My suspicions were proved correct. There I was having had the carnet signed off for me to be officially leaving Thailand and the engine wouldn’t start up again to get me across the border despite having driven fine the 5Km or so to get there. This left me with a dilema - I didn’t particulay want to drive into Cambodia with a dubious engine but I hade to because otherwise the carnet wouldn’t make any sense as it would show me leaving Thailand to enter Thailand. A push start got it going again briefly but it soon fizzled out. But it seems I’ve been paying attention at all these mechanics we’ve been to because the old screwdriver in the carb trick worked a treat. This impressed the Thai border official no end because it meant he didn’t have to deal with the sticky problem either. After the usual messing around on the Cambodian side where they overcharged us for the visas and took ages to sort the carnet while we marvelled at the large number of tacky casinos (gambling is illegal in Thailand) we were finally through and making headway into the amazingly flat Cambodian countryside. The difference between the two countries is marked - Thailand is far wealthier by comparison.
I’d heard about the poor state of Cambodian roads but I wasn’t quite prepared for how bad they would be. There was no tarmac on most of the route, just compacted red soil which kicked up huge dust clouds making visibility very poor. Luckily there wasn’t that much traffic so we could clip along at a fair rate of knots sucking up the bumps. By 3pm we had reached Siem Reap which much to my surprise was a decent looking town that was clearly reaping many tourist dollars from the Angkor temples. The huge number of swanky hotels was just one indication - the clean streets and western stlye bars another. We checked into a hotel which promptly gave us a large can of Raid flyspray along with our roomkey. The reason was soon obvious - there was a huge number of mosquitos in the room. We had no choice but to spray the whole room and leave for a while. When we returned the dead littered the floor. Much repelant was going to be needed for this country. In the evening we wandered around the blatantly named Bar Street but got an early night. The plan was to tour the temples on bike on Tuesday with a dawn start at Angkor Wat.
So there we were, peddling frantically through the dark streets at 5.30am trying to beat the rising sun as it cast its first rays on the legendary temple. The initial sight is impressive as you cross the huge stone bridge over the 90m long moat and enter the gate to see the Wat looming tall in the distance. The true marvel of the site though is in the detail that becomes apparent when you get up close. Hardly an inch of the 900 year old temple is left uncarved. The bottom levels have massive bas-relief carving that extend for the entire length of the walls and depict Hindu mythological stories such as the Ramayana. Having seen the Cham sculpture in Vietnam, the influence was obvious. However, the work here was far more complicated and intricate. On the higher levels, heavenly nymphs dance on the walls and eves in between complex patterns and lead to the ridiculously steep climp up the central tower. Apparently its not supposed to be easy to climb to the level of the gods. Angkor Wat is truely impressive and is remarkably well preserved considering its age.
From here we made our way (via an impromptu elephant ride) north to the second most famous temple in Cambodia - the enigmatic Bayon. This pyramid shaped structure contains over 50 towers each headed by four faces of Avalokitesvara (a Bodhisattva who shows compassion). Standing on the third level with all these huge smiling faces staring down at you is a bizarre experience. From here we wandered around some of the lesser temples and the long terrace of elephants (a wall intrically carved with a parrade of elephants) before taking the bikes on a long route around the north east side of the site. The heat was pretty intense but we found some shade at the jungle covered temple complex of Ta Prohm. This temple has not been restored and is being attacked by the encrouching jungle which has claimed many of the walls as its own. Twelve hours of temple seeing took its toll and at 6pm we called it quits and headed back for a well earned rest.
Wednesday we went to the Landmines Museum - which is a one man project led by Aki Ra. This man was a former child soldier of the Kymer Rouge but went on to serve with the Vietnamese liberators and the UN. Now, he adopts land mine victims from the villages and trains locals on land mine detection and disablement. He personally defuses around 20,000 mines a year. Afterwards we braved the rough road again back to the border. Interestingly there is a rumour that an airline company is paying off the govenment not to upgrade this road. This has some merit in the fact that other roads which are clearly less important for trade and the tourist economy have been upgraded while this remains a dirt track.
At the border there was a bit of a role reversal with the Thai side playing silly buggers this time demanding that I get insurance for the car. I tried to fob them off with some insurance docs that we had but they weren’t buying it and wanted me to go 6Km on a motorbike to get some. Luckily I ran into the geezer I had impressed with my mechanical abilities on the way in and he took it upon himself to give them a bollicking and wave me through. Happy days. On the Thai side we headed south towards Chanthaburi and camped up the the night.
On Thursday it was only a couple of hours drive to the coast where we bordered a car ferry for Ko Chang Island. Despite a bit of engine trouble on the island, we chilled out here for a couple of days. I wandered around the shore, admiring the beaches and gorging myself on fresh squid while Natalia did her Advanced Diving course.
By Sunday morning it was time to leave and it was a straight forward drive back to Bangkok. There we met up with Richard, Jasmine and some of Richards mates and had a few beers in the sleazy Sukhumvit area. Unfortunately, 6 bomb blasts went off at various locations in the city throughout the evening killing 3 people and resulting in most of the official New Year festivities being cancelled. Luckily, we weren’t affected and aside from some street closures we passed in the taxi there was little obviuos sign that anything had happened. Natalia flew out the next morning and since Richard wanted to take his mates to see Northern Thailand and Angkor Wat, I had to make plans for seeing another country for a week or two.