Cambodian Blog

The Cambodian Blog:

Part I – Pak Thong Chai, Thailand, Friday 2nd January

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BKK Day: Rode the bus to Korat, arriving around 1700 Hrs, followed by Tuk-Tuk to train station, where I bought a ticket to Bangkok (BKK). Today is a public holiday which means a limited service. The train departs around 2230 Hrs, and as I have a designated coach and seat number this should mean no hassle when the time comes to board the train. The only slight problem is killing time for the next 5 hours, but a small price to pay for the opportunity to see one of the great man-made structures built since the dawn of time. Boarded train, to find it overloaded with passengers. Seat number (coach 10, seat 14) has someone is sitting in it, so needed to ask her to vacate. The woman concerned is not too happy but complies with my request. Let me explain something: Thai railway (which I know now), runs 3rd class seating, around 30 Baht, with no guarantee of a seat, (i.e. first come first served). A ‘reserved’ seat costs 70 Baht, but Thai people don’t pay much attention to ‘reservations,’ so this lady was unfortunate in the sense she chose this particular seat.

The lady in question muttered something unintelligible (I’m sure it wasn’t complimentary), then squeezed into a gap near my feet where she joined the other 30+ souls that adorned the floor of the carriage. Dilemma: the charitable part of me wanted to offer her my seat, but on the 6-hour journey my knees could never survive the squatting and standing,  plus she is younger than me, so I resist the temptation (I’d fail the exam to be a good Samaritan). For the next few hours I succumb to thoughts: the world as we know is an unfair place, divided between the haves and have not’s. Everything is relative, poor in the UK equals reasonable in other countries, and for the majority on board, they fit into the ‘have not’ category. I am tempted to put thoughts on virtual paper but desist, as producing my tablet now would only highlight this disparity. 

Tiredness creeps in, but I have to fight the longing to sleep and drift into bouts of dozing. The need to stay conscious is paramount, otherwise I might wake up and find myself minus my rucksack. The journey continues. I feel the need for the toilet but am unwilling to leave my bag or the seat. As it happens, the toilets are full with people sleeping on the floor (yes, the toilet floor). They get up and vacate temporarily every time someone needs, but pile back-in the moment it’s evacuated. The hours drag and we arrive in Bangkok; I with a tired body and mind.

The Journey to Cambodia: Part II – Bangkok to Aranyapraphet

It is 0430 hrs and my senses have (to a degree) come alive as I head straight to the ticket office and purchase a ticket for the next part of the journey.  This train has no seat booking arrangements, so I go straight to the carriage on Platform 3, find a seat, stow my rucksack, and settle. The carriages are cleaner and different in layout. Arranged in rows of 2 and 3 seaters alternating the length of the aisle, I am tempted to plonk myself on a 3 seater, but wary of recent experiences, choose a 2 seater. This turns out to be a wise decision, for as departure time approaches, the coaches rapidly fill. When the train departs, few spaces are available, although no one has claimed the space next to me. Bangkok is a huge city and  by the time we leave the outskirts for open country, we have stopped eleven times, each time collecting more passengers. My gratification at having an empty seat soon evaporates. However, no repeat of the scenes on board the Korat train, as this time railway police are operating onboard; overseen by a zealous superintendent who inspects everyone’s ticket and ensures baggage is stowed correctly.

Once the train leaves the outskirts, it picks up speed and I succumb to the steady click-clack of the wheels  and drift into a semi-doze. The train rumbled on for hours, the wind from the open windows cooling. Passenger numbers stay constant, as the ratio between embarkation and the joining balance out. My adjoining passenger embarks after 2 hours; relief at extra space to adjust my legs and body. The countryside remains a large expanse of flat, rice filled land, interspersed with banana, coconut and date palms. Feeling disappointed with the landscape: little variation. After a further 3 hours of clickety-clack we arrive at Aranyapraphet where I begin the hassle of crossing the border.

Cambodia Blog – The Journey to Cambodia: Part III – The border crossing and destination end

From Aranyapraphet railway station to the immigration checkpoint is a short tuk-tuk ride or a motorcycle taxi: I choose the latter: quicker and cheaper. A good number of foreigners have arrived, so I am keen to get there ahead of the crowd. Immigration is confusing, but as I have the visa issued in the UK, this saves me both time and money. l get my turn to present myself in front of an officer, hand over my passport and Cambodian immigration/departure form (filled in), along with Thai form (the departure slip) located inside the passport. The officer checks the paperwork and then asks where is my Thai departure form? I blankly stare, and tell him it’s inside passport, he becomes agitated and rambles in ever increasing decibels, telling me I’m wrong and not to argue with him. Next, he waves me away saying I need this form otherwise no entry. I move to the side followed by the hundred pairs of eyes queuing. Stopping to search my bag, my thoughts tell me it must have slipped out, and a feeling of panic begins to rise within me. A senior officer approaches and asks the problem. I explain the situation, he asks to see my passport and after a few moments pulls out the form. Relief floods over my tired body.  Together we return to the desk. The official remonstrates to the other officer, who instead of apologising, becomes even more agitated (covering for his ineptitude I imagine). I need to box clever. I too could say a few choice words, but the need is for discretion. Against the grain I mutter apologies; this appears to satisfy his need to ‘save face’; to have a calming effect. Still, better a few unmeant apologies than a night in a Cambodian cell! Free to enter the kingdom I exit the building, where the real scam awaits on the Cambodian side. The government has banned any transport other than official buses to come within 2/3 km of the immigration office.  This in effect allows them to collect a $10 transportation fee to the area where the buses and taxis for Siem Reap are parked. Another nice little earner (scam). A quick hop from one bus to another, $15 more and six hours later, my destination is reached

