Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Cambodia chronicles: Getting there

Bangkok 21st March 2009
Hua Lampong station was just waking up at 5.28 am when Jenny n I got off the taxi, dragged our bags bought our tickets (48 Bhats each) to Aranya Prathet and plonked for a nice tea coffee and croissants. People normally fly to Hanoi so this kind of rail / road trip to Cambodia was a bit unconventional by local standards (and also a bit uncomfortable). Anyone attempting this should know in advance that there is only one such train and it leaves Bangkok at 5.50 am with only 3rd class compartments with no ac and not much food options on the way.

We were soon rushing pell mell to platform # 6 and scrambled up into a 3rd class train compartment. Now everything I had seen so far in Bangkok had set my expectations really high so obviously I balked a little when the strong smell of fish oil hit me that early in the morning. But I had decided to accept all and experience everything, so did what I do best with discomfort - pretend it didn’t exist…and all in the name of adventure.

The seats were unreserved so we raced to grab them. Quite unnecessary because the people are very polite and un-interfering and wouldn’t sit or push if you have a seat. Apart from a few giggles because of a ‘fragile’ sticker that got transferred from my bag to my back the next five and half hours to the border went pretty uneventful.

The locals are extremely clean, dainty and proper, so much so that a guy was drinking beer off a can with a straw. Since we weren’t Thai, there was no concern for local propriety and we hungrily gobbled a mango in the most un-lady like manner (mangoes there are a different; neither sweet nor sour).

The countryside is very much like ours…a mix of rice fields, mango, jackfruit, coconut, cashew, tamarind, cows, buffalos, drongos, kingfishers and egrets… You get the picture?

The hours passed by chatting, gossiping, discussing friends, brands, guys, work, styles, new interests and reliving old stories.

From Aryana Prathet one has to take a tuk tuk ( 80 bhats) to Poipet and then it’s a bit of a walk to the immigration office and entry gates to Cambodia. Be sure to pack some food from Bangkok as there isn’t much of a choice till you reach. It’s also a brilliant idea to get visas in advance. We had our Cambodia visas in place (Jenny got it online) so it was easier…and I just had to get a reentry visa for Thailand.

The borders are like most borders…boring, dry, empty, lifeless and makes you wanna quickly choose sides and get there fast. Entering Cambodia the first thing that hit was everyone's talking in dollars. Water, chips, cabs et all. No one talks in Cambodian 'Real' other than for tips.

You can hire a 4 seater cab for $15/person or a full cab for $40 and we did just that to compensate for the 5 and half hour train journey. The roads were surprisingly good and without potholes despite reports that the roads in Cambodia are no better than those in interior India.

We were on our way to Siem Reap; the tourist town nearest to all the temples. This is where we stayed for the next few days. Siem Reap simply means Siam defeated (Thailand is Siam). The Thai Army was stopped short of this place in one of the conflicts.

It was a 2 and half hour journey and we often stopped to refresh, and go to the loo. The loos there are like the Indian style loos and very clean (thats VERY high on my list). The loos were somewhat elevated off the ground-as if even there you could feel truly honoured.

At Siem Reap we stayed at the Golden Temple hotel (rooms from $20/night - bigger room upto $40). There are a variety of accommodations in Siem Reap and you can go from $8 shoestring to luxury of $2000/night. Most hotels have free internet cafes and a restaurant attached with fresh local and continental food. Vegetarians will be fine in Cambodia.
On first glance the hotel was orange in colour, hidden from the road and unassuming; more a house off the street than a hotel. A couple of trees hid it well and only on entering the gate can you see its quite splendour. A huge sculpture of Vishnu greeted us followed by a smaller Ganesha and a Buddha seated in a small pond by the side.

All guests had to take off their shoes before entering the hotel and we were welcomed with a ‘welcome drink’ and a 20 min free Khmer massage that could be taken anytime during the first 2 days of stay (we took it the next day and it was totally worth it).

After stuffing ourselves with food we went out that night to check out the local night scene. It’s a proper tourist village with areas like ‘Pub Street’ that have restaurants, bars and curio shops. The night market is nearby and so are all the atms, online telephone booths (but bad connectivity so get ur phone on international roaming) and tuk tuk points.

We soaked in the night with a free temple dance show, couple of beers, an absorbing discussion and hit the sack. That night I had some very dramatic dreams of falling off the edge of the earth. After all the next day onwards we were going back in time.

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