Bangkok to Siem Reap

Bangkok Travel Blog

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Back in Bangkok

I arrived back in Bangkok on Tuesday afternoon after flying in from Koh Samui, and I went straight to Katie’s apartment.  This time I was able to give the cab driver expert directions--I even knew how to pronounce the street names.

As I mentioned earlier, Katie works in Bangkok teaching English to little kids.  On one of her days off, she also volunteers to teach English to sex workers.  The International Aids Conference, which you might have seen on the news, was being held in Bangkok last week, and it so happened that Tuesday night was the party for the sex workers, organized by a group called EMPOWER, which Katie is affiliated with.

The event�"called “Bad Night”--was held in an area which one of Katie’s friends called “movie set Bangkok.”  There were a lot of show bars in the area, and this party was held in one of the classier ones.  We weren’t expecting the girls to be performing that night, but when we entered there were several girls in bikinis pole-dancing on a rotating platform in the center of the club, and one riding a mechanical bull.  I have nothing to compare it to, but the show seemed pretty tame.  A lot of the girls looked quite bored.  Most of the people there were volunteers with EMPOWER, but Katie I think did see a few of her students.

As Katie explained it, EMPOWER’s mission is to assist the sex workers by teaching them English and other skills and by providing safe-sex education.  They believe that if there is going to be prostitution, then it has to be safe, and they and other groups have been very successful in implementing a 100% condom rule.  That all sounded good to me, but here’s what I didn’t understand: there were all these posters up at the club with a picture of a woman with her hands above her head, which said at the top, “Waving not drowning” and at the bottom, “Workers not victims.”  It seemed to me to be a contradiction of EMPOWER’s work.  If these women are freely choosing to be sex workers, and are not victims, then why do they need to be empowered?  If what EMPOWER is empowering them to do is not be sex workers anymore, then why all the sex worker pride slogans?

Anyway, the smoke in the club started to bother my contacts, and so I left earlier than Katie and went back to her apartment.  Just as I got back, it started to pour, so I ran upstairs to rescue my clothes, which were hanging out on Katie’s balcony to dry after being treated earlier with Permethrin, a bug repellant for clothing.  I had been bitten a few times through my clothes in Bangkok (but Bangkok is a malaria-free zone), so I thought it would be wise to get my clothes ready before Cambodia and Laos.

Bangkok to Siem Reap

On Wednesday morning, I took the subway to a stop close to the bus station, and a cab from there.  It looked like it might have been walkable, but I had a suitcase with me.  The cab ride ended up being about 20 minutes long�"I swear the driver was going in circles, probably trying to run up the meter with the clueless foreigner.  I almost said something except that with Bangkok roads being as they are, it was possible that the driver actually did take the most direct route.

I had decided to go overland to Siem Reap from Bangkok because I wanted to see the countryside in between, and you miss so much when you fly.  So I bought a bus ticket for the four hour ride to the Thai border town of Aranya Prathet for 164 baht, or about $4.  The ride to Aranya Prathet was pretty; the bus wasn’t as air-conditioned as I would have liked, but it was a fairly comfortable ride.  In Aranya Prathet I took a tuk-tuk to the Cambodian border.

When I got out of the tuk-tuk, a swarm of touts descended upon me, each one shouting and pointing out the way to the immigration building.  One persistent guy followed me there and waited outside for 20 minutes while I got my Thai exit papers in order.  I ganged up with an Australian guy I met in line and we managed to ditch our touts on our way to the visa counter, where another group of men offered to help us write our visa application for a fee.  I print very well myself, thank you.

Technically you’re supposed to be able to pay for your Cambodian visa with 20 USD, but I’d heard that often the Cambodian officials will demand 1000 baht instead (which is about 25 USD) so that they can pocket the difference.  I had my $20 bill ready and insisted that I had no baht, but it didn’t work.  No baht?  No problem!  You can go to the money changer across the road and get ripped off again!

After securing my visa, I walked across the border into the Cambodian town of Poipet.  Poipet is hot, dusty, and noisy, and as far as I could tell it had no redeeming qualities.  I couldn’t move five feet without someone new approaching me begging for money, trying to sell something, or getting me to take their taxi to Siem Reap.  I had three objectives before the long ride to Siem Reap: I wanted to get lunch, check my email, and go to the bathroom.  I ended up doing none of those�"there were no internet cafes in sight, I decided I didn’t have to go badly enough to go -there-, and for lunch, well, I tried.  I ordered some chicken soup and rice, and when the chicken soup came, the only parts of the chicken I could identify in the soup were the feet.

