John and Sheila's Journey through Vietnam and Cambodia (continued)



Sat 13th. We set off to Cambodia from Vietnam (click here to see page 1)

Route through Cambodia


We packed up and checked out of the Southern hotel, where the girls at the reception desk said they were so sad to see us go - they're so sweet! We had breakfast with Peter and Lyn at the Sinh café and then the Phnom Penh bus appeared and with a bit of deft footwork Sheila managed to occupy the two front seats with a panoramic view. The trip cost $6 each and the bus was big and modern with air conditioning so we settled down to enjoy the ride to Cambodia. However, our smug self-satisfaction was a bit premature because when we got to the Vietnam-Cambodia border it all started to go wrong.

The driver unloaded all the baggage from the bus but didn't bother to explain anything so we didn't know if we had to take it through ourselves, if customs were coming to look at it there or what. We finally gathered that there would be a different bus at the other side, so we and an Australian chap with a surfboard for luggage set off to go through the border formalities while all the other passengers went to the Vietnamese border post café for a drink. As a result, when we had cleared through into Cambodia, which was fairly straightforward, we had to sit in the Cambodian border post café and wait for them to catch up. Several of them said that the border officials had found some real or imaginary errors in their visas or forms and they had to pay a few $$ to get through but we didn't. There are no official moneychanging facilities but a chap on a pushbike with wads of money came along and converted our Vietnamese dong into Cambodian riels at what turned out to be a not-too-exorbitant rate.

The Cambodian equivalent to the Sinh café/tour agent is the Capital restaurant/guest house and there was one of their minibuses at the border but it clearly wasn't big enough for all of us so we continued to sit and wait. It was sweltering hot even in the shade and the sweat was dripping off us. Eventually another minibus turned up with the people going into Vietnam and we thought we would get going at last but it wasn't so easy. There was a lot of disorganised to-ing and fro-ing as they collected the tickets and loaded the people on one bus and the luggage onto the other (which was pretty worrying in itself and we wondered if we would ever see it again) and the surfboard caused some confusion but eventually we were ready to go. The bus, which did not have a/c, moved forward a few yards and stalled and the driver and conductor started messing about with the engine, then asked us all to get off and push it to start it! We did that (in the sweltering heat with the sweat dripping off us) and got on board again, then they asked us to do the same thing for the luggage bus which also wouldn't start.

Finally we set off from the border and for a moment there was a wonderful rush of cool air through the bus windows, then a hundred yards down the road he stopped and started fiddling about with the engine again. At this point we were close to having a sense of humour failure. The conductor said it would take about ten minutes while they replaced the fanbelt so we all got off and stood around until he announced it would take two hours while they sent another bus. The sense of humour failure was now total and Sheila stood in the road flagging down cars. A couple of cars stopped and started negotiating a price for the ride to Phnom Penh - it wasn't clear whether they were taxis or just opportunistic passers-by. After a lot of messing about we settled for $6 per person and Sheila and I got in one car with Marcus and Kasha, two of the bus passengers, while four others got into the other car. The rest of the passengers seemed contented to wait.

It was now about 3 or 4 pm, around the time the Sinh café said we would arrive in Phnom Penh, and we set off down the road at a terrific pace. The Cambodian infrastructure is still in pretty poor shape and the road was terrible, full of potholes, most of which the driver just charged through, sending us flying about the car and kicking up clouds of dust or spraying bystanders with muddy water. At least we were making good progress, until we skidded to a halt with a puncture. The driver opened the boot and we were relived to see a spare tyre, but less so when he flagged down a passing cyclist and loaded both wheels onto his bike to take them to the repair shop. Obviously he doesn't bother to get them repaired one at a time.

He was back surprisingly quickly and we made good progress along the appalling road as far as the Mekong ferry crossing at Neak Luong. It was dark by the time we got there which was a pity because it was a fascinating place full of food stalls, including one selling cooked tortoises still in their shells, and shops which we started to explore. There were quite a few other vehicles waiting to cross but our driver clearly knew the ropes because he got into a different queue and we were among the first to drive on. The ferry set off and there was no sign of the luggage bus, which had overtaken us while we had the puncture and which we had gone storming past after it was repaired.

We arrived in Phnom Penh around 7pm and the driver dropped us at the Capital café/tour office. We were not feeling too charitable towards them, having put us through such a troublesome journey but we had no choice but to wait for the luggage so we sat in the café with Marcus and Kasha and had several Angkor beers and some food (my chicken and ginger was particularly nice). The luggage bus turned up and we were reunited with our suitcases which was reassuring and then the man in charge of the tour desk came and gave us a refund of half the bus fare we had paid ($3 each) so we felt that they were doing their best. We were still having a few more beers when the rest of the passengers finally arrived after 9pm and they were very disgruntled because they did not get a refund because they had completed the journey as booked!

