Hey everybody! So I’m no longer updating this blog – I don’t want to get too emo but nothing’s permanent and we just have to move on. For my farewell post, I’m sharing an article I wrote in 2009 that inspired me to blog in the first place. This article was first published by Manila Bulletin Online in 2010 and it tells the story of my first backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. Enjoy and thanks for TEN YEARS of support. Rica’s Rucksack signing off.
THE RUCKSACK TO CAMBODIA by Patricia Yulo
It all started with a plan and a rucksack. We initially called it “The Beer tour.” Diana wanted to make her return to Asia memorable by tasting every locally brewed beer. She said she was tired of drinking Western concoctions and wanted something different. I, on the other hand, just wanted to get drunk in another place besides Manila.
After spending hours on the phone and internet chat, we finally came up with the right name for our plan. We called it, “The Rucksack To Cambodia.”
“The Rucksack To Cambodia” mission was to reach Siem Reap, Cambodia from Manila in four easy steps:
- Fly to Bangkok, Thailand
- Ride a bus to Aranyaprathet, Thailand
- Walk about six kilometers from Aranyaprathet to the Cambodian border in Poipet
- Hail a cab from the Cambodian border to Siem Reap
Since we wanted to make most of our time in each destination, we also included a list of important landmarks plus stopovers at famous bars to drink, well, lots of beer of course.
I was excited for Thailand because of the temples, the exotic food, the floating markets and the famous ladyboys. But most of all, I was excited for Cambodia, the home of the Angkor Wat temple.
Ten years ago, Hollywood celebrity and Oscar winner Angelina Jolie went to Cambodia to film the movie, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” A few scenes were filmed at Angkor Wat, the famous temple complex at Siem Reap.
Constructed in the 12th century, the Angkor Wat was built as a state temple for the king. It is said to be the quintessence of classic Khmer architecture with its intricate sculptures and bas reliefs.
The temple’s three towers resembling the shape of a lotus is also a famous site depicted in every Cambodian commodity, from their local beer to their local currency. Jolie, in an interview, admitted that she fell in love with the place. And when I saw the pictures, I understood why.
I’ve always wanted to see the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap. Let me put it this way: I’ve been desperate. I saw a perfect picture in my head: me, in a lotus position, meditating inside the temple. I’ve always believed that the Hindu gods have never left its sacred ground. And the opportunity arrived thanks to my beer-hungry bestfriend who wanted more than a Heineken.
We started our journey with only a few hundred dollars and a rucksack containing a few clothes. We didn’t ask for assistance from any travel agency. We simply read travel blogs on how to reach Cambodia. We wanted it raw and koboy.
We left late Friday night and arrived just a few minutes before midnight at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Thailand. After finding the right airport taxi, we headed to our first resting place: a $15, dilapidated guest house at Trokmayom Chakrapongse Road.
Our room at the guesthouse looked like a gruesome crime scene. The bed had yellowish stains and the walls had some gooey, caramel-like specimen that my mind cannot fathom. But at the back of the $15 filth was the famous Khao San road.
Bars selling cheap alcohol, pad Thai, vintage shirts, gaudy hats, and carts displaying edible grasshoppers, worms and scorpions line the long road of Khao San that explodes with colorful bright lights at night. Once in a while, a tuktuk carrying a drunken tourist would pass by. Khao San Road is a tourist hub yet it does not speak of the “real” Thailand. It is a mere sanctuary for the weak longing for cheap kegs of liquor.
After a night in Khao San, we spent the next two days wandering the streets of Bangkok, stopping by famous tourist destinations including Jim Thompson’s house, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), The Grand Palace and the Taling Chan Floating Market. A good friend also recommended Pat Pong, which hosts the famous ping-pong shows. Prior to my Patpong research, I already imagined a dark alley lined with pimps and vendors selling x-rated dibidis. But I was wrong. A website said, “No visit to Bangkok is complete without a night at Patpong.” The web site was right, especially if you love getting discounts for Aqua Velva or Polident.
Patpong is a long strip with a number of girly bars. Since the website and my friend recommended it, we decided to experience the serpent’s lair.
In any place in Asia, or in any place in the world for that matter, trapping tourists is an infamous hobby of locals who are in desperate need of cash. Their main target: gullible and sissy tourists. Scammers would usually offer a grand package for a cheap price. Since scammers have pseudo PHD degrees on sales and marketing, gullible tourists would normally be tempted to try the package. And since scammers are assisted by local and corrupt authorities, sissy tourists wouldn’t normally have the balls to fight back.
