In March 2004 we spent 7 days in Siem Reap in Cambodia,
as part of our four month time in SE Asia. We wanted to spend longer,
but we had two fixed dates either side, and couldn't extend our trip
- so we went back later in our trip to see Phnom Penh.
Monday, March 22, 2004
The longest bus trip in the world
Well, we can't say that we weren't warned - we did know that the overland trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap would be terrible. But we also knew we had no choice - we really, really wanted to see Angkor Wat, and our budget couldn't stretch to £500 for us to all fly there and back. So instead of the 1 hour flight, we endured the worst bus trip we've done as a family. We had a 7am start at Bangkok, where the bus picked us up outside our accommodation - even at that time in the morning, it was obvious that the air-conditioning was nearly dead, and the thousand mozzies in the bus made a meal of us all. But this was a backpacker-special, and we've noticed that tour operators can get away with things that the Thais would never put up with. The trip towards the border was slow - we were overtaken by everything, including a dustcart - and every few minutes we were passed by a coachload of cold Thais, while we sweated away in our sauna-bus. Finally, after 180 miles on motorways and highways, and 6 hours, we pulled into the lunch spot, 6 miles from the border. Basically the trip is run by a bunch of people who want to get every penny possible out of you, so the stop was designed to get people to pay them to collect their Cambodia visas in advance. We didn't bother, because we knew we could get it instantly at the border, and for a lot less than we were being charged - but we still had to wait for 2 hours anyway. The finally, at 3 o'clock we were piled into another minibus and driven to the border.
The crossing was easy, and the visas issued quickly. We had to walk across the dusty bridge and road between the two countries, past the swish casinos that sit in no-mans-land. At the other side, our bus chap collected us, and got us into a tuk-tuk to go to their office for the minibus - and then got us back out of the tuk-tuk because the minibus had come to us! But that only went 300 yards, before dropping us at their office. And then we waited while everybody was sorted into different minibuses. Finally, at 4 o'clock we were off, in a jam packed midi-bus.
The first 40 kilometres were better than we thought - the road had tarmac, although in some places that had been badly rutted by lorries, and potholes a foot deep and six feet long had been made by the rains and traffic. So it was slow going, but it wasn't as dusty as everybody had warned.
But that soon changed. After the first town when the main highway turned right to Phnom Penh, we were on a dust road. The slow pace turned even slower (much of the time the driver couldn't see more than 10 feet in front of us), and the windows were all shut because of the dust. We started to simmer gently (outside the temperature was nudging 36-degrees, but the aircon kept it to a gentler 30 in the bus)
Life in Cambodia passed the windows. The snap on the left shows a Cambodian petrol station - basically a line of Fanta bottles filled with petrol for motorbikes (the dominant transport on the road, and seemingly everywhere in Cambodia). We kept going, occasionally overtaking overloaded lorries (a scary time, because there was no way that the driver could see beyond them), and diverting into the fields around broken bridges (hmm, might not have been so bad if we hadn't spotted occasional mine warning posters in the villages). At 7pm the sunset, and soon it was dark. We had no idea how much further we had to go, and at 8:30 we stopped for dinner in the only restaurant on the route - slap bang in the middle of nowhere. Our first impression is of a country with crushing poverty - the villages are the most basic we've seen, and the people appear to have very little.
After another hour we stopped for a toilet break - again the only ones on the trip - and were besieged by small children selling handicrafts, drinks and begging for dollars. (Cambodia runs on dollars - the local currency is useful only for small items in the market - everything else, from drinks to meals to transport, is priced in dollars). Everybody we met was fascinated by Emily and Charlotte, and every time we stopped they were the centre of attention.
Finally at 11pm we arrived in Siem Reap - 16 hours and 280 miles later - and average of less than 20 miles an hour. Of course it was pitch black, and everybody seemed to be in bed. We were dropped at a guest house which was a building site, so we got a tuk-tuk to look for another one. After an hour, failing to find the ones we'd been recommended, we ended back up at the building site, and booked in for one night.
Despite the hour, the journey and the heat, the girls had been really, really well behaved throughout. On the bus they'd enjoyed the bumps, comparing the trip favourably to the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. And they'd had some great company from Bob, an American traveller who had an endless supply of songs, stories and activities for them. Even the fact that we only had 2 toilet stops during the whole day wasn't a problem! We were all wondering how we would enjoy Cambodia - it seems full of hassle and extremely difficult to travel.
