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Big Piles of Rocks and Return to Thailand

2008 May 4
by rob

April 24, 2008

In the morning today we took a bus to Siem Reap. Located 300 km northwest of Phnom Penh, it took us about five hours to get there. We wanted to go to the cafe from yesterday to repeat that amazing breakfast, but we couldn’t since our ride to the bus station picked us up at 6:30 AM. Bastards.

Cambodians are BY FAR the most crazy and aggressive drivers I have ever seen. There are very few rules of the road. Generally you drive on the right and pass on the left. However, if the left side of the road is free and its more convenient for you to be there, then help yourself. The horn is used very liberally. If you want to pass someone, then honk at them and go ahead. The bigger the vehicle, the more priority you have to pass people. Bicycle riders and pedestrians have to be as far right as possible in order to survive. Slow motorcycle drivers and tuk-tuks can stay in the right lane, but have to push as far right as possible is someone behind them wants past. Bus drivers go WHEREVER they want as long as they keep honking. For three hours, our bus driver honked and honked. He mostly drove in the left lane, but dodged and weaved as required. There were moments of sheer terror as oncoming trucks approached us and we dodged at the last second. Our five hour adrenalin rush cost us only US$5.

Alex and I were the only foreigners on the bus. As such, when we got to the bus station in Siem Reap we were immediately targeted by about FIFTY (at least) touts. It was low tourist season, and these guys were desperate for any business. They immediately spotted me and Alex on the bus (curse my white skin). They held up signs advertising guesthouses, tours, and rides up against the window and banged on it to get my attention. Alex and I were the last people off the bus and people tried to grab us by our arms or shirt sleeves to earn our business. There was only two of us and like fifty of them, so they felt the need to be aggresive to win our business.

Tout: “Ride. One Dollar. Anywhere.”
Another Tout: “Where you go?”
Even Another Tout: “Stay my hotel.”
Fifty other touts: more of the same.
Me: “Don’t touch me.”
Tout: “Let me get your bag.”
Me: “Don’t touch my bag.”

I basically crawl into the cargo hold of the bus by myself in order to make sure that Alex and I are the only ones to hold our bags. I don’t really trust these guys.

I spot one tout way at the back who holds up a sign with the name of the guest house that Alex and I picked out of the Lonely Planet. He wasn’t being aggresive at all and looked like he was about to give up. I liked his attitude. I gave the guy the nod and tried to wade my way through the mob of touts to get to him. We got into his tuk-tuk. Some of the touts followed us and still tried to get our attention. Even though we were already IN a tuk-tuk, they were still offering us rides to places. Man, they were desperate.

The driver I picked out was named Mr Tu. He said he’d drive us to any guesthouse we wanted for free but he wanted to be our driver to the ruins the next day. How did he know we were going to the ruins? Easy… that’s what EVERYONE does in Siem Reap. It’s THE thing to do in Siem Reap. Heck… it’s the only reason most people even go to Cambodia at all. The rate he offered us to take us to the ruins seemed reasonable, so we struck a deal.

The guesthouse that Alex and I picked out seemed pretty decent. Double room, air conditioner, TV, bathroom with sit down toilet (I still have not mastered the art of doing number two on a squat toilet) all for US$15. Split in half, that’s not a bad deal! It must have been at least 35 degrees in Siem Reap during the afternoons, so we spent a lot of our time hiding from the heat in our air conditioned room.

We spent most of the rest of the day at the Blue Pumpkin cafe enjoying excellent real coffee and eating cakes. The waiter at the Blue Pumpking was extremely smiley with me. Most wait staff are supposed to be friendly, but this guy was looking at me, a lot. He told me that “my dimples made me not the same as anyone else.” I think he was flirting with me, seriously. This was the second Cambodia dude who wanted me. What can I say… I’m a very sexy man. Sorry dudes, I don’t swing that way, though.

We went to bed early because we had an extremely early start the next morning.

April 25, 2008

The alarm on my cell phone woke us up at 4:45 AM. Seriously. We had a lot of ruins to see today.

Mr. Tu picked us up at 5 AM and drove us to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. Was it worth it? I’ll let the photos tell the story.

I think they’re pretty good.

Alex and I spent about 8 hours looking at ruins. Most were temples, but there were also some palaces, gates, and fancy walls. Most of the ruins were 1200 to 800 years old. Some were restored and super pretty. Others were in different states of disrepair. I won’t bore you with the details of all the temples, since I don’t even know all of them myself. Mr. Tu was not a tour guide — just a driver. He tooked us from ruin to ruin and took a nap in his tuk-tuk while he waited for us to finish. He was the most laid back dude ever. I liked him.

Here’s a few more nice pics, too.

I thought that trees like to eat water, nutrients and carbon dioxide. These tree likes to eat TEMPLES!

