Thursday, August 04, 2016

Ruins

With full clearance from Cambodia Customs to take our motorcycle into the country, we left the Poipet border town and headed on a road less travelled.

Rice fields in the flatlands

Most tourist traffic makes a beeline to the most famous ruins of Angkor Wat but we wanted to see some less visited and more remote sites first so we turned north and followed the Laos border to find the ruins of Preah Banteay Chhmar of Cambodia.

The state of these 12th century ruins and the lack of official presence made it feel like we stumbled through the jungle and found ancient remnants of a lost civilization.

Can you see the rock faces?

Nature - the great recycler

Time to say goodbye

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Return to Poipet

Official permit in hand from Phnom Penh (Cambodia), we grabbed a minivan for the 8-hour ride back to pick up our motorcycle at the border where we had to leave it at Customs in Poipet (also Cambodia). We were hoping to simply hand in our Customs paperwork from Phnom Penh and be finished, thus giving our Thai-registered motorcycle the clearance to continue in and through Cambodia.

But no way, not quite yet! The Poipet Customs needed some time to do their due diligence, but after a couple of hours, we finally had our clearance. While waiting for the return of our file, we checked into a room at a hotel casino, even though we are not gamblers, as it was late in the day and we could not leave until morning.

FYI: Poipet is a well-known gambling town with many casinos. Busloads of people arrive from Thailand to partake in the activities as gambling is illegal in Thailand.

Definitely not Vegas

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Waiting and sightseeing

Day 2 in Phnom Penh: We received a phone call early in the morning from the Cambodia Ministry of Tourism requesting another change in our typed letter of yesterday. We thought "Here we go - the slow wheels of bureaucracy." We immediately went there, made the change, and were asked to wait.

After about 10 minutes of cordial conversation with a staff member, we were given a file folder containing copies of all the pertinent paperwork and Jordan was ushered upstairs to the Deputy Minister who, to our happy surprise, quickly stamped and signed the papers and with a smile said we were done there, but must next go to Customs to finish up.

Arriving at Customs, we were requested to leave our file and pick it up at 17:00 so we left for more sightseeing.

We went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. We had previously read a non-fiction book entitled Stay Alive, My Son (by Yin Yathay) so were familiar with the tragic history of the Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge.

During this horrific period, the Khmer Rouge indiscriminately rounded up thousands of persons for questioning, torture, and execution. One of the most notorious venues for their ghastly endeavours was the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, once a happy high school converted into dark and dingy cells of despair.

Catalogue photos of the prisoners were left behind after the fall of the regime and are now displayed as a poignant reminder of the brutality. Of the rough estimate of the 14,000 to 20,000 people imprisoned here, only a handful survived.

Tuol Sleng (also called S-21) was only 1 of nearly 200 secret prisons where people were tortured and executed by the Khmer Rouge.

Reverent contemplation

At 17:00 back at Customs, we happily picked up our stamped and completed file of our motorcycle permit from Customs, albeit in a sombre mood after our visit to S-21.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Phnom Penh

Early in the morning of July 31st, we caught the express bus to Phnom Penh from Battambang of Cambodia. Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, we immediately rented a scooter and hotel room. The next morning, we were off to Customs to get the special permit required to bring our own Thai-registered motorcycle into Cambodia.

Customs sent us off to the Ministry of Tourism where they told us it could take 7 to 10 days to receive the permit! We looked very forlorn and said we wouldn't have any time left to explore the rest of beautiful Cambodia. After a huddle, the staff then indicated that they might be able to expedite the process and that we needed to type a letter to the Minister of Tourism with our request.

Using one of their computers and a sample letter, I typed the letter. They suggested a couple of changes, printed it, and said they would give it along with copies of our other pertinent papers to the higher-ups and try to put a rush on it.

Now the waiting game started. For the rest of the day, we visited the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda on the shores of the mighty Mekong. The Royal Palace complex is where the King and Queen reside but their living quarters and several pavillions are closed off to the public.

Building at Royal Palace complex

Stupa at Royal Palace complex

A building called the Silver Pagoda gets its name from the 5 tons of 5,000 silver floor tiles. Unfortunately all but a few of these ornate tiles were totally covered by rugs for protection from the many footsteps of tourists. In the center of the interior's large open space sits the 90-kg life-sized solid gold Buddha speckled with 9,584 diamonds, the largest being 26 carats. It was placed at ground level in a glassed cage but roped off to keep tourists back, making it difficult to see all the gems.

Competing for attention is the Emerald Buddha that sits high up so it cannot be seen very easily, though its stand is attractively gilded. Whether the Buddha is made of crystal or glass is in debate.

Photo taking was forbidden within.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

CAMBODIA

Leaving the small Thai town of Chachoengsao on the 29th of July, we did a 2-hour cruise on dry roads to the bustling border of Aranyaprathet Thailand/Poipet Cambodia where the skies promptly opened up and dropped a deluge on us - the first since leaving Phuket 6 days earlier. We couldn't complain though as we were travelling during the rainy season.

We had tried to enter Cambodia last year at a quiet border crossing from Laos and were denied entry with the motorcycle, being told that before foreign registered vehicles can enter, a special clearance permit would have to be obtained and that permit was only issued at the capital Phnom Penh, a long ways inland. Could this unusual and complicated requirement be true?

Now we were about to find out if this border's officials mandated the same. So as we were making our way through the officialdom which involved running the gauntlet of "facilitators" of questionable status and fees, it was suggested by some that as there was no control at Customs, we could avoid checking in with them and just go on through and hit the road.

As we didn't want to skirt the law or encounter any future problems, we voluntarily went straight to Customs where it was confirmed that we DID need a permit and it was only issued at the capital. A kindly Customs official said we could leave our motorcycle (with no charge) behind locked gates at the Customs building as we would have to take a 6- to 7-hour bus trip to the capital Phnom Penh to get this permit.

Recent Cambodian history has been cruel (an understatement) to its citizens and even today they are struggling in penury in an underdeveloped country, unsupported and ignored by their civil servants. This was evident in the immediate scenes that hit us, where huge overloaded carts were pulled by hand on dusty, horn blaring streets or the hustlers trying to depart you from your dollars. But it's with empathy we say, it brings out the worst in some, and with admiration, the best in most others.

Cambodia chaos

Once finished with border business and as it was still early in the day, we hopped on a bus heading towards Phnom Penh but with a stop for a day in Battambang, a place we wanted to visit. It was an older bus and didn't make very good time dodging all kinds of traffic on a 2-lane road that's muddy when it rains and dusty when dried. But 3 hours later (118 km), we finally arrived and took a tuk tuk to a cheap but adequate hotel room.

The next morning, we took a tuk tuk out into the country to the infamous Bamboo Train. It's actually a number of individual small flat cars with flat beds of bamboo slats, 3 m long, and they run on an abandoned rail line. Up to 15 persons can ride on the flat bed with the driver manipulating the motor. But we only saw 2 to 4 persons on each flat bed.

All aboard!

We were propelled down warped, misaligned tracks, hair blowing in the breeze, listening to the multitude of birds chirping and through small clouds of butterflies, through the ubiquitous rice paddies for about 20 minutes before stopping. We stretched our legs where the villagers offered drinks, snacks, and souvenirs.

Dismantled trains at rest stop

Click on our YouTube video to see drivers taking the trains off the tracks while waiting at the rest stop:

https://youtu.be/oIH7TyFLtio

Then back on the train for the return trip of maybe 20 minutes. Maybe, because if 2 cars meet on the track, the one with the least number of people would have to dismantle and heft it off to 1 side letting the other train pass. Our car stopped to help several others get put back together so it was much slower to return.