... why just Cambodia ! (Thomas Wehrsdorfer and Heiko Otto)
A journey through the land of the Khmers is a first rate adventure ! For years I dreamed of visiting the Temple of Angkor - the largest sacred architecture on our planet. But whoever I addressed as a potential travel partner too, the response was always the same: "Why just Cambodia ? There are only the Khmer Rouge, land mines and way too much lead in the air !" - Finally Thomas, my long-time partner in adventure travel, agreed to go on tour with me. And so - a few days after the turn of the millennium - we packed our backpacks, and off we went to the airport !
The trip to Bangkok and the way to the Thai-Cambodian border itself would be worth a separate report - but what’s a Sunday afternoon stroll, compared to a marathon ? Therefore, I want to begin my report in "Aranyaprathet", a small Eastern Thai border town. The few kilometres from the local train station to the border can be reasonably comfortable to travel with a motor rickshaw. However the fares are, compared with the usual rates in inner Thailand, outrageously high - and bargaining does not help here. The drivers are well aware that the only alternative is a long walk along the dusty road. On our way we passed some small wooden shacks. As of late, it’s possible to buy a Cambodian visa for the equivalent of 60 DM here. Generally the surroundings of the border crossing rather resembles a big fair rather than an official border. The scenery is dominated by countless small booths with a variety of offers and travelling hawker with large wooden carts, often pushed by a dozen men, commute between the Thai and Cambodian side of the border. The abruptly terminating tarred road and a dead railway track immediately suggest to any strangers: Here ends the "civilized world" ! Following a bunch of heavily loaded wooden carts and passing casually the in the sun lounging Thai border guards, we reach the passport checkpoint. Easily we get our exit stamps and can pass without any further checks. On a bridge besieged by beggars it goes on across the horribly polluted border creek. On the opposite bank two signboards advertise casinos inside the no man’s land. Who goes to a casino just on a place like this ? A rather dilapidated-looking stone gate with faded paint and crumbling letters welcomes us in the Land of the Khmer. And right behind this the Cambodian customs is already waiting ...
After our backpacks are thoroughly rummaged through, we get handed out a kind of docket. The next stop is a post of the Public Health Department. Here several entries in the vaccination card are checked - a nice reminder that Cambodia is one of the most malaria and AIDS afflicted countries in the world. Fortunately we possess all required endorsements and may thus continue to the barrack of the Immigration Office. After a little how-where-why-question-answer game, we finally receive the official entry permit as well and with that the essential stamp in the passport.
So far so good - but what now ? The Cambodian border village of Poi Pet is located directly behind the checkpoint. A handful of other backpackers have gathered on the edge of a small square, in its middle a mythical creature with lots of arms that seems to have solidified into stone during a wild dance. They are arguing with the driver of a surprisingly modern-looking pickup truck about the price of a ride to Siem Reap. Fantastic, that is exactly where we want to go too. The others are quite happy over two more paying passengers and together we agree fairly quick on a fare of 6 US$ per capita for the good 150 km long route. According to the roadmap the third largest street of Cambodia is called Highway 5. Highway - what an excessive exaggeration for this dusty, potholed slopes through endless, currently parched rice fields ! All eight of us squat on the edge of the loading floor of the pickup truck which is otherwise is crammed with oodles of big bags and boxes. Despite the abundant uncomfortable position, the mood is good. Everyone who has come to this place, must have experienced a lot. There are abundant themes for a lively exchange of experiences. Our small group turns out to be truly international: On board are a young woman from Australia, a Brazilian, a Spanish woman, a young Italian, a Briton, an American and of course us two from Germany. Everyone tells something about his home or reports about interesting destinations in the world. Time seems to fly this way - nevertheless, we are really glad to reach the first milestone of the journey, the small town of Sisophon, after two hours of a cruelly bumpy ride. A real flood of dealers, most of them children or cripple, immediately lunge out on us, hoping to sell a bottle of water, a can of beer or a piece of bread. We are good customers because of the dusty dry head wind that made us thirsty. Half an hour later, the journey goes on towards the East. Ignoring all our protests the driver has used the stay, to take on an additional load on the cargo area - amongst others two large, evil stinking sacks of fish ! If we previously sat closely crowded together, it is nothing compared to how uncomfortable we are now ! But it gets worse: After suspecting on based isolated chunks of tar, that the Highway 5 - only a cynic may have given such a name to this dirt track - had experienced better times, the road now turns into a complete disaster. Meter deep potholes alternate with washboard-like sections. Sometimes the road seems to be completely lost. Then the ride leads in wild leaps across the rice fields. Blasted bridges, relicts of the recently ended civil war, are the most dangerous obstacles on the track. Obviously, our driver already has a certain routine in overcoming the constructions existing only from single boards or kinked steel. Every time we fling with undiminished speed over such an obstacle, separated from the brink only by thin bended wooden beams, I have a strange tingling in my stomach. The others don’t feel any better, what comments like "Oh god, that’s really impossible!" vociferously attest. It’s absolutely crazy, but at some of those ruins our driver has to pay a kind of bridge tolls on dubious guardsman yet.
