Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How to get left on the side of the road by your tuktuk

The temples around Angkor Wat are nothing short of spectacular. We bought a seven day pass for a whopping $60 that can be used over the course of a month. This way we could see as many temples as we wanted, and not feel rushed trying to cram them all into a couple days. We are here for two weeks anyways, so we figured we might as well explore this World Heritage Area as much as we could.

Today was our fourth day of 'Temple-ing' aka exploring the temples. 'Temple-ing,' according to its actual definition, which I made up, consists of me stealthily sneaking through ancient stone doorways and clambering over piles of ruins, pretending to be Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. I'm very believable, as you can imagine. If I had a riel for every person who came up to me and said 'Hey- are you Angelina Jolie rehearsing for Tomb Raider 3'.... ok well I probably would still be poor, as there are 4000 riels to the dollar, but still. I'm good.

Our first day out we ran into a great American couple we had met back in Luang Prabang. Tuk tuks generally take their fares to the same middle of nowhere restaurants in between temples where they are given free food or drinks or something in return. Although the restaurants are generally overpriced and serve sub-par grub, it worked out fantastically in this instance. Joel and Sonia are on a similar route to us and are great company. We were so happy to catch up with them again and hope that that will not be the last time.

Anyways, as I was saying, today was our fourth day 'Temple-ing' and, so far, we have gone through as many tuk tuks. We aren't doing well. Maybe we should come with a warning as Tuk Tuk drivers don't have good odds with us. The temples of are anywhere from 10-60 km from town. Most are closer than further though, and most of the main ones are all linked on a paved loop road. To get there, you need to hire a tuk tuk. You can, I suppose, bike to the closest ones, but in heat like this, I, at least, would probably keel over, so we splurge on tuk tuks to take us around. Prices range from $25 for the day to be driven out to further temples and $10-$12/day for closer ones. It all depends on your bargaining skills. Tuk tuks are abundant in Siem Reap. You can't walk 100m without hearing 'tuk tuk lady!' at least five times. It doesn't matter if you are walking past and obviously not looking for a tuk tuk, if you are sitting in a restaurant eating, getting out of another tuk tuk, or even IN a tuk tuk. They still ask you. Its like it's cumplusive. You spot a person and you MUST ask if they want a tuk tuk, regardless of common sense. Maybe its a disease.

We arranged our first tuk tuk driver through the guesthouse that we were staying in. It happened to be the same tuk tuk that picked us up from the airport. He was great. He was smiley and friendly and we loved him. As much as you can love your tuk tuk driver. We even bought him a Red Bull in appreciation. The next day we had to change guesthouses to a cheaper one. We arranged in advance with our tuk tuk to pick us up at our new guesthouse the next morning at 730am and agreed on a price. 730am came and went. No tuk tuk. We waited until 8am, watching the sun rise higher and higher in the sky as the morning got hotter and hotter by the minute. We finally gave up and started a hunt for a new tuk tuk. As I said before, its not finding a tuk tuk that's hard, as they are actively (and loudly) letting you know that they are there. Its getting one to agree to a reasonable price that takes time, patience and effort. Our new tuk tuk was fine. Not super friendly or anything, but he took us to the temple and back without any hassle.

