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Wed 13 Dec. Bangkok, Thailand, to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Flights go direct from Bangkok to Siem Reap - the dormitory town for Angkor - several times a day, but somehow that seems too easy a pilgrimage to make to a wonder of the world, re-opened only a few years ago since the country was closed to tourists by the Khmer Rouge. On the other hand, the overland journey is becoming quietly legendary among travellers in South East Asia.
Bear in mind we were forewarned, and that ours was a pretty smooth trip...
Picked up early for the first leg, in airconditioned comfort, to the Thai border. The morning sun is rising at the exact end of the for-once-peaceful Khao San Road, Silhouetting Tuk-tuks and motorcycles against glowing tarmac.
At midday, we arrive at the bustling border for the crossing to the Cambodian town of Poi Pet. Small children walk across carrying petrol cans on their heads. 40 men push an enormous cart piled fifteen feet high with sacks and baskets. Probably rice, but it's so big it could have a tank hidden in it. Or enough dope to make an entire town very rich.
Stand in slow lines for a Thai exit stamp, then for a Cambodian entry stamp, then for a Cambodian quarantine certificate. The health declaration reads: "Please indicate if you have suffered from any of the following in the previous two weeks. Diarrhoea, rashes, stomach pains, headaches etc etc". Well, obviously, I've had the lot, so I tick nothing. Then we have to either show a vaccination certificate (I wave a vaccination appointment card, which does the trick) or pay a 50 baht 'fine', in return for which you get a piece of paper certifying your clean bill of health. If only it was really so simple!
It is obvious as soon as you enter Cambodia. The road deteriorates to a pitted gritty mud surface, every pothole bottomed with foul smelling grey slime, women sell baskets of snails, small children follow every Farang hoping to make a dollar by holding a ragged umbrella over your head. In the greatest possible contrast, just over the border is a gleaming casino, built for the Thai gambling trade.
Negociating the formalities has taken a couple of hours, and it is mid afternoon by the time we are packed into the back of an open pick-up truck for part two of the journey. Eleven backpackers and all their bags in the back of ours, legs dangling over the side. I end up in the middle. At first this seems to be a short straw, but it soon is clear it is actually a cushy number - I have a relatively comfy backpack to wedge my bum against, a chink of view ahead, the wind keeps the worst of the dust off and (unlike the people hanging over the sides) I'm in no danger of being thrown out by the lurches of the truck.
It is impossible to tell which side of the road we are supposed to be on - we, along with every other vehicle on the road, weave a winding route right across - regularly completely over the limits of - the road, to avoid the most axle-snapping car-sized craters. It is true, as Kat put it when she did this trip a few weeks ago, the potholes really do have potholes. Cambodians on all sides are making their way on a variety of vehicles - at one point we pass at least a dozen people in a cart being pulled by a lawnmower. Small naked children wave and call 'he-lo!' as we grind past.
One of the best things about travelling like this is the cameraderie that springs up. I distinctly remember teaching my quickly-formed group of fellow travellers - Yvette and Tor from Essex, Jay from Sydney and Hugo from Belgum - to sing "Didn't we have a lovely time the day we went to Bangor".
After two hours, we have come nearly thirty miles. Only another seventy to go! After stopping to gulp some noodles in Sisophon, we are herded into another pickup. However full a truck may appear to be, Cambodians will always manage to fit more people in - this time the back holds seven tourists and eight locals. Together with the six locals travelling 'first class' in the cab (who you can guarantee have paid a fraction of the price we Farang pay to sit in the back) and the driver, we are 22 in total. The road is marginally better, and for a couple of hours, as darkness falls, the stars come out and the moon rises, we seem to make good progress, rattling over war-torn broken-backed bridges on the slenderest webs of rotten planks.
We have relaxed into a jolting half doze when we pull to a stop, our headlights illuminating a chaos of revving engines. After a moment of apprehension (- Roadblock? Ambush? -) it becomes clear that one of the abused bridges has finally collapsed and traffic is forced to detour through a field churned to a river of mud. Another load of Farang ahead struggle for half an hour to get out of a hole - when they have finally squelched out, our driver grins "No problem for us!", revs down off the road and promptly gets stuck in the same place. And so, shoes off we climb out into calf-deep warm liquid mud to push and heave for another half hour til we break free.
Walking to catch up with our truck (who hit a roll, and kept going til he was back on solid ground) I think to escape the sucking mud by walking in the dry field. Until I remember the landmines, and my foot freezes mid step.
Another hour further on, at 10 o'clock, we finally pull into a hostel in Siem Reap and make a big charade of kissing the ground in relief. Plenty of people come out of this ordeal shellshocked and vowing never again, but we have loved it. In a 'this will be such a good story when we have lived through it' kind of way.
Thur 14 Dec. Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Recovering from the journey. Siem Reap is heavily dominated by Angkor tourist traffic, with luxury hotels and sealed roads, and is a different country to the Cambodia that starts not far outside the city limits.
In the afternoon, before buying our Angkor passes for the next day we visit the landmine museum. The defused mines themselves have no evil aura - just piles of rusty green metal. With chickens scratching in the dirt, the museum has the atmosphere of a peaceful, sunny garden shed. However the story of the curator, Mr Aki Ra, who was recruited by the Khmer Rouge at the age of ten to fight and lay mines, captured and then recruited by the Vietnamese army a few years later, and finally being recruited by the UN at the end of the war to help with the mine clearance effort, is chilling.
We follow the standard tourist itinerary up a hill to the small temple of Phnom Bakheng for a magnificent view of the sun setting over the Angkor plain. There are plenty of tourists here, the vast majority of whom have come in by air - as initiates of the 'I survived the overland route' club, we feel distinctly superior.
On to Travel Tales - Angkor.
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