Five days is not enough time for Cambodia. We came with laser-focus: to see the temples of Angkor Wat. The flights booked, the countries skipped, even the malaria medicine, all were in the service of our pilgrimage to the ninth-century Hindu temples of one of the world’s great civilizations, which had since been colonized by the jungle. Our pilgrimage was ultimately successful. Three full days were spent exploring crumbling towers overtaken by tree roots, archaeologists, and monkeys. We walked some, we biked some, we even tuk-tuk’ed it some. I even got my one luxury hotel squeezed into our trip, complete with a garden-enclosed swimming pool and a spa.
You’d think that I would be satisfied.
“You buy something from me, Madam? Very cheap!”
So begins every excursion in capitalist…er, communist, Vietnam. Rice paddy hats, dragon fruits, war paraphernalia, rip-off North Face gear, even donuts are aggressively peddled wherever you go. Think you’re safe at dinner? No way! Teenagers selling photocopies of Lonely Planet Vietnam and war memoirs follow you in, begging you to buy a pack of gum, if not a book. Duck into a bar, and you’re blind-sided by an MTV-style, table-dancing three-year-old. After he gyrates and booty-grinds in the middle of the bar, he busts out the watches and Zippo lighters that his mom outside is trying to sell. Plying down a Mekong River byway in a wooden canoe, you are passed by endless empty tourist boats whose paddling captains hold out their hands and ask, “Tip money, Madam?” Even in the middle of Ha Long Bay, on your own private junk, miles away from the nearest floating village let alone the shore, as you’re about to dive off the roof and swim ashore to a deserted spit-of-sand beach, a four-foot-tall woman comes rowing a ten-foot-long raft loaded with all the worldly goods you could possibly imagine–crackers, beer, rain ponchos, fake Crocs, Jim Beam. And as she frantically paddles in place so as to be within earshot of your boat, she orders you, “You buy something from me! Very cheap! My beer cheaper than boat.” And when you ignore her sales pitch and dive head first into the South China Sea, you swear you can hear her uttering Vietnamese expletives at you while she paddles furiously onwards to find the next foreigner-filled and dollar-blessed junk.
A bathroom has made my week.
This was not, however, any old SE Asian bathroom. Oh no: This was the Petronas Towers’ shopping mall deluxe bathroom, with such deluxe pleasures as toilet paper, toilet seats, and hand soap. For 2 Malaysian ringgitt (about $.60), travelers can take a break from the typical squat pit potties and hose-cum-TP of Kuala Lumpur’s other toilets and instead pamper themselves with Shisheido cucumber waters, Chanel perfumes, and Johnson & Johnson baby lotion. All this while rubbing shoulders with the burqa-ed and chador-ed elite of the Islamic diaspora.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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