Tuesday, March 23, 2004
Waking up in a building site
We were woken up at 7.30 by the builders on the floor above, knocking a hole in the wall. Just what you need after a long bus trip. At 9 we checked out, and realised that the whole of Siem Reap is a building site. The whole town looks completely unfinished, and on every corner a new hotel is being built. Tourism has only been possible since 1998, and in that time it has grown immensely - and obviously the investors think it has got a lot further to grow. So huge 6 storey hotel blocks are filling the centre of town, and new ones are sprouting up on any vacant land. But the grandeur stops at the hotel gates - outside is dust, dirt, grime and beggars.
We caught a tuk-tuk to the Old Market area of town, and sat down to breakfast. Amazingly, with poverty and hardship all around us, we were able to have bacon baguettes and café latte. This is a very weird black-and-white city. The architecture is a mix of modern grandeur, French colonial, and bamboo huts. After perking up a bit after breakfast, we saw that there was a guest house right next door (on the 1st floor in the photo), which was lovely. By 11 o'clock we were different people. Our doubts about Cambodia had gone - we had a really friendly tuk-tuk driver, a clean guest house, and had had a good meal. Things were looking up!
Inside the guest house our room was air-conditioned, with a clean bathroom and comfortable beds. As well as our own private balcony, there was also a balcony with a café on it, and an internet café. We could sit there, enjoy the view of the river, and also get away from the street level beggars. Everything in Cambodia seems more expensive than Bangkok - drinks typically cost $1, and an item of food costs $2-4 - at least twice that of Bangkok. We all had a sleep, and then Mr Heng, our tuk-tuk driver took us to see sunset from the hilltop temple beside Angkor Wat.
We discovered that everybody vists Phnom Bakheng for sunset too, so after a steep climb up, carrying Emily, we were met with the sight of a temple-full of visitors. Mr Heng had offered to carry Emily up, and instead helped Charlotte all the way. Mr Heng has his own children, and its obvious that he will be really helpful for our visits to Angkor. As we are so far inland, the sky is quite clear of clouds, and the dust in the air makes the sunsets very red. After yesterday's hellish day, it was a great ending to the day.
For dinner we ate around the corner from our guest house, and discovered that a can of beer and a can of Coke cost the same thing - good news!
Wednesday, March 24, 2004
The heat in the middle of the day is sweltering, even though we have had lots of time to adjust to Asian temperatures. It reaches around 36 degrees, with no breeze to cool you. Its little wonder that it is typical for people to shut up shop and take a rest in Asia during the heat of the day, and it is one Asian habit that we're copying, especially because of the children. We'd arranged for Mr Heng to collect us later, as by 3:30 the heat is starting to fade a little, and we had our second sightseeing trip of the day planned.
We went straight the Bayon temple, inside the Angkor Thom city walls. Amazingly it was empty, as all of the tour groups go there in the morning, and we had it almost to ourselves. Why do they do it - why do all of the buses turn up at the same time, and leave at the same time? It doesn't make sense, especially at Angkor, where there's so much to see, and could be so many different routes through. Anyway, its good for us! From a distance Bayon looks like a ruin, but the closer you get, the easier it is to see the turrets rising out, each with four of the big Angkor-style faces on them. The faces are present at many of the temples, but it is at Bayon where every single vertical surface seems to be carved with them.
As you can see, each of the faces are huge, comprised of loads of individual granite blocks assembled into a single face. Some of them are quite well defined, while others have moss, lichen or plants growing on them. We enjoyed wandering around, climbing and descending the incredibly steep staircases, but by the end of an hour the girls were tired, and ready to rest again.
So we headed back to Mr Heng's tuk-tuk, and drove back to Angkor Wat. Once we were there, the girls decided to stay in the tuk-tuk, while we went to watch the sun set on the temple. We felt relaxed, because Mr Heng was very good with the girls (we discovered later that he had taken them to see the Angkor hot air balloon while we were inside), and they feel safe and relaxed with him. Mind you, the first time we did, we couldn’t help but think of the dialogue ("So, Mr Fleming, when was the last time you saw your children? Oh, you just left them with a tuk-tuk driver you first met this morning..."). Angkor was beautiful in the setting sun, with a pink glow in the sky, but because it was later in the day than our last visit, the beggars were out in force. On the walk across the causeway to the temple entrance we were accompanied by small children begging plaintively. We think that these children are part of a begging mafia clan, similar to Thailand, where they are bussed in by a controlling gang who keep their takings, and pay the children a wage. In town, we know that many of the children are from families who live under the trees in the park, so Charlotte and Emily collect all of our meal leftovers, like bread, and give them to the children on the street.
