Poipet to Siam Reap, Angkor Wat & surrounds -9 -17 September 2008  

  We crossed the border into Poipet in West Cambodia on the last day of our Thai visa the 9th September. Prior to that we had had a lovely break at Margie's, Andrew being re-employed as Dear's (Margie's handyman) assistant and doing a bit of chicken shed building & bathroom construction. We also spent a fair while chasing up paperwork for registering the car. For the Carnet to remain effective the car must remain registered in Australia throughout. There were various problems with this which caused all sorts of tooing and froing and took up practically a whole week.  Eventually thanks to Peppina Sorbara at the AAA in Canberra and Andrew's sister Kate who waded in to help, it all worked out.

On that point quite a few people have emailed asking for more detailed information about what's needed with the Carnet at each border. When we were researching this we couldn't always find what we needed to know and so for the benefit of those that follow we are writing a more detailed account of what is needed for the Carnet on each border and will insert a separate page for this in due course.   

 

We spent the next couple of weeks getting ready for the next stage of our trip. Again we were greatly helped by our friends at Hema Maps. We had realized that we had not got enough detail in some of the maps we had and asked Peter Davis Hema's marketing manager and his assistant Sonya if they could help. Once more they came to our aid sending us not one but 2 lots of maps when the first lot went missing. This has been a huge help in the planning stages and we'd like to send a big thank you to Peter Sonya and all else at Hema. Please see their website on our sponsors' page to get your maps if we've inspired you to go overlanding!

You may have heard of all the political troubles in Bangkok. They haven't really been felt in Ban Phe but when Margi's brother and his wife - Richard and Susan - arrived for a visit we drove up to pick them up so they wouldn't get caught up in it. It seems the demonstrations have been contained but security was definitely up in the capital, particularly at the airport.  

Having enjoyed a lovely rest we   sadly left Margi to drive to the Thai town of Aranya Prathet near the Cambodian border with Poipet. We had been warned that Poipet wasn't a great spot. It has grown as a border town so has a bit of a Wild West feel as well as being a centre for a lot of touts. They are all trying to sell tickets on to Siam Riep so we weren't much good to them having our own transport so they left us alone! The area is also full of Casinos in an attempt to attract big spenders from Thailand where gambling is illegal. Compared with Thailand you can feel the increasing poverty here as soon as you cross the border. On the Thai side there are good roads and lots of cars, whereas in Cambodia the roads were unsealed and muddy and many people are pushing their goods in rustic looking carts.

Getting the car through customs was fairly easy. We had expected to be hit for big bribes - based on some of the horror stories we'd heard and our own nightmarish experiences in Indonesia - but we sailed through with no problems. We were asked to give 120 baht (about $5 USD) to "make the stamping easier" which was better than expected. The only problem we had was finding car insurance. Though we have to pay for Australian 3rd party insurance to keep the car registered (one of the terms of the Carnet) no Australian company offers insurance which is valid once the vehicle leaves Australia. Thus we also have to buy insurance on the border when we go to a new country. No one in Poipet seemed to understand the concept and though whilst entering Thailand we had bought insurance at a booth on the border, here we couldn't seem to make anyone understand what we meant. Someone thought that there "might" be a car insurance place in Phnom Penh, but that was as much as we could get so we had no choice but to drive on uninsured!

Just a short time on the roads showed us why insurance was deemed redundant. I would say that approximately 80% of the cars we saw didn't even have number plates.  As expected from the research we'd been doing the roads were amongst the worst we'd experienced so far. There is a huge scheme under way to upgrade all the roads and you do get sections of this road which are quite ok, but they are a bit few and far between! It didn't help that it started to rain really heavily so soon we were slipping around. It really reminded both of us of off road driving we'd done in Australia so we were probably better prepared than most! It was a long 152km to Siam Reap taking about 6 hours most of it in the driving rain, so we were very glad to pull up in town where we quickly found a lovely guesthouse on the river and crawled into bed. It was only 8.30pm but we'd been on the road since 6am that morning!

