‘Wats’ in Cambodia Day 117: Crossing Corruption at the Cambodian Border

I woke up early as my six a.m. alarm clock promised. After grabbing some nibbles (sweet BBQ chicken shish kabobs and a tofu patty that knocked my socks off) from the market just outside the apartment (already sizzling and proving these people live and die with the call of the rooster), I began the long morning wake to the train station with my heavy luggage bag strapped to my back. Bangkok traffic didn’t seem to miss a beat despite it being just past six in the morning. Once I arrived at the Mo Chit train station, I planned on taking motorbike taxi ride to the bus terminal but no hawkers prodded me with their usual persistent pleas. So with an hour left before the bus departure time and soon spare time on the clock, I stubbornly chose to walk the distance. As any wise or ignorant man may have figured out, I arrived at the bus terminal and thus the bus itself with a thorough coat of sweat that no calm, unassuming demeanor could hide. After the four or so requisite hours to the Aranya Prathet – Poipet Thailand/Cambodia, the moment had arrived for me to deal with the reputed heavy handed corruption I heard various stories about. For one, taking the bus saved me a lot of time and agony to get to and away from the border itself. However, the Cambodian border patrol was not without its schemes and exchange of extra cash to move things forward. Besides the now $30 visa fee to get into Cambodia, I had to pay an additional 100 baht (roughly three USD) for a “visa on arrival fee”. No matter how they like to call it, it is total bullshit that everyone is in on and something I could did little about. Besides that minor discrepancy, I passed through the border into Cambodia with little difficulties (granted, the bizarre scanning of every one of my digits was a surprise). The rest of the bus ride continued smooth sailing so to speak. Funny enough, on the Thai side from my very own bus I ran into a guy and a girl from Ukraine and Lithuanian, who I met originally in Mawlamyine, Myanmar towards the onset of Burma travels. The world proves once again to be a smaller place that most realize. The three of us (the Eastern European couple and I) went in search of cheap accommodation. Based on Lonely Planet pricing, I was expecting rooms in the range of four to five dollars but most of the places we found were driven upwards of nine to ten with the exception of Sweet Dreams guesthouse. Since I was planning on staying a few nights (still debating whether to purchase the three day Angkor ticket or go all out for $20 with the seven day pass), I tried some bargaining but no luck came my way. I did get a somewhat shabby room (much larger than my room at home and containing a queen size bed but showing some of its age) for five dollars per night which fit in quite nicely with my budget. I had wanted to swing over to Angkor Wat (roughly 6 km north of Siem Reap) for sunset but the delayed guesthouse search hung me up. With the now available time, we went to explore Siem Reap and find some traditional Khmer food (on my request). Siem Reap is not what I expected out of Cambodia nor should on in future cities and towns down the line. Siem Reap is a new city built mainKU for the massive tourism demand. The restaurants, streets, and river (all fairly clean) make me think that I could be in the U.S. or in Europe. The main streets and bridges connecting the core of the city to its outskirts and further on Angkor Wat were arched with many colorful light displays as if every night were apart of a festival. Although it was still quite early in my time in Cambodia, I could see a distinct lack of older people in the population. This fact can be traced back to a dark and grim time in Cambodia’s still very recent history that involved the Khmer Rouge regime. A rebel group had overtaken Phnom Penh and thus the government with Pol Pot as the leading puppeteer behind the whole scheme. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge systematically killed their own people by trying to create an agrarian Marxist socialist society in which all perceived and otherwise intellectuals (scholars, monks, really anyone wearing a pair of glasses) and the weak (aka the elderly and disabled) were put to death (forming the plantation of death called the Killing Fields) while the rest of the population was put to work in slave-like conditions. During this time due to disputes with the Vietnamese and Americans that ventured over their borders, millions of land mines had been placed throughout the country (with millions still in place today). I only got a small taste of what is sure to come: amputees begging on the streets. This young population (including the thousands of tuk tuks that line basically every available piece of curb) have a fairly good knowledge of the English language in comparison to Myanmar and Thailand. In a way, this country is trying to start a new and reinvent itself with many of these killers still awaiting trial well into their dying years. I ate fish amok which is a thick soup cooked traditionally with fish as the featured ingredient plus vegetables and coconut milk all in a tasty light green and creamy broth with a side of the necessary scoop of jasmine rice. Amok actually refers to the process of cooking the curry through steaming in banana leaves. I fell in love at the very first bite. It was a musical orchestra and symphony played only for me. My addiction for this Khmer dish only grew as the bowl disappeared with each lasting spoonful. Right now, I can picture myself eating this once a day in Cambodia without much struggle. After getting literally my first taste of Cambodia, the three of us went to one of the many bars on their ‘Pub Street’ for the all night happy hour of fifty cent mugs of beer. The Angkor beer was solid like any other lager but the fifty cent label on it heightened its underlying notes. Back at Sweet Dreams hotel, I noticed the same guy that I saw before we left the guesthouse earlier in the day who was inquiring on room rates. Being frugal minded, I introduced myself and asked if he would like to share their nicer room for a total of $7 ($3.50 per person if you can believe that). The chill Danish agreed to join me for two nights. While we chatted the Eastern European couple made arrangements for a tuk-tuk tour over the course of three days around the Angkor temples, which I decided to join for the first day since it was too cheap to pass up when split three ways. With that established, I took a cool shower (one which wasn’t even cold enough for my liking in this dreaded heat) and tried to sleep while the fan barely churned up the all-encompassing heat. I woke up several points during the night in a sweat with no covers and just my shower towel at my side to soak up my manly moisture.

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