February 28, 2013
When the alarm rings at 4:45 we can barely climb out of bed because the night was far too short due to complications that arose while rebooking a room for this hotel, which is where we want to stay when we return from Cambodia. Christof discovered that the prices had suddenly jumped from 40 to 160 Euros per night, but luckily, after researching the internet, found a no-name booking company offering the same rooms for only $59 a night. Oddly, though, the rooms couldn’t be booked online. Lured by the price, he gave his credit card details to someone over the phone.
– I just made a mistake, he said when he got off the phone, that was probably an organized group getting gullible tourists to part with their credit card information.
Since it was past midnight I’d been dozing, but having had the same thought, I was quite suddenly wide awake. Christof called the credit card company in Germany, who advised him not to cancel his credit card (which would have delayed our travel plans) but to wait, keep his fingers crossed and hope for the best, while keeping a watchful eye on his credit card balance. Neither of us got much sleep before arriving at the train station, where all the seats in the lobby were filled with sleeping backpackers, waiting for the 5:30 train to Aranyapraythet. After buying a bag of freshly made waffles and some bottled water, we boarded an ancient train and found places in the 3rd class compartment, which is free for locals and costs 2 Euros for foreigners, and stopped at what felt like every station between Bangkok and Aranyapraythet. I’d planned to use the 6 1/2 hour journey to catch up on the blogs, but the early hour and exhaustion from not having slept, combined with the intense heat of the sun beating through the windows, made us sluggish and drowsy. Swayed comfortably by the train we slept through most of the journey, awakened at stops by women carrying baskets of homemade food and hawking their wares in loud sing-song voices.
The landscape was black, dry and arid due to the practice of clearing harvested fields of debris by fire. The charred, desolate-looking landscape wouldn’t have made for good cycling, and we were grateful for having made the decision to take this trip – which would have meant at least ten days of cycling – by train.
A crowd of taxi drivers waiting for the train swarmed around the passengers descending in Aranyapraythet, and we hopped into the tuk tuk of the first driver to offer us a ride, despite her outlandish costume which gave her the look of a masked robber. A large cloth covered her chin and nose, another one held a gigantic hat in place, while a large pair of sunglasses effectively hid the rest of her face from view. She drove like a wild maniac, in a manner perfectly suited to her style of dress, and after a short ride deposited us in front of a visa office. Christof questioned the men dressed in crisp uniforms if this was an ‘official’ visa office. Forums on the internet warn tourists about criminal groups selling expensive invalid visas at the Poipet border. Despite their affirmations, we filled the visa forms out in a half-hearted manner, opting to pay at the border when given a choice.
The heat was so extreme that everything glimmered and danced before our eyes as we exited the office, where we hesitated for a moment, unsure of how to proceed. Immediately we were targeted by a group of men all yelling at us at the same time,
– Where are you going?
– You have a valid visa?
– Don’t go to the border unless you have a visa!
– Come, I drive you up to the consulate to get one.
Turning around we saw a sign indicating that the consulate was a mile in the direction we’d just come from, and because it was in the mid-90’s and our bicycle panniers were awkward to carry, we wavered, unsure of what to do.
– You know, Christof said, perhaps they’re trying to help us avoid an unnecessary walk.
We sized up the situation, thinking of how we wanted to avoid arriving at the border only to discover that there that we needed a consular visa. On the one hand it was far too hot to walk unnecessary miles, on the other there are warnings out about visa scams. What now? Looking around for someone trustworthy to speak to, we caught sight of two young Russian backpackers who were happy to share their experiences,
– Those men just tried to rip us off, they tried to charge us $40 dollars for an invalid visa. Our friends went through Poipet last week, so we know better than to fall for their scams. No matter what they tell you, the border is the only place to buy a valid visa.
We joined the crowd waiting in a long line, and to pass time watched pedestrians swathed in scarves and large hats dragging heavy wooden carts loaded with goods from Thailand across the border. Other cloth-covered figures sat atop high, precariously stacked cargo on the back of trucks, while children running barefoot wove their way through the throngs of vehicles and people begging.
This is the Asia everyone’s been raving about? The sight of malnourished people forced to beg and work like beasts of burden in order to avoid starvation is so awful we can’t understand what(except its affordability) Westerners are drawn to. The fact that our currency turns us into affluent people makes us feel odd about being here. Somehow our relative wealth makes us responsible for those who have less, and yet the poverty and hopelessness of the situation is so great, there is nothing concrete we can do that would alleviate it, and it’s impossible to give out alms to every begging person.