Patpong is one place in Thailand known for its scam schemes. I was aware of it, and so was my friend. But the curious Scholastican / Lasallian in us said, “Go see the ping-pong show you vixen!” Despite my reservations, Diana told me to go with the flow and keep my head up.
We arrived at Patpong and started taking pictures of the entrance when a short man in a white suit approached us and asked, “Peeeng-pown? Peeeng-pown?”
The man, who looked like the shorter version of Kuya Kim, gave a big annoying grin. Without any hint of hesitation, we followed him to a bar with a name that can turn Gaudencio Rosales into one bellicose bishop: Super Pussy.
Before he even opened the entrance door, he made it clear that the show would cost a hundred baht with a beer. After giving our approval, he again displayed his irritating grin and led us in.
Inside Super Pussy, neon green lights streaked all over the stage filled with about twenty naked women dancing to a plangent sound. The air was a mixture of cigarette smoke and a musty smell that either emanated from the couch or the women in front of us. I told Diana that I wanted to leave after a bottle because it felt like being imprisoned in an unsanitized dungeon of human flesh that needed gallons of Lysol.
As we were about to finish our bottle, a middle aged man wearing a corporate suit, along with a scantily clad waitress, came to our table and told us to pay 3000 baht if we want to continue watching the show.
Diana gave a no gesture and told me to start heading for the exit. As we were about to open the exit door, two more waitresses blocked our way. We looked around for “Mr. Irritating Smile” but couldn’t find him. “Mr. Corporate” tapped my shoulder and ordered me to “pay 3000 baht now!”
Diana, who spent most of her years convincing people in L.A. to do this and that, started arguing with “Mr. Corporate.” I stood still and watched one of my bestfriends engage in a verbal battle with a man who had a race car for a mouth. It took about ten minutes before his engine finally died down. “Get out! Get out!” Mr. Corporate yelled and literally pushed us out of the bar. We didn’t get to pay anything, thanks to Diana and her “L.A. gangsta” moves (or mouth). Later on, she told me that she wasn’t afraid to fight back because there were other tourists around. No sane Thai would want his or her business to shut down just because of a stubborn (or smart) tourist.
After spending three nights in Thailand, we woke up 330 a.m. on a Monday morning to prepare for our long trip to Cambodia. We left our inn thirty minutes later and headed to Morchit, the Northern Bus station.
We arrived at the station in less than an hour and purchased our tickets to Aranyaprathet, a district in the Sa Kaeo Province of Thailand which is six kilometers away from Poipet, the Cambodian border. After stuffing ourselves with Pucca sticks and coffee, we boarded the air-conditioned bus and left Bangkok at exactly 5am. Five hours later, we arrived at Aranyaprathet and headed to the Thai immigration office.
Since Filipinos are allowed to enter Cambodia without a Visa, Diana and I didn’t have to wait in line for long. After getting our passports stamped out of Thailand, we walked towards the road that led to an arch with a sign that said, Kingdom of Cambodia.
My head started to spin, as if being injected with some hallucinogen that led to a veritable euphoric rush. The nearly-a-decade illusion finally became a reality. Right in front of me was the Kingdom of Cambodia. But something interrupted my jocund state.
Before this journey, Diana and I made a research on how to cross the Thailand-Cambodia border alive. Past travelers warned of the infamous Cambodian touts who enjoyed feeding their families with the money of ignorant tourists. Being a bona fide paranoiac, I knew they were creeping behind the bushes like wolves waiting for fresh foreign meat. But for some reason, I felt a bit confident because of the major research we did. So I told Diana to just keep on walking until we see a black Toyota Camry, which would be the association taxi that would take us to Siem Reap.
We were approaching the arch when a tall, dark guy, donned in a white collared plain shirt, approached me and Diana and told us about a cheap taxi that would take us to Siem Reap. He had a good accent and seemed pretty decent, like that Dr. Suresh from the TV series Heroes. But we knew right then and there that he was a tout. To test our know-how, we asked him if he was part of an association taxi. He replied, “No. They’re expensive. Let me take you to Siem Reap. It’s cheaper.”
