A close up look at Dr. Fish…

As promised in an earlier post, here’s a look at our visit to Dr. Fish in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Eddie, thanks for joining us.

Bangkok taxi drivers make bid for world’s worst.

After a last taste of the relative tranquility of Siem Reap by the pool in the morning, it was time to head to the buzz of Bangkok.

I’ll say it up front, Bangkok is not my favourite city in the world. It is massive, not that clean or organized, and i find it lacks much redeeming charm. Still, it’s worth a visit all the same.

Our first day in Bangkok wasn’t a busy one. After our flight and transfer to the hotel we were somewhat tired, due in part I think to the heat and humidity (35 C). After checking-in we had a drink by the pool on the roof of the hotel. I went the safe route and had a beer. Maggi and Mary were a little more adventurous putting unwarranted faith in the hotel staff. Apparently a Pims No. 1 in Thailand is just a shot of Pims and a Campari was similarly botched. Not exactly the refreshing fruit-filled drinks they were hoping for.

We went to dinner at a restaurant on the river, the name of which I never did figure out, as it was only in Thai. The food was good and it was pleasant to sit by the river on such a hot evening.

Getting there, however, was another matter. There we five us going to dinner, Russell and Trisha, Katy and me, and Shane. We decided to take a taxi to get to the restaurant rather than the train and boat. This seemed like reasonable idea. Shane estimated that it would cost us about 85 baht (around $3) per taxi on the meter and that we would need two taxis for the five of us. So, just over $1 per person and we’d be there in 30 minutes.

Russell and Trisha got in the first taxi to come along and all seemed to be going according to plan. Then we ran into a problem. It turns out that taxi drivers in Bangkok are assholes. When we stopped a taxi for the three of us to follow, as soon as we told him where we wanted to go, he waved his hand and said he wouldn’t take us. Despite the fact that this is actually illegal, let alone a bit rude, this was repeated about ten more times over the next 20 minutes. Shane explained that the problem was their ability to get a fare coming back out of the area we were going to. While somewhat understandable, it didn’t do much to reduce the frustration.

Eventually, fearing that Russell and Trisha would be left standing alone in front of the restaurant, we agreed to pay a taxi driver 200 baht off meter for the trip, more than double what it should cost. A bit ironic as Shane told us all when we arrived in Bangkok to make sure the meter was always on if we got in a taxi.

Once in the taxi we we’re immediately caught in traffic, at one point sitting still for 15 minutes. For his part our taxi driver did little to inspire confidence, repeatedly banging his forehead as if punishing himself for agreeing to take us. Then, when we did find some open road, he flew through downtown Bangkok at 100 km/hr.

Meanwhile, Russell and Trisha were having their own adventures. Their driver didn’t really seem to know the way. Despite their 20 minute head start they caught us from behind at one point.

In the end we all made it to the restaurant safely. (Russell and Trisha arrived 15 minutes after us.)

The unknown restaurant.

For the taxi ride home, we decided it was best not to split up and crammed into one taxi. The cost, 85 baht.

The lesson: If you want a Bangkok experience, take a taxi. If you want to reach your destination quickly and without hassle, stick to the sky train and boats.

A humbling day with Rady.

Fortunately, our last full day in Siem Reap started a little later than the previous day, giving us a chance to sleep in just a bit and have a nice big breakfast.

We spent the morning visiting a few more temples: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Pre Rup, and East Mebon. At Neak Pean we met a little girl who was very happy with the bananas our local guide Kerry gave her.

The joy of a banana.

While all interesting, I have to admit that we just didn’t know enough to appreciate the smaller differences. We get things like transitions from brick to sandstone, but eventually a bit of temple fatigue set in and we were ready for lunch.

In the afternoon we had the opportunity to visit one of the floating villages, Kongpong Pluk, and to see a more “authentic” side of Cambodia, away from the tourists and their money. We were particularly fortunate to have been taken on our journey by Rady Rure in his tuk tuk. We were connected with Rady by Neil H., a Gap Adventures employee we had met in Toronto at the Ignite the Night fundraiser for a Cambodian eye centre that Gap held in the fall.