The line inches forward slowly and, as the Russians predicted, our forms turn out to be invalid. After filling out new ones and paying a $20 visa fee, we crossed a large strip of no-man’s land before entering Cambodia. The process of checking out of Thailand and into Cambodia took more than two hours, and then there was another wait, this time for a bus to a central distribution center where further travel options, in a mini van for $9 or a taxi for $48, are available.
A Belgian couple we chatted with while waiting suggested sharing a taxi and splitting the costs, and as we raced along a freshly paved empty road, it was impossible not to comment on the eerily empty landscape.
– What were you expecting in a country known for its Killing Fields? the Belgian woman snorted, half the country’s inhabitants lost their lives during the Pol Pot regime!
This was, thankfully, an exaggeration, although sadly, she wasn’t far off. It’s estimated that a quarter of the Cambodian population perished between 1975-1979, the years the Khmer Rouge was in power. Tragically their cherished ideals of creating an egalitarian rural peasant-worker utopia backfired, and the agrarian reform turned into a massive disaster that killed people off like flies. The city dwellers lucky enough to escape execution (for the offense of being educated) were relocated to farms, forced to work from sunup to sundown, and often perished in the heat from overwork and undernourishment. The Killing Fields were the direct result of the large- scale mismanagement of a regime too inflexible to change course once it became apparent that its citizens were dying of starvation. It stubbornly followed a program modeled on both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China, ambitiously determined to show them up. Pot Pohl refused to take any responsibility for set-backs and failures, preferring instead to blame ‘traitors’, denounced by an increasingly subversive culture of spies and backstabbers. People randomly denounced (for crimes they’d never committed) often disappeared overnight, never to be heard from again. When the Vietnamese freed the country in 1979 and the first wave of traumatized starving refugees escaped to Thailand, the international community became aware of the atrocities the Cambodian people had been exposed to during their forced isolation from the world.
In only four years the Khmer Rouge ruthlessly destroyed a culture that had taken centuries to create and build. Schools were closed, temples burnt, and monks killed. Education became a criminal act warranting execution, and family life an unnecessary luxury to be broken apart. Children were separated from their parents, husbands from wives, and people left exposed without homes, friends, or family fell prey to manipulation and exploitation.
After Cambodia was freed in 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge militants went into hiding in the jungle. Oddly, despite the war crimes he had committed, he was allowed to keep his seat at the UN, while Vietnamese-backed Cambodia suffered more hardship under the trade embargoes imposed upon them by the United States. Today Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, is making a slow financial recovery.
Leaving the seedy, garbage-strewn chaos of the border behind us, we travelled through an empty, arid landscape dotted here and there by an occasional Cambodian-style house. Built on stilts, the traditional houses provide the only shade for miles around during the hot, dry months and offer protection from flooding during the rainy season.
A group of people were gathered around a truck that ran off the road taking down two electricity poles and breaking the electricity lines in the process. How can a professional truck driver run off the side of a straight road?
Three and a half hours later our friendly taxi driver dropped us off at another central distribution center in Siem Reap. The taxi market is strictly regulated. Each group of drivers defends its right to earn a cut of the money brought into the country by foreigners, and wise men know better than to engage in territorial disputes.
The hotel, another recommendation from Alice and Theo, Days 186 and 187, was unbelievably modest, and didn’t at all seem like their style. The manager apologized for being without electricity, explaining that due to an accident on the highway, the main power lines will be down for the next few days before they can be repaired. He lead us up to a hot, stuffy room on the third floor, opened the window to let in some air, and flooded the room with the squalid sounds of back alley life.
After a quick cold shower in a dark bathroom so cramped that the toilet and sink got drenched in the process, we walked along unlit sandy roads into the town which was jumping with life. The lights were on (all the better hotels and restaurants have their own generators), and crowds of tourists were browsing restaurants for meals, nail studios for manicures, massage parlors for a rub-down, or stands selling street food for a quick bite, while others were there for the attractive young boys and girls smiling shying and obviously hoping to be chosen for the evening.
All services in Cambodia are substantially less costly than in Thailand, and aside from the must-do visit to Ancor Wat, are the main reason Westerns come to Siem Reap.