The second part of my trip to South-East Asia involved crossing the land border to Cambodia. It was going to be a long day of travel once more, and as usual I was last on the bus. There was a German couple with us on this trip this time, and as I got to my seat, the one at the front, the German guy chuckled “Ha Ha, Loser” in the few words of English he seemed to know. I don’t think he intended to be that harsh, so I cut him some slack, but we did feel like outsiders again, having done our own thing for a couple of days, but I was sure that this was something we could remedy over the course of the next few days.
So border crossing day was a long list of bus journeys and standing in lines. Firstly we had to leave Vietnam, which seemed quite straightforward except for the fact that we had to hand over $20 USD and our passports. The line didn’t take long and we were straight back on the bus afterwards collecting our passports again. I got rid of most of my Vietnamese Dong but picked up Cambodian Riels instead of US Dollars, when I exchanged them with a currency trader. I think that worked out ok though, as I ended up spending them all over the course of the week.
As I was in the front seat, I got the chance to pick the movie to be played on the bus, so I chose Edge of Tomorrow, which most people seem to enjoy even if the sound was a little low. After passing through the Cambodian border, we had a stop for lunch which was really nice at the water’s edge, and then as we getting back on board the bus, I noticed some of the group jumping up and down and shaking. It turns out that the bus had parked near a tree and as people brushed past the low hanging branch, they collected a horde of ants in their hair. They were quite vicious and had a nasty itchy bite according to some of the unfortunate souls who were affected. After brushing ourselves down and squashing any ants we saw on the bus, we continued the long journey to Phnom Penh. The roads in Cambodia were a little worse than in Vietnam, so sleep was nearly impossible, but we got to our hotel around 4pm, had time for a freshen up and then had to begin our cyclo tour of the city.
Now a cyclo, for the unfamiliar, is a bike where you sit in the front and someone peddles for you in the back, and my cyclo driver was a small old man called John, but he had the most enthusiasm I’ve ever seen, pushing himself to get ahead of the others. One of the first monuments we went to see was Lady Penh’s monument and Wat Phnom, and then we went to the Central Market briefly, before we went down the main road to the Independence Monument, and then the Royal Palace. I thanked John for the ride as we were dropped off at the Palace, and while the new blood headed back to the hotel, I stuck around with the Aussies and my room mate, as they were curious about the deep fried insects we had passed moments before being dropped off.
I didn’t buy any myself but I did try some crickets and frogs that the other’s bought. The frogs were chewy, like the fatty bits on a pork scratching, but the crickets were crunchy with a spicy kick and a wheat-like texture.
We walked back to the hotel and thought we’d missed everyone else, but it turned out we were early and the time for dinner had been changed on the fly by our group leader.
At the group dinner we got chance to meet our new travel buddies a little better, and most of us decided to go for a drink afterwards in a bar where we found there was live music. It was an open mike night, but the people singing were quite good, and the repertoire was impressive. After 8 rounds of Anchor beer, not to be confused with Ankhor beer, we called it a night.
After an evening of fun we had to prep ourselves for a real humdinger the next day. Firstly we went to the Cheoung Ek Killing Fields in the morning to see some of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge during their time in power, which was followed by a trip to Tuol Sleng prison to see where suspects were detained and tortured before being sent to the killing fields. We were given a tour of both places by our guide, who explained what each part of the camp and prison were for. The exhibits were often accompanied with photographs of the excavations or of the prisoners themselves. It was harrowing morning, but its an important part of Cambodia’s history and it shouldn’t just be brushed under the carpet.
The afternoon was our free time and so my room mate and I went to a local shopfront for some food, and it was delicious. The winter melon flavoured pop, wasn’t as nice, but it was ok. We went for a walk around the city, attempted to get into the Royal Palace, but we forgot that we needed to have covered shoulders, and we were both in our vests.
