Not Impressed, but excited!
Trip Start Jan 08, 2005
135Trip End Ongoing
I was so excited! Finally I was going to get to see things David had seen 6 years ago and which I'd heard endless (and more) stories about! The famous temples of Angkor, Phnom Penh where men walked around with pistols down the front of their pants (they were also probably very happy to see you because of all your lovely cash), Laos where people ate grilled grasshoppers on sticks! I knew there would be zillions of tourists but I did have a vague hope that there wouldn't be and it would be more of an adventure than Thailand or Viet Nam. Alot of things can change in 6 years and I thought perhaps it would have but I hoped (and crossed my fingers and toes alot) that it hadn't. I wanted some of that wild west that David had had so much of in 2000. Reality-sensible-head was saying, 'Stop kidding yourself. It's going to be touristy and you know it. Face it.', but other dreamy-hopeful-imaginative-head was saying, 'Maybe, just maybe, it won't have succumbed to the capitalism of the western tourist wants and needs. Maybe, maybe, maybe, pretty please, don't let it be a tourist trap with horrible tasteless shops filled with useless rubbish and nasty deviouts all too eager to relieve us of our hard earned holiday vouchers....'.
David's not happy. I've almost caught him. This is country 54 for me.
We had a crack of dawn start the next morning and after staring out of a Thai train window for what seemed days (it was all but 5.5 hours), we arrived at Aranya Prathet, the end of the line and the closest I'd ever been to Cambodia at that point in my life. Although we weren't there quite yet. We noticed a really dodgy looking skinny white guy on the train with a Hawaiian shirt, purple glasses and a horrible red hair dye job. 'Glitter' came to mind.... Anyway - we're too old to feel threatened and David was certain he was on a visa run so we teamed up with him and shared a tuk tuk to the border. We picked up a local shadow on the way which was really annoying and not what I had expected. I thought I'd lost that in India. He stuck with us through the passport checks and once we'd reached Cambodian soil, his mouth opened and out tumbled his blurb. I wasn't really listening to him and neither was David but we asked him politely if he could just let us sit alone and discuss our next move then got really pissed off that had chosen not to follow him and told us we were stupid for not listening to Cambodians! Touchyyyyyyyy!! Who got up on the wrong side of bed this morning!?!!
Basically our options were either wait another hour in the wonderfully enthralling dusty border town of Poipet for the mini bus and pay $US10 each which then took a bumpy four hours to get to Siem Reap or fork out more and get in a car which took 3 hours and was more than likely alot more comfortable. We tried to ask about ye olde method of jumping in the back of a ute with a bunch of locals (which David had done in 2000), but everyone said that it was no longer an option for foreigners and that if we were caught we would be forceably dragged from the offending vehicle, publically humiliated and driven back to Poipet by the police. We didn't know if this was just a ploy to get us into the cars and tourist buses or if it really was true. How do you know? We couldn't be bothered finding out either so when this young guy kept bringing his price down for a lift in his car we thought, bugger it! $US21 for the two of us convinced us this was the right way to go! We hopped in his car and started out. On the way out of the car park we spotted a young lad sitting round so we asked him if he wanted to jump in to bring the price down even further. We confirmed the price for us all with young driver man and settled in for three hours of dustless, air conditioned comfort. Absolutely, bloody marvelous! The guy even put 'Team America' on his portable car dvd player for us! How good is this?! Too good to be true, as it always is. I had been expecting huge potholes the size of atomic-bomb craters that would slow our journey considerably, but time and money has been poured to this unsurfaced national highway and although we did have some small potholes, it's vastly improved from what David described as his first Cambodian road-trip. So there we are pelting along chatting with Josh, our all American boy on his Uni break, when we pulled into a small town. Must be half way petrol stop. But driver-boy demands payment then and there, and increases the price!! So of course all three of us spat the dummy, as you do when someone tries to cheat you out of your hard earned $$$! We all stuck our ground and said that he could, A) let us out there and get no cash, B) take us back to Poipet and get no cash, or C) take on to Siem Reap and get the originally agreed amount. After much huffing and puffing and muttering under his breath that it wasn't fair and he stood to make no money, he of course agreed to drive us on to Siem Reap. We gently reminded him that it was he who had cheated himself by wanting to leave Poipet quickly and selling us a cheap seat in his car!! This shut him up for the rest of the journey, but he did put the remainder of Team America on to keep us entertained and, perhaps, subdued.
I wasn't impressed with Cambodia so far and the guesthouse employees did little to raise my hopes. They were quite surly and indifferent on our arrival. We found that foreigners were no longer allowed to rent motorbikes and do as they please. Instead, as independent visitors (i.e. not on an organised tour), we were allowed to either hire a rickshaw, bicycle or electric bike. The guesthouse guys were not interested in what we wanted to see or do but only in trying to get us to pay them to take us on their set tour. But we, including Josh, weren't concerned with naf waterfalls overrun with tourists and just wanted to see the temples we wanted to see. It took more energy than should have been necessary and we finally agreed on a day rate and route for three days. I was quite exasperated by this stage and walking the streets did little to improve my mood when we were prayed upon by local beggars. David recalled none of the beggar business from his previous visit and all we could assume was that the growth in tourism had also boosted the beggar population. They are very disturbing here too as alot are amputees with wounds as a result (I think) of venturing into areas that had not been cleared of undetonated mines, bombs and mortars left over from the Khmer Rouge days. Fortunately with more incoming tourists it is within the government's interests, and to those companies financially supporting the temples of Angkor, to clear the more popular areas. They are doing this but it was so heavily bombed during their more turbulent years, it will take a very long time.
We sought refuge in the markets and watched people buying up on fresh fishy dinner treats.
Anyway, David decided to celebrate this return to Siem Reap (which apparently means 'Siam defeated') with a dinner of the local speciality of Amok fish. This is a dish prepared with coconut milk and local fish (of course!) and served with rice. I'm not a huge fish curry fan but cooked well, this is a fantastic introduction to Cambodian cuisine. It was lovely. After dinner we went for a walk into town to explore and came across another product of manufactured tourism. Bar Street. So named because of, you guessed it - all the bars that have been built on it. There are a few other bars round town but this one street stands out, illuminated with brightly coloured neon lights and void of locals except those working in the bars. There are barriers at each end that prevent the locals and beggars from entering after sunset. Slightly unfair. It was filled with tourists, attracted like moths to the dazzling lights. We joined the other moths for a walk up and down but then left them all to it. Well so far Reality-sensible-head was leading. Dreamy-hopeful-imaginative-head was not happy.
I was excited though. I'm going to see the temples of Angkor!!