Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cambo Challenge Video!

This killer little video was put together by Juan and Julian from Large Minority. Ignore all comments about testicles.

Friday, January 7, 2011

More Cowbell

The points had been counted, but it wouldn't be until our final dinner in Siem Reap when the winners would be announced. Today's journey would be a leisurely one, following Cambodia's newest and fastest road, the artery connecting Siem Reap and Angkor with Thailand's tourist hordes. This road had previously been the thorn in many South East Asian travellers asses as they bounced their way along is notoriously tortuous potholes. No longer. Not only is it quick and smooth, it even has broad, paved shoulders for retreating with your tuk tuk and your life when a tractor trailer is passing the oncoming traffic, and heading straight for you. Of course, even the newest roads have some interestingly loaded vehicles.

It was costume day and Elif and I finally got to break out our Yukatas to be truly Tanuki-chic for the final leg. Sugoi des ne!

At fifteen kilometers from  Siem Reap we rejoined all the other teams for a final lunch and the start of a long convoy honking our way through downtown and winding towards the absurdly deluxe hotel of our final night.

At dinner that night, after a lazy swim in the long skinny pool that snaked its way around all the teak buildings throughout the resort, the winners were announced. In the end it came down to one point, and we fell just behind Team Afrika, who had earned a bonus point for, apparently rolling their tuk tuk during an off-road. Prizes were awarded and, hallelujah, we were given our very own amber scarf to keep, in honour of having worn it for so many days of the challenge. Elif, got a cowbell. Everyone likes a cowbell.

After dinner we celebrated by hitting Siem Reaps buzzing pub street and danced like mad fools who'd just driven around the country in tuk tuks, til morning. Fun music, seventy-five cent beer and buckets with half a bottle of whisky and straws flayed out like a bouquet in a vase (one of which ended up dumped over Elif's head). Gorgeous.


Despite its economic trials, our impression thus far was that Cambodia was made up, more of less, of clean, well-kept, if basic villages and homes. Today's mission introduced us to another fascinating, if contrasting side of this nation.

The Tonle Sap lake is the core and lifeblood of much of this nation. Its waters feed much of the population, and the floating villages house no small percentage of them either. The biggest festival of the year is the water festival, when the flow of the Tonle Sap river changes direction from the depth of its waters, and the lake swells to three times its former self. Massive irrigation using its waters fueled the empires of Angkor through centuries of growth and prosperity.

Today it is home to a large number of floating villages, whose location moves with the seasonal movements of the waters. Most of the residents of these villages are ethnic Vietnamese who face significant racism and persecution, which may contribute to the unique nature of their communities.

At the morning briefing, we were assigned our challenge of the day. In the Seh Sieh floating village we were to locate the Vang barbershop and get a photo sitting in the barber's chair. Trims and shaves optional.

The bumpy road approaching the village gave us our first real taste of what really impoverished communites in this nation look like. The trash of generations blew across and piled alongside the trail. Naked children sat listlessly on the sagging, thatched balconies of flea-bitten shacks.

And then we saw it. The most impressively loaded motorcycle yet, in a nation of very impressively loaded motorcycles. Winnebago eat your heart out. I'd like to see some road-bound retirees of the Americas try this on for a change.

With the collectively pooled resources of several teams we chartered a boat and headed off through the lake-bound village in search of the barbershop. Incredible. In the village we passed gas stations, general stores, even a school. The homes were tied together in neat rows, often brightly painted, and bustling with activity. Floating market boats made their way down the water-lanes, selling produce to awaiting families. In contrast to the community on shore, these homes looked quite well kept and in good repair. I suppose when you're floating the stakes are a bit higher.

The barbershop was perfect. A home with a balcony. A balcony with a barber's chair. A chair with mirrors in front and above. A barber awaiting his clientele and Juan -the Cambo Challenge's resident photographer- waiting with a smile and a memory card to fill with images. A few of us opted for shaves, but I just sat myself down in the chair, placed the tanuki precariously on my hat, and smiled for the camera.

The rest of the road to Battambang was busy with the same traffic that must have filled it for eons. Trucks and ox carts piled high with sacks of hay trundled along. Vehicles draped with newly-fired, deep red pottery made their way to market as quickly as their fragile cargo would allow. The modes of transport may have changed, but the cargo was as old as the Khmer culture itself.

 At a leisurely lunch stop we enquired to a friendly NGO worker where in Battambang we might fulfill our one remaining photo challenge goal: a long line of tuk tuks awaiting passengers. He directed us to the ferry pier where we made a final photo stop before heading towards our hotel, ready to submit our pix for points. Remarkably, we arrived in third place, adding a few more points to our total. On this last point-accumulating day of the challenge, we suddenly realized we were in pretty good shape to actually win this thing. Imagine that!

Pyjama Day & Singalong!

Shortly after rejoining the main road, a man flagged us down from a few hundred meters. Upon seeing that we weren't Khmer, he gestured that we should drive on, but I insisted that he hop on for the ride. It turned out he wasn't acting on his own behalf. Out of the shadow of a roadside tree a saffron-robed monk stood and walked towards out tuk tuk. Nice first fare. Tuk tuk sirmadam?

Today's ride was our first timed session. Our start time was recorded and points were to be awarded to the first three teams to arrive at the destination. Elif and I had steadfastly agreed not to participate in the race side of things, but it was hard to resist the temptation to notch up the speed a bit, especially given that we were still wearing the amber-coloured leader's scarf each day on the road. I was growing fond of that scarf.

A gas station is a perfect opportunity to distribute some of the school supplies we've been carting around. Holy cute.

Two challenges today. First off, it's pyjama day! All across Cambodia, the majority of middle-aged women seem to spend their entire lives in brightly-patterned mis-matched pyjamas. Our mission, buy a set and wear them on the road. Secondly, during the morning briefing we were handed a romanized version of the first ten lines of what we're told was a popular Khmer song. Our mission, learn to sing it and shoot a video of a local singing along with us. Eek. All the karaoke in the world hasn't prepared me for this one.

A small roadside market seemed a good spot to go pyjama-hunting. After a ridiculous dressing session, much laughter from the surrounding vendors and an intense bargaining session, the hideous clothes were ours. We were pyjama ladies. For Elif, this was just ridiculous. For me, it was basically being both ridiculous and in full drag. I was feeling very masculine. Just the outfit to wear when approaching locals for a duet.

Shortly, we passed a well-dressed boy on the roadside, but Elif figured he wasn't a singalong candidate.


After a couple false starts we finally found a helpful guy who corralled a cycling high school girl into our service. A Khmer student by day, but English student each evening, she was more than pleased to practice her language skills with us, but more than a little intimidated by singing along on video. However, she was far too sweet to say no and eventually joined our chorus. Friggin magic.

Just before arriving in Kampong Chnnang, our destination for the evening, we passed a factory discharging its workers at the end of the day. Unbelievable. An endless string of motorcycles dragged along enormous flatbeds crammed to overflowing with factory workers. It really gave me pause to reflect on where all the random things we acquire come from.

Pulling into the hotel we found that in our first timed leg of the trip we had come in fifth, out of five.