Friday, 12 August 2011

welcome to the kingdom of cambodia.

As you all surely recall from my previous post on Thailand, I did mention that I managed to squeeze a few days into my stay in SE Asia to visit Cambodia. I was particularly interested in visiting the temples of Angkor and budgeted about 4 days for a round trip from Bangkok. It would turn out to be a truly memorable “escapade”, for the amazing cultural scene I would take in during those few days and the great people I enjoyed such an experience with.

Curious to admit that, this time around, the title of the post is far from related to my stay in the actual country or what I saw/experience/visited while I was there. It is actually related to my journey from Bangkok... After having spoken to Maria (the friend who had given me such wise advice on Thailand and other parts of SE Asia), I decided that the most time-effective travel itinerary would be a combination of land travel on the way there and a flight back. On the way there, I took a train departing Bangkok central station at 5:55am. That meant 4am wake-up, zombie shower, cab to the station (on the meter of course and not a pre-arranged flat fee as I tend to be a very shrewd negotiator. hehe) and 45 baht later (c. 1eur) I was on the train. From what I had read on, the extremely helpful travel website/blog covering all ones needs to know on rail transportation in a country (also into and out of) and which I have been using during my whole trip, the c. 200km to the Thailand/Cambodia border would take c. 6 hours (yes, do the math to imply the average speed). Only 3rd class on the train but I guess travelling for 1eur is not too bad. I was meant to get off at the last station, which was c. 5 km from the border. The journey was relatively decent and I actually managed to rest up and sleep for a while on the train. Once we arrived to the “terminus” a horde of mouth-watering tuk tuk (I think I mentioned in my post on Thailand that these are the three-wheeled taxis most people use in SE Asia) drivers were waiting on the platform (some even got on the train before passengers could disembark!) on the lookout for easy, gullible prey with plenty of Baht at their disposal and unclear fx conversions. I had read online (big “thank you” also to the user-generated reviews/content on the site telling their real-life experiences when crossing the border and doing the whole Bangkok-Siem Reap journey) that the border was well-known for scams, pick-pockets and other things of that nature so I made sure to be on my toes. As I tend to do, I walked around outside the station until I found a tuk tuk which would take me to the border for a reasonable price (c. 20 baht – 0.5 eur). Very cheap relative to what I was expecting and to what most people told me they paid later on but I foresaw this great deal had some sort of catch to it... and there sure was. A brief note here on the whole visa process to get into Cambodia. Most main entry points (Poi Pet, the one I used to get into the country, being one of them) accept visitors obtaining a visa on arrival for a “modest” 20usd fee. Alternatively, which is what I did, one can get an “electronic” visa, pay online and print out a pdf which serves as an equivalent to the visa on arrival. Much more convenient in practice as I had heard of scams at the border with fx conversions, etc. So, back to the tuk tuk... The first 5 minutes (and after I told the driver I already had a visa – you’ll see why in a minute) were relatively “normal”: we were doing about 60km/h on the main road leading to the border and everything seemed in order. It wasn’t until we made a random right turn off the main road (which had clear road signs indicating the border was straight ahead) that I began to grow suspicious. I had read online (don’t know what I would have done without all the info I gathered online on travel blogs, forums, etc. during my travels) that sometimes tuk tuk drivers take tourists to a fake Cambodian “consulate” where, in theory, one can obtain a visa and fill out the relevant paperwork prior to entering the country – all bogus of course and totally lacking consular validity. And that’s exactly where I was taken. Off the side street, a shady-looking wooden hut, with plastic chairs and tables in it, had a Cambodian flag hung on the wall behind the fake border officials with the following sign written on it: “Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodian”. Right... After telling my tuk tuk driver that I had a visa and that I was perfectly aware that this wasn’t the border, he refrained from commenting and advised me to speak to a neatly-dressed and perfect-English-speaking dude. He greeted me very politely (with a “welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia”, obviously) even as I refused to get out of the tuk tuk. I repeated the story but he was persistent and mentioned that even if I had a visa there was some “heavy” paperwork he could help me with. I knew this wasn’t the case and told him an all-mighty phrase which I have popped out here and there at times when I have been heavily hassled: “listen man, I have been here before... I know as well as you do that this is not the REAL border, so please tell the tuk tuk driver to take me there” to which he replied: “fine sir, not a problem, have a good day”. Dodged the scam in a very professional and polite way and off we were back on the main road towards the real border. Once we got there and when I gave the tuk tuk driver his undeserved 20 baht, he seemed puzzled and asked me if I wasn’t going to give him a tip. I went mental on him... for the next five minutes I gave him a speech on why what he was doing was not only a cheat but also totally unethical. He just smiled at me for the most part and drove off. Obviously for them it seems like a win/win situation. They get a commission on every bogus visa sold at the “consulate” and they are completely safe from any legal action as the area around the border is a complete no-man’s land. In addition, their relatively cheaper fare prices for the journey to the border from the train station serve as bait for budget travellers, such as myself. If only the potential scams ended there...

