For some reason we are having no trouble waking up early. That’s not what I’d expect my body clock to be doing in a place six hours ahead of the UK. Nevertheless, it serves us very well when we have an 06:30 departure!
We were up, showered, packed and breakfasted all in good time for the departure time. Once we were on the road though, it was an unremarkable travel day. It took us a good hour to get out of the Bangkok metro area and turn east towards the border. The first half of the trip was done in two minivans and to begin with we chatted amongst ourselves but soon dissolved into just watching the country go by. I noted that the Thais like their taxis to be visible; the Bangkok ones come in fuchsia pink, sky blue, leaf green and a green/yellow two-tone. People otherwise generally seem fine riding in precarious positions on vehicles; there were lots of guys enjoying the breeze in the back of pickup trucks and I saw one guy perched on the top of a bin lorry/garbage truck!
Once we were away from the city, the countryside was greener; mostly small paddy fields with the odd egret perched picturesquely (although frustratingly out of range of a long lens through a moving car window!) We stopped for a comfort break and to complete the paperwork for the Cambodian visa. Panha, our guide for the trip, offered us the services of guys at the border to carry our bags over as there was likely to be a lot of queuing along the way. For the sake of 20 Baht (50p) I wasn’t worried about the cash, but I was a bit concerned about handing my bag over to someone else to look after – particularly at a national border. Ultimately I quashed my paranoia and went with the crowd.
After another short stop at the Cambodian Consulate just short of the Poipet border crossing to collect our visas, we disembarked the vans, wandered through another tourist flea-market and found ourselves at the Thai emigration control. Regrouping on the other side, we paraded through the no-man’s land, through a fancy ornamental gate and into the Cambodian immigration control. The area between the two borders is populated by resort hotels and several casinos. The road that ran through it all was busy with all kinds of traffic, most of it not seeming to be stopping for any kind of checks. The bureaucracy seemed only to be for the foreigners…
Once we’d all been processed by the unsmiling ones in uniforms, we hopped into a transfer bus (where we found our luggage waiting for us!) and drove a short distance to pick up our coach for the rest of the journey. We were all in together now, thankfully air-conditioned again.
While I don’t remember Thailand as being especially hilly, Cambodia is distinctly flat. As we drove along you could see all the way to the horizon, much bigger paddy fields, only very occasionally broken up by small hills. I was curious about the geology involved, but Panha’s local knowledge wasn’t that in-depth.
About an hour over the border we stopped for lunch. The location could generously be described as an open-air restaurant; my guess is that it was planned as a warehouse and re-purposed shortly after they put the roof up. It definitely wasn’t finished. There were no walls, the floor was only half-tiled and the toilets were only 25% fitted-out. That said, apart from the wealth of flies buzzing around everything, it was quite pleasant to be able to look over the fields with a temperate breeze wafting over you as you ate. I was careful to wipe down the rim of my can of beer and my toothpick before putting them anywhere near my mouth though; it was pretty certain they’d been crawled over by the flies!
From there, we were back on the road for another hour towards Siem Reap. Praha gave us a bit of a history lesson about the Khmer Rouge and more information about the optional excursions tomorrow. Of course everyone is doing the full day trip to see Angkor Wat. I may go again on Wednesday too if I think I can get more good pictures; none of the other options particularly appealed, but I’ll wait and see how I feel tomorrow night.
We got to the guest house in Siem Reap around 16:15 and were shortly in our room. It’s another very basic one. The shower isn’t enclosed, so the bathroom is a bit of a wetroom, and its thermostat seems to be buggered, so you have a choice of either hot or cold, but it’s perfectly adequate for our needs for the next few nights.
After showering and a bit of a rest in our rooms, we all met up again for an orientation walk around Siem Reap which concluded in a group dinner. The town is an odd chimera of five-star hotels, which seem to be multiplying at a rate of knots, and virtually non-existent infrastructure between them; the road is reasonable, but you are lucky if there are even paving stones for pedestrians, let alone a flat, level surface! Just along from our hotel, Praha stopped and bought a dollar’s worth of friend grasshoppers and offered them around.
It’s something I’ve always wondered about, but never really had the guts to try. Several of the rest of the group tried one though, so I took the plunge and was pleasantly surprised; not icky or squishy as expected, but just like a morsel of cooked meat… which I suppose is exactly what it was! I can now say I’ve done it – and actually wouldn’t have qualms about doing it again.
Our walking tour took us through the old town area which reminded me a little of the Khao San Road; very much geared for western tourists with lots of clothes and souvenir shops and neon signs. Quite a far cry from the other parts of town we’d walked through, but clearly bringing in plenty of income to the economy. We had a group dinner at a restaurant in the area – which seemed to cater exclusively for groups run by Intrepid (our tour company.) The seating arrangement rather spaced us out so, where a closer, more intimate group, might have been better, it felt like we were at a formal banquet, unable to make conversation except with our nearest neighbours. Nevertheless the food was good – I had the steamed fish amok – and on the whole we all had a pleasant evening I think.
The restaurant (I imagine at Praha’s request) had laid on a cake for Brett’s birthday (today!), which was a lovely surprise, so all healthy-eating bets were off for the rest of the night and we indulged in a cocktail over dinner and some ice cream on the way home…
Happy birthday, Brett. I love you!