Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cambodia

The Journey

The trip to Cambodia was initially a part of the Thailand visit until someone realized that while it’s easy to cross into Cambodia from Thailand on road, it’s quite a different story when trying to get back into Thailand with an Indian passport. In a spurt of enthusiasm, and while we were still in Bangkok, a couple of us booked flight tickets from Phnom Penh back to Bangkok, so that we could get a visa on arrival at the airport, and caught the next bus headed towards the border at Aranyaprathet.

A journey that usually takes about five hours took seven with the bus driver having to stop to ask for directions, a local sitting in front of us getting very annoyed at our conversation, an American loudly declaring that he found it odd that people still listen to Guns n’ Roses because he couldn’t recall the lyrics to Knockin’ on Heaven’s Doors (which was originally a Dylan song anyway) and how dubstep’s the real stuff now, and a downpour for the last couple of hours. This culminated in quite a climax which had us squeezing into Cambodia at about 1955 hrs with the immigration office closing at 2000 hrs. The officer at the Thai end clarified that we can reenter Thailand on road, although it remains to be tried, while the officer at the Cambodian end took a 100 Baht bribe because it was almost closing time and he could.



The Cambodian side of the border is called Poipet and is supposed to be a bit of shady area. The no man’s land between Cambodia and Thailand had a couple of really grand casinos as the only respite if we had gotten stuck there. There are supposed to be lots of pickpockets and beggar children and overtly insistent taxi drivers during the day time but at eight in the night on a rainy day we were spared that hassle. A taxi looking for the last fare of the day got us into Siam Reap (the Angkor Wat town) for cheap and the driver was so nice that he threw in a solicitation as well. We received many more over the next two days from other nice peopel.

A travel lesson we learnt was that too much reliance on just one travel website is a bad idea. Case in point was the Green Town Guest House which had glowing reviews on Agoda while TripAdvisor had people complaining about their stuff getting flicked while they were looking away. After spending one night there with everything under lock and key we moved to Sweet Dreams Guest House which had glowing reviews on both and was nice to stay at too (just in case you’re planning to head there sometime and because I told them I’d put in a good word for them on the internet).

There is plenty of cheap accommodation to be found but the system of making money across the travel business seemed to be through commissions. The guest house owner got a cut from bus tickets, tuktuks and even tour guides. The tuktuks and the tour guides then try to pass on that cost to restaurants by getting you to dine there. The restaurants serve you overpriced food and recover their costs too. Another travel lesson learnt was to not estimate the travel budget based solely on hotel rates.


Angkor Wat

Hire a tuktuk for the day to go around the largest ‘religious complex’ in the world and get a guide too, if possible. I’d recommend a book over the guide because our guide didn’t seem very knowledgeable and what she lacked in knowledge she made up for in creativity. There’s a longer tour as well which lasts three days, if I remember correct, but I would advise against it because one day is enough to marvel at the beauty and the enormity of it all. Ancient structures and ruins tend to not throw anything unexpected at you after you’ve seen your second temple.

Time your visit to catch either the sunrise or the sunset. It costs an extra five dollars on top of the twenty five you might already be paying your guide if you got one. I don’t know if it’s worth it though because it was too cloudy when we went, and dawn consisted of the sky slowly brightening over an extended period of time with no sight of the ol' star. While people from the rest of the world put their DSLRs and camera phones back in their bags in disappointment, the Chinese/Korean/Japanese folks made the most of it by clicking pictures with anything or anyone that didn’t look unpleasant in the background.


Before/during sunrise

After sunrise.

One might think it's vandalism, or even perversion
but it could also have been censorship.

Some of the carvings were more than a thousand years old.

The peer pressure of being amidst so many
lotuses got to the worker's dressing preferences

An architecture student working on the restoration.
Going by the colours, Angkor Wat will be psychedelic after work finishes.

The original bridge over the moat, on the left of me,
a new one the French built some time back, on the right,
here I am, stuck in the middle of the two.

A progressive tour operator or one that caters only to snakes.

Maybe it was a pig fight. Maybe it was a pig kiss cam.


Ol' Mac from Legends of the Hidden Temple.

