This was it. Our last real day in Cambodia.
The day’s itinerary included going to Tonle Sap Lake, a big (or gigantic, depending on the season) lake south of Siem Reap. In the rainy season it swells to about six times its normal size. Here are some figures for you: Dry Season: 1 meter deep and 2,700 square kilometers in size. Monsoon Season: 9 meters deep and 16,000 square kilometers in size.
Even though we were there in what was supposed to be the rainy season, the lake was still small. Sokha explained that the rainy season was late this year. Since about 80% of Khmer people grow rice, I asked how the farmers were doing. She said that no rice was growing yet and that it would be very expensive to buy next year. Hopefully the rain started not long after we left.
The drive from Siem Reap to the Tonle Sap river was a rough one. The dirt road was in pretty bad shape…. I was thankful we were riding in a nice, air conditioned SUV instead of the back of a pickup. (A common method of transportation is converted pickups – they have wooden benches and a cage around the bed, sometimes with a cloth covering and sometimes not.) Along the way we got a more accurate picture of how Cambodian rural life is.
Most of Cambodia is rural, and almost everyone is dependent on the land. We saw lots of fields and very skinny cows. We also saw these weird contraptions set up all over the place. Sokha explained that these are cricket-catchers! At night, the owners unfold the plastic sheets like a sail and turn on the lights attached at the top. The crickets hop toward the light and fall into a pool of water below. Every morning, the owners go out and collect the crickets. They usually fry them up – we saw someone selling them and now I’m wishing we’d tried them.
As we approached the river that fed into the lake, we saw narrow houses built back from the road, hanging out over nothing. When the river swells, I imagine the water rises right up nearly to their floors. These houses were all built on spindly stilts – many were rickety and crooked, and looked like they’d topple as soon as someone set foot inside. It was a strange sight. (This photo is from Google…. I didn’t get any good ones through our tinted windows.)
Tonle Sap Lake
Finally we reached the river where we parked and walked down to catch a longtail boat. I’m not sure how much it cost, but it couldn’t have been much. All the boats were clustered around the dock, waiting for tourists, like ants on a Rice Krispie Treat. (This is a reference a rather traumatic episode of my childhood…. ALWAYS check your Rice Krispie Treat before you bite into it.)
Finally we got into one, manned by two young guys, and set off down the river. I won’t lie, I was a little confused and disappointed by this experience. Everything was brown. The river banks were brown and the water was even browner. How could water be so brown? (We would soon find out.) There wasn’t a speck of green anywhere. Of course not many plants can survive once the water rises above the banks, so I guess that made sense. But it was pretty ugly.
Every once in a while we’d pass some people fishing; kids were often walking along barefoot, helping carry baskets or nets. Eventually we came to a stop and looked ahead to see why. We were literally stuck in a traffic jam. The large, double-decker junk way ahead of us was suck in the mud! Now we knew why the water was so brown – it was so shallow that the mud was constantly being churned up by boat motors.
All the boat drivers seem to know exactly where the channels are deep enough, and clearly no one could pass the bigger boat without getting stuck. Eventually it got unstuck after unloading all its Chinese tourists and we were able to keep moving.
Finally we reached the lake proper. There were floating houses everywhere; there seemed to even be separated neighborhoods. Sokha pointed to a far village and told us that that area was full of Vietnamese immigrants.
It was a pretty crazy experience – for one, there are beggars here too. Mostly it’ll be women in a little boat with her brood of children. Some of the kids we saw were holding big pythons, offering tourists to take pictures with them. If you want to get a picture of these beggars, be sneaky if you can. If they see you taking a picture, they’ll tell you they want money for the privilege.
The craziest part was the boat traffic though. At one point, a smaller boat came up alongside us, the two boys inside holding onto the side of our boat. Apparently their motor had failed and they were catching a ride with us. Our boat drivers seemed to know them. In fact, they seemed to know most people. I guess it’s not surprising – living in such a secluded community, you’re bound to know just about everybody.
As we were leaving, we finally got to experience getting stuck in the mud ourselves. One guy was revving the motor, mud flying, while the other was pushing and pulling with a long pole. It took a while, but we finally got free and headed back up the river. It wasn’t the most interactive day, but it was a fascinating and slightly heart-wrenching look into how these people live, and just how poor they are.
I’m actually glad the lake was low when we were there because we got to see the villages floating on the water. During the rainy season, these homes are moved away from the center to the edge of the lake along the mangroves (we didn’t even see any mangroves because the lake was too small). The inhabitants hitch their houses to boats and pull them along to a safer place to last out the monsoon season. Apparently the middle of the lake can be pretty dangerous because of high winds during the storms.