On the road with Rady.

Rady’s story is a great one that illustrates the huge impact that one act of kindness can have. I won’t do it justice here so please watch the video below that Neil put together. My short version is that while traveling in Siem Reap, Neil and his wife were taken aback by all of the poverty. When they met Rady, the decided to do something. Initially this was helping to pay his tuition fees for university and eventually raising money among their friends back in Toronto to help Rady by a tuk tuk so he could be self-sustaining.

Today, Rady not only drives his tuk tuk, he also teaches English at a school and even started his own School of English for the disadvantaged that currently has 160 students enrolled and four Australian volunteers on staff to help.

The village he took us to is a little further away, about an hour by tuk tuk. One thing that caught us off guard on the ride out was when Rady pulled over to the side of the road. We had seen stands with old bottles of Johnnie Walker, mostly red label, with what I thought was moonshine in them. When Rady pulled over we found out that they were actually filled with petrol. For those thinking about going into the business, a tuk tuk takes about two Johnnie Walker bottles of petrol to fill.

A JW top up for the tuk tuk.

Because the village was a little further away from town there weren’t a lot of tourists, I think we saw four all afternoon, so it felt like we were getting a glimpse into real life in rural Cambodia.

The first thing that struck me was that with water levels at a historic low, the floating village was actually more of a village in the sky with houses towering over us on stilts as we went down the river to the lake and back. As we went down the river there were men, all usually up to their necks in water, fishing. Rady told us they were fishing primarily for catfish. They would throw the large weighted nets into the water and then swim in and pull them back to shore. the fishermen are all farmers who fish during the dry season to feed their families.

Getting an early start on fishing.

Rady himself is an incredibly kind and warm person, so we were really lucky to have him show us around. He said that he came from a village a lot like the one we visited, though even further from Siem Reap. He said that without the help from Neil and his family, he would be one of these fisherman. He would be working with his body rather than his mind, the thing he likes most about his life today.

As we came back down the river, we hopped off the boat to walk through the village. With no water there was a main “street” running between two rows of houses, all with long ladders where we have walkways. The village children were very hospitable, greeting us with a chorus of “bye”s both coming and going.

The bye bye gang.

As luck had it, we were in town on a wedding day. There was a massive tent running down a large section of the central street and as we passed through a loud speaker was calling members of the grooms family to come out. As we were getting ready to get back on our boat, the groom and what I think were his groomsmen, were walking down the street in bright pink. Unfortunately they weren’t that close so I didn’t get a better picture.

Wedding Day Kongpong Pluk.
Wedding day in Kongpong Pluk.

It was really eye opening to walk through the village and reminded us how much stuff we have and how much we take for granted. The afternoon was a great experience, if a little overwhelming. It felt a bit wrong as we said our goodbyes to Rady only to go sit by the pool at our hotel and venture into town for dinner.

Rady may not be tall, but he’s doing big things.

We finished the day feeling that we need to follow Neil’s example and look for ways that we can be more than just observers when we travel. Personally, having seen what a difference a little money (relatively speaking) can make, I want to take a closer look at things like Kiva micro financing.

Becoming fish food

Our first full day in Siem Reap started early with a 4:30 am wake up so we could get to Angor Wat in time to see the sunrise. Sadly, this came just at the point in the trip where we were learning to sleep past 4:00 in the morning.

Everything went according to plan and we were in prime seats on one of the smaller buildings long before the sun came up, watching the crowds gather. It was very civilized as were able to buy coffee and tea while we waited. The only flaw in the plan proved to be our inability to control the weather. The cloudy morning made the sunrise a bit of a non-event, but a good experience nonetheless.

Angora Wat in the early morning cloud. Shame about the scaffolding.

After the sun was up, we started our temple marathon with a tour of Angor Wat. Our local guide, Kerry, was good, if a bit excitable for a group of people that had woken up at 4:30 in the morning. She did provide a couple of numbers that I find a bit hard to believe, i.e. that 1 million people worked on the construction and that 300 hundred billion tons of stone were used. I just might need to double check these through the magic of Google some day.

