13.03.2008 - 14.03.2008 38 °C
Well, what a 24 hours! We had decided to go to Cambodia for a few days to see Angkor, and I read up on a web report on how to get their cheaply. Basically doom and gloom but doable. We popped down the train station in Bangkok to pre-book our tickets for the next day but found we couldn’t as it was treated as a commuter train and there was no need. As it happened, we couldn’t reserve our hotel without 48 hours notice through our cheapie Asia-rooms site so it was no biggie. We had a spare day. We decided to have a day of abstinence on the beer front. That lasted until 12pm. It’s hot and clammy in Bangkok – you HAVE to drink beer. I’m sure it’s a law. By 3pm we’d sunk 3 large Chang beers and watched “The Beach” in a bar that plays it on a loop. Talking about law, we tried to buy some travel books on Laos and Cambodia but lucked out. Every time we tried a new stall, they ran! – we found out the police were on the rampage against illegal traders. We drank more beers.
We packed our bags minimally – leaving behind our backpacks, planning to pay to store them in Bangkok and travel uber light in Cambodia and then come back and collect them afterwards. Not long afterwards we both agreed we didn’t want to be tied down to returning to a specific place and repacked, avec backpacks. A bloody good decision it transpired.
The Train to the Thai border at Aranyaprathet leaves Bangkok (BKK) at 5.55 am, so being the sensible type of guy, I set our alarm for 4.25 am and we checked out and left at 4.45 am. We grabbed a cab and within 8 mad minutes we were at the train station. Great, no ticket kiosks open and an hour early. To be fair, I wake up every two hours with “bug alerts”. Being a very hair chap has its downsides. Every single contact with anything feels like a creature is crawling over me, and this is in a sealed air-conditioned room. So getting up at 4.25 am is no big deal for me. K was less happy.
Anyhow, we hung around and boarded our train at 5.55am with trepidation. As it turned out, the journey was both fascinating and enjoyable. Chugging through the city in the wee hours is an eye opener. You know how you were always told not to put your head out of the train window as a child? (of course now you can’t – its all sealed for our “protection” in England). Well, they were right, at least for BKK. Peoples’ “homes” are built so close to the line that one finger out of the window would result in instant digit removal!. I was facing forwards and it was more than disconcerting. I flinched a lot. Corrugated roofs of shack type buildings passed mere millimetres away. It was a real education seeing how the poorer people live and wake up.
If the train had not stopped at every single tiny station we’d have reached our destination in a couple of hours. As it was, in our 3rd class train, we stopped, seemingly, when any Tom Dick of Harry waved at the train.
We had no air conditioning, hard seats and no “buffet car”. But that was an asset. It all felt very Michael Palin. All we had were roof fans, and ladies and gents walking up and down offering various inedible Thai delights for sale including one lady with some odd white round “fruits” or “nuts” which she hacked open with a machete and popped a straw in. God know what they were but they smelt of fish.
As the journey went on we watched the city fade away and things became far more rural, much like Vietnam. One of the Thai guys in our cabin was either nuts, drunk, or high. I could not figure which. He seemed harmless but it started with him singing at full volume listening to his Walkman (I know, I’m old school – sod iPods). It was amusing more than anything and most of us were smiling but a girl behind was less than amused and fetched a guard (yep, we had guards). He duly arrived and slapped the guy across the head, told him off and left. Of course in England that slap would have made the Sun and a big court case.
Much later on into the journey I noticed we also had an armed Transport Police chap walking up and down the train. When the weird guy persisted in sitting randomly opposite people and generally being a bit “unsettling” the armed guy took him in between two carriages, closed the doors, and gave him a major bollocking. The funny thing was, I loved this. I felt safe. Not because of the weird guy, he was harmless and no match for a good bit of British aggro, but because I was on a train, with guards, with police. I was on a 70 pence train journey and there were 3 guards (who regularly cleaned the floors) and a bad-ass copper. British transport bigwigs should take note. If you want people to take public transport – make people feel safe. Sure it won’t be cost effective on a spreadsheet, but in the long run, people will use public transport and the overall goal will be achieved and it really WILL be cost effective. I’d never dream of catching a night bus, or a late train in London. It’s simply not safe – and we are supposed to be a developed country!?!