Sheila went off to look at hotels but the ones she found were either full or not very nice, so we decided to stay where we were at the Capital Guest House which is not particularly nice but is very cheap. We had a twin room with fans for $4. We showered off the road dust and slept very well until about 5am when the noise started.
 

Sun 14th. The Capital Guest House is a bit noisy at the best of times but Sunday is the day for weddings, wedding parties involve playing high-pitched Asian music very loudly at street-side cafés from the early hours of the morning and there was one right next door to us. We resolved to move hotels so we set out for a tour of the town on the back of two motorbikes for $1 an hour each. Almost everything is priced in US$ here and you don't really need any Cambodian money at all. We had a good tour round the city, passing the royal palace, temples and pagodas and the river front, which is very attractive here with small boats and riverside parks and restaurants (unlike Saigon where the river front is very disappointing, dirty and industrial).

We stopped at the Hotel California which Peter had recommended and by a stroke of luck some people were checking out of one of the front rooms with a balcony and a view over the river. The hotel is very pleasant and clean and quite small, with just one prime-position front room per floor so we jumped at it and didn't haggle over the $15 price. The room had a/c, TV, fridge, ensuite bathroom with a bath tub, and wicker chairs and a table that we moved out onto the balcony to sit and watch the passing life on the river. Phnom Penh is at the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and there were fishing boats and ferries of all shapes and sizes going up and down to entertain us. The riverfront is lined with several French-style cafés and bars and we walked down to one of them, La Croisette, for brunch of baguettes with ham, cheese and salami and orange and lemon pressé. Sheila also had a Kir Royale to perpetuate a tradition she started in Ouagadougou last year of drinking Kir in nice restaurants in obscure places.

There seem to be a surprising number of westerners in Phnom Penh, more than in Vietnam, or maybe it's that Saigon was so huge that they were hidden more effectively. Certainly there are proportionally far more cars and less pushbikes and motorbikes than in Saigon and Hanoi. Many of the foreigners speak French here and there is a definite French influence. Overcome by the heat, or maybe the Kir, Sheila retired for a nap through the hottest part of the afternoon and I sat on the balcony watching the world go by in the street and on the river below. There's going to be some sort of boat race festival in a few days time and one of the teams of about 40 men marched down the street carrying their boat accompanied by a procession of musicians in trucks.  Later, as the rush hour built up, an elephant walked past. It was the elephant that we saw during our motorbike tour at Wat Phnom, the landmark pagoda in the city, doing rides for children. Next morning at 8am it plodded past our balcony on its way back to work.

Elephant in Phnom Penh


Feeling refreshed from a lazy afternoon we got dressed up in clean, pressed clothes (quite a luxury) and went to the Foreign Correspondents' Club for a drink and a meal. The FCC is in an old colonial-style building and the bar and restaurant have large open balconies overlooking the riverfront. There is a great high ceiling with fans and there is a library and easy chairs where you can just sit and relax with a drink. This is clearly the 'ex-pat's club' of Phnom Penh. There is a superb menu of western food and we had Caesar salad followed by pizzas from the real pizza oven, with a carafe of very pleasant red wine. That morning during our city tour we had booked a table here for 7pm and when we checked out of the Capital Guest House we left a note for Marcus and Kasha telling them where we were going. Unfortunately when they checked with the FCC the staff said our reservation was for 7:30 so when they arrived we were already tucking into our starter, unaware that they were coming to join us. However, we managed to move to a table for four and had a really pleasant evening chatting with them, until we realised that the staff were hovering around willing us to go away because it was nearly midnight.
 

Mon 15th. We woke up at 7am to a glorious, sunny and already hot day and ambled down the road to another of the French cafés for breakfast. We were going to look round the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda which were close by our hotel but we dawdled over breakfast so long that Sheila decided to have a sunbathe instead while the sun was still on our balcony and I went for a walk round taking photos of the outside of the Palace, the National Assembly building and other monuments.  On the river, one of the boat race teams was practising, 56 paddlemen, a pacemaker and a helmsman rowing up and down all immaculately dressed in white.

Phnom Penh racing canoe


We went back to La Croisette for lunch and had French onion soup and more baguettes and Kir. Sheila crashed out for a nap and I walked up to the other end of town. As soon as you go a couple of streets back from the riverfront it's a different world, with crowded dirty streets and run-down buildings. I wandered round the base of Wat Phnom, a pagoda on the only hill in the city, went into the National Library, a graceful building constructed in 1924 which the Khmer Rouge had used as a stable, and into the nearby Le Royal hotel, the old 'Grand Hotel' of Phnom Penh where some of the action of the Killing Fields film is set and which has now been luxuriously renovated by the Raffles Group and charges a staggering $300 a night. I walked back through the new market, a cathedral-like building with amazing acoustics inside and back down to the riverfront which was still buzzing; they are building all sorts of displays and stands for the forthcoming festival and the place was a hubbub of activity.

