Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Isaan, Thailand to Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

In Surin I had the cheapest meal of the trip so far: a 10baht (15p) breakfast of sticky rice and spicy pork - mmmmm - spice in the morning. I swam in an outdoor pool with loose tiles and filthy water (risking typhoid no doubt) as an escape from the afternoon heat. A blind man painfully massaged me but it felt good afterwards. Sadly, we left Isaan on a bus bound for Chong Chom village on the Cambodian border.

Dodgy officials

O'smach border crossing 
I proceeded through the border formalities to find myself standing in the Cambodian village of O'Smach. I was the only Westerner here and an obvious target for annoying touts. The rarely-used immigration office was a wooden shack manned by staff lounging around in scruffy uniforms and flipflops. They all seemed to smoke - welcome to Cambodia! I was glad I'd prearranged the visa in Bangkok as tea-money (bribes) are not uncommon if you have to arrange one here.

Hellish Roads

The first thing you notice on this side of the border is that the tarmac roads stop in Thailand. Thailand makes Cambodia look like England before the Romans. I had to get from this middle-of-nowhere, infrastructure-less village to either Anlong Veng or Siem Reap where I hoped to secure some digs. I ended up paying $40US for a 200km, 5hr taxi to Siem Reap via Anlong Veng. Not bad considering no public transport plies this route. Another option was to sit in the back of a pick-up truck with hundreds of locals (on the roof etc.), which we considered, until we learned we'd have to wait for hours (possibly the next day) before departing.

Once we were underway, we were glad of our decision as the dusty dirt roads were a force to be reckoned with. Our Khmer taxi driver drove like a rally driver on speed over these ludicrously inept bumpy roads and actually got us to Siem Reap in only 4hrs - an average speed of 30mph - grease lightning. We alighted white as ghosts with very sore arses wondering what the pick-up option would have been like in terms of pain and time?

Poverty and corruption

All of that aside, it was an interesting journey down the through the hilly border region and then the Northern Cambodian planes. The second thing that strikes you after the dreadful roads is the standard of accommodation the locals live in. So far the worst poverty I've seen has been in the Philippines. I think Cambodia is even worse with shocking evidence of it here. Where poverty manifests itself, corruption never seems to be far behind and we witnessed our taxi driver giving 40 tabs to roadside coppers at a roadblock. Why? No idea. Also, local merchants were passing Thai baht cash to the border guards right in front of us, presumably to make any bureaucratic nonsense disappear. It all looked fishy to me.

Angkor Wat

Once in Siem Reap we found the locals to be very friendly and hospitable. In fact this goes for all the people we've encountered here. I sampled Chicken Amok (coconut curry dish) before organising a tuk-tuk to take us around the famous Angkor Wat ruins. We woke at 0500, paid $20US each for a one-day pass and reached the magnificent Angkor Wat temple in time to watch the sun rise. What a moment. The building, with its lotus bud towers looks wonderful at any time of day, but as the sun comes up from behind it, you're afforded a glorious sight which makes the early morning alarm call well worth it.

Next we went to Bayon in the middle of the ancient Angkor Thom city. This is the place where stone faces stare at you from the cardinal points of the towers that form this imposing structure. The faces are smiling serenely. I felt very privileged to be so close to these famous images.

Ta Prohm was next where this ancient temple has been wrestling with nature for hundreds of years. The result is an intriguing jungle-temple hybrid that looks like something from a Tomb Raider movie with tree roots smothering buildings.

After site-seeing we hired some bicycles and rode 20km along dusty roads to the South of Siem Reap. We saw at close-quarters how impoverished the villages are - a million miles from the tourist mayhem (and money) that ensues at Angkor Wat. We met a local charity worker who works for a foreign funded organisation that tries to help poor kids. She was 24yo and getting married next month. 

On a walk into the less visited areas of Siem Reap we found a net on the river preventing all the rubbish flowing into the tourist area. Here, we saw two young boys floating amongst the shite in polystyrene boxes. It makes you wonder eh? It's OK for two little kids to play in the shite but tourists aren't meant to even see it? What a f*cked up World.

Or Goon (Cambodian for thanks)

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