Side Quest: Cambodia Part I

So I’m in Bangkok for a week of mostly work and as I am someone who likes to wander, I decided last week that I’d try and get to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat while I’m (loosely!) ‘in the region’. Logistically this was going to prove a little challenging – I could book some short flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap and see nothing of the countryside, or I could find a way to go via public transport, which would end up taking way too many hours away from work, or I could find some tour operator to help get me there using private vehicles and drivers.

Given the time constraints and my longstanding, well known desire to ‘see new shit’, I chose the latter option and found a tour operator who could help me with the transfers from Bangkok, to the Cambodian border, across to the other side an another driver to get me to Siem Reap… in with this was a English speaking drivers and a tour guide, entrances to the temples at Angkor Wat, a visit to a floating village and they booked me a local hotel in Siem Reap. Sounds pretty streamlined and well practiced, yeah? We shall see…

I’m up early Wednesday morning for a 0630 start and waiting out the front of the hotel for driver number one… who is nowhere to be seen. By 0700, I’m on the phone calling the organiser and asking where they are. Apparently the driver went to the wrong hotel entrance and about 15 mins later finally appeared. At this stage, I was getting a bit ‘Hmmm…’ which became immediately apparent in the messages I was sending to my family chat. 😛

Happy, smiling, setting off on an adventure photo…
Read: ‘Please take note – this person and a conveniently place image of their vehicle registration, was the last person I was seen with before I went radio silent and are possibly dead in a ditch somewhere.’

We set off at crazy speed heading out of the city for the Thailand – Cambodian border. It seems Thai drivers only know one way of driving. Full throttle red-lining it, or hard on the brakes, there is no in between. Once we hit the highway, I asked how long it was to the border and it was then that I discovered this driver most certainly didn’t know any English past, ‘Hello. Are you Robyn? How are you?’ Oh dear, what have I gotten myself into.

We make it to the border and I was handed over to these caricatures, err I mean, characters – Super Refelctive Sunnies Man and Crazy Make Up Lady – and they told me to wait while someone would come to take me through the border shortly.

So I waited for about 20 minutes and eventually a teenager came along, Grubby High Vis Shirt Guy, and he said, “You follow me, Madame.” I looked at Crazy Make Up Lady, and she motioned that I should follow him. So I did. *Shrug*, and off he loped without looking back to see if I was following. At this point I’d just been in the car for 3 hours, and my longstanding busted knee wasn’t going to keep up with him, so I didn’t bother even trying. He had crossed the street and was half way up the road before he noticed that I wasn’t behind him! I could see him in his grubby high vis shirt, but I wasn’t up to dodging the traffic like he could! He gave me a slightly sheepish and apologietic look as I eventually caught him up and he then walked at a more moderate pace until we got through the Thailand exit. Here I was handed to another person, Long Pinky Fingernail Guy who, bless his ugly striped shirt and official looking lanyard with a Pokémon card in it, spoke some English. He took me up two flights of stairs (le sigh… escalator broken; permanently I suspect), and we found ourselves at the end of a very long queue of foreigners waiting to get visas to enter Cambodia. I told Mr Long Pinky Fingernail that I have a bad knee and can’t stand up very long, and he said he could get, ”Fast lane for USD$40.”

I had previously been informed the visa was USD$30 so figured this was a negotiation, and I responded, “I was told the visa costsUSD$30.” Whereupon he promptly winked at me and said, “Fast lane is USD$40”. Oh dear god, we are bribing border guards already. Alright, let’s get on with it – it won’t be the first time. I went to open my bag to get him the USD$40 and he literally, said, “Not here! Not here!”, and led me to a lift (why did i just walk up two flights of stairs if there is a functioning bloody lift!!!), and took me downstairs to an air conditioned waiting room, took my passport and my money and disappeared. Less than ten minutes later, he reappeared with a grin, my passport and visa all stamped and proper and ready to escort me to my next driver on the Cambodian side of the border! Fucking fun so far.

Sadly, my next driver didn’t’ even have enough English to tell me his name. So we sped off into Cambodia towards Siem Reap in a silence that was only broken when I attempted to ask for a bathroom break! Thankfully the word ‘toilet’ seems to work nearly everywhere in any language. I gotta say, at this point I was pretty concerned that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted out of this little adventure. I was coming because I want a glimpse of the history and culture, and I particularly wanted the perspective of the country’s turbulent and complicated recent history from a local – not just some bullshit I could read on Wikipedia. I was crossing my fingers that the actual guide I wold be spending time with later had much better English skills than these drivers and border assistant guys.

