Cambodia Redeemed, well, Sort of

Trip Start Apr 21, 2009
Trip End Aug 15, 2009

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Monday, June 1, 2009

We arrived at Siem Reap in the dark (of course) and in a rainstorm (of course). The bus dumped us off in some pitch-black “bus depot” that was conveniently located too far from town to arrive by foot, so we negotiated with a tuk tuk driver to take us into town. He immediately tried to book us as a tuk tuk driver for getting to the temples at Angkor, but we staved him off and said that we just wanted a ride into town. He hemmed and hawed and haggled after we told him that, but eventually he took us into town. We had picked out a place to stay ahead of time, called Mandalay Inn, and it was absolutely gorgeous and a great value at $9 a night. The folks at the guesthouse helped us book a real tuk tuk driver to take us to the temples the next day, and we tried to get plenty of rest that night for a full day of sightseeing in the blistering heat the next day.

The following day, we got a bit of a late start (relatively speaking), and at around 9 AM we met our tuk tuk driver. Thon, the driver, was awesome even though he didn’t speak a ton of English. He took us to all the sights we wanted to go to, and gave us cold bottles of water along the way. He even sliced up a watermelon at the end of the hot day and let us sit in the shade and eat in relative peace. Our first temple destination was a far-flung temple that was well-known for its intricate carving and the use of pink sandstone. It was small, but covered in tiny detailed carving that was absolutely beautiful. We dodged hordes of tourists (and continued to do so throughout the 3 days we toured the temples) and armies of locals touting their wares -- cold water, coconuts, shawls, paintings, guidebooks, toys, postcards, bracelets, necklaces, etc. It was truly incredible the number of times that men, women, and TONS of children approached us on our way into and out of (and also inside of!) the temples, trying to extract dollars from us. The typical sales pitch went like this: “Hello sir madam, you want cold watta? Bracelets? Two for one dolla? Okay, three for one dolla? You don’t want any? OK, you come back to me after temple and you buy from me, OK? I remember you!” Repeat, over and over again. Despite the beauty of the temples at Angkor Wat, the incessant touting did get under our skin -- we knew that it was the only way for many of the poorer folks in Siem Reap (and most of the Khmer are poor) to make money, but it kind of hampered our understanding and enjoyment of the sites.

Anyway, on our first day we saw 2 or 3 temples, and headed home to unwind and relax. For dinner, we picked up some street food consisting of a small bowl of noodles, but we remained hungry so we headed out to the main drag (conveniently known as “bar street”) for some very tasty Khmer curry. That night, we headed in early so that we could get enough rest for our sunrise tour of the main temple at Angkor Wat. Our tuk tuk driver picked us up at 4:30 AM, which is an extremely ungodly hour, and dumped us off near the entrance to the temple at 4:45. The sun wasn’t scheduled to go up for another hour or so, but we had nothing to do and we were the first tourists there so we wandered up and down the main causeway of the temple’s water-surrounded entrance in the pitch black. A random security guard was the only person onsite and when we asked him where a good place was to watch the sun rise, he said “follow me.”

Hanan and I followed him up to a high tower marked “closed” and he pushed the barrier aside, saying that it was closed for renovations but that we could sneak up there with him. We looked at each other with an “oh, well, if we die at least it will be in a beautiful place” look at followed him up an extremely steep set of stairs. In the darkness, the three of us waited for the sun to rise while bats flew overhead. When we asked if we could get in trouble for going up the stairs, he muttered something like “You’re not supposed to go but it’s okay if you’re with me.” After waiting for 30 minutes or so, the guy of course left us up there alone. But it was ok, since we got nice photos of the sun rising (it was definitely a mediocre sunrise with lots of clouds blocking the way) and a completely deserted upper portion of the temple. We made our way down the scarily steep steps and snapped tons of pictures of the temple in the quiet of the early morning. Many tourists had gathered by that time at one of the two reflecting pools just outside of the temple complex. We joined several of them in eating an overpriced breakfast (banana chocolate pancakes are good at any price, though, of course) and tried in vain to book a tour guide to show us around the rest of Angkor Wat. Apparently, you can only book tour guides outside of the park. Who knew? We toured the rest of Angkor Wat for the afternoon, which was more than enough to entertain us since it is huge and covered in intricate, informative carvings depicting lots of Hindu myths and stories.

By the time it got really hot, we decided to go home to catch a nap since we had woken up at 3:30 AM. After the glorious nap, we ate lunch and booked a tour guide for the second half of the day. He was an excellent guide -- his name was Thai, and he was extremely informative and full of knowledge about the architectural elements, carvings, legends, stories, etc. regarding the temples. He took us to a temple with detailed carvings depicting the everyday lives of the subjects in the Khmer empire and explained the dynasties of the Khmer kings and how their lineage affected the building of the temples. Thai took us to a few more sites before the heavy rains started -- these became an everyday occurrence in Cambodia since apparently it was rainy season. We trudged through the rain back to the tuk tuk and called it a day after it started to get dark. That evening, we met up with our friends Leann and Amanda and their friend Carmen who was staying with them in the same hotel. We had an excellent meal of Italian food (or about as excellent as Italian food in Cambodia can get) and then Carmen, Hanan and I wandered around the Siem Reap night market and went to a bar called Temple Bar. We got a free t-shirt for buying 2 jugs of mixed drinks (they were strong!) and Carmen kept the shirt -- Hanan and I have too many beer-related shirts anyway. We slept gloriously that night knowing that we would not have to wake up at a ridiculously early hour.

