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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 29, September 30, 2002
Ankor Whatever, Customs Service, Pies & Fatties
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Photos: Andrew Tolputt espies something remarkable:
 

 

Angkor Whatever

Effectively our last stop before we returned to civilisation, Angkor Wat (say it in an American accent, it sounds better) is Cambodia's premier - and some occasionally unkindly suggest only - tourist attraction. But what an attraction it is. Having previously 'done' enough temples to culture me senseless, I was quite prepared to take a totally 'Yeah, Angkor –whatever.. attitude' but how wrong would I have been? It really is quite the most fantastic place.

For starters, there's the setting. Although it's really stuck in the middle of a load of jungle, somehow its designers contrived to turn this into a fabulous parklike setting worthy of Capability Brown. Then there's the temples themselves. Unlike say, Borobodur in Indonesia, there's loads of them. Temples, temples, temples. There's so many that the crappy little temples, which anywhere else (Vietnam, for instance) would be world heritage sites, are simply left to rot in the forest for lack of funds. But the best thing of all is that Angkor Wat is the world's biggest climbing frame. Nowhere, anywhere is there a sign saying 'keep off the temples'; indeed, you are positively encouraged to scamper around. I mean, you climb up bits that
were meant to be climbed and everything – they look a bit like Aztec pyramids - but still, it's pretty cool finding an ancient monument (and worthwhile Unesco site) that you can use as an adventure playground.

Of course, it costs to get in (a perfectly reasonable US$20) for just under a day and a half most of which goes to stop the thing falling down. Not a particularly steep fee, when you consider that St Pauls costs nine quid, is only one church and you can't climb up the pillars. Still there are those who balk at paying this. We met one (a Brit, natch) who, after exchanging pleasantries, started bitching about having to cough up twenty bucks. I pointed out that it was for the preservation of this fabulous temple complex. Yeah, he said, jerking a thumb backwards towards a group of locals, but what really gets me is that we're subsidising them. Now, it is true that locals do get in for about a dollar as opposed to $20, but as I pointed out to him, in the UK, it would take him an hour, maybe two to earn that kind of money; it would take the average Cambodian three weeks. Rather to my surprise, he still seemed to think it was allterribly unfair, so Jane pointed out to him that nobody forced him to come here. 'But if you come here you have to go' he replied. Jane told him he didn't have to do anything. And, working on this maxim, we decided we didn't have to talk to the stupid skinflint anymore and wandered off to see the next temple, while he sat and bitched about actually having to pay for something.

This was the best of all. When Angkor was rediscovered in the 1930s, by (I think) a French archaeologist, it was completely overgrown. Since then, much jungle has been cleared and stonework restored. But the Cambodian authorities sensibly left one temple just as it was found. This, incidentally is the one 'Tomb Raider' was filmed in. In terms of preservation, it ranges from fairly intact to a load of fallen stones. But the really cool thing is that it has enormous jungle trees with great snake-like roots growing all over it. Vines trickle down walls, creepers half a metre thick frame doorways and so on. Anywhere else you wouldn't be able to walk around a building which is in an advanced (and ongoing) state of collapse. But this is Cambodia and there really is nobody you can sue, so you can walk all over the place pretending that you're some sort of archaeologist or explorer.

So impressed was I by all this – and, obviously the fine Hindu-Buddhist freizes, etc. - that I am now going to have to go and see 'Tomb Raider'. It would be nice to think that one of the world's great monuments would inspire me to do rather more than go and see a crappy film based on a video game whose heroine socially inadequate adolescents masturbate over. But it hasn't and I'm sure there's some desperately clever and bitingly ironic
postmodern point to be made here, if only I was bright enough to see it.

The Worst Journey in the World (no,576)

After Angkor Wat, we headed over to Bangkok. Everyone had assured us (ad tedium) that was the worst journey in the world. And while it was a pretty crappy journey over a terrible road, it was more boring than everything else. Still, it's obviously a great thing to do as there's nothing the true traveller likes better than a terrible journey to bitch about. The problem is, of course, that to find the worst journeys in the world you really need to make some effort – in other words to get away from other travellers – after all, well trodden routes (with the possible exception of Connex South Central) usually have OK transport. And, as we all know by now, most travellers really don't like to go anywhere that merits less than ten pages in the Lonely Planet.