I took many many more photos. When I find myself at an internet cafe that has Picasa installed and isn’t super expensive, I’ll put them on my Web Albums for you.

By about 1 PM, we were tired and it was so hot that we called it a day. We told Mr. Tu to pick us up at 8 AM the next day and we went back to the hotel to rest and recuperate. Of course, we stopped off at the Blue Pumpkin cafe again for more coffees and cakes. They were so good the day before, that we had to go back!

April 26, 2008

Mr. Tu picked us up at 8 AM and took us to more temples. On the way, he got a flat tire on his motorbike. Ack. He managed to get it fixed pretty quickly, though.

I’ll let the pictures to the talking for the temples. Again, we saw a lot of them. It’s not really worth your time (or mine) to describe them all for you.

One thing that’s astonishing about Cambodia (and Southeast Asia in general) is how much STUFF people load onto motorbikes. They will literally put a whole family on one bike (like dad, mom, and two kids). Sometimes you’ll see them completely filled with dead birds on sticks, huge piles of hay. Here’s a photo of one motorbike overflowing with sacks of something-or-other.

That night, Alex and I decided to go to a German/Swiss restaurant in Siem Reap. Why would we have German food in Cambodia? Because it was there. Also, they had Erdinger wheat beer, which is my favourite wheat beer in the world and I had to have it. Alex and I split an Oktoberfest Pot. It was filled with four kinds of sausages, more meat, scallopped potatoes, potato dumplings, beans, carrots, gravy, and sauerkraut. It was amazingly fantastically delicious.

This feast cost US$16 (split in two). The Erdinger beers were super expensive at US$5 each, but I deserved both of mine, dammit.

April 27, 2008

Mr. Tu picked us up at 8 AM again. This time, we decided to mix it up a bit and head to the lake south of Siem Reap. The lake, Tonle Sap, is the biggest lake in Southeast Asia. During the dry season, there’s a whole population of people living on the lake in various floating vessels. There’s schools, libraries, homes, a basketball court in the river channel leading up to the lake. On the lake itself, there’s an entire village of Vietnamese people living on the lake and catching fish.

Many of the floating homes were in states of various quality. This home has definitely seen better days.

After the lake, Alex was officially “templed-out” and headed back to the hotel. I wasn’t done yet. Mr. Tu unhooked the tuk-tuk trailer from his motorbike and we headed out to see a few more temples.

On the way, he got another flat tire! This time, it was on the highway, almost in the middle of nowhere. He dropped me off at a roadside stand and said something like “he’ll be back real soon.”

So, he was gone like forty minutes, but it was all good. There was a Cambodian family running the roadside stall. They didn’t speak a word of English, but I still had lunch and a drink there. It was the cheapest meal I had in all of Cambodia. My food (something called “Panchayo” — fried egg with minced sweet fish and bean sprouts topped with salad, more sprouts, spicy sauce, and peanuts) was only 25 cents. My can of juice was 50 cents. It was so tasty, I should have taken a picture. Sorry guys!

That last day of ruin exploration, I visited three more temples. The sign in front of this one says “Climbing at your risk.” Yes… tourists were allowed to climb many of the temples around Siem Reap. It was great fun to climb around these big piles of rocks.

April 28, 2008

There would be no sight seeing today. It was a sad day. Not only was it our last full day in Siem Reap, but it was the last day that Alex and I would be traveling together. The next day, I had to return west to Thailand. Alex was going to stay a little while longer in Cambodia then head east to Vietnam. We had been traveling together for like six weeks. We became really good friends and made plans to meet up again in the future to travel again.

In honour of our new friendship, we declared today to be a “Day of Sloth.” The Day of Sloth started with one last trip to the Blue Pumpkin Cafe for coffees and fresh bread. The breads at that bakery were amazing. We had a loaf each for breakfast, and bought more to take back for lunch.

Along with the bread from the Blue Pumpkin cafe, we got some bottles of wine, some Camembert cheese, a jar of Jack Fruit and Ginger Jam, and chocolate and had a feast in our own hotel room for lunch.

No Rob, you can’t pour the delicious Jack Fruit and Ginger jam on the whole piece of Camembert on the whole loaf of bread. Sure the food was tasty, but it would have been wiser to eat it in small bits at once. Dumbass.

Jack Fruit is my favourite “new fruit” I’ve discovered in South East Asia. I’ve never had it before coming here, but it tastes so fantastic. I’m on a heavy fruit diet here, anyways. I’m getting lots of fresh mango, pineapple, and bananas here, too. The bananas in Southeast Asia are far tastier than the ones you find in supermarkets at home. They’re smaller, but more flavourful. Go Asia!