When we got back to the tuk-tuk, we found the children happily talking away with a dozen of the children who sell things outside the entrance - postcards, drinks, fans, films, and anything else a tourist might (or might not!) want. Although they can be cute when they are selling you something, they also can hassle you if you don't, or especially if you buy just from one of them. Buy a drink from one, and the rest would shot at you "Oh my God, you said you didn't want one. Why you not buy from me? Why you not buy from me?". It can be quite intimidating, and actually lead you to just ignore the worst of them. But with the girls in the tuk-tuk, it was just a case of children talking to children - "Where are you from? How old are you? Do you know David Beckham?" etc
Angkor Wat and Beyond
What are we, mad? After an exhausting day two days ago, we got up this morning at 5am to meet Mr Heng and go to Angkor Wat for sunrise. We knew we had to do it, so we thought we should get it done soon. Although lots of people do get up this early to see it, most of them stop at the main entrance to the temple, to get the view on the left. It was worth the early start, with the trademark towers of the main temple outlined by the red sky. Angkor is actually a collection of dozens of temples spread across 25 miles of countryside, with the largest temple, Angkor Wat, the most famous. Over the next 3 days we plan to visit half a dozen, as well as seeing others from the road (drive-by-tourism), all on the back of Mr Heng's tuk-tuk.
Because we went further into the temple, we were able to get some peace and quiet - its always curious to us that you only have to go 50m of the well-trodden path to have solitude. In this case, the girls are sitting at the inner entrance to the temple complex, which is packed full during the day, but for sunrise everybody stops short of it. When we walked in further to the temple itself, we again had it virtually to ourselves - apart from a little rush of people heading down from the main tower - they'd seen the sunrise, and were heading back home.
Inside the main temple, the detail of the buildings and carvings took our breath away - on every surface were classic Khmer tales, related through stone carvings. Although they are over 800 years old, they still looked new in many places. The girls loved climbing the suicidally steep stairs to the top of the temple, where we could get a panoramic view of the temple and the forest surrounds. Coming back down was a more difficult task, and had to be completed slowly!
Then we went onto the South Gate, the entrance to the ancient city of Angkor Thom. On the far side of the gates used to sit a huge bustling city, but now it is just forest, with temples dotted around. We thought we'd do a classic tourist thing for an elephant photo, but we took the backpacker option of just having the and then hopping off the elephant - costing us $4, but saving the full $30 of a ride into the temple complex! After we'd had a good look around the gate, we went into the city. As it had already been a tiring day (wow, almost 10 o'clock now - 5 hours after we started!) we stayed in the tuk-tuk while we drove around a couple of temples to whet our appetite for this afternoon.
Then it was back to the hotel for a sleep, a quick look around the market, and lunch.
Thursday, March 25, 2004
Today's temple was Ta Prohm, which is the one which has been taken over by the jungle. Although much of the undergrowth has been removed, its still astonishing to see trees growing over, around and through the temple complex. The roots of the trees wind their way between the stones of the walls, and as they grow they literally pull the walls apart. As we'd chosen to visit early, we again had the luxury of an almost empty temple, which was a fantastic way to see the site. We already knew that some of the Tomb Raider film was shot here, but we also discovered that during the making of "Two Brothers" here 2 years ago, they had released a tiger to roam around the inside of the temple. Glad we missed that! The temple is like a rabbit warren - numerous passageways and doors blocked by piles of falling rubble, and it was really easy to get lost inside. By 9 o'clock the first bus tour had arrived and the temple suddenly started to fill with people - it changed the character of the temple from the deserted overgrown jungle temple that we'd experienced earlier (When people with American accents start bellowing "Chuck, move left and make your hands look like you're holding that tree up" you know that the magic has gone!)
Then we called into the temple of Bantai Prae, when the girls stayed in the tuk-tuk and we had a quick wander through - but it was probably one temple too many for now - they have all started to look very 'samey'. So by 10:30, we were back in the tuk-tuk, heading into town. On the way we stopped at one of the big tourist souvenir shops, to see if the things they had were different to the things we'd seen in the market. These shops are the ones they take busloads of tourists to, especially Japanese and Koreans, because they don't travel around town independently, and certainly wouldn't get down to the Old Market area (and the tour guides would discourage them, even if they had the time in their busy schedules). We found that the shops sold exactly the same things (wood carvings, stone carvings and paintings), but at hugely inflated prices - a replica of the Angkor stone faces costing $7 in the market, cost $110 in the shop! (Although the kind lady in the shop offered me a 'special' discounted price of $90).
