After a rooster woke me up around 4:32 on the first day, I managed to beat him three mornings in a row. That's not the only thing about this place that reminds me of Sukawati (or Bali as a whole), and the one that stings like a fish bone stuck on my throat is that they are both small, rural, poor communities that are overwhelmed by tourism.
With the limited time I allocated for Cambodia, I opted to focus on visiting Ankor Wat and its surrounding temples and ruins. Some might be able to only afford one day ticket, but it's well worth getting a 3-day if you want a full, immersive experience. My humble homestay was only a couple of miles away and came with a free bike rental that allowed me to explore the entirety of Angkor Archaeological Park, about 8-10 square miles in 3 consecutive days in excruciating heat and under the merciless sun. I also suggest going to Angkor National Museum, maybe even before visiting any of the sites. The exhibit is so rich with the information about Khmer history and culture in general, you might not even need to hire those tour guides waiting for you at the temples.
Just as beautiful and soul-cleansing are the people of Siem Reap (much like the rest of Southeast Asia). Even a quick read of the wikipedia page would give you how complex and tragic their history has been, and one can't help but seeing irony in how the city named "the triumph over Siam" seems to be putting its very people in the cage of overtourism. While they officially discourage visitors from buying trinkets from children preventing them from choosing labor over education, the overwhelming reality is that they need those quick dollars (yes they accept US currencies) just to survive.
I actually met the now-viral-star who speaks 10 languages. He spoke maybe at 2 or 3 languages at this point, and was quite aggressive with his sales. It was him who threw me this line as I was walking through the gate of Ta Prohm "You buy, you friend. You no buy, you tourist." Even before meeting him, I knew that being a tourist in these regions is not a mindless joyride. Every purchase you make or refuse, the consequences of the action are much more grave for the ones that don't get to leave. And every time I try to stick to what UNICEF and other officials tell me, it breaks my heart.
One tuk-tuk driver approached me by the entrance to Ankor Thom, asking if I had a power bank. He's got a sorta-Cambodian-Jack-Black vibe and spoke excellent English, was quite friendly to me and lots of ladies. Entertained by him and exhausted from 2 days of bike-riding, I decided to give him some business.
He turned out to be more charming than professional, but he did me a solid by showing the side of Cambodian tourism that is indistinguishable from every other place; locals catering to privileged visitors by adopting to their capitalist, self-indulgent, instant-gratification-seeking ways. Within minutes I tell him to bail, and instead ask him to take me to a local dive. We got to a neat-looking joint where one of the worst bands I've ever heard was playing in the background, and had a few cold but tasteless glasses of Anchor. In between flirty smiles he throws at servers behind the bar, he told me he wanted to quit driving tuk-tuk, move to the states and get a job doing anything to fund his study. Might've been the case of "stripping-for-tuition" story, but the fact that the idea is so far out of reach for him, or many of those in his position did get me down. He probably was just like any of us, feeling stuck in a familiar routine and not quite able to realize his ambition. The difference between us is that in the country that pays for the preservation of his people's history, not the other way around.
He then proceeds to ask if I wanted a "girly massage" after we wrap up here. I, irritated, put a smile on my face and tell him to get me home. He seems disappointed, offered a ride to the airport next morning but did not show up. I tried to be a friend, but all I could be was just another tourist.
Slowly waking from another brief sleep. Grey skies, mild temp. Indistinct phone conversations in a totally unintelligible yet familiar-sounding language, the one spoken in almost every place that I have visited in this travel craze. In this too brief of a visit and too long of a layover, I'm seeing and hearing them in their natural habitat. Chinese, the most populous of all.
Sleeping in an airport bench helped a whole lot more than expected (especially with Dan Dan Mien sitting in my stomach) but I'm aware that I've been pushing my old system. I'm just dumb like that. Even dumber might be the idea to skip the pandas, teahouses and Chinese Opera that Chendgu has to offer, taking this magnetically-levitating bullet train to Leshan for an hour to see the biggest Buddha in the world. I'll be dangerously cutting it close to my flight home, but I'm dumb like that.