Sheila awoke and we got a cyclo down the riverfront to Wat Phnom and had a quick look round, then went into Le Royal hotel and had a couple of beers at the elegant old-colonial Elephant bar. These came with huge trays of salsa dip and crisps which we demolished but we didn't let it ruin our appetite because we managed to go round the corner to the William Tell Swiss/German restaurant, taverna and Mongolian barbecue where Sheila had lentil & sausage soup followed by Hungarian goulash while I got through a couple of helpings of the Mongolian BBQ, all for $14.

Tues 16th. This morning, after a quick continental breakfast at the Café California (part of our hotel) we really did go to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, the main sight of Phnom Penh. We were there by 8am and the golden rooftops of the palaces, pavilions and pagodas were sparkling in the clear, bright sunlight. It's a wonderful place with a huge, airy throne room, well-kept gardens and topiary bushes and interesting royal relics, jewel-studded gold and silver Buddhas and other valuable artifacts. We dawdled around really enjoying it and didn't leave until after it closed for lunch at 11am.
Throne Room, Royal Palace Phnom Penh
Royal Palace Phnom Penh


We then had a long, drawn-out negotiation with a couple of motorbike drivers, with a break for lunch of baguettes, Kir and sangria, culminating in a trip on the bikes to the Choeung Ek 'Killing Fields' genocide centre 15km outside the town. The road was appalling but it was an interesting ride through the Cambodian countryside. When we got there Sheila went in to see the piles of skulls but I wandered off to see the little farms and rural life along the road. We came back on the bikes ($5 for the two of us) then sat on our balcony having a pot of tea, watching the expats and locals promenading along the riverfront below us in the late afternoon sunshine.

At dusk we went for our own perambulation down the riverfront and stopped at the Riverside German bistro and bar where we had some German beer and a really tasty meal - sausage hotpot and smoked pork with sauerkraut, all for $16. We're really enjoying our relaxed time in Phnom Penh, with a bit of sightseeing here and there and plenty of good food and drink.

Wed 17th. We decided to start off at the other main attraction in Phnom Penh, Wat Phnom. We walked down the riverfront where three rowing teams were practising for the forthcoming event and teams of people were busy sprucing up the riverside gardens and laying ornamental paving stones along the riverside walk.
Phnom Penh riverfront
We stopped at the colonial-style Post Office to post postcards then climbed the steps through the gardens up to the Wat which was sparkling in the sunshine. Having savoured the atmosphere and taken our fill of photos we stopped two cyclo drivers and arranged an hour's tour for $1 each so that Sheila could sunbathe whilst seeing the town.
Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh

We ended up at La Croisette and had our standard lunch; it felt like being on the Riviera, sipping our drinks at a streetside café under palm trees beside the water.  Only the cyclo drivers coming down the adjacent road from the market laden with bananas, sacks or whole families of people gave it an oriental feel.

Cyclo full of bananas, Phnom Penh
Whole family on a cyclo, Phnom Penh


We whiled away the afternoon with tea on the balcony, watching the saffron-robed monks  walk past with their yellow sun-umbrellas and later the elephant ambled by on his way home from work. This is our signal to go out drinking and we walked up the riverfront the other way from our hotel surveying the restaurants in that direction, intending to have a drink at one of the bars while we decided where to eat. However, we ended up at the Globe restaurant on the corner of the square opposite the Royal Palace and it was so nice, in an old, beamed colonial-style building with large windows open to the breeze from the river, that we both drank and ate there. I had Vietnamese spring rolls, which are crispy and herby-flavoured with a peanut dip, followed by peppery fish hot pot and Sheila had barbecued venison and lemon cheesecake. It was wonderful and cost, with drinks, $25. There are just too many great places to eat round here!
 

Thurs 18th. Well we can't spend any more time lounging around enjoying ourselves so we went to book the boat to Siem Reap, the town for the Angkor Wat monuments. We got a moto (motorbike 'taxi') down to the boat office and bought tickets for tomorrow at $22.50 each, supposedly including pickup from the hotel although this subsequently turned out to be a swindle.

Then we went round to the Royal Palace because we had been told you could take a cine camera in for a fee, but at the ticket office they insisted we could not so we abandoned that plan. Back at the hotel we met Nik, the moto driver who had taken us to the boat office and we arranged that his friend John would meet us from the boat in Siem Reap and take us to a good hotel. He gave us a ride down to the market and we spent a couple of hours browsing around, buying t-shirts and postcards and having a cup of tea, then we walked up to the post office to post the cards and by the time we got back to the riverfront it was time for lunch again. We abandoned the idea of a boat ride at $5 an hour because we're going on a long boat ride tomorrow,  so we read and dozed and watched the world go by from our balcony until we saw the elephant going home from work which means it's time for a drink.

