Dirt paths of Cambodia

Tales from the Road: Chapter 1

This blog post is a combination of three first-hand accounts written by our Southeast Asia: Cities & Sanctuaries team members which, together, paint a picture of our time in the commune of Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia.

Chapter 1: Written by Erika Lucciola

We leave Bangkok very early in the morning, but as always I am late, so I don’t make it for breakfast (Asia hasn’t changed me that much yet). The van picks us up at 7:30 am to take us to Poipet, at the border between Thailand and Cambodia. The journey takes almost 4 hours and while the others sit in the back – they play music, sing, and watch videos on their iPads – I sit in the front with Sid, unfortunately for him. I sleep the entire time, so I am not of much company. Sorry Sid!

Crossing the border at Poipet

When we arrive at Poipet it is already 12pm. I would recommend anyone who wants to have an authentic travelling experience to take a bus and cross the border overland. It is definitely worth it. I won’t lie to you: the heat is almost unbearable and the weight of our backpacks doesn’t help (I definitely bought too much stuff in Bangkok!). However, the scene that gets placeed in front of us is unique: the land is dried and red, clouds of dust rise from the road and surrounds us, while carts and buses run next to us. The air is humid and the sun burns on our skin previously covered with layers of sunscreen. Our program leaderes, Sam and Sid, warned us people here might stare at us, but I find myself staring at them too. All these men go back and forth tirelessly, too busy to dedicate us more than a curious look. But this is the border, they are probably used to tourists coming and going all day.

We are all starving so before passing the border we have a quick lunch. The choice is limited: noodle soup with beef, pork, chicken or vegetables. We don’t care. We love it. We eat quickly and lift our backpacks once again before heading for the visa office. We are tired, but excited.

Unfortunately the language is quite a barrier; most Thais and Khmers don’t speak English or they are too shy – or lazy – to try. However, despite what you might think, the bureaucratic process is quite fast. If you follow the steps religiously – show your passport, hand them the money for the visa (and a little something extra for fast processing) and fill in the papers – everything will flow pretty smoothly. Once finished with the paperworks and finally crossed the border, we buy some well-deserved beers (0.60USD, Mum I might not come back!) to celebrate the beginning of our new chapter. Chul moi – cheers – is a new saying that we learned upon our arrival.

Lilly pads of Banteay Chhmar

We don’t have much time to chill as our way to Banteay Chhmar is still very long. We split up in three cars and drive for about two hours. The light of the day starts fading and we suddenly realize that the chaos and noise of Poipet is now lost. In front of us lies just one narrow, uneven road surrounded by sheets of vivid, untouched green. Our driver doesn’t speak English but laughs with us – or at us? – when we bounce like ping pong balls whenever the car hits one of the many holes on the road.

By the time we reach Banteay Chhmar the sun has already sunk behind us and the darkness is so thick we can barely see. The car lights, however, allow us to catch a glimpse of a young woman coming towards us, while a man is busy trying to start an old generator. When he finally succeeds, what we see leaves us speechless. Our homestay is just beautiful: a two-level-wooden house with an open space on the ground floor furnished with hammocks and wooden chairs, perfect to take a mid-day nap or to wait for the sunset. The stairs lead straight to a big room where two queen size beds are placed in the middle. Other smaller rooms are linked to it. We have to share a bed in two; I am pretty happy with this, as I will have someone to instantly wake up in case a giant bug tried to attack me during the night. This I am very sure of!

What really challenges me though is the bathroom. We have no running water, so all we have to flush the toilet or take a shower is a small bucket to fill with water from a big tub next to it. But this is not the issue. When I am finally happily freeing myself from all the water I drank on our journey, a huge, black “something” sneaks in from a slot in the wall and I barely manage to toss a couple of buckets of water at the toilet before running out as fast as I can. In the end, I can’t help laughing.

Walking through Banteay ChhmarThere is no electricity on the road, so on our way to the restaurant we have to bring our own flashlights. Beautiful music, almost tribal, comes from a temple we pass by. They are having a party and I wish we could stop. The “restaurant” is actually the Banteay Chhmar Community-Based Tourism (CBT) venue that provides dinner as an incentive to tourism since the local restaurant is open just at breakfast and lunch. The first night at the CBT we meet Soukoun and Sophheng — our local guides during our entire stay at Banteay Chhmar. We greet our new friends joining our hands at the level of our chin and slightly bow our heads: suasadai! The food is DELICIOUS: rice, soups, chicken, fresh fish and vegetables and juicy pineapple in amazing sauces. We raise our glasses: chulmoi!

Our journey to Banteay Chhmar and our first night with the CBT is over and I’ve managed not to freak out when I see two colorful bugs hooked outside the net that covers my bed. In the homestay we have electricity from 6pm to 9pm so as soon as we get in bed the light goes off, but it’s okay because we are exhausted. While I close my eyes I can’t wait for the morning to come…