Once at the border, one notices there are many locals willing to help tourists “cross the border”. Not entirely sure what that entails but I later found out that most people actually crossed the border with some form of local escort... obviously at a price or tip which would later be claimed by the “friendly” guide. Nonetheless, relatively straight-forward for a savvy world traveller such as your narrator (hehe) and made it through relatively easily. Did have to dodge a few guys coming up an offering their services and others trying to “sell” the most ludicrous things, such as immigration or quarantine forms for 1usd in random wooden huts. What I did find very interesting was that there is actually a vast area in between both countries – i.e. the border is actually much more than just a booth for passport control and immigration. One walks past plenty of casinos, bars, duty free shops... and even hotels in that strip separating both countries. Apparently gambling is a flourishing business there as it is forbidden in Thailand and many Thais spend the day there trying their luck at blackjack or on the slot machines. Interesting to say the least... After transitioning through the border I finally made it to the Poi Pet bus station where I paid c. 9usd for a bus ticket to Siem Reap. Although I got to the bus station at around 1pm, the guys at the booth informed me that the estimated departure time would be around 3pm. So I still had a couple of hours to spare before beginning the journey to Siem Reap from the border. As in many other places, public transportation in Cambodia seems to work on the principle that a bus/van only departs once it is full, thus making timetables and scheduled departures completely pointless elements of logistics for ground transportation. During my wait at the bus station I met a few fine fellows, most notably Eric, an American university professor currently teaching in South Korea and fellow blogger (, and Keisuke, a Japanese student travelling in SE Asia for a few weeks. The journey on the bus was relatively calm, yet bumpy at times and we stopped along the way for a break/refreshments. In general, it was a very “virgin” landscape from Poi Pet to Siem Reap. Throughout the c. 3 hour journey, very few houses, buildings, municipalities... mostly just green fields spreading into the horizon. Quite the setting for an afternoon bus ride nearing sunset. Also comes to show how virgin Cambodia is as a country (how how virgin it has been left – or turned into – by its most recent and devastating political/governing classes. Cfr. Khmer Rouge) given that along the main artery connecting the country to Thailand there is nothing but pastures, pastures and more pastures. Upon arriving in Siem Reap, we were quickly approached by the usual suspects (i.e. tuk tuk drivers) who were not only hoping to be our escorts into town right there and then (as the main bus stop is c. 5km outside of town) but also our “drivers” during our visit of the Angkor temples over the course of the following days. Most of the guys on the bus with me hadn’t booked a hostel and didn’t have much of a clue re. where they would be staying. Regardless, I shared a tuk tuk into town with Eric for a more than reasonable price and let them know where I was staying. The other guys ended up opting for other hostels/guest houses but we made planes to meet up in the evening for dinner/drinks. This whole-day trip had left me quite hungry (as I had only had a very light breakfast on the train, consisting of cookies and a juice) and was looking forward to a decent meal later on that evening. I found my hostel quite easily and proceeded with the customary check-in procedures. At reception I ran into a very nice and welcoming Chilean guy, Andres, who I accidentally took for an Argentinean (apologies...). He invited me to join him and a few other guys from the hostel for dinner but as I had already made plans I told him we could always meet up later on. And so I joined Eric, John and Dean (two other dudes whom I met on the bus from the border) for dinner on the notorious and eponymous “Pub Street” which is one of the main streets in Siem Reap and the centre of the post sunset entertainment. We enjoyed a nice meal, shared an interesting conversation and hit one of the local bars. Needless to say that while not being very big and even if the town does not count too many evening hang out spots, we were still able to enjoy the bucket-filled nightlife on Pub Street. It is rather sad though that given the gigantic tourist appeal of the Angkor temples and the tourist invasion of the town, inevitable contrast spur from every corner when juxtaposing the crowds of opulent foreigners with the underprivileged locals. It is not uncommon to see masses of local tuk tuk drivers standing outside the main bars on Pub Street in the hope to desperately clinch a “taxi” drive back for a drunk tourist or little girls and boys begging on the main street or exchanging flowers and other objects for some spare change. Sad reality that some forget while they are cruising through the country, getting wasted and visiting the temples.

