Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Cambodia

We left Dondet, Laos, at 8am on what was supposedly an 11 hour trip to Phnom Penh. As with most bus trips I've taken here, the time estimates are pretty optimistic. I don't think it's a very busy border crossing and we got through in no time, greeted on the Cambodian side by cheerful shouts of "Hello Cold Water" from the ladies with the coolers. It was another hour before we left, though, presumably because they needed to fill our bus a bit more. We were almost all foreigners: Belgian, Spanish, French, American, Australian, even a Chinese family on whom I made the mistake of testing out my meagre Mandarin at the first breakdown, and the mother chatted away to me merrily - completely un-understood - for the rest of the trip.

At 2pm, shortly before we were planning to stop for lunch, we blew our first tire. We sat for two hours in the shade by the side of the road waiting for the returning bus that eventually brought a spare. A second rear tire went around 7pm, blowing a hole in the floor of the bus and projecting shrapnel that cut up the legs of the two people sitting nearest. Not badly, but enough to make all of us pretty nervous. This time, after standing around in the dark for a while, we drove on - slowly - to the nearest town to get it changed. We finally made it to the capital at 2am, not in the best of moods.

I had one full day in Phnom Penh, and I started out with the National Museum, housed in a fabulous building and including some really impressive sculpture, mostly taken from the temples around Siem Reap. After that, I caved in to relentless pressure from the tuktuk drivers and got one to take me to the Khmer Rouge museums (more on that in Khmer Rouge entry).

The following day I was on the bus, again, to Siem Reap, base-town for visiting Angkor. The bus was only an hour and a half late, and no breakdowns.

My grand-mother was here about 45 years ago, and it has been nice to feel like I'm following in her footsteps a bit, and to wonder what has changed and what's the same. I spent 3 days, with a tuktuk to take me to some of the outlying temples on the first two days (thanks for the advice, R&A!) and a bike to see Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom on my last day. All of it is very impressive, but my personal favorite was Bandeay Kdei. It really looks like something out of Tomb Raider, and you're not totally convinced it won't come toppling down on you. And it has a lot of beautiful carvings, of course.

My last day fell on Visakh Bochea Day: the Birth, Enlight-enment and Death of the Buddha (just found that out, thank you Google, the explanation being a little beyond the English skills of the people I met there). It was apparently the first time they had it at Angkor, and the place was packed, almost entirely by Cambodians. They were all beaming and made me feel really welcome, even though I couldn't understand anything.

The following day I had hoped to go by boat to Battambang up the Tonle Sap river, just because it's supposed to be a beautiful trip. It seems, however, that I'm destined to travel only by bus in Cambodia. Being the end of the dry season, the river levels were too low for the boat to pass. Of course it rained the entire ride. At least it only started after our breakdown (a leak, fixed pretty quickly - kept the cows entertained, though).

Battambang is not particularly charming, but has a lot of character and there aren't so many tourists. I was only there for one afternoon - probably long enough - but I liked it. I was planning to head straight for the Thai border and take the train into Bangkok, but it turns out things are worse if anything there. They recently put a bomb on the Skytrain, and the regular train passes through that area, so I figured I would fly from Phnom Penh instead. Back on the bus.

I think my favorite part in Cambodia is the people. They are much more in-your-face than the Lao, but they're really friendly. The universal greeting: "Hello Tuktuk" got a little overwhelming, but I found that many of the people seem genuinely interested in you (as well as the sale). Even the tshirt/scarf vendors at the temples, who are extra persistent, sat down to chat with me while I waited for my lunch,
after I finally I convinced them I wasn't buying anything for myself or my mother or my friends. At the end of a conversation/transaction, they'll wish you good luck, which is really nice. And if you're on the bus, you'll need it.

1 comment:

  1. :-))))) Bus rides will never be the same, will they?

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