Chapter 40: "Misteryoubuytshirtnow!"

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Sunday, May 30, 2004

Getting back to Thailand was a straightforward affair. We took a tuk tuk to the Pakse market at 7:45, found a sawngthaew headed to the border, rode for an hour, and then walked 500 meters to Laos immigration for our stamps. After another 500 meters (and many hawker stalls) we reached the Thai immigration building and took care of business there in just a few minutes.

From the border we hired a taxi for the hour ride to the Ubon Ratchatani train station, got there by noon, and bought the last available sleeper car tickets for the 7:15 train to Bangkok. Of course, that meant killing 7 hours in Ubon, which is a not-especially-interesting city of 100,000. We took the bus downtown and wandered around town for the afternoon, stopping here or there for food, drink, and e-mail. At 5pm we found ourselves in the large Thung Si Meuang Park, which was filled with Thais engaging in every sort of excercise, from jogging to aerobics to soccer. This pleasant scene gave the city a feeling of community, and I immediately liked it more.

The 2nd Class sleeper car didn't look like much at first, but it was pretty ingenious. Single seats faced each other on both sides of the aisle for the length of the car, and collapsed down towards each other to meet and make a bed. An overhead compartment containing all the bedding swung down to make an upper bunk, and each bed had a privacy curtain and reading light. Despite the frequent stops and loudspeaker announcements, I slept for about 6 hours, so the night passed quickly.

We arrived in Bangkok at 6:30am Saturday, and it was raining. After asking for bus route advice at the info desk, we jumped on the #53 bus, rode to Khao San, and booked rooms at D&D Inn. Sleep was the first priority, and then we spent the afternoon at the Chatuchak Weekend Market. The market is enormous and insane. You could find virtually anything there (animal parts, household goods, tourist crap, bootleg everything...), but the problem is that you can't ACTUALLY find anything (especially anything specific) because the place is so chaotic, maze-like, and crowded by up to 200,000 people. It was fascinating to explore for a while, and Jonas bought some shoes & sunglasses, but after 4 1/2 hours I was ready to leave. I made my purchases for the day back on Khao San, where I found copies of a few new CDs I'd been dying to hear: Snow Patrol, Franz Ferdinand, and Scissor Sisters. (Snow Patrol is amazing!)

Sunday was a lazy day. We hung out by the rooftop pool for most of the afternoon, and then ran around travel agencies asking for info on buses to Siem Reap. In the end we bought tickets for 450Bt for Tuesday that included a VIP bus to the border, and then a "minivan" to Siem Reap. We also handed over our passports and had the travel agency get us Cambodian visas on Monday... we figured it would be safer than waiting until the border, and the cost wasn't too steep. That night I wasn't feeling so good; I'd forgotten than when you're taking the anti-malarial drug Doxycycline (as I am), you're not supposed to stay in the sun too long (as I did). Oops.

We took the bus to Siam Square on Monday and went straight to Starbucks for some icy sweetness. In a happy random coincidence, the Swiss couple from Pakse were there too, so we chatted for a little while. Christian, Jonas, and I then split up take care of various errands. I went to the Malaysian Airlines office to confirm the changes to my Bangkok-Istanbul flight. Thankfully I didn't have to pay any fees, and I'm good to go for July 15th now. I spent a couple of hours browsing the Gaysorn and Siam Square shopping centers like a good consumer, and then jumped on the #79 bus to go meet the guys back on Khao San Road. Through a combination of ignorance, bus overcrowding, and bad luck, I missed my stop, and my half-hour bus ride ended up lasting 3 hours. I endured a tour of all the suburbs across the Chao Praya River while sitting out #79's entire loop, so by the time I got back to Khao San I was pretty pissed-off and exhausted.

We met outside D&D the next morning at 6:20 for the bus pick-up. A half hour later, a guy came along and herded us down the street to the main road, where we boarded a double-decker VIP bus with 30 or so other backpackers. The first part of the trip was easy: I slept, watched some "24," and listened to a lot of Snow Patrol. We stopped once for lunch, but the bus trip to the border, which was supposed to last 4-5 hours, took 7. Hmmm...