Buying this train ticket was a minor chaos; the automated kiosk scans your government-issued ID before dispensing a ticket, so as a non-citizen I had to go to the teller which means waiting in lines along with loud phone convos and constant cutting. A near disorder. Survival of the loudest and the rudest. As my stress level slowly rises, wishing that I had my earplugs, I thought about pre-buying the return ticket. Then again, I'm not sure how long it'll take to go thru this Giant Buddha National Park. The big screen above our heads shows, in 16-bit MS-DOS style, the number of available seats for each train and they are still in hundreds. Kay, I'm not gonna worry. Let's be like water, and go see this Giant Buddha.
The decent-sized park houses a handful of temples, a modest museum and a "fishing village" that serves as a souvenir stop and restaurants. It welcomes you with a pretty steep set of stairs and a nice view of Leshan City across the water as an encouragement. By the time your ass muscle screams and trembles, a series of gorgeous temples that hold gold sculptures of the familiar faces. Nothing to be dismissed but I'm keeping my eyes on the prize.
Then without much fanfare, you find yourself looking at the big man's right visage. Kind of a long, almost childish depiction of Maitreya, looking out to the muddy confluence of three rivers (Min, Qingyi and Dadu) and beyond. Measured at 71m (233ft), neither Buddha of Nara nor Kuan Yin of Penang even compares. And it's 1200 years old, took them monks 90 years to finish. Nara one is older, but this mofo is carved out of a cliff. Speaking of which, to appreciate and pray to this mega-icon, you have to take some of the narrowest and steepest of the staircases you've ever seen with hundreds of Chinese tourists snapping shots and holding up the line. Think of Grand Canyon path but 300% more density and annoyance. Just think of the monk and what they had to go through to make this happen. Channel your inner Bodhisattva. I tried.
Worth a visit. Glad I got to make this my last hike of the trip. I just didn't know that I'd be in for a run.
The paranoia became reality; when I came back to the station from the Buddha park, the train option back to Chengdu that I was eyeing on was sold out. The next available doesn't get there till 17:20, a mere 90min prior to departure. If this was LAX I'd be in a real tight spot. Once I get to CTU, I still have to get from T2 (where the train drops me off) to T1 via shuttle, check in (Sichuan doesn't offer online check-in), pick up my luggage at their manned version of coin locker where they give you a handwritten receipt, go through the security and immigration (the entry took me about 45 to an hour). And I am 100 miles away, eating a pretty bland wonton soup and awaiting my train.
The biggest challenge of the trip presented itself at the very last minute. As if the Giant Buddha is asking questions;
What have you attained, after all the places you visited?
All the things you saw, heard and ate?
All the pictures you have taken?
All the things you've come to love and hate?
About human behavior, YOUR own behavior?
All your thoughts and dreams you had?
All the texts you've scribbled on your iPad?
After all the time and money you spent,
All the people that made it possible for you just to be a good friend,
then at the end,
What was it that you wanted?
The train arrives at Shuangliu Airport, terminal 2. Run up to 2F then wait for the inter-terminal shuttle. Consider running those 750 meters for a split second, then see the vehicle approaching. Hop on, get off and run to the nearest counter. The lady tells me the international check-in is at No.1, all the goddamn way across this massive hall. 17:45 now. Run to the only counter that's wo-manned. Got the boarding pass, now to retrieve my luggage. (Yes I flipped the order cause I didn't want them to think I was a no-show.) I run to the counter where 2 backpackers are patiently waiting for a female clerk to finish her phone convo which seems to be upsetting her increasingly. Ten minutes go by, she gets off the phone, mumbles something with a pout. The backpackers offered to wait since my case is more time-sensitive, but of course she doesn't catch that and slowly starts to manually process them first. She has to write down everything she is trying to tell them in English, like the latest pickup is 11:45pm and it costs then 34 Yuan etc. They hand her a 100 then she realizes, after handwriting them the receipt, that she doesn't have enough 1s. YOU ARE KILLING ME WITH THIS SHIT ALREADY. Then her comrade drops by, pulls out 6 Yuan and gives it to them. 18:20. All I had to do was hand her the ticket and grab my bag. She was all "what's the hurry?" WOMAN I NEED TO FLY ACROSS THE OCEAN.
Lucky for me the security check was empty and there was no immigration check. The gate 16 was on the runway level, the seats sporadically filled and no music. THE most quiet environment I found in my brief stay in China. In the quiet of the waiting area, I almost heard Buddha asking;
Was this what you wanted?
