Thursday, March 4, 2010

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Sunday, March 15, 2009


A little Asian American

Our early morning mini-bus ride was without event. Myself and Jojo taking turns to fall asleep on each others shoulders in the rather cramped conditions of the back of the van. Our van stopped for the second time, just 10 mins from the border with Cambodia. We had made brief introductions to the other ten young passengers onboard. It was explained to us that this allowed us to get something to eat and have a rest. As in India, on long journey, breaks are normally provided at chosen eateries along your route. We were also told by our driver that we could get our visa done here at a small commission.

Still with a mobile connection available, I logged onto the net with my iPhone and did a quick search. Wikitravel had a recent article on Visas for Cambodia. There is an interesting section under Land Crossings that explains about the Visa Scam. It mentioned that you might end up paying up to $35. I read out the article to everyone we had being travelling with and they all started chatting among themselves. Most of them, separate to Jojo and I, had paid for the journey the whole way to Siam Reap. The tour company started handing out the visa applications and told that the price was $30. It was interesting to watch as one by one, each person changed their mind and paid the full amount. They were told that the bus may not be able to wait for them at the border. They were also told it would take an hour or more. Jojo whispered to me, “this is the place,, the restaurant, the lady in our tour company mentioned to me, was a scam”. It was obvious that they were all being scammed. Anyone that spoke to us, we told them, it was probably better to wait until they got to the border. Nevertheless, their worry got the better of them. Noticing that we were rocking the boat, one of the tour agents, organised our lift to the border promptly.

The area on the Thai side of the border was ridden with litter and the road unfinished and dusty. Myself and Jojo hauled our bags up the road to the Thai immigration. After ten minutes with our departure cards filled out we exited Thailand into No Mans Land. The heat was in the high 30s and the air was dusty. A large gateway of Cambodian design with a sign saying, “Kingdom of Cambodia” stood ahead of us. A chaos of people, carts, bicycles and trucks was the sight infront of us. After a moment we noticed a guy signalling to us. We were shown to the Visa applications desk by a smiling friendly young gentleman. Jojo collected two forms and we filled them out. We spoke to three British lads. They told us to be aware that the guys giving out the Visas were chancing their arms. If you didn't pay the amount the suggested, they told you, you'd have to wait. The sign above the booth clearly said $20 for a tourist visa. Without any dollars on us we were immediately at a loss. So I made a quick calculation. 750 baht. We'd offer 800 for the inconvenience. As we walked up an immigration officer approached us smiling. We told him we were paying Baht. There was smile. “1000 baht”. I smiled back How about 800 baht”. There was some tooing and froing. He said we'd have to wait if we didn't pay. I threw another 100 baht in for the two of us and he smiled. Two minutes later our passports had new visas in them. We chatted to an Irish couple that had also gone through the same experience.

The same friendly gentleman came over and told us about the free bus to the terminus. He walked us all through to immigration. While standing in the que and filling in our Arrival cards we got chatting to the Irish couple again and some other people. It appeared the visa thing was tried on everyone. After standing in the que sweating for another fifteens minutes we got our passports stamped and we walked through in to our first dusty Cambodian street. Poi pet is the border town and on first look, its not much. A large casino is one of the first big buildings you'll see. Apart from this there are some run down looking businesses on either side of an unsealed road. A collection of buses and taxi are parked, awaiting a new onslaught of naïve passengers.

Once again our helpful guide waited until he had myself and Jojo and the two other Irish together. He brought us to the free bus service. He started some spiel about how he loved his job and he was not in this for money. This was all part of his job to welcome us to Cambodia. It really sounded like there was something at the end of this. We were dropped off at some form of bus and taxi rank. A number of other Westerners were hanging around inside. Negotiations began. He mentioned we could wait for a bus. This cost was $8 per person and took 6 to 7 hours. Alternatively we could get a taxi, that took 3 hours and it cost $15 per person, with 4 people in a taxi. It all seemed a bit pricey. We met the three young British lads we had met on the far side of the border. We all chatted about what prices we had being offered. After a short time our guide offered our cars fare for $55. We all chatted amongst ourselves and agreed to it.

It was a really pleasant journey to Siam Reap. It was a great opportunity to get to know Michelle and Sean. There was a good vibe between us straight away. The road is fairly well completed the majority of the way. We stopped for a toilet break half way along. A small roadside shop selling expensive water and a selection of salted products. Suddenly it started to seem real. All the prices were in dollar. Jojo choose some Pringles and water. Our next stop was on the near side of Siam Reap to get money out of the ATM. Your only option is to take our dollars. Prices in the shop were extortionate. I needed to buy something to get some change. I choose the cheapest thing. A pack of tic tac styles sweets $1. Eh, where was the cheap Cambodia we had being expecting. I held any judgement for the moment. We stopped next on the side of the road with a load of tuk tuk drivers waiting around. We thought we were in for another scam. It was explained that this is how it is done. There is no charge as the price is taken out of the taxi drivers fair. Our suspicions were high. It was agreed we'd pay the remainder of the fare upon arrival at our guesthouse.