The second temple, Banyon, with hundreds of faces on the stone towers, was probably my favourite. After a few more temple sites including Ta Prohm, of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones fame, the early morning was starting to catch up with us impacting our ability to pay attention, so it was back to the hotel for some pool time.

Katy coming face to face with a Ta Banyon statue.

Ta Prohm

As an aside, after Ta Prohm on this trip (Temple of Doom) and Petra (Last Crusade) in Jordan in the fall we’re on an Indiana Jones run. If you know of a famous location from the Lost Arc, let me know so we can plan our next trip around it.

In the evening we took another tuk tuk into town for dinner and some shopping. Katy and I were joined by Eddie, another traveller from our group from England. We ate at Temple Restaurant. The food was good and the restaurant had traditional Aspara dancing.

As we walked around the night market after dinner, we decided to visit Dr. Fish for a foot massage. Now, this was not just a $1 foot massage like the many others on offer. No, this was $3, included a drink and consisted of sticking your feet in a small pool of fish who then eat the dead flesh off your feet. It’s every bit as strange as it sounds.

Now, Eddie is lovely company so it was great to have him join us for dinner, but I was particularly happy when we stuck our feet in with the fish. Eddie’s reaction was priceless. You can almost tell in the picture below, but I’ll have a video linked here shortly so you can see what I mean.

Our appointment with Dr. Fish.

How do you top having fish pleasantly eat away at your feet? You don’t. So, after a little more shopping we got some ice cream and went back to the hotel for a much deserved rest.

The Adventures of Pickpocket Pam and Driver Dan

So, it turns out that when your Gap Adventures guide warns you that there is a risk of people trying to rob you while driving by on a scooter, they aren’t kidding. To prove this point our fearless leader Shane subjected himself to just such an incident.

At about 10:30 in the evening, while walking home from dinner to the hotel, Shane met two new Vietnamese friends, we’ll call them Pickpocket Pam and Driver Dan. While driving past, Pam tried to stick her hand in Shane’s pocket to grab his wallet. Fortunately Shane not only realized what was happening, he actually did something. Where I would have, judging by past history, curled up to protect my pizza (ok, there was no pizza, but it’s my only frame of reference), Shane protected his wallet while grabbing the back of the scooter. The sudden drag on the scooter sent driver Dan and his quick fingered sidekick flying. Apparently not able to recognize a lost cause when they saw one, the less than dynamic duo continued their attack rather than making a run for it. The result? Shane’s foot through the engine, rendering the scooter scrap, and both Dan and Pam spending time in headlocks. Unfortunately Shane wasn’t without injury as Pam bit him, that’s right, I said bit him, while in the headlock.

Adding to the evidence that our new anti-heroes aren’t going to be winning Nobel prizes anytime soon, the whole incident took place in front of a police station. Shane was able to call them just by yelling and both were arrested. While my limited understanding of the Vietnamese justice system suggests a small bribe will leave Pam and Dan free to try again, some solace can be found in that they are out the cost of a bribe, need a new bike, and suffered a minor ass whooping at the hands of a vertically challenged Irishman.

Despite all that, and a three hour stay at the hospital to get shots for the bite, Shane was only a few minutes late meeting us for the transfer to the airport for our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The hotel in Siem Reap was only 15 minutes from the airport and it was quite the shock when we arrived. It’s gorgeous! All of our other hotels up until this point have been great but this one definitely stands out. We normally save a nice hotel stay for the end of the trip but I suspect our hotel on the beach in Thailand will look like a hovel in comparison.

Tara Angkor Hotel, Siem Reap

With no planned activities, we spent the afternoon by the saltwater pool before going into town for dinner at Moksha. With a 4:30 am start coming, to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, bed followed shortly after.

Two lessons today. For the criminals out there, think twice before messing with an Irishman. For us travelers, tight shorts are our another example of fashion protection. Just imagine what tight shiny shorts could do!

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