Our first impressions of Siam Reap the next morning were favourable. Due to its proximity to Angkor Wat which has become a major tourist attraction Siam Reap has become a quite sophisticated centre with some top hotels and lovely restaurants though it remains very poor in parts as demonstrated by the shanty towns on the river. We stayed at Siam Reap Riverside Hotel and very nice it was too, the owner TT being extremely helpful -no this isn't it below ..read on !!!!

We had a day of "down time" prior to getting to see the temples and enjoyed a wander around the market. We quickly got to know many of the local children who make a living selling goods to the tourists. They were lovely friendly children quite amazing in their linguistic skills many of them speaking at least 2 languages. Of course we ended up buying things we didn't need! After a few days of this we did a big shop of pens and books so that we could still give them something whilst not buying more souvenirs or we'd run out of money having spent it all on tat we didn't need!

There are also a lot of landmine amputees who make a precarious living selling books cards etc. It is pretty hard for these people with no social security and you really feel bad that you can't do more. We visited the Landmines museum which was amazing. The museum was set up by a Mr. Aki Ra. He was forced to join the Khmer rouge after his parents were murdered and first laid a land mine at the age of 10 years. After suffering dreadfully through the Khmer Rouge years Aki now donates his time for free detonating bombs and landmines. He and his wife Hourt set up the museum where they sell goods to raise funds for this work. In addition they run a centre for homeless children who were disabled by landmines. I have included the centre's web here  so you can find out more about the work they do or donate any money you can to help Ari keep up the good work. www.landmine-relief-fund.com

Whenever we are travelling I try to read books about the area to get some understanding of the culture. I would have to say the literature about Cambodia's history is some of the most distressing I have ever heard. The people are so friendly and warm it is hard to imagine what they went through under the Khmer Rouge years in which they lost over 2 million people.

The Raffles hotel "chain" has a lovely hotel here.  Initially opened in 1923 it miraculously survived the Khmer Rouge years and was re-opened in the 1990s. The doorman wearing his traditional outfit -which he carried off very well! - showed us around and it was stunning. As mentioned Seem Reap have some beautiful hotels and restaurants to reflect its importance as a centre of tourism. After looking around Raffles (cheapest rooms from $360 USD) we bumped into some children begging and bought them both spring rolls and rice from a street stall for under $1USD. Not a fair world really!

There were many stalls set around a local Wat or temple, with ladies selling beautiful flowers to be used as offerings. There was one family who had 100's of little birds in cages see the picture above.  In Buddhism It is considered good luck to free them (I bet the birds think so!) which you can do for $1USD. I freed mine too quickly so no photographic evidence remains but believe me he certainly looked very happy!

As mentioned the main attraction round Siam Reap is the nearby Angkor Wat. It is $20 USD per day to visit or you can buy a 3 day pass for $40. We did the latter and splashed out for one day with a guide, having 2 further days on our own. We both agreed that Angkor Wat is amongst the most amazing things we've ever seen. The site of the temples of the ancient Khmer peoples, most of the building took place between the 9th and 15th centuries, & was an attempt by man to honour the gods. The temples consist of examples of both Buddhist and Hindu architecture as the individual kings chose the religion and it changed frequently. I cannot do any justice with my few words here I'd just say it  is really worth a visit.

When it was rediscovered by the French in the 19th century they couldn't believe what they saw or that a "native" people could have built it and were convinced that the Greeks or Italians were responsible! Whilst obviously this was nonsense it surprised us how like that of ancient Greece some of the statues and architecture were.  

Angkor  is vast with over 50  temples on over 250 sq km so there's a lot to see!  Highlights for the 3 days included: Angkor Wat itself. This is the main temple and the intricate carvings which cover every inch of wall are depictions of both sacred stories and day to day life at the king's court. The carvings of the ceremonial  dancers were very interesting showing all the different styles for clothes and hair which were around.   I also loved the Bayon temple which includes 216 smiling Buddha faces, so that you feel you are being watched wherever you go.

