Crossing the Chong Chom border in Osmach was not as bad as I thought. It was very quiet with hardly any westerners crossing, apart from me and a young German couple who had been on the bus. I asked them if they wanted to taxi share. There is a casino and some song tues hanging around, presumably ferrying Thais to and from the casinos. The touts approach the bus as I get off but my obvious determination to check out of Thailand and get my visa seems to put off pushy touts. Only problem is, because it is a remote crossing, and there was only one visible taxi I could see. The trucks were off limits, due to the bad roads apparently. But you wouldn’t want to do this journey on truck anyway, not for sake of a few dollars.
We, the German couple and I had to spend the best part of half an hour negotiating a price with the touts and even then we paid too much, so it seemed at the time. It was a little menacing being surrounded by guys but I made a joke or too and laughed to lighten the tension, as the German girl was getting obviously irate. Eventually I just wanted to be on the road and we agreed to a price of 2500, lower than the 3000 baht they initially tried to charge but still expensive.
I would say to anybody doing this crossing that when engaging the guys there, and trying to bargain them down, relieve the tension by smiling and not getting irate, it really does make things easier and avoids volatility. You just have to remember where you are. Another thing one realises is that for the money they are asking, they are actually doing a lot of hard work when you factor in the condition of the roads and the damage that is done to the cars they use. Our taxi driver shattered his suspension during the journey. But the value for money only becomes apparent after the gruelling 6 plus hour journey.
The journey through Oddar Mincheay and Siem Reap province was pretty uncomfortable due to the terrible road, although you couldn’t really call it a road. The countryside, when I could maintain a focus on it was incredible, beautiful and at times harsh. Life for the rural people is harsh and the scarcity is obvious, people are very poor. Villas with satellite dishes and 4×4 jeeps parked outside sit next to tin shacks complete with buffalo. Sugar palms and banana trees are abundant and to me a great source of beauty. The sugar palm is a national symbol in Cambodia and as well as natural produce, the trees are used to build, feed and sustain local agriculture. To me, as an outsider, they can also at times make the terrain and land look harsh and rugged, almost alien. There is so much paradox and contrast here – a theme through much of South East Asia.
After a lunch break in a town in the provinces we were on our way again. The driver seemed like a nice man and attempted to make some conversation, but driving conditions made any conversation quite difficult as the journey was unsettling. We crossed makeshift bridges made of tree trunks and young Khmer men stood by charging a small toll, which the driver paid up. At times in this barren and scarce place I would see people dressed in immaculately clean white shirts and blouses on their way to or from work on bicycles, while at the same time seeing kids playing in what looked like filthy ponds. Men fished in them and immersed themselves beneath the water escaping the rays of the blazing sun. Throughout the arduous journey I could not help but notice the pervasive presence of the Cambodian Peoples Party, signs everywhere, on various shacks, villas and buildings. I saw some FUNCINPEC signs and even rarer Sam Rainsy Party signs.
Eventually we arrived in Siem Reap district, heralded by high end hotels and country clubs, nearer to the airport, which eventually gave way to the cheaper guesthouses, although there are many top end hotels in the busier part too.
I won’t go into too much detail, as there is so much to cover on this trip. In short Siem Reap is very much a spiritual experience. The Khmers that you will meet in the town are courteous, polite and at least appear to seem genuine interested in you and where you are from. Angkor Wat complex is a two day viewing and your moto driver will take you to each temple of the complex. If you are brave you can cycle on the second day, when you know roughly were everything is, but the traffic is a bit scary.
The first day began quite late, particularly as I had taken a few beer Laos from the restaurant the night before. But there was further delay in my leaving the hotel room owing to ‘the ritual’.
Shower and shave. Pop my anti-malaria tablet. Cover myself in mosquito spray…which fills the room with a noxious odour making it impossible to breath or inhale for a few minutes, forcing me to take cover in the bathroom. After that, the sun screen. I must then sort my money out, I have at the time some dollars and baht but need Riel for smaller purchases, mainly bottles of water. That done, I need to then make sure that my small back pack has water, and check, for the fourth time that my money, held in a secret compartment is in fact there. That is it, after what seems like endless faffing I then decide that I may need to use the toilet before I leave, add another 15 minutes. This was consistent throughout the trip.
The guy I used for the entire duration of my stay in Siem Reap town was a young man by name of Tee (name changed to protect the innocent), who didn’t speak great English, but was a very nice easy going chap. We could somehow converse and laugh and joke. At one point, I asked him to take me to the war museum, which I recommend, as it is very quiet and a virtual graveyard of ordinance, artillery and tanks from the turmoil of the Cambodian civil war, lots of rusting M16s and AK’s. Tee picks up an RPG and popped it onto his shoulder with a beaming smile, which just made me laugh out loud. I had to take a picture of this. Sensing my amusement he then took position behind a 50 calibre machine gun, posing for a photo.
