Posted by: Larzizou | December 9, 2008

From Bangkok to Siem Reap, Thailand and Cambodia

Now that we celebrated my birthday in Koh Tao and that my baby bro, Remouz or Remoustache or Remyfroudj, depending on how I feel like vilifying him, is due in a plane to Paris three days from now, we  don’t have much time together to investigate the mysteries of lost civilizations. We could stay in Bangkok, but we will head to Angkor Wat for a quick (48h) round trip. That sounds like a plan, right ?

The correct answer is… (c). Yeah, I just wanted to try this new poll feature. Back to our (traveling) business.

So here I am in Bangkok with Remoustachio and… Stefan. Pronounce “Shtefan” (he’s from Germany, Munich to be precise). You may remember him from here or there. Stefan just finished his 3 months internship stint in Shanghai and decided to treat himself with much (un)deserved vacations in South East Asia. As work is awaiting him back in Germany, he’s on a shorter schedule than I am, and we will only be together for a few days. We meet in Bangkok, or as *cool* people like to refer to it, in “B2K”. Below, let me introduce the tall, handsome, funny Stefan.

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We decide to play it smart and make our own way to Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat temples have rested for centuries, as opposed to take one of Khao San Road “scam” (according to Lonely Planet guide) buses. Also, given our tight time-line, we’re in a hurry so waiting the day after for another Khao San Road bus is not an option.

Now that I am well versed in the art of travelling completely almost trouble-free, I take the necessary precautions and google “from Bangkok to Siem Reap”. It’s no big news that almost anything useless can be found on the internet (think about this blog). The main hit is the following. We print it and will read it on the way – it’s over 15 pages long.

As early as Herr Stefan gets his Cambodian visa (you need one, Remouz and I will get ours at the border – hopefully), we jump in a cab to take us to Bangkok’s northern bus station, aka Mo’chit. A hell of a place. We get there at 4.26pm, meet Stefan that is waiting for us at 4.27pm (dare I say that, IN MY EXPERIENCE, Germans are always on time), buy bus tickets at 4.28pm, hop in the bus at 4.29pm; the bus leaves at 4.30pm sharp and it’s the last of the day in direction of Aranyaprathet, at the Thai/Cambodian border.

Five unpleasant hours. On shoddy roads. In a narrow bus. In which the air conditioning system is leaking (on my head). Great way to start ! A ride during which I rationalize to myself – “think of it as food : always keep the best for the end”. All this will end in apotheosis with Angkor temples ! Little did I know…

Clearly, we should have read carefully the information we printed. As we arrive in Aranyaprathet, on the Thai side of the border at 8.30pm, the border is closed. Obviously. We have no choice but to spend the night in this (ghost) town. We check in at the Aran Garden Hotel, that doesn’t look at all like an hotel, more like a cluster of small prison cells with malfunctioning air conditioner and a small TV set (but they do have TV in jail, don’t they ?).

It comes as a surprise to us, after having been around in Thailand where most Thai working in tourism speak English, that the hotel staff does not. The hotel rules on the door confirms that impression to have stepped slightly off the beaten track (but not too much).

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Quickly after checking in, we walk around the empty streets or Aranyaprathet for a short while, and while I am completely lost (I have no sense of direction), Stefan following a stamp-sized city map (or more so a basic drawing) somehow manages to take us to the open air food market where we eat phad thai and other local specialties for nothing (maybe less than 2USD per head for a complete meal). I amuse myself noticing that Coke bottles have a different capacity here – 600ml – than anywhere else I have been; to the point of looking fake. It is worth noting that we do not encounter any European or Western person in the streets or shop or the hotel during the evening. What have we gotten into ?

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We ask a Tuk Tuk driver to pick us up the following morning at 5h45 – we still have to cross the border and make our way to Siem Reap – and sleep tight.

Driiiing !!! Wake up alarm at 5h. We get ready quickly (don’t expect water pressure or hot water) and get down to meet our driver…who is not here. We quickly find another one however and the three of us cramped in such a small space hop in with our luggage. Oddly, but not unexpectedly (we have read the docket now), he stops us at a fake embassy where visa are sold at an inflated price. We kindly but firmly decline. I may have taken a negotiation workshop in law school, but Stefan – who hasn’t – is a far better negotiator than I am; he says it’s all about the experience, that he acquired in China. Sometimes, I feel sorry for the locals who I feel get ripped off. But never too long. It takes another 15 minutes to get to the border.

Looking at Cambodia from afar, you can already tell it’s another world, another stage of development. We exit Thailand more or less easily but before we arrive on the Cambodian soil, we are assailed by drivers willing to take us to Siem Reap in their car for a preferential rate : 80 USD. I am not sure how we are  supposed to understand “preferential” and wonder how much 80 USD in Cambodia make in the USA (500 USD ? 1,000 ? more ?). That is even before we actually enter Cambodia.

The next thing we need is a Cambodian visa. So we take out $20, the official cost we checked on the internet and at the embassy in Bangkok, but there is a catch: immigration officers, in spite of a billboard confirming the cost is $20 will not deliver a visa for less than $30 or 1,000 bahts (approximately $33). What has the developing world come down to. Cannot even be exploited anymore with peace of mind. We have to struggle now.

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Irrational. And annoying. We insist. Wait for ten minutes. Argue. But nothing works: they will not let us in. As a last resort, we get away paying “only” $20 plus 200 bahts each, or thirty percent extra the official cost.

