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Preface from Ellen in Afton, Virginia, Saturday 3 January 2004

Dear family and friends,

Many of you wrote to tell me how much you enjoyed the story of the Mercedes that would not keep running, so I now offer the story of the Buick that would not quit.

A week ago I went out to start Ron's Buick, something I have been doing occasionally just to keep it in working order. It started right up, and I left it running while I did a couple of clean-up tasks in the garden. I went back to turn it off, and it wouldn't turn off. The key simply wouldn't turn counter-clockwise towards the lock position. I tried wiggling it a bit, hunted around on the perimeter of the ignition to see if there was some kind of release button, put the car in gear and put it back into park, but the key still wouldn't turn off. I went in the house and called our son-in-law, the mechanical expert, but our daughter said he had just left with our grandson to do errands. So I called some friends living nearby, and the only thing they could think of I hadn't tried was wiggling the steering wheel; they said to call back if that didn't work and they would come over. I wiggled the steering wheel, but the key wouldn't turn off. I tried backing the car up a few feet to change the position of things. Still wouldn't turn off. So I called the friends back, and Tom said he would come over. He got in the Buick and tried to turn it off, but he couldn't do it either. I was a bit relieved at this point, since clearly there wasn't some obvious little thing I wasn't doing. He went through the same assortment of things I'd done: move the steering wheel, shift the gears, move the car a bit, etc. And he said, "The trouble with automatic transmission is that you can't stall the car with the clutch!" So we pondered how to stop the engine. Finally we opened the hood, and Tom took the cover off the air filter housing, and held closed the little metal flap that is the air intake. The engine died almost immediately. Put the cover back on, and closed the hood. Tried to turn the key off again -- still won't turn off. I had already turned off the radio and the fan, and the lights were off, but even with everything off that we could turn off, Tom suspects that with the ignition key on, the battery will still get drained. At some point in the next week I will coordinate with friends, jump start the car if needed (the key turns just fine if you turn it clockwise to start the car!), and take it to be fixed.

Despite missing Ron, I have had a lovely holiday season with family and friends, and hope you have all enjoyed your holidays also. I send you all good wishes for a happy and peaceful 2004.

Love to all,

Ellen


Ron's travel report

Angkor Wat - again 12 years later - 3 January 2004

Dear Ellen,

It has been about 10 days since I last wrote about my travels, so here is my overdue account which doesn't really have much adventure to report.

Compared to Burma, Cambodia is crowded with tourists and travelers, mostly from Europe, but also from Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand. Most people that I have talked to seem pleased with their experiences traveling here: good food, cheap accommodations (often new, with hot water and air conditioning), good bus and air transportation (even if the roads often are not good), friendly people, and a world different from where they are coming from. Not exotic, but different.

A country reinventing itself, with the general population being young. Most people seem happy, at least compared to my memories from 1991 when it seemed to me that people were still in shock. When I scratch the surface and get to question the people that I meet, I often find that their parents, aunts and uncles, grandfathers and other family members were killed in those horrible years.

Who raised all those kids? And now I see a new generation of kids with babies begging.

After traveling for three months my sense of date and time has been altered, and the days and hours flow by with little thought or planning. I have passed the period of travel when I want to see and do everything, and have entered the space where I just float through the days enjoying them with no rush or planning, and making last minute decisions on my next step.

"Runny" at both ends: a cold has stayed with me and I have begun to suspect the malaria tablets as the cause of the mild to moderate diarrhea that has been with me much of the past 6 weeks.

Both Christmas and New Year I celebrated in Phnom Penh, and in between I traveled to Battambang and Siem Reap, spending a total of about 20 hours in transit on the bus to Battambang, the slow boat to Siem Reap and the fast boat back to Phnom Penh.

I had not intended on going to Angkor Wat again, preferring to retain my pleasant memories of my visit there in 1991 before the rush of tourists began to flood the area, but I wanted to make the boat trip between Battambang and Siem Reap and in the end decided to visit Angkor Wat again to see what changes have occurred and to get some digital pictures.

Battambang is on the land route from Bangkok to Angkor Wat and I enjoyed visiting a town where most people just pass through. The local guide says it is the second largest city in Cambodia, but then I also understand that Sihanoukville also makes the same claim. I enjoyed my time exploring the city by foot and the surrounding countryside by motor scooter. And of course meeting other travelers: three Italians from Rome and a journalist from Helsinki, Finland, among others. I found the local people to be friendly and many speak some English.

