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Pleasantly Post-Apocalyptic Kampot

Pleasantly Post-Apocalyptic Kampot, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Kampot has a pleasantly post-apocalyptic feel. Cambodian women in pink flannel pyjamas bicycle silently past blocks of crumbling French architecture. Decades of neglect, haphazard repurposing and jury rigging have transformed the colonial shops and villas into something odd and transient. A few travelers sit in wicker chairs in front of a coffee shop–nearly the only business open on a wide, leafy boulevard–eating baguette sandwiches and drinking iced Vietnamese coffee. Early 00s electrolounge plays in the background. The music’s good. The coffee is excellent. If we were approaching the end of days, I would want to run down the clock in a place like this. The rest of the world seems very far away.

The community of foreigners here this time of year are oddballs and misfits, long-term travelers and burn-outs. Our guesthouse is run by an amiably stoned Scottish(?) electronic musician with an accent it takes all our concentration to decipher. We met a German girl who announced “I have no social skills!” as she squeezed into the sofa beside us and launched into a meandering story involving automatic motorcycles and her Cambodian dog. A lot of people here seem to be here to get away from somewhere else, even if it’s just cooler-than-thou backpackers stepping off the regular trail without leaving their Lonely Planet Cambodias behind. But somehow that makes it even more interesting than a place that has a reason to be a destination. You could hide out down here a long, long time before the real world ever found you. And nobody would even think it strange.

We rented bicycles today to cycle through the town and countryside of palm trees and dry rice paddies. I think it made us a bit of an oddity: once out of the town center, every single child we encountered wanted to wave to us and try out their English, mostly by shouting as we biked past. “Hello! How are you? Hi! Where you go?” It was, to be honest, incredibly charming.

Unfortunately, we can’t stay in Kampot long, and things are changing so rapidly in Cambodia, I have no idea if it will have the same vibe in a few years. Coming here was a bit of a spur-of-the-moment thing, but I’m really glad we did. And now I know where to escape to if I’m ever on the run.

Anchor What?

Janelle In Preah Khan, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Some things live up to the hype. Angkor is one of those things. It’s hard to say this without sounding geeky (impossible, in fact) so here it goes: Angkor is like all my childhood Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings-inspired flights of imagination come to life.

I knew almost nothing about Angkor going in (and only slightly more now), so everything was mysterious and exotic. The massive Angkor Wat temple is the best known, but the ancient monuments of Angkor are actually spread out over a large region. A lot of people explore Angkor via guided bus tour, but for independent-minded folks like us, the most popular way to do it is to buy your pass and then hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day to take you around. There are a couple of common circuits that hit the main monuments, or you can just tell your driver to take you places in whatever order you want. Our guy also had some tips about the best times to go to particular places to avoid the crowds. Your driver drops you off in the parking lot and chills out while you go look around, then takes you to your next destination. A pretty easy way to get around, and the area between the monuments is largely undeveloped, so you’re always taking little trips though forests and rice paddies, which is pleasant.

Angkor Wat is the largest, most famous and best-preserved. It’s a huge fortress-like structure of passageways, towers and courtyards, with moats and causeways and gigantic bas relief scenes of battles, mythical happenings and the underworld. It gets the most visitors, but the high season has wound down, and just by turning down hallways the tour groups don’t use we repeatedly found ourselves alone in stone courtyards and winding temple corridors.

Even more gobsmacking is Ta Prohm, a temple complex that was abandoned to the jungle for centuries. Parts of it have collapsed, and massive white silk cotton and strangler fig trees have been left standing, their trunks and roots winding through the crumbling mossy walls. All around are piles of rubble with bits of bas-relief visible through the moss and lichen. It’s incredibly atmospheric, and the jungle and partial ruins make it much more mazelike and eerie than Angkor Wat. It is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

And best of all? Almost none of Angkor is off-limits. Unlike, say, the catacombs of Paris, you can wander and explore almost anywhere. We would duck down rarely-used hallways, climb up back stairways and over centuries-old piles of rubble. It may be a little selfish to rejoice at this, and I suspect it’ll piss off the archeological establishment, but after a lifetime of going to old buildings and being told DO NOT TOUCH, DO NOT CLIMB, CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC—that I have to stick to a single corridor with all the cool-looking bits roped or gated off—God, it’s refreshing to be able to just explore shit and get lost. I loved it. I felt more connected to the ruins of Angkor than any other historical site I’ve ever been to, just because (a) well, it’s incredibly awesome; but also (b) because I could touch the ancient carvings and sit on the same bench some 12th-century monk sat on.