The Landmine and War Museums
Two days ago we visited the Government-owned War Museum, and this afternoon we visited the privately-owned Landmine Museum. Both of them told the same story, of the terrible impact on the country of the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge period, and the continued civil war which ran until 1998. Although the displays focused on land mines, artillery, tanks and guns, it was the personal stories of suffering which will be the memories. At the War Museum, our guide was a 25-year old man who's brother was killed in front of him by Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who had lost his arm in the same attack, and had then heard that his parents had been killed by guerrillas while he was recovering in hospital. His parents had been killed with a spade for not handing over their water buffalo to the Khmer Rouge. Before coming to Cambodia we had read two books covering the Khmer Rouge period, so we have a basic understanding of the recent history of the country, and the impact on families of so many random, brutal deaths. We definitely found it difficult to listen to the personal story of family death, while looking at a display of AK47 and M16 rifles.
The Landmine Museum didn't have a guide there during our visit, but the impact of individuals' stories were still difficult to read, and especially to read out to Charlotte, who was captivated by them. The museum was setup by a man who had originally been a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge, then a soldier for the liberating/invading Vietnamese forces, and then finally a mine-clearer for the UN. His frank and brutal memories were pinned up on the walls, which were dotted with displays of deactivated mines and armaments. The owner still occasionally clears mines - one of the villagers had found a live landmine last summer in their back garden, 2M from the house and only 500m from where we were standing reading the story.
There was also a simulated minefield setup in the garden - even more moving since we knew that mines like these were laid all over Cambodia, and although some areas like the Angkor temples have been cleared, most others still lie in the ground and in paddy fields, waiting for somebody to stand on them. (If you want an innocent challenge, there are four mines in the photo on the left). One of the plaques reads "It costs $5 to purchase a mine and $500 to clear and destroy one. The museum is also home to young children injured by land mines, who's parents send them there to learn languages, go to school and hope to change their lives. As we left the museum, we saw them across the road, playing football on a patch of dirt. At first, it looked like a normal game of football, but after a second we realised that half the players were on crutches because they only had one leg, and the rest were missing one or two arms. It served as a reminder that Cambodia is home to 45,000 landmine victims, and every month there are 120 new victims. Only some of them are lucky enough to be injured within reach of a hospital, and even fewer have the $50 required to get the hospital treatment required to save their lives.
Cambodia is a country with high contrasts, and you can expect to have your thoughts challenged by what you see, hear and experience. And it causes you to ask questions about yourself and everything else.
Floating over Angkor
Somewhat incongruously we went from the Landmine Museum to the Angkor Wat balloon - a huge helium balloon which carries up to 12 passengers 200 metres into the air to get a view of the main Angkor Wat temple and the surrounding forests and fields. We'd chosen sunset to do it, so on one side we could see the sun turn dark red as it dipped, and on the other the reflection of that colour on the dark stones of the temple. Because it is the dry season, the view to the temple was hazy and unforgettable. Below us we could see paddy field after paddy field sitting dry and empty, waiting for the first rains of the monsoon season in May, when the farmers will all be out planting their rice plants in the flooded fields. From up high it was possible to get a real idea for the size of the Angkor site, and the way that much of it has been taken over by forest and jungle.
Friday, March 26, 2004
Last call for Angkor Wat
Our last day at Angkor Wat - our $40/3 day pass expires today, so we set off early again to get the most of our time. We'd chosen two last temples, the first being Preah Kahn (yes, I had to write the names down - there's no way I would remember all of these tomorrow!), which seemed an endless succession of dark passageways. Emily loved exploring through them, seeing what she could find, and seemingly trying to get lost!
Emily and Charlotte also both enjoy 'praying to Buddha' - at the heart of each temple, old women sit with joss sticks, encouraging tourists to make an offering to the temple by lighting sticks and bowing three times - followed by an offering of dollar notes into the indicated receptacle (which always seems to be mysteriously nearly empty). Fortunately, I've got some low denomination riel notes (4,000 Cambodian riel to $1) which means the girls can do it, and the old lady gets the cost of her joss sticks back, but without the multi-dollar profit that goes straight into her back pocket.