With this in mind, I plan to set up in business and offer the 'Truly Awful Experience' (we travellers like things with the word 'experience' in the title - it reminds us of how real we're keeping it). Basically I'll find some extremely bad (but completely safe) road that's unlikely to be improved and whichis convenient for Bangkok and drive travellers round in a continuous loop for as long as they can handle it, charging them by the hour. Optional extras will include a virtual mugging,being held up by 'corrupt cops', sharing your seats with an irritating load of foreigners or someone with terrible BO, etc.And you'll have to piss in a Coke bottle. Whatever happens,though, you'll be guaranteed at least one incident that makes a really tedious anecdote.As an added incentive,anyone who can hold out for more than three days gets a lifetime supply of Rizlas, banana pancakes and stupid beads for their smelly dreadlocks.

Valued Customs

After Cambodia and a day on the unwashed crush of the Koh San Road, Jane and I split up. Not like that. She went back to the UK for her best friends wedding and I went for a week in Sydney with my good buddies Andrew Tolputt and Alex Babic.

As I landed at Sydney airport, I was looking forward to walking off the plane into western civilisation. But no, you have to clear Aussie customs first and these guys give New York a run for their money in terms of charm and sensitivity. Understandably
Australia has strict biosecurity laws and the chap asked me if I had any foodstuffs. I said, yes, I had a bag of tea which was sealed in plastic. What kind of tea he asked? I said, 'Indian Tea' That's not what I meant he said. Err, OK, I said, it's Darjeeling tea. That's not what I mean he said, getting grumpier. Err, I said, dried tea? That's not what I meant he said. Err, I struggled. I mean what did this guy want to know? Did he want to know that it was a fine tea, with a delicate subtle flavour suitable for afternoon sipping? I racked my brains, trying to remember what I learned in Darjeeling: 'It's a
black tea' I said, 'that's undergone fermentation, not a green tea.' 'Thank you' he replied, with a smile of unbelievable snideness 'that's what I wanted to know.'I bit back my urge to say, well, why didn't you ask, you stupid twat? Of course, much as we all despise customs people, we'd all do exactly the same in their place. It must be great to have a job where you can be as rude as you like to 'the customer' and they have to smile politely because they're scared (literally sh*tless) of a full cavity search.

Sydney

Like everyone else, I've seen Sydney's famous and impressive skyline any number of times. And, as it looks American, I was expecting somewhere American, but this is all something of an illusion. You see, the only bit of Sydney you ever see is the centre. And, although it's all cool and skyscrapery with the added bonus of bridge (bigger than you expect) and opera house (smaller than you expect) it's really not that large. The rest
of it – and it goes on forever – is utterly, relentlessly suburban. More suburban, even, than London which is quite an achievment. Only a few kilometres from the centre, houses are down to a couple of stories - if that - and have fair size gardens. I don't think I've ever seen anywhere quite so suburban. To call somewhere suburban is usually considered perjorative, but Sydney is a very nice city indeed, especially as many of its inummerable suburbs face the splendid harbour or have ocean front beaches. What with mixture of sunshine, coast and English 50s architecture, the overall effect is a bit Frinton on Sea meets California.

One thing that is missing though is any sense of freneticism. I had expected something of the kind of rush you get in London or New York. Or even Paris or San Francisco. But there's not a bit of it: Sydney is positively sleepy and does have a funny end of the earth feeling to it. As Andrew says, it may be the (de facto) capital, but it's still the capital of nowhere.

As for Australians, well I have to say, initially I was a little disappointed. By this I mean that television had prepared me for people who were constantly calling each other 'great galahs' and saying 'strewth, pass me another tinny, I've lost my sunnies'. Not a bit of it, Sydneysiders diction really is just UK English with a bit of twang. And, much to my chagrin, as I tend to
go up at the end of sentences quite a few people mistook me for a native.

I'd also expected Australians to be incredibly blunt and bluff and a few can be. But the overwhelming impression is that of people who are almost unbelievably friendly and helpful – sort of like Americans are, but the difference is they mean it. 'How are you today?' is not a rhetorical question They expect a response and, as there's no sense of urgency have time for a chat. At one newsagent I tried to buy a paper. Before I knew it, the owner was earnestly telling me I really shouldn't bother as 'The Age' (a Melbourne paper) had been arriving a day late all week. Can you imagine an English newsagent advising you not to buy something? (No, you can't have those fags, you're only nine) Next door at the coffee shop and I managed ten minutes with the bloke on what my plans for the next week.