As we drove through the streets of Siam Reap a new part of Asia uncovered itself for us. As with most Asian countries a sea of motos and bikes filled the streets. Each junction becomes a mass of courtesy based driving, Children in fresh white starched looking uniforms made their way home from schools A monk dressed in the traditional zesty orange sauntered alongside the organised chaos. After darting amongst this frenzy our tuk tuk turned down alongside a tree lined river and pulled up outside a smart looking guesthouse called Rosy's. Sean and Michelle had booked in to this one in advance through Sadly no extra rooms were available. The place was stunning. Very modern, smart, stylish and for only $8. We booked into a place three doors down. Also for $8 although not a patch on Rosey's.

After showering we met up with Sean and Michelle. We headed over to Babel guesthouse where the 3 British lads were staying. On route we checked out some other places for prices. There was a varied selection from $5 to $15. We decided we find somewhere in the morning. The lads were relaxing with beers, on a chill-out coach in the garden. We headed towards the city. Further along the river, the trees were lit up with a mixture of coloured and white lights. Not quite the picture I had in my mind of my first evening in Cambodia. We found a very smart and fancy looking place along on of the main dusty roads. Main courses averaged $4. The food was excellent. Staff were super nice and super smiley.

We headed in search of Pub street. Not quite what I was expecting again. More like a street you might find in Porta Banus or one of the more fancy locations along the Costa del Sol. It was something else. Smart bars with outdoor seating lined either side of the road. A variety of music styles was competing to be heard from each. We walked along in shock, wondering where had we magically being transported to. Each place was more luxurious than the next. Cambodia was seeming more a more to be like a little Asian America. After checking the varying prices of a small beer from 75 cent to 2 dollars we settled down. Everyone was feeling pretty tired, so we only stayed out for a few, before heading back.

We checked out of our slightly dingy place and headed down to Sean and Michelle's for breakfast. Sadly no room was available. A British guy and his Swedish girlfriend were looking after the hostel for their mate. They told us to leave our bags behind the counter while we found somewhere to stay. We headed towards Babel, dropping into different places along the way. The standards were are fairly average and costs fair. We found a fantastic place called MotherHome. The first thing to greet you was a fantastic fresh lemon smell. For anyone that knows me, that is my greatest weakness. The interior was impeccable and shiny. Light coloured tiled floors and warm coloured rich varnished wood. We were shown to a room on the 4th floor. It was a big modern brightt fan room, with two double beds and an ensuite. It had a TV, smart looking desk and big wardrobes. You be lucky to get a four star hotel in Ireland of the same standard. For $8 it was an insane bargain. We took it straight away. Included in the price, was free tea and coffee, free internet and free bike hire. To top it off the owner drove us around in his car to pick up our bags. We'd struck gold.

The remainder of the afternoon we spent watching movies and chillin out in our luxury pad. Later in the afternoon we grabbed our free bikes and headed off to get dinner on the side of the street. For four dollars we had 2 main courses and two cans of drink. We had being told by Daillila that you could enter the temples for free after five. We began our 6km cycle out along the main road to Angkor Vat. The streets were filled with motos, cars, jeeps, tuktuks and bicycles. It was an adorable feeling cycling through the outskirts of Siam Reap. I felt totally at one and relaxed pottering along through this wonderful part of Asia. There is a certain romanticism that makes me feel totally at home in Asia. Perhaps earned from watching to many Hollywood movies. We stopped and asked a westerner how far we were from the temples. 5km or so. Not a problem. Jojo was loving being back on a bicycle and was bopping along with his iPod plugged in. We arrived outside Angkor Vat a little while later. The road was remarkably good. A large moat or lagoon surrounded the temple. The sun must have only gone down a few minutes earlier as the sky was filled with indigos and pinks. A vast wide impressive looking pathway spanned across the water and led up to the spectacular entrance gateway. Small lights lined the path and men dressed in ancient mauve military dress stood to attention along each side of the highway. We parked our bikes and approached. As we went to cross we were stopped by two pretty ladies also dress in the mauve coloured attire and told that the temple was closed. We looked at her in surprise and asked could we cross to take some photos. With a beautiful smile she gracefully declined our request. We accepted our faith and returned to the side lake to take some late night snaps.