Then it was onto our very last temple, Ta Som. Again, the girls sat in the shade in the tuk-tuk, while we went in for a look around. The entrance was guarded by a gateway topped with the omnipresent Angkor face - this one had plants growing out of the cracks, and you could see daylight through some of the huge cracks which split the face. Every temple is undergoing some form of restoration, after years of neglect. Originally the French were the only country allowed to work on them, because they were the colonial power, but now Japan, the UK, India, America and others are all involved, and each has been allocated their 'own' temple to work on. And each seems to be restored differently - some towers are strapped together with ropes, awaiting further work, while some are completely dismantled and completely rebuilt. In the case of Ta Prohm (the overgrown one) the Indian restorers are busily working on how to get rid of all the trees growing around the temple (which is a shame, because that is the major attraction of it).
We also had the chance at Ta Som to take a couple of pictures with an obliging monk. From pictures we'd previously seen we'd expected the Angkor temples to be flooded with bald men in orange robes, but the reality is different. Many, many monks were killed during the Khmer Rouge rule, and we’ve seen less monks here than in neighbouring countries. Inside Angkor, most of the monks seem to be tourists too - from Thailand and Vietnam - who are visiting to see the sights just like us. We saw monks taking pictures of each other while they posed in front of temples.
In the evening, we went to the FCC, the Foreign Correspondents Club, which is a bar and restaurant offshoot of the famous Phnom Phen club. We'd managed to track down Daira, who we'd made friends with on the long bus journey from Bangkok. She was lucky enough to have friends in Siem Reap, who were the resident managers of a very exclusive hotel in town. She'd had a tough few days, with the hotel pool to cool off in, and some very special attention in a place where it would be really noticed. So Happy Hour at the luxurious FCC probably meant more to us - splashing out on $1 beers, with sugar-roasted peanuts to nibble on - and after so long without much beer, we managed to get merry on $10 of drinks! (My friends will at this point say something like "No change there then...").
Then we retired to her friend's apartment at the hotel, where Charlotte and Emily got to play with children their own age, while we ate pizza and talked about everything from living in Cambodia to the price of Sydney houses.
Saturday, March 27, 2004
Around Siem Reap
Now that our pass for Angkor Wat has expired, we took the opportunity to drive around the countryside a little further, to see some of the sights away from the temples. As long as we're on roads, Mr Heng's tuk-tuk is quite comfortable, but off road it's definitely a bumpy experience. The tuk-tuk is basically a trailer that goes on the back of a normal moped. Sarah and I have a bench seat, while the girls sit on the front rest, holding onto the roof supports. When its moving, there's plenty of breeze, and its great for sight-seeing because there's nothing between you and the world.
In Asia, we've noticed that people are very creative with their transport - the picture on the left is a typical Asian MPV - 6 members of the same family perched on a single moped whizzing around town. If you click on the picture you'll see other examples of how people get around - from squatting on the roofs of lorries, to perching on the bonnets of trucks, and the contrast of a vintage Rolls Royce outside one of the grand hotels of Siem Reap, and how a pig is carried to market on a moped.
One of the things that we've been seeing this week is evidence of the 'missing generation' of Cambodia - during the reign of the Khmer Rouge very few children were born in Cambodia, so it is rare to see 25-29 year old Cambodians. In addition the Khmer Rouge systematically tried to wipe out intellectuals, government officials and monks, and even now the country is suffering from the results of that policy - which killed an estimated 2 million people, about a quarter of the population.
Our trip this morning took us past houses built on stilts alongside the river banks. They are very basic huts, and the toilet consists of a bamboo perch over the river. Unfortunately having a bath means bathing in the same river - downstream of everybody else's toilets. Yeuch! Poverty is evident around Cambodia, but even those in jobs receive low wages. A trained, experienced ophthalmologist could expect to earn $70 a month, a typical staff member at a 5-star hotel would earn $100 a month, and a tuk-tuk driver would typically earn $3-5 a day (which could go up to $10 a day when they were hired for a full-day by tourists). All in all, it means that in employment, a good salary would be $800-$1,200 a year. Its no surprise that we didn't see Cambodians drinking Coke, at $1 a can (on a British average salary, that's the equivalent of 20 Pounds a can!).