On our way out of the hotel we met an extremely friendly French diplomat who was staying there who recommended a hotel called La Noria in Siem Reap, and he phoned them and made a booking for us and arranged for them to meet us from the ferry, so we now have two hotel bookings for tomorrow!

We went back to the FCC to have a drink on their balcony and talked to an Irish couple who had come overland from Bangkok and their description of the journey made our trip from Saigon seem like a picnic. That evening the main bar and dining area of the FCC was given over to an earnest panel discussion on whether prostitution should be legalised in Cambodia which was a bit too heavy for us so we went back to the Riverside restaurant and had a couple more beers and the wonderful smoked pork and sauerkraut while a video of a Pink Floyd concert played on the bar TV. It doesn't get much better than this!
 

Fri 19th. We were up at 5am and outside the hotel door at 6am ready for the promised car to take us for the 7 o'clock boat but it didn't materialise and at 6:30 we had to get a taxi, with assistance from the friendly French diplomat who went on his motorbike to fetch the taxi because there were none going past! We went to the boat office where we had booked but it was deserted - it appears that they are just agents for the boat line whose office is further down the quay. When we got there we had a row with an official on the basis that he should pay the taxi fare because it was included in the ticket price but he refused because the ticket was sold to us by someone else, so we grudgingly had to pay up. Watch out for this scam if you're going this way.

The boat left dead on time at 7am and set off up the Tonle Sap river which is flanked by fascinating fishing villages on stilts that seem more attached to the water than to the ground. In fact there isn't much ground, most of it seems to be flooded, with little islands of vegetation and palm trees criss-crossing the expanses of water. We had been allocated seat numbers inside the boat but no sooner had we occupied them than we decided to go and sit on the roof of the boat in the open rather than cooped up in the rather noisy cabin. It turned out to be extremely windy up there so we crawled along to the driver's compartment, a sort of cockpit perched on top of the torpedo-shaped boat, occupied by the helmsman, pilot and four or five other people who may or may not have had some official function on the boat. We sort of invited ourselves in, crawled in through the window and made ourselves at home enjoying the view, which was far better than down below. The occupants of the compartment seemed happy to have us there and shared their food and sweets with us.

About halfway there the river widened out as we entered the Tonle Sap lake and before long we had lost sight of the land completely. At 11:30 we came in sight of land and cruised slowly through a fishing village up to the landing stage. Sure enough we were met by both hotel reps with our names on laminated cards and they ended up fighting over us! We had to walk down a rickety, foot-wide gangplank carrying all our luggage into the crush of hotel reps and other touts and fight our way through with the man from La Noria, trying to ignore Nik's friend who had identified us anyway (from Nik's description) and who pursued us as we sat in La Noria's taxi.

Siem Reap. When we got to La Noria it looked really nice with thatched two-storey buildings round a garden but it turned out that it was full and we didn't have a room. An argument developed between the French lady owner and the receptionist who had taken the call last night, who claimed he had said the hotel was full, but then why, she argued, had they met us from the ferry? The receptionist ended up having to pay for the taxi and the taxi took us to Nik's hotel, the Reaksmy Chamreas, which was $15 for a spacious room with a/c, bathroom, fridge and TV but no view - in fact the window looked out onto a blank wall a few feet away.

Happy with this we wandered through the market to the Continental Café and had Greek salad and eggs benedict for lunch. Not typically Cambodian but it was extremely tasty. Sheila retired for another nap while I walked round Siem Reap taking photos. It is a pleasant, quiet, compact town and in a couple of hours I'd 'done' it.

We set out about 5pm and walked up the riverside (just a small river with no boats, not quite like Phnom Penh) to the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, another one of the atmospheric old colonial grand hotels renovated by the Raffles Group and which is a smaller version of Le Royal in Phnom Penh. We were very tempted by the cakes and cheeses in the patisserie but settled for a drink in the historic Elephant Bar - it was happy hour so I got two ABC stouts and Sheila had two Tiger draughts, each for the price of one (which was, of course, double what you'd pay anywhere else) along with an unlimited free supply of popcorn!

We walked across the bridge to the Bayon restaurant which gets a good writeup in Lonely Planet and deservedly so. We sat out in the creeper-covered open courtyard under the stars and had the tastiest meal so far. For just $9 altogether I had the chicken curry in coconut milk while Sheila picked the real winner - BBQ beef with garlic and vegetables which you cook yourself on a sort of charcoal brazier arrangement on the table. It was absolutely delicious.

We walked back and outside the Grand Hotel there was a Cambodian dance show and we stood with the crowd outside the roped-off area and watched for free while the people inside enjoyed their $22 buffet dinner. We went back to the hotel and discovered what the disadvantage was - the disco across the road was belting it out and the whole building was throbbing to the beat.
 

