Monday, March 18, 2013

Cambodia, the thief of time

It seems to me that time in Cambodia follows its very own rules. Sometimes it disappears before you're able to notice it and sometimes hours stretch magically giving you the fealing each of them is longer than any other you lived through before. The second option is quite common on public transport. Getting to Cambodia and travelling anywhere around it takes time. A lot of time. The roads are bad and the buses are often only slightly better, turning each small trip into a day long journey. Last time we tried, we have spent over 8 hours to cover a distance of 300 km. But the tickets cost nothing and it all gives you an unique opportunity to observe local people on the way. And trust me, there is enough to see to keep yourself occupied even for 8 long hours.

I can still remember the moment we have arrived in Phnom Penh. The first thing that hit us after getting out of our air conditioned bus was the wave of hot air, that didn't leave us even long after the sun went down. But before we were even able to register it, we were forced to face the real Cambodian plague, which was sticking to us ever since, no matter where we went: the tuk-tuk drivers. I didn't even manage to get a breath before I was totally surrounded. “Lady where you go”, “Lady I take you best hotel”, “ Lady come with me”, “Please I take you to center”. It all came at me with such an amazing speed that it took a moment before I realized what was going on. Fortunately we had decided to stay in a hotel near to the station, so that we could simply walk there. But the drivers all along the way never stopped trying. They were hitting the breaks in the middle of the street, sometimes even nearly driving us over, just to try to convince us to take a ride instead of walking. At least we had a chance to get used to it quickly, since we had to face it every single day since we crossed the border. Going to the nearest supermarket which is really just around the corner usually meant getting at least 3 tuk-tuk offers. And they are standing on every corner and seem to have nothing better to do than to wait for their next victim. Don't get me wrong, they are very friendly and fortunately, not really persistent, but still having to answer “no, thank you, I don't need a tuk-tuk” 30 times a day can get pretty annoying. And it's not that we haven't been offered a tuk-tuk in the other countries neither, but trust me when I say it, the Cambodian drivers take this experience to a whole new level. Funny enough, we haven't used a tuk-tuk even once in this country. Maybe it was our private protest or maybe we were just lucky enough never to need one.

Phnom Penh is not really a fascinating city. It's mostly just big, dirty and smelly, but it does have a spot or two, which makes it worth visiting. The first thing we headed for was the palace. We were not quite sure if we really want to spend our precious 7 dollars each on the ticket, but the problem was solved for us before we had time to think it through. They would simply not let me in. It was not my first sightseeing trip and no matter what I'm wearing I am always prepared to cover myself as I'm required to. And so I was this time too, but that didn't seem enough. It turns out, that no scarfs are allowed at the palace and there is only one right way to cover yourself: buying an ugly, overpriced official t-shirt. I honestly do try to respect all the rules in the countries we visit, but I have my limits. Since the t-shirt would not cover any single spot that was not already covered by my own clothes it was simply another way to get some money out of my pocket. If it was about respect or culture, they would simply lend me one free of charge as many other places do. Well anyway we left the place in no time, deciding to rather invest the money in lunch. I am convinced it was a great idea, since Cambodian cuisine is definitely the best thing this country has to offer. They have some magnificent ruins too, but if you try a really well done fish or chicken amok, you will forget each single building you've seen, only praying for the meal to last forever. And it's just the beginning of the menu!

The reason we really wanted to see the capital was it's history. A huge genocide that happened not so long ago, but long after the whole world promised never to let anything like that happen again. Well they definitely failed in this point and many places in Cambodia are a living proof of it. The worst thing is, many of the people responsible for all the tortures and killings are still alive, some even still enjoying their lives in freedom, just because it takes forever to file a case against them. Unfortunately the museum we have visited was only vague about the reasons for this situation, saying there were many obstacles inside and outside the country, so we will have to read into it a bit more to even try to understand why it can take 30 years to punish the criminals, when there are so many proofs of their crimes (they documented it quite detailed themselves). But still we wanted to see one of the places where it all happened, even if it did not really set us in happy moods. This recent history had obviously a huge impact on Cambodia and you can not understand the country or its people without trying to learn about it.

Our second stop was the famous Siem Reap, where we wanted to spend 3 days before heading back to Thailand to use our few remaining days to swim, relax and finally get some sun. You would not believe it, but we hardly had any chances to unpack our swimsuits since Kyrgyzstan! That is why we decided to have some proper holidays before heading back home. But first we wanted to do our last real sightseeing in one of the most famous tourist spots in the world, the temples of Angkor. As usual in such places the first thing we did was renting a bike and once again it turned out the best way to visit. It simply is a perfect biking spot. The road is good and flat and the trees offer enough shadow to keep you from overheating. Of course you may also rent a tuk-tuk for a day, to drive you from one temple to another, deciding for you what the next stop should be, but I don't really see where's the fun about it then.

