|A Diary of my overland journey from England to Australia||
By Steven Abrams
Tuesday 14th January 1969
When we arrived at the border the Lao truck was being loaded with goods from a Cambodian truck. It seems that although the two countries trade, the trucks don't drive over the border but simply swap goods at the border. They were just finishing the job as we arrived and our luggage was already on the back of the now empty Cambodian truck that was shortly going to set out to drive to Stung Treng.
We reported to the immigration officer and had our passports details noted in the usual large book. We were then given a piece of paper to take to the immigration office in Stung Treng where we would get our passports stamped. We then went out to get on the truck that was going to Stung Treng. The truck driver demanded we pay US$2 each for our fare and insisted in being paid in US dollars. We told him we didn't have any dollars and he immediately reacted by picking up our bags and throwing them down from the truck. This annoyed Louis so much that he jumped up on to the truck and punched the driver. This didn't help matters and the driver then put up the price to $10 each. The German guy had already paid his $2 and was sitting in the cab waiting to go. Louis, Mike, Titch and I decided that we were not going to get anywhere with this truck driver after Louis had clobbered him, so putting our packs on our backs we set off to walk into Cambodia.
After we had been walking for a short while the truck came along. We tried to be cheeky and put our thumbs out to hitch but the driver just sounded his horn and waved his fist at us as he drove past. After we had been walking for two hours we had covered just 5 km. It was tiring carrying our bags in the heat and we would take a short rest at each kilometre marker post. At each kilometre the rest period got longer and longer and before long it got dark. Although we were well south of the area were Vietcong were operating, we couldn't help but worry about running into a VC patrol trying to infiltrate from the North to the South via Laos and Cambodia. A large black car went the other way to the border and on the way back he stopped and picked us up. He took us 8 km to a road junction where he dropped us of and turned right towards a village called Osvay. He said he was coming back at 8 o-clock and would pick us up again if we were still there.
There was a half-built house at the junction and we sat in it and lit a fire while we waited. Titch told us that he was hoping to try to get into Vietnam overland. Mike was a medical student from Perth and was travelling around the area during his summer holidays, which in Australia is in December and January. The fire started to die down at about 8.30 and we all decided to walk the 2 km into Osvay to find somewhere to stay for the night rather than rely on a car that may or may not return. We started walking and had gone 1½ km when the taxi came back along the road and picked us up. We later heard stories about Osvay from other travellers who had tried to walk in and had been chased out by men with guns. They all said that a black car came along shortly afterwards and gave them a lift. Many years later we found out that it was a local headquarters for the Kymer Rouge. I can only presume that whenever some unwanted visitors got near, the car was despatched to get rid of them.
He drove us down to Stung Treng. By this time I was exhausted and slept for most of the journey. The road finished on the other side of the river to Stung Treng and the driver dropped us off headed back, presumably to Osvay. There was no bridge over the river, nor were there any boats. We could see the lights of Stung Treng on the other side, but the river must be
It was now well after 1am and we had to find somewhere to sleep. We found a Wat but it was deserted, so we just kipped down and went to sleep. The next morning I was woken up by the sound of a large group of children singing a song about Cambodia. Nobody seemed to be bothered by the four foreigners sleeping on one corner of the Wat, so we just packed up and left as quietly as we had come.
We had another bowl of soup Chinoise each in the same restaurant and the manager was prepared to accept payment in kip again. We then went managed to find somewhere to change money and at last we had some Cambodian riels. The next stop was the immigration office to take our pieces of paper and get them exchanged for a passport stamp. (See footnote 2 for further comment on Stung Treng)
The next place we wanted to get to was Kratie, but we found that all the busses leave early in the morning. We had also missed the boat, so the only option was to get a taxi. The taxi fare was 80 riels and we all piled in to the one car. At Kratie when we came to pay we offered the driver a US dollar and told him it was worth 80 riels, which he readily believed. We then tried getting the boat to Phnom Penh, but the next boat wasn't until the morning.
There was a Cambodian boy also enquiring about boat times and he spoke English. He said he was going to spend the night in a Wat and he took us along to meet the monk who was in charge. He said that because we were foreigners we would need to get permission from the chief of police beforehand. He had no objection and as long as the police chief said yes, it was
When I woke up the next morning our Cambodian friend had gone. We thought he had left us, but he returned soon after with some fried bananas for us all. We left our luggage in the Wat and went to have a look around Kratie and to make sure of the boat time. We were starting to get addicted to the soup Chinoise and we all had a bowl before going back to collect our luggage.
