Off to Banteay Chhmar, can we go by car...?

Trip Start Sep 09, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Monday, June 16, 2008

We finally, and very reluctantly left Borneo after another great couple of weeks. If anybody is thinking about going here then, in the words of Sting in the Police's gibberish classic... DO DO DO!

The flight to Bangkok hit a bit of turbulence - one guy got a cup of hot tea all down his back courtesy of the woman in the seat behind him - but we arrived safe and sound in Thailand. Upon arrival we were met with some of the rudest, most surly airport staff yet; deliberately being unhelpful and at times even obstructive. The funniest part was that one of them, the lady at passport control was sitting behind a Thai tourism poster emblazoned with their famous 'Land of Smiles' slogan. The sad truth is that the smiles we've encountered during our time here have invariably been associated to money changing hands (I.e. our money into their hands), not at all like the honest, genuine and at times heartwarming smiles beamed at us in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and even Malaysia.

With Charlie's big toe dressed up in its Tom & Jerry-style over-sized bandage, we set out to sort out a few bits n bobs before heading off to Cambodia. We met up again with 'Bangkok locals' Pip and Jane for a few drinks along the Khao San Road in an evening where the highlights included Jane listing her 'top ten OCDs' (she has to have 3 toothbrushes at any one time and will buy a new one each week, and came over to Thailand with 100 PAIRS of knickers - leaving 300 at home!).

We also took our camera in to an internet café to make backup DVDs of all our photos so far. Unfortunately we chose the two most incompetent dumbasses in Thailand to burn the discs, and we returned from collecting our Vietnam visas to find they'd only put half the photos onto disk, had wiped two of our cards and, not content with that had also infected them both with a virus! When I asked Dumb & Dumber what they were going to do about it, they just giggled and shrugged their shoulders.
After easing our frustration with some tasty sweet chilli chicken (nothing like a good bit of street food to comfort you!) we set out in search of a geek in shining armour to save us. When we walked into a camera shop and found this chap playing Civilization and eating his packed lunch we knew we'd found our man!!

After a frustrating but eventful few days in which we also befriended a tramp with skin like puff pastry, we finally managed to escape the sticky glue of Bangkok and take the bus to the border. We were glad to be leaving our hostel which seemed to be staging a how-loud-can-you-slam-your-door-at-ridiculous-times-in-the-morning competition and came 'manned' by a miserable, rude and overly effeminate guy (we think!?) on reception we nicknamed 'Ray' for the little ray of sunshine he/she was.

I must say Cambodia was one of the more impressive border crossings (I know that doesn't sound much of a compliment, like saying "well he's one of the funnier Germans I've met" but it is meant as praise, honest) with a fantastic granite and gold gateway welcoming you into their Kingdom. The 'no man's land' between the two borders saw a cluster of casinos and as we entered Cambodia memories of India came flooding back as the dusty dirt-track roads came alive with ox-drawn carts, and cars and trucks that looked like they'd been made in an old warehouse by the A-team using only a ball of string and a crate of empty Orangina bottles. Street kids dressed in fake Man Utd shirts covered in dirt and god-knows-what-else buzzed around and smiled and waved whilst in the air the smell of charcoal and barbecued food fused with exhaust fumes and sickly sweet rubbish hit the nostrils like a jackhammer. Aah bliss!

Everybody else seemed to be heading straight to Siem Reap and it was much to the confusion and bemusement of the guy at the bus stand when we asked for tickets to Sisophon, a smaller town on the road to Siem Reap. The guy tried to convince us that Sisophon was quiet, no travelers went there and it isn't a tourist spot, whilst we tried to convince him that's exactly why we wanted to stop there. Eventually and reluctantly he gave in and we were on our way along the bumpy pothole-ridden dirt road. The reason for coming to Sisophon was to visit Banteay Chhmar, a small derelict temple that is largely overlooked in favour of the more renowned Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap, and we almost had to promise the guy we would be visiting the Angkors eventually before we could board the bus!

The scenery in Cambodia is unspectacular but very pleasant, its roadsides littered with lily ponds and small farms and the air is filled with hundreds of butterflies. Its lush, green and very flat land is reminiscent of parts of England in some areas which was a strange feeling... luckily there are enough mopeds carrying basket loads of live pigs, and tractor engines towing carts overloaded with people, bikes and chickens to remind you you're still in Asia. The roads could also pass as a real-life car advert as seemingly everyone drives a Toyota Camry. It's not just the car in front; it's the car behind you, the car next to you; the car with 8 people in the back; the car with the guy riding on the bonnet; the car with 2 tonnes of luggage piled up on the roof...

We arrived in Sisophon and, true to the bus guy's words, found we were the only Westerners in sight. The locals seemed happy to see us, particularly the girl in our hotel who looked overjoyed to have us staying with her. The next morning, word had obviously travelled pretty fast along the Sisophon grapevine, as we awoke to find a veritable army of motorbike and taxi drivers camped outside the front gates, waiting to pounce on their new prey. And so the auctioning war began...

Finally, after a prolonged and sometimes heated discussion that lasted almost an hour, it was decided that we could get to Banteay Chhmar by car (despite the motorbike guys telling us the road was too dangerous and only accessible by bike) and Gom, a very smiley man with a funny little giggle was going to take us. The thing is, we took almost no part in this great debate at all and instead just stood back and watched these guys argue amongst themselves until the hotel owner got fed up with a front room full of angry taxi drivers and kicked us all out.

It isn't too far a drive to the temple grounds - only 60 kilograms according to Gom!? - but the roads heading up that way are terrible, worse than those from the border and this meant for a VERY bumpy ride as we were tossed around in Gom's car (Toyota Camry of course) as he bounced in and out of puddles, ditches and craters. Amazingly Charlie actually nodded off at one point, dozing silently as her head rolled and rocked around on the back seat. Around us Mad Max-style lawnmower engines strapped to chopper forks drove along trailers loaded up with anything and everything, while locals on pushbikes hitched a lift by holding on to the back.

We finally reached the front entrance where the gateman got himself into 'official mode' by getting out of his hammock, putting on a fancy cap and asking us to write our names down on his clipboard.

Banteay Chhmar is a huge great area of temple ruins, large areas of which have been destroyed throughout the years by invading armies and more recently the Khmer Rouge.
It has been partially restored in places but is largely untouched and has been left to nature which makes for a great place to explore and you work your way through, round and over the piles of rubble, scattered stones and knee-high grass, discovering beautiful carvings and stonework amongst the snakes, spiders, butterflies, bugs and lizards. It's a very peaceful and desolate place - our friend on the gatehouse had only 8 people signed in on his clipboard in the past 3 and a half weeks - which really gave us a great taster of the Angkor temples in Siem Reap to come.

Banteay Chhmar's slightly less illustrious little brother is Banteay Torp, a very small section of temple ruins that are barely accessible - the only route linking it to the road is a very narrow and deep-rutted dirt path used by a farmer. It proved to be a little disappointing after Chhmar, but we didn't dare tell Gom that after his Camry took one whole of a beating getting there. Never mind, there'll be no shortage of spare parts knocking about round here...

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