I’ve been meaning to write about the experiences I’ve had on a backpacking trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore that I did late last year. By some accident of history I’ve memorized and implemented Kabir’s famous adage “Kaal Kare So Aaj Kar, Aaj Kare So Ub”1 backwards, so it has taken till now for me to actually getting to writing down a few of my experiences.
I hope to write a few of the more interesting experiences and some sort of travelogue down. This one, which I hope will be one of many, will deal with a single interesting (I think) experience I had.2
Like every other tourist that successfully crosses the border from Thailand into Cambodia at Poipet3, I went to see the famous Angkor Wat by heading to Siem Reap4. On seeing the famous temples at Angkor Wat at great expense, I discovered something that I ought to have figured out quite cheaply in India: that I am not a very big fan of temples, to say the least. That is not to say I was bored. Oh no – not at all, for, when you’re traveling, entertainment comes from unexpected sources.
One of my sources of entertainment was the “Right hand man” for the owner of the guest house I was put up in. The owner himself was a quaint little retired Frenchman, with whom my only intelligible conversation involved me saying “vu vu’sapelle comment”5 in my terrible “french accent”.
The frenchman6 was living the what I call “Farang’s7 Asian dream”. Convert your meager retirement savings in whatever “western country” you hail from into a fortune just by gracing it upon one of your former colonies. Marry a local girl, sometimes half your age, and live happily ever after8 with your frambodian or whatever half-breed children. My guess is that the frenchman wasn’t much good at running the guesthouse, he didn’t speak much Khmer, the Cambodian language. Hence the need for the “right hand man”, whose name sounded to me, like most Cambodian names, to be a mix of large number of vowels with a few consonants thrown in random locations. So let’s call him Kia.
Kia was a very interesting character. Obviously, being right-hand-man and all, he was quite resourceful and the go-to man. He was tall for a cambodian. He had been a child soldier in the Vietnam sponsored rebel forces that fought Khmer Rouge. Now for a person whose favorite website (other than distilled awesomeness of the site you are on) is badassoftheweek.com, a child soldier fighting in jungles of a country reputed for being one of the most landmined countries in the world, to put it mildly, is interesting. Needless to say, I befriended Kia and fished for war stories. He told me lots of them. Some genuine and harrowing tales of human suffering. Others bordering on Kia being Terminator-incarnate obliterating hordes of khmer rouge.
One day this guy demands that I take him out for a beer. Now, I know this is a poor country and that they’ve learnt the art of fleecing tourists. Heck, I even had to pay “foreigner price” for bottled water which was 10 times what the locals paid – that – despite me looking more like a shaggy backpacker than a wealthy vacationer. I guess appearances don’t deceive the ones whose eyes are on the wallets. So I was accustomed to demands, but this one came as a surprise nonetheless. I’m not a cheapskate and I wasn’t going to deny this one.
So it came to pass that on that night we walked a few blocks to get to a watering hole. Siem Reap is a beautiful town9, with quaint incandescent bulbs lighting the sides of main boulevard, next to which runs a small stream. But the direction we headed was not that. It didn’t seem like a part of town that saw anything more than a few “zero-watt bulb” light in the night. The watering hole looked shady even by this standard, almost like our wooden-bench-arrack-shops. Kia orders a pitcher of beer. I’m not usually a fan of getting drunk, and am less so in foreign cities where my murder would be a mild curiosity. So I take a glass and sip, expecting more stories. To my surprise, even Kia doesn’t drink more than a glass. Why on earth did he bring me here, if not to get drunk at my expense? It is then that he invites two nubile girls over. More money on beer for random strangers, but at least these are pleasing to the eye.
We talk for a while in what seems like random chit chat. Kia and the girls speak a lot amongst themselves in Khmer and usually some tidbits in English with me. After a particular conversation with Kia, one of the girls turns overtly flirtatious with me. I cautiously act clueless to this, but nonetheless carry on normal conversation. So eventually after about an hour, Kia declares he’s had enough beer and we ought to leave. The pitcher was still more than half full despite four people having “drunk” from it for an hour. Then Kia makes explicit what I was suspecting all the while, the nubile stranger can be had for a “reasonable price”! I politely10 decline. He walks half way back with me (with the girls in tow) and tells me how to get to the guesthouse from there. As I depart on the dark street, the non-flirty girl keeps shouting something at me in Khmer. I, stupidly, ask for translation from Kia. He tells me that she is asking me to find myself a good goat!
And that was the story. Sorry if it turned out to be anti-climatic for you, that’s because I’ve kept it honest and tried to add as little “spice” to it as possible 😉
- For my Hindi-illiterate friends, “Kaal Kare So Aaj Kar, Aaj Kare So Ub” is from a Doha (two line poem, methinks) from Kabir. It translates to “Do tomorrow’s work today and today’s work now” [↩]
- Important note/Disclaimer: A lot of what I write here is just in jest and I apologize for any offense. None is intended! [↩]
- If you’re heading from Bangkok to Siem Reap, the nearest town to Angkor wat, you’d cross the border at Aranyaprathet on Thai side and Poipet on the Cambodian side. If you thought “Poipet more or less rhymes with toilet”, give yourself a pat on the back – the damn place is a gigantic toilet. Crossing the border here without succumbing to touts and without falling into one of the gutters is an adventure in its own right. I could go on, but that’ll have to wait for another day and another article. [↩]
- Apparently siem reap stands for “Siam defeated” or “Thailand defeated”, so much for imaginative names for cities. [↩]
- “Vu vu’sapelle comment” translates to a formal “What do you call yourself” or “What’s your name?” [↩]
- The following is probably tainted with more of my imagination than I’m willing to admit, taking everything I say with a Jar of old sodium chloride! [↩]
- Farang is the the term I’ve seen Thais and Cambodians use for any caucasian/white person. I’m not sure if it is disparaging. [↩]
- Not all that long anyway, remember you are retired 😉 [↩]
- Photo on left courtesy of http://www.kriyayoga.com/photography/photo_gallery/v/kingdom_of_cambodia/siem_reap_by_night-dsc00278-a1-ws.jpg.html I regret to say that I carried my lowly iPhone as camera for most of the trip and hence have few images that can really be called photos.. [↩]
- Read whatever would make him want less to beat the living hell out me, remembering his gun-toting days [↩]