August 14 - September 11, 2001
Ascending Mt Meru
Flat, flat, flat; endless green rice fields stretched to the horizon under the enormous dome of a blue and white sky with the endless green bisected by the straight red ribbon of a dirt road unfurling to the horizon. Ahead, if my dream were to come true, we would travel this road and come to Siem Reap and then go to the nearby ancient temples of Angkor.
Once before we’d been nearly as close to the holy cities of Suryavaram II, Jayavaram VII, and other great Khmer builders, but we had not visited them. Could something happen this time, when we were actually in Cambodia, to dash my dream? Sudden civil war, as happened in 1993, or a call from home? I hoped not, and in fact felt confident that soon, maybe in just a day, I would be climbing the steep steps of these temples that were an attempt to bribe Vishnu, Siva, and Buddha to bring rains, harvest, and prosperity to an empire that was, in its day, the greatest in Southeast Asia; in land, nearly the size of today’s Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia combined, as it included most of the territory of these modern states and large fractions of what is now southern Vietnam.
My dream had first intensified a bit more than three months earlier when we had spent four days in the Mekong delta. We had travelled at one point to a temple that served the remnants of the ethnic Khmer population that just over one hundred years ago was the majority ethnic group to the south and west of the multiple branches of the Mekong. From there near the coast we went up the Bassac, one of the largest branches of the Mekong, right to the Cambodian border. From a hill in Chau Doc — the only hill for a great distance — I looked northwest across the border wondering when we would get to ancient Angkor.
Why didn’t we go directly? A few others on our boat had left it and,
instead of returning to Saigon as we did, switched to another boat and
went on to Phnom Penh and from there to Siem Reap.
Our failure to follow
suit certainly wasn’t because March and April are the hottest months in
Cambodia — we didn’t know that then.
No, it was dumb luck — another name
We were in Vietnam and hadn’t seen everything we wanted to
The idea of leaving the country and returning was, if considered at
all, done only subconsciously and as quickly subconsciously dismissed.
Our last tastes of Thailand before the border were visits to the temples of Phimai and Prasat Phanom Rung, which thrilled us by their elegance and style. They were constructed in the middle of the Angkor period, mostly about 1100-1200 AD, and some think that architectural elements that later appear in Angkor were first tried out here. Although now in separate countries along the straight latterite road built to connect them to the Angkor area, the distance is under 200 km.
From Prasat Phanom Rung our bus followed a route hugging the border and took us to Aranya Prathet, where we crossed to the Cambodian boom town of Poi Pet. The Thai side was crowded and chaotic; or so it would seem to someone coming directly from an orderly western country with air con shopping malls, perhaps supplemented by a few sanitary markets that appear once a week. Here we quickly passed by giant tent after giant tent; each a large market in itself. To us it was a familiar background that floated by; in fact, by comparison to what we had been forewarned, all was calm. Perhaps it was because we came at midday, deliberately avoiding the probable morning rush.
For the first time ever in six weeks of travelling around in Thailand we were being hassled by beggars. But even Thai beggars couldn’t help but be friendly. As Gerry lagged behind because of his recently twisted ankle, some young boys latched onto me; they started out by saying repeatedly “One baht.” After a while, I started replying “Two baht” which amused them and so they counted up with me until about five or six when we all got bored and then one of them hit on another idea and said “One dollar!” and then laughed sheepishly when I echoed him with horror in my voice.
Another novelty was provided by the porters that helped carry bags and sometimes people from the taxi drop-off through both immigration points to the taxi pick-up point on the other side. Most porters had a large, farm-sized cart, with a flat bottom and low vertical sides, pulled by two long arms, rather than pushed like a wheel barrow. To make it easier to pull, the two ‘handles’ were joined by a crossbar. Some of these carts were piled so high and were so heavy that they were very difficult to control on the downhill side of the hump-backed bridge on the Thai side of the border.
As we reached this point, trying to keep up with our own porter, I glanced around and caught sight of Gerry and behind him bearing down on him a cart piled five feet high attended by four men who were at that moment trying desperately to slow their vehicle down as it instead accelerated down the small slope before us. I yelled at Gerry and at first he ignored it, not realizing the seriousness of the situation. He thought, “why be rushed by anybody, especially with my ankle?” I yelled again, louder and more desperately and with a quick glance behind him, he jumped out of their way.
Our porter, whom we had acquired on the Thai side, after a short bargaining session, had a much smaller cart, with a much smaller load — our six bags. A lot for just two people, or so most other backpackers and border officials thought. We followed him as he took us through the controls and to the border post. Border formalities were completed with ease. With two of us it was easy; I did the paperwork and waited in line — writing taking longer than waiting — while Gerry nursed his ankle and watched the porter and bags.
