After staying up all night, we caught our train at 5am from Hualomphong Station. Only 3rd class seating was available and when we first got on it seemed pretty dire, but we soon got used to the smell and grime and in no time our two benches felt like home. We both fell asleep straight away – well, I tried to write some more but ended up giving in to the seductive arms of Morpheus, using my backpack as a pillow. Occasionally during the first 3 hours, I would wake up with a horrific cramp in my back or neck, and try and shift position. While awake, I tried to make some sense of the rush of pictures fleeing past me through the window, but sleep would take me before my brain could piece anything together.
After what seemed like a long while, I was awaken by cool drops of rain, caressing my face, entering through the open window, this was not Bangkok! I don’t think I have ever seen anything or anywhere so green, palm leaves and the curvacious fronds of banana leaves were clustered along the railway tracks. If, at any second, you captured the view framed by the open window, you would think it a work of art. Rice fields stretched as far as the eye can see, parted by narrow canals. Green shoots swaying in the murky brown water. To my absolute delight I spotted some water buffalo, meandering through the fields, shoulder deep in water. Little wooden huts appeared every now and then, sitting amid the rice crops on stilts. Every house had at least two or three Brahman cows wandering around. There is something hauntingly poetic about this cow, something that goes beyond the simple beauty of an animal. I always knew that the cow was sacred to the Hindus, but I had never really seen it for what it truly was. The beautiful, curved hump, the velvety skin of the purest white, the slightly sad ears that droop down and the soulful eyes. Oh yes, the eyes are everything. And while at first it may appear to have a rather tragic air, you soon realise that is is more a noble suffering.
But enough about the Brahman cow, or you will think I am delirious with fever borne from some horrible mosquito (or high on magic mushrooms!) We crossed the border from Thailand to Cambodia with relatively little hassle – we were only taken to ONE fake VISA office! I can’t decide yet whether the Khmer are friendly people or not? A lot of them seem amused by foreigners and enjoy talking with no ulterior motive, whilst others push on you their wares with a manic note of desperation. That was perhaps my first impression of Cambodia – desperate. Everything is so poor, the people maimed by near fatal encounters with land mines, struggling to move on past an era of war and genocide, ignored by even the UN.
No one should ever stay one second longer than necessary at Poiphet. It was the most desolate, miserable place I have ever seen. Just an array of drivers trying to vie for the tourists’ fare to Siem Reap. Other than that there was dust. Dust and a plethora of dogs – just skeletons cloaked with mangy skin, plagued by flies. One approached us and looked at me with what can only be described at absolute need. Overwhelming desire for any kind of affection emanated out of his tawny eyes – he was beyond hunger. I actually heard my heart shatter into tiny pieces :’(
I forgot to mention that Sara and I acquired a curious travel companion – Shaunt, who I spent the next few days calling Shah, and Sara calling him John. At first sight he looked like an Al Qaeda employee – Arabic features, scruffy clothes and a seriously long beard. However, that didn’t deter us, he turned out to be a Californian, traveling the world for 2 years seeing 101 countries. At first he was nice and we extended the obligatory hand of friendship to a fellow traveler, but soon his obsession with getting the lowest possible deal was embarrassing. I understood perfectly that in a double gap year you will need to scrimp – but to make a fuss about less than a euro in a country that is bleeding with poverty seems morally wrong. Especially when he made us wait in Poiphet for over an hour with his things while he went in search of the cheapest travel option. Like I said, don’t ever stay one minute in that town. He ended up coming with us and we stayed at the guesthouse the tuk tuk driver brought us to. I know that you shouldn’t, but it was very clean (we all had to take our shoes off outside), had big rooms, hot water, a fan cable TV and free internet – ‘No Problem’ Villa, for $3/night. After putting down our bags and taking a much needed shower (I cannot emphasise this enough – we were dripping with sweat), we headed out into Siem Reap to first wander through the night market and then seek some food. The night market was a lot more exciting than the markets in Bangkok – replace the ‘Chang Beer’ and ‘I <3 Khao San Road’ tshirts with intricately designed opium pipes, some suspect silver and other pseudo antique curios! To be fair I later found out that the silver is in fact all true silver – apparently the Khmer don’t rate it as a metal for jewelery, so sell it cheaply. I was very tempted by a beautiful brass oriental tea pot and tea leaf holder, both decorated with aquamarine stone, perhaps tomorrow I will cave in and go back to find it!
The food in Cambodia has been rather disappointing so far. It’s appearance deceives as it looks like basic Thai food but then lacks all the spices and hence the flavour. Apparently it is a lot more similar to Chinese food than any other cuisine, and we all know just how much I love Chinese food! Also, the meat is all rather suspect – I accidentally ate some beef liver for lunch and Shaunt convinced me that the chicken in my curry was actually rat meat which instantly made me lose my appetite. In fact one restaurant even advertised outside: ‘no cat, rat or worms served here’. Great. I spent all evening searching for what is supposedly the Cambodian staple drink – sugar cane juice, or ‘tuk umpow’, only to be told that a) I was pronouncing it incorrectly (their pronounciation of course sounded exactly the same to me) and b) it was solely a daylight drink, so I ended up with a warm and rather fermented tasting coconut. Oh Bangkok, send me a care package please!
The vibe around this small city is good though. Apart from the tourism there is nothing, but the little, aptly named ‘Pub St.’ is a welcome change from Khao San Rd and we stopped off for a drink after dinner and watched an Aspara dance show – again depicting scenes from the Ramayana. Is South East Asian/Buddhist culture all really Hindu/Indian? Sara wanted to try the Angkor Beer – apparently better than Chang, and I, not feeling much like alcohol had a rather tasty coconut, lotus and rice desert. We also managed to shake off our friendly ‘non terrorist’ – he kept repeating this all night, and then when he complained that there was pork in his spring role, he quickly interjected that he wasn’t Muslim, he just didn’t like pork. Methinks he doth protest too much? It’s not like we really cared! Actually that was quite a hilarious moment, we ordered some spring roles which stated in capitals ‘VEGETABLE ONLY’ and received some quite delicious pork only rolls. When we asked the waitress what had happened, she beamed at us and said she had added some pork. When she finally realised that we were complaining about it’s presence, she stipulated that she has diced it very finely. I couldn’t help laughing as Shaunt fumed. This is NOT a country for vegetarians… or the squeamish. Anyway we had arranged to meet our tuk tuk driver tomorrow at 5am to make it to Angkor Wat for sunrise, I am so excited! Shaunt said he doesn’t want to see the temple and definitely doesn’t want to see it so early, but then asked us to wake him up at 5am. Contradiction? (Un)fortunately, we conveniently forgot his room number. Sara and I decided that night that from then on we would only talk to normal looking people, as superficial as that sounds, but we had quite a streak of bad luck in attracting oddballs.
We eagerly fell asleep as soon as our bodies hit the mattress.