A study of contrasts
Cambodia is a country with huge contrasts, as I've already said, and our afternoon was a stark example of that. After spending the morning looking around poverty-stricken villages, the girls were invited over to the exclusive hotel for a swim with their new playmates. The hotel tuk-tuk picked them up, and they all took off across town with Sarah, in high spirits.
They spent the afternoon in and around one of the most expensive hotels I think I've experienced - $725 a night (no, not a typo) buys you a haven of peace and quiet in the middle of the hustle, bustle and building sites of Siem Reap. If you click on the picture on the left, you'll see some views of the kind of luxury that money can buy, and the serenity that it's possible to get even in the harshest of countries. It is all very deliberately low-key - the hotel doesn't have a name on the outside, and it isn't on any of the town maps, or the accommodation advertising. Instead it just sits as a silent oasis. Although it took us by surprise at first, it shouldn't have - after all it is the same the world over. Step outside of the London Savoy in the evening, and you have to walk around the homeless sleeping in shop doorways on The Strand. We still remember the contrasts of luxurious hotels and slums cheek-by-jowl in New Delhi. And I'm sure that the same contrast exists in every city around the world. It is clearer to see, if no less easy to understand, here in Cambodia. I wonder in a year's time, what the children will remember of it?
Sunday, March 28, 2004
Back to Bangkok
After our journey to Cambodia - 16 hours of slow-moving misery - we thought we'd try and make the journey back to Bangkok easier. Although the flight was outside of our budget, we splashed out $30 on a taxi to the border. Instead of 7 hours in the bus, it took us just under 3 hours in the taxi - the road was still bumpy, but we were cocooned inside an air-conditioned car, with a good suspension. We can't believe that we could have saved all of our suffering outwards for just $30!
And from the Thai border, it was just 4 hours by minibus back to our guest house in Bangkok. The trip to Cambodia had left at 7am, and we'd arrived at 11pm. For the return, we left at 7am and arrived at 3pm - enough time for a swim and a relaxing evening. And amazingly the whole journey only cost us $2 more! Another lesson learnt about getting around Asia!
At this point we didn't think we'd make it back to Cambodia, as we were heading down to Southern Thailand to meet up with friends. Happily, a few weeks later we found ourselves heading towards Vietnam, and took the chance to cross by land through Cambodia, giving us a further look into the country
Sunday, April 25, 2004
Heading back to Cambodia - the easy way
Well, last time we went from Bangkok to Siem Reap, we bought a ticket right through from a Khao San Road travel agent. And while it did get us all the way, it was deliberately slowed down, so that you could be overcharged along the way for your Cambodia Visa, and for your food and drink stops, and ultimately so that you arrived in Siem Reap after dark, so that you would stay at the Guest House they dropped you at. In our case, having left Bangkok at 7am, we arrived at 11pm - a 16 hour journey!
This time, with the benefit of more knowledge, we exactly the same journey a much smarter way. We got a minibus from Bangkok to the border at Aranyaprathet (6am to 10:30 am), which dropped us at a tour company office (they wanted to sell us visas at inflated prices, and onward tickets in minibuses and buses at even more inflated prices). Knowing how much they should cost, we negotiated everything down to the correct price (1,000 Baht for the visa, which is what it costs if you but it directly at the border; and $30 for the taxi direct to Siem Reap). The benefit of doing it like that, and insisting we go straight away, was that we jumped straight into the minibus, and left everyone else who travelled from Bangkok sitting waiting to know what happened next. 30 minutes later we were at the border, visas stamped in our passports, and going through immigration. The immigration and form filling turned out to be really slow, but eventually by 12:00 we were all done, and sitting in the taxi, on the road to Siem Reap. We arrived at 2.45pm - 8 hours after we'd left Bangkok, and half the time it took us last time. And the cost? Well, it cost us 2,100 Baht, the same as we'd paid for 4 slow bus tickets last time. (Next day we met some people who'd been in the minibus with us - they'd ended up sitting at the tour office for 3 hours, for no apparent reason, and then paying over the odds for the visa and the taxi - they arrived 4 hours later than us, despite getting to the border town in the same minibus).
The drive from the border was still dusty, bumpy and desolate - most of the road is just dirt, and even the tarmac bits are a bit like a roller coaster because of the potholes - but the car was air-conditioned, and at the end we felt as if we'd only been on a short journey! (8 hours of travel, short?). Along the way we stopped in a dusty town to buy a drink, and as you can see the advertising posters are a bit different to the kind of thing you see in Oxford. In fact, it wouldn't have surprised me to see cowboys and horses, rather than motorbike taxis, in the town square.
