Sunday, April 30, 2017

May Day in Novosibirsk

I woke up this morning and packed my stuff to take a bus to Tomsk. I repacked my bags and left my big backpack at the hostel because I'll be coming back in three or four days. I'm taking a smaller bag with just some essentials to Tomsk. I knew it was May Day but didn't think much of it. When I got to Red Avenue I quickly found that they were preparing for a May Day Parade. The parade hasn't started yet as of now but groups are assembling on Red Avenue.

I had to pass a certain corner I'm not too crazy about. Often in former communist countries there are barriers along streets dictating where you can go. On this particular corner there are barriers along all four corners of the street. You can cross the street if you go into the metro station underground, but the metro station leads into an underground mall. This particular underground area is fairly byzantine and twisty, and I often come out on the wrong cormer. You immediately have to go the wrong way to cross the street and then through a series of chambers that lead you past storefronts. Also, one of the corner stations is shut down for construction so you just can't come up in that corner at all.

I walked down Red Avenue and watch the various groups assembling for the parade and people getting together by the side of the road to be spectators. As I pull up to a big central square the police are not letting anybody past that point and they pulled me over for a document check and a search. This is not going to be easy now heading to the bus station because a lot of the way there is blocked and I'm going to have to walk a good deal around where I wanted to go. It's too bad that I'm going to miss the May Day Parade though because I have to get to the bus station.

I'm walking around the affected area but constantly finding that there are police blockades so I'm having to walk farther and farther out. I hope I can get back into the bus station without any problems. I left the hostel about two hours before the bus is scheduled to leave and under normal circumstances it would be a half an hour walk to the bus station but now I don't know how long it's going to take.

I walked up to the bus station and saw there was a police blockade right around it. But there was a walkway several meters away that I took and I did not have any problems. So now I'm at the bus station with about half an hour to spare getting ready to take the bus to Tomsk.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to Saigon

I left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap on an airplane, and it was a very short flight. It would have been an all-day long bus trip if I had chosen to take the bus. But the flight was fairly cheap (I think in the vicinity of $45), so flying was worth it. When I arrived in Siem Reap, I checked my emails to find info on my hostel, and discovered that if I had let them know when I was arriving in advance, they would have arranged a free ride from the airport. Oh, well. I considered calling them, but just decided to pay for a tuk-tuk from the airport to the hostel.

The hostel was pretty nice. It had a pool, a movie theater, and its own fleet of tuk-tuks that charged fixed prices so you didn't have to bargain. I always feel a little bit weird about the bargaining culture in many Asian countries. On one hand, it's interesting to bargain down to get a better price, and to some degree, it is expected. But then again, the people you are bargaining with are fairly impoverished, and you are driving their income downward by bargaining. I hope to usually find a happy medium where I pay the expected Western surcharge, but don't get taken advantage of.

I spent a couple of days just checking out the town of Siem Reap before exploring the temples at Angkor Wat. There is a Pub Street and a Party Street, both of which are popular with tourists. The street that is popular with locals is Khmer Pub Street, which I never managed to visit because it was in a faraway location, and I never really had much reason to go there.

I bought a three-day pass to the Angkor Wat temples, which lets you go to all the areas in Angkor Archaeological Park. "Angkor Wat" is used in two senses; there is the actual Angkor Wat temple, which is the narrower use of the term, and then it can mean, in the broader sense, all of the temples in Angkor Archaeological Park.

The first temple I visited was Angkor Wat itself. I opted for the sunrise tour, which meant that the tuk-tuk I had booked left at four-thirty the next morning. It is best to visit Angkor Wat first because it opens earlier than all the other temples, mostly because of the popularity of the sunrise tour. And there are a TON of people there that early in the morning.

So I set an alarm for four-fifteen in the morning. Most of my life, I haven't used an alarm clock; I have just woken up on my own when I need to. But that costs me a slight bit in stress, so I decided to set an alarm clock. Unfortunately, the sound on my phone was turned all the way down, so the alarm didn't go off. But I woke up and decided to check the time, and it was about four-forty eight. Oh, crap, I had overslept a bit. I hoped that didn't mean that I would miss the sunrise.  So I hurriedly gathered together the stuff I would need to bring with me, and bounded downstairs about five in the morning. Now I was about a half-hour late. But, no worries, the tuk-tuk driver was waiting for me, and there turned out to be plenty of time. The first stop was the ticket office, so I could buy my three-day ticket. And, as luck would have it, there were huge lines for the one-day tickets, but no wait at all in the lines for the three-day tickets. So I was able to just get in and out almost immediately.

Angkor Wat is probably the best restored of all the temples in the vicinity. It doesn't have many huge piles of rubble on the premises like many of the other temples in the area. I toured the temple and walked around the grounds. There was a donkey on the grounds; she looked friendly and gentle, and I had just seen a woman petting her, so I walked over to pet the donkey, and it bit me on the foot. It didn't bite very hard, just hard enough to tell me to fuck off.