I resigned myself to being hungry and uncomfortable until we reached Siem Reap, and I went to find a taxi.  All the taxis are Toyota Camrys; there are also some pickup trucks that make the trip, but usually you have to sit in the back.  My guidebook had advised that you find a taxi that’s almost full, and hence almost ready to leave, but there weren’t any, so I bought the front seat of a Camry for $10.  This is about five times more than Cambodians pay for the same trip, but I did have the whole seat to myself, air conditioning, and a seatbelt.  As part of the deal, the driver promised that we would go straight to Siem Reap. “No stop in Sisophon!” he said.

For an hour, I waited in the cab in Poipet as various Cambodian men, apparently friends of the driver, climbed in and out of the car, traded seats, made calls on their cell phones to other friends, and climbed in and out again.  Once in a while we would drive a block or two, and the game of musical chairs would start again.  I think the driver was hoping I’d get frustrated enough to offer $20 to leave right away, but I was determined to wait him out.  Eventually he found a few Cambodians to make parts of the trip and we were off.

I hesitate to tell this next part of the story for fear of frightening my parents, but I figure since I made it in one piece and I had a plane ticket for the return trip, it’s all right.  I had heard that the road near the border was bad, but I could not have imagined how bad.  Such a road in the US would not be considered passable.  I’m not sure it’s fair to call it a road, even: a long series of potholes might be a more accurate description.  Potholes might not be the right word either�"they were craters really, half the size of the car.  And unlike American drivers, who would go very very slowly in these conditions, my driver’s strategy was to go so fast that the car would fly over the holes.  Maybe it was smart: it did make the craters feel more like rumble strips.  The trip, I have to say, gave me a new respect for Toyota Camrys.  Our American cars are quite pampered.

After about 45 minutes, the road smoothed out a bit, and at this point I was able to open my eyes and take notice of my surroundings.  All manner of traffic was traveling down the road�"cars, trucks, semis, bicycles, motorbikes, children, children on motorbikes, dogs, and livestock.  On both sides was farmland, flat and green.  And now what’s this?  Sisophon?  And we’re stopping?  And more people are getting in and out, and you’re making more calls on your cell phone?  I’m shocked.

Somewhere around Sisophon we picked up our fifth passenger, which meant that four adults were now sitting in the backseat.  This is probably nothing to Cambodians, who I have seen cram 20 people into the back of a pickup truck and 4 people onto a bicycle seat.  For good bits of the trip, all four of them were talking simultaneously, often on their cell phones, which remarkably had reception for the entire trip, although it seemed to me we were in the middle of nowhere.  Not quite drowned out by the chatter was a cassette of Khmer pop music, which contained four songs that we listened to over and over again for the entire five hours.  These are the four most popular pop songs in Cambodia, as I heard them numerous times after reaching Siem Reap as well.

The road after Sisophon was smoother than the road after the boarder, but it was considerably more dusty.  Often the dust was so thick that we couldn’t see two cars ahead of us.  We drove in this cloud of dust, with a few clearings, for about two hours.  The low visibility during this time did not cause my driver to slow down, nor did it prevent him from passing every vehicle we caught up with.  In Cambodia, unlike Thailand, you drive on the right side of the road.  But as in Thailand, the steering wheel is also on the right side of the car, which seems an unsafe combination for passing.

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Around eight, well after dark, we arrived in Siem Reap.  All along the main road leading into town were elegant four and five star hotels.  Even though I would not be staying in one of them, their presence was somehow reassuring to me.  My driver earlier had asked where I was going, and I told him Smiley Guesthouse.  He repeated it back, and said he knew where it was.  Once we got into town, however, he took me to Family Guesthouse. I am 100 percent sure that he hadn’t said Family before and that he knew exactly where I wanted to go.  He pulled over and asked a motorbike driver, who was probably a friend of his, for directions.  His friend, of course, knew exactly where it was and offered to take me there for free.  I had little choice, unless I wanted to stay at Family Guesthouse, so I went with the motorbike driver, who hoisted my suitcase up into his bike and drove with it between him and the handlebars.  He did take me to Smiley Guesthouse, and I still couldn’t figure out what was in it for him.  Later that night when the guesthouse clerk wanted to know what time my driver should arrive the next morning, I got it.  For dropping me off, he got first dibs on me if I decided to take a motorbike to visit the temples.