We got to the pier head in good time for the boat, but the police stopped us from boarding. They took us into the office and made us all fill out a form before they would let us get on the
Soon after it started to get light and I went to have a wash. Always game for a laugh we started fooling around and soon had a small crowd around us. I played the flageolet and Mike
The tourist office in Phnom Penh was extremely helpful and told us everything we wanted to know. They even recommended a Wat where we would be able to spend the night. We went straight to the Wat but found that there was some sort of Monk's convention on and the place was crowded. We were directed down the road to another Wat, but the head monk couldn't be found to ask permission to stay. We were allowed to leave our luggage there so we didn't have to carry it around with us all day.
The Indonesian Embassy was very near to the Wat and we went in to enquire about tourist visas. At first they said they didn't issue tourist visas, but we said that we had heard that they were going to start issuing them soon and asked when this would be. The official went away to enquire and came back a few minutes later to tell us that they have now started to issue them and handed us some forms to apply. We made our applications and were then told to come back the next day to get our passports stamped with the visas but when we explained that we might not be able to come back the next day, he said he told us to come back in the afternoon. The visa would normally cost US$5, but the rate of exchange that the Embassy applied was the official one, so the cost was only going to be 125 riels, which applying the black market exchange rate that we were working to the visas were only going to cost $2.
After we had said our thank you and goodbye to our host, we went to pick up our visas, then spent the afternoon looking around Phnom Penh. The first stop was the Prince Norodom Sihanouk museum. We had thought that it was going to be an ordinary museum that the Prince had given his name to, but we were wrong. The museum was in fact all about the Crown Prince. Every exhibit in the museum was about him and his life. All his cast off clothes were on display,
By now it was getting late and we started to look for somewhere to have a meal. Wherever we looked was either far too expensive or was closed for the night. Eventually we found a place
We left our bags at the Wat while we went to have breakfast. After eating we went back to the Royal Palace museum and tour, but the entrance fee was 50 riels each for foreigners, even though it was only 10 riels for Cambodians. We tried to talk them into letting us go in as Cambodians, but they wouldn't allow it, so we decided not to bother. This was partly because of the price and partly because we only had about 75 riels between the three of us and we all desperately needed to change some money.
Finding somebody in Phnom Penh to change money was not an easy task. Whenever we asked somebody where we could change money we kept being directed to a bank. The black market was not making itself easy to find. We persevered and eventually found somebody to change money and got 62 riels to a dollar, an improvement of 2 riels. Once we had changed money, Mike went to buy his roll of film. We had offered to lend him a roll of ours, but we were using Kodachrome transparency film and he wanted prints.
We waited at the Wat for Mike to come back and when he returned we all collected our bags and started walking to the bus station to catch a bus to Siem Reap. On the way, Louis fell over and nearly hurt himself badly when he landed awkwardly with his frame landing on top of him. We both had to lift the frame off him before he could get up.
The bus fare to Siem Reap was 100 riels each, a fare that we felt had been inflated because we were foreigners. We haggled with the driver and eventually he agreed to take the three of us for a total of 200 riels, which in my opinion was still too much. We later found that the other passengers were only paying 70 riels each for their fare, but they were Cambodians. Everybody else put their luggage on the roof where it sat on a large wooden rack, but was not tied down. Feeling that it was not too secure, we kept ours inside with us. This caused us to have an argument with one of the passengers, but we still insisted on keeping our luggage inside with us and eventually he gave up. The passenger we had argued with spoke excellent English and eventually we became very friendly and chatted for a lot of the journey.
The bus set off and we travelled for about an hour before coming to a stop in a long queue. The queue was for the ferry crossing across the Tonle Sap and we had to wait for four and a half
We eventually arrived in Siem Reap at exactly midnight and the place was almost deserted. Louis went into the bus station café to ask if there was a Wat nearby where we could sleep. There was a man sitting having a drink and he invited us all to join him. He bought us all a drink, then he invited us to come and stay at his home. He lived a bit outside the town so after we had finished our drinks he called a couple of cyclo puss's and we all piled in and went to his house. His name was Meas-Sarithi and he was a waiter at the Auberge Royal, a first class hotel situated opposite the entrance to the main temple of Angkor Wat. His house was quite near to the hotel and had the luxury of a relatively modern bathroom where we were able to take a bath before going to sleep.
It was fortunate that the house had a bathroom because Mike was up for half the night with diarrhoea. By the morning he had stopped running but he wasn't feeling at his best. Meas-Sarithi offered to lend us some bicycles to tour the area, but Mike didn't feel up to cycling around and said that he would rather go on foot. Although Louis and I would have loved to take up his offer we decided it would be unfair to leave him behind. So bright and early we all set off on foot to walk around Angkor Wat. That was a big mistake, because we didn't realise how well spaced the temples were. Although the total area of Angkor Wat is more than 500 square kilometres, the area where the most important buildings are was still in excess of 150 square kilometres and riding bicycles we could only expect to see a small portion of it. On foot we were going to see even less.