We are not really huge temple lovers. We like visiting them, but we are far from studying every single detail, so we decided we do not need a three day ticket, as we will definitely not need so much time to see what we wanted. And since a day entry already costs 20 USD, we decided to make the best of it and try to do it all at once. We were not naive, we knew it would take us time and we'd probably be dead on our feet before evening, but we decided to try anyway. We set the alarm clock somewhere after 5 o'clock, got on our bikes without wasting time for breakfast and set off. The air was cool and fresh and riding a bike felt great, just until we bought our tickets. It this very moment the heaven decided to open and let down enough water to organize 3 or 4 huge storms in Germany. Here it all came at once, making us wet from top to the bottom in no time. It could have been the moment for us to regret not taking a tuk-tuk, but one glance at the passing tuk-tuks showed us that it was no good neither. The rain and wind were both so strong, that nothing but a waterproof car could stand a chance. There was no way to escape. But before you start pitying us (if you have some pity left for people, who didn't have to work for the last 9 months) I have to tell you all in all it was not such a bad thing. Normally the biggest problem in this place is the heat, which makes a whole day sightseeing a real extreme experience. But the rain cooled everything down and the temperatures stayed low for the rest of the day, offering us a pleasant 25 degrees instead of the usual 40, so we were not really complaining.

Angkor was just as impressive as we expected it to be, magnificent, beautiful and surprisingly well preserved. Unfortunately also full of tourist. I thought I have seen it all, but it turns out I was wrong. Taking a picture without any strangers in it was close to impossible and huge lines were building before most famous attractions. But seeing all those magnificent temples you can not really blame people for wanting to be there. We were definitely glad we have included Siem Reap in our plans. Thanks to the temperatures we managed to see all we wanted in one day, though I admit we were dog tired when we came back to our hotel in the late evening.

We have chosen a really nice hotel to stay in. We even thought it will be a waste, since we were planning to spend most time sightseeing, but we decided a pretty room and a pool will be a nice place to come back to after a tiring day. We did not yet know what a good choice it was. Since we were done with Angkor, we spend the second day sunbathing and swimming, enjoying the beautiful pool area of Mom's Guesthouse. And we decided to leave for Thailand a day after. Unfortunately, we didn't make it, since I got really sick before the evening came. There was no way to travel anywhere. I was hardly able to sit in bed, not to mention spending 10 hours on a Cambodian bus. That was out of the question. It took me a few days to get better and though we still had time to visit some Thai beach and get some holiday at the seaside we decided against it. We liked Siem Reap. We had a great hotel, the city was nice and we did enjoy Cambodian food a lot. We though we have spent enough time in Thailand and it wouldn't be fair to leave Cambodia so quickly. We were in for a long stay and I guess we are not the only ones who ended up sending much more time in this country than they ever planned to. That is just what this place does to you. But we were really glad we did it, as a day later David got some bad back ache and this time he was the one not leaving the bed. I can say that being sick sucks no matter where you are, but it does feel slightly better if you can handle it in beautiful surroundings and no matter the sickness, we both had really nice time. We might have stayed a bit longer if it wasn't for the fact, that we had to fly back home in a few days. So ready or not, we had to get back to Bangkok. Fortunately the ride turned out to be quite pleasant, since although we have bought a standard bus ticket, we were offered a taxi instead. The ride was not only much nicer, but also quicker, so that when we changed the vehicle at the Thai side of the border we caught up with people who left Siem Reap 3,5 hours before us with a morning bus (they were not really happy to hear that though).

Being back in Bangkok felt good, though it was a stressful stay, since we decided to spend it shopping. And I guess it's good we didn't have more time, as I am not sure we could have handled it any longer. Bangkok has the biggest markets and shopping centres I have seen in my life. One next to another, each at least 6 or 7 floors, they are a real labyrinth. We came back to our hotel in the evening more tired than ever with quite a few bags in our hands, which created some serious packing problem on the next morning. But we have managed to squeeze it all in, hoping our precious shopping trophies would survive the long flight back home without getting lost or damaged.

I was always wondering how it would feel like to be going back home after a journey like this one. I imagined I would be sad, maybe even crying, that something as special and beautiful was coming to an end. That I would not be really willing to go back to my old routines, to my well known reality. I would have never thought I would be actually so happy and excited. I could hardly wait for our pick up to come! Don't get me wrong, doing this journey was one of the best decisions in our life and we never regretted it, not even for a single day. Moreover, we enjoyed it more than we ever could have hoped to. But in some funny way, all those experiences made us appreciate our good old everyday life in a completely new way, making us miss home awfully. That is why when we entered the plane in Bangkok there was not place for tears, but a glass of red wine to celebrate the happy homecoming.

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