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I was Punk’d by the Cambodian police.

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

It’s been amazing as I’ve traveled through Southeast Asia how culturally different all these countries are and yet so close geographically. I mean, imagine driving eight hours south of Madison. Firstly, why would you want to, and secondly, you’d be in, uh, a cornfield. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind and I’ve traveled too fast to really get a feel for Vietnam or Cambodia, I think. I’m back in Thailand now, at a beach on Koh Chang and it is, inevitably, raining. Maybe God just doesn’t want me to get skin cancer. Thanks, dude.

After Vietnam and the Mekong delta, my friends Zoe and Rich and I, a British couple I was traveling with for a while, headed into Cambodia via the slow boat. Though the geographical barrier was just a river, it was amazing how different the people looked and acted. Laos is so laid-back, Vietnam was kind of a shock to the system with all the hubbub and Cambodia reminded me of Africa – a little bit of a wild frontier, people approaching the buses to sell fruit and other food, lots of little stalls set up on the street. Very raw feeling.

Got into Phnom Penh, the capital, and were dropped off in the backpacker ghetto, and I mean ghetto. All the other places I’ve been, the tuk-tuk drivers will say things like “Lady, need tuk-tuk?” And when you say no, they say “Something?” implying drugs and sex – whatever you want, I’m assuming. Here in Phnom Penh, they dispensed with formalities entirely and would wave bags of weed at you as you walked down the street. Ever-present as well is the 8-year-old-kid mafia, bands of mostly adorable little girls roaming the traveler areas selling photocopied books, bracelets and assorted other junk. “Lady, you buy!” No thank you. “You buy later!” They’re super-sharp and a lot of fun to chit-chat with about their lives. In Cambodia they have a particular talent – they ask you “Where you from?” and then they tell you the capital city. They know more country capitals than I do, that’s for sure.

It was during an interaction with these adorable little tykes at Angkor Wat that everything went a bit Pete Tong – that’s cockney rhyming slang for wrong. Who the f!@# is Pete Tong, anyway? But I think it’s funny. So we were eating lunch at the park and were positively swarmed by these little girls selling bracelets and figurines, and I reached into my purse to pull out my wallet – wallet go bye bye! Only had about $12 cash in there, but I also had my $20 Angkor Wat admission ticket and a little notebook that I like to think of as a junk drawer for my thoughts and email addresses etc. – irreplaceable. I was understandably upset and (wrongly) assumed one of the little street punks had deftly reached into my purse and taken the wallet while Zoe, Rich and I were all distracted by the bracelets. We said as much to the kids, like “We know you took it, shove off,” that kind of thing. I said they could keep the money, just give me back the notebook and the admission ticket, which the admissions people would have made me re-buy. It caused a minor uproar in the restaurant, which my motorbike driver overheard – we’d each hired a little scooter to take us around the site all day – and he was like “Are you sure you lost it here?” I was pretty sure, I said. The only other time I had my wallet out all day was when I had to show the ticket at the first temple, and then I put it back in the purse, or so I thought. I had little hope of ever seeing it again, though.

Moto man disappeared and then reappeared about 20 minutes later, saying someone had found the wallet on the ground outside the temple, where I must’ve dropped it, and turned it in to the police – yay! He even said the admission ticket and the money were still in it. So I sheepishly apologized to the kids, we went over to the police station to collect it, and here is where the Punking began. I was like, “Do you have my wallet?” And thus ensued 20 minutes of them acting cagey and using my faithful moto driver as an interpreter. They want you to describe it, he said.

“OK, it’s white and blue and it has the same pattern as this purse and a little handle. Do they have it?” Well, he said, “How much money was in it?”

“Um, I already told you there’s $10 USD in there (all the ATMs in Cambodia spit out US money – crazy, eh?) and some small amount of riel (their money). You already told me how much was in it when they found it,” I said, getting a little edgy.

The police thought it was hee-larious that I was unsure of the exact amount of riel in there, and I started to think this was turning into a shakedown. This whole time, they had neither confirmed nor denied that they had it; the moto guy was acting like I had to describe it so they could go look for it. Then the cops wanted all my personal details, written by me, in their loose-leaf notebook, including age, where I was staying, what I thought of Cambodia, etc. By this point I was getting pretty agitated, yet trying to keep my cool. “Do you have it or not?” I kept asking. Then, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I spied, from underneath a baseball hat on the table, where it had been hidden the whole time, my wallet. HAHAHA. Hysterical laughter ensued. They had me write “These are the best police ever!” in the notebook and then pose for a picture with them, me and the wallet. Man, I wish I’d taken a picture too, but I was so happy to get the wallet back that I forgot. So funny, those Cambodians!

Oh, and Angkor Wat was cool, too. Toured around on mopeds all day. I put some pics on Flickr, and may I suggest Wiki for you nerdy types? Also checked out the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh, as well as a former high school that the Khmer Rouge used as a torture chamber. All very grim and depressing. Pics on Flickr if you’re interested. Now, after parting from Zoe and Rich in Siem Reap yesterday, here I sit next to the beach in a stupid Internet cafe cause the weather sucks. Just a few more days here until I depart for India on the 5th. It better be sunny. xx

You say liberated, we say fell. Tomato, tomahto.