After an enjoyable evening, I woke up at around 11am and met my Chilean buddy (who happened to be in the same dorm as me) and a few others people from the hostel (Alex, Jack and Edwyn) at the lobby and prepared to hit the temples. Typically, most people get around the gigantic complex in a tuk tuk or (the laziest and more well-off ones) taxi, but we opted for a more conventional and cheaper means of transportation: bicycles. We each rented one for 1usd and headed towards the temples. Let me say that while being a complete workout given the c. 20-30km we cycled per day (as ended up going the following day as well), it was a completely fascinating, unique and relaxing way of exploring the temples. After paying the 20usd daily entrance fee, we began our visit by going to the famous Angkor Wat. There, one is quickly dwarfed by the temple protected by a surrounding basin (most likely devised to protect the temple from intruders and the like back in the day) and standing at the end of an endless boulevard. On the way down that main alley, we were quickly approached by a young girl who was promoting her family’s food shack/hut situated on one of the sides of the “main” avenue and on the way to the temple. We secured a very good deal from her (2usd for a meal consisting of chicken fried rice and a soft drink) and told her we’d be visiting the temple before joining her for lunch. The temple was simply amazing... During this trip, I have had the chance to visit 5 of the world’s New Seven Wonders (Machu Picchu, Christ the Redeemer, The Great Wall, The Taj Mahal and Petra) and quite frankly Angkor Wat (or the whole Angkor temples complex for that matter) does not fall short of any of those. After a very enjoyable lunch and the classic photo shoot in front of the temple we took our bikes (which we had left at a “bike parking” escorted by some local children who agreed to watch them if we bought a bottle of water from them upon our return) and headed to Bayon or the “face temple”. Another impressive sight, yet very different from Angkor Wat, as the former stands out for the face-shaped stones and silhouettes present across its immensely rich 12th century decoration. There, and in first instance to protect ourselves from the seasonal and common afternoon showers, we spent quite some time. First we inspected all the hidden corners and then messed around with some of the faces by taking silly group and individual photos. Nothing out of the ordinary but still very fun!  We then headed back towards Angkor Wat in the hope to catch sunset atop a nearby hill but ended up going inside the temple and witnessing it from there. Amazing and very inspirational moment... In the evening, some of us went to a guesthouse close to our hostel which was known for its British pies and pasties (hanging out with Brits, that’s what one gets!!) and which turned out to be worth the stroll. Delicious steak and ale pie with gravy and mash! Yes sir. Later on, we returned to “Pub street” for our daily dose of entertainment and bar hopping. Good times in which we enjoyed some crazy dancing, pool games and beer to top off a very physically-demanding day. That all culminated in a few of us driving a tuk tuk around Siem Reap. Kuddos to the friendly tuk tuk driver who accepted to lend us his vehicle for a few minutes and let us arse around with it. There is visual evidence of my driving skills but I am still waiting for one of my buddies to share the videos with me.

The next morning, similar game plan imposed itself off the bat: another day cycling around the temples. I was quite keen to return as the previous day, and although we had visited the emblematic Angkor Wat, we had barely managed to cover c. 20% of the whole complex. The prospects of another c. 20-30kms on a bike did not put me off one bit! During the course of the day we saw very different and unique temples, some of which may be known to some of you, like Ta Prohm (featured in the movie “Tomb Raider”) which is amazing for having been completely overtaken and almost swallowed by the surrounding jungle... roots weaving their way amid the temple walls, fungus growing all over its structure and so on. Some pics below for the curious ones. Another highlight of the day was the improvised game of volleyball we shared with some locals. A brief not here related to the Ankgor complex... While foreigners have to pay 20usd per day to enter the temples and the surrounding area, locals are exempt of such a fee and can wander around there freely. Some even live inside and off the recurring and stable tourist industry, hence the group of people we met alongside one of the roads on an improvised sand volleyball court. One of my day companions, Nicolas, was unfortunate enough to get a flat tire and so had to stop at a local shop to see if someone there could repair it. In the meantime, the rest of us spotted this group of people – some playing and others watching and cheering with true passion and fervour. We asked if we could join and off we went. Although I was quite motivated by the prospects of joining in, I decided to be the “official” photographer of such an epic sporting duel in such a remote location. The locals were quite clearly better than us and ended up beating the living crap out of our improvised team but nonetheless we had a very fun c. 45 minutes. We parted ways after Nicolas’ tire got repaired and ended up reaching the hostel at c. 7pm, just after sunset. From there, we took a short break and joined a few others for dinner at a local Khmer restaurant. After a nice meal some of us went for a fish ( + conventional massage at a local parlour (incredibly relaxing!) before heading over to some bars for the evening. It was my last night in Cambodia and enjoyed it thoroughly as, in addition to the usual fun and games, I met up with a friend from university, Carol, whom I hadn’t seen since 2006.

The next morning and after a late wake up, I head over to the airport on a tuk tuk as I had a 2pm flight to catch back to Bangkok, from where I was due to fly to Mumbai later on that evening. The flight was rather uneventful but the plane did suffer from some turbulence here and there due to its very small size and the fact that it was being powered by two tiny propellers. Up next, and after a short layover, I would have to get ready for a couple of weeks in India, but that calls for a different post. Enjoy the pictures!