We set off from Ko Chang yesterday morning and spent the entire day in transit, arriving at about 10.30pm in Siem Reap.
The first half of the journey, from Ko Chang to the Cambodian border
was reasonable, although the driver thought he was Michael Schumacher
and had a right to drive on which ever side of the road he chose –
beeping and cursing furiously at oncoming traffic for being in his
We got dropped off at a roadside café, which doubled as a place where
we got our Cambodian visa, and boarded a second bus, which, we
assumed, would take us all the way to Siem Reap. The bus took us about 200m to the immigration point, where we waited for almost two hours in the mid afternoon sun to be allowed out of Thailand.
Once though immigration, our guide informed us that it was best to
change our money now and then promptly took us to a bureau de change
that offered incredibly bad exchange rates – so we've decided to stick with our dollars, which seems to be the first currency anyway.
We were then taken to an incredibly shabby bus, which was absolutely
packed full with luggage lining the gangways and virtually no legroom
at all. This was not the air-conditioned 'VIP' bus we had been
promised. 'Sorry, you have been cheated' was the refreshingly blunt
opening line of our guide's speech. He continued 'Hotels in Siem Reap
cost from between 100 and 1000USD'; we waited for the inevitable story of how he just happened to have a good friend who knew where we could get a room for 50.
He then told us how the journey from the border to Siem Reap is about
60 miles, but would take us about 5 hours – It's true that Cambodia's
roads are in a very poor state of repair, but I was skeptical that
this was the fastest the coach could manage, thinking the idea was
probably to get us to a hotel that the guide was on commission for so
late at night that it would be too dangerous for us to trek the
streets looking for a new one. Not being very happy with the
situation I decided to ask where we were going to be dropped off 'I
can't tell you; if I tell you, I have to tell everyone" was the
response, so I waited for a toilet stop to ask him again, this time he
gave away a little more 'very central, a guest house' and how much
would this guest house cost? 'very reasonable price'. For sure we were about to be shafted, again.
In the end, we arrived at a little guesthouse about 6km away from town at 10:30; the rooms are fairly over priced at 10USD per night. The hotel was entirely empty, confirming that our entire coach had
probably been sold to the guesthouse in advance, and our extremely
long coach journey was probably unnecessary.
Despite the poor transport, we're pleased to be here. Cambodia is a
very interesting place: it was a French colony up until the end of
WW2, but was largely ignored, and had only one high school and no
universities by the time the French left and installed Prince Sihanok
on the throne. He was overthrown in 1953 by the national army in a
coup. In 1969 the United States carpet bombed large parts of the
country, the effects of which can still be seen thanks to 'Landmine:
Keep Out' signs scattered across the country. In 1970 the US invaded
in an attempt to eradicate Vietnamese communist forces based here.
They failed, but they gave rise to the Khmer Rouge, who took the
capital, Phnom Penh just a few months later.
Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's leadership,
systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians (targeting
the educated in particular) in a brutal bid to turn Cambodia into a
Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Currency was
abolished, postal services were halted, the population became a work
force of slave labourers and the country was almost entirely cut off
from the outside world. Responding to armed incursions into their
borders, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to
flee to the relative sanctuary of the jungles along the Thai border.
From there, they conducted a guerilla war against the
Vietnamese-backed government throughout the late 1970s and 80s, funded by the US. 1993, UN administered elections took place and once again King Sihanok was returned to the throne as head of state.