Once they started boarding I noticed that the flight is to Jinan, another minor airport very well still in mainland China. I see a fine print in my itinerary mentioning this place, but the flight number is still the same. Are they picking up more passenger? Once there, they have us go through the immigration check that was missing in CTU. oh so NOW we're flying back to the US. Then we get to the gate and sat there for an HOUR, without them giving us any explanation. Fellow Americans stared to gather and wonder WTF the deal is, so I volunteered to ask. (White people be like "hey You Asian, right?") The only English I could squeeze out of one lady was "Everything fine." We collectively throw our hands in the air and go OKAY THEN?
The conclusion I came to was that it was their way of selling 2-stop tickets as 1-stop. Nice move, Sichuan. Almost as nice as the chili paste you throw on our in-flight meal. A nice kicker certainly.
So the next day I go for another suggestion from Dr Q and hit "Boat Noodle by Victory Monument" aka Golden Boat Noodle aka Ruathong Noodle. Right away I was blown away by the price tag of whopping 12 bahts (40 cents) so I order one, but the server looks at me funny and asks "that's it?" then he tries to sell me a curry noodle which is about 50. Yo, you working on commission brother? I was hoping to find other street grab later but what the hell.
Then my first order comes and I go Ahhhh; it's like the size of a Cup (O') Noodle. Literary three bites. Punchy, amazing, flavor-for-days kinda bites but teeny little. Then I notice many patrons have 5-6 bowls in front. Oh this is fun - then my boy's rec, the curry noodle arrives and yes, another great one. A delicate balance of rich sweetness and the heat mixed with the crisp that comes from fried wontons and sliced onions. Brother, can you hook me up with another rec of yours and a cow stomach for me to replace this one that's full?
Alas, I just have to drag this old system for one last night, and I picked night market. I knew that it would've been better with more people so you can share the variety, but as Dr. Q advised me, I wanted to see where locals hang out at night. And do they come out en masse (I know the good amount here are Chinese tourists, but where are they not?) eating big plates of grilled seafood, skewers, weird rainbow-colored grilled cheese toast, fried cockroaches, imitation crabs straight-up, huge mounds of meat-bone things, what have you. Then buy Western/Japanese flavored hipster tees and trinkets, iPhone cases and selfie sticks, get you nails and facials done, maybe a minor plastic surgery, who knows. Across the 20+ barricade are rows of rooftop bars, VW bar-trucks, bar tents, girly-bar-adjacent establishment? and one Munich-themed bar that had a classic rock band with a horrendous gender-ambiguous singer. So yeah, I'd come out here on a Sunday night till 1am if I was a local.
What I actually ate; very-carefully crafted grilled quail egg skewers that were perfect appetizers. Boiled ginko nuts in sweet iced milk (AWESOME IDEA, the sweetness rounds out the distinctively biting ginko flavor). Tapioca rice pudding thing that looked cool but tasted okay. Tiny pancake-like things with shrimp-flavored something. I don't know what it was, anything but good. That's all I could do but I'm sure I missed a lot of good stuff. More fun than expected given just 8hrs ago I was so miserable I couldn't even bluff. Fun extra as an almost-Osaka'ite was to see how takoyaki grill were used in many creative ways. Outside of regular takoyaki (comes in more variety like only dough, corn, shrip, sausages etc) they make tiny okonomiyaki things with it, aforementioned grilled quail eggs, and even some sweets. Crafty mofos.
Then I proceed to 20+ area and sit where a singer, acoustic guitar and a kit drummer were playing local pop covers among the Thai youth sang along loudly and poor Leo over ice. Wish I was online to Shazam some of these. A little ballad-heavy for my taste, but I wanna know what they like. My lime juice was very good but it was too stuffy despite a dozen fans going all directions, so I moved to a rooftop location for much-obliged "rainbow of tents" shots. A convict-looking server simply said "beer and whiskey" so I ordered a bottle, poured into a cup and did not drink. The fatigue, the crowd, the noise - had to get away and neutralize. It helped that folks next to me weren't there for chatters it seemed, mostly on their devices and cigarettes. So I blankly stared at the pretty lights and sat there motionless, almost meditative, thinking what to do with all the thoughts I've gathered on my walk of the earth.
Soundchaser and a two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. Show me the receipts of your donation to @dwcweb @ltsc.cdc or @la_littletokyo Small Biz Relief Fund and I'll gift any or all of my recordings.