19 April 2010

The most efficient machine in the world for producing suffering.

We explored Siem Reap a bit more the next day, finding an NGO cafe (Joe-To-Go) run by incredibly polite, smiling and bewildered youth. It seems a Westerner set up the cafe and wrote the menu for them, possibly during a volunteer tour or internship, and then left without actually telling the workers how to make the items. They have no idea what they sell, and as you might guess, this creates some hilarious results.

I ordered an iced coffee, because the menu said their iced coffee came with sugar, milk and whipped cream. I'd been enjoying these "Thai" iced coffees for the whole trip, a result of the combined miseries of tropical heat and caffeine addiction. After many minutes of consultation between 3 cafe employees, several confirmations with me, and only two failed attempts, we finally got the drink to match the menu. It was exciting and fun-- such a collaborative process! Teamwork in Cambodia also involves the customer!

Though the name of this cafe might imply quick service, or at the very least, paper cups, you must never imagine, in Cambodia, that words have any relation whatsoever to their meaning. For example, our guesthouse is named "Rosy's Guesthouse," implying that someone named Rosy owns the damn place. Naturally, none of the owners were named Rosy, and neither were any of their children, nor anyone related to them. "Rosy" is mythical. "To-Go" is apparently aspirational.

Naturally, Craig and I couldn't get enough. Our second visit was an even wilder success. We attempted to order a sandwich from the menu, and though what we got was tasty, it didn't resemble the list of ingredients on the menu at all. I asked for a side of ketchup (which was, of course, on the menu) but was only given smiling shrugs. We wanted something simple to drink with our coffees, so we asked for two soda waters, one with lemon and one without, an iced coffee, and an espresso, clearly pointing at the menu the entire time. The couple at the table behind us ordered their drinks long after us, but got their drinks long before-- clearly, our order was bogged down in "pre-production." Four cafe employees huddled around our order ticket, and sent an emissary to the table.

"You want lemon soda? One?"
Craig realised he'd confused things by ordering two different kinds of sodas. He conceded. "Two lemon sodas."

An espresso appeared. Progress, when achieved, must be encouraged.

Then a frightening, large concoction appears, the sort you imagine soda-jerks created in the 50's, all lime-green and thick-looking, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. This is definitely not soda water with lemon. We look at it, and at each other. Now we're bewildered and we start giggling.

It's super-sweet and not even fizzy. A second identical concoction appears. We stop laughing and my stomach turns.

Another emissary. "So... one iced coffee?"


And eventually an iced coffee did appear, but it took the combined resources and efforts of the entire staff. We push the sodas to the side and giggle to each other a bit about the strangeness of this place, when a third emissary is dispatched to our table. I raised my eyebrows at Craig. We're worried about what might show up on our table next.

"So... one can of soda?"

Oh, yes. This is easily the best cafe ever conceived. Yes, please. Yes.

Later that morning we rented some bikes, and followed a path around the larger complex that's about 26 km, and leads to a lot of the quieter temples. We were looking for Ta Prohm, a ruined temple famous because Angelina Jolie picked a leaf off a tree there once.

Tourists loving on the "Angelina tree."

The temple was forgotten and abandoned for centuries; legend has it that Angkor Wat would have been similarly overgrown by trees and jungle but for a privileged sect of monks who secretly lived in Angkor and took care of it all that time. Ta Som is another temple nearly reclaimed by nature, massive tree roots splitting the stones, strangler figs and vines climbing over the ruins.

The government is cutting down all the trees that threaten to destroy the temples. But it seems like a no-win situation; the trees are what give these temples their wonder. The jungle reclaiming these enormous edifices seems to sit so well with many tenets of Hindu and Buddhist spirituality. At the same time, I understand the government doesn't want to lose any national treasures or heritage sites or revenue streams. But somehow, by cutting the trees down, they're creating the bad parts of both sides. Temples broken by and barely held together by roots in unmanageable, unsolvable, unrestorable ruin and once-magnificent dead trees within them. Right now, you can still get a feel of the mystery these temples must have held for those people who rediscovered them in the 1800's, but give it a few years and I feel like all the life may literally have been cut out of them.