Yeah, I have it.

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Just when I thought our journey was about to end does it take another, rather unexpected, turn. Apparently, Toyota Camaro taxi is the most convenient way to go from Poipet border to Siem Reap. (another option:   wait for a pick up truck to get full and hop in at the back). It takes an astounding 3h on unbelievably rocky roads to cross…less than 100 miles. Rumor has it that the road is maintained  in such a horrid shape so that the only airline company offering the Bangkok – Siem Reap fare benefits from the tourist windfall. Had I known, kickbacks would have kicked me back to Bangkok.

It strikes me that, directly at the other side of the border, the vibe is completely different. More intense. More populated. Maybe more aggressive too. More raw for sure.

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As we enter the country, we are still pursued by our wannabe driver who does not want to take less than $45. The “normal” price being $30, we refuse. But he stays, below next to Stefan.

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Obviously, as we are the only tourists around that early (it’s 8am by now), we have bargaining power. But he mistakenly believes we will yield to his demand. So we walk away, all taxis around being controlled by the local mafia; another round of taxis – these, not controlled by the mafia – can be found 1km further at the closest. With our luggage, under the heat and humidity, it is not an easy kilometer to walk. At allows us to get acquainted with the country.

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So dusty that most motorcycles are either wearing fully shut down helmets (as below, really odd under the heat and in this part of the world) or mouth-covering bandannas.

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All sorts of vehicles can be found on the road. Examples below.

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And these buildings… Palatial facades with worn out interiors.

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Finally we settle for a taxi after an hour of negotiations. It will take three long hours on the road from Poipet to Siem Reap.  Driving through the countryside is also the occasion to see more of the country we just stay 40h in, we think.

It does not disappoint. At all.

Here are a few elements we witness :

– Cambodian People Party boards every 14.5 meters on the side of the road.

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– Drivers handing money to police officers…who pocket it.

– These sort of vehicles fixing the road while we’re on it.

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– Sorts of lawnmowers turned into carriages

– Dust, dust and more dust

– Cisterns neglectfully but regularly (say every 5 km) wetting our windshield.

– Very odd traffic on the road, even more so than in India (hard to achieve), among what: kids on bicycles (think that it’s almost a highway), 20 or so people on a pickup truck some of them sitting at the front before the windshield, kids on top of a bull riding it as if it were a horse (with handles), motorcyclists with hundreds of chickens tied to the moto by their thighs… All that on a road alternately made out of sand, tar and gravel.

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And done. It’s early afternoon and we arrive in Siem Reap, a backpacker Mecca that somehow reminds me of  Cuzco in Peru. It took us almost 24h. Do I regret it ? Not at all. Nobody can take that (memory) away from me, would sing Sinatra.

Before heading to the temples, we opt for a quick lunch en ville. Stefan suggests the Red Piano so there we go. As a token of quality, popular appreciation or eternity, the restaurant feels the need to mention “since 2000”. on its menu I guess it’s never too late to start.

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Trying local delicacies. The food is rather good.

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People are very friendly here. Here, the friendly waitress.

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And so is the bill. People use both the US dollar and the Cambodian riel, both being dispended at ATMs. Roughly 5,000 riels for one dollar. Obviously, cents coins cannot be found around, accordingly, spare money is handed both in dollar AND riels.

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Who said Germans and Frenchmen could not be friends ? Certainly not Robert Schuman or Jean Monnet.

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And Remouz could not be froudj ? Certainly not I.

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Angkor Wat and the other wats (a wat is a monastery temple in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand; read here for more) are 15 minutes away from the city. We’ll get a glimpse today – hopefully the sunset from elevated lesser known temples – and the real deal tomorrow – hopefully the sunrise and Angkor Wat. Plus, after 4pm, no additional fee for the entrance the following day (a steep $20!).

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Seeing more local people.

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They are waiting for you.

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And here we are. Cambodian temples.

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A lost civilization. Classical Khmer architecture. What else ?

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Looks great so far.

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The sky is threatening though.

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Will Remoustache ever smile ?

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A gate to eternity…

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A gate to beauty…

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You have to notice…

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…the precise carving…

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…and the heavy rain.

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Remy getting in touch with the spirit.

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And back to his master : I.

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Tourists will always be tourists. Wary. I look at them with envy : why did we not take an umbrella ? Because I am stupid.

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Remouz hiking – downward.

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Apollo. From Tunisia.

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Particularly slippery with the rain !

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So yeah, not such a great sunset. But enough for a two-hour first impression.

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That’s the real deal – bbq. Cambodian bbq. Tonight, we are following both our instinct and the Lonely Planet guide.

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Europe. Oddly, many French people in town around us, that we see walking and hear Frenching it up.

Is France so unpleasant that its inhabitants feel the need to gat away from it ?

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The real real deal. A mix of different meats – crocodile, goat, snake, frog legs, beef … – surrounded by noodles and vegetable. First time I eat snake – I like the texture. Too bad they don’t have dog meat.

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It’s her first day at the restaurant; she speaks some French (aka love language).

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Where the backpacker crowd gathers at night – Angkor What ?

For two buckets ordered, you get a free “Angkor What” tee shirt. Their marketing strategy is working pretty well : I have seen a few of these all around South America and Asia.

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We have quite an entertaining night there. But what follows is CLASSIFIED.

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Responses

  1. […] was to follow the last post was classified. Still, as my frequent flyers, you are entitled to a partial coverage of my […]

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    Phyllis


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