Crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia was a very interesting and long journey. We started out early in the morning, and jumped on a bus to Aranya Prathet, a town just a few km’s from the border itself. The bus ride itself was acutally very beautiful – through the Thai countryside. In addition, we also got snacks and water given to us by a steward, which was a new experience; much different from the cramped and dirty local busses we were used to. We were then taken by tuk tuk to Thai immigration, where a local Thai man greeted us and tried to convince us that we had to buy a Cambodian visa in advance from him, as it was no longer possible to obtain one at the border. This was a scam we were ready for, so we just smiled, and walked through immigration with no problem. Even the Cambodian visa took only minutes to complete. As we walked through to Cambodian immigration, we were greeted by a man who set up a taxi to take us to our end destination, Battambang. He and his friend tried to get us to pay a bit more money to skip the long line at immigration so they could get going. We decided that saving a bit of time isn’t worth the possibility of not getting into the country legitimately, so we waited an hour in the line before officially entering Cambodia.
Poipet, Cambodia was nothing like we had ever seen before. On either side of the main dirt road were huge casinos. Gambling is illegal in Thailand, so Thais jump the borders to gamble. Just beyond these huge buildings was what looked like a war torn town. The buildings were in terrible shape, the roads were the worst we had ever seen (if you could even call them roads), and dirt/dust was everywhere. We were then greeted by our new Cambodian friend and taken to the taxi, a Toyota Camry, that would drive us to Battambang. As we ventured out of the town, the roads were even worse, and we couldn’t drive more than 20 km/hr. We had heard rumours that an airline had paid off government officials to postpone paving this road in order to deter tourists from overland border crossing. Even more corrupt is the reason why we had to take a taxi from the border to battambang: the local taxi mafia. These men threaten other modes of transport and other taxi drivers, thereby driving the price of transport up significantly. We weren’t sure if we took a mafia Toyota or a private one, but the price wasn’t too horrible.
After a few long hours, we finally arrived in Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. We decided to come here before Siem Reap in order to get away from the beaten tourist trail, and we’re glad we did. We were greeted on arrival by Ses, a local moto driver, whom we hired to take us around the city the next day.
We decided to begin our tour at Phnom Sampeau, a hill 20km outside of Battambang, known for it’s role in the Khmer Rouge killings. On the top of the hill is an old temple used as a prision by the Khmer Rouge, and just a few metres away is a huge deep cave, where prisioners were taken and murdered. Today, a Buddha lies inside the cave, as well as a few monuments including a stupa which houses some of the human remains found in the cave. This was a very chilling experince for the both of us.
After the caves, we visited a Wat which dates back to pre-Angkor, and was originally Hindu, not Buddhist. Here, we got our first taste of the small children who give you information, fan you, or try to get you to buy drinks in exchange for a few dollars. Ses then took us to see a collection of huge bats seeking refuge inside the grounds of a local Wat (Buddhists won’t allow the harming of anything within a Wat), and we briefly stopped at a Cock fighting ring, although the Cocks hadn’t begun to fight yet. The men strap razor blades to the Cocks when they are actually fighting. The loser is the Cock that runs away. In between matches they “rejuvnate” the animals by stitching them up and bathing them in warm water. It was nuts. There wasn’t a single other white person there and everyone was staring at us. Finally, we jumped on board the “bamboo train”, which is basically a bamboo mat on wheels that goes along the train tracks powered by a gas motor. Due to the poor condition of the tracks, regular trains can only travel 20 km/hr.
Throughout the trip, Ses told Adam a lot about the current situation in Cambodia. Of course, the present government is corrupt. Many of the top ranking officials are not able to read or write because they were remnants of the Khmer Rouge or old police chiefs during that time. Every five years there is an election, but everyone knows who will win because the present party bribes the poor, whom have the most votes, with food and money. The only other political party can’t compete because they don’t have the funds to do so.
As we passed through villages, we saw a women talking to a large group of people. We were told that she belonged to a non-governmental organization (NGO). NGO’s are the only groups that accomplish things in Cambodia. For example, they set up educational funds, museums, and local wells. If only they would develop a trash collecting service. Every single Cambodian simply throws their trash on the ground because they have not yet been educated about garbage. There is garbage everywhere!
We also saw many dried up rice fields, that are usually lush and full of water during the rainy season. Some were on fire, which the farmers burn to act as a fertilizer. One field we passed had deep holes dug throughout, which were lined with plastic. Adam was told by Ses that at night, they shine lights into the holes. This attacts bugs such as grasshopers, cockroaches, and spiders. The bugs fall into the holes, which have water in the bottom, and drown. The following day, the insects are collected, fried, and served up in the local market with sauce. Ses’ favourite was spider, but he said you have to eat them carefully because the sticky legs will get caught in your throat!
In Cambodia, about 80% of the children now go to school (according to Ses). Some stop after primary school to work, and also because in high school (and possibly primary) the children have to pay the teachers $15 per month. The teachers do not get paid enough by the government, and need this excess income to support their family and to buy school supplies. We also noticed a hut that had a massive bank of car batteries all connected together, and a loud diesel generator running. Ses explained to us, that most people use a car battery to power their home. A car battery can run a single lightbulb and a black and white TV for around five days. Then the people take their batteries to be recharged for a fee.
The next day, we decided to take the speedboat (5 hours, more like slowboat) from Battambang to Siem Reap, as we had heard it was a great trip, and we weren’t disappointed. After jumping into the back of a pick-up truck with 10 other travelers (AND all of our bags), and driving through the farmers fields (literally) for an hour, we finally reached the boat. Along the way, we saw many trucks that were also crammed with locals, even more so than us. Some even sit on top of the roofs. The roads are so dusty that by the end of the trip we were covered in an orange cake. For this reason, many Cambodians wear scarfs, hankerchiefs, or medical masks to cover their faces.
The views from the boat were amazing, as we drifted through small floating villages along the long and winding river. People in these villages use water for everything – washing clothes/dishes, eating, drinking, and even as a lavatory. Everyone along the way also waved to us and said “hello.” The kids were always enthusiastic to see us, and sometimes we’d here some screaming “hello” at the top of their lungs from some hut that we couldn’t actually see. As we sped past the villages and finally reached the dock at Siem Reap, we were met by a tuk-tuk driver holding a sign with our names written on it. The hotel in Battambang had passed our information along to the driver picking us up. It was obvious upon first glance that there was a lot of competiton for jobs between the moto drivers. There had to have been over 100 tuk-tuk drivers at the pier and too few boats running along the river. Our driver took us to a guesthouse were he collects commission. We decided to stay in the guesthouse that he took us to because it was actually pretty decent.
The following day we journeyed into the ancient city of Ankor…