A few days later we wanted to go again. We agreed to go with one of the annoying tuk tuks that are always harassing us when we walk down the street from our guesthouse. It was a bad idea to begin with. They are just so in your face sometimes, its easier to talk to them then try to walk past the human tuk tuk wall that they form along the sidewalk. We probably could have got the ride cheaper, but we really wanted to beat the heat, so we agreed. It seemed like a good deal for him. He took us to the ruins we wanted and he had friends there who owned a restaurant. He played cards literally all afternoon and we even ate at his friend's ridiculously overpriced restaurant, because we are good sports. He was ok.
We got back last night and arranged for him to pick us up again this morning. We showed him where we wanted to go and agreed on a price. Again, we probably could have got it a bit cheaper from a different tuk tuk, but we went along. It wasn't even noon and we had finished about half of the temples we thought we had agreed on. 'Ok, just one more left,' the driver said to us. 'No, four more left,' we said and we showed him the map again. 'No, I only agreed to the 'Grand Tour' those temples are in the 'Short Tour' he said like his personal naming of the 'Tours' made an iota of difference to us. 'Now I don't know what to do,' he said, like he was making some sort of big, difficult, moral decision. 'I do. I think you should take us to the temples we agreed on for the price we agreed to,' I said, about five times in a surprisingly nice tone.' I think you should give me a little more money,' he replied, 'You want to go eight kilomters out of the way, now.' I repeated my radical idea of Mr. Tommy the Tubby Tuk Tuk taking us to the temples we agreed for the price we agreed upon. (As named by ourselves). After all his apparent moral anguish, he came to the conclusion that it would be a better idea to leave us stranded at the side of the road. Seriously. I must admit that I was a little shocked when he actually drove off, leaving us standing there in a cloud of his tuk tuk's disgusting, dirty, black fumes. We hadn't paid him yet and tried to give him $5 for the fuel he used driving us as far as he did. He refused. He was making a statement. We were the ones being unreasonable, expecting him to take us to the temples we had agreed on for a the price we agreed to pay him.

Luckily for us, we were deserted in front of one of the many popular temples. There were tuk tuks abound. Unfortunately they were all there because they were waiting for their respective charges to return from exploring the temple. We figured that stealing a fellow travellers tuk tuk was maybe not a nice thing to do. We went back to the ticket checker. 'Ticket please, ' he said, even though he had checked our ticket about twenty minutes prior. 'We don't have a tuk tuk. Are there any here who haven't come with passengers?' We asked. 'You lost your tuk tuk?' he laughed. ' Don't worry! He will come back. He probably just went to the toilet or somesing.' I wasn't sure, but judging by the way our tuk tuk angrily took off, I didn't think he'd be coming back. I didn't bother trying to explain this to the ticket checker. 'Ok, thanks,' we said and looked around for another option. Tuk tuk tuk tuks everywhere, and not a one to take. That thought itself was almost funny. I was standing in front of a sea of tuk tuks, wanting a tuk tuk, and none were available! hmm
'Lets start walking,' was Jonathan's suggestion. We were about 15km from town. I gave him 'the look.'
Just then a single blonde woman pulled up in her tuk tuk. She looked just like the kind of woman who wanted to save the day. I (practically) ran up to her tuk tuk as she was disembarking. I waved at Jonathan to stay behind, because, (you've seen pictures) and the last thing I wanted was for this poor girl to run off terrified after her encounter with Big Foot's hairier cousin. 'Hi!' I called. She looked to her right, her left and behind her. Her fears were confirmed. I was talking to her. 'Hi?' she responded a little nervously. 'Soooo.. our tuk tuk just left us here because we wouldn't pay him more money... and I was wondering if we could hop a ride with you for the rest of your route?' 'Of course!' our new best friend, Luba, answered without a seconds hesitation. Wow, what a relief! We love Luba! We had already toured the temple she had arrived at, but we wandered through again with her, so we could get to know her a bit and profess our thanks in an unbroken stream of 'You are so nice! Thank you so much! We are so happy to meet you'. And genuinely meaning it too. Luba is originally from the Ukraine but moved to Israel several years ago. She speaks Ukranian, Hebrew, Russian and English. She was very modest about her impressive language skills and a very friendly and interesting tuk tuk companion. We toured the rest of the temples on her route with her and met for drinks and a traditional Apsara dance performance that night. What could have turned into a travellers horror story ended up being a fantastic experience that afforded us the privilege of meeting Luba, learning loads about Israel and being extended an open invitation to visit her in her town, just outside of Gaza, whenever we wanted. Thanks Tommy the Tubby Tuk Tuk! And Luba, of course!

