Having spent an inspiring 2 weeks at CPOC, it really was time to get back on the road. On the morning I left 6 others did the same- A French group and two Catalans. Obviously couldn’t go on without me! Donde esta me chica latina?
So, suitably packed, we waited for the daily morning minivan to take us into Phnom Penh and onwards. Problem! It had been booked privately for the day. No matter though, Mr. Kim had arranged an alternative…
…Those familiar with the Toyota Camry will know it as a reliable workhorse throughout Asia, however will also attest that it’s not exactly a suitable vehicle for transporting 8 adults in comfort and style. It’s a small saloon ferfeckssake! Therefore, nearly 2 hours in said vehicle over a predominantly awful dirt road was a bit of a trial.
Bidding farewell to the others, I got the driver to drop me at the bus station to Siem Reap. This failed slightly, although to be fair to him he did drop me at the offices of a bus company who did go there. Albeit in a rather more rustic local manner than I’d planned.
The woman at the counter promised a journey time of approximately 5 hours, and charged me $7. A bargain by any reckoning. The bus was due to depart in half an hour. Ideal… Once loaded we left, albeit 15 minutes late, straight into impossibly gridlocked Phnom Penh traffic. The original estimate was starting to look optimistic.
We also began stopping. A lot. Sometimes for passengers, sometimes for freight. But stopping. And then at cafes. A lot. Whilst I was pleased with the easy access to toilet-style facilities I really was rather keen to get to Siem Reap and felt that the original time estimate was becoming simply fraudulent!
Added to this, the incredibly mean old woman in the seat behind me kept poking my arm every single time my seat strayed beyond bolt upright, despite the fact she was lying across both seats so it didn’t remotely affect her anyway. I signed to her several times that the seat was a bit BR-O-K-EN so it was impossible for it to stay upright.
At one brief stop two men jumped on the bus in an inexplicably aerated state and one began fist fighting with the bus driver, thankfully whilst we were only travelling slowly. It was all a bit handbags at dawn and I still don’t know why it kicked off, however it was still of mild concern to our overall wellbeing and the by-now ludicrous journey estimate. I began posting updates on Facebook from the 4 hour point, mainly for my own amusement and to pass the time.
The road to Siem Reap is, in theory, a major National Highway. In practice the amount of sections receiving renovation have turned it into half A road, half dirt track. The transitions between each stage involve a significant height difference. Whilst our driver was quite on-the-ball, he did nonetheless miss one, which sent the bus skyward with an almighty crash, which after the initial shock all of the other passengers found hilarious.
We arrived into Siem Reap a good 4 hours behind schedule. Quite impressive on a 5 hour trip. I was immensely thankful for having a local SIM card in my phone (Travel tip 101- ALWAYS do this!) since I was able to call ahead to my hostel and arrange a Tuk Tuk to pick me up from the bus station for free.
As we arrived it became clear how good an idea this had been- As the lone Westerner on the bus seeing a group of 7-9 Tuk Tuk drivers descending on the bus door was concerning. I turned to the bus driver who laughed and shrugged, mutual pat on the shoulder and into the melee.
Arriving, dusty and shattered at the Siem Reap Hostel (Don’t let the name fool you, it’s one of many in the town!) was a pleasant surprise- One of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in Cambodia/Vietnam, with a mainly decent crowd. Thoughts of an early night to see the sunrise were dashed when I pulled up a seat at the bar and got chatting to the manager. 4 beers later, and feeling it, I crawled to bed.
Less than fresh, I woke up at 4am in order to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. This is a popular activity as the crowds of tourists already there confirmed.
A few atmospheric sun rising shots and then into the main temple complex to explore. Lots and lots of identical stone corridors. TO be honest I was underwhelmed with the main temple, despite its antiquity.
Our next stops were Angkor Thom and other, smaller but interesting temples. To my mind actually far more impressive and intricate than Angkor Wat itself!
There are shrines within some of these temples, really calm restful places that it was nice to spend a few minutes in, smelling the incense and imagining the buildings in days gone by. It was again disappointing to see that 90% of the other tourists didn’t manage to remove their shoes when entering these sacred places…
One of the most fascinating temples was one used in the filming of Tomb Raider. The whole temple complex at Siem Reap was reclaimed from the jungle however this one in particular looked like the jungle wanted it back, with trees growing wholesale in and around the buildings. Taking pictures without other tourists in them was challenging to say the least due to the number of flag-toting Chinese tour groups tramping through!
Whilst on the tour we grabbed some food. There is a little cluster of tourist oriented eateries near the temple, with ridiculously pushy waitresses. Well overpriced-You know this when you are practically tackled into a seat and then manage to see the stupidly pricey menu and she starts haggling! Er, no. The sandwich stall down the way imposed a small but manageable tourist tax instead.
Siem Reap is known as Temple Town because, well, that’s pretty much all the town has to offer. I’d tend to agree… It also boasts some of the most obnoxious tourists I’ve met on my trip thus far. Plenty in the hostel too, so it was lucky I had met some nice guys on my temple tour and so managed to avoid the twat element.