Monday, April 26, 2004
Seeing Siem Reap one more time
As we saw all of Angkor Wat last time, we must be the only tourists in town who didn't want to rush straight to the temples! In fact, we're only stopping off here on the way to Phnom Penh. Last night we found our trusty tuk-tuk driver, Mr Heng, and arranged for him to meet us first thing to do a little sightseeing. The most memorable moment, if only because it is just a flavour of what we are going to see in Phnom Penh, was Watt Thmei, on the outskirts of town. This is a fairly new temple, which has a simple shrine in the middle containing the bones of Khmer Rouge victims found in the fields when the temple was being built. Although they aren't as widely known as the ones in the capital, there are Killing Fields all over Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge buried their million victims. We will be seeing much more of this over the next few days, and I'll describe more.
In the afternoon, we visited the family home of Mr Heng. As a tuk-tuk driver he is more wealthy than many others, and so his house was pretty large by village standards. It is a small wooden hut, raised on stilts, with two rooms upstairs, and just a few raised up platforms downstairs. Water comes from a well, and the only electricity they have comes from a car battery, which he gets recharged in town. This powers the one fluorescent light downstairs, and the small television they have upstairs. It was a real eye-opener for the girls, to be able to actually look around somebody's house, and see how few possessions they have. And when they realised that the toilet was over the road in a field, they became very thoughtful about how lucky we are to have three toilets in our house at home.
All in all, it was an interesting and though provoking day, and we felt really glad to be back in Siem Reap, with its friendly people and cheerful smiles. If Thailand is the 'Land of Smiles', then Cambodia must be the 'Land of Super-Smiles', because of the warmth of the people - which is amazing when you think what everybody over 10 will have gone through, either during the original reign of the Khmer Rouge, or their resurgence up to 1994 in this area.
And in the evening.
We are leaving Siem Reap tomorrow, so we took the chance to have a quick last tour around town in Mr Heng's tuk-tuk. Compared to cities in Thailand and Malaysia, the streets of Siem Reap seem to have no traffic of any significance. Of course there are bikes by the million, and mopeds. But cars are probably less than 5% of the traffic in town, and most of them are used by tourists to tour Angkor Wat. It's a good job really, because there are very few paved roads in Siem Reap, where there are really only a dozen roads in the city, and only five paved roads which lead out of town.
We also found the sports stadium, hosting a local football tournament and a funfair. The rides didn't have the same combination of G-forces and bright lights that you get at home, but they did retain the thrill of uncertainty, mainly by the use of very rusty bolts and links. Charlotte was way too sensible to go on them, so it was left to Emily and I to try out the Merry-Go-Round! Later I challenged Mr Heng to try the 'Throw a dart at a row of balloons' attraction, and together we won a packet of squid-flavour potato puffs and a orange-flavoured yoghourt drink. Yumm!
Tuesday, April 27, 2004
Moving on to Phnom Penh
There are a number of different ways to get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, by road or water. Possibly the most picturesque is to travel by fast boat - which takes 6 hours and costs $22 a person - which goes across the huge Tonle Sap lake between the cities, and down the Mekong for the final hour. We ignored that option because, as well as being too expensive, it involves lots of boat changes because of the low water levels and sandbanks exposed by the dry season. At the other end of the scale is doing the trip in the back of a pickup, which costs $2 each. There's the bonus of lots of fresh air, and the company of friendly Cambodians - but its not a serious option for us! The bus, which takes 7-8 hours, costs $6 each, and would have been a good option, had we not experienced Cambodia bus services before (on our first trip to Cambodia, when it took forever to get to Siem Reap, and we arrived at 11pm instead of 6pm!)
So in the end we decided to splash out the $40 for a taxi to take us the 280 kilometres. Not only was it faster (about 4 hours), but we got to stop when we wanted for photos - and we got the luxury of not having to share. We passed some of the shared taxis on the way, normal Toyota Camrys with 9 people packed inside. One was packed full of monks - with the elder monks sitting on the laps of the novices!
The journey was fairly uneventful - the landscape of this part of Cambodia is just one huge plain, dotted with palm trees and dust-stricken villages. The towns we travelled through were just bigger versions of the villages, covered in dust and full of low houses and workshops.
Read part two of our Cambodia diary - Phnom Penh and beyond.
We've also created a Cambodia photo album.