Sunday, September 3rd

Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia

The alarm rudely sounded at 4:30 this morning. We stumbled around and packed up our remaining things and headed down to the lobby where we checked out at about 5:30. The three days of breakfasts came to about £42 which is actually not that bad a deal and we felt was money well spent. I was a bit anxious with my credit card which I have been avoiding using due to problems I have had on other trips with overzealous banks concerned about fraud either cancelling my cards while I have been away or attempting to call me and having me answer obscure verification questions (for example providing a security code I made up when I first opened my account…more than 10 years ago) with the threat of being cut off from funds looming over me. Thankfully no problems and no call today.

Of course we were very early so we had a seat and chatted to others from the group as they arrived. Luckily there were no stragglers and at 6:15, as promised, we left the hotel and got into two small fairly modern minivans (both air conditioned). We were in the bus with Marie, Chris, Marilyn and Rous.

The trip out of Bangkok was interesting as we were able to see areas of the city we have not visited. The motorway was elevated so gave us some great views. The busy road was lined with massive billboards including the now familiar posters praising the royal family and others cautioning that Buddha is not for decoration…

About half an hour after leaving the Bangkok area we stopped at a 7-11 to allow people to use the toilet and to pick up something to drink and/or eat. We picked up a couple of cold drinks (Est cola!) but not anything else as we had stocked up yesterday with snacks for the trip knowing that before we left the hotel we would not be able to eat (the buffet only opens at 6 which would have left us no time…). Others toured the shop looking for options. We all met up at a “Café Amazon” in the car park where we sat outside with coffees and such. We did make sure to take advantage of the toilets which, for the first time this trip, were squat with the “urinal” basically an area on the edge of the concrete where you stood and did your business looking into the bushes. Oh dear.

Back in the bus we stopped only one more time before the border for Rous who we learned later was making some personal calls. The rest of the trip was generally unremarkable as we passed through a number of small built up areas with massive interest only peaked when someone spotted a small Eiffel Tower on the roof of a local business - Squint and you could almost believe you were in Paris! Yeah…no.

Early in the trip they took our passports from us so that they could put the visas in order and, likely, to ensure we didn’t lose them (!). They returned them to us only as we got close to Cambodia.

The border at Aranyaprathet was quite something - Massive shopping centres (KFC!), casinos and a large amount of people.

We had to park some distance away then walk across the hot tarmac to the border itself.

Thankfully, our luggage was taken across the border for us. Passing the many shops and restaurants along the way I chatted with Rous to understand what we should expect and she was only too happy to talk. Along a walkway there were a number of seated people selling things including, I noticed, one selling bugs - tarantulas, cockroaches, etc, like we had seen in Khaosan Road market. I asked Rous about whether this was something for tourists or whether the local people really do eat these things and much to my surprise she assured me the locals do indeed eat them.

As we were tourists we were shown into a room on the first floor of a building to clear Cambodian customs. Rous had to go another way. It was an easy process with very little queue and no questions asked of us. At the other side there were signs throughout telling us not to stop inside the building but instead make our way out the far exit where I stopped to wait for Mel and the rest of the group. Here I was able to watch the traffic going by in both directions. Much of it pedestrian but there were a large number of carts being pushed or pulled as well as, of course, cars and trucks. One small scooter had a trailer stacked with many hundreds of wicker baskets which obviously weighed fairly little but seemed to be precariously balanced. In all, it seemed the whole area was an exercise in controlled chaos.

As we walked through no mans land we spotted an ornate grey arch above the road in the distance - The Cambodian border. Rous had cautioned us that there would be begging children but coming face to face with it was quite difficult. As we continued along a narrow fenced-in walkway a number of small dirty children dressed in rags came and grabbed our arms “One dollar? One dollar? One dollar?” We said nothing and they peeled off a few minutes later as we entered the Cambodian customs building. It was a stark contrast to the Thai, here a cramped building with no air conditioning and four rows of very slow moving people with a line of glass windows at the end with unsmiling border personnel sitting on the other side. They took our picture and had us place each of our fingers on a scanning device that, for some reason, did not like the way I was using it so took four or five attempts to get right.

A short walk later we sat in a waiting area near a busy roundabout choked with scooters and all manner of transport. We stayed here for a few minutes to re-group we reflected on the whole experience which was fairly traumatic. Mel was particularly hit emotionally. Several of us took advantage of the toilets before being taken to a waiting coach.