Smiley Guesthouse had been recommended by Let’s Go, and I took a room with AC and hot water.  The room was pretty, with some nice furniture and decorations.  The hotel also had a nice courtyard with a garden and restaurant, and so I was impressed with the place until I lifted up the sheets to get into bed.  It was obvious that they had not been changed since the last guest, who was apparently very dirty and hairy.  The staff grudgingly agreed to change them for me, but then only changed the sheets and not the pillowcases, so I had to ask again.  Come on, even at the $1 a night places you get clean sheets.  That may be all you get, but you get clean sheets.

The next morning when I got up, my motorbike driver was waiting for me.  I had been thinking about renting a bike and riding around the temples, but my cold, which I’d thought I was over, had turned into a cough and I didn’t feel up to it.  I suspect that all the dust from the ride was also a factor in my relapse.  So I went with the motorbike, and it was a much calmer experience than it had been in Bangkok.  My driver, Mok, went slowly (by request) and didn’t do stupid things.  From dawn to dusk he was available to drive me wherever I wanted to go, for a full day cost of $6.

I feel like a bad person even writing this: I did not enjoy Angkor Wat.  First, as hard as I try, I cannot get excited about ruins, even famous ones.  I felt the same way at Pompeii.  I want to appreciate it.  I want to feel awed.  I want to be overcome with a sense of history.  But I just don’t.  I went there because you cannot visit Southeast Asia for six weeks without going to Angkor Wat.  It’s like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.  But I sort of knew, even before I got there, that it wouldn’t be for me.

Actually Pompei is a good comparison.  I wanted to see Pompei, so I stayed in Naples.  Pompei was disappointing, but that wouldn’t have been so bad if not for having to stay in Naples.  It would be insulting Siem Reap to compare it to Naples (I still have never been anywhere as trashy or smelly as Naples), but Angkor Wat could still have been at least a neutral experience, if not for the rest of it.

First, everywhere I went I was hounded�"either by people selling things or trying to be my “tour guide.”  In walking up to the temples, you usually have to pass by a line of booths selling various items.  Every time I approached (and maybe it’s worse when you’re alone?) there was a roar of “Lady, you buy cold drink?  Lady, you buy postcard?  Lady, you buy film battery?”  Lady you buy, lady you buy…

The “tour guides” were the worst, because they were very aggressive and would follow me for long distances.  They would start with “Where you from?” because they know that most people consider it rude not to answer a question.  But if you answer, you’ll never get away.  Even if I completely ignored them, it often took several minutes to get them to leave me alone.  I’d then have about a minute of peace before the next one latched on.  It’s very difficult to enjoy the temples that way.  If there were a shield that you could buy for $50 that would protect you from all the tour guides and sellers for your time at the temples, I would have bought it.  It would probably be a better source of revenue for them.

I think my motorbike driver was surprised the first day when I asked to go back to the guesthouse in the middle of the day, but I couldn’t take any more harassment, I was hungry and lunch had been a disaster, my eyes hurt from squinting (even through my sunglasses), my face was stinging because I somehow managed to rub some dirt into it along with the DEET and sunscreen, my back was aching, and I couldn’t breathe with all the smoke, dirt, and incense in the air.  It’s a good thing I was traveling alone, because I think I might have been quite cranky.

I really tried to have a better time the second day.  I got up at 4 to see the sunrise over the temples, which was actually very nice, but from there it again went downhill.  In summary, a Cambodian woman tried to steal my hat, an old handrail I touched got rust onto everything I was wearing, and there was a large insect baked into my breakfast baguette.  At about 10 am I called it quits, went back and slept, and started the day over again, avoiding the temples until sunset.

The “new” day went much better.  I went for a walk and saw some parts of Siem Reap along the river that were much more charming than the dusty and crowded area I was staying in.  I had lunch at a place called the Butterfly Garden Bar, which is run by a Canadian living in Cambodia.  The place has a beautiful garden, pond, and fountain and a patio restaurant.  It’s all covered under a net, which keeps the 1500 or so butterflies inside from flying away.  It was really neat to see them up close like that.

So, although it had its rough spots, my time in Cambodia ended well.  On Saturday morning I got up early and flew back to Bangkok, and then to Luang Prabang, where I am now.  I absolutely love it here.  More on that later
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photo by: halilee