“No thanks,” I said. Travel blogs are really useful, I thought to myself. We were about to cross the arch when a Cambodian police officer, who stood nearby, signaled for us to follow him. We haven’t read anything about being stopped by a Cambodian cop but we followed him anyway because he had a gun. He led us to a shaded area just a few steps away from the arch and asked us to present our passports.
I looked around and noticed the tout walking towards the shaded area. After giving the officer our passports, he took out two immigration papers and filled it out for us. We watched him slowly print our names on the papers. Then the tout appeared and positioned himself a few steps away from where we sat. The officer folded the immigration papers, inserted them inside our passports and told us that we should pay him 100 baht for the papers. I looked at the tout whose face was motionless. I looked at Diana who was dead silent. “Let’s just give it to him and get out of here,” I said to her. We gave the officer the money and hurriedly walked back towards the arch.
I could feel a great sense of anxiousness and my heartbeat was running as fast as the mouth of “Mr. Corporate.” We crossed the arch and walked briskly towards the Cambodian immigration office which was a few meters away. When we got there, another officer was handing out papers for the tourists to sign. I noticed that it was the same immigration paper that the previous officer signed for us. It dawned on me that we were scammed. Those papers were free, of course.
The midday heat was piercing our skin and our stomachs were yelping. After getting our passports stamped by the Cambodian immigration officer, we headed towards the exit where our faithful tout greeted us again. Our hunger kept us silent as we looked for a black Toyota Camry. Based on our research, drivers of association taxis are dressed in a yellow-orange shirt or a white shirt with a company emblem. But we couldn’t find anyone wearing either of the shirts.
With our heavy rucksacks, we stood at the side of the road waiting for a black Toyota Camry to show up. Sensing our apprehension, one tout approached us, followed by another one, and another one. In less than a minute, we found ourselves surrounded by ten touts blurting out a barrage of words that neither of us could understand though I did hear the word “Siem” followed by “Reap” sporadically.
Perhaps, it was the blistering sun that made me scream out so loud, “We want taxi!” The Angkor gods might have been awakened by my desperate cry because a black Toyota Camry suddenly stopped in front of us. Diana and I pushed our way out the crowd of touts and headed towards the backdoor of the car. “Take us to Siem Reap please,” I told the driver. But he didn’t move the car. The tout, who had been following us since the beginning, entered the front seat and started speaking to the driver. In an angry tone, I asked what was going on. The driver put on the gas and then the tout turned to us and said, “Oh don’t worry. We will take you to Siem Reap for 1500 baht”. Travel blog says $45 to get to Siem Reap. Check! “Ok,” I said and we were on our way to the city.
The afternoon heat was scorching, the air conditioner of the car wasn’t working well, and there was some pungent smell that my nose couldn’t take. But my senses calmed because we were already headed for Siem Reap. We were about 800 meters away from the border when the tout asked where we were staying. “Angkor Thom hotel,” I said. He responded, “Oh that’s a very old hotel.” I didn’t want to argue so I simply smiled and said, “Good. We love places with a bit of history.” He burst into laughter and then the cab driver stopped along with my heartbeat. I looked around and saw to my right, a malnourished cow basking under the sun on a vast land of grass with scattered sugar palm trees. To my left were small wooden shacks that seemed abandoned. Out of nowhere, another thin, dark guy with a mustache walked towards the car, opened the front seat, and sat beside the tout.
Diana and I looked at each other and started sensing fear. She had been quiet the whole time as there were no tourists around.
Mr. Mustache talked to the tout who probably told the cab driver to start his engine. The car ran slowly and the tout turned to us again and said, “This is my friend, he’s coming with us”.
Visions of “Taken” and “Hostel” flashed in front of me. Are they going to rape or sell us? Are we going to be part of a sex slave deal? Insane thoughts were running back and forth inside my head.
Diana was smart enough to keep silent yet she took pictures of the driver’s ID, which was hanging from the rearview mirror, and pretended to call her mother as a warning that we had informed others of our situation.
The car stopped again, this time, in front of a small market. The tout turned towards me and said, “You should give me the money right now because in Siem Reap, they don’t accept Baht so we have to change your money here to Riel.”