After the sunrise at Angkor Wat, the tuk-tuk driver took me to a place to eat breakfast. Then we went to more of the temples on what is called the Little Circuit. These are a group of temples that are fairly close together. These temples include several temples in the Anchor Thom area, and the tour ends with Ta Prohm Temple, which is where many scenes in the movie "Tomb Raider" were filmed, so it is also called the "Tomb Raider" Temple now. It was probably the most spectacular temple of the day (except for maybe Angkor Wat), because of the juxtaposition of chaos, rubble, overgrown mature trees that invaded the walls, and the finely sculpted structure.

That night, I watched the movie "The Killing Fields" in the cinema at the hostel. I had never seen the movie before, but I had seen "Swimming to Cambodia", which was about the making of "The Killing Fields." For some reason, I thought Spalding Gray would have a much bigger role in the movie, but he only had a small part.

The second day, I went on the Big Circuit of temples. These temples were a little farther apart, and there was a lot more travel by tuk-tuk in between the sites. The sites were also, for the most part, a lot smaller than the temples that I visited the day before, except for the first temple, Preah Khan Temple. But the subsequent sites of the day were not very big. The next site was Neak Pean, which was just a series of small shrines surrounded by water. Most of the paths were not open to the public; I went down one path that was apparently closed but marked ambiguously (there was a sign that indicated no entry, but it was not near the path, so I took the expansive interpretation and went down the path), and was immediately told to come back by park employees. Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup were the other sites I visited on this day, and they were much smaller than the other temples.

On the third day of my three-day pass into Angkor Archaeological Park, I went to some temples that were very far apart, so most of the day consisted of travel. The first temple I saw was Banteay Srai, which is also known as the "Women's Temple." Then there was about an hour and a half tuk-tuk ride to Beng Mealea Temple, which was far outside Angkor Archaeological Park, and was within its own park. This was probably the temple that was restored the least, and was filled with stone rubble and invasive huge trees, and they allowed much more climbing on the rubble than the other temples. Then it was back to Angkor Archaeological Park for the temples in the Roluos Group, which are the oldest temples in Angkor Archaeological Park. The Lolei Temples were the first ones of the group that I visited, and they are the ones undergoing the most extensive renovation. They were built within two layers of walls, each area raised up from the last, and there was an amalgam of ancient and newer buildings on the site. Then I saw Preah Ko and Bakong Temples, which were close by. This was the longest day of temple viewing because of all the travel to get to these remote sites, but not the longest day of actual temple visits.

After the three days of temple visits, I just spent the rest of my time there wandering around the town of Siem Reap before flying back to Saigon. This time I got a private room rather than a hostel so I could take apart my packs and re-pack them thoroughly, and get rid of some stuff (unfortunately, I didn't get rid of enough stuff to keep my main backpack from nearly bursting at the seams, so I'll have to revisit this project soon).

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Chilling in Phnom Penh

I thought that I had booked some flights from Vietnam to Cambodia and back.  I was getting ready to leave Ho Chi Minh City and head to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and I went to look in my email to find the airplane ticket, but upon checking the email trail, the fly-by-night online operation I booked with never booked the ticket.  I had booked Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh, as well as Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh with Travel2Be (avoid them like the plague), but they had never booked my tickets or charged my credit card.  Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was OK and I had the ticket; I had booked that one through someone else.

So I had to find alternate ways to get to the places I needed to go around the same times.  I booked a bus to Phnom Penh, since it was only a six-hour trip, and then booked a plane fare from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, both of those voyages through the hostel in Saigon. So now I was covered again.

I've never been entirely happy with most of these third party online booking agents.  There are a lot of them, especially for Southeast Asia, and it seems like sites like Skyscanner are sending people to these third-party sites more lately.  Many of them don't have any contact info or method of redress if things go wrong.  Up until now, I've used some of them warily, and it has worked out, but I imagine if one little detail goes wrong, you are stuck.

I took the bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, and got to Phnom Penh right after it got dark, and it started pouring rain.  I got out my umbrella and walked to my hostel since it wasn't too far from where the bus stopped.

Phnom Penh has been an interesting place to visit, but the place just doesn't grab me like some places do.  It has been raining a lot, too.  This morning I woke up, and it was pouring rain to the point that the streets were flooded.  But this afternoon it has calmed down.  It does look like it is going to rain all week.  Mostly I've just been walking around checking it out, but I did go visit the high school that was turned into a death camp, S-21. Of the tens of thousands of people who entered, only a small number were known to have survived. Many sent here were told they were being relocated to new jobs, or some other ruse. People who wore glasses were killed for ostensibly being "intellectuals."

In Cambodia, the US dollar is pretty much the de facto currency. The Cambodian riel  is the official currency, and when you pay with dollars, you will usually get back a mish-mash in change of riel and dollars. If you are due less than a dollar back, your change will be riel for sure, because nobody messes with US coins. Also the ATMs give out dollars; some might let you choose between dollars and riel.

So I've just been chilling in Phnom Penh for the last few days, getting ready for my next journey.