just a quick update to let you know that I have left the touristy place of Thailand for the while and have started my adventure through, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos for the next 40 days. I have joined a group (Intrepid) as I did for the trip between Delhi and Kathmandu. After arriving back in Bangkok from a relaxing week in Hua Hin with Ian, my Sunday started early with a bus ride to the Cambodian border. Three hours later we arrived, filled in all the forms, paid USD25 for our visa and passed into Cambodia, a totally different country to Thailand. Corruption is so obvious, it is hard to believe. We all queued nicely, as Brits generally do, to pass into Cambodia but if you paid a little fee, you were able to jump the queue and safe yourself an hour or so. And the police didn't even try to hide the fact that this was their preferred way of doing business.
Once we passed the border crossing we were in for a good ride to Siam Reap, our first stop in Cambodia. The Lonely Planet calls the road from the border to Siam Reap the 'Road of broken backs', what an accurate description. There was no tarmac on the 150km stretch of road, although construction of the road commenced several years back. The rumour is that Bangkok Airways (who is the only airline flying into Siam Reap) has offered the Cambodian government an enormous amount of money, if the road completion would not happen until 2011. Well, you can guess yourself why the road still is in the condition it is in!...
Anyway, after 6 hours on this 'road', we finally arrived in Siam Reap, totally exhausted. Everybody did there own thing on the night time, and I just had dinner in the local restaurant next door. One amazing thing though, at least for me, was that everything here is paid in USD, even the cash machine dispenses USD, not Cambodian Riel, the local currency. However, if you buy some water for less than USD1 with a USD5 note, you'll get your change in USD4 and the rest in Riel. It is just so weird that both currencies are equally used. You can even pay in the restaurant with both currencies at the same time!
Yesterday, we went to Angkor Wat, the biggest temple complex in Asia, if not the world. It is really amazing what people were able to do about 1000 years ago, and with what finesse they managed to carve all these stones with just primitive tools. Admittedly, it was a long day, as we were up for sunrise and stayed till sunset. We had a guide with us all the time who did a pretty good job at explaining the history behind it all but by around 2pm (after a very nice lunch), everyone including me was struggling to keep their eyes open when we received a crash course on Hinduism and all their gods and kings.... I am sure you all would have been absolutely fascinated!!
At night time, we went to a fantastic restaurant, serving only local Khmer food. The favourite dish was Pumpkin and Coconut soup and it really was amazing. Quite rightly does the Lonely Planet call this dish 'sublime'. After a hectic day yesterday, I am taking it steady, exploring the city on foot this morning. In the afternoon a trip to the lake 'Tonle Sap' with a visit to the floating village is planned. As the people living at the floating village are so much poorer than the people here in Siam Reap (and they are by no stretch of the imagination rich), we are planning to buy some notebooks and pens for the kids so that they have something they can write on when they go to school. It is quite shocking to see, how poor people can be, some survive on a bowl of rice twice a day, no vegetables or meat. You can see lots of disabled people as well as a result of all the landmines placed during the civil war. And it is very rare to see anyone older than say 40 years old. Half the population of Cambodia is younger than 18 years, 40% of the population is less than 15 years old. It is very obvious that Cambodia is only just recovering from the Khmer Rouge regime (1975 to 1979). It is said that around 2 million people died as a direct consequence from the Khmer Rouge, either through execution, or as a result of mistreatment, malnutrition or disease.
Let's hope that the saying is correct: once you're at the bottom, there is only one way to go: up. I didn't mean to upset anyone, and if I have, I apologise but this is what real travelling is about. It is hard to take that you even if you donate some of your money, you will not be able to help everyone. It's like handing out notebooks and pens, you'll help the kids who receive something but what about the other ones that weren't there when you were. You could ask yourself why bother even trying but there is this anecdote with which I want to finish this blog: A monk and his disciple once took a walk along the beach when they reached a stretch where there were thousands of starfish stranded on the beach after a storm, destined to die. The monk picked up a starfish and carried it back into the water. His disciple asked the monk, why he picked up the starfish as he couldn't possible save all of them and hence couldn't make a difference. The monk replied: It makes a difference to this one.
Take care everyone and keep smiling, although I know, it is not always as easy as it sounds.