Translated by: Pal Capewell
The days were getting warmer and we were getting tireder. Balazs and I didn’t have a decent rest for days now, despite advancing 95-100km each day. The daily 04:20 wake-up calls left surreal memories with us. The only advantage was on the last day in Laos, when we woke really early and did our last 50km. We arrived to the infamous TPK (Trapaeng Kriel) border crossing almost as early as they opened the border.
Balazs and I got little frustrated on the Laos side of the border, as while we were dropping our stuff off and getting our bikes sorted a large bus of Western tourists arrived, making us dead last in the queue. The border authority was very fast and efficient, we were quite surprised. We were ready to be asked to pay the USD 1 “exit fee”, which this border was famous for. After all the tourists were done, we came next. They stamped into Balazs’ passport without a hassle and let him through, but asked for the bus ticket from me. I quickly responded that I don’t have a bus ticket since we are not part of the tourist group. Then a sudden shock spread across her face, probably thinking “oh crap, I screwed this up!”, as she stamped into my passport right after asking, not waiting for the answer. Yeah, they just lost two U.S. dollars. The tour guide probably arranged for his gang to cross without a hassle, and these “officials” assumed we were with them. They didn’t check the bikes, nobody really cared about the stamp afterwards and we just casually rolled over to Cambodia.
A good-looking guy was shouting from under a tent, by the road. He waved, smiled and directed us under the tent, to sort out the next “official” business. This was the “quarantine service”. Health declaration papers had to be filled in and on a tiny note we had to declare we had all our vaccinations, we are healthy and no, we didn’t pass by any infectious regions thus far. When we handed over our note, we got a yellow one and a “Sir, one dollar!” demand. Immediately we asked if we could get a receipt. Our request surprised the three-member “authority” and they quieted down, nevertheless repeating their request. Perfectly aware that this was one of the corrupt practices of the country, we refused to oblige. For our receipt request, we got a make-shift paper with just the date on it, to which I pulled out a formal Thai receipt and said “THIS is what I need in exchange for a dollar”. By then, a whole group of tourists surrounded us, everyone asking “pff, what are we paying for now actually?!” with frustration. Finally, Balazs started a snowball effect, “sorry, we only have Thai Bhat or Euros.” “That’s great, we accept all currencies!” came the answer. This is when it became obvious that this tent was notoriously corrupt - we stood up and left without paying a dime. The circle of tourists around us did the same. Panic broke out among the “officials”, screaming at everyone, with very basic English, “No pay, no visa!”
Visa on arrival was to be collected at a tiny wooden hut. By this place the corruption was at its best. Visa with a stamp cost USD 35, five dollars being the “stamp fee”. Back before we were warned not to pay a stamp fee even if prompted. Low and behold, the bank notes were disappearing one by one in the black briefcase. After filling in the visa request form, they pasted the visa into our passports and off we went to the “stamp collection”. While queuing up, we heard a few unfortunate stories; a German couple, for example, had to pay both at the Laos side AND for the “quarantine officials”. Poor souls got their visas sorted already back in Germany, but still had to pay to the corrupt officials here. Obviously the border control gets nothing from the visa fees collected in Germany. There was an older French gentleman who proper pushed the “No pay no visa” guy to the side and left him there.
To our surprise the bikes were not checked here either. After the unprecedented border crossing we hopped on our bikes and off we went with the colorful, stinking visa in our pockets.
Cambodia awaited us with really hot, dry weather that made biking really challenging. The northern parts of the country are desertlike, flat and dry. One may find a tree by chance, but it’s difficult to find shade from the hot sun.
Just like before, we often slept in temples in Cambodia too. Luckily signing up with the “mayor” and asking for permits to stay weren’t required in Cambodia. The monks welcomed us with a smile and offered a place to sleep - sometimes in the canteen, at times on the patio.
