I have never felt as captivated by one country as I did in Cambodia. The past few days have truly changed my life - one of the most inspiring experiences ever. The following words and pictures do not nearly do it justice…
From Bangkok, the bus journey is absolutely heinous! The lonely planet rightfully describes the trip as unreliable and averaging between 8 to 15 hours. Well, as I’ve learned the hard way, it’s always best and safest to go with the longer time estimates.
Under a clear and hot and muggy sky, our bus left Bangkok around 8: 30 am (1 hour and a half behind schedule). The initial trip to the border was actually fine: nice, comfortable seats, plenty of snacks, water, music and reading material to keep me occupied…all good. Once we got to the border and got our visas and papers sorted out, we (about 25 of us) crammed into a tiny pick up truck to eventually transfer to a slightly larger, yet just as dodgy looking bus with, needless to say, no AC and as it turned out, not enough space. Not a problem, Cambodians are very efficient at making space. We re-arranged all
A slight road hazard
Check out the tipped-over truck which convenientlly serves as a bridging device
the back packs and stuffed them all on top of one another in the middle aisle of the bus. There was literally no space between each seat and you had to climb over mountains of bags just to get to your “seat.” Despite the sub-par conditions, morale was really high and we were all psyched to be in Cambodia.
About 3 to 4 hours into the second leg of the trip (from the border to Siam Reap, our destination), our bus came to an abrupt stop. It is important to mention that by now, it is pitch dark outside and the road conditions are getting increasingly worse with massive pot holes everywhere. So we get out and soon find out that we can not get past this one section because it is too flooded. We have to therefore wait for trucks to come by and dump loads of sand to fill up these holes. We were told this would only take about 30 minutes…
3 hours later, the driver signals to get back on the bus. An overwhelming feeling of both relief and trepidation sets in as I realize what we are about to do: go through a
massive ditch of water filled with about 7 loads of sand, not knowing at all whether or not we can actually make it through. Clinched teeth and sweaty palms, I am absolutely mortified, but somehow excited and in complete disbelief. So everyone is screaming and shouting (the bus driver included) - pedal to the metal - WE MAKE IT. By this time, we’re all going nuts, screaming, high fiving and hugging each other - my first Cambodian bonding experience.
Another hour later, we get stuck again, and this time we have to get out and push the damn thing… As we are instructed to get out, we see that right in front of us; the last truck that attempted to go through is lying almost flat on its side, completely stuck (see pics). Despite the rather high aggregate level of testosterone on the bus, we cannot, for our lives, get the damn thing to move. Eventually, after we all agree to pay 10 bats each (about 25 cents), a tractor pulls us out. That's right, a TRACTOR!
We finally get to Siam Reap (home to Angkor Wat) around 1 am; at which point, my new friend Ariel from
Argentina and I just check in to the first guest house we see (3 dollars a night for an immaculate double room with ceiling fan and bathroom!) What a day…
Next morning, or I should say 3 hours later, we get up, determined to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. So, by 4:30 am, we hop on a “tuk tuk” and make our way to the sacred temples. We buy a day pass and make it right on time for the sunrise.
What an inspiring sight! I don’t care how many pictures, postcards and tv shows you see, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and several other Khmer temples and other relics of the past Khmer Civilization are undoubtedly the most incredible archeological sights I have ever seen.
The details and precise carvings in each of these colossal temples are breathtaking.
The word "Angkor" is derived Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, of "Nagara" which means "City." Angkor Wat literally means "City of Temple" and Angkor Thom "The Magnificent City." Appropriately named.
Now for you history buffs...The Khmer or Angkor Civilization came into existence during the period from 802 to 1431 A.D. and stretched as far as the modern
Thailand-Burma Border in the West and Wat Phou of Laos in the North during its peak. Its emergence lies in the fact that the ancient Khmer rulers adopted a right political doctrine of its time, which enforces the unity among people. The Khmer Civilization had long been perished over 5 centuries ago, but it left outstanding monuments such as the great Khmer temples of Angkor Wat and Bayon and numerous unique sculptures like Apsara.
After an eventful and tiring day, Ariel (my new traveling companion) and I hit the old market, grab a few beers, local Khmer curries (delicious) and share stories (in our surpisingly functional span-glish dialect).