We totally loved it. It was slow, quirky, well fed and above all, relaxing. Other bits I loved were the fact there were no doors in the “between carriage” sections so you had a smoke and watched the real world whizz by, and there was no back door either! Totally reminded me of westerns where the good guy punches the bad guy ouuta the back onto the tracks. Oh – and we also saw people on one of those “pump the handle” carts on the track with a small engine – you can catch them apparently for small “hops” though they are shortly to be banned. I want a go!!!
(This was the view out the back, nice and airy)
Five and a half hour later we reached our destination and were greeted by a tuk tuk driver who had boarded the train to “catch” his early prey (by this time we are both minging big time and are trying to work out who smellt more and if we can smell ourselves, or each other – it was probably me). We got ferried off to the border, and then the fun began. I won’t elaborate too much, but basically:
a) He offered a dodgy overpriced Visa. We declined. No probs.
b) We got followed and quizzed by a “mafia” guy who wanted to know if we’d taken up said offer. We ignored him
c) Went to the official Cambodia Visa office and got robbed of $5 each. They tried to convince os you have to pay 1000 Thai Baht for a visa (£18) when we knew it was $20 (£10). We stood our ground and eventually settled on $25. The officials were in total cahoots with the guy arranging it and would not open the hatch ‘till we coughed up the backhander.
d) Got fed through to the mafia taxis where we made a reasonable deal for $45 to get private cab for a 3 hour journey.
All in all it was more hilarious than annoying. The best bit was a chap telling us about the 1000Baht Visa and when I explained I had no Baht, only Dollars (I hid my Baht in advance) and that I’d spoken to my embassy in advance for advice, he insisted that the minimum was $25 and then he spoke to one of the officials who said or did nothing, and the conman then said “see!, he said 1000Baht is the only way!”, I replied, “hahah – what!?!? He said nothing at all – how did you come to that conclusion” . We got our way in the end, and paid £2.50 each over the odds. Corruption is rife but at least it’s not too serious.
Once we were in our cab we negotiated the infamous Poi Pet to Siam Reap “road”. It’s famous for being a dirt road that can take up to 14 hours to navigate in the wet, and usually 5 or 6 hours in the dry. The thing is, Bangkok airways has a monopoly on the flight route and rumour is they sponsor the Cambodians to keep the road in a poor state to force people to fly. The flights are £100 plus taxes one way. The train fare is 70 Pence, the taxi, £25, for up to 4 people. You do the math, as our US friends say. Luckily for us, this “secret” arrangement comes to an end next year so the Cambodians are well underway improving the road and the whole bone jarring, mud lane driving, hump jumping, pot hole banging experience “only” took three hours. Trust me, I’ve read numerous report of the journey normally taking all day. It was dry for us so we were frequently following the dust trails of other vehicles – at times you could not see more than 3 or 4 feet in front (and there is a constant flow of oncoming massive trucks). Even so, it was incomparably more relaxing than our Visa run we did in Thailand with the sleeping driver.
(This was as clear as it got – I was too scared to take pictures when visibility was down to a foot or so)
On arrival at Siem Reap we checked into the Somadevi Angkor Hotel – 5 star, and rightly so. Recommended by Clare, and a good recommendation that was! – pool bar included (the main reason we went for it!). £30 a night for total luxury. We’ve had a stroll down the main street and so far, we can safely say, the Cambodians are in a class of their own when it comes to friendliness. And it’s damn cheap here – all $$$$ which of course are half price for us. We initially planned to Angkor Watt and run, but we both thing we’ll be here as long as we can, working our way through the country. It’s that promising. We’ll work our way through to Loas, where we’ve been told of a village where you meet the “elder”” and if he likes you, you stay for free as his guest,
Kirstin has no real idea what to expect at the main temples of Angkor – I can’t wait for our 1st day – she’ll be blown away. I’ve wanted to visit the temples since I first saw them on the Discovery channel about 4 years ago and when we chatted about it today it became clear she is in for a shock and has no idea of the scale of it all!. We are going to start with a 5am visit to watch the sun rise over the complex. Did I mention I’m excited? :-p (not before a day in the pool ….)