Monday, October 18, 2010

Cambodia

Cambodia - the land of constant rainfall, convincing scams, and persistent touts, all rolled up into one little country dotted with vast plains of rice patties and undetonated land mines. I loved it.



Sure it made Thailand seem like a first-world country ( and that is saying a lot), and yeah, protein was hard to come by for a vegetarian like me, but Cambodia was the most beautiful country I have ever seen, and its people (sans the touts) were amiable, helpful, and sincere. Furthermore, it provided a glimpse into what true poverty looks like, something of a reality check for materialistic westerners like me. Without further ado, here is a much anticipated account of the trip =D

Being typical teenagers, we did not really have a plan for this international vacation. We decided to go with the flow and wait for opportunities to present themselves. We did not even know when and where we were meeting until a few hours before leaving. It was audacious, yet appealingly adventurous.

I woke up at 5:30am and met three of my friends (two Americans and one German) nearby to take a taxi to Mo Chit in Bangkok. From there, we took the Skytrain to a bus station called Ekkamai, where we caught the 8:30 bus.


                                                            Skytrain Station at Mo Chit



We thought the bus left at 9:30, and luckily we were there just in time to catch the 8:30 departure. The Thai-Cambodian border closes at 4pm so if we had not caught that bus, we would have had to wait until the next day to travel to the border.

The bus took about four hours to reach the border, a bustling little place brimming with touts (locals trying to sell their goods, often harassing and scamming tourists) and foreigners from all over the world. We waited in line at the Thailand Departure station, got a stamp in our passports, then went into the neutral land between Thailand and Cambodia. There were dirt cheap alcohol and tobacco products sold alongside massive casinos in the neutral zone, I'm guessing there are goings on there that are not allowed in either country. lol.


Casino between Thailand and Cambodia


After walking a few hundred meters, we arrived at the Cambodian border. The entrance was adorned with a miniature version of the Ankor Wat, Cambodia's most famous landmark. It was truly an exciting experience to see the Cambodian border, and I have no idea why. I guess it seemed like the starting point of a fantastic adventure



Cambodia Entrance

After buying a visa for $20 + 100B, we waited a few more minutes, got another stamp in the passport, and we were in Cambodia...aka Khmerica (pronounced like America, with a 'K' in front). Our bags were never checked by any authorities and the whole process took less than 15 minutes. I was pleasantly surprised :)

Just across the border of Cambodia is the city of Poipet - not very large, but plenty of touts and tourists. As you can see, the man in the wheelchair is holding an umbrella on a sunny day, just as I mentioned in my last post. They use umbrellas rain or shine in Southeast Asia, much to the surprise of westerners. Being tan is taboo.



Poipet Street Market


Cambodian script is very similar to Thai script, but it is a lot curlier and rather interesting to look at.





Rear-view picture of the entrance


Once we were safely in Cambodia, we took a shuttle bus to the nearest transportation station, about a fifteen minute drive. One of the first things we noticed is that Cambodians drive on the right side of the road - something we hadn't seen in quite a few months! From the station we split a cab ($12 each) for a two-hour ride to Siem Reap, our final destination. And yes, the main currency in Cambodia is the US Dollar. Strange, isn't it? They have their own currency, called Lier, but it is not used very often. Once when I was paying for food at our guest house, I paid in dollars, lier, and baht all at the same time. It was a little confusing but that's how they roll ^^



Here are a few pictures taken from the taxi:


A view from the taxi



When we arrived in Siem Reap, we took a Tuk Tuk to our guest house, the Green Banana. If you want more information on the guest house we stayed at, or if you want to browse photos of it, click here. By the way, a tuk tuk is basically a motorcycle with a carraige attached to the back. They like to take sharp turns that put the carraige (and passengers) on two wheels. Then they cackle with devious laughter.


Lucas on the tuk tuk



The green banana restaurant sign, the food was excellent!


Something I really liked about Cambodia was that they had bread. I cannot tell you the last time I had real bread (as opposed to sandwich bread), it was so long ago. Since Cambodia used to be a french colony, baguettes are a part of their culture and they were delicious! Much much  better than rice for sure. 