Once through Thai procedures we entered Cambodia and Poi Pet and a world of mushroom growth and dust. Only five years ago the border was closed to all but locals and refugees. The arrival of semi-peace and subsequently people rich enough to pay $10 a day (more than a week’s salary for most Cambodians) to see the ruins and restorations of Angkor has created comparative wealth here. Add to that a heavy Thai traffic going across the border to the casinos, prohibited in Thailand and allowed — encouraged — in Cambodia, and you have another entire set of wealthy marks (as many Cambodians see it).
We had crossed the land border because we wanted to see the Cambodian countryside. Unfortunately a side effect was that we might have to travel in a cramped and exposed pickup truck. So we were happy that while I was waiting in line to get our Cambodian entry stamp, Gerry met and started talking to a young Cambodian who claimed to have a ‘car’ going to Siem Reap; we could have it for $30. Not much, but we thought we could get comfortable travel for much less. We expressed interest and said we would be willing to pay $5 each and would even help try to recruit four more passengers from the immigration line. True to our word we each tried but failed to attract any other passengers — were they all determined to pay only $3, no matter how uncomfortable? — and soon afterwards lost sight of the young man, as we thought, for ever.
However, when we finally left the immigration area and, with our porter in tow, approached the line of pickup trucks waiting for passengers, we saw him beckoning us over. He first offered us inside seats in a pickup truck that he said would take us to Sisophon, roughly a third of the way to Siem Reap, where we would change to another pickup truck to go to Siem Reap. We might have been willing except for the fact that although there was room — just— in the cab for the two of us, there was absolutely no room for our bags in the back. The back was overfull already; it was piled so high with goods that the ‘passengers’ were perched rather precariously on top. Adding our luggage to the pile (two large backpacks, one large sport bag, and one hard-sided suitcase) was not on the cards. It would have been like placing them on a sand pile in which the first sharp turn or sudden stop would have sent all flying.
We weren’t in a great rush and were determined to look about. Fortunately what appeared to be a solution was under our noses. There was a 20-passenger minibus parked alongside the pickup and Gerry said we much preferred that. Without skipping a beat, the young man said that was possible at the right price — he would get a commission out of us somehow — and so Gerry repeated our earlier offer of five dollars each. He countered with seven, we went to six, and he accepted. We put ourselves and our bags in the bus and settled down to wait until they found enough passengers to fill it — the bus was empty except for the driver and a companion.
We could hardly believe our luck and wondered if we were not being naive. As we settled down to wait, we were a bit puzzled that there didn’t seem to be any kind of recruitment activity going on. There was some coming and going of young Cambodians but otherwise nothing. When asked to pay in advance we told them that we would pay only when we left and would wait for no more than an hour. If the bus didn’t leave by then we would go find some other transportation. As time passed our doubts couldn’t help but grow. But, then, we knew they wanted us and our money. So we sat, sometimes reading and sometimes watching the passing scene.
Forty-five minutes later, to our great surprise, three young men boarded the bus, the driver started the engine and off we went with us as the only paying passengers. How nice to be riding in air-conditioned comfort just behind the driver of a 20-passenger van/minibus with all of our bags safely stowed on the seats behind us. We had avoided the horrors of the overloaded pickups. In a few kilometers we left the boom and dust of Poi Pet and had before us flat, flat, flat, endless green rice fields that stretched to the horizon under the enormous dome of a blue and white sky. The endless green was bisected by the straight red ribbon of a dirt road unfurling to the horizon. The country seemed deserted except for a few passing vehicles. Hardly a habitation was visible until we learned to discern them among a grove of trees here and there.
En route we learned from our companions that we were riding in a bus that had been used to bring tourists from the Freedom hotel in Siem Reap to the border. They had already been paid for the return journey and we were just icing on the cake. We had been waiting for some of the driver’s friends who had been off doing some kind of business either in Poi Pet or across the border and were also being driven back to Siem Reap.
When we arrived they took us to the Chen La Guesthouse, which had been recommended by a friend. Our immediate impression of it was dirt. Dirt and dust, tossed up by the road being reconstructed before it. It was almost with relief that I learned it was full and that we wouldn’t be staying there. Consequently we accepted to go to the Freedom hotel, which we were assured had rooms — good rooms at a better price than the Chen La. Off we went by a circuitous route, required by the fact that those roads in town that were not permanently dirt — most had never been paved — were dirt and dust now because of construction. So it was as we approached the Freedom hotel. Just as our lasting impression of the border crossing is one of dirt, dirt, and more dirt caused by heavy trucks kicking up the dust into veritable dust storms which coat everything in sight our first impression of Freedom was similar, followed by a sense of relief to come off the road and into its quiet and treed courtyard.
Now we were only a few kilometers from the celebrated Angkor Wat. But as it turned out, my dream would be deferred again.