparently where they shot a lot of the movie as well. Of course, I thought of you.

Jenny Lee -- my our itinerary is somewhere in the archives, in April or May I think. You can use the search function at the top of the page. And as for a home base, we started in Singapore and are returning there too; it's where my parents live.

Liberal Banana
Sep 18, 2006

Ohmygod that monkey is so scary! You know what would've made the picture of the elephant better? If it was in the middle of taking a giant...panda for a ride on its back! (What did you think I was going to write?)

I love the fact that you can take video and post it for us to see from the other side of the world...Technology is amazing, no? What are you capturing the video with?

Sarah Marie
Sep 18, 2006

I love the videos! They were a great addition to your post, really captured the flavor of the moments you share with us.

Sep 18, 2006

Ahhh.... the monkey, he reminds me of being in Costa Rica! And the elephant makes me want to go straightaway and buy a ticket. The little boy though, is the kicker....Is it wrong that I think of a more-grown Maddox Jolie-Pitt, sans mohawk and bad attitude? Cos that would be purely delicious! Thanks for the lovely posts and video.

Sep 18, 2006

I don't know if you really want to know? I think that the "sex tourists" are men who travel to have sex with young (very young...way too young) girls?

notsoccer mom
Sep 18, 2006

yup, i was also going to explain sex tourist to you in case you weren't just kidding. i think meg has it right, but also young, very young BOYS, not just girls. ick.

love reading of your travels.

Sep 18, 2006

You may not have captured the visuals to your satisfaction (I know the feeling), but the sound of the festival preparation is wonderful!

Sep 19, 2006

Hiya! I'm really enjoying reading your travel adventures. I wish I'd done something similar when I was doing my own.

Keep it coming!

Nothing But Bonfires
Sep 19, 2006

Yeah, I figured that's probably what sex tourists were. But my version was a little less depressing.

And Liberal Banana, I'm just using my camera for the video: a Sony CyberShot.

Sep 21, 2006

I love reading about your travels. It all comes back to me so vividly. And I am a little jealous that you have all these almost profound experiences with the love of your life. I was alone 6 years ago, I wanted to do it alone, and the love of my life and I have kids now.... so I guess we'll be traveling with backpacks when we're in our sixties?