Our Last Night in Siem Reap
We spent our last night in Siem Reap securing hangovers for ourselves for the morning. We did a very good job. But first, I should tell you about our hotel. We stayed at the Palace Residence & Villa for $69/night. I have never stayed in such a nice hotel. Definitely 5 stars. It was pretty much a resort – there was a driving range and tennis, a free shuttle to the Old Market, and a pool with a SWIM UP BAR. Always wanted to go to a swim-up bar. It was really exciting. But to tell the truth, I think almost anywhere you stay in Siem Reap will be really nice. And you can certainly find cheaper places than $69.
After we left the hotel, we began the night innocently enough… by finding a geocache! If you don’t know what geocaching is, I have other entries about it, or you could just google it. It was a challenge since we didn’t have service, but with some help from a friendly Khmer guy we located it. I had three trackables to place, and this cache was big enough. Good luck on your travels, Jeannie Nitro!
Then we went back to the Old Market and the Husband decided he wanted a quick tattoo. Tattoos in this area are possibly the only things that aren’t dirt cheap, because the minimum was still $50. I think that’s ok though, because at least you’re getting a tattoo in a proper shop, with disinfectant and everything.
While the Husband was getting inked, I went next door for some 50¢ pints. This was probably about 5 or 6pm. We ended up never leaving place. The restaurant I’d chosen for being next to the tattoo parlor and its cheap beer was actually a Boston-style pizzeria named Belmiro’s. As the night wore on, they had live music and hordes of English-speakers. Many were American, but some were also from the UK.
Belmiro’s seems to be a hub for Westerners to congregate and get a good slice. I highly recommend visiting; not only will you get good food and cheap pints, you’ll also hear great stories. We met a guy from Brattleboro, VT! The Husband remarked that he hadn’t met a single Vermonter in the army in the last three years, but he managed to meet one in Cambodia.
We got to know the owner, Belmiro Barros (though he goes by Tyler) which was probably a bad thing because he kept ordering us shots on the house. We also met an ex-military man who now lives in Cambodia with his wife doing mine clearance. He had some incredible stories that I only wish I could remember. And we also made friends with a Scotsman, who stayed with us and the owner till the end and drank just as much as we did. The poor guy was getting up at 5am to do the temples. All we had to do was get on a bus the next day, thank God.
Eventually we found a tuk-tuk and stumbled back to our room. It was a great night that naturally led to a terrible morning.
Direct Bus, Siem Reap – Bangkok
Ok, if any of you consider traveling between Bangkok and Siem Reap, I HIGHLY recommend taking a bus. It takes forever, yes (7-9 hours), but it’s your cheapest option by far. At the time, flights would have cost us upward of €200 each. The bus cost us $28 each. For the sake of keeping this post shorter, I’ll put more information at the end if you want to read it.
We arrived at the main Bangkok bus station in 7 hours, where we got a taxi to the airport. While waiting for check-in to open, we got to see a guy freak the fuck out in the airport. He was screaming and kicking things and had to be hauled out in handcuffs by security. That was pretty exciting.
And this concludes our Asiadventure! I hope you enjoyed the pictures, at least. My next entry will be about camping at Lake Garda, back home in Italy.
More About the Bus
Backyard Travel tried to convince me not to take the bus, warning that it wouldn’t be “what I was used to” and that lots of people get scammed. This may be true for other bus companies, but not the one I researched.
Nattakan is the company, and as of now it is the ONLY DIRECT BUS between Siem Reap and Bangkok. Their office is right in the Old Market area, very easy to find and book. Strangely, I think Nattakan goes by another name on the Thai side, so if you’re starting in Bangkok you may need to do a little more research.
Anyway, since we had booked our seats the day before, all we had to do was show up at 8:30 at the office. By 9 we were all on the bus, the Husband and I nursing our hangovers, trundling along to the Thai border.
The bus was NICE. It must have been brand new, because it was not the junky affair I was expecting. It had a bathroom and the seats folded almost completely flat, with extending leg rests. Each seat was pretty much a narrow recliner. And since it was the off-season, there was hardly anyone on the bus. It was quiet, air conditioned, and comfortable. AND they fed us. A small cakey-thing with juice and water for breakfast and fried rice for lunch.
The ONLY hitch with the bus was crossing the Thai border. Perhaps our drivers didn’t speak any English, but they basically kicked us off the bus with these weird instruction cards and left us to figure it out while they drove through and waited on the other side. I had read that our stuff would remain on the bus…. This was not the case for us. We had to take all our stuff across the border on our backs, unfortunately.
If you go this route and get to the border and are as confused as we were, my best advice is to follow the crowds. There are booths on either side of the road where you hand over your Cambodian departure card and they take your finger prints (again). Then you walk through and you’ll stop and look around and wonder what the heck you’re supposed to do next. KEEP WALKING. It’s a ways before you reach the Thai arrival booths, where you have to fill out yet more arrival and departure cards, and go through security and get your passport checked again. (NOTE: If you’re coming FROM Bangkok your process will be different because you’ll need to get your visa here too. We were glad we didn’t have to do that.) Then you keep walking some more, and eventually you’ll find your bus. After that it was easy sailing all the way to Bangkok.