Having a numb bum from prolonged coach travel was something we would get used to, but most of the rest stops on this occasion were spent preparing for the bureaucracy of getting from one country to another.
We were on our way to Siem Reap in the heart of Cambodia. It sits in the province of Muang Nakhon Siem Rab meaning that it belonged to Siam, the countryside changing hands between the various warring kingdoms over the centuries.
The name Siem Reap was given to the town in the 16th century by King Ang Chan to commemorate his defeat of the Siamese army and translates roughly as ‘Siamese Flattened’ or ‘Siamese Defeated’. Not very diplomatic, but no worse than Trafalgar Square, Waterloo Station or even Alma Bridge and Inkerman Terrace.
The first step in the intricate process of crossing the border was to stop off at the Cambodian Consulate to get our visas. We’d discovered that we would need to supply passport photos which we had then had taken in Rayong. The photographer managed to make us look like a pair of fugitive war criminals and I don’t think I would have let us into the country on the basis of those mug shots, but they did.
Another short trip in the minibus brought to the border proper and the massive market area where it seems you can buy pretty much anything you wanted, assuming you had the time to browse which we didn’t. Tia hustled through the stalls of exotic foodstuffs to stand in line to sign out of Thailand.
Then were on our way to the border gate welcoming us to the Kingdom of Cambodia and boy was it busy. There were cars and bikes whizzing in both directions and given that the Thais drive on the left and the Cambodians on the right you’d think it would be a recipe for a pile up, but they appear to have reached a compromise by driving on whatever bit of the road takes their fancy.
Then before being allowed through the gate it was time to queue yet again, this time for Cambodian officials to check our passports, scan our finger and thumb prints and take yet another mug shot before nodding towards the door with a look that said ‘Okay I’ll let you through just this once’.
And with that we were through. The first building that greeted us was a large casino, though whether this was for the benefit of border hopping Thais and to give Cambodians one last chance at a flutter before leaving the country wasn’t very clear because we were already on the bus transferring us to the coach station.
The Cambodian landscape differed a good deal from that of Thailand. Gone were the trees and rickety houses and instead there was miles and miles of flooded rice fields on either side of the road and it felt even more agricultural if that is possible.
The houses we passed had the same homemade quality with their corrugated iron roofs and livestock milling around, but every now and then they would be interspersed with grand villas boasting high walls and gates. Who these belonged to I have no idea, but it was odd to see such symbols of wealth while nextdoor a child would be playing in a muddy pool.
I videoed some of the journey as we made our way though another end of the rainy season cloudburst. This clearly hadn’t done the road much good as it was washed away in parts and our driver had to pick his way past the potholes.
We reached our final destination in the late afternoon, back sore and weary from the Cambodian road massage. There are many fine hotels in Siem Reap as more and more visitors flock there to see the Angkor Wat temples, particularly from China. Ours wasn’t in the $1,000 a night category though – the Freedom Hotel had seen better days.
It had a cocktail bar that didn’t serve cocktails, an array of wine bottles that were just for show because no-one would serve them and a restaurant that closed just as you’d worked up an appetite.
Which is really all you need with our schedule. After an hour or so to shower and/or swim in the pool, it was off into town for a traditional Cambodian meal followed by traditional Cambodian dancing.
The heavens opened again as we ate and after a dash round the night market we hitched a tuk tuk home and bed ready for the temples of Angkor Wat in the morning.