We got our Thai stamps, drove a few minutes to the Cambodian border, left our bus behind, paid 100Bt each to get Cambodian stamps (thieving bastards!), and then walked down a lonely stretch of road to our "escort"'s "office." We thought we were in Poipet, which has a reputation for being sleazy, crowded, hectic, and miserable, so the complete lack of people (and buildings, aside from two unfinished resort casinos...) was weird but welcome.

Our group from the bus was loaded into 3 pick-up trucks ("minivan," my ass!) at 5 o'clock; 11 of us squeezed into the back of our truck along with all our bags. It was cramped, and the metal rim of the truck made a painful seat. The dirt road was just about the worst I've ever seen: all potholes, gullies, broken bridges, and bumps. Despite all that, the first hour of the scary and excruciating ride was fun in a masochistic sort of way, and it was a bonding experience. Then it started to rain. Hard. The driver gave us a plastic tarp, but it didn't cover us completely, so 11 of us sat miserably for an hour, bouncing around and trying to hold the tarp over our heads. That hour made the next 3 (rain-free) hours seem easy by comparison, but we were still all in serious pain by the time we finally reached Siem Reap (10:30pm).

The truck brought us straight to Hello Guesthouse, instead of dropping us off downtown like the driver said he would. When we got there, they shut the gate behind us, and 8 staffers milled around trying to move us into rooms. Half the people were just happy to be out of the truck, so they stayed, but the other half of us were annoyed at the ploy to get us to stay at Hello, so we stormed out. After walking towards downtown for 20 minutes, we found Smiley's Guesthouse, which looked awesome, so we booked rooms. Four of us went down to the main street to get some food at a Khmer stall, and then we showered and crashed.

We slept late on Wednesday, had chicken sandwiches for lunch in Smiley's relaxing garden lounge/restaurant, and then went to explore Siem Reap. The town is much more modern than I expected, considering we drove through 5 hours of dusty nothingness to get here. But then, I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given the huge tourism dollars generated by Angkor Wat. The downside to the tourism is the large number of touts, moto drivers, and beggars that harrass you on the street. Jonas and I checked out the market, changed some money (baht to dollars, as US dollars and Cambodian Riel are used interchangeably here), and spent a few minutes online.

Back at Smiley's, we met a moto driver named Conner; at 4:30 he and two of his friends drove the 3 of us to the Angkor Wat ticket office for $1 each. After 5pm, you can buy a pass that starts the next day, and get in free that night to see the sunset. The passes are expensive ($20/1 day, or $40/3 days), but we plunked down for the 3-day passes, and then drove on to the hill temple of Phnom Bakheng. Angkor Wat supposedly looks amazing in the fading sunlight, but we (and the few hundred other tourists with the same idea) were disappointed by mostly cloudy skies. The trip was worth it, though, for our first glimpses of mysterious Angkor Wat, and the ruins at the top of the steep hill were pretty cool, too! There were several elephants around carrying tourists up the hill, and that added to the exotic effect.

We agreed to meet Conner and his pals at 8 the next morning for a $6 day trip, and then we walked to Happy Herbs Pizza to try some of Cambodia's famous "happy pizza." At dinner we picked up some free tourist guides, and that's when we realized that we hadn't crossed into Cambodia at Poipet after all! Instead, we'd driven several hours out of the way (further north) to the newly-opened O'Smach border - probably just so we'd arrive super-late at Hello Guesthouse! Anyway, I ordered a small "very happy" pizza, Christian ordered a medium "very happy" pizza, and Jonas played it straight. I was good & buzzy for the rest of the night, but Christian had a rougher experience: he had to quit playing cards after a few hands, and then he hallucinated in his room for a while and drifted in and out of sleep until morning.