If some natural calamity struck or there was a drought or a famine,
everybody found out that the king was having problems in bed.

The Tomb Raider Temple - 1

The Tomb Raider Temple -2

Trees do not high-five.


Phnom Penh

Our return flight was from Phnom Penh so we spent a half a day there. An overnight bus journey from Siam Reap to Phnom Penh gets you in at about seven in the morning. A Cambodian sleeper bus is really more of a recliner so you’re a little groggy when you arrive. That doesn’t affect your plan too much because there isn’t much to do at that hour. If your drop-off is next to the Mekong river, you can spend an hour or two sitting on the bank pretending you’re a philosopher or depressed.

You can walk around the Royal Palace which looks like quite a sight from the outside. Try to visit the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center more commonly known as the Killing Fields. This was the site of mass executions during the days of the Khmer Rouge. With the audio tour and the signboards you can get a very vivid picture of how cruel and horrific it must have been. If you get queasy reading gore, you should probably avoid this spot.

"Killing tree against which
executioners beat children"

"Pieces of bones remaining after excavation in 1980"




That might have been a bone.

Some of the victims' remains.


Other War Stuff

Khmer Rouge was in power in Cambodia during the late 1970s, and the country has been in a state of unrest for at least twenty years during and after that period. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the number of casualties is estimated to be about two million, a quarter of the then population. Cambodia’s location next to Vietnam and all the cold war politics further added to that toll.

Apart from the atrocities, the Khmer Rouge also went around wrecking temples and libraries and anything of touristic importance. Some members of the Khmer Rouge even hid inside Angkor Wat to evade capture from the Viet troops and you can see bullet holes in some of those places. This was probably why, in the whirlwind trip of Cambodia that we had, it seemed like Cambodia had two primary tourist attractions – the Angkor Wat and war stuff.


Inside a helicopter.
You catch so many FM channels in the air that they figured they
might as well put separate switches to tune into each one.

If a tank doesn't see war for a long time, it becomes delicate and nurturing.

Cambodia has millions of active landmines still
lying around. This poster was at the Landmine
Museum, which is run by a chap called Akira.
He has been cleaning mines for many years.

T

How many explosive devices can you spot?
None of them are powerful enough to kill but they
can grievously injure a person. That's because an
injured soldier is more expensive than a dead one.


Cambodia, Miscellaneous

Apart from those two main attraction, Cambodia offers you cheap purchases. Bargaining is acceptable behavior. The Siam Reap night market is a good way to kill time in the evening when there isn’t much to do. There are plenty of places to eat at with a fairly diverse range of cuisines. Apart from clothes, bags, decoration items, and such, there are regular, platonic massages, those fish nibbling spa things, and even a ladyboy cabaret.

The Central Market in Phnom Penh is also a very large market but from the bits of it we saw, it had only shops and none of the extras that were there in Siam Reap. I would extrapolate that observation to any other market we didn’tsee, and would conclude that if you’ve seen one market you’ve seen them all. The only specialty to Central Market would be the fancy dome structure it had, which makes for good viewing from the outside anyway. I suggest you buy all the things you want to show-off back home at any one place and spend the rest of your time doing something more interesting.


Ridiculously photogenic cocoon.

The Yao Ming of stick insects. Or Peter Crouch.
Or maybe The Undertaker or The Big Show.

They are all international stars. Move over, Anil Kapoor.

Five dollars = Twenty thousand riel

The Office of International Relations, IIT Madras, does not need donations.

The invention of this drink dates back to the
time when there was no such thing as a health
code violation and some careless restaurant
employee left one of the liquor vats open
during the rainy season.

Customary ladyboy picture.

The camera had had a little too much for the evening.

The Khmer Rouge is gone but the KKK might still be around.

I was whistling One is the Loneliest Number so this picture is deep and all.

With all those birds, the cleaning costs must be a drain on the economy.

If potholes don't see accidents, they also become delicate and nurturing

You don't eat Chuck Norris dim sums,
Chuck Norris dim sums invade your digestive system.

They pronounce UFO as unidentified frying objects so it's okay.

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