Sat 20th. Sheila couldn't stand the noise (showing her age) so in the morning we set out to find another hotel. First, though, we went to a travel agent, Sara tours, and booked the truck to Bangkok. The road is so bad that ordinary cars and buses can't make it so you have to travel on a pickup truck as far as the Thai border then get a minibus for the last part. The whole journey is supposed to take 12 hours but that's assuming nothing breaks down or goes wrong. There are four places in the cab with the driver and seven in the pickup at the back with the luggage so we took the deluxe in-the-cab option for $20 each. We later found other places where it was advertised for considerably less ($10 in the cab) but apparently these trucks stop to cram in more people along the way whereas Sara tours assured us that ours won't. We shall see!

We then went to Smiley's Guest House which had been recommended and it had a nice relaxed travellers' feel to it. Most of all, it was quiet! We had breakfast there and booked a pleasant room with bathroom that was $6 with fan or $12 if you used the a/c (electricity is very expensive in Cambodia, he said!). We went back to the Chamreas and met the moto drivers who we had arranged with 'John' would take us on the Angkor tour for $5 a day each, and broke it to them that their first task was not to take us to the temples but to move us and all our luggage to another hotel. We checked out and loaded everything onto two motorbikes and set off unsteadily down the road. Just before we got to Smiley's Sheila's driver switched on the sales chat and persuaded her to have a look at his friend's hotel, the Neak Angkor Villa, first. This was another new building like the Chamreas, bright and shiny with tiled floors but a bit cobwebby if you look into the cupboards. Nevertheless Sheila preferred it at $10 (or $15 if you use the a/c) and we checked in. So, our third hotel and it's only 9am! Sheila went and broke the hard news to Smiley's and they weren't very smiley about it, but at last we were on our way to Angkor Wat.

Halfway from town to the temples you buy your pass - $20 for one day or $40 for three, which we did. You can then go into any of the temples as many times as you like, so if we want to go back and do it all again we can. The guards here and at the temples were all so friendly and courteous and explained the best itinerary to us.

Angkor Wat is only one of a magnificent collection of thousand-year old temples spread over a huge area. There is no point in me trying to describe them, I can't do them justice and there are plenty of guide books that do that. They are magnificent and we were very impressed. We spent the morning at the Angkor Thom complex, which includes the Bayon temple with all the huge enigmatic smiling stone faces, and the afternoon at Angkor Wat itself. At one of the temples, the Baphon, as we were going into the entrance, three Geordies walked up, took a photo and said 'done that one, on to the next'! They were doing the whole of Angkor in one day before they flew back to Phnom Penh, so fair enough!

Angkor Wat
Bayon Angkor Wat
At Angkor Wat a German film crew was trying to film some sequences involving monks in saffron robes walking down steps while a young monk ran across the grass outside or jumped down from a terrace, all the time getting more frustrated with tourists (like us) who kept wandering across their shots. They spent all afternoon filming about 30 seconds of action.
Monks at Angkor Wat

 
The steps up to the top terrace of Angkor are incredibly steep and we crawled up them holding on with hands, knees and feet, then spent all our time at the top worrying about how we would get down again until, on our last circuit we discovered that one of the staircases had been fitted with a handrail! It was still like coming down a ladder with tiny treads but we made it. We were just walking round the lower galleries of Angkor when we met the people who had been in the captain's cabin on the boat from Phnom Penh and who had shared their food with us. It seemed very odd to be bumping into people we knew.

We returned to the hotel at dusk, hot and dusty but thrilled with the sights we'd seen. After a shower we went by moto to the Grand Hotel d'Angkor and had our happy hour beers and popcorn again. Then we walked over to the Bayon restaurant again and both had the hot plates - one beef and one pork. It was just as delicious as yesterday.

Sun 21st. Thankfully we did have a good quiet night's sleep at this hotel so we may even stay here for the duration. At 7am we went round the corner to the Chhouk Rath restaurant and had a very good 'American breakfast' then met our drivers for another day's sightseeing by motorbike. We did the big and little circuits, temples of all shapes and sizes, restored and ruinous, all impressive in their individual ways. The morning circuit took us through the central square of Angkor Thom past the Terrace of Elephants and through  the great city gateways with their huge enigmatic carved faces to Preah Khan temple, then Preah Neak Pean where the police guards tried to sell us their ID badges as souvenirs! We continued with Ta Som, the Eastern Mebon and Pre Rup. At the entrance to each temple we were besieged by cold drinks and souvenir sellers and we gave in at lunchtime and had bottles of water and boiled eggs with salt and pepper.

Angkor Wat gateway
Preah Khan, Angkor Wat
The afternoon circuit took us to Banteay Kdei, Sras Srang, Ta Prohm which still has jungle growing on it, Ta Keo and Thommanon temples. We ended up by climbing Phnom Bakheng, the hill a mile away from Angkor Wat, from which there are magnificent sunset views.