Along the way we stop off for some petrol. Now at first it didn’t register with me what was going on. Tee just pulled into what appeared to be an open shop front of a busy road with rows of shops. I thought he was just saying hi to somebody and didn’t think much of the rickety wooden shelves with dirty pop and whiskey bottles resting on them. Nor did I pay too much attention to the liquid that was in them. Just thought it was some local tipple. Tee then opens his petrol cap on his bike and a young Khmer chap comes over with a plastic funnel and a Johnny Walker bottle, the contents of which he promptly dispenses into the bike. Ahhhh..I see…
Back to the temples, I guess Angkor Wat is the highlight, purely because of the size and scale, as well as being the image that is presented to the world. It is impressive and also very peaceful in parts of the complex where you can sit and peer out over the serene landscape of Cambodia. Unfortunately my vertigo would not allow me to scale the very steep steps up the towers. I tried three times and couldn’t get passed half way up, scared the hell out of me as the steps are so narrow. Inside the temple I was at one point a bit shocked to get the smell of urine in one part of the inner sanctum! It’s true what they say…nothing is sacred!
The most aesthetically pleasing of the temples I think, is the Bayon, but the overall experience is incredible.
On my temple travels within some of the complexes I was ambushed by scores of Cambodian girls selling all manner of things and aging from 5 up to 14. These kids could teach us over in the west a few things about making the hard sell. But, in my opinion, it is an important part of the Angkor Wat experience. They are persistent and at times you cannot get a word out above the din, the sound I compare to a gaggle of geese at feeding time. Some of the Khmer kids speak exceptionally good English and one little girl, age around 10, could tell me more about what Manchester United was up to than I could tell her. I bought a few things, which came in very useful and are still being of use to me. That was the ambush at Banteay Kdei.
At the end of the day I pay Tee for his services along with a good tip before going back to my hotel room to freshen up and go for a meal in the restaurant. When I arrive, Tee is working away in the restaurant. These kids just don’t stop working.
I was a little concerned that I would oversleep and that Tee would be knocking on my door only to find I am still in my pit, but I needn’t have worried, as I was awoken by a rather loud Cockerell crowing away right outside my window. It wasn’t just one or two cock a doodle do’s, but somewhere in the region of 25 to 30. This wasn’t helped by the distant replies of other cocks across town. I was not amused and decided that it would not be a good idea to go back to sleep, even if I could. It seems that my window opens out into the back yard and kitchen of a restaurant off the main road and that it has its own Menagerie, the various members of which rouse the kitchen workers up from their slumber and galvanise them into action. The kitchen workers start work at 5 a.m.
By 5.30 Tee and I were on the road headed for Angkor Wat, the main temple to catch the sunrise over it. Well worth getting up for I might add.
Sras Srang followed and consists of a Baray (water reservoir) with a temple in the middle that is apparently visible during the dry season. It is ideally situated and bereft of tourists. I figure that some quiet contemplation in the early morning while overlooking the reservoir is in order. Tee indicated to me that he will wait across the road at a cluster of market stalls and cafes while I walk around Sras Srang lake. It has just gone 7 a.m. and as I make my way to the far corner of the lake I am accosted by a boy of around 9 or 10 years of age offering to make coffee for me. At first I decline, but his polite manner and the absence of caffeine in my bloodstream culminates in a quick u-turn decision. The kid’s name was Won and when I told him my name he ran off repeating my name to himself so he wouldn’t forget. However, if I was thinking that I would enjoy a refreshing cup of coffee in the serene and tranquil setting of Sras Srang I was very much mistaken.
The ambush at Banteay Kdei was nothing compared to the ambush at Sras Srang! No sooner had Won fled to arrange my beverage, no doubt alerting the crew, which would be ready to take me down when I was sufficiently close. I was then surrounded by a gang of little girls. Having ordered a cup of coffee and being the only tourist around, there wasn’t a chance of an easy getaway. The ages ranged again from 5 to 14, the older end doing the selling, all manner of things from t-shirts to drinks. They attack like piranhas and are sensitive to vulnerable prey, dazed from being up so early, defences down due to critical lack of caffeine, chicken feed to these kids!
I try to maintain the hard stance, ‘I am here to see the temples’ I politely exclaim, ‘I don’t want anything’, but there is that sound again, that frenzied gaggle of geese sound, and it is far too early! I say loudly over the din that is comparable to a school playground at play time, ‘right, O.K. I will have a coke off you ( a cute little feisty girl aged around 8 or 9), a t-shirt off you, and one off you, and Won, I will have that coffee, but first can you all leave me alone so I can sit in peace and enjoy the temple?’ They reluctantly agree after several promises to keep my word. The kids go off in a swarm….they have done a good job on me!