It turned out the coach we would actually be using for most of the trip was quite some distance away so we had to use a “public bus” though I would hardly qualify an air conditioned bus crammed full of tourists (from our group and another) a “public bus”. It was gaily decorated with colourful curtains and the first four or five rows of seats were piled to the roof with luggage that kept getting thrown through the door well passed the point when you would think we could carry no more.

A tour leader from the other group talked to us jokingly for a few minutes and offered to take our picture of the absurd situation.

Sitting in the front row I had my arm resting on the bags piled in the aisle. Luckily it was only about a fifteen minute drive before we piled out of the bus and boarded our bus for the rest of the trip to Siem Reap. This new bus (also air conditioned) was an altogether smaller affair but no less gaily decorated. Shortly we were on our way again.

The scenery here is quite a bit different from Thailand with far fewer houses and people. We passed mile after mile of rice paddies stretching as far as the eye could see in any direction with only the road and the utility poles to keep us company. Rous gave us a bit of a history of Cambodia now that we were a bit more settled. In an area with some interesting looking outcrops of rock poking up around us we stopped at a very touristy restaurant for lunch at about 12:45. It was a large covered dining area open to the outside with a long table where a much larger tour group was eating. In the large area it was easy for our group to find a few quite solid looking wood tables on the other side of the room. Mel and I shared our table with Chris and Marie.

The menu was not terribly surprising but on Rous’ recommendation Mel and I tried the Chicken with anise curry (a lot like a soup but quite tasty) and the pork stir fry (served on a bed of fresh tomatoes) with several servings of rice on the side. There were a series of coolers along the wall having all manner of drinks in them so we selected a couple of soft drinks. It took some time for the food to arrive and we had only been given until 1:30 before the bus was to leave so we started to get a bit anxious as 1 pm came and went before it was delivered to the table. The meal was something like $16 (USD) for the two of us so not exactly cheap, cheap but reasonable.

Let us talk a bit about money. In the trip notes we had been told that although the official currency in Cambodia is the Riel (KHR) in reality people use US dollars but, mind you, only the bills. So if you get change you generally get it in Riel. Luckily, conversion between the two is fairly easy - Generally 4,000 Riel = $1.00 (there was a sign at this restaurant indicating the rate they were using which was more specific than that). Marilyn had gone against this advice and had all of her currency in Riel which turned out to be not such a good idea with this restaurant, for example, not all that keen to take it.

The scenery did not change much as we continued on our journey. When not in a town it was basically rice paddies with the occasional cow (buffalo) wading through them. The towns were mostly quite simple affairs with electricity cables criss-crossing the air above the road between the shops which are generally little more than a roof with goods stacked up on the floor. The road we are following seems to be the only paved one around. Any side roads we pass are dirt.

All of life seems to use this road as we pass by scooters, vehicles stacked with goods for sale, a pickup trucks with 20 people sitting in the back, roadside stalls selling all manner of snack (and all featuring signs advertising either “Angkor” or “Cambodia” beer)…On the later point Rous has the driver stop so we can have a closer look.

As we had travelled along we noticed that stalls selling things were grouped together, so, for example, there would be a large number of stalls beside each other selling fruit then nothing for quite some time then another set of stalls this time selling something else…In this case the stalls were selling a local delicacy, Rous told us, roast frog stuffed with pork and sticky rice. These were quite big looking frogs squashed between two sticks and cooked over charcoal. Marilyn actually ended up purchasing some and eating them for the next while on the bus.

On a slightly easier-to-stomach note Rous also purchased some of the local beer which she passed around for us to try (no, not me, I don’t drink thank you).

Once again on the road the scenery continued to pass. A bit of a commotion was caused in the bus as we passed by a man on a scooter carrying 30 or 40 live chickens tied by their feet and hanging upside down (it puts them to sleep, don’t you know?). Our fellow tour members scrambled to get a picture as we passed…

A short while later there was a problem with the bus so we had to pull over to the side of the road. Chris operates a car dealership so went out to have a look with our driver but eventually they decided the air conditioner had to be turned off. The rest of the trip to Siem Reap was quite a bit less comfortable but, hey, what can you do?

Siem Reap is a large “resort” town in northwestern Cambodia serving for many as a gateway to the Angkor region. We arrived in town at about 3:30 passing by a large number of very nice, very large hotels as we headed into the town centre. On a corner we stopped for several of the group to use a bank machine though some had problems with the machines not taking their cards. There is a river running through the town very close to where we are saying that is lined by trees but otherwise the whole area is a mass of roads, hotels, shops and tourists. We are staying at the “Angkor Panoramic” which is one of the nice hotels but, thankfully, not really in a tourist area. Intrepid tries to put it’s clients in local hotels rather than big tourist hotels so we can feel a bit closer to what life is really like in the places we visit. The Panoramic is not fancy but perfectly fine for us.