He was still feeling dizzy/stoned (and I was still very slightly "happy") at 8am when we took off for the temples with Conner. The first stop was the famous South Gate of Angkor Thom, which features a causeway lined with gods and demons holding giant snakes (nagas) and a big tower complete with giant stone Khmar faces. Those faces were the prominent feature of the Bayon - our second stop and the main temple in Angkor Thom. We spent two hours at the Bayon, mostly looking at the amazing bas relief carvings of life and war 1,000 years ago. We also climbed up and meandered around the towers and huge faces; aside from all the tourists, the place just dripped with atmosphere. Very, um, "Tomb Raider."

We stopped for a cold drink at the hawker stalls, and were subjected to incessant demands of "Mister you buy my t-shirt now! You want buy book mister! Hellomisteryouwantpostcard10fordollar!" from women and children. That became grating instantly, and it didn't let up at any of the sites. Luckily the ruins were more than enough to compensate for the annoyance. The next few smaller sites we visited (the Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Preah Palilay, Tep Pranam, Terraces of the Leper King and Elephants, Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda, and Ta Keo) were all unique and beautiful and eerie.

Around 2 we drove to the main attraction: Angkor Wat itself. It's approached by 2 super-long causeways (one over the moat), and it looks impressive with its 5 large Khmer-style towers. We spent 2 hours climbing in and around the temple. The views from the top out over the jungle were very nice, and they justified the steep climb up the pyramid. Some of the bas reliefs - notably the Heaven & Hell scenes - were incredible. We came back to town at 5, met up with some guys from the pick-up for dinner, and then went to sleep early, because we were taking off with Conner at 5am the next morning for sunrise!

Somehow I dragged myself out of bed at 4:45 and we met the moto drivers downstairs just after 5. They took us back to Angkor Wat for the sunrise, but there were quite a few clouds around, and that made it kind of a non-event. Since we were tired and hungry, we stopped at a roadside restaurant/stall for breakfast. That's when things got tense.

We told our guides what we wanted to see that morning, and they countered with an explanation of "day 2" of their 3-day tourist plan. We had never planned on using the motos for more than 2 days, and we didn't want to do their "day 2" plan because it involved driving an extra 60km and spending an extra $6 each... and when the guys found this out, they suddenly became very unfriendly. Not aggressive... just not friendly. We told them we just wanted to pay $6 again and see a few different temples from the co-called "grand tour," so they begrudgingly took us first to Ta Phrom.

Ta Phrom was awesome, and it was everything I'd hoped and expected Angkor to look like: crumbling walls half-covered by jungle, giant trees intertwined with the rock, maze-like corridors, and mysterious stone carvings. Next up was Banteay Kdei, which was like a smaller Ta Phrom, and the muddy-looking swimming pool of Srah Srang. After we bought some drinks from a stall, we met our drivers again, and had more communication issues. They wanted to take us next to the big Preah Khan as our last stop, while we thought we had at least 4 more temples to see. They demanded $2 extra each for the full circuit, and then an argument broke out for a few minutes. We compromised in the end, and they agreed to take us to Preah Khan and Neak Pean, but nobody was happy about it.

Preah Khan was cool - especially its Hall of Dancing Apsaras. I was hot and exhausted by that time, though, so an hour of wandering around the twisting corridors was plenty. Neak Pean was disappointing, because it's a series of pools that are empty during the dry season (now). At 2:00 we rode back, silently paid our guides, and went to Smiley's lounge.

My stay in Siem Reap since then has been pretty laid back and fun. Lots of reading (I bought magazines in Bangkok), socializing, writing, playing cards, watching "24," uploading photos, trying to beat "Super Mario 3," listening to new music, and eating good food. I was "templed-out" after 2 full days at Angkor, so I skipped the Saturday bike ride that Christian and Jonas took out to some other ruins. Tomorrow (Monday) we're taking the bus to Phnom Penh to check out the museums, and then we'll probably go south to the beach for a few days.

Hope you're well, wherever you are...

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