I then sit for a while at the top end of the lake literally yards from what was a moment ago a full on attack. It is peaceful and the sun is still coming up. I see workers in straw hats and tattered clothing working the perimeter area of the Baray, not sure what they are doing, but I walk by as I make my way around the lake, which I estimate to be around 1 mile around, possibly less. As I walk along I notice to my right some of the local dwellings and Khmer music is blearing from a wooden shack with laundry draped over the window ledge. I focus my attention back onto the uneven and course path I am walking long and suddenly hear the grunting and squealing of a pig. I look around and I am alarmed to see a white piglet grunting and charging at me through some surrounding shrubbery. I freeze not knowing what to do, but a couple of local workers nearby shout at the pig and it halts and turns tail. They laugh and I am embarrassed.
I think to myself, damn, even the animals want a piece of me. I then hear the buzz of a moto and look around to find Tee coming up the walkway. I was not expecting him but gladly jumped on the back and we were off. I am sure I heard Won in the distance shouting my name and I felt a little bad for just disappearing like that. I say to Tee that on our way back we must stop off at Sras Srang again, as I promised some kids I would buy some things.
After a day of sightseeing we head back into the town, Tee heads for his bed, I head for the bank, as I need to get Riel and need to send a few emails. I arrange to meet back up at around 4 in the afternoon.
We meet up after 4 and I realize that it is late in the day and I am hoping that the kids I met earlier are still around. This time Tee takes me right up to the stalls were I was ambushed, but contrary to what I expected there was at least twice as many kids. I recognise some of the faces but cannot see little Won. A few of the girls I had promised to buy from are onto me but I ask about Won. Then one of the girls runs off to find him. In the meantime I am fending off numerous kids. I put my foot down, ‘Sorry’, I say, ‘but I m here to buy off this girl, this girl and this girl. I made a promise to them.’ The sales pitch persists around me but it is subdued by the girls that I am actually buying from. Won appears with a big smile and I order two coffees from him. He runs off to his stall and a number of older women go to work on the coffee, he ushers Tee and me to a table and we are followed by a throng of nagging young ladies holding various items of silk etc.
While the coffee is being made I square with the lady, the feisty one, who is sitting opposite me and honour my promise of buying a coke from her, in fact one for me and Tee. I then agree to visit the stalls of the two girls I had promised to buy a t-shirt from when I have had my coffee. In the meantime there is much friendly chatter with some far too precocious young ladies. They have a great sense of humour the Khmer children but one can’t help but think that they have had a childhood bypass, given that they are actively and aggressively bringing money into the family kitty from such early ages.
It also becomes apparent that they act as a collective for the benefit of all the market traders, who probably take a share of each others profits if they have helped to bring trade to one another. I am not entirely sure how it all works but these kids represent a formidable front line.
The elders are still busily working away in the background and Won overlooks the proceedings. In the meantime, the feisty little girl I bought the cans off points to a little man I hadn’t even noticed had joined us, perhaps because he had been discretely wheeled up to the table in a little push chair and was all of 18 months old and just about managing to sit up. Feisty lady says ‘you buy baby, 1000 Riel’, a rather sinister quip coming from such a young kid I thought!
Coffee arrives and the banter continues. I don’t care much for Cambodian coffee, which is just like the coffee I have had in Thailand, very bitter and like treacle, pretty awful. But in politeness I drink it down as Tee infrequently injects a bit of conversation in Khmer as I chat to the cheeky kids. It was a pleasure to sit in the café and spend time with the local children, but the poverty is obvious, and even the café we were drinking in was a sparse affair, a few tables under a tarpaulin canopy. I thank Won before I make my way to the t-shirt stalls.
It is such experiences that I think demonstrate the importance of indulging the local people and letting them indulge you. After all, it is the people that make a country, not monuments, or temples or fancy shopping malls, and it important to engage them. I think so much can be learned and so much pleasure can be derived from doing so. It is also important to spend a little money, and even if you don’t think you need anything they are offering, buy anyway. I mean, what are we talking, five, ten dollars?
Everything I have bought has been of use to me, or a gift to somebody else! Ultimately, you know that the money you spend is directly supporting local communities, very poor communities. Upon leaving, the kids thanked me for coming back and keeping my promise and the little girls of Banteai Kdei and Sras Srang gave me a piece of paper with a drawing, usually of a flower, with their name written on it and a wish of good luck!
The manager of the hotel informs me that a lady guest is also going to Phnom Penh and that he can arrange a taxi share. In the meantime I am talking to one of the guys that keep the various functions of the hotel running smoothly, a young man who speaks excellent English. I ask him what it is he hopes to do in the future and he tells me he wants to get into hotel management, working for the big hotel names. He tells me that many young Khmers try to ‘talk like an American’ but he no longer wants to talk like an American. Now he is trying to talk like an Australian.
So that is what that peculiar accent is I think to myself. I ask him why not American anymore, and he tells me that it is because Americans are unpopular. I do not persist with the line of questioning but I can only assume this is down to the Iraq war situation, and that this guy is probably expressing some harsh views he has heard from tourists. So, I find myself in the company of a young bright kid, his accent shifting from American, with a Khmer twang, to a not so bad Aussie accent, then back to American, all in excellent English!
In the next part…a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum…and greetings in Saigon