Hours later ... In several villages along the way, little by little the driver picked up even more passengers. We haven’t even tried any more to protest against it anymore. Each of us is now struggling with his own small ailments - most in form of large bruises on the rear. Incredible 23 people are now on the loading floor or cling somehow on to the outside of the pickup, most of them even packed with bags and boxes. And we seriously thought at the beginning of the journey that the truck would be already fully occupied by us ! At least the whole thing has one advantage: Packed like sardines in a can now there is no longer any danger of being hurled from the loading floor at one of the countless potholes.
With the sunset, our mood is also decreasing to sub-zero. No traffic sign, no change in the landscape, nothing that could point out how far it is to the destination. Little by little the feeling creeps to be forever on this road without really getting anywhere. On our luggage, on the clothes, in the hair - everywhere a thick layer of reddish brown dust has formed in the meantime. I am really glad to have pocketed a small cloth as a face mask. However, hours ago my hat unfortunately has said goodbye on never reunion - thanks to the headwind.
Then, finally, lights on the horizon; single, rather inconspicuous dots in the darkness. Siem Reap ! Hard to believe - we’ve really made it really ! Of course, the driver brings us to the only good and reasonably priced hotel in town - the usual procedure of touts. Even a peek down the road is enough to realize that there is plenty of alternative accommodation. A reasonably clean and seemingly trustworthy accommodation is soon found and the price - 3 US$ per night - quickly negotiated. The remaining evening we dedicated to exploring the surroundings and the offers of various food stalls along the road. Next morning we leave early. We need to rent two mopeds. The complex of the Angkor Temple covers more than 20 sq km - too much for a walk. For 5 US$ we quickly find what we are looking for - petrol and driver included.
About twenty minutes by moped north of the centre of Siem Reap, the Angkor area begins. Right at the entrance it says "cash please" for the foreigners. A day ticket should cost 20 US$, 40 US$ the three day pass - pretty outrageous. Grudgingly we pay for three days and enter the well guarded area full of excitement.
There are more than two dozen large and countless smaller temples in the Angkor area to admire, many of them in monumental architecture, and each unique in its own way. The biggest and most famous one of all - the Angkor Wat - we get to see right at the beginning of our tour to see. Five high towers, somehow reminding of drip castles, overtop the enclosing walls which are in turn surrounded by an almost 1.5 sq km of water ditches. A wide stone walkway leads to the main gate of the temple complex and continues straight on to the 65 m high central tower of the building. Amazing reliefs with "Apsaras" - scantily clad heavenly dancers - and scenes from the life and legends of the Khmer adorn the walls of almost all buildings; stone gods and demons guard the paths. Lotus blooms in several large water basins, on whose smooth surface the towers of the temple are reflected.
Still dazed by the first overwhelming impressions we drive on, passing a trellis of big stony guardians through one of the four high gates of "Angkor Thom" - the "Big City". - Just like the gates, the towers of the largest and most important building of "Angkor Thom" - the "Bayon" - seems to consist of giant stone heads. Four oversized faces looking at each in the four cardinal directions. Buddhist priests dressed in bright orange sitting on the steeply upwards leading stone steps, flowers and incense lie on sacrificial stones, magnificent reliefs adorn the walls. The climb to the top platform of the Bayon is not without risk, but it’s worthwhile because of its beautiful view one has from the top across the surrounding temples and the giant trees of the nearby jungle.
Passing a 350 meter long elephant relief hours later we drive on to - at least for me - the absolute main attraction of Angkor: the Jungle temple "Ta Prohm". Strictly speaking, the term Jungle temple is an egregious understatement. An almost confusing maze of small temples, remains of walls and ruins, all overgrown with gigantic trees, hides behind the name "Ta Prohm". Like a giant octopus, meter-thick roots clasp around walls and roofs, growing trees in, on and from the temple constructions. All kinds of small animals, birds and colourful insects are flitting, whirring and buzzing through the bizarre debris field. In the air lies a breath of centuries ...
Full three days we spend inside the temple complex of Angkor, initially still in the company of our both drivers, later - after long discussion, whether we were really able to drive the valuable mopeds ourselves - alone. Only with much effort the time suffices to get to know the whole complex at least cursorily.
With countless photos in our luggage and the firm intention to come back someday, we climb the back of a pickup truck on the fourth morning. In front of us lies an almost endless ride on the dirt road that is listed in the maps of Cambodia as Highway 5 ...
PS: I have already seen many impressive buildings all over the world, but up to now none has impressed me as enduring as the temples of Angkor.
Report: Heiko Otto Translation: Heiko Otto
January 2000 July 2012