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In and out of Cambodia

Via Angkor Wat, Angkor What? and two overland border crossings

sunny 31 °C

The night we left for Cambodia, the fifth country of my trip, I realised it was two months since I'd first flown to Delhi and I was celebrating my two month travel-versary on a night bus. And this night bus made the coffin bus look like a half decent bed! Upstairs on the bus (no idea what was downstairs - our luggage was piled in a central stairwell) were pairs of recliner seats where you sat with your legs stretched out in front (if you were short enough which even I was not), into the back of the chair in front. With our hand luggage as well it was cramped to say the least and I longed for the coffin-bus beds again. We drove for about two and a half hours. Exhausted but unable to sleep, I read for a couple of hours before shutting my eyes and attempting unsuccessfully to get comfortable whilst not disturbing Sarah (who I didn't think had got to sleep but at least had her eyes closed) as little as possible. The only upside was that the roads were deserted so the driver found little need to beep his horn.

At 3am the bus stopped and the aircon went off. We'd arrived at the border (which didn't open until 6am) and the drivers went to sleep meaning that even getting off to pee in a bush/look at the deserted border area was no longer an option. I may have eventually nodded off (not into proper sleep, just the sort of sleep that I'd become accustomed to on transport: eyes shut without the desire to open them by still relatively aware of what's going on around you) but at six we were woken up and herded in first to leave Vietnam, then back on the bus for 100m to obtain our visas and enter Cambodia.

One of the first things I noticed in Cambodia was a casino, less than 100m from the border checkpoint - JJ, our guide in HCMC, had explained to us that as gambling is illegal in Vietnam, a lot of Vietnamese visited Cambodia for its casinos near the border - I just hadn't expected them to be quite so near the border.

Finally, back on the bus, Cambodian visa in hand and after a breakfast of yesterday's dry bread, I may have slept for a short while. At eleven thirty we arrived in Phnom Phen where we had a ninety minute wait before our next bus to Siem Reap. We'd decided to skip Phnom Phen as we hadn't heard many rave reviews about it and we were on a tight schedule still. From what we did see, ever so briefly of it, it was a nicer looking city than I'd had in mind but aside from that we had a dreadful iced coffee, couldn't find anywhere selling fruit not in wholesale amounts, couldn't get money out the cash point and saw the usual smattering of sex-tourists. Then it was back on the bus.

I'd largely ignored the scenery en route to Phnom Phen in an effort to get some sleep. All I knew is that we'd crossed the Mekong on a vehicle ferry and it looked just as murky as when we'd last seen it up in Laos. On the journey from Phnom Phen to Siem Reap however I was a little more alert and observant. The countryside was completely flat as far as the eye could see and yet it was beautiful. As the sun set over bamboo homes on stilts, I decided I liked Cambodia already.

We'd been expecting to arrive in Siem Reap at around 3pm but given that we boarded the bus at 1pm it seemed unlikely. As mosquitos took over the bus and Gangnam style was played seemingly on repeat 3pm came and went, then 5pm, then the sun went down. I didn't know how much more of this I could take but my options were limited to either staying on the bus or disembarking and seeking out a kindly Cambodian family willing to adopt me.

Eventually, at 8pm, a mere 22 hours after we'd began our journey in HCMC, the bus pulled into Siem Reap bus stand which is still 3km out of town. As we disembarked, I looked jealously at the people migrating towards tuk tuk drivers holding signs bearing their names. It had been the most difficult and uncomfortable journey of the trip so far and when we saw a teeny Cambodian man standing at the back of the crowd of drivers, unexpectedly waving a sign that said 'Welcome Rebeca two pax', I almost cried in relief. Three of us (we'd somehow picked up a New Yorker) and our bags piled into the tuk tuk and set off for the guest house we'd booked. Checking into a room furnished with a double bed each (for a mere £3.10 each!) we felt it must have been karma rewarding us for the difficult 22hours we'd spent in transit.

The three of us made it into town, ate Vietnamese food (that we'd come to like more and more towards the end of our time in Vietnam) drank a couple of beers and somehow made it to eleven before crashing majorly.

Our £3.10 for the room each also got us a free breakfast so rested and fed we set off the next day in search of bicycles to rent for a day in Angkor. Bikes cost us a dollar each and arriving at the ticket check point having somehow not passed the ticket booth, we had to pay another dollar each for a motorbike ride back to buy passes.

After coughing up twenty dollars each we were armed with photo passes for a day of temple visiting and returned to our bikes and continued the short distance to Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples. Passing stalls and cries of 'hey lady, cold drink' we made our way across the water onwards the temple complex and spent an hour or so exploring the ruins with the sun beating down on us, monkeys scampering around and, unsurprisingly, hoards of other tourists, mainly large groups of old Americans ooh-ing and aah-ing at old things.

After Angkor Wat we stopped for a well needed coconut before continuing to the largest of the temple complexes, Angkor Thom. This one seemed mainly populated by Japanese tourists posing for photos with the faces that had been carved into the stone. Entering one of the pyramid structures, it was remarkable how it had stayed up so long as the roof was just piles of rocks places seemingly haphazardly on top of one another. It took a couple of hours to see all of Angkor Thom so we stopped for a very late lunch and to let our bums recover from uncomfortable bike seats.