While we waited for our rooms Rous took some money from us. On the bus she had said that one of our “optional extras” tonight was a cultural show that included a “rather good” buffet. She had explained the other various costs involved so she collected $42 from each of us - $15 for dinner, $4 for the buffet, $19 for the tip kitty (she would manage that for us, tipping people as we went along and she said she could provide us with an account at the end of the trip how the money had been spent…), and $4 for a large container of water that she would provide for us every day that we could fill our containers from.

We are in room 402 with a lovely view…of the wall of the building beside the hotel but, to be fair, we can see the river as well. There is a king sized bed and the air conditioning works. There is free WIFI and the television has lots of channels though not many seem to be in English. I had a shower and had some difficulty finding the cold so was in quite a deal of pain for a long time…The water went everywhere though so it is a bit of a puddle in there now.

We were to all meet in the lobby at 5:30 to catch some tuk-tuks to the show but Mel and I went down a bit earlier to have a look around the hotel a bit to see where we were. There is not really a lot in the immediate area. Beside the hotel is a building with an athletic clothing shop in it while opposite the hotel is a laundry service then beside that is another hotel that appears to be under construction while the river is on the other side of a road running alongside it. Suitably unimpressed, we returned to the hotel.

Rous was not coming with us to the show as she had told us she had a family emergency. She actually lives in Siem Reap and her family are here. But she met with us before we headed out passing us into the care of another tour representative for the evening. A number of tuk-tuks clustered around the front of the restaurant waited patiently while all sorted ourselves out and got on board. They are basically a motorcycle with a small covered cart attached with seating for four.

We shared our tuk-tuk with Chris and it was great fun going through the streets. There are a number of roundabouts which also made it interesting. It was also nice to be out of the bus and in the fresh (though, yes, very hot and humid) air.


We followed the same road that we had taken into town past the big hotels until we pulled up in front of this enormous building - theAngkor Mondial Restaurant.

It reminded me of an aircraft hanger, arena or bingo hall - As we entered from the street the massive ground floor had row after row of long tables in front of the massive stage platform on the right . The buffet was set out along the wall on our left. The ceiling was very high though it was still quite warm inside despite the numerous fans. We were shown to our section which was at the end of a table right in front of the middle of the stage where a rather large portable air conditioner was thankfully blasting away straight at us.

The show was to start at 6:30 and we had arrived early so that we could enjoy the buffet before, we were told, other larger groups would arrive. It was good advice. There was an odd assortment of food from all around the world - Japanese, Chinese, American, Italian, etc - but it was good to see some Cambodian food as well. The chefs seemed to take a good deal of pride in their food as it was nicely presented and tasted quite good. A large assortment of fresh fruit for dessert was one of the highlights for me.

Mel and I were sitting beside PJ and Stephanie who were right beside the stage. Stephanie has a nice new camera so she was anxious to get some good pictures. There was a small group of musicians on the stage providing live music for the show which consisted of a series of dances that were introduced (in several languages). We particularly noted the mermaid and coconut dances. Some were ensemble pieces with 10 or 12 dancers but others featured only a couple. The way they move their hands we found quite disturbing with the fingers extended backwards at right angles to the rest of the hand. Evidently this is seen as a sign of great talent and beauty. I found the pieces reminded me a lot of the Indian style of dance with a lot of slow shuffling about the stage with elaborate movements of the arms and legs at sharp angles.

The dancers seemed to like our table with the occasional flash of a smile in our direction as we showed a great deal of enthusiasm for their performance. Other groups in the auditorium seemed more interested in the food. I can think it must be a pretty thankless job day in and day out performing for tourists simply ticking a box and passing through on a tour…

At the end of the show the performers all returned to the stage to take their bows and the audience was encouraged to go onto the stage to have pictures taken with them. No one from our group took them up on that offer.

We were some of the last people to leave as we found our respective tuk-tuks to return to the hotel. The streets were even more fun at night and the trip was a lot more pleasant in the cool evening air. This is a bit odd considering we have to be in the lobby at 4:35 tomorrow (seems quite exact).

It has been a long day of travel. Thankfully we are here for a few days so we can get a bit settled in.

>> Monday, September 4th