Song of the last two days: Gunga Din by the Libertines. Why? Cos it’s a tune and I’ve been wanting to include it for ages!
On Thursday morning we got a taxi from our hostel over to Bangkok Northern Bus Terminal. It was easily the biggest bus station we’ve ever been in and looked more like an airport. Members of staff approached us and asked us where we were going. They were helpful and efficient in pointing out the Siem Reap bus to us – so efficient in fact that we were ushered onto the 8am bus as there was still space, even though we had tickets for the 9am departure. For the first half hour we crept along, bumper to bumper with other traffic as we passed through various checkpoints on the way out of Bangkok. The Thai police seem to enjoy a good checkpoint, though what they’re checking for is not apparent because a good deal of the traffic seems to get waved through at random.
I feel like our attitude towards Bangkok has softened since our first visit. Maybe a cocktail of culture shock and jetlag were responsible for our initial downer on the place, although I’m sure it’ll never be my favourite destination. In a country that’s changing so rapidly, you get the feeling that Bangkok is something of a fall guy for the rest of Thailand. As long as it continues to swell with more skyscrapers, fumes and western investment, the rest of the country will be spared from it’s worst excesses and remain charming and unique.
We drove for around four hours surrounded by farmland as far as the eye could see, until we arrived at the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. From here we would get off the bus and walk across the border into the Cambodian town of Poipet. To quote Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”. Poipet’s reputation precedes it and Hollie and I were pretty nervous about the place before we even got there.
Everybody passing through the Thai-Cambodian border must do so on foot, so we got out of the coach about a hundred yards before the gate. We followed the other passengers as closely as possible, keeping eyes ahead and ignoring the attentions of various grotty-looking geezers asking “You want help with your Visa?” A few of the less well-read amongst the group were picked off like wilderbeest from the rest of the herd, and we watched them disappear into shady-looking offices where presumably somebody tried to flog them a fake Visa. The first part of the process is to provide the Thai immigration staff with a departure card which we received when we arrived in Thailand. Our passports were checked, our Visas stamped and our departure cards were taken off us so that we were temporarily in limbo, officially not residing anywhere. We walked out of the Thai departure office and down a long gangway, and it was here that the beggars had positioned themselves.
Women with their heads wrapped in scarves and tiny babies in their arms, who would approach you, pointing to the baby and say “Aaaah.” A little boy with a deformed leg, bent double on itself so that his toes jutted out of his kneecap, stretched out a begging bowl under the reproachful eye of his Mother a few feet away. Children who had barely learned to walk and talk, clad in old football shirts, who waved crumpled postcards at you asking for a dollar each. As heartless as it sounds we had no difficulty in saying no. Nothing about Poipet is as it seems and I wonder whether if we did give anybody a few dollars to ease our conscience, whether it would just have been taken off that person later by a beggarmaster. I have little experience upon which to base my judgement, but from what I’ve read, beggars in poor countries are often part of a much more intricate underworld than would first appear. We’ve read stories about women blowing smoke in babies eyes to make them cry, and children who have no relation to the women who pretend to be their Mothers being “paired up” by members of the criminal underworld to draw the biggest emotional reaction from tourists. As undoubtedly desperate as these people are, it’s unlikely as a backpacker that you can directly help, especially by giving out money in the street. For me, the best thing you can do is observe, let it enhance your understanding of the world around you and make other people aware of what you’ve seen.
After running the gauntlet we arrived in the Cambodia Visa Office, where we filled out an arrivals card and handed it over along with our passport and e-visa, which thanks to Hollie’s foresight we’d taken care of before we even left England. The immigration officer behind the desk was a complete tosspot. The delicate situation in which tourists find themselves in provides him with a licence to be as nasty as he wants without suffering retaliation. He succeeded in making us both feel like international criminals, huffing and cursing his way through a simple process which we had already sped up for him by doing the bulk of the paperwork online before we arrived. Come to think of it this may have been his beef – some of the border police have been known to make a bit on the side by charging people “extra” Visa fees – by completing the form online maybe we prevented him from being able to extort money out of us. I stood waiting for Hollie to have her Visa stamped whilst a young woman invaded my personal space and wafted her newborn under my nose – never have we been so glad to get back onboard a bus.
Cambodia is immediately different to Thailand. The reminders of French colonialism were spotted straight away as the bus pulled off from the kerb and occupied the right hand side of the road, whereas Thais drive on the left. Having said this, motorists in both countries – but especially Cambodia – have a penchant for driving up the wrong side of the road. It is a completely normal occurance for a scooter driver to trundle along the gutter in the face of oncoming traffic, with nothing but a smile and an indicator flashing by way of apology. In Thailand there were obvious signs of people being hard up, but it was a mobile kind of poverty in which you felt that a person was never far away from attaining a bit of work that could tide them over for a while. In Cambodia this is not the case – a perpetual cycle of hunger and want seems to exist everywhere. Barely any of the western-style signs and advertisement boards that are abundant in Thailand line the road here. Occasionally an extravagant sign will advertise the “People’s Party” alongside a smiling image of their Prime Minister, Hun Sen – as if the people need reminding of the fact that the same bloke has been in charge for the last thirty years.
The land between Poipet and Siem Reap is an infinite patchwork of dusty fields in which scrawny cattle are lead by slightly-built farmers in straw hats, past pools of filthy brown water where children play. Mopeds labour to pull massively overloaded farm trailers along the road and are frequently overtaken by cyclists or stray dogs. The Angkor Wat ruins that we seek are about a thousand years old, and the first impression gained from the coach window suggests that not much has progressed since then.
After another four hours we arrived in Siem Reap and were ferried over to our guesthouse, Baphuon Villa. It’s a beautiful place and at first I thought it must have been some old French ambassador’s house from the colonial days, before the owner told me it wasn’t that old and that he’d decorated the whole place two years ago, which shows you what I know about architecture. We went to the cashpoint and drew out US dollars – because of the weakness of the Cambodian Riel as a currency, dollars are universally used instead. Even more confusingly, shopkeepers will hand out small change in the form of a wad of Cambodian notes, so that you’re dealing with two currencies at the same time.
Both Hollie and me have been in poor health over the last couple of days since the long sleeper train journey down from Chiang Mai. Not for the first time, Friday was a day of doing very little but rejuvenating. The heat in the south of Thailand and here is unmanageable after a couple of hour’s exposure. The most productive way of dealing with this is to get up just after dawn and try to power through until about 3pm, after which you end up collapsing exhausted on the bed in your hotel, with the fan whirring above your head and palm leaves tapping against the window.
When we did venture out on Friday evening it was to the very Khao San-inspired “pub street” where a hundred or more different food joints compete for the custom of tourists from all over the world. A lot of these places are shady and grotty looking, and after our recent bouts of illness we didn’t much fancy coming down with food poisoning. In the end we went with a restaurant called Khmer Kitchen – Khmer being the ancient civilization who built the Angkor temples and ruled much of South-East Asia in the middle ages, along with the name of the national language. We both ate a stunning baked dish, almost in the style of a lasagne crossed with dauphinoise potato. Apparantley it’s a traditional Khmer style recipe and we need to get doing our research into it so that we can try and recreate it back home.
Competition time: It turns out that a very famous rockstar ate at the Khmer kitchen whilst on a visit to the Angkor temples. Can you guess from Hollie’s impression who that rockstar is??? The first to comment with the correct answer gets to pick the next “song of the day” for whatever reason they choose. Were you hoping for a better prize!? It’s all we got out here!
Tomorrow we visit Angkor Wat and some of the surrounding temples.
Tommy and Hollie x