We drove through the countryside where the abject poverty of being one of the UN designated ‘least developed nations’ was abundantly clear. Children not in school, raggedy clothes, people with no shoes, beggars, beat up cars, tonnes of unsafe looking overhead powerlines, trash just everywhere, houses with plastic for windows, a layer of dust dirt and filth over everything. To me, it felt like a cross between the outskirts of Fez, Ankara and Quetta, thought unlike Pakistan, people were smiling and the children were waving.

Before I knew it, just like in Pakistan the sharp contrast between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ came into sharp focus as we neared the hotel where I would be staying the night and where I would meet the guide that afternoon.

Phew! Managed to make it here safely, and had a couple of hours to chill before meeting the (OMG I hope he speaks English!) guide in the lobby that afternoon. Quick shower and kersplatt!

Met Long, my guide for the next couple of days in the lobby and I was so relieved to find out his English was strong. Now this is going to sound a bit weird considering how far I’ve come and how many people I’ve been handed off though – this, is when I was supposed to pay for all these providers! When I booked all this, though a Cambodian travel company, I tried to pay for it through PayPal and the payment wouldn’t go through. I contacted them to let them know their PayPal links were failing and I was told that ‘PayPal is not currently allowed in Cambodia, and you can pay when you get here.’ Now I took that to mean, when I was collected in Bangkok, but apparently it meant when I met the guide in Siem Reap. Additionally, I was told that I could pay by credit card when I got there… but what they meant was, there was an ATM that I could get a cash advance from! Urgh – I could feel the incoming sandy lube exchange rates from a hotel ATM a mile away. Oh well, it is what it is at this point.

Long was pretty casual about it and said I could fix him up later, but that we had to get going to see the sunset on the floating village. So we jumped into the van with Mr Rolex – yes, I finally found out who had been driving me for the previous stretch from the Cambodian border to the hotel, and his name was Mr Rolex. No explanation. We drove out towards the enormous lake, Tonlé Sap, which is some 200km long by 100km wide during the wet season and a massive part of the Mekong River system. All along the river and on the way to the river were huge stilt houses built by the river – they reminded me of the houses at the beginning of the film, SlumDog Million. Calling them ‘houses’ is generous to say the least, they are ramshackle dwellings held together with tarpaulin and twine with multi-generational families living in poverty.

Long told me the people who could live on the river were ‘safer’. When the water rises in the wet season, their houses rise with it, but those living on the water banks are living a precarious life on unsteady, very tall, stilt houses

The community out here is predominantly Vietnamese. Cambodia has a complicated history with their Vietnamese neighbours and for whatever reason this Vietnamese diasporic community chooses to live on the river. Long claims it isn’t because they aren’t welcome to live on the higher land with the Cambodians, but many of them are used to this sort of river lifestyle. Anyone can build a boat and come live on the river – there are no council rates, no property taxes, no real estate per se but very little in the services apart from what the community decides to create together. Some of the houses are barely better than rafts with a tent over them, some are very well designed and built to be shops, meeting places, restaurant/cafes, and there’s even a a church and a school.

The local school: the kids either get driven to school by their parents or they swim to the school each day. School only goes from 1pm to 5pm daily. In the morning, the children are usually helping the family with the fishing business.

Early each day the fishermen set out, get a daily catch and take it back to a fish market closer to Siem Reap so there are loads of long fast boats getting about billowing exhaust fumes, making the entire area smell like fuel rather than river.

The light at this time of day was really crazy… there was a heat haze rising off the land and a lot of evaporation, you could turn one way and see a thing, go behind it and it looked completely like something altogether different. A photographer’s paradise, and me here with just an iPhone. These channel markers were pretty cool – the water is only about 1.5m to 3m deep at the moment, but when the wet season comes it will be 10m-12m deep. Which is what makes living on the river banks so precarious.

We stopped at a floating restaurant/cafe and gift shop where I had a chance to eat some local frog* – but after my hectic day of travel I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous so opted for a cold coconut and some fresh mango instead. (Should have tried the damn frog! InstaRegret!). There was some crocodile pens here – they make jerky out of them so they were just fattening these ones up apparently. Also for sale was eel jerky, turtle jerky, and various other fish jerky which I also avoided. They were also selling lots of touristy crap here – cheap clothing, little Buddha statues, crocodile skulls, t-shirts and keychains etc. None of it looked like something I wanted to take home.

We took our drinks and mango and found a nice spot to watch the sun going down. Long told me about his family (married with three sons), his aspirations for them (teach his kids good English so they have a chance to work in business or tourism), and how the Cambodian outlook is currently quite positive in spite of their current one party communistic government… from the way he was telling it, the people are happier not Happy (TM), but happier and feeling more positive than they have in generations.