When we arrived at the Green Banana, we were able to find a room with three beds for $12 per night. An upgrade to air conditioning was only $4 more, so we opted for that. Since we had four people and the hotel was $16 per night, we only paid $4 per night per person. Yeah, Asia is cheap.

After booking a room, we headed into the heart of the little city (resemblant of Fraklin, TN if you have ever been there). We ate a a farang restaurant called Red Piano. Whenever we eat at a western restaurant, we are filled with joy and comfort, due to the fact that we usually eat fried rice day after day after day. I ordered two dishes - somosas and a vegetable sandwich. The somosas were excellent, and the bread for the sandwich was chewy and delicious. Since tap water is a no-no in both Cambodia and Thailand, we split a large bottle of water for a dollar. The total? Less than $4. That is much more than we would normally pay for a meal but it was definitely worth it. Om nom nom.


Samosas


Veggie Sandwich

After dinner we walked for a little while before stumbling upon the Siem Reap night market. Let me just say this; I am not usually a fan of night markets in Thailand - they are filled with meaty food and cheap see-through clothing, and it is impossible to move due to the hoard of people milling about. However, this night market was amazing. It hosted  traditional Cambodian crafts and amazing artwork, and there were hardly any people there. While it is true that the prices are jacked up for foreigners, it is quite easy to bargain with the vendors. The trick, you see, is to act completely and totally uninterested in their product. This is easy to do, provided that nearly every vendor heckles you until you can walk far enough away from their respective stalls for them to stop following you. I was able to buy a hand-woven hammock for about half the original price (only $5!) and the vendor even threw in a free rustic-looking bracelet. I did not want to buy too much the first night since I was on a tight budget and could not risk running out of money!


Entrance to the night market





By the time we finished browsing the various crafts and artwork, it was late and we headed back to our guest house. There was a free pool table in the veranda, so we played that while sipping mango and banana smoothies ($0.80). 




None of us were particularly spectacular at billiards so the game took more than an hour!




Suddenly, the day's events had us longing for sleep, so we went back to our room. The bathtub was shattered on the bottom so we had to be quite careful not to cut ourselves. The best part, though, was that there was hot water! After taking showers, we moved the three beds together to make one giant bed so all four of us could sleep comfortably. I did not sleep well that night - there were little bugs in my bed that I could not see biting me all night long. It was quite uncomfortable, and even after being desensitized to insects for the most part, it was not an exciting experience. I was all too ready for the sun to rise. lol.

We ate breakfast at the guest house restaurant the next morning. I had a baguette with peanut butter and a papaya shake. Total? $1.80. I know that does not seem like a lot of money, but we usually spend less than a dollar per meal when we are back in Thailand. However, I was all too happy to be eating bread again. Yum!



When we were finished eating, we hired a tuk tuk for the day to take us around the Wats ($5 per person), which was the main reason we went to Cambodia in the first place. After paying the $20 entrance fee, we entered the ancient city's temple grounds.



The picture above is of Angkor Wat, which was built around a thousand years ago by the Buddhist king. It is best known for being the world's largest religious monument, making it one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. I am not too clear on its history, but if you want to know more about it click here.

Altogether there are hundreds of religious structures in the ancient city of Angkor, which used to be the most populated city in the world. It was later succeeded by a city in Guatemala.

We spent most of the day visiting the wats, which took a lot of energy. I was completely exhausted by noon.






We found a little restaurant between two of the temples and we sat down to eat some traditional Khmer food. The menu they gave us had items between 5-7 dollars...it was time to bargain. I eventually got curry, rice, and water for only $2. I guess you could say I'm a good bargainer these days ^^



We proceeded to walk around the ways for the rest of the day. The last wat we stopped at is quite famous for being the set of the movie Tomb Raider. Did you know that film was shot in Cambodia? I didn't either. This wat was covered with massive ancient trees growing all around the walls of the temple. It was really an awesome experience.


As you can see, the trees have grown over the temples for hundreds of years now. 




When we left the wats around sunset we were famished. 



We went to eat at a mexican restaurant in town - ahhhhhhh. Who knew you could get decent mexican in Cambodia?


Vegetarian Burrito...mmmmm :) ($4.75)

When we finished dinner it was time to hit up the night market again; this time I was going shopping. I found an artist that was really cool and had a lot of detailed paintings. I bought two pieces from him to hang in my dorm, and at an awesome price. I got both pieces for just $10. I don't know anywhere else you can buy authentic artwork for such a bargain price.