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Becky 020.jpg

It’s been a whirlwind ten days, everyone, and as I sit down to write this post about Vietnam – the little bit of it I saw anyway, I’m already in Cambodia. I left you in Luang Prabang, Laos, I think, after an aborted attempt to enter northern Vietnam overland from there. I was in a town called Mung Noi and I made a tactical error regarding transportation. I decided to take a bus from near there to a faraway town called Sam Neua, three hours from the Vietnam border, without realizing exactly how far. I caught a truck-thingie, called a sawngthaew (pronounced songthew, I think) which is basically two benches on the sides of the back of a pick-up, with a little roof, to a town called Vieng Khan in the middle of BFE and was stranded. No more buses. But there was a guesthouse there where you could stay and they would wake you up in time to catch the night bus, which passed through on the way from the capital, Vientiane, to Sam Neua.

The bus arrived at this guesthouse at 1:30am, and I, having not really slept, got on it, facing 12 hours (just to get to Sam Neua!), lights on, jam-packed, Lao pop blaring and no seats left, just kindergarten-sized plastic, backless stools in the middle of the aisle. Sitting on one of these stools, I thought, “Becky, you don’t have to do this.” So, I got off the bus and went back to bed. Decided to fly to Saigon from Vientiane, the Lao capital. No virtue in suffering, a wise traveler once told me!

Back to Luang Prabang on another truck-thingie in the pouring rain, me and all my stuff got soaked, plus there was a lady puking blood or something on there. Seriously, I think she had TB. Thank god I had my shot. When she got up off the soaked floor, where she was laying, there was literally a pool of blood. Spent the night and decided to take the night bus from Luang Prabang to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Totally different situation! This night bus picked up at 6pm and arrived at 6am, so I thought it wouldn’t be so bad. And it wasn’t, except for the drunk Lao guy sitting next to me hogging the seat all night and the combination of Lionel Ritchie and Lao pop that played all night. What is it with developing countries and Lionel Ritchie? I half expected some Bryan Adams, too. The kid behind me enjoyed it though, or at least seemed to as he sang along to “Say You, Say Me.”

So, blah blah blah, a few nice days in Vientiane and then it was a flight off to Saigon! Whoa, sensory overload! The car and scooter horns, my God, the car and scooter horns. Deafening. Laos is so rural and green and quiet, except for the 5am roosters, that I was kind of gobsmacked by Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City to the commies. And the traffic, my God, the traffic. Crossing the street is an art form, as no one on the legions of scooters seems to pay attention to either “crosswalks,” or lights. You have to walk very slowly and make eye contact with the drivers to prevent being mowed down. What an adrenaline rush! We started crossing the street just for fun!

Vietnam is an interesting place. I’ve never seen a country embrace capitalism so wholeheartedly – every single building is a store. Kids patrol the streets selling photocopied versions of books, gum, candy, postcards etc. You can’t walk two steps without being assaulted by cries of “Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk?” and an offer to buy everything else. Yet a distinctly anti-American vibe persists. Saigon was liberated in 1975 from the evil Americans – it says as much in propaganda everywhere. I toured, along with hordes of other tourists, the Cu Chi tunnels outside Saigon. They’re 220 kilometers of underground tunnels which the Viet Cong used to attack Saigon. Before the tour, we watched an anti-American propaganda film, talking about the bravery of the VC, who earned special “American-killing” medals. Then we walked around the grounds, which really look like Platoon or something, stopping to see an American tank that had fallen victim to an anti-tank mine, sitting exactly where it had been blow up in 1969, I think. Four Americans died on it, he said proudly. I’m no patriot, but I have to tell you, it made me kind of sick to my stomach to see people climbing all over it and smiling for pictures. We got to go about 90 feet in the tunnels too, which they had to widen for us fatty Westerners, and at one point I had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl. Very claustrophobic but fascinating. There’s a picture of the tank on Flickr, and the opening shot on this entry is one of the cartoon illustrations showing Americans getting maimed, displayed with the traps set by the VC. Also a few pics of those on Flickr.

Next day it was off to the War Remembrance Museum for more. It was a worthwhile visit, though. Lots of photos of the war and some tiger cages that the VC got thrown into when caught. The atrocities committed by the Americans were on full display, pictures of My Lai and the effects of Agent Orange. All very sobering and thought-provoking. It would, of course, have been better if the Vietnamese government acknowledged some of the atrocities the VC committed during the war, or mentioned the “reeducation camps” it sent southern Vietnamese to after the war was over. But, I kept forgetting, this is a “communist” state. It was, to say the least, a very interesting few days.

Took a 3-day tour from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, where we floated around and endured a 3-hour boat trip in a downpour underneath a tarp. Instead of canceling the trip cause of the rain, I think the guide was like, “Well, they paid for it, so they must want to do it.” Right. Anyway, I am really, really ready to get out of the rain. Took another boat ride from Chau Doc, Vietnam to Cambodia, where I now sit, starving to death and ready for lunch. I think this entry is long enough, don’t you? Laters!

When it rains, it pours.

Monday, September 10th, 2007
At least here in Laos, where the weather has been unrelentingly Laosy. Hahaha! I'm back in lovely Luang Prabang, Laos, and it just stopped raining. And I don't mean drizzle, people, I mean a 12-hour downpour. (Just as a side ... [Continue reading this entry]