Our most joyful breakfast (thus far) was also in a Buddhist temple. The temple servants and two adorable older ladies set the tables, while the worshippers brought their gifts (well, food). A priest and two novices lived in the temple, who sat away from each other for their meals. After their breakfast they went to pray, with us in the background watching them. The priest got up after his breakfast, bowed and went off to chit-chat with the locals and joke around with them. It was a happy crowd filled with joy. The practice was the same: first the priest and novices have their breakfast, then the leftovers are distributed among the others.
An old man and two older ladies sat on the ground by a cute little table. A temple servant, a good-looking, skinny man around the age of 55-60, invited us over kindly to join their breakfast. So we did, putting our rice, fruits and whatever we bought into the common meal. Great laughs were shared, while all forms of communications were used: drawing, sign-language, etc. We got along well.
The lead in our most memorable breakfast was a vivacious older gentleman, whom we named “the Cambodian Ghandi”.
It’s hard to find cities, or even villages, in this part of Cambodia. Everything is broken up to regions, so a flatland’s one side is region A, the other is region B. Every region has a few larger towns, and villages here and there.
The Cambodian countryside is enchanting. The locals were always very welcoming and the children proved sensational here too: oftentimes we had no idea where “thelllooooo”s were coming from, just kept turning left and right to look for the source. Our most delicious meals were in the countryside as well. We tasted their fried bananas, fish soup with pickles, and coconut-fish curry pasta. One afternoon we even had one of their special drinks, which was a cool, sweet, coconut flavored drink with soft balls inside that had the shape and texture of a mozzarella. Unfortunately we didn’t find out what it was, but the drink tasted delicious.
Maybe this story conveys the locals’ hospitality, openness, and kindness the most.
In the midst of a very hot afternoon, in the middle of nowhere, Balazs and I were biking along. The heat, exhaustion and hunger began to get the best of us. Though perfectly clear that it was sometime around noon, we knew there will be no lunch anytime soon as there was no town anywhere near. Whoever we rode by on the roadside, we asked them where we could find some food. Everyone just pointed forward, which though positive seeming, could mean one or even ten kilometers in the distance. Then suddenly we spotted a small hut that turned out to be a makeshift store, as we drew near. Unfortunately it didn’t carry anything eatable: detergents, soaps and chips. Then came the crazy idea to ask for lunch. We started to convey our message with our hands, but fortunately the husband of the lady showed up that could speak English. In minutes they threw together a lunch for us, fish-cucumber soup, rice and some fried eggs. The sweet strangers even offered us slices of watermelon as dessert. Naturally the whole family gathered around us and suddenly everyone had something important to do JUST by the place we were sitting. They were checking us out, looked at our bikes, the kids were playing around the parents and grandparents. Seeing my great discomfort due to the heat, the grandma pointed at my hair and wanted to offer something. Knowing that it could use some fixing (whatever it may be), I agreed to follow her. I followed her through the grassland behind their house, to a river nearby. Her hair treatment was simple: she threw two smaller buckets of river water on my head - not what I imagined, but it definitely felt refreshing and welcome in the big heat.
Balazs and I arrived to Siem Reap well over a week before Christmas, where our Hungarian host was expecting us. Our host, Anti, already has two years behind him living in Siem Reap, working together with an American photographer. Siem Reap lays by the famous Khmer ruins which grew to be an internationally well-known tourist site. Angkor receives a few million visitors annually, making Siem Reap a catering town filled with hotels, guest houses, restaurants, and bars.
Balazs and I spent a week at Anti’s super comfy apartment. Being able to take a shower every night, make coffee in the morning and sleep as much as we desired was a very welcome change - and a much needed one as well. Beside touring Angkor, we also had time to wash all of our warm clothes, spend time on our blog and do some picture editing.
What does a Hungarian photographer do in Cambodia? What is it like to walk in temples half overtaken by the wilderness? Really, what is that Angkor Experience like? How did this almost totally forgotten site become so famous in the 1990s? How did the churches turn into tourist attractions? You’ll find out the answer to these, and many more questions in our next post.