Pie Guys

Then there's the food. Don't get me wrong: the food is very good. But the gut clogging quantities of meat they eat come as something of a shock to a man who's been eating little but rice and vegetables for the last six months. When would nature next call – tomorrow? a week? a month? The answer sadly was about as often as a girl you really fancy.And, the portions are absolutely huge: I ordered scrambled eggs at Andrew's local; I think they must have used six eggs. Then, there is the famous
Aussie pie. If you're lucky enough to fine a 'gourmet pie shop' these can be very fine indeed. But the Aussie diet does have its downside. Despite the nation's sporting prowess, Australia has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, something that there is currently much hand-wringing about.I have seen the downside of pie consumption and it weighs 180 kilos and waddles around in polyester stretch slacks.

Australia is also a strangely egalitarian society – rather in the way that America would like to think it is. Snobbery in the UK sense (class, education) is pretty much non-existent and snobbery in the American sense (money) is little in evidence, partly because people care less and partly because income differentials aren’t as pronounced as they are in the US. That said, there are a couple of types of inequality that are very obvious. Relations with those whose country it originally was may have improved considerably since it was legal to shoot Aborigines. But there is still a lot of casual, unthinking racism about. And there’s also a fair amount of sexism too. Gender relations seem stuck back sometime in the early 1980s. Much of Australia is still a place where blokes spent the weekend drinking beer and watching rugby, while women looks after kids and, well do, whatever it is they do.

Speaking of which, the old adage that sport is the religion is true. And the rather snider one about it being a continent without culture has some truth to it. That is, it’s not that there isn’t culture; it’s just that to an event greater extent than in the UK (!), the average man in the street really couldn't give a toss. And this spills over into other areas too. If you’re looking for somewhere with a sophisticated media and witty advertising, Australia really isn’t for you. Irony is a bit of a devalued coin and it really isn’t the kind of place to give your oh-so-clever British sense of humour a workout.

Having been seeing every sight I could get my hands on for the last seven months, I really didn’t ‘do’ (in the ‘doing’ temples, waterfalls, countries sense) much in Oz. Rather I spent a lot of time 'doing' what I used to do in London: i.e. eating out, hanging around in bars, shopping and playing the James Bond game on Andrew’s Playstation until 2am. As Andrew pointed out to me, although there were many interesting things to see in Australia, there were also many interesting levels to see on the James Bond game. Our dedication to this was impressive: later in the week, we we would also go round to a friend of Andrew’s who had a game cube in order to evaluate the new James Bond game and compare it to Andrew’s original.

In terms of worthwhile stuff, I went surfing in the freezing sea to cure a hangover and gave myself an appalling cold. I went to see my ex-housemate from university who now has two children, thus reaffirming my belief that kids can look very good on other people. And Andrew and I spent a day in the Blue Mountains, the nearest scenic area to Sydney. We got off at a town called Katoomba (there are a lot of places in Oz with names like this) and headed to a tourist information both. Here, a woman who was clearly a pie-abuse survivor told us that we should take the bus to see all the cool stuff as it was a 45 minute walk away. A bus ticket, she said, would cost a mere A$25 apiece (the price of an expensive main course) and we’d never be able to see it all in one day. She was very nice and meant well, but you should never take the advice of the morbidly obese when it comes to distances – the walk took 15 minutes, tops, and the worryingly easy walk around the gorge which 'will take you all day' was by far the best bit. There were plenty of stylish views and, although there was a deracinatingly cold wind gusting up to 100 kph, we had a splendid day hanging around with nature. Walking also meant we got to see the less-well known delights of Katoomba, a town that is extremely keen on whimsy. Did you know, for instance, that Katoomba is the home of Australia’s only (sadly closed) purse museum? Or that it has a restaurant called‘Grillers in the mist?’

After out walk, tempting though it was, we skipped on the grillers and instead enjoyed an excellent lunch in a restaurant that was also a hat shop. After that Andrew made me go to the pub, then another pub, then another, in order to ensure that, the following day, I would hung over and dehydrated enough to fully appreciate my flight to Auckland.