Saturday, 26 May 2012

Day 63 - Local humour, and a new driving style. (Cambodia)

Siem Reap is a very beautiful city, very obviously based around tourism, but still retaining its small town feel. On the drive in from Poipet we were astounded by the huge and luxurious hotels lining the road, but once we were in the town centre we became engrossed in the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the mixture between backpackers and locals. It was a shame though how sterile the town seemed in a way, because the vast majority of the buildings were really quite new. We had planned on staying for three or so nights probably, but suddenly we'd been there a week already and had to drag ourselves away.

With the exception of a bunch of children trying to scam tourists and the odd dodgey tuk tuk driver, we were so amazed by how truly friendly and helpful the locals were. One of the guys working at our hostel - Mr Paul - took it upon himself to basically mind our car for the duration of our stay. It's the first country we've been to on this trip where they understood our humour and were quite happy to laugh at us and themselves, in a very light hearted way.

One evening I was purchasing a can of coke at the convenience store and when I asked for a straw the guy told me quite sincerely that it was $5. Thinking I may have misheard him I asked "sorry?" and he answered "$5", but this time with a smile. Realising I had heard correctly and he was making a joke, I asked if I could have a special price, to which he asked "what you pay?". This is exactly how any market sale or bartering is worded. I suggested the price of $0, and he agreed.

We've also taken to playing some games with tuk tuk drivers - seeing as the vast majority of them actually get what we're doing and a lot of them even like to play along. When they ask if we want a tuk tuk we can respond with "I think we'll drive actually". Most of the time though they simply just wave and point at their tuk tuk, screaming out "tuk tuk". So we've taken to waving back and pointing at other objects such as buildings, cars, people, shops, bikes etc and calling out the respective names. Or then we thought maybe "tuk tuk" is a greeting, and they're all just saying hi when we walk past. So when they wave and say "tuk tuk", we respond by waving and also saying "tuk tuk". Sometimes we're met with "my friend, tuk tuk". To this we can respond with "my friend, Tom". The list goes on, and continues to grow. It is somewhat rewarding though when they understand what we're doing and also find it humourous.

The children in Siem Reap that were begging to tourists were usually girls around 8 years old (probably - they actually could have been 6 or 12, I'm not sure), and always carrying a baby. They almost exclusively approach women (always tourists) and say in perfect English "I don't want money, I only want food. I need milk for my sister. Please lady, it's for the baby." It is quite a heart breaking sight, and at first it seems that they're really genuine, but over our week in Siem Reap we were able to watch their antics. They would be standing around playing with each other and acting like kids, then as soon as they see some tourists approach on go the sad faces and into the arms with the baby. Between possible donors they pinch and slap the babies to make them cry. We did witness one good hearted lady who got sucked in. She was in the convenience store buying milk for the baby, and as she was paying for it the child grabbed it away and ran off yelling "you stupid lady it's not for the baby, it's for me hahahaha".

The first stretch of the road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh remained at a pretty decent standard, and we were starting to wonder whether we'd ever get to the poor quality of roads that we were expecting to spend most of this trip on. And then we got there. Quite suddenly the road completely deteriorated, becomig basically unmade in sections and extremely uneven. We drove through quite a blustery storm at one point, and the road got completely flooded, which made avoiding the potholes and larger rocks quite a challenge. The traffic also started getting much heavier and the drivers seemed to get a lot crazier. The last 30km before Phnom Penh took us over an hour. Changing driving mentality is quite a challenge. When you're used to the idea that each lane goes in one direction, and you only overtake if you can see clearly ahead of you and nothing is coming, switching to the idea that any gap is fare game is somewhat daunting. But if you don't adopt the local driving style, you actually just won't get anywhere.

We've been a bit shocked at the wealth that's evident in Phnom Penh. The number of Lexuses and Landcruisers, as shiny as if they'd just driven out of the display room, driving around is incredible. Likewise there is an incredible amount of really posh housing, locked up behind huge security fences with guards or even police out front. I would always expect there to be an upper class, with a huge divide between them and the lower class, in any third world or developing country. I just hadn't expected so many people to fit into this upper class.

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