It rained much of the afternoon, so it was a good thing we had our own feast in the hotel room. It was still sort of raining in the evening, but we managed to find our way into town to have one last meal of Cambodian food for dinner. We brought another bottle of wine with us. The food was really good and our waiter was super friendly (not in the same way as the waiter from the Blue Pumpkin, if you know what I mean). We talked with him for a few hours after dinner, enjoying desert, and some aperatifs. It was a fitting end to the “Day of Sloth.”

April 29, 2008

Alex had to leave at 7 AM the next morning. She boarded a bus to Sisophon to meet up with Chris Goepfert. Yes! The very same Chris that traveled with us for three weeks in Laos was in Cambodia. I was sorry to miss meeting her again, but getting to Thailand again was too pressing for me.

Today was the start of the biggest single travel push I think I’ve ever attempted.

Step 1: a share taxi (US$15) from Siem Reap to the Thai border at Poi Pet. What’s a share taxi? It’s just a car and a driver. You buy one seat, like a regular taxi, but there can be other passengers and you go a greater distance. The share taxi (with an experienced driver), seems like the single best way to get from Siem Reap to the Thai border. Why is this? It’s because the road is the single worst excuse for a road I have ever seen in my whole entire life. It was far worse than anything I had seen in Laos. It’s 150 km long, but maybe only 50 km of it is paved (at most). The rest is dirt, bumps and potholes. Because of the rain the day before, the share taxi had to negotiate like 100 km of sticky, sloppy, gooey mud to take us to the border. The driver was a pro though. We saw countless trucks, buses, and motos stuck on the road. The driver drove his beat up Toyota Camry around the lot of them and only got stuck once. We didn’t have to get out and push though. He managed to get out on his own. After one particularly gruesome section where we had to wait for like half an hour for the traffic and get past stuck vehicles, he took off the bumpy road with a cheer. I said, “You win!!” He laughed, said something in Cambodia and repeated back, “You win, you win!”. The two Cambodia people in the back of the taxi enjoyed breaking free of the pain, too.

Why is this important route in such bad shape? Rumour has it that Bangkok Airways (which holds a 10 year monopoly on flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap) gives heaps of money to the Cambodian government to keep the road that way. With the road in such terrible shape, more people would be inclined to fly from Bangkok to Siem Reap. Evil bastards.

It took us 4 and a half hours to negotiate the 150 km from Siem Reap to the Thai Border at poi Pet.

Step 2: VIP Bus from the Thai border to Bangkok. When I crossed the border, I wandered around looking for a bus and this one guy asked me where I was going. I told him “Bangkok” and he helped me buy a seat on a VIP bus directly from the border to the train station in Bangkok. Usually, you need to take a tuk-tuk from the border to the Thai city of Aranya Prathet, 6 km away. The regular government buses leave from there. This guy sold me a direct ticket for 300 baht (US$10). Seemed like a good deal. The bus took about three hours to get the 275 km to Bangkok. I arrived at Hualamphong Train station in Bangkok at around 5 PM.

Step 3: Overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani. I decided that I would not stay the night in Bangkok but take an overnight train to my next destination, Surat Thani. While waiting for my train, the Thai National Anthem played in the train station at 6 PM. Everyone in the station (including all the foreigners) had to stand up while the song played. Kinda wierd.

Unfortunately they were sold out of second class sleeper seats, so I had to get a third class seat instead. There are no sleeper bunks in third class, just crowded, Thai-sized, seats. It was crowded. At least it was cheap: 357 baht (about US$12) for third class with air conditioning. I could have saved 100 baht (US$3) by going without air conditioning, but that wasn’t happening. No way.

I did not sleep. It was 700 km from Bangkok to the train station near Surat Thani. We arrived at 7 AM the next day.

April 30, 2008

Step 4: As I groggily disembarked from the train, some guy asked me where I was going. I didn’t have a ticket for my next destination, Ko Pha Ngan, yet, so he helped me out. One trick in Asia is that you have to sort out the good touts from the bad touts. There are almost ways some guys waiting for you when you leave a boat, bus, or train. Many of them are helpful. Many of them are scammers. I think I have a good feeling for telling them apart now… I don’t think I’ve been scammed (too badly) yet by these guys.

Anyways, the guy sold me a combination bus and boat ticket to take me the rest of the way to my destination: the island of Ko Pha Ngan. The bus would take me to the boat pier at Don Sak. The boat would take me to Ko Pha Ngan (by way of Ko Samui). My ticket cost 320 baht (about US$11).

We arrived on the pier at Thongsala on Ko Pha Ngan about noon.

Step 5: Yeah, this is the last step. I needed to take a motorcycle from the pier to the beach town of Haadrin. It took only like 20 minutes and cost me 100 baht (about US$3).

All told, my travel push covered about 1100 km and it took me 28 hours with very little sleep. I was exhausted. When I got to Haadrin, I roamed around until I found a guest house and passed out.

Was it worth it? Probably. This was the view from the balcony of my bungalow.

Pretty good, eh?

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