If you could see these up close, you would be impressed. The camera simply cannot capture all the detail in this painting - you can see the individual brushstrokes and color combinations. I am very happy to have these in my possession. Muahahaha.

I also bought some ginger tea, mint tea, sesame peanut brittle, and coconut chews. I was very happy with the experience as we walked back to our guest house.

The next morning I woke up at 6:00 in order to catch the bus back to the border. I was traveling alone this time - a rather depressing byproduct of a tight budget. Sure I only spent one full day in Cambodia, but it was quite an amazing experience. The bus picked me up from my hotel and after grabbing other tourists from around the city we were on our way to the border. The bus stopped twice at tourist traps, but I've been here long enough to know when something is amiss. I stayed in the bus and waited for the other tourists to be tempted and thwarted by locals selling cheap products at a premium price. After about five hours, we arrived at the border.


There are tons of cows in Cambodia :)


Fishermen were prevalent in the swamps on the side of the road

Something I did not realize when booking my bus ticket was that I would have to wait for everyone on the bus to pass the wait in line, get a stamp, and pass the two borders. This took two hours, no joke. I did, however, become friends with some people from all around the world. Two I met were from an Arctic island, quite a few were from Canada, and a lot were  Europeans. I was the only one traveling alone lol. After waiting a while, I grabbed some green tea and boarded the new bus on the Thai side of the border. The ticket price from my hotel in Siem Reap to Bangkok was only $10!

After four hours, we arrived in Bangkok. I had to hire a tuk tuk to take me to Victory Monument, where I could catch a minivan back to Chiang Rak, the road I live on. Altogether this was one of the most amazing trips I have ever been on! I highly reccomend it. And just in case you decide to go, here is a list of things to watch out for:



Beware:

1) Watch out for scam artists near the border. If anyone approaches you, ignore them completely

2) Do not buy anything from children. It keeps them out of schools when they can make money off tourists

3) Always bargain. I saved over $30 this trip by bargaining. And by Cambodian standards, that's a ton

4) Check your bed for bugs!

5) Always keep your bag under a close eye

6)  Stay on the beaten path - there are land mines in the countryside left over from the Vietnam War




Here is a quick synopsis of things that have happened since the last post:


I finished my finals (hurray!), but the grades could really go either way

I pet an elephant

My friend got a job in Bangkok, and is letting me borrow her bike until I leave :)

There have not been any bugs in my room so far

I saw the strangest caterpillar the other day - it looked like someone glued sticks onto his back

I unknowingly attended an aerobics dance class...lol

I had a full conversation with my tuk tuk driver in Thai

The rainy season is almost over!

I spoke Thai to a parrot. He responded

A dog chased me all the way down my street

My neighbors are having sex right now

I watched as a motorcycle drove by with an upside down pig attached to the back rest

Cambodians ride not only in the bus, but on top of it too

Everyone still stares at me when I walk by. Everyone

It took nearly eight hours to complete this post, please leave comments!












2 comments:

  1. My dearest little brother. Your first commenter. I am always amazed by people who are afraid of travel. And while my trip to 4 European countries (alone for half of it) is not the same remotely as Cambodia, it is the same spirit that carries you there. Yes, there is an art to haggling, there is also an art to completely ignoring hecklers who are selling overpriced stuff. I am very proud of you and hope that grades come in nicely. Those paintings look awesome and your food choices sounded rather appetizing. I was unaware that Cambodians primarily used the USD for currency. Also, that sun is taboo. My friend Ahng who I temporarily considered dating earlier this year, was 1st Gen American but from Cambodia, and he goes to the tanning bed at least 5x/wk. So I guess that taboo was removed after coming here :) Anyway, much love to you, travel far and enjoy. ~ jer

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  2. haha that is cute that you say you have become "desensitized to insects" lolol, poor señor :). but anyways, those pictures are absolutely amazing, i really like the one of the temple at sunset and the fisherman caught mid-throw. when you told me you ran out of money, you only mentioned the necessities that you spent it on but now i see where it all really went :D im glad you got back safely and hope you have a great time in phuket

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