We could have ridden up on an elephant for $15 each but elected to do it the hard way. Now, in the dry season, it is too hazy for a spectacular view so we returned to the hotel dusty, happy and saturated with temples. Because it is a festival weekend there are lots of Cambodian families having days out at the temples and all the people we met along the way were so friendly and smiley, even the guards at the check points and even the souvenir sellers - if you could distract the little children who came up trying to sell trinkets they would start playing games and bandying repartee with you.

Over our standard drinks and popcorn in the Elephant Bar we got talking to an Englishman who was working on a mine clearance project in a remote province of Cambodia near the Thai border. He'd come to Siem Reap for some R&R because all the Cambodians had stopped work for the festival. He worked for the HALO project which was the one that organised Princess Diana's land mine walkabout - she hadn't actually gone near any real minefields but it was wonderful PR and the money it raised was still financing their work today.

At the Bayon restaurant we had our standard beef hot plates which were still absolutely delicious but the waiter broke the news that the restaurant will be closed tomorrow because it's a religious holiday so we won't be able to make it a full house of eating the same meal in the same restaurant every single night we are here.
 

Mon 22nd. Today we set out to see the outlying temples, Banteay Srei in the morning and the Rolous group in the afternoon. Each of these is about 20km from Siem Reap and this involved a long bumpy, dusty ride down rough dirt roads on the motos. It's a public holiday today and Banteay Srei was absolutely packed with local families having a day out, there was a real carnival atmosphere. There was a little band endlessly playing the same oriental tune and the causeway to the temple was lined with old ladies begging. Sheila was dishing out two-pence banknotes left, right and centre until she got old crone overload and had to stop. By contrast the Rolous temples were practically deserted and we wandered round accompanied by only the most persistent of the postcard-seller children. Each of the temples is interesting and they all have different features but by 3pm we'd seen the lot, we were all templed out and we were coated in orange road dust so we called it quits and retired to the hotel to clean up.

Banteay Srei, Angkor


We set out to check out some other restaurants because our favourite, the Bayon, was closed but when we ended up at the Grand Hotel for our customary beers in the Elephant Bar we just had a vegetable and anchoyade dip, heaps of free popcorn, one more beer then usual and called it a meal. All that bouncing along rough roads on motorbikes has tired us out and we went to bed really early.
 

Tues 23rd. Today's the day we drive to Bangkok by pickup truck. We have heard horrific stories of people breaking down and getting stuck on the road all night so we're a bit apprehensive.

The Thai/Cambodian border only opened in 1998 after being closed for nearly 30 years. This is the last 'link' in the overland journey from London to Singapore which has always fascinated me. In the 1950s an Oxford and Cambridge University expedition were the first to make the journey in Land Rovers via the India-Burma route and they had to hack their way through the jungle much of the way. Burma closed up and as far as I know nobody has been that way since. The alternative 'long way round' through Russia, China, Vietnam and Cambodia has more or less always been impossible for political reasons until recently, and the opening of the Thai/Cambodia border at last made it possible. We're not likely to have the time to do the whole trip in one go, so now we can do it in bits; some years ago we travelled from Bangkok to Singapore by train (and hired a car and drove back) when it was still quite an adventurous route, although it is now on the 'great train journeys' circuit. So today, if we reach Bangkok, we will have completed another significant section of the route.

We stood outside the Neak Angkor hotel with our bags, waiting for the pickup truck at 7am as arranged but nothing materialised. A minibus went by a couple of times as if it was looking for someone and at 7:30 it came back and stopped; apparently they were collecting people in the minibus to take them to the pickup. We got to the rendezvous point with several other westerners and they started loading people and bags into the trucks - one looked newer and cleaner than the other and of course they directed us to the older one but we went with the flow and later were glad of it - several hours down the road we passed the newer truck stuck with a broken axle.

Eventually we started off, Sheila in the front with the driver, me, Brendan a New Zealander and Paula an Irish girl in the back of the cab and two others with the luggage in the pickup. Paula was very concerned about getting to the border today (it closes at 5pm) because she had a flight out of Bangkok the next day and she too had heard the horror stories of two-day journeys on this route, but the driver was in no hurry - a couple of hundred yards down the road he stopped and waited while he tried to fill the back of the truck with locals. Eventually we got restive and he set off, stopped again, set off again and at last we were on our way at about 8:30. Although he filled the back of the pickup with extra passengers the driver made no attempt to put more people in the cab so maybe our $20 ticket was worthwhile.

Road from Cambodia to Thailand
Once we got outside Siem Reap the road was terrible. I don't know how to describe it. There weren't potholes, there were craters, in fact we speculated that much of the damage could have been made by landmines exploding. The surface was just dirt - imagine a rutted farm track, churned up by countless tractors, with great muddy pools of indeterminate depth often blocking the width of the road. At each of the most difficult points a lorry had become irrecoverably stuck and a queue of traffic was having to churn into the rice paddies at the side of the road through a pool of water. There were groups of people at each of these points who were directing the trucks through the least deep part of the swamp, throwing a few rocks in to try and stabilise the surface and helping to push you out if you got stuck, for a few hundred riels (a few pennies) per vehicle. Although we had a few anxious moments our driver gunned it through the treacherous patches and we hardly got stuck at all. Later when we talked to passengers from one of the other trucks they said they had bogged down in one of the deepest pools and water had come into the truck and drenched their backpacks. When their truck got going again the driver removed some sort of plug and all the water drained out!