The following day was our last day of touring the temples, and Thai took us to a few more sites as well as showing us some more carvings at Angkor Wat in order to better explain them. We saw several temples off the beaten path as well as some more famous temples. It was our final day of seeing the temples and that night we relaxed and met up with Carmen for dinner. Hanan had a “real” hamburger and I ate a not so real veggie burger that was mostly made up of potatoes, onions, peas and carrots. After dinner we checked out the Siem Reap night market and bought some artwork to take home with us. Earlier that day, we got a face book message from our friend Amy, and we went to a bar called Angkor What? After the night market. Amy was with her and two of her friends that we had met in Vietnam. Angkor What? Was a lot of fun and there were more buckets of alcohol flowing.

Our final day in Siem Reap was slow -- we slept in, took the laptop and several books to a café attached to a posh hotel and camped out there for several hours. We walked around some gardens in the center of the city and checked out a very ritzy hotel called the Grand Hotel D’Angkor, which dates back to the 1920s when tourism was just beginning to get big in Angkor Wat. The rest of the day melted away as we packed up and prepared to leave the next morning for Bangkok. We said our goodbyes to Cambodia, which all in all was an extremely interesting place -- I wish I had really loved Cambodia, since Cambodians had been through so much with the Khmer Rouge, but it was a hard country to love. Siem Reap was definitely the best of it, and Phnom Penh was among the worst of it, but we certainly learned a lot from being in Cambodia. Between the two books we read by Luong Ung and the history lessons that Thai gave us while touring the temples, Cambodia taught us many lessons, even though it was a place full of contradictions.

June 5th - Siem Riep to Bangkok

The trip from Seim Riep to Bangkok is one of those classic experiences only cheap backpackers can experience.  The route itself is supposed to be pretty straight forward.  A four hour bus ride from Siem Riep to the Thai-Cambodia border and then a 3+ hour bus ride from the border into Bangkok.  Fortunately, when traveling in Cambodia you are pretty much gauranteed that something silly is going to happen to make your trip as memorable as possible. 

The adventure started with an earlier than expected pick-up from our hostel.  This is one of those classic S.E. Asian situations where someone rushes you to do something (in our case we didn’t get to finish breakfast).  We were then taken to the bus pickup spot and made to wait three for about 30 minutes for the bus to pick us up.   When the bus arrived it was already pretty full.  The bus attendant packed Sarah and I in the last row with luggage above our heads and in front of our feet.  He did this because the bus did not have a luggage berth.  Which meant that in the small cracks of space behind the back row of the bus the driver stacked backpackers’ backpacks up to the ceiling.  The initial frustration was that he didn’t secure the straps so they were knocking into our faces.  With this little annoyance, we opened our books and tried to brace ourselves for the bus ride. 

45 minutes into the ride, the bus driver suddenly pulled off the road to stop for breakfast.  This guy has probably driven this route hundreds of times, but for whatever reason he needed to make a quick turn into a bumpy parking lot.  This loosened the great wall of packs behind Sarah’s head and dropped one squarely on her neck.  After a 35 minute stop to eat breakfast we hiked through the American Gladiatoresque obstacle course to our seats (because the travel row was covered by traveler packs).  We started to get going and I kept one hand on the packs and one hand on my book.  A bit 5 minutes into part 2 of the journey we stopped because there was a fairly serious head on collision on the road in front of us.  There was lots of blood.    We stopped the bus.  No one got off to help, the bus just stopped as if we were on a tram at the zoo so everyone could get a good look.  With that over with we continued on our journey and low and behold the AC broke.  To liven up the situation a middle-aged Thai (?) women who was sitting in the front row yelled at the bus driver to fix the AC.  Insulted, the bus driver stopped the bus and told her to get off  (we were in the middle of nowhere).  She refused until she got her $7 back.  At this point the driver stormed out of the bus and she proceeded to scream at his assistant.   There was almost a lord of the flies moment where the 40 some odd backpackers were ready to throw her out of the bus because with the bus not moving we couldn’t generate a breeze and it was at least 100 degrees outside god knows what it was in a bus that wasn’t moving with people squeezed in.  Finally the bus driver returned and we opened the windows and got on with the trip.  At this point the straps on the packs when from a small nuisance to a major whipping problem.  The straps were flying all over the place and whacking Sarah and I in the head.  Sarah got so frustrated that she leaned forward hoping to fall asleep on the back of the chair in front of her.  I tried to brave the situation and hold the bags above our heads from falling on us. 

A whopping 50 minutes later we stopped again.  Yes yes, we only drove for 60 minutes and the driver stopped again.  He assistant announced that we were close to the thai border and that the thai drivers won’t stop for food so we should eat lunch.  No one was hungry.  The bus filled with shouts of “drive the bus to the border” “We aren’t hungry.”  These shouts did no good and we stopped there for 45 minutes.  Sarah and I grumbled as we watched the driver fatten his belly 60 minutes after he had breakfast.  The last 30 minutes of the drive were fairly uneventful with the exception of a bag falling on us. 

As we passed through the border we returned to a sense of order on the thai side.  The new bus leader split up the passengers into high class fancy air conditioned mini-buses.  From there we zipped back to Bangkok with no problems at all.  Ahh, to be back in Bangkok.  Who knew that after hour initial view of Bangkok we would suddenly appreciate how orderly it is.

The Cambodian side of the drive should have only taken a little more than 2 hours, but those stops turned it into a four hour journey.  We presume that the bus driver stopped both times to get kick-backs from the eateries.  It was just silly!!

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