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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 23 Oct 2006

Location: Siam Reap, Cambodia


In Bangkok the girls jetted off home and i was left on my lonesome. My one month visa was running out and so on the spur of a (mad) moment i decided to visit Siam Reap for a week instead of simply joining a visa run that takes no more than half a day - a rather stupid decision considering i was planning to visit Cambodia in five or six weeks.

So, the journey from BK to Siam Reap. They warn you in the ‘bible’ (SE Asia on a Shoestring Lonely Planet guide) that the trip is an endurance test of epic proportions. I brushed off any suggestions of difficulty, after all I was at this stage a veteran traveller of nearly half a year. Little did i know.

Woke at seven (an endurance in itself) and caught the first bus. Five hours later we stopped off at a small border town where our visas were organised for the princely sum of thirty dollars - ten more than at the border. “Oh it’s much quicker and smoother this way” they said as we all sat for half an hour in a restaurant waiting (and ordering food to pass the time - the real reason for stopping!) I later met a backpacker who breezed through the visa office at the border within 2 minutes. Money-making would be a theme of the journey.

Afterwards we finally reached the border. Land borders are fascinating places to me for the simple reason that i come from a postmodern EU where state borders lack their former importance. Moreover loud voices in various strands of academia, supported by the mainstream media have fostered the view that borders are an increasingly rare breed; relics from a past world-order. This one seemed seemed alive and well; Eurocentric theorising about the erosion of borders in the face of economic, political and cultural global flows seemed rather vacuous from this vantage point. This is not an argument that borders are impermeable containers of power, population, money or ideas; they never have been. A nation state ontology of world politics is largely meta-geographical mythmaking and globalization is no new phenomenon. Multi-dimensional, interconnecting flows have long characterised the international.

(Sorry for the world politics tangent, but a travel-log is so much better when its not just “i went here, then there, then here” - i thought i should share my experiences and feelings as i went and so world politics naturally makes a showing).

However, as i crossed the line demarcating Thailand from Cambodia certain changes were apparent immediately suggesting borders are more than arbitrary lines in the dirt. Cars were replaced by carts; fruit and veg, wood abd building material, even people were all pulled by women. Kids of no more than six or seven, babies strapped to their backs or slung over their shoulders appproached me looking dirty and bedraggled with their arms held out and whinning softly in the hope my heart would melt and my wallet would open.

Just across the border i saw three kids lounging in a patch of woods. They should have been at school, playing football or amusing themselves but instead they sat there scowls on their faces looking much older than their years suggested, as if their childhood had been robbed.

But not to paint too grim a picture - moments later a boy plucked a ball out of the river, though i must admit the banks were masked by a thick layer of plastic bottles, waste paper and other household rubbish. Still i had been warned the border town, called Poipet was a cesspit.

It was certainly a change from Thailand. There are no paved roads; the street to the bus station consisted of thick mud interspersed with lake-sized puddles. The shops and houses are all wooden shacks with tin roofs and flourishes of blue or off-white plastic sheeting. And the bus stop? - an unfinished brick building with metal pylons protruding from the walls and ceilings.

Whilst waiting for our second bus i was asked by a tour operator if i wanted to change any money. So began my journey on the back of a moped with my butt and teeth firmly clenched. The roads and traffic in Cambodia are a sight in themselves. Students of Chaos Theory should without doubt spend a term in this country observing the sheer volume of cars, carts, bikes and cycles choking the small streets. How anyone reaches their destination is beyond me and yet they all weave effortlessly in and out of each other. I felt i was watching a grubby, motorised dance. People regularly stop in the middle of the road, and like a stream of water the people behind part and join up on the other side. Some hurtle down the wrong side of the street, others cut people up without warning, and still more swerve dangerously close to pedestrians, animals and various other blockages.

From there we caught our last bus, a medium sized minibus. By the time i got on all the seats were taken so i had to endure a pull out chair in the aisle designed for children, short people or Umpa Lumpa’s. No chance to even lean back, I had to sit dead straight which for the initial half hour was fine but soon grew tiresome after that.

As the Lonely Planet claims, the organisers try and draw this journey out as much as possible. Our first pit stop was the ‘gas station’. This was no ordinary Esso or Shell but rather a wooden shack with row upon row of Fanta bottles filled with petrol. I knew i liked Cambodia at that point but realised this would be a long trip to our destination, a battle of wills between me and the organisers. They’d never me before though so had little inclination of what they were dealing with - namely a man who once sat through the remake of the “Time Machine’ because i had paid three pounds to watch it and refused to vacate the cinema early like everyone else.

Still the scenery was stunning. We passed leafy villages with huts of wood and dried mud, rows of banana plantations, vast plains of green rice paddies swamped in water and which stretched in every direction. Often we would pass a group of kids who would run up to the bus if we stopped or simply wave if we sped past, or we drove by men bathing in the water which had collected in small but deep pools by the roadside. At one point i spotted a group of children jumping off a rusty old bridge into the river - oddly the bridge had no road leading up to it on either side.

All the while i gazed at the blue sky with its ominous but captivating monsoon clouds which lay on the horizon (clouds in Southeast Asia are a class above their British counterparts) and were creeping inexorably towards us.

And then the lightning started. By now it was dark. The pyrotechnics display was amazing - lighting up the entire sky and the flat plains below. It was a fitting accompaniment to the rigeurs of the journey. Due to endemic corruption the road from the border is unmade (a backhander from an airplane company to the givernment meant this road was bumped to the back of the queue for paving); the only overland route is mile after mile of potholed dirt track that flung the van and all its inhabitants around like rag dolls. At one point i flew right off my seat just as the sky was lit up by a fantastic bolt of lightning. It was like those rides in Universal Studios or MGM with the cinema seats and screen which bump you up and down to the picture and sound. The potholes were incessant for the whole seven hours - all on a chair made for a child.

Further stops were made for food, drink and to check the van. Then we ‘broke down’ etc etc. It was during the latter event that the insects began to flood through the open windows out of the torrential rain. Just as the van was fixed and we started the engine a (really) huge cricket landed on the light to murmurs of disquiet from many. Then as in any good horror movie the light went out. Everyone screamed. I put my keffiyeh over my head and hid.

After so much excitement and comfort you can imagine how dissapointed i was to reach Siam Reap at close to Midnight. The owners of the hotel we were dropped at were very pushy. This was the reason for all the stops and problems - drag the trip out so long we would fall into the first bed we came across. Well, if it was a battle of wills they wanted i was ready to give it to them. I flatly refused even when they began to resort to blatant lies to convince me to stay - “Nowhere else open sir!”, “We don’t know how to ring another hostel sir”. Oh bullshit (pardon). In the end i set my head down at Popular Guesthouse. Very nice! Highly recommended.

Finally I had made it to Siam Reap!