After dodging a few tuk-tuks and tour touts, we headed back to the hotel to cool off. We met up with the Aussies for dinner and while we were looking for a place we met up with four of the others who wanted to tag along as well. We settled on another local place for dinner that had two little girls taking our orders. While we were waiting for our food, our guide came in, he intended on getting food there as well. There was a mix up with my room mate getting food, but he just took it on the chin and we tried to find somewhere to get a drink.
We found a street that had several bars earlier in the day, and headed there again to check one of them out. At night though, these places looked a little different. For starters, each bar had around 8 similarly dressed girls trying to entice people inside. This was disconcerting for me, and more so for the girls in our group. I made light of it as always, by saying ‘not tonight ladies’, I’m exhausted, but needless to say we went elsewhere. About to give up, we found a hostel bar open with a few people inside, and the host welcomed us in with a great big joint in his hand which he was more than happy to pass around. A couple of us wrote on the wall. Apparently Janet won’t forget four guys, one of whom is me!
So again knowing we’d have at least four hours on a bus again, we picked up some snacks from the local mini mart. One of the girls found something on a shelf and giggled and called me over. It was an aftershave called ‘Poon’! Well I couldn’t stop laughing either, and we were coming up with jokes about it all the way back to the hotel.
We had another early start leaving around 8am, and we didn’t get to Siem Reap until about 3pm in the afternoon. We had a change in hotel from the one planned, according to our group leader, but the good news was that this hotel would have a pool. After some pool time, we went to a restaurant for a group dinner. The food was pretty good, but once again, my room mate didn’t get all of what he ordered. We had a brief look around the night market as a group, and after a few people had gone to bed, my room mate had to get something to eat and so got some snails from a street vendor, which he regretted the next day.
It was a particularly early start to the next day, as we were going to Ankhor Wat to see the sunrise. So by 4.45am we were on the bus and on our way. The plan was to go and see the sunrise, leave and come back later for a full tour with our Tour Guide Chan. We arrived as the first streaks of light came across the sky over the temple, and as we came through the gateway, we saw about 300 other tourists with the same idea. Still it was nice to catch it in its moment of glory, and once that was done it was back to the hotel to get an hour or so’s worth of rest before breakfast.
We returned at about 10am to take in the full tour, from there we went to Ankhor Thom, Bayon Temple and a couple of smaller temples before we broke for Lunch. Just one more place afterwards and we were done for the day. The German guy took a look at my sweat-drenched t-shirt and said, “Wet t-shirt competition”, but I wasn’t the only one. It was fortunate that we had just one more temple ruin to visit, because as soon as we were done the heaven’s opened, and we had a flash downpour for about half an hour.
After getting back, we had a walk into the town after the rains had stopped. The air was much less oppressive, so it was nice to go out for a walk. We came back through ‘Pub Street’ to look for places that had been rated highly by Trip Advisor and make a visual note of their location.
There was to be no more rain for us, and in the early evening the group got together to go to a local home in one of the villages to learn about local living. The home belonged to a woman who was bringing up adopted children and teaching them English. The tuk-tuk ride there was a little bit scary to say the least, as some of the turns were tight, and they were taken at speed in some cases. We had a tour of the village, which was fascinating. The woman who ran the home explained that the government is trying to displace the river folk to make better flood defences when it rains. As the rains can ruin crops and cause other hardships for people. We had a really nice meal sat on the floor, one of the best I had had in Cambodia in fact. Afterwards we had a chance to meet and talk to the children, which was very nice.
In the evening, we partied. At first, the boys were at the Temple Balcony and the girls at the Ankhor What? but we soon joined together on the dance floor and with a few Cuba Libres and Sambuccas, it made for an epic night. It was lovely for one of the younger girls in our group to request to dance with me given there were so many boys closer to her age competing for the attention of all the girl’s in our group.