Restoration efforts have helped and hurt Angkor over the years. Once cutting-edge restoration techniques have proven to be damaging over the decades, destroying many carvings and defacing a lot of the stone work. And one of the major Angkor temples, Baphuon, was in the middle of restoration in the 1960's. It was taken apart and plans were drawn up detailing the positions of every stone. But during the civil war, when the Khmer rouge took power, the plans were lost, and Baphuon is now a visitor-restricted heap. They're trying to continue restoration efforts now, but who knows if or when it will ever be finished...

Now, I know that riding around ancient, overgrown ruins on bicycles sounds idyllic. It sounded idyllic to me. Until you see the bikes. They are like clown bikes. The handlebars are only about 6 inches from the seat, and your knees come over the handlebars as you pedal, and your back is forced into an odd sort of curve, a hunchback, I suppose.

And there are no shock absorbers, and the 26 kilometer path we chose was, of course, extremely well-paved. It's just that by the time we got there, the paving had all eroded, leaving the path more just... dirt and rocks and branches of trees. You know. Bumpy.

And then I crashed.

It was a good crash, too, a really serious sort of over-the-handlebars, face in the dirt, shoulders stuck under the ribs sort of crash. Got a nice bleeder on the knee and some serious Cambodian orange dirt up in my cuts! Awesome!

I got back up, and we rode away quickly, to avoid a bunch of Khmers certainly laughing on the inside at my clumsiness. I'm tired of embarrassing myself in foreign countries. My knee was throbbing, though, so I couldn't keep up my ride of pride for too long.

At the next little clearing, I slowed my bike down and tried to engage in a thoughtful and considered disembarking, which is essentially another fall, but in slow motion and rather herky-jerky. A little girl (she's maybe 11, but a tiny 11, you know, because she's Cambodian and maybe too because she's poor) came over trying to sell us water while I semi-writhed on the ground in pain; we waved her away, no, no.

But then she saw I was hurt, she saw blood and a few tears, very few, so few you might even call them noble tears. She ran and told her mom, who gave us GAVE us some ice. The ice they use to keep the cold drinks cold, their livelihood, they gave us for my knee, even when we tried to pay. And the little girl, she told me to come sit on a bench. Craig gently put his hand under my elbow to help me up; she grabbed my other arm and yanked me up with a force I'm pretty sure I'm too weak to exert on anything. She was so abrupt, I laughed. Seriously, this girl was strong.

As I walked toward the bench, barely supported by Craig, really not putting my entire weight on him at all, the little girl noticed all the dust on my backside. She vigourously began slapping my butt to get the dirt off. I couldn't stop laughing. There is nothing more strange and bewildering, my friends, than trying to walk off an injury in Cambodia, while a young Khmer girl smacks your ass. Out of sheer kindness.

And as I was sitting on the bench, she brought her friends over, and her baby sister, and she asked us where we're from. Australia, we said.

"Capital Canberra!"

I said, "I'm from the United States."

"Capital Washington D.C.!"

We asked if she learned that in school.

"No," she said, "Tourists."

A few games of Naughts and Crosses later, I thought I could probably just hobble back to the bikes. In the end, we did buy some water from the kids, because she had been so sweet and weird, and we'd had fun with them.

And we rode off down the bumpy, not very well-maintained path, through rice paddies and jungle, and we only worried a little about possibly making the unwelcome acquaintance of a land mine, which we had heard were the most unpleasant company during a bike ride.

We had some lunch at a roadside restaurant, and there was something about the light-- everything looked beautiful to me in there.

By the time we finished the ride, our bones were so shaken, we couldn't walk straight. For anyone interested in creating a similar but more fun and enjoyable experience, I recommend renting a nicer bike.

That afternoon, as we headed back toward Angkor Wat, we saw yet another wedding! This one was Chinese-style, which is apparently the hot wedding theme this year for young hip Khmers.

And we caught some beautiful afternoon views of Angkor Wat and Bayon. Only one more day in Siem Reap--

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