A short Trip to Cambodia

During the Songkran (water festival, Buddhist New Year) holidays, while having gone to Su's home village in the Isaan, near the Cambodian border, we took the opportunity to use the new border crossing point at O'Smach, near Kap Choeng in Surin province to cross over into Cambodia. All the people in Su's village are descended from the ancient Khmer, the main race in today's Cambodia. Several hundreds of years ago the Khmer kingdom extended well into Northeastern and Central Thailand as the ancient runied Khmer temple cities of Pimai (near Nakhon Ratchsima) and Kao Phanom Rung (near Buri Ram) well testify. After the Thai invaded and wrested large areas from the Khmer, minority groups remained in what is now the borders areas of Thailand. Su's mother language is therefore Khmer and not Thai, which the children learn at school, as well as English now. Khmer, of course is not being taught, it is just the language used in the family and in the villages.

For a long time I had wanted to go with Su to Cambodia, to introduce her to more of the culture of her distant ancestors. After listening to present-day Khmer on Cambodian television stations she assured me that the dialect that they spoke at home is virtually the same as proper Khmer as spoken in Cambodia, I figured she could make herself understood in Cambodia, and she would understand what people said to her. I suppose the differences are much as the differences between proper French and Quebecois. It turned out she was well able to converse and chat, but only sometimes had problems when prices were named to her when we wanted to buy something.

So on 10 April we got underway taking the local bus from Buri Ram to Surin, about 50 km away. At the Surin bus station we caught a local bus right to the border post, another 60 km to the south. We walked across the border to O'Smach situated on a pass through the escarpment which forms the border between Thailand and Cambodia, the high side of the escarpment being Thailand. On the other side,  a short distance off to the west, is the obligatory casino, where wealthy Thai-Chinese businessmen go to gamble their fortunes away. As gambling is illegal in Thailand (except for the State-run lottery) every border crossing to Burma and Cambodia, and now some in Laos also, has one or more casios at the other side. Otherwise there is hardly anything on the Cambodian side here.O'Smach, the border settlement, is just a small spread-out village with no facilities at all and not even public transportation. There are very few public bus lines in Cambodia, except on the more travelled main routes, and transport in outlying areas is by taxi or share taxi. So we hired a taxi for 800 baht to take us about 50 km to the next larger village/town of Samroang, translated "dense jungle". This large village/small town is the provincial capital of Oddar Meanchai province, and there is nothing left of the jungle at all, all open country, much of it rice fields.

The road was all dirt with many holes in it, and the taxi had to wend its way between them. First it lead, in many curves, down the face of the escarpment. It was lined with very primitive wooden dwellings, the way I remembered Ban Yang, Su's village 20 years ago. This bowl shaped valley hugging the escarpment was the last refuge of the forces opposing the invading Vietnamese a few years ago, the ill-begotten alliance between FUNCINPEC and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. Later the road levelled and straightened out and we proceeded on a faster clip.

In Samroang we checked into the "Hotel", quite acceptable rooms with satellite TV, hot water, AC and fan at 250 baht. As opposed to what we had read in our guide book, there was even a bank and an ATM which accepted my Canadian VISA card but not my Thai debit card. But it only dispensed US $! These we then exchanged to Cambodian Riel at the bank next door, and I walked out of there with a thick wad, half a million of them (1 US$ = 4,000 Riel). Next we had a meal with local beer at the recommended restaurant, late lunch, and Su, as is her way, had a lively chat with the owner, staff and various customers. On TV I watched the war criminals' trial in which a Khmer Rouge prison camp head answered the questions of a European (United Nations sponsored) judge. While sitting there I watched the people around me and I was struck with the handsome appearance of the Khmer people. To me they looked so much more handsome, women and men alike, than the Thai, which themselves to me look so much more handsome than Europeans, and I could not help but to comment on it to Su. Perhaps the beer and the ambience had something to do with it? We did some shopping at the market after and then had an afternoon nap in our room. We woke up about 20:00 and wanted to go out for supper, but almost everything was locked up tight and dark, and we had some real problem finding a very basic restaurant which was still open.

Next day we went to the market  early, and there were many share taxis and share pick-ups loading up with passengers to go south. We got into one of the taxis, together with 4 other people plus the driver, and off we went along a straight dirt road. Some 80 kilometres down the road we hit the main highway between Siem Riep and Poi Phet at the Thai border to the West, and by early afternoon we had checked into our guest house at Siem Riep, again with ALL the amenities as the night before plus free Internet, but at the higher price of US$ 15. In this part of Cambodia everything is quoted in US$ rather than Riel and either currency is accepted at every establishment.

Siem Riep, due to its proximity to Angkor (7 km) is quite the tourist place. Lots of restaurants with foreign, Khmer and Thai food, French wine rather cheap, but otherwise prices a little higher than in Thailand.In the evening the two of us repaired to the disco, just across the river from our guest house, and had a great time, until about 01:00 hours. Two of the local ladies, for a tip, joined us, one dancing with me and the other with Su. The music styles alternated, and for a short period it was the local "ram wong" a very beautiful way of dancing, the couples walking back and forward, and moving their hands gracefully. Indeed there is a local TV station which only shows ram wong dancing videos and nothing else. I was just fascinated with the beautiful music and graceful movements of the dancers. To think that I have lived in this part of the world for 20 years and this was my first real exposure to this form of dancing! Of course, I was familiar with the hand movements while dancing of the village people in Thailand, but to this in a formal dance was new to me.


Next day was the big day, the visit to the temple sites of Angkor. I had planed on two days, but it turned out to be very tiring in the extreme heat, and I managed to get to the most important sites for me in one day, with Su giving up already after Angkor Wat itself. Angkor is a massive accumulation of many temples spread over an area of over 300 square kilometres, Angkor Wat being the most prominent one, a walled temple area 1 km square with a massive 200 m wide moat around it. The area around all the temples is flat and heavily wooded.


Angkor Thom is the next large walled area to the North, a huge 3 km square, also surrounded by a huge moat, containing many temples, the pricipal one being the "Bayon", known for its enigmatic stone faces, each one said to be directed to watch over one of the provinces of the old Khmer kingdom.

Left: The entrance to Angkor Thom

Right: The moat to the west of the Angkor Thom entrance


Left: The moat around Angkor Thom to the east

Right: The wall around Angkor Thom

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