At midday we stopped briefly at a roadside food stall for lunch, curried meat and beans with rice for 500 riels or 5 baht (ten pence) - suddenly they are quoting prices in Thai baht rather than dollars (anything but their own Cambodian riels, apparently). The road improved slightly up to the town of Sisophon, two thirds of the way to the border. Here we unexpectedly switched to another pickup and driver and we had to hang around again while he too tried to pick up more local passengers to cram in the back. This was clearly the disco truck from hell that we had been warned about because as soon as we got going he turned on the music at ear-shattering volume. Sheila, in the passenger seat beside him, immediately turned it down and they had a light-hearted battle of wills all the way down the road, turning the volume up and down every few minutes. Of course Sheila won. The road deteriorated again - there were signs of a former tarmac surface but it was pitted with craters ranging from normal pothole size to full artillery shell.

We arrived at the border at 3:30 with a feeling of great relief and anticipation - we really could make it to Bangkok today. Brendan and one of the guys in the back had only bought tickets to the border so they got off and we went to the Sara Tours office. There a rep met us, accompanied us through the border formalities (which were ridiculously simple anyway) and showed us to the minibuses on the Thai side that would take us on from there. It was all very well organised and we felt our $20 tickets were very good value. The bridge across the grubby stream that forms the actual border was donated by Great Britain, we noticed on a plaque in the middle.

It seemed that there were three or four Sara Tours pickups doing the run that day and the others arrived soon after us except for the one with the broken axle. The first minibus set off for Bangkok about 4:30 but we were on the other one and it became clear that this was going to wait for the people on the last pickup who we gathered were racing to get there before the border closed. 5pm came and went, it started to go dark and all the vendors were packing up and going home and we thought they hadn't made it when suddenly we spotted them at the Thai immigration post. They had had a terrible journey, switching pickups several times and finishing up racing to the border on the back of motorbikes, but they were relieved to get through today.

We set off about 6pm in the airconditioned minibus (this really was the disco bus from hell which we stood for an hour before we got him to turn it off) and we oohed and aahed like country bumpkins at the luxury of tarmac roads, street lights and even a two-carriageway road. It was dark so we couldn't see much and we reached the outskirts of Bangkok about 9:30. We realised just how big Bangkok has become when we finally pulled into our destination in the centre of the city at Khao San road an hour later at 10:30. But we had made it! The overland journey was complete and we were very satisfied with the trip. Unlike Saigon to Phnom Penh, which we had expected to be easy and it had caught us out by being more difficult than we thought, we had expected Siem Reap to Bangkok to be really hard but it wasn't that bad really. The road was so awful it was actually fun!

We caught a tuk-tuk (two-stroke motorbike taxi) to the nearby Thai hotel which had been recommended but Sheila didn't like it so we went to the driver's recommendation, the Mitr Paisarn Hotel which was a bit barrack-like but we had a big, quiet room with a/c, fridge and bathroom for 600 baht (£10) which seemed OK. We went back to Khao San road, the travellers street of Bangkok but it was not what we expected. It was more like Ibiza with disco music blaring out and most of the westerners looked more like posers than travellers. There was nothing like the same friendly 'all-in-this-together' feel of De Tham road in Saigon. We picked a restaurant at random and had Thai-style spicy fish salad and spicy fried rice with chicken and they were really spicy!
 

Wed 24th. Bangkok was a huge disappointment this time. We have been here so many times before but it has changed so much. It is even bigger and more sprawling now and very Americanised, with endless shopping malls, McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts. Most of the street stalls selling exotic foods, fake branded clothes and pirated music tapes seem to have gone and there are far less of the tuk-tuk taxis left. Now it's just a featureless western city with gleaming glass buildings and streets at a standstill with traffic jams. There's not much oriental about it any more. There seems to be less pollution though, so maybe they've tightened up on emission controls too. There is a new elevated metro, the sky train, but although we saw trains running up and down it doesn't open to passengers until next month on the King's birthday.

We spent most of the day fiddling about going to the airline office to mess about with our tickets, cashing travellers cheques and changing hotels. Sheila decided she didn't like the Mitr Paisarn after all and instead found the Royal Benja hotel where we had a very luxurious room on the 25th floor with views all over high-rise Bangkok. At the tea shop they were doing a Christmas promotion (!) of half-price on an assortment of gateaux so when we had finished our administrative arrangements we sat and had tea and gooey cakes.