Not wanting to concede so easily we thought we'd head a little further along the road to see whether we might sneak into another one of the temples. With our dynamo lights switched on we headed off along the darkening road. It was great fun to be off on another adventure. Sadly it came to end so soon. Next thing we knew, a man came out of the dark, waving his hands in the middle of the road. “Must go back, closed.” he shouted. We thanked him and headed back off towards town. I had noticed a short cut on route and decided we'd try it on the way home. A very pleasant motorbike cop parked on the side of the road, informed us, it was not a good idea. “Too dangerous.” he proclaimed. When you visit Siam Reap you will notice quite a high police presence around the temple area. These guys are purely here to help you and watch out for trouble.

When we got back we showered and headed out. We met up with all the gang in one of the many charity cafés. The evening was a short one. Sean and Michelle wanted to head home early as they were getting up to see the temples at sunrise. We agreed to only stop in a local bar on the way home. Myself and Jojo treated ourselves to a minature pizza. After around of drinks we headed back. We stayed out with the three lads for another short while. The lads were all college buddies from Shefield University and had studied architecture together. We were getting to know them fast. It was quite unusual how such a large group got on together. We all just clicked. We all agreed to meet for breakfast before heading off.

Myself, Jojo and Johnnie were the only people that turned up for breakfast. John and Adam decided on the lie in option rather, than the 8am meeting. It was quite delicious. Simple eggs and toast. Each of us othering a different style, I'm sure much to the delight of the kitchen staff. Nevertheless, the fried, scrambled and poached all came cooked to perfection. Johnnie excused himself after finishing up to meet with their scheduled tuktuk driver for 9am. Myself and Jojo went shopping for a driver for the day. We found a guy outside that agreed to do the grand tour for $13 for the day. Seemed like we'd found our bargain. The average price is $15.

The temples of Angkor are a spectacular example of ancient architecture and nature fighting back to take ownership of the land. The first we visited you first entered a a stunning dark grey stone gateway structure. The majority of the larger Angkor temples are surrounded by a moat. These are far more impressive during the wet seasons. You will notice how important symmetry is in the design of the Angkor temples. Preah Khan is a fantastic example of Khmer architecture and the main chambers have being very well restored. We spent over 2 hours pottering around the crumbling remains. Large impressive strong trees sprout throughout the structure. Sometimes precariously balanced on walls or roofs. Giant roots like something from an alient movie unimaginabily holding these massive trees upright.

Be warned. Rather than the old adage of bring comfortable shoes. Bring some form of cover. An umbrella is ideal. Also loads of water. The heat really gets to oven temperatures during the day. Neak Pean was our next temple. Well actually it is more of a dried out series of water reservoirs than a standard temple. We bumped into the British lads who were headng in the opposite direction of the grand tour. They were similarly melting in the noon heat. We agreed to meet later and headed off to get some lunch. As we approached the food stalls we were shouted at by three ladies that came running towards us. A battle began in trying to convince us of which of their restaurants to pick. Jojo being the ultimate diplomat agreed to buy the drinks form one and the food from another. I chuckled at their offer of $2 for a small can of beer. I offered one and they accepted. When we sat down in the restaurant for food we were passed two yellow menus. The prices averaged $4. We asked were the prices correct and they confirmed. We stood and said we go to the other restaurant. 10 feet from the door we were chased and shown new menus with the average price at $1.50. In a whispered tone they said, "We do special price for you". Hilarity.    

After eating our delicious meal we met our tuktuk driver and headed off to see Tom Som, East Mebon, Pre Rup, the lake of Sras Srang and Banteay Kdei. After you see three temples there is a certainn repition. From a photograpy point of view it is more about the harmony of nature and construction for me. When we got to Pre Rup I was ready to collapse with the heat. Climbing the steep stairs I thought I was going to faint and half kill myself. I was ready to go home. After stopping for a bit in the shade my energy returned a little bit. We decided on our return journey we might as well see whatever was enroute. At the lakeside we were surrounded by a group of young girls who were offering there cold drinks for sale. Jojo got himself a gift  of a rose and we both received free bagles by the wide smiling young girls, obviously infatuated by the brown eyed Brazilian. As we entered our last temple for the day we were approached by a quick tonged young girl selling books. We spent 15 minutes chatting to her as she persisted in trying to sell us a book. Sometimes all the locals want is someone to take the time to chat to them. And they do love to chat. When we entered the gate we met another girl selling silk scarves. At 16 years of age she showed her linguistic skills by greeting us in seven different languages. This included Irish, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Portugese and some others. I'm not sure quite how many she did know, although I was impressed. She told us she wanted to be a teacher. I recommended she stay studying hard and she could be anything she wanted. She was brilliant. The temple did not quite wow me, as much as that girl did. It was still another beatiful Angkor temple. I fell asleep on Jojo's shoulder on the return journey in the tuk tuk.
Dinner began in one of the more local eateries. A sign outside declared they did not serve We all headed over to pub street. After drinking some of the cheaper beer, we headed into one of the disco bars. The buckets began and not long later Michelle, Jojo and Johnie were dancing like something out of the movies. The two boys ended up on the tables, strutting their stuff. Myself, Sean, John and Adam chatted away while watching and laugh at the three of them. It was just what the doctor had ordered. We all left the place with a slight stagger. Heading back home went by without notice. We wished our fairwells and headed off to bed.

