Angkor Wat

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Sunday, February 6, 2005

I have lost count now of the number of times I have sat with sweaty palms awaiting my imminent demise. I swear that I am not exaggerating any of these stories. The boat that took us to Siem Reap turned out to be a hydrofoil-a new one to add to our list of transportation. The length of time for the boat ride as quoted by the travel agent: 4 hours. Actual time spent on boat: 8 hours.

We had seats below in the long, narrow cabin, jammed in with 100 other people. Our seats were in the very back-93 and 94 respectively. About as far away from the exit as you could possibly get. In addition to the passengers in the cabin and the luggage in the hold, roughly another 100 people were packed onto the roof. I realized that we had been about 6 tickets away from frying in the hot Cambodian sun for 8 hours. The whole situation was horrific and grossly unsafe (200 people + 0 life preservers = bad times). It didn't help that Lonely Planet had written a short blurb about this very boat ride, describing how an overloaded hydrofoil had sunk a couple of years ago. Just one matter-of-fact little sentence, nothing to indicate whether people had died or if we should have avoided the boat ride all together. I guess we could say that we had been forewarned.

I sat there staring out at the endless Tonle Sap Lake, thinking up contingency plans and details like, "is it better to go head first or feet first out the window?" My fears about drowning were somewhat assuaged later in the ride when we got stuck in the shallow lake water. Twice. You know how a hydrofoil is supposed to float on water, skimming across the surface? Yeah, well this one didn't. We sat for hours in one spot. Every once in awhile they would fire up the engines and try to move the boat, which involved violent pitching from left to right. People on tour boats going in the opposite direction stood out on their decks and pointed and laughed at our immobility. I hated them all.

As we finally neared land, all of the passengers were unloaded and transferred to a fleet of smaller boats so that we could sail up the narrow waterways. Ours was the last to depart because a Chinese tourist on board had forgotten his wet wipes on the larger boat and made the small boat circle around to get them. He then almost capsized the boat leaning out to take a picture. I glanced over at Mellisa who was seething and saying something to the effect of, "f***ing China. Can't escape it." We were both on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The place where we finally docked was nothing more than a collection of wooden huts. I was blown away by the smell, which was something like a rotting fish/manure mixture. The heat was absolutely oppressive and the flies swarmed around our heads. Children with stick legs and rags for clothes dogged our every step asking for money in their high, plaintive voices. This was not Siem Reap. The hotel hawkers, waiting like cats to pounce on the disoriented travelers, herded us through the shanty town as quickly as possible and loaded us into mini-buses for the final jaunt into town. We drove down roads pockmarked with the biggest potholes (actually small craters) I have ever seen. This place reminds me a lot of Tanzania: banana trees and dilapidated thatched roof huts and naked brown babies playing in the dust. Siem Reap is a burgeoning backpacker oasis in the midst of dire poverty.

Although we had purchased a room in advance in PP, we arrived at our guesthouse only to be told that (naturally) there were no free rooms. So, we were shuttled off to another guesthouse across town. Another glimpse into the interconnected world of the tourism business here: hotels/restaurants/bus drivers/taxi drivers/travel agencies/travel agents all get their cut. They pass the tourists off from one to the other like a relay race baton.

During our stay in Siem Reap, we rode everywhere in a tuk-tuk (motorcycle in front pulling a carriage-like appendage). Ours was manned by a sweet, skinny kid whom we christened Snoop (he was wearing a shirt that said "Snoop 43" on the back). He took us to see the sunset at one of the most popular spots. It was so popular, in fact, that hundreds of other people decided to share in the special moment as well. I felt like I was in a crowded movie theater waiting for the show to begin.

The next day we got a later start (8:30am) having decided to bypass the 5am wake-up call necessary to see the sun rise. Much of the morning was spent clambering over massive piles of rubble and losing ourselves in the maze of stone corridors and stairwells of the temples. During the afternoon we visited Ta Prohm, my favorite temple. The jungle is slowly reclaiming the structures here; giant tree roots have worked themselves around the stones so that the two are inextricably entwined.

We took a water break in a small courtyard. I looked to my right and lazily watched an old Cambodian man who was sitting on the steps next to me, selling wooden trinkets. I thought to myself, wow, he looks kind of that little stoop-backed bald Cambodian man on the cover of the Lonely Planet book. And then it dawned on me: that photo was taken at Angkor. Maybe he was the little stoop-backed bald Cambodian man on the cover of Lonely Planet. Sure enough, he was. I had him autograph my bootlegged copy, took a picture of him and walked away feeling like I had just met a celebrity, or at the very least a backpacker's cult icon. The funny thing was, there were hordes of other tourists, all with their Lonely Planets in hand, all of whom walked right past him without giving him a second glance. For being on the cover of such a well known publication, I bet he doesn't get recognized as often as you might think.

The final sight of the day was Angkor Wat. I won't go in depth with my descriptions, but it was truly overwhelming and stunning. The spires looked like they had been dripped down from the heavens. I wish we could linger in Siem Reap for a few days to really absorb the atmosphere, but the schedule is tight and so is our budget. Back to PP tomorrow, and I think we will opt for the bus this time.
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