Angkor Wat?

Trip Start Dec 30, 2006
Trip End Jul 27, 2007

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Welcome to one of the most corrupt countries in the world.  The legacy of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime still can be felt today and some of the people involved in those atrocities that created a country where upwards of 40% of the population is under the age of 19, are still involved in the new 'democratic' government which may explain why so few have been brought to justice since the fall of the regime in 1979.

Even with the corruption that exists today and the still-recent atrocities conducted by the Khmer Rouge where up to two million people where killed, the people I met where some of the friendliest I have met so far on my trip.  Despite concerns about the current government and some frustration with development of their economy most of them where very optimistic about the future of their country.

Only one airline is allowed to fly between Siem Reap and Bangkok - a lucrative monopoly given the large number of tourists coming to the Angkor temples from the Bangkok area.  This means high fares and the opportunity to take the legendary overland route from Thailand.  The overland route is, literally, a pain in the ass.  The rumour is that the airline with a monopoly pays a significant bribe to keep the road from the Cambodia border to Siem Reap in such terrible shape because other roads in the country are not nearly as bad. 

I have driven before on rough roads but this was intense for the entire ride, about two hours straight of potholes that cars can fit easily into.  It really was a pain in the ass.  The current airline monopoly ends in 2009 so it will be interesting to see, if that dynamic changes, if the government will put some money into fixing the road, which would help to increase tourism to the Angkor area.

The only real way to go overland is to take a bus or train to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, grab a tuk-tuk to the border - about 6kms away - and then grab a share taxi from the Cambodia side into the town of Siem Reap.  Once your in that share taxi, hold on for the ride of your life!  There is a direct bus but it is more expensive and a scam.  Instead of taking about six hours for the trip, the "tourist" bus can take upwards of fourteen hours to make the trip and will then drop off tired, disorientated tourists at an out of the way guesthouse in the middle of the night that pays the bus company a commission.  

The Cambodian visa was supposed to cost $20US but I was asked for about $26US by the border guard for 'expedited' service...aka his bribe.  I had known it was coming and I did point at the big sign that showed the $20 price but I just got a shrug and a grin.  Not wanting to sit around for a few hours while the paperwork "cleared" I paid the bribe and, lo and behold, I had my visa processed and issued within about two minutes.

Since I got into town in the late afternoon I didn't bother going out to the temples the first day.  I just ended up walking around Siem Reap, which is very easy to get around and seems much smaller than the 200,000 population would suggest.  So far no fast food outlets, or for that matter, any big brands in this town that attracts upwards of a million tourists a year.  I was a little surprised by that, considering all the tourists knocking about visiting the temples.

I grabbed a three day pass for the temples and spent the next few days visiting a few of the many different Angkor sites.  I had known Angkor was huge...but wow.  There is no way anyone can see everything in three days and I didn't even get close.  At the same time, three days I think was just about right.  Even though I didn't see all the temples or even all the recommended ones, I think any more than three days and I would have been "templed-out" which would detract from the enjoyment, I think.  I guess this is a place you have to visit multiple times to appreciate the size of the grounds.  I read in an article that, at the peak of its rule, upwards of one million people lived in Angkor...when London had a population of about 50,000.

By far, I think, the most impressive temple I visited was Bayon...which I returned to a couple of times after seeing it on the second day.  Situated in the dead center of the impressive Angkor Thom grounds, this is the temple with over two hundred face towers looming over the structure.  Catching the face towers in different lights seemed to give this temple a different feel on each of the different times I visited it.  It was impressive.

After a couple days of tromping around the temple areas I was looking for a massage - a legit massage - for my sore feet.  There are many many massage places in Siem Reap, I'm not sure how many are legit but the one I found was.  I think someone has realized with so many tourists in town and the incredible Angkor temples just around the corner there will be a lot of foreigners looking to heel their sore muscles.

I ended up making friends with one of the people I met there and a group of us ended up going out a few times, including swimming and karaoke.  Swimming was nice even if the river was a tad brown.  Being the only foreigner at these places meant I got a few "what the hell..." looks from the locals and a lot of curiosity from the kids.  But, it was all good - even if I couldn't read any of the lyrics at karaoke.
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