The best boat ride was the slow one, very slow because the water level was low, the river not very wide, and having to slow to make the many "s" shaped curves in the river (the turn being made by slowing drifting into the growth on the far side, the boatman on the front pushing the front end of the boat away from the bank, and in this process making the turn). The scenery was beautiful and the villages and people living along the river very interesting. Since the boat left at 7:30 AM, the light was wonderful for taking pictures and I filled up a 256MB chip.

As we docked in the Vietnamese Fishing Village on the NE corner of Tonlé Sap, the lake south of Siem Reap, I was amazed by the large number of similar boats for tourists, and the many signs for restaurants, boats, tours of fish farms, and offers of transportation, all obviously for tourists. While still very poor, the whole area seemed to be much improved. Where before, when I bicycled there from Siem Reap to see the lake, I considered it a poor fishing village of floating houses that moved with the seasons as the lake level rose and fell, it now seems more like a tourism center where tourism competes with the fishing to be the main commerce of the area. In 1991 a group of French archeologists, who returned to see what the ruins were like after their long absence, invited me to join them on a boat to explore the floating village. (They were unhappy to have to speak English.) Then there were almost no tourist activities other than the French group and they were not really tourists or travelers, but returning archeologists.

While it was hard to recognize exact areas, it seems to me that the road was much improved and extended further into the lake. Before, people were curious about me as something unusual, but this time they were geared up to make money from all the people passing through, and there were two or three large tourist buses parked along the road as well as several tourist vans, and no shortage of touts for lodging in Siem Reap and motor scooter drivers interested in taking me there for a dollar, which is probably less than I paid to rent a bike to make the trip there 12 years ago.

A couple areas of Siem Reap looked familiar, but the only place I recognized for sure was a short bridge in the center of town. This town has really grown and changed in the 12 years! Fancy hotels and restaurants as well as a slew of guest houses and small hotels. From the news in Phnom Penh I understand they were all full for New Years Eve. Judging from the crowds I met on the main walkway up to and into the main Angkor Wat ruins, I could believe it. Where before in one evening I walked and explored the entire downtown area, this time it took a motor scooter and I only saw parts of the town. They even had a crowded disco.

A one day pass to enter the Angkor Wat ruins area costs $20 and there are many places you can rent bicycles to get to the ruins and to explore the general area. I think I paid $40 in 1991 to get a tour of the ruins from my hotel (only one in town for foreigners) in a special tourist van (required as the only way allowed) which at 11:30, after being in the ruins for a little over one and a half hours, was going back to the hotel for lunch. I remember refusing to return to the hotel, and shortly after the van left, I had rented a bicycle from a kid and made my own tour, which was considered very adventuresome back then with all the undiscovered land mines.

I feel fortunate to be able to compare my memories of Tikal, Machu Picchu, the Kings' Tombs of Hue, Angkor Wat, and now the temples of Began in Burma. They all have special memories for me.

Even through I treasure my memories from 1991, I still recommend Siem Reap and Angkor Wat as a place to spend several days, and you can sleep and eat at whatever level you wish from backpacker to five star facilities. You can make your own bicycle tour or hire your own guide at $100 a day. I spent the evening with two ladies from Korea and had my first Korean meal.

The fast boat (still almost 6 hours) to Phnom Penh was interesting at both ends of the trip, but for the long period of time on Tonlé Sap Lake the coast was not visible on either side. The boat was very loud and my ear plugs were very useful. There were probably about 100 seats in the long narrow boat with 4 across up front and 5 across in the back half. Many people rode on top of the boat, and I joined them on both ends of the trip to take pictures.

I returned to Phnom Penh to celebrate New Year's Eve, thinking that there were be more excitement in a large city, but it was a very mild evening, even though there was a much larger presence of police for the occasion. A Finnish journalist and I had a wonderful Vietnamese/Thai dinner at my favorite restaurant and then spent the evening along the river with all the other tourists.

On New Year's Day, we ran into each other again along the river and she joined me to watch me eat a pizza with the works on it and explained that she wanted to take my picture and publish my story about Max, giving the profits to a charity as her way of helping people. We will see how this develops.

Cambodia is not easy for me to describe, especially to someone who has not been in Asia. While it is very poor, the difference between 1991 and now is incredible and the people are very friendly and polite. There are a lot of Vietnamese living here but I have not felt the presence of Thai or Chinese. There is traffic, but most people use motor scooters.

I want to go to a smaller town and rent a bike and ride into the countryside. Maybe I will develop some travel plans today and move to a new setting.

Love and miss you, and looking forward to seeing you soon.

Ron

 

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