  Aranyapraphet to Siem Reap

Overall the journey took about 6 hours, which included an extended stay of around 45 mins in a small village whose name l did not record. The remarkable thing was that for most the journey only two items of interest come to mind:
1) Around, as far as the eye could see, rice fields stretched; reminding me of the great expanse encountered while travelling across the Canadian prairie.
2) We travelled for over four hours in a straight line, never once encountering a single bend. This is true of the roads in Canada as you transverse across the prairies. Picture the scene … hour after hour, a single strip of concrete stretches to the horizon. Few trees exist; a rice desert, their stalks swayed by the breeze; reminiscent of the shifting sands of the empty quarter in Saudi Arabia. After five hours the trance is broken by nightfall, and the landscape begins to change. Rice fields give way to forest, flatland to rise and fall, and the unmistakable signs of the habitation of mankind. Siem Reap, those old pile of stones, almost within reach. 

Angkor Wat at sunrise was the aim of my trip, a task easier said than done when you are not aware of the specifics of both layout and the general way that the organisation of transport operates. They informed me that you need to take a tuk-tuk or motorcycle, an obvious starting point when you discover the entrance gates lie around 5 km from the town centre. So I arranged for a tuk-tuk driver to collect me from the hotel at 0500 hrs (sunrise being approx 05.52 hrs), leaving enough time for me to pay my entrance fee ($20) and get into a reasonable position to catch the building on video as the old yellow girl awakes from her slumber. At 0400 and the alarm coaxed me from my bed, a cup of coffee, a shower, application of mosquito repellant, one last check on equipment (spare battery etc), and I was eager to go. At last, I could tick off one of the ten items on my bucket list (Angel Falls is my number one) and by 0445 l was waiting outside the lobby. By 0510 there was no sign of driver…0515 still no sign of him, but a sign of a different kind manifested itself. A motorcycle passes, and the driver asked if l wanted to go somewhere. The time was 0520, a no-brainer, so on l climbed on, reaching the entrance around 0530, where the sight of over a 100 people queuing, surprised me. Money paid, ticket collected, l asked one of the ticket inspectors, which way to Angkor? Now, it became tricky. She looked bemused and asked where my transport was parked? l explained that the cycle that brought me had gone, whereupon she explains that Angkor is still 4 Kms from the entrance. My heart had sunk, but she suggests asking a loitering policeman to take me. She recommends I offer $5 which the policeman (a polite and friendly guy) accepted, and 5 mins later I was finally at my destination.

My first sight of Angkor was a building bathed in darkness. Deserted by the Kymer and Kampuchean monks years ago, I began to wonder why? My first impression was disappointing, at least what I could see through the gloom, but the sun peeped its head above the horizon, and as the night sky lifted her skirt, the faint light revealed the building I had travelled so far to reach. Up ahead, an ancient arch allowed a glimpse of a grand walkway. Lifting my eyes and following the path, 300 yards away the object of my journey appeared. The light was still in its infancy, and in the distance, sporadic lights danced like fireflies. As I approached I saw, upwards of a 1000 tourists, cameras at the ready were camped on the grass lawns that cover the approach,  My first and only disappointment has nothing to do with the tourists; it was with my decision to come at sunrise.

The sun rose behind Angkor, straight into the 100’s of lenses, making it difficult even for the most experienced photographer. As the sun continued its ascent and the crowd thinned, I moved into the space vacated and got my first real look at Angkor’s main building. The structure is rectangular, each side framing a central courtyard, which allows light to penetrate through the many openings, the open spaces allowing both light and air to circulate. Three domes,  (the central one larger than the two flanking it) and the stones used for its construction are large. Numerous carvings mark the interior, their walls etched by writings in Sanskrit and pictorial images of deities: scenes from a bygone age. Damaged by invading forces, the building itself has remained remarkably intact. Surrounding the main rectangle, other similar structures appear. I spent four hours wandering, then as the day wore on the temperature became stifling, my camera batteries expired and I felt I was about to do the same.
Time to leave, but how to get back? I was pondering this question when an Australian couple approached and asked me to take their photograph. I consented, small talk ensued, and when I explained my situation, they said if I was ready to leave, I was welcome to ride in their tuk-tuk. Oh, how the deities of Angkor must have been smiling on me. One hour later, I’m sitting in a restaurant in downtown Siem Reap, late lunch and a cold beer…the gods smiled today.

next – Blog 2015 Part 2

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