Thursday, January 19, 2006

Ankor Wat - I Have Become a Walking $

Here's the happy couple in front of Ankor Wat...we hired a guide for a few days who not only gave us some historical perspective, but knew where all the "money shots" were. Guides make great photography companions.

If you can't tell, Cambodia was hot...much of the water was evaporating right before our eyes.

This is what happens if you don't clean your room for 1,000 years...

This is Jenny and I in front of Ankor Wat, a very interesting place in Cambodia to explore the ruins of the ancient Ankor civilization. After hearing from many people that this is an amazing place to explore, I was expecting a let-down. This happenend when I was the last one of my friends to see the first Batman the time I saw it, I had heard how great it was...only to be let down. Both Ankor Wat and the Taj Mahal are two places that were amazing and neither could be further from an over-hyped "let down". Ankor Wat is only one temple (Wat means temple for those of you actually paying attention) that makes up the entire area known as Ankor Wat and there are many other ruins scattered about around the 40 square mile area. We visited the region for 3 days and say the sun rise and set several times over the temples, truly a tranquil experience.

Regardless of how cool this place is, what this picture doesn't show is that we had become walking "dollar signs" at this point in our vacation. In all reality, this phenomenon started the day we arrived in India several months ago, but I think that I was just in a state of denial. Everywhere we go people approach us asking us the standard opener, "Where you from?". You see, they ask you the open to get your attention and to size you to see how big your wallet might be. People all over the world's impression of America comes from movies and TV...they think our country is entirely like Desperate Housewives. Well, I suppose that is true in some areas. However, all foreigners know that Ausies don't tip, Brits are cheap and Americans use dollar bills for toilet paper...we are truly walking $ signs. Well, after changing between New York or America, I decided to switch it up and use Canada (especially in Vietnam) for my response. Australia was helpful since all the Asians think they're cheap. My personal favorite became "our hotel"...this shut them up. When I was really bored, I just answered "No Engrish". No matter what our response was everyone wanted to sell us was hard to escape since we quite simply stuck out like sore thumbs.

For those of you needing a visual, think back to the Bugs Bunny episode where two friends were stuck on a deserted island only to find Bugs as the only source of food. However, after many failed attempts at catching my fuzzy hero to make tasty rabbit stew, the two guys had given up. By the end, the two friends began to drool and the tall skinny guy looked like a hot-dog to the other and the stockier guy became the hamurger to the skinny guy. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, please move on.

Regardless of our new slogan, I grew increasingly tired of everyone trying to suck more money out of me and was becoming a bit impatient. Everywhere we went, things were grossly inflated given our tourist status and I had to bargain for everything. You have to realize that due to extensive inflation over the past 20 years, the exchange rates for most of Southeast Asia is absurd. Thailand was the best at only 4,000 Baht to the dollar, but Laos was the craziest at 40,000 Kip (prounounced keep) to the dollar...yes, a Coke is roughly 30,000 Kip if you properly bargain, otherwise, you're talking about 80,000 Kip. I was finding myself arguing over several thousand Dong (Vietnam) only to have to put things back into perspective.

I was a bit disappointed to find out that the entrance fee to Ankor Wat was $25 per person for a three day pass. Now, it was well worth it and it's still a hell of alot cheaper than a day at Disney World (you hear that Bob Iger), but I'd be surprised if the Cambodian government actually spends 1% of the fee for the upkeep of the site or to the people that live there. Unfortunately, the governments in Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam for that matter are extremely corrupt. I can write this since I am typing this in the free republic of Australia...I am proud to say that there is NO corruption in the United States (in case U.S. immigration gets a hold of this -- we plan to come home some day!). And as such, much of the entrance fees for many of the state controlled tourist sites go directly to someone's pocket. You have to remember that the $25 entrance fee for Ankor Wat is more than a month's salary for the average Cambodian (this is not an exaggeration). Most of the upkeep costs are almost purely labor costs...of which are very low. Even more strange is that many other countries have taken certain temples within the Ankor Wat complex and "adopted" them in good faith for restoration and maintenance which includes both money and manpower. So where does the money go? You get the idea. Same Same, But Different!

So, I mentioned that I had gotten a bit irratated and have to admit that I got in a few fights that I wasn't actually proud of. The first was in Northern Thailand with a Tuk-Tuk driver (motorized rick-shaw) that was trying to charge me $5 for waiting time as Jenny and I took our time at a store. Now, this trip of ours cost 30 cents for the 20 minutes to get there...but to have him wait a half hour was $5?? Not to mention that the shortage of tourists meant that they were begging for our business. This became a nice little fight..but I have to admit, I am bigger than most people in Asia. I can't that this is the case everywhere, but in Asia, I can safely say that I can kick some major ass (I'm still not sure what happened to Gene). Another time, I got in a fight with a laundry person that was charging us double than what we discussed since the clothes was ironed. It's the silly things like this that was really starting to get on my nerves. Oh, one more involved

Regardless, bargaining became a sport and a way of life for our time in Southeast Asia. Sometimes I would start bargaining with someone just to see how low I can get them just for the pure entertainment value. If someone caught me looking at something and offered me a price, off I went to play my game -- my goal was to get half price. Even if I had no intention of walking off with the marble chess set, the mother of pearl chopstick set or the bamboo hat, it became a contest. Most of the time I was able to get the half price or better bogey. If I really wanted to win the battle, the key is just to simply walk away. That is the key...always be willing to walk away. As soon as you do, the price drops to the floor. Anyway, while arguing over a few dollars doesn't sound like much, it is a matter of principal given how far the money actually goes. Tourists are taken advantage of and overcharged for everything and you have to be aggressive no matter what you buy. I used to think that my dad was the king of bargaining, but after spending the past few months in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos an Cambodia, sorry Dad, I'm the new king!

After Cambodia, we spent a few days in Koh Samui, an island off of Thailand where we simply relaxed. I got my PADI Open Water Scuba Diver certification and had a few nice dives while there. This will come in handy at the Great Barrier Reef in a few weeks...also Fiji and Jamaica for that matter. I really enjoyed the peace and quiet and the feeling of flying under the water and staring at all sorts of cool things. I've always had a fish tank growing up, but now I can swim in the tank. This was also to be our last few days in Southeast Asia. I have to admit that the region was truly an amazing experience and we really had a wonderful time. The food was great (I am an addict), the people were nice (despite my prior comments) and the scenary was spectacular. I can't say that any one place was better than the other since tehy were all so much different. My one regret is our decision to skip China on this trip since it was much colder that far north (although Hanoi was a bit frosty). We decided to leave it for another time....hopefully soon.

So long for now...we're heading Down Under.


PS - I'm up 7 games on Jenny in our Backgammon tournament...I don't think she has what it takes to recover.

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