The Royal Benja is in Sukhumvit Road district near the Rajah hotel where we stayed when we first came here nearly twenty years ago. It is an area with lots of restaurants and bars and more going on than in the Kaoh San road area. That evening we had a stroll around, a beer in one of the many beer gardens and a nice meal in a German restaurant nearby.
 

Thurs 25th. Breakfast at the Royal Benja, which was included in the room price, was a buffet featuring fruit, continental meats, Thai dishes and salads as well as the normal western eggs & bacon etc., and a chef cooking up omelettes and scrambled eggs to order, and we ate enough to keep us going until tomorrow!

We went by tuk-tuk to the Grand Palace in the centre of Bangkok but when we got there we found you're not allowed in wearing shorts so we switched to plan B which was to walk up to the Mitr Paisarn hotel and collected the laundry we'd left, including my jeans to wear on the return visit to the Grand Palace. We wandered round the Temple of the Emerald Buddha which is part of the complex and which was heaving with tourists but it was still as incredibly spectacular as we remembered it. In particular we lingered over the model of Angkor Wat which was presented to the temple by King Mongkut in the 1800s. Having been to the real thing recently it was particularly fascinating to us - the first time we saw it in 1980, a year after the Vietnamese deposed Pol Pot, a visit was completely inconceivable.

We went into the palace complex itself and there seemed to be more buildings open to the public than on our previous visits and we were able to go into several of the throne rooms and audience halls. When we left the palace and approached a tuk-tuk driver to take us back to the hotel he said it just wasn't worth it - because it's rush hour it would take ages and we'd be better off getting a number 8 bus (because there are bus lanes that taxis can't use). This was a refreshingly frank response from a tuk-tuk driver so we took his advice, managing to pronounce the street name of our destination well enough so that the conductor understood straight away (or maybe she was used to tourists heading this way).

In the end we jumped off the bus a couple of stops early at the Central department store and Sheila had a look round while I had a coffee at Starbucks (that certainly wasn't there last time we came). We walked back to the hotel, buying a frankfurter on a stick from a street stall for a very late lunch. Before dinner we went to Riley's pub near the corner of Sukhumvit and Nana roads and I had a wonderful pint of Kilkenny beer at the rather more than wonderful cost of 280 baht (£4.60) while Sheila's Carlsberg draft was 60 baht (£1).

Over drinks we reviewed all the different modes of transport we've used this holiday and came up with 17 of them: plane, big express boat, wooden boat, car ferry, normal train, sleeper train, public bus, sleeper bus, minibus, pickup truck, motorbike, cyclo, trailer cyclo, pushbike, taxi/car, tuk-tuk and walking, but unfortunately not an elephant ride!

We went two doors down to the Mehmaan restaurant and had yet another really excellent Indian meal.
 

Fri 26th. We had a truly multicultural buffet breakfast starting with a plate of salami, cheese and salad, then chicken and cashew nut with egg fried rice followed by poached eggs, frankfurters and bacon. Sheila had corn flakes, poached eggs on toast with bacon and frankfurter then pancakes oozing with honey and lemon juice. Surprisingly, neither of us could manage to finish off with any toast and jam!

After sweltering in the sun for a while and a dip in the hotel pool, we went sightseeing at the Vimanmek Mansion museum, next to the National Assembly building. This is a collection of former royal palaces and residences that have been reassembled in a pleasant garden setting. The centrepiece is the Vimanmek mansion which is a huge golden-teakwood villa with highly polished wooden floors, furnished and decorated with royal memorabilia. There are Thai dancing shows at intervals and the buildings are so spread out that if you don't feel like walking you can hire a cyclo to pedal you around.

When it closed at 4pm we went out to get a taxi but had considerable difficulty - nobody seemed to want to take us because it was rush hour and the traffic was at a standstill. Eventually we got a tuk-tuk and had to direct him to the hotel because he clearly wasn't familiar with the area.

In the evening we virtually repeated yesterday's routine - a drink at the Irish pub and a curry at the Mehmaan. Boring, I know, but it was still very good.
 

Sat 27th. Another four-course breakfast with salami & cheese, cocoa crunch cereal, egg, bacon & sausage and chicken with ginger & fried rice. We just wandered around the local shops, had a Häagen-Dazs ice cream and sweltered by the pool again, then we packed, went for yet another wonderful Indian meal at the Mehmaan (which really is the best Indian restaurant we've been to) and headed for the airport for the flight home.
 

Sun 28th. The eating was not over yet, though. We had to change planes in Dubai and had a ten-hour wait. We managed to wangle our way into the first class lounge and we ate and drank almost continuously until our plane left. We have eaten more this time than on our last two holidays put together!
 
 

A bike full of baskets

Who needs a pickup truck?
 

Last year we went to Timbuktu.  If you would like to read about our other travels, click here:

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