The TL;DR on Cambodian history is that the Angkor Empire, which started in around 900AD was dissolved in 1432 and brought a very politically unstable period to the region. During this time many local ruling administrations were established, and they were variously the Vietnamese and Siamese (Thai) ethnic groups who continuously fought and struggled for dominance over the region. Long said that Cambodia, which was placed under French protection in 1863 (placed by whom, I don’t know?), and didn’t gain independence from the French until 1953 – we don’t particularly like the French here anymore and no one seems interested in learning French or anything to do with France, except they’ve kept the croissants and macarons! 😉

The more recent political history of Cambodia has been shaped by developments in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam again, with the added mass destruction of the Marxist dictator Pol Pot who was effectively Cambodian Hitler trying to commit a genocide of the entire Cambodian people (he was ethnically Khmer-Chinese and considered the Cambodians to be a sub-human race. His efforts in mass slaughter and mass starvation contributed to an estimated 1.7 to 2.3 million deaths. Tens of thousands of mass graves scatter the country as his destructive Khmer Rouge regime ruled Cambodia between 1975-1979. Like, that is not so long ago, I can remember the fall out always being in the news in the ‘80s.

As a result of the fuckery continuing in the region even after Pol Pot was rolled, a United Nations transitional authority was established in 1991. The Kingdom of Cambodia was created in 1993, and the country has been governed by a constitutional monarchy since then. The current King, King Norodom Sihamoni, acceded to the throne in 2004. It’s all so recent. In the most recent general elections, held in July 2023, the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) won all the seats in the National Assembly, with nearly 80% of the vote – which is kinda what happens when you have an uneducated public and only one party to vote for. But still people aren’t worried about being rounded up and slaughtered like their parents were back in the 70s, so in spite of the abject poverty everywhere, they’re remarkably optimistic of their future.

The history lesson was interesting, and the sunset made it all seem even more poignant somehow…

On the way back to the jetty, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking about the people here and how little they have and yet they feel hopeful and happy… I took a picture of this kid jumping around in the water, (water that would probably kill me if I ingested any of it!), just after sunset and he just looked so joyful and carefree. It’s a blurry mess of a picture given the low light and I’m using a phone… but it shows so much imo. We all need food, water, shelter to survive… but what do we actually need to be happy?

After our little river cruise to the Chong Kneas Floating Village on Tonlé Sap, we made our way into town. Long kindly offered to take me out to dinner and show me some local spots because, ‘You don’t want to end up in a tourist trap!’ About 50% of the population make their money on tourism in Siem Reap and they’ve all been hit fairly hard by the Covid pandemic so there’s a lot of price gouging going on – he says that it can costs up to USD$10 per person for a nice meal with an alcoholic beverage, which is ridiculous apparently! So we head to the famous Pub Street and have a bit of a wander through to have a look at all the pretty lights they’ve put up to make a festive atmosphere for the tourists and then promptly head away from the glitz to a small family restaurant serving traditional Cambodian meals.

Pub Street is pretty cool – but it is sooo obviously touristic. Menus all in English everywhere, shops all filled with the same souvenir and clothing items to buy, they even have the old line up the old white men for a bath of fish biting pedicure with a side of life long fungus available! But we found the quiet little restaurant and Long translated the menu for me and I opted to try a traditional fish curry called ‘Amok curry – it was a fragrant green curry with coconut and lime flavours, light on the coriander! Long chose a prawn and pasta dish and a beer. My meal was absolutely delicious – possibly one of the best curries I have ever tasted, and it paired quite well with the lychee daiquiri that I chose off the cocktail list. 🙂 Long was right – dinner was only USD$7 a head… and I think I did his mind a little a bit, by paying for both our meals and rounding it up to USD$20 anyway.

Oh and I found out after dinner why Mr Rolex was asking me if I wanted Krud… apparently the Aussies that come here just love it.

I was planning on spending a bit longer in town, but was absolutely stuffed after such an early start, a few stressful and tense encounters with randoms, and then a long afternoon out in the sun… so opted to head back to the hotel for an early night so we could get a jump on tomorrow’s Angkor Wat itinerary and with a bit of luck beat the large group tourists.

Long found me a tuk tuk and rode back to the hotel with me, and I was smiling as I watched him make the tuk tuk driver clean the seats and remove some water bottle so it would be ‘clean enough for Madame’. He’s a fairly quiet, well spoken, very friendly man and so far proving to be very open minded good company – ie: he’s doesn’t seem exasperated by all my questions!