So, an early start and surprisingly tiring few hours wandering the temples in the blistering heat before lunch. In the afternoon my attempts to nap failed so I decided to join one of the sunset tours- These allow you to photograph the sandstone temples in their best light. Back into the Tuk Tuk and along some seriously dusty, fumey city roads… All worth it.
I wasn’t planning to do anything the next day, however Shaamil and Katie whom I’d met on the temple tour convinced me a half-day trip to the nearby Floating Village was worth it. I’m glad we did it in the end, it was fascinating.
In the morning another encounter with the muppet tourist wing involved a woman from the UK who had signed up on the board for the hostel’s Floating Village tour, but then just found an outside driver and asked him to pick her up and expected us to join her. She didn’t appear impressed when I told her how out of order she was and the three of us just left without her- This is a prime example of the type of tourist who does nothing to help the local economy and treats the ‘locals’ with flagrant disrespect. The Hostel’s drivers rely on the work from us guests rather than being able to ply the streets and to simply cut them out was completely wrong. That’s their day’s work gone. Ah well…
So, we went with one of the hostel’s Tuk Tuk drivers into a local village, whereupon we boarded a ‘longtail’ boat, common throughout SE Asia, to tour the Floating Village. It was fascinating to see how much the local economy centred around fishing and tourism, and also to hear how the village is only actually under water for a few months each year, meaning there is a real scramble to bring in as much tourist revenue as possible during the flooded times, to supplement the year-round but meagre fishing income.
We then boarded dugout canoes for a trip through the mangrove forest. These are rowed by the women of the village since the men are engaged in fishing. And obviously any children who need to be cared for! Staying dead centre of these is vital because they aren’t the most stable of beasts.
Cup of coffee at the floating restaurant and then back to the Tuk Tuk… Or not. Our longtail hadn’t really been a happy camper from the start, and we broke down on the way back, it seemed terminal but was cunningly fixed by our driver with some plastic and string. He deserved the modest tip.
Leaving Siem Reap, I’d decided to take the “indirect” bus to Bangkok. The price difference was huge, direct buses weighing in at $28 against my $10 ride. Basically all that it means is that you have to change buses at the border. No biggie.
The trip on the Cambodian side was straightforward enough, with an entertaining stop at a touristy shop/cafe to get supplies/refreshments. The first amusement being the woman attempting to ‘tax’ our toilet trips and the second being the numerous Western women rejecting the cafe’s bizarrely pristine squat toilets. How long have you been in Asia?!? The cafe’s $1 bottles of Coke were undoubtedly overpriced however the entertaining exchange in which I bartered for free bananas made it halfway worthwhile. Tourist prices are never a personal thing, and if you enter an interaction with smiles and humour then you generally end up with more than you bargained for, rather than being that twat who is arguing for the sake of 5p. I’ve been him. I generally manage to catch myself now when I start nitpicking over pennies.
The customs and immigration on the Cambodian side were extremely simple, albeit they did involve an hour’s wait in the boiling sun, and I can’t even remember there being a scowly man after the immigration officers staring at passports for the first time on my trip. From there you have to walk through the border shops and shady casinos before starting at Thai immigration. I picked up the inexplicably cheapest and probably coldest beers I’ve seen in Cambodia from one such shop, a dollar for 2.
Sadly they weren’t cold by the time I got to drink them. The queue at the Thai side was massive, since a few tourist buses had hit at once, and it took nearly 3hrs standing in line to get through. Easy enough though, no backhanders or tense moments needed. Onto a surprisingly comfortable and uncrowded minibus the other side, and off to Bangkok…
Horrendous traffic greeted us soon after crossing the border. I kicked myself that I’d given up my comfy passenger seat for the centre middle one, since I was to spend the next 7 hours perched on it. It was with a slight sinking feeling that we reached Suvarnabhumi Airport on the outskirts of Bangkok and were still in gridlocked traffic because I remember clearly on my last trip taking 2hrs to get to the centre…
Aargh! Luckily the traffic cleared and the driver kindly dropped me off at the Skytrain station instead of on Backpacker Street so I didn’t have to tangle with Bangkok’s cabbies to get to my Sukhumvit hotel.
In the end it took nearly 13 hours to get to Bangkok. Another one I’ll chalk up to my ‘ambitious journey times’ sheet. To be fair I didn’t remotely believe the hostel when they claimed it would take 8.
So then, Bangkok, weekend, wild partying? Naaah, as it happens I didn’t fancy it. I’ve been to Bangkok three times now, and compared to some of the Asian capitals I’ve seen it’s a grubby hole, filled with lonely fat old men living out their Thai bride fantasies, and every sort of wrongness openly for sale at the street markets. Every visit makes this clearer.
Bangkok was also at its steamy best with temperatures in the high 30’s and huge humidity (weather app quoting ‘feels like 41’ and I’d agree)
So, I mainly ate, drank and slept for the 2 nights I was there. Oh, and saw Spectre at the cinema because, why not? I will attest however that being immersed in such a quintessentially British fiction for 2 hours and then leaving the dark cocoon of the cinema to emerge into downtown Bangkok was profoundly confusing.
So then, afternoon Skytrain to the airport and an evening flight to NZ. Bring on the next adventure.