The next day was quite possibly the most amazing cultural experience ever. We decide to check out Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city and what was described as a quaint colonial town. Despite the practical and presumably reliable bus route, we choose to get there by boat, down the Mekong river, as it is supposed to be an incredible journey.
Right around sunrise, about 15 of us cram into a pick up truck and head to the port. We eventually find a boat, buy our tickets and hop on. The
Starting the day
Floating village on the way to Battambang
boat cast-off, the engine growling, black smoke puffing out as it pulled away from the shore, we were on our way There was no passenger list, no life jackets, no life rafts, no radio, no telephone signal and no map. By this point, I decided to fully abandon any hope of common sense, prudence and self-preservation. I felt great.
The Mekong is an incredible river, reaching over 4000 km through South East Asia providing food for over 50 million people - it's a major waterway that rivals the Amazon in both size and importance. As we make our way down the winding waterways, we pass remote floating homes with washing hanging out to dry in the heat of the tropical sun, adorned with pot plants and flowers. Some houses are built on tall bamboo stilts fully exposed by the low waters of the dry season and others are barely standing at all. It is apparent that these families and communities living in these floating villages have next to nothing; yet the feeling of happiness and togetherness is most palpable. As we pass each village, we are greeted with the biggest smiles and waves from the local children. “HELLO SIR…WELCOME!”
Such genuinely kind and welcoming people…
You often times get the feeling that whenever you go somewhere and stick out like a sore thumb, the welcoming smiles and greetings are often fake and aimed at your wallet. Certainly not the case here; I can’t even begin to describe the smiles on these kids’ faces - a sight I will never forget.
9 hours later, the boat eventually stopped in a very narrow, shallow part of the river and was pulled tight to the riverbank. We finally arrived at Battambang. We scrambled up the steep muddy embankment and made our way to the Royal Hotel (by mini bus). Its' modest entrance and reception area gives no clue to its massive cavernous interior. Its' classic modernist architecture is a legacy of its communist origins and only $8.00 a night for two people, including private bathroom, balcony and cable t.v.!!
Checked in and refreshed, Ariel and I set out to check out the town and grab some food. We eventually decide to wander into the country side (thanks to our gracious host and scooter driver). It was then that we were introduced to the famous “bamboo train.” This was epic.
Return from the market
after a hard day of work
We loaded the scooters on this tiny open air platform made out of bamboo and set off directly on the railways to eventually make our way back to the city.
At one point, the “driver” assertively alerts us to get off and pull our vessel aside as we quickly find out that a train is approaching fast. As the sun sets in the central Cambodian province of Battambang, we eventually make it back to the city alive and stocked. We proceed to go out and discuss it to no length over some much needed Angkor beers.
So that pretty much sums up my Cambodian highlights
We made our way back to Bangkok and found out, much to our delightful surprise, that the road from Battambang to Bangkok is actually much better than to Siam Reap. We met some other backpackers on their way back to Bangkok (from Argentina, Holland and Germany). Once we got back, we all checked into the same guest house, dropped our stuff and all went out…
Here’s the link to some more pics from this incredible journey:
To understand Cambodia in the present, it is necessary to look
The magnificent city
rightfully earns its title
at Cambodia in the past. Here’s a very brief historical timeline and facts about Cambodia.
600's - 1500's the Khmer civilization
1863 - Cambodia becomes a protectorate of France and became part of French Indo-china
French colonial rule lasts for 90 years
1941 - 1945 - Cambodia is occupied by Japan during World War II
1946 - France re-imposes its protectorate
1953 - Cambodia declares independence from France
1953 - Becomes the Kingdom of Cambodia
1965 - Head of State Sihanouk breaks off relations with the US
1965 - North Vietnamese guerrillas to set up bases in Cambodia to pursue their campaign against the US-backed government in South Vietnam
1970 - Sihanouk is deposed
1975 - The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, occupy Phnom Penh
1975 - Cambodia is re-named Kampuchea
1976 - The country is re-named Democratic Kampuchea
1977 - Fighting breaks out with Vietnam
1978 - Vietnamese forces invade Cambodia
1979 January - The Vietnamese take Phnom Penh
1979 - Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge forces flee to the borders with Thailand
1979 - The People's Republic of Kampuchea is established
1989 - Vietnamese troops withdraw
1989 - The country is re-named the State of Cambodia
1997 - The Khmer Rouge put Pol Pot on trial and sentence him to life imprisonment
1998 Pol Pot dies.
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