As great as Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm (and Angkor Thom) are, temple fatigue does buy prednisone online canada still set in. We were in no rush, so we alternated temple days with “hanging out drinking coffee and beer back in town” days, but even so, by day three we found ourselves half-heartedly walking a bunch of samey-feeling temples. But that said, I’m incredibly glad we came to Siem Reap and saw Angkor. (And it doesn’t hurt that Siem Reap is exactly what you want to find in a traveller town: cheap, friendly, lively and unpretentious.) I’m actually also glad we came without really knowing much about Angkor. The scale was far beyond anything we had imagined, and not knowing the history while we exploring made everything all the more mysterious and romantic.

Tomorrow we head to Phnom Penh for, I think, a very different Cambodian experience.

A Holiday in Cambodia

And it’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll do what you’re told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul

–Dead Kennedys

Bus Travel, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

We arrived at the Cambodian border fully expecting to pay our first-ever direct, unambiguous bribe to a government official. I even had a wad of small Thai and US bills ready in my pocket.

Overland travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap involves crossing the border between the markets at Aranyaprathet, Thailand and Poipet, Cambodia. This is one of the more notorious stretches of the modern backpacker trail.  You basically have to deal with a convoluted border crossing involving

  1. a five-hour bus ride to an empty lot several kilometers from the actual border
  2. hiring a sketchy tuk-tuk and convincing the driver to take you to the vicinity of the border instead of an official-looking fake office
  3. walking through commercial border traffic (i.e. a kilometer-long line of trucks and push-carts)
  4. going through Thai customs
  5. walking a no-man’s-land of Cambodian casinos, beggars and pick-pockets
  6. bribing the Cambodian border guards to process your visa on the spot when they threaten to mail your passport to Phnom Penh
  7. dealing with Cambodian touts, drivers and con-artists who will promise to get you where you’re going and then deliver you somewhere else to collect commissions

Welcome to Scambodia.

A couple hours of Googling the anecdotes and warnings about the border crossing left us feeling more than a little nervous about the whole thing.  “Sick with terror” is a bit strong, but might be more apt.  The bus trip from Bangkok was like walking to your own execution. Why can’t we just fly everywhere, like rich people?

Actually, it wasn’t that bad in the end.  It definitely helped to have done our homework: the tuk-tuk driver tried to deliver us to the infamous fake Cambodian visa office (which gets you your visa on the Thai side of the border, but with a huge commission attached), but we’d read about that and told him we already had visas.  A lie, of course–we are chronically incapable of planning that far ahead–but it worked. He took us straight to the border after that.

Once we got through Thai customs (on the last day of our Thai visas, which raised a few customs official eyebrows), we were met by a friendly Cambodian teenager holding a piece of paper with our names on it. We’d arranged a driver to Siem Reap through the guest house, and I guess he had arranged for the kid to meet us. He took us through the Cambodian side of the border, and whether it was his presence (possibly), Janelle’s “fuck with me and I will finish you” scowl (a long shot) or the fact the Cambodian customs agents were having lunch when we showed up (almost certainly), but they didn’t try to shake us down at all.  I was actually genuinely disappointed.  We spent the evening playing pub trivia with some friendly backpackers who had been forced to pay up at the same crossing, and we had no stories to swap. So much for corruption tourism.

A bus ride out of Poipet to a nearby rest stop where we rendezvoused with our driver was a bit worrisome, as we hadn’t been expecting it, but it was all above board.  We found out later it was probably to save the driver a few bucks worth of bribes, as taxis leaving Poipet are expected to kick back a chunk of their fares to the local cops. Our driver was pleasant, even chatty, but by that point I was too tired to do much but take a nap while we rolled through the prairie-flat western Cambodian countryside to Siem Reap.

Poipet, incidentally, is pretty awful.  We didn’t see many beggars, but it is dirty, dusty, filled with garbage and reeks of corruption and shady dealings.  It’s a border market town, rather than a place you might want to live. Once we got out of there, Cambodia got a lot prettier.  Poor, of course, compared to Canada or even Thailand (which has about four times Cambodia’s per capita GDP) but really not unpleasant to drive through.

Even though we managed to dodge the corruption (this time), it’s hard to miss. Cambodia ranks 158th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. I know it’s not a nuanced or original view, but it’s depressing to see such a poor country–particularly one so ravaged by the legacies of war, and where orphans and amputees are ubiquitous–where officialdom is actively working against the people they should be serving.