In the late afternoon we took in four more temples (and cycled a very long way), determined to get our twenty dollars worth. First was Ta Prohm, set of Tomb Raider which was extremely crumbly with 'scaffolding' attempting to hold up the walls whilst trees grew over them, up them and out if them. The next three temples were smaller and quieter; Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup at sunset. Having already cycled a long way in the afternoon heat, it was now getting dark and we had a good 15km journey back into town on mostly unlit roads.

Wit such a short time in Cambodia we didn't have many things on our to do list. In addition to visiting Angkor Wat, we wanted to eat Cambodian barbecue and go to a bar we'd read about called Angkor What?. So that evening we headed out to find a Cambodian barbecue. It wasn't difficult as it featured on the menu of every restaurant in town.

The traditional phnom pleung (meaning hill of fire) is essentially a DIY table top barbecue featuring a range of usual and unusual meats. We ordered beef, squid, ostrich, crocodile and kangaroo (and some wine). The barbecue was a metal dome with a fire underneath. The waitress poured some broth into a moat around the edge of it, rubbed some pork fat over the dome and gave us our raw meats (each labeled with a little picture of the animal), some raw noodles and uncooked veg before leaving us to our own devices. We did a pretty good job of cooking everything to perfection whilst knocking back wine - to be fair I've had plenty of practice cooking under the influence. The kangaroo and the ostrich went down very well and I was pleased with my efforts at cooking the squid. The only one that was slightly iffy was the crocodile.

As we were eating, Cat and Ryan walked past - a British couple who'd been on the last three journeys with us since we'd left Hoi An and who were making their way home through Asia after a year working in Aus. They'd just arrived from Phnom Penh and sat down at the table next to us to cook their dinner too. Despite having a 5am trip to the temples for sunrise booked the following day, after we'd all eaten and had a couple of cocktails they followed us to Angkor What? bar where we made the mistake of ordering buckets of cocktails. The bar was heaving, we secured a table outside and before long were dancing on benches to Gangnam Style. One bucket became two, the dancing continued, we gained new recruits, we got a free t-shirt for ordering so many drinks and Ryan and Cat's 5am start was looking increasingly unlikely.

Eventually I took myself home (presumably by tuk tuk) and was woken up by Sarah knocking on the unlocked door a short while later.

The next morning we woke up and were shocked to find that it was 12.30 meaning we were an hour late for check out and, more upsettingly had missed the free breakfast. Feeling rough I headed out to organise our next bus journey (that evening back to Thailand) and get some breakfast (which took a while and several points at a picture of omelette and bread and then pointing outside to indicate 'take-away' before the message was received). We'd just settled into bed to eat when they came to kick us out - seemingly we couldn't even pay for an extra night as there were people downstairs already waiting to take our room.

So we relocated to the hotel across the street that had a pool. Sarah swam and sunbathed and I lay on a sofa and slept until 5.30pm when I woke up to find I'd been surrounded by a large group of Aussies conversing loudly and apparently oblivious to the sleeping welsh girl taking up three seats in their midst.

Wandering into town, we went in search of hangover pizza, walked around the night market and had a $3 pedicure before heading back to the hotel sofa to wait until 1am when we'd be picked up for our 2am departure to the Poipet border between Cambodia and Thailand. By that time I was feeling semi-recovered although had quite messed up my sleeping patterns. It was a shame to be leaving Cambodia so quickly but with both Sarah and I having flights booked out from Singapore we had a schedule to stick to and the brief time we had spent in Cambodia had involved everything we'd hoped it would.

We were pleased to find Ryan and Cat at the bus stop making the same journey as us. It turned out they had had a slightly more eventful evening than us or so it would seem. Unfortunately neither of them remembered much of the evening but Cat woke up with her handbag missing and in a random hotel - it would seem that unable to find her own she'd checked herself into the nearest one. It the morning, unable to pay, a staff member had driven her around looking for her hotel only to find that Ryan also had not made it back. He also didn't know where he'd been but was shoeless with ripped shorts and several scratches when he finally arrived back at their hotel. They'd missed the 5am trip for sunset but as Ryan returned, Cat was just boarding a bus for an 8.30 trip so Ryan, shoeless and in ripped dirty clothing also headed off for a day looking at temples in the Angkor heat. Their adventures made our evening and subsequent hangover day seem very tame but I was glad I'd had some rest before the journey ahead of us.

We drove for 4 hours to the boarder in a small bus. Having unwisely chosen front seats we suffered the glare of oncoming vehicles as well as having no where to put our feet. Needless to say when 6am came not many people had slept. We then waited for an hour, moved ourselves and our luggage to another bus that drove us for just five minutes to the boarder before leaving us to cross on foot.
Our previous two overland border crossings had been quiet and organised compared to this. The border opened at 7am and already there was a huge gaggle of locals and backpackers in a queue resembling a crowd whilst some locals seemed to walk straight through, others joined a different queue and nothing moved anywhere quickly. There was also an overwhelming stench of bins and dried fish.

When we eventually made it to the front, we had our finger prints taken again, received our exit stamps passed into the most bustling no-mans land full of casinos, food stalls, carts being pulled and still a fishy stink. We walked 200m through no-mans land before arriving at the next big queue, the queue to enter Thailand. Two and a half hours after the process began having entered Thailand and passed through customs we arrived at the other side and, after the group from the bus arrived in drive and drabs, were driven a short way in a tuk tuk before being shepherded on to minibuses for a further four hours journey to Bangkok (actually 5 as the driver stopped to take off and then put back on again one of the wheels).

Next stop swimming pool.

Posted by madeinmold 07:42 Archived in Cambodia

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