The next day we had more temple visits to do. One member of the group opted out of doing this through heat exhaustion the day before and decided not to risk it. To be honest, the heat wasn’t as bad on the second day, and we had just three temples to visit, we were done by midday. The first temple was the one used in the Tomb Raider movie, but it was swamped with Chinese Tourists. I commented to my room mate that we’d better ring the Fashion Police to put out an APB on the place, as some of their outfits were a bit loud.
The afternoon was ours again up until 5pm, so my room mate and I got some food for lunch, and enjoyed the air conditioning in the room until it was time to head out. My sun burn from Hoi An had faded to a nice red-brown, and I was ready to get on a bike again.
Most of us had signed up for the optional Quad Bike Sunset Drive activity in the evening, and after a short introduction and practice we set off on our journey. Though most of it was off-road, we had to go on the road a couple of times, which was fun, especially as cars seem to ignore you’re there, but we coped through it. The three lads in front must have been going at warp speed, but I was in the second group and was going as fast as I dared. We arrived at the sunset destination ahead of time, and in fact the speed demons wanted to carry on racing on the bikes rather than see the sunset. Almost all of the way back, the Australian girl was racing up behind me, she reckoned she could have passed me, but I’m not so sure. As we came to go into the depot to return our quad bikes, there was an accident between one of our group and a civilian bike rider. Nothing came of it and no-one was hurt, and the damage to the bike was negligible, so we said no more of it.
Our plan for the evening for the four of us from our Vietnam group was to meet up with the South African couple who also happened to be in Siem Reap. It was nice to reminisce and have a few beers. It appeared that they had done a similar journey through Cambodia, but had done it in better quality hotels. We ended the night sharing a fish foot spa together. I wasn’t keen at first but as the South African fellow put it, “C’mon lets do this together for old times sake!” He was right of course. Sometimes we all need that push. The fish felt weird at first, but we settled down together and enjoyed it. We even had a beer.
The next day we had to start our journey towards the Thailand border. We were veterans at this now. We were dropped off on a roundabout where traders had parked up their goods to declare. We made our way to the border lines and were processed. We walked through to the Thai side it seemed more official, less like a cattle market. When we got through, we met a couple of customs officials who wanted to take a ‘selfie’ with us. Its probably the oddest thing I saw on the whole trip, if I’m honest.
At our rest stop it was the first time I’d had to draw out money on the trip, as I had no baht, and I was reluctant to change my USD into Thai currency at the border. I nearly left the ATM without my card, as they give you the money first in Thailand. We had a long ride to our destination, but I managed to get some sleep along the way.
After checking in to our hotel, which was weirdly only on upper floors, we had a limited amount of time to look around before our last dinner together. Almost everyone we asked for directions seemed to want to get us into a tuk-tuk and take us somewhere, and we had heard the stories of scams involving being taken to various shops instead of your destination, so we just walked on very quickly. Dinner was in a dodgy looking part of town, filled with machine shops, but down a back alley we found a hotel, and at the top of that hotel, an amazing restaurant and bar with a great view of the city on the top deck. It was an unexpected view, not the highest, but an impressive broad view of the river at night, equal to that of Shanghai, Hong Kong or Ho Chi Minh City.
I wanted to carry it on, but it seemed that many wanted to call it a night early. The other Brummies in the group had an early flight and the Aussies had a very early start which they hadn’t anticipated, due to a mix up with their zip-wire booking. However, just when I thought we’d be having an early night, some of the group moved towards the hotel rooftop bar, and we had a few drinks to look back on the last few days together, and talked about our futures. It was a cathartic end to our journey, but it was needed.
On my flight home I thought again about Cambodia and how it compared to Vietnam. While Ankhor Wat was clearly the jewel in its crown, Cambodia’s recent history is a stain that will not be rubbed away so easily. The people I met though, were friendly and warm, and wanted you to enjoy yourself. I didn’t feel pressured or scammed as I have done in some places. I didn’t get to see Cambodia’s coastal south, but I saw some fantastic sunrises and sunsets in the cities I visited. I would recommend it, but you really don’t need much longer than a week there I would say.