Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cambodi-odi-odi-o! Part 1 - Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

Part 1 Photos

Part 2 Photos

‘I’d like to purchase a visa please.’

‘It’s $30.’

‘But is says on the sign that it’s $20?’

‘You pay $30.’

‘I won’t pay $30.’

‘You wait then!’

And with that, the border official stood up and promptly walked out of his booth, purchased some snacks from a vendor and sat down on a bench in the waiting area looking annoyingly smug.

‘Uh, ok.’

Cait and I had arrived in Poipet after taking a local bus from Bangkok to Aranya Prathet, where we caught a tuk tuk with 2 Canadians we met there – Carolyn and Phetmany. As soon as we arrived, we were ‘greeted’ by touts ‘encouraging’ us to buy visas from them. We had been advised by good ol’ Lonely (Lonely Planet Guidebook) not to purchase ANYTHING from them, nor were we to trust that the border guards wouldn’t try to nick a few extra dollars for themselves.

So it was an American, 3 Canadians and 6 Chinese (who had preceded us in the line-up) against the Cambodians! We decided to unite and refuse to line the pockets of corruption – it wasn’t the money, it was the PRINCIPLE damn it! People want to come and spend their money in your country and this is how we are greeted, by getting screwed over at the border? So we threw on some more bug spray and sunscreen, popped a malaria pill and decided to stick it out until they gave in and let us purchase the visa for the REAL price.

Meanwhile, a tout was trying to negotiate with Phetmany (her family is from Laos so she speaks and understands some Cambodian) to purchase a visa from him in which we would only pay a few dollars more than the actual price, as opposed to $30. We knew he was in cahoots with the border officials and all of us were pretty adamant that we would not pay more than $20...but that was at hour 1. When we started to approach the end of hour 2, negotiating started to look more favourable as we still had a 4 hour journey to Siem Reap ahead of us, were filthy with dust and sweat...and even worse, hungry! Not to mention that Poipet is just not a nice place to spend an afternoon. It is stifling hot, polluted and loud. Being there feels like a scene out of a movie that you wouldn’t want to star in. These are the moments that I absorb as part of the cultural experience, but make me appreciate my home so much more.

So we reluctantly each paid $3 more than we should have and carried on through to the border crossing. But the fun wasn’t over yet! We still had to contend with the ‘taxi drivers’. At one time, the 4 of us were surrounded by 8 of them all fighting to get our attention and take their taxi. I would define these taxis as cars with no meters and no signage, looking like they have been used in one too many stunt scenes. He opened up the trunk for us to stuff our backpacks in and there was a big tank o’ ‘who knows what’. I presume it was fuel...this did not help alleviate any concerns for our safety on the road ahead.

The road to Siem Reap was unpaved the majority of the way. It was hopeful to see the construction workers putting down cement for future travellers as the state it was in was shall we say a bit haphazard. The taxi driver honked his horn continuously whilst cows, kids, cars, trucks, bikes and chickens fought for space on the road amidst the dust and potholes. At one point, the driver slammed hard on the brakes and everyone in the car braced themselves for a head on collision with a cow. Luckily, both driver and cow were both experienced in this regard and quick enough to avoid impact!

We arrived in Siem Reap at sundown where we got to see a splendiferous orange moon overhead! It looked like the harvest moons we get ‘back home’ but an even more brilliant orange. There is a ban on cars at night in the area of the city we were going to, so we transported ourselves the rest of the way via tuk tuk. Of course the tuk tuk drivers took us to their guesthouse of choice so they could collect their commission. Surprisingly, we actually liked the place and ended up negotiating a decent price. We EVEN had a TV w/ cable - what a treat this was. Cait and I stayed up late our first night watching Pet Cemetery!

We tried to see both the sunset and sunrise at Angkor Wat but it was overcast on both attempts! In the end, it actually worked in our favour as it wasn’t as stifling hot during the day! Angkor (meaning Holy City in Sanskrit) is just a few km outside of Siem Reap. It was built in the 12th century mostly under the rule of Suryavarman II. It is a culmination of 5 towers surrounding a central tower which symbolizes Mount Meru. Most of the wall space is covered with carvings of Hindu mythology but somewhere around the 14th century, Buddhism replaced Hinduism as the religion of the Angkor Kingdom will be apparent in my photos.

By noon, we were done with the heat, the insistent vendors and lack of sleep. We went back to Siem Reap for some good eats and chilling at a coffee house with Carolyn and Phetmany. The night before we left for Phnom Pehn, the four of us went to see a documentary about the Pol Pot regime and the genocide that took place between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia. This was the beginning of a heart wrenching historical journey that Cait and I embarked on in Phnom Penh (more on this in my next instalment).

I don’t want this to get too long so I will save the rest of Cambodia for next time. Our visit to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum was extremely worthwhile and educational, albeit traumatizing but left me with many questions that perhaps I will have some answers to before I write my next instalment.

Thanks for everyone’s emails and photo comments – means mucho to me!

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