I would like to say that our encounters with Tommy the Tubby ended right there, and that the last that we saw of him was the back of his shabby tuk tuk as it drove off. This, however, was not the case. Although, if this was one of those 'choose your own ending' books, that certainly would have been the ending I would have voted for. The evil villain riding off into the steamy afternoon in search of more tourists to rip off, and getting a really nasty sunburn on route, but never ever to be seen again. A fairy tale ending it was not. We arrived back at our hotel satisfied with our days templing and looking forward to a bit of relaxing before dinner. Low and behold, much to our dismay, there was Tommy, stalking around at the tuk tuk stand in front of our hotel. As soon as he laid eyes on us, it was clear that all that humming and hawing over the 'right' thing to do earlier had dissipated. Now he just hated us. Somehow in his twisted little tuk tuk mind, we had been the ones in the wrong. It was completely unacceptable to him, and apparently the whole tuk tuk mafia that now surrounded and backed him, to refuse to pay more when it was demanded. Before we had even gotten out of Luba's tuk tuk Tubby had gathered his posse and together they put on a striking performance of 'booos' giving us the double thumbs down. 'Bad people!' 'Not nice!' They called out as we walked through group which stood between us and the hotel. Jonathan, always the peace-maker, tried again to give Tubby $5 for fuel. (He hadn't taken any money from us yet, which was one of the most bizarre aspects of this whole sharade). 'I don't want your money!' He yelled in Jonathan's face. 'It is bad money. I want money, but not yours. I am rich and you are poor!' Direct quote. Seriously. Where as I burst out laughing at his ridiculousness, Jonathan was polite and courteous as he worked through the crowd that was the growing Siem Reap tuk tuk mafia. 'Blah blah blah' continued Tubby like a broken record, 'I don't want your dirty money!' It was getting a little annoying. Especially because it was forty degrees and they were direct barriers between myself and the air conditioning. Unfortunately restraint is something that I rarely am able to display. 'Great! Then there won't be any need for your (hand making talking gesture) every morning any more then, right?' I asked Tubby defiantly. Jonathan gave me a very mean glare. Apparently I had gone too far. Tubby and the Tuk Tuk mafia are all up in my grill and I get in trouble for a little jab! Jeez. I could have taken them.. all. I know Tae Bo! I was in Tomb Raider! Hello, did he forget that time I starred as Sydney in Alias? Fortunately, for everyone, Jonathan dragged me through the crowd by the ear (metaphorically speaking) before I got a chance to display any of my moves.

By the next morning, I was the picture of calm, cool and collected. Hard to imagine, right? But still, our feud with Tubby continued. From his end at least. I admitted that maybe it would be better if we just ignored the catcalls, which was a good decision, because by the time we left our hotel the next morning Tubby had permanently positioned himself outside our lobby and decided he would refer to us, individually or as a pair, I will never know, as 'Mr. Stinky.' 'Are you happy, Mr. Stinky?!' he yelled in Jonathan's face that first morning. I wasn't really sure what sort of insult that he was trying to convey, but from that moment on I realized how hilarious the situation actually was. Poor Tubby was there, everyday to greet us 'Mr. Stinky'(s?) and yell at us in Khmer until we were out of earshot. Which is less effective then he obviously thought. Not once was he out tuk tuk-ing. Harassing us daily as opposed to driving customers didn't seem like the best business plan, to me. But then again, maybe he is as rich as he claims. By the end of the two weeks we smiled and waved our goodbyes to him like we were old friends. He didn't wave back. I don't know about him, but we were going to miss his daily entertainment.

What made Siem Reap even better was a chance run-in with our friends from New Brunswick, Abbie and Dalen! We were wandering down the main tourist street and we so surprised to come upon their two familiar, smiling faces. We had met Abbie and Dalen way back in Malaysia and they had celebrated our 100th day with us. It was so great to catch up with them and hear how their trip had been since then. By now they will very close to heading back home to the Bay of Fundy for another great season of kayaking. With any luck, the next time our paths will cross will be on the water!

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