Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Cambodia is to Thailand is as...

Nevada is to California! It's the little red-headed step child, which just so happens to attract a crowd because, just as soon as you go across the border, there's legalized gambling! (with the appropriate 'gambling is a very dangerous habit' warning signs on the Thai side of the border). More importantly for me, Cambodia is also home to Angkor Wat, and I decided to take a mini detour from Bangkok to go and see it.

First there was the getting there! The trip to the Cambodian border was fairly uneventful - I had missed the two trains from Bangkok and the tourist bus, which all turned out in my favor in the end, as I took a regular public bus, which is apparently faster than the train (!? Lonely Planet knows though, right?) and is much, much cheaper, while providing the exact same accomodations, than the tourist bus. Towards the end of the trip, I met Dean - a Thai 24-year old who's spent a year studying in Canada (UBC in Victoria, I think), so he spoke really good English - apparently he is now in the import/export business, so he was just visiting the Cambodian border outposts learning about trade between Cambodia and Thailand. Unfortunately, we arrived in Aranyaprathet (the Thai border town) at approximately 7:50, and with the border closing at 8, we were stuck there for the night. The evening was spent at a neighborhood bar/restaurant with a house band performing distinctly Thai renditions of a variety of Beatles songs, along with a few American classics. And then there was a Korean tourist on stage singing... BTW, Thai renditions means (to me) that the melody is dead on, but you have a hard time recognizing the song anyway, because the singer's accent makes it difficult to pick up the lyrics.

So this far, my travels had included a bus and a tuk-tuk (rickshaw) from the bus station to the hotel... Bright and early in the morning (so as to get to the border just as it opened), I was introduced to a yet new mode of transportation when I jumped on the back of a bright pink motorcycle a local lady was driving for the ride to the border crossing. Crossing the border is trivial - US citizens get a 30-day Cambodian visa instantly upon arrival (with a passport photo and $20). So, on into Cambodia, specifically the border town Poi Pet, which, as mentioned above, is a little bit of a Las Vegas-style gambling haven right on the Thai border (more on that later). But it is on the Thai border, and Angkor Wat, which was the whole point of the trip, is a 3-4 hour car ride away, so you get options - taxi (expensive), tourist bus (expensive + not sure when it'll be going), or a local suggestion: pickup truck! When in Rome... clearly I try the pickup truck, which will take me the four/five hours to Siam Reap for barely more than $10... That's the good news! The bad news is that you're riding in the back of a pickup truck, absolutely packed with people (easily more than 20 in back, on roof, and stuffed into the cab). It's a rather interesting experience actually (plus, I'm pretty sure the locals thought I was utterly insane!), the downsides are that the road is unpaved(!), so you get absolutely covered with dust (at least I picked up a face mask prior to leaving), and the locals are apparently capable of being quite comfortable in very confined spaces for very long times! (it's no wonder all the contortionists in Cirque du Soleil are Asian!). I, on the other hand, actually needed to stretch my legs out on occastion, so the ride was a bit of a give and take, until I'd eventually get into a comfortable position. And then, of course, we'd stop to drop off/pick up passengers and their bags, rearrange, and the whole process starts all over.

Getting there... on the back of a pickup truck!

And after a rather long five hours of this (most of these I had spent debating the merits of having this experience, which seemed pretty cool, vs. the significantly greater comfort I would have had in a taxi... Conclusion: this is ok, but take a taxi back!). Some impressions of Cambodia along the way: it reminds me of Kazakhstan! The roads are unpaved (just like Kazakhstan)! But they do drive on the right side of the road (yeah, former French colony), even though most of the vehicles have the steering wheels on the right also (boo neighboring British influence in Thailand/India!). Their currency is also fairly worthless and clearly unstable (1$ = 31 Thai Baht, while 1 Thai Baht = 100 Cambodian R-something's), so much like most of Central Asia, they're perfectly happy to just use US Dollars! In fact, the ATM's just give you dollars, and most prices are in dollars... and if you don't have dollars, they seem far happier to accept Thai Baht than the local currency. You also see an occastional sprinkling of Soviet-built Kamaz trucks... But that's the countryside, once you get to Siam Reap (city near Angkor Wat), you're clearly in a French colonial town! There are fancy hotels everywhere... there are nice restaurants, with both local and European cuisine. The prices seems a little high for Cambodia, but quite reasonable in the grand scheme of things. In fact the $10 asparagus, scallops, and shrimp salad I had for dinner may have been one of the best meals I'd had recently... But finally, to complete the journey from Bangkok, take another ride on the back of a motorcycle to actually get to Angkor Wat, which charges $20 for entry, but takes a digital picture and gives you a ticket with your picture on it! As for Angkor Wat itself, it's quite amazing and well worth taking the trip from Thailand (you can, of course, just fly Bangkok to Siam Reap direct if you want to skip the adventure of getting there). The first impression is that you've stumbled onto a set of a Lara Croft movie! This is a gigantic old temple right in the middle of the forest/jungle. Built in the 13th/14th century, but quite well preserved. It's also part of the old Khmer kingdom, so it's completely unlike anything else you see in the area. The temples are quite intricately designed and decorated, and look quite imposing sitting seemingly in the middle of an untocuhed forest!

Angkor Wat

After seeing Angkor Wat, I considered staying in Siam Reap for the night, but that just seemed like it would be expensive, not to mention that lacking a Cambodia Lonely Planet, I didn't really have much of an idea of where to stay or what else to see. So, instead, I recruited a taxi to get me a ride back to Poi Pet (for roughly four times the price of the pickup truck btw). But a short (and comparatively comfortable) three and a half hours of riding on un-paved Kazakhstani... erm, Cambodian roads later, I was back at the border (around 10:30 at night, so well past the border closure, of course, I was just aiming to get moving first thing the next morning). Finding a place to stay also proved an adventure, as apparently the Thais really like to celebrate the Chinese New Year by going gambling in Poi Pet. And unlike Vegas, the hotel/casinos here actually have the concept of being full! After wondering all the way up and down the Poi Pet “strip,” I learned that none of the hotels actually had any rooms available (ended up staying in a rather nice, and inexpensive hotel just off the “strip,” on the Cambodian side, which of course charged be in Thai Baht!) The funny thing though is that even though the hotels didn’t have any rooms available, the casinos were far, far from full – apparently the Thais celebrate the Chinese New Year by doing a little gambling… but not too late into the night!

The next day ended up being a lot more low key – first the Thailand/Cambodia border might actually be the most efficient border crossing I’ve ever been to, as I was able to make it across in less than 20 minutes in the morning! Following that, took another Thailand bus (and was excited to be back in the land of buses, as opposed to pickup trucks!) to see a few more Khmer ruins on the Thai side of the border – starting with the Phanom Rung Temple, and a few other temples near it. The temples were impressive enough (especially Phanom Rung), but they don’t even begin to approach Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, so I’m glad I had made the trip across the border! After spending about four hours riding around on the back of a motorcycle seeing the temples, it was back onto a bus for a ride back to Bangkok (which included navigating my way through a transfer!), so after a couple of days of gazing at Khmer ruins I was right back in Bangkok for the night, waiting to get on a plane to fly down to the beach in Phuket!

Phanom Rung Temple

And an interesting temple nearby - Wat Khao Angkhan, with a giant reclining Buddha outside

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