With no tourists and police around, I responded, “No, you take us to the hotel first then we will give you the money.” He seemed very insistent and replied, “You don’t understand. In Siem Reap, they don’t accept baht.” I retorted back saying, “Then we pay you in dollars but we want you to take us to the hotel first!” The tout may have not taken it well. He sharply pointed his index finger at me and in a loud voice said, “You listen to me. Cambodia and Thailand are at war! Cambodia does not accept Baht so give your money right now because I have to change it to Riel!” The thought of him running away with our money made me yell, “No take us to the hotel first!” I felt that I may have provoked him because he stepped out of the car, opened my door, gave me a furious look, and screamed right at my face:
“You have to listen to me! Cambodia does not accept Baht! You have to give your money to me right now!”
“No! You take us to the hotel first then we’ll give you the money!”
“You do not understand! We do not accept Baht!”
I wanted to scream for help. I looked at Diana and she was shaking. She told me that we should run out of the cab. But I told her that it wasn’t a good plan for we were in the middle of nowhere and we couldn’t find other cabs around. The tout was breathing heavily beside me while Mr. Mustache was looking at both of us from the front seat. As for the cab driver, he was silent. We were stunned, and we were shocked. I could feel my legs wobbling. Diana was dead silent and turning white. I wanted my mommy.
Perhaps, my silence punctured the tout’s patience, forcing him to slam the car door.
I told Diana to just give them what they want to end it. It was hot, we didn’t know where we were, they were all men, we were very tired and hungry, and we just wanted to be safe. I finally handed 1500 baht to the tout. He took it without saying a word and headed towards the market. He came back a few minutes later and returned to the front seat of the car. He spoke to the driver whom he gave half of the money. Then he looked at us and said, “This driver will take you to your hotel. You don’t have to pay him anything. Can you give me and my friend a tip? We are going back to the border right now.”
Too shell-shocked to argue, I just took my wallet, removed the first paper money without noticing the amount, and handed it to the tout who laughed when he saw it. “No, you give me and my friend more,” he said and handed me back a 20 baht bill. I wanted to cry. I took out a 100 baht and gave it to him. “Thank you and have a nice day,” he said smiling.
The tout and Mr. Mustache went out of the car and headed to the market. I told the driver to just go. We were silent during the rest of the trip. Two hours and a half later, we finally arrived in Siem Reap. The driver then took us to Angkor Thom hotel, which was quite clean and new.
The day arrived when we were finally on our way to Angkor Wat. It was 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. The wind was calm and the sun peeped through a sea of white clouds. We rode a tuktuk to Angkor, passing by the serene streets of Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is a six hour drive from the capital, Phnom Penh. The city is slowly turning into a commercialized area as businesses continuously grow. But the temples remain secluded from the hustle and bustle of urban living and yes, overflowing liquor.
From our hotel, it took about 15 minutes to reach the bridge road leading to the entrance of the Angkor Wat. Walking the bridge road was bliss in itself and I couldn’t help but notice the grandeur of what was in front of me. It felt like an unexplained buzz, an ultimate psychedelic trip that I would never want to stop. I raised my arms in exhilaration and heaved a sigh of relief.
Angkor Wat was a massive ground of consecrated relics. Despite a yearly overflow of tourists, local Cambodians have managed to preserve centuries of sacred ground and this doesn’t just speak for their commitment towards their faith and culture, it also speaks for the fact that they need to live and save an impoverished nation.
When I finally reached the temple, I immediately sensed a divine presence surrounding the colossal pantheon. At one point, I sat on the foot of one of the towers. I noticed how tiny I was compared to the structure behind me. I asked myself how the people in the past have created such beauty without any technological assistance. And why evolution is a paradox as it corrupts minds and creates a dead world. The experience was harrowing yet fulfilling at the same time.
Backpacking on a shoestring budget has its downside. It means giving up the luxury of being assisted by travel agents or reaching destinations with fewer problems. “The Rucksack to Cambodia” did not include the words “first class,” “hotels” or “arranged pickups.” If “The Rucksack to Cambodia” were a passport, it would have had words like “budget,” “cheap,” or “guesthouse” stamped all over it. And let’s not forget the word “scam” of course.
The thing is, the road trip may have been horrendous but a historical and majestic temple overshadowed every inch of trepidation and torment.
Being inside the sacrosanct hallways, feeling the ancient sandstones, and witnessing the grand stone monuments were all I needed to forget that I had to endure an ordeal just to get myself and my rucksack to Cambodia.
It was an experience that made every cannabis hit seem like a petty fart. It was an experience that made beer drinking as lousy as a Jinggoy Estrada movie.
Most of all, it was an experience that made me say, “I just meditated inside Angkor Wat so %$#@ you and your scam!”