Hangover day was meant to be our second day at the temples. The three day pass is a costly $40, while its $20 for the one day. You kind of want to make the most of it. C'est la vie. We were in no mood to go anywhere. We lay down on the bed with the fan on full speed and watched one movie after the other. To not be total sloths we headed out to the local corner shop and ate cheese burgers and chips. While relaxing later watching Equilibrium, the two Johns and Adam called in. I headed down to meet Sean and Michelle. It was our last night out together so we thought a few drinks were in order. The plan was to afterwards visit the Siam Reap night market. Didn't quite get around to it. After consuming a delicious selection of dishes in a small french restaurant it was nearing eleven. All the gang apart from us were up at the crack of dawn. We swapped the customary Facebook details, hugged and promised to keep in touch. Another momentary meeting and getting to know five other people. Its strange how times this happens when you are travelling.

Our final full day in Siam Reap was spent doing the small tour of the Angkor temples. Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple reminded me a lot of the Preah Khan. It is a truly exquisite experience. Once again disturbed in numerous areas by the abnormally giant trees and roots. It has a wonderful sense of peace about it. It is a maze of rooms and corridors. The walls are lined with intricate Khmer designs and sculptures. There is so much to see it can be overwhelming. Be warned the smaller circuit is busier and you will be rushed by some random group of Japanese tourits on a guided tour. You need to be a bit assetive. For some reason they act as if they have paid for exculsive use of the whole temple. Myself and Jojo went around at our leisure. Me stopping to take time with my photos. I got away from the troops of tourists by climbing on of the exterior walls. I returned to meet Jojo at the front by going around the side. It was wonderful how peaceful and serene it was walking under the giant trees and looking in on the temple.

We both started tiring quickly today and after seeing Ta Keo and Bayon inside Angkor Thom we stopped for some lunch. After haggling a discount for our meal we sat down to relax under the shade of the restaurant canopy. Within a moment we had local kids trying to sell their wares. Of course, being the softies we were, we purchased a new bracelets each. Jojo said he wished he could buy something from everyone of them. The presentation of the food that was served was beyond reproach. It even tasted better than it looked. We agreed to skip the other temple ruins in Angkor Thom and go straight to the big one. Angkor Vat is the largest temple and from what I've being told, also the largest religious structure in area in the world. It was the perfect way to finish our temple tour. With the best. The entrance alone is magnificent. After walking through the main entrance you are greeted with a stadium sized garden that sits infront of the actual temple. The temple itself is on three or four levels. I'm not certain about this because a number of areas were closed for renovations. Vat is under a major restoration project at the time of writing this. They are trying to fix all of the sloppy and temporary restorations that have being done over the years. This temple is enormous. Before we knew it, it was 5.30pm and time to be heading back to our tuk tuk.

When we got back, we showered and took the free rental bikes out from our guesthouse. We were finally going to get to the night market. We had heard about these massage fish and we decided we'd give it a go. They claim, "your money back if you don't laugh". Firstly your feet are washed with a hot towel. Obviously on the fishes behalf. It is quite something as dozens of these small goldfish sized fish start sucking on your feet, looking for dead skins. The initial feeling it is nearly impossible to not laugh. After you relax it is so relaxing. These little magical fish are supposedly from Turkey. $3 for fifteen to twenty minutes. A small crowd gathered by the time we finished. The new customers already bought in, as we lay there with beaming smiles on our faces. The Siam night market has little else to offer from a bargain point of view. Prices in Cambodia and crazily expensive.

We finished the night off with dinner in another one of the cheaper and local restaurants. You can shop around and get dinner for around $2. You will also get some places offering Happy Hour on their drinks. This means small cans for 60 cent. After food we headed off to treat ourselves to ice cream. There is a superb modern a/c cafe and restaurant called Siamp Reap. With free Wifi we sat down, logged on to our iPods and ordered some delicious deserts. We cycled home delighted with our wonderful day. With our tickets booked for our 6 hour bus  journey to Phnom Penh we paid our guest house bills, left a nice tip and headed up to bed.