Another real highlight was the Ta Prohm an ancient temple completely taken over by nature. Apparently this was the setting for the "Tomb Raider" movie a bit lost on us as neither of us have seen it, though we found the scenery amazing.  The long "elephant terrace" where the entertainment for the King was performed was another highlight. You can still tour part of the site by elephant or indeed by Helicopter but most people were in Tuk Tuks. The site is quite spread out so too big  to explore on foot.

Seeing the history close up you can understand a bit more about the present conflict with Thailand. Maybe it's not been big news elsewhere but in Thailand there has been a big conflict running with Cambodia disputing ownership of 4 or 5 temples which are on the border or very near it.  Historically the borders between the 2 countries have been a bit rubber, with invasions coming and going and ownership having changed hands from Thai to Khmer and back several times.  The name Siam Reap actually means "Siamese defeated" and was named to celebrate a Cambodian victory. I wouldn't claim to understand enough to comment other than to say that feelings definitely run high on both sides!!

So we spent 3 days exploring the temples. The only downside was that  as we hadn't got prior permission we weren't allowed to take our professional camera in. The authorities are very precious about the photographing of Angkor Wat. We took it in on day 1, but were not allowed to use it so on day 2 we went  as directed to the government office to  try and get a pass but we couldn't get one though we weren't clear why. We went back with an interpreter the next morning but the office was shut as it was the weekend. In the end we just used our little camera but if you are going with a large camera (a small video one is ok) it's definitely worth  arranging permission in advance.

Just when you thought you wouldn't ever need to buy another pack of postcards …the kids selling all around the temples are equally cute and hard to resist! They were pretty persistent too ..in our picture you can see the menus from the kids trying to get us into their restaurants and we hadn't even turned the car off!!! A Couple of times we were saved when coach parties arrived and took the heat off us!

 We also met an opportunistic police man who tried to sell us his badge for $40 USD!!! In a country where the police only earn $40 USD per month they are keen to make money any way possible!  We didn't dare as being caught with the thing on borders might be a bit tricky!!

Angkor was absolutely fascinating and not to be missed and having a guide for at least one day really helped. Our guide Surivit spoke fluent Spanish Thai and English and he was not alone as wandering around the temple all the Khmer guides were speaking fluently (well it sounded like it to us!) in every language under the sun. They were clearly well trained and very informative.

For the final days in Siem Reap we had a bit of a relax followed by a trip out to the lake of Tonle Sap and the floating village of Chong Kneas.

This immense lake which borders 5 provinces is the home of several floating villages which constantly move around. Incredibly the water we crossed on our 45 minute round trip isn't there in the dry season and the area is the site for an open air market. Between the wet and dry seasons the water level drops 40 metres and the water heats up to the extent that some of the fish don't survive!!! There are  several floating school (one is for the Vietnamese) and various shops/houses /snooker halls/animal pens (mainly pigs and chickens)  -all of which are the same as any other aside from the fact that they are floating!

 

We also saw a couple of "crocodile farms".  None remain in the wild here but they are farmed for their skins. The farms weren't a patch on the Darwin ones so we didn't spend long! 

A really pleasant surprise has been the food here.  Neither of us have "eaten Cambodian" before and (maybe as we have hit the restaurant capital early on!) thus far the food has been  delicious. It is pretty similar in parts to both Thai and Vietnamese with its own variations.  We had a degustation menu of some local food -spring rolls, spare ribs, fish curry - all beautifully presented in folded banana leaves. The signature dish is Amok Fish -fish in a  coconut milk  lemongrass and chili curry and it is beautiful. Marijuana is also a traditional ingredient for Khmer food and some restaurants have jumped on the gravy train of selling "special happy herb" pizzas to tourists! Think we'll stick with the Amok!

So as at Tuesday 16 September we are enjoying a bit of a lazy day prior to once again hitting the road to Battambang. Research has shown that the bus takes 6 hours.  Hopefully this means the road isn't too bad and we'll manage it in a similar time span….. ..time will tell!