I am not sad that I chose to take the minivan to Siem Riep, Cambodia but fly back to Bangkok.
We take off from Bangkok at 8am bound for the border. We are traveling in a van whose air conditioning ability is decreasing in direct proportion to the increase in temperature outside. The six Italians on board don’t ever stop talking from the moment they enter the van in Bangkok till we arrive at the border. I’m thankful that they are taking a different van into Cambodia! The land to the border is different from what I recall.. it is very green and flat. there is a hint of small mountains in the distance and groves of rubber trees along the route. Heather Small is blasting from my I-Pod singing, “Wherever the Road Goes.” This was not an intentional selection, but seems most appropriate.
We stop near the border for lunch and to wait for our visas to be processed. The restaurant is located in the woods and is all made out of natural products, so the stop over is not unpleasant. We get on another van for the border itself. When we arrive the “guide” disappears, so we just go through the immigration on our own. He resurfaces on the Cambodian side just long enough to say goodbye and hand us off to another “guide.” We try to waive away the numerous umbrella carrriers to protect you from the sun (for an undetermined price of course)! There are children willing to carry your luggage but you keep that close as they may carry it further than you’d like! We are asked to wait “5 minutes” for the arrival of our transport to Siem Reap. We start to laugh we know what “5 minute waits” mean! One hour later we are in a van heading for the bus station. The poverty of this country is apparent immediately—– beggars, filth, mud, garbage shrewn everywhere.. an odd mix of newly-constructed buildings and delapidated older ones. Not one paved road evident anywhere. Poipet in transition.
It is finally three o’clock before we set out for Siem Riep. The clouds are starting to thicken as we leave. People look up in anticipation of the sky opening up and giving its bounty of water. Rain is not our friend today. We hope it will hold off long enough so that we will get to our destination over this rutted, red-clay route through western Cambodia. We do not get our wish….. There is a torrential downpour that ends a quickly as it begins as if someone had turned a shower on and off. It is enough, however, to leave the roads of Poipet even more rutted and water-filled. People and vehicles alike slipping and sliding to negotiate even the shortest route– such is Cambodia today.
We are traveling in a minibus that at one time had ambitions to be a vehicle for local public transportation. The seats are broken and interior dusty and cramped. (A far cry from the promised air conditioned van!) But to be honest, I am glad we are traveling this way. It gives me a greater sense of adventure and connection, which is why I chose this route to begin with. We spend the next three hours bouncing along the cratered road. We pass small villages; cow herders and their livestock striding along the side of the road; farmers working their fields (or someones else’s); roadside shops selling everything including liters of gas in old liquor bottles.
We stop about half-way to have dinner and allow our battered bodies time to settle a bit. The Cambodian friend rice is delicious, but the owner tries to charge me 10,000 rials (about $4.50) till I point out that the menu says 7,000 rials. He shrugs and we move on.
We are off again at dusk, some of our number asking the guide when we will arrive. He is vague on that.. as I later find out that defining an amount of time for an activity never ends up that way. Who can really tell how long something will take? There are too many variables to change that! I am finding that I don’t care if it takes two hours or twenty at this point. The countryside is wonderful and interesting, why waste time thinking about anything else other than what is before you?! I alternate between dozing and being charmed by the scenery. Very few lights visible over the flat landscape. Concrete poles line the road in anticipation of electricity becoming available to the people who live here. The road gets even rougher, and the guide informs us that this is due to corruption……. Seems that Bangkok Airways is generally believed to be paying off the Cambodian government not to pave the road so that people will continue to prefer traveling to Ankor by plane……
We pass by small villages left in darkness, save a few gas lamps shining. People either go to bed early or stand in groups outside talking. The moon is full and drapes the langscape with its soft light. Rays of light dart here and there from the flashlights of the frog catchers searching for tomorrow’s meal, and frogs just as determined to deny them. The only thing that penetrates through this picturesque view is the startling sound of the minibus going over the steel-plated contraptions that function as bridges. You can’t help but look down from your window for some reassurance that we will make it over. Many people we pass smile and wave, probably because countless tourists who have taken this route have waved to them over the years.
After 12 hours have passed since we left Bangkok, I begin to wonder if Ankor really exists. At about 8:30 we begin to see more and more florescent lights– the first indication that we are approaching somewhere important enough for electricity to be available to even the poorest houses we pass. We make one, rather agravating, stop just outside of town to wash the bus. The lighting and our fatigue, add to the surrealness of the scene as young children walk around us trying to practice their English. Eventually, money requests being the goal. I pretend I do not understand.
We enter the town and quickly reach our destination. Everyone grabs their baggage and trudges off to their various guesthouses. I say goodbyes to the people I met and the guide, climb in a tuk-tuk taxi and head for my own hotel a few kilometers away.
It is good to finally be here to wash the clay, dust and grime of the past thirteen hours from my body, but I hope not the memories of the trip from my mind……………………….
(Next time,,, the visit ot the temples)