After what seemed hours of walking we eventually came across our first Angkor ruin, the Bayon. It had been built during the 11th and 12th centuries and used to be the centre of the great city of Angkor Thom, which had a population of hundreds of thousands. The only people here now were the occasional tourists and their guides. The city had originally been surrounded by 16 kilometres of wall. The Bayon itself consists of a mass of 49 square towers, carved on each of its 4 sides with the face of a god. Mike said "good grief, 200 smiling gods". Maybe we were not at our best, having walked all the way in the hot sun, but the past glory of the ruins were lost on us and they just seemed like a load of lumps of rock. Agreed, the lumps were many years old, having been built by the Khmers a long time ago. Even so it didn't do an awful lot for us at the time, which in view of the size, carving detail and complexity of the place, was probably an unfair judgement.
When we came out onto the main road again we were fortunate to find a taxi coming along. We tried to haggle with the driver about the fare, but he wouldn't budge and we had to pay the high price he originally asked. There were very few empty taxis around and in that heat he certainly knew it was a seller's market.
The taxi dropped us at the back entrance of the Angkor Wat temple. The temple is surrounded by a water filled moat and we crossed the causeway into the back door and walked through to the other side. The ruins there were really good, decorated with elaborate stone carvings that were still visible. The front of the Angkor Wat had a beautiful bas-relief frieze, which is almost half a mile long. It was really worth photographing, except that the sun was shining full on it at that time and I felt that the detail would be lost. We decided to come back near to the sunset when the shadows would be longer and the bas-relief would stand out more. Being the main attraction of Angkor Wat, there were food and souvenir stalls outside, so we where finally able to have something to eat. We then went into the Auberge Royal to enjoy a drink in the air-conditioned bar where Meas-Sarithy works. As soon as we came through the door he saw us and showed us to a table where we all just sank into the comfortable armchairs, while he gave us each an icy cold towel to cool ourselves down.
Monday 20th January 1969
At the bus station a taxi driver who offered to take us to the border for the same price as the bus fare approached us. We checked up and found that the bus fare was 80 riels each. The taxi was 240 reils and so we decided to take him up on his offer, mainly because he offered to take us right to the border, while if we caught the bus we would have to walk the last part. We put all our bags on the roof of the Peugeot estate car (all Cambodian taxis seem to be Peugeot estates) then got in ready to go, but the driver demanded payment before we moved off. Suspecting a con trick we didn't want to pay in advance, so the driver called over a policeman. The policeman didn't speak any English and we couldn't understand his French, so he went over to the tourist office and came back with one of the men who worked behind the counter there. He explained that in the past a number of backpackers had gone across the border without paying for the taxi, so now they all demand payment up front. It wasn't a con trick because the driver was a licensed taxi and if he did trick us he would certainly lose his valuable licence. So we were persuaded to pay him in advance and the smiling policeman and the tourist officer waved us off. The American and his wife watched the whole episode from their balcony with great enjoyment and as the taxi moved off we could hear him calling out "You Aussie guys causing trouble again?" He must have thought we were Australian.
If we thought we were going to travel in comfort, we had another think coming. The taxi stopped at a taxi rank just around the corner where he piled in another seven paying passengers. No wonder he could compete with the bus on fares. Including the driver there were now eleven of us in a car designed to carry seven passengers, plus a roof piled high with luggage. The first stop on the journey was a town called Sisophon, 106 kilometres away. As the taxi came into Sisophon the driver stopped and spoke to somebody at the side of the road. The next thing, this person got in and sat between the driver and his door, which was how we arrived at the taxi station at Sisophon. From there the driver transferred us to another taxi for the 30 odd kilometre driver over unsealed roads to the border. When we arrived at the police checkpoint the driver started to unload our luggage, but we insisted that he waited for us to clear the immigration formalities, which was just as well because from the checkpoint to the border was another couple of kilometres. At the border proper we had to take our passports into a building to be checked. We then got back into the taxi for a short drive of a hundred yards to a turning circle where he dropped us off at the start of what looked like a short path over a footbridge. At the end of the bridge was a wooden gate that looked just like a garden gate, with a name on it saying "Thailand". We opened the gate and let ourselves in.
Footnote 1. About Cambodia in the 1970's:
In re-writing this diary I have up to now enjoyed the memories that have been revived. Although I still have happy memories of my travels in Cambodia, they are tinged with sadness at the thoughts of the events of the mid 1970's and of the probable fate of the many people we met and talked with as well as those who offered us hospitality during our brief visit. I even found myself waking up at night thinking about it, something that hasn't happened when writing about the other countries. It is more than likely that many if not all of the people we dealt with who spoke to us in English or French would have been considered intellectuals and would have fallen victim to that regime's wholesale killings.
I would like to think that some of them escaped.
Footnote 2. About Stung Treng: