About an hour inside Cambodia we stopped at a roadside establishment that had been spawned simply to service tourists en route to Siem Reap from the border. The staff inside happily accepted any currency and provided change in tattered Cambodian Reals, which resulted in a lot of confused looking tourists - Reals are worth about 3,900 to the US dollar, so even if people wanted to check their change, they had a hard time because most of them had handed over Thai baht in the first place. After a few weeks in Cambodia, you either become an expert in tri-currency conversion, or lose a lot of cash.
I looked through the extensive menu, noting such delights a 'bee salad' and 'steamed tortoise', and asked for 'vegetables and noodles' - vegetarianism still being in its infancy in Cambodia.
We had left Bangkok at 7.30am, and taken a ridiculously luxurious bus all the way to another roadside tourist-cash-extraction-eatery where we had to wait for unspecified times for unspecified reasons. At this point all the people who had not pre-arranged Cambodian visas for themselves were forced to hand over large sums of money (much larger than the cost of the visa) as they were told that they couldn't buy visas at the border (a lie). I had entrusted my passport to a nice Thai man called Ben two days earlier, and he had acquired the correct stamp at a very reasonable price.
Once we reached the border and made it to the other side, we were abandoned and all the tourists stood around, staring at the dusty mud roads and naked children who stared back at us. We eventually secured rides in minibuses, into which we were shoe-horned and then forced to wait in the heat for another hour or so, finally leaving at about 2.30pm.
The road was the worst I have ever encountered in my life. It was as if a land mine had exploded on the road every ten feet or so. Our minivan jiggled up and down at about ten miles an hour forever and ever, or, at least for an hour, when we stopped for some food.
The onward journey was more of the same. We were promised that near Siem Reap the road got better - in the end it turned out to be true, but only from a few kilometres outside of Siem Reap did the road surface improve. There were bizarre stops every half-hour or so for mysterious minivan faults where we would be asked to wait whilst the driver fiddled around under the bonnet, urinated in the bushes and smoked cigarettes. Then, apparently fixed, we would jiggle onwards until the next stop.
We rolled into Siem Reap at 10.30pm, exhausted. 'I know a good, cheap hotel!' Said the driver, cheerfully. We were all too tired to object, so went to his friend's hotel where he took his commission and we all took rooms and collapsed. I decided to collapse in the lounge area downstairs though, and try the local beer, which turned out to be (surprise) 'Angkor' beer.
Sitting with an Israeli and a Brit in the bar drinking our beers in the cool night air, the hotel guy approached us, 'Want some grass?' he asks.
The Israeli smiled, replying, 'Of course!' and then to us, 'I like this country!'
The hotel man returned shortly and dropped a sizeable bag of grass on the table; the Israeli gave him a couple of dollars and began to put a joint together. 'No, no!' said the hotel guy, 'you cannot smoke here.' We all groaned and went to a small, claustrophobic room with a low-speed fan and smoked until we fell asleep.
The next day I wandered into town, which is a pleasant walk from the hotel. I was immediately accosted by a man with a crutch and one and a half legs. He waved his half leg in my direction and clutched at my clothing, 'Money! Money!' he cried. Over his shoulder I could see a bike with a little cart attached to it. In the cart was a wooden leg. He must have taken it off to be more effective when begging. 'Landmine!' he shouted, pointing at his half leg. I took out a few Reals, perhaps five hundred, and gave them to him. 'Dollars!' he shouted at me, 'Give me dollars! I cannot work! I stepped on a landmine!'
Now up until this point I had been ready to give the man the benefit of the doubt, but this was too much. I thought about Douglas Bader, the World War II pilot who lost both his legs and still continued to fly, play tennis etc. He was shot down and captured by the Germans who had to confiscate his legs every night because he was always trying to escape. This man simply wasn't trying. 'I know someone who has one leg and it isn't much better than yours,' I pointed to it, 'he's worked his whole life in manual jobs, walking, climbing ladders, you name it. Don't give me that 5hit about not being able to work!' It was true.
The man stared at me for a moment and then said, 'Dollars! Give me dollars!'
I walked away with him still shouting at me.
I went to have a drink in the market and calm down. I was shaking with anger from my encounter. I watched gung-ho tourists order cooked beetles and grubs and then make big shows of eating them - shouting and screaming for effect. I relaxed, finished my drink and walked around the dirty streets. It wasn't long before there were about five of us, doing a pub-crawl around town.
There are three types of bar in Siem Reap, as far as I could make out. The first is the tourist-only, overpriced places, where the only Cambodians are the ones behind the bar. The second are the bars where Cambodians hang out, where you are made to feel less than welcome by brooding and violent looking men. In one of these bars we found red wine on the menu, which was taken up by two of our group, whilst the rest had the intriguing 'palm' wine. The red wine turned out to be vodka and blackcurrant in a wineglass. We laughed so hard that we ordered another round of them.
The last type of bar is the ex-pat, lovely-lady type of bar. These are where all the long term westerners hang out, along with the prostitutes - mainly older women in very short skirts and a great deal of make-up. At the bar in one of these places (called 'Zanzybar') a middle aged woman clung to my arm, squeezing it and lied, 'You very handsome man, you have big muscle!'
'I'm married,' I told her and she slinked off to the next man along the bar.
We sat outside, on the pavement, alongside a table full of ex-pats and their prostitutes. They glared at us in much the same way that the locals in the previous bars had. An American rolled up on a huge, gleaming chrome-plated motorcycle. A little girl from inside the bar ran up and draped herself over him. 'You buy me drink?' she said.
After the delights of the Zanzybar had faded, we found an Indian restaurant, which was still happily serving drunken fools at midnight. Stopping for a curry was a very popular choice with the Brits. We drank more beer and eyed the shady locals and motorbike-taxi drivers that watched us silently from across the street, waiting for us to leave.
There is an additional place to hang out of course - the club. The only club we could find in town was called the 'Martini', and it was a very local place, but very friendly too. No cover charge, we wandered in and were shown to a table by bow-tie wearing waiters. Every seat in the place was vacant, and every person in the club was on the dance floor, doing some kind of synchronised dance. At some unseen cue, everyone returned to their seat and the music was turned off. A drink and chatting break. By this time, about fifteen big bottles of various beers had found themselves onto our table and the staff were happily flipping the tops off them and pouring them into our glasses. Every time we looked away the staff would sneak up, top up our glasses and open more bottles.
The music suddenly started and everyone went back onto the dance-floor for ten more minutes of in-sync dancing. It was like line-dancing, but techno style.
It was a big night, I spent $20.
Cambodia is a wonderful country and the friendliest I have come across yet, and much less dangerous than many believe. My Israeli friend came with a guidebook from 1995 which basically said be careful you aren't murdered. He was relieved to find out that you no longer needed to travel with a gun, as his friend had five years ago here.
'No, no, Cambodia is not like that any more, very safe now', people say with truly, genuine smiles.