5/08/2005

We decided to get the tickets the next day and we'd then be able to get off from Bangkok earlier than scheduled. And the train tickets were really cheap and would save us plenty!

The next day we crammed into one tuk-tuk to Hualamphong, it's amazing how they can cram four of us and 4 backpacks... (I've seen them do 8 people before) For once the streets of Bangkok were deserted, and I guess I'll always remember the traffic... I remember taking a photo of it from the overhead bridge...

The night before we headed to the World Trade Centre, a rather more expensive place near the Amari hotel with DFS and all that... I had some doughnuts, something which Singapore sorely lacks.

I love trains because rail lines always cut across the geography of the country... and you see the urban giving way to the rural... from Bangkok, where developments or slums srpind out on both sides of the track... to tracts of cultivated land. We had no idea what we paid for... and the reason the tickets were so cheap were because we were in 3rd class carriages... being train novices, having previously experiences only sleeper class on the S'pore-KL express... we lunged around having coffee at the train station before boarding the train to Aranyaprathet 10 minutes prior to departure at 5.55 am. It was a first-come-first-served carriage though, with limited seats... so we had to stand... but luckily we had some good standing seats where we could sit on the window-sill and look out.

And so it chugged away... I love the sound... and where we were, most of the occupants were Thai. There was a girl doing a Thai crossword puzzle and possibly it was her daily commute. She struck up rather nice conversation with another Thai youth on the train and probably made another friend. We would speed past the provinces of Chacheoengsao, stop at the provincial capital of Prachinburi... and these people with fruits and snacks would board the train at intervals to peddle stuff... and we could see that some had finished their weekly marketing and were returning to their rather more isolated homes. It was a 6 hour ride as the train was about 40 minutes off schedule... the terrain was really flat and unspectacular... but full of rural flavour, off to Sa Kaeo province where we finally got seats... and we tried to learn the Thai script by matching it with English names for the train stations.

At Aranyaprathet, we linked up with a couple from New Zealand to share tuk-tuks... it was a short ride to the border bridge... where we saw a huge and overwhelming QUEUE.

No problem. We're Singaporeans what. We got some water, I asked someone in the middle how long they'd waited. An hour. Alright.

Wait wait wait in the hot sun. 1 hour...2....3, the crowd would move forward in sudden surges during which I would suddenly feel the threat of stampede. There was a Thai Chinese family next to us speaking Teochew, I think, and they could understand a bit of Chinese. They were here to go to Poipet, to gamble. Well, more precisely, the casinos were located in no-man's land in between the two countries... apparently a Singaporean owns one of them. It was a horrible wait... we finally got into the air-conditioned immigration office at around 5 pm. There were what seems to me some sex tourists discussing their exploits behind us... which rather discomforted me... the time allowed us to strike up some casual conversation with English backpackers.

As we drew closer to the immigration booths, part of the reason dawned on us. "Sorry for the inconvenience, we are in the process of upgrading our computers." That and the large crush of people eager to flock to casinos to spend their new year's supply of luck away, lef to an insanely long wait at the border. Singapore beware!

We crossed over to no man's land where we were immediately solicited by a young man from the Cambodian side... he offered to show us what to do... bring us to the visa agent and all... he seemed rather shady and said it would cost more for a Singaporean to do a visa when we said we were Singaporeans. Eventually we found the visa agent and it would be 1000 baht for the visa, definitely cheaper than 30 USD. But we kind of regretted not doing it at Bangkok since it was on-the-spot visa registration and we didn't have sufficient baht... the local store, which charged rather high prices for water, offered us a ridiculous exchange rate of 37 baht for 1 USD... we decided to change some money with traveller who had excess baht and managed to get a marginally better rate of 38, considering that we couldn't deal in the cents... but it was better than being ripped off by a shop. What was interesting were the glitzy casinos in this place, giving no hint of the poverty on the other side of the border

The Cambodian side of the border was really high-tech, with digital cameras to capture our faces and we were cleared quickly. It was late and we didn't want to be stuck at Poipet, yet we knew transport would be expensive at this hour... we kept walking, pestered by the shady young man and managed eventually, to find a taxi that would take us there for 30 USD... of course it started at around 50 USD... but thank god he was probably making his last trip of the day... at 7.5 USD per person, along with about 3 USD for the train ticket, that made about 10 USD/person for the trip. Poipet reminded me of a Wild West town, dusty, remote, and full of dangerous people.

We were hustled by many young children begging for things, some who tried pilfering stuff from our pouches and just desperate for some money... Lip gave them 2 SGD which seemed like a novelty to them, but they'd probably try to change it for money they could use.

Our taxi driver was a decent, nice guy, didn't speak English. It was a relatively straightforward route on National Hwy 6 from Poipet to Sisophon and on to Siem Reap. That is, when we realised it was the highway. That meant no need for navigation to ensure the taxi driver wasn't bringing us to a remote Northeastern province to kill us and make off with our belongings.

He stopped for fuel just aways from Poipet which came in the form of bottles... really cute. The road was filled with potholes and his considerable skill in avoiding them showed, as he took the potholes with aplomb and impeccable technique. Clearly, he knew the road well and would save us some time. Alex wondered about the integrity of the tires and the taxi-driver said something about "Cambodian-made". Well, anything works.

Night fell soon (it falls around 5 plus throughout Indochina) and a storm soon beset us... made the road a little muddy. There was virtually no street lighting, and of course the "National Highway" was something like a Type Y track with many potholes. You found yourselves thinking that countless army rovers have driven past before. To the left and the right there wasn't much to see and you could see lightning across the plains. The countryside was devoid, sparse, lacking in trees and you found yourself thinking, god, how many mines have been lain here. You didn't know which side of the road Cambodian's drive on, (this particular one drove on the left, like in Singapore, meaning the driver's on the right.) because there was only one side of the road, and they would horn to pass and to warn oncoming vehicles... and the bridges were army-style bridges easily identified by Lip and Alex.

What added to the atmosphere were large signs (the only billboards, not much advertising in Cambodia yet) with drawings of AK-47s and other firearms, exhorting to Cambodians in what seems to be "Guns are not needed anymore." And some habitations or buldings had banners in front proclaiming "Sam Rainsy party", or "FUNCINPEC" or "Cambodian People's Party (CPP)", in English above the Khmer script. FUNCINPEC is of course a French acronym, and is the party led by Prince Ranarridh Sihanouk, whose father, Norodom is the king of Cambodia. Sam Rainsy is a trained accountant who represents the opposition in Cambodia and is slowly displacing FUNCINPEC as the main opposition party in Cambodia, since FUNCINPEC's power-sharing agreement with CPP broke down. Now of course, Hun Sen is in power, just as he was when Vietnamese forces removed the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979.

We arrived in Siem Reap safely and thank god, the storm abated. We looked for accomodation, but Siem Reap looked like some expensive town for tourists... but we did find a guesthouse in the end that was cheap enough, called Angkor Green... down a cheap alley.

3 comments:

Jeff said...

You know it would be good if you guys can actually produce a photojournal. Otherwise it's just you narrating on your blog and Lip posting pictures on his.

Jesse said...

I have photos they're just resting here on my computer because I refuse to download Picasa 2.

maria said...

Love your post(s). I can practically experience every step of your journey through yr writing... :)