I have to say, Cambodia doesn’t make the best first impression.
We met our tour group and Ly (Lee) the tour leader on our second night in Bangkok. A mixture of Canadians, other Australians, Kiwis and a token Englishman, we had a good group dinner before heading to bed for our 6:30am start. We boarded a couple of vans for our drive to Poi Pet, leaving before 7 to avoid the worst of the traffic on the freeway. Our Thai driver also introduced us to the concept of the “Happy loo,” the local euphemism for a toilet stop. We left Bangkok, driving through mostly flat areas past rice paddies. After a coffee stop, where we filled out our Cambodian visas, we drove straight for our crossing at Poi Pet. The crossing is a bit of a dump: after leaving the vans, we had to walk through a hot, dusty and rubbishy market to get to the Thai border control. At least the queue area on the thai side was air conditioned, and we made it through fine.
On the Cambodian side, the first thing you see is a casino, or rather several of them, right on the border. Apparently gambling is outlawed in Thailand, so the Cambodian border is a bit of a haven for Thai tourists. Not for locals, as they can’t gamble there (similarly banned), but the casinos also cater for large volumes of Chinese, Japanese and Korean tourists. We walked past the casino in the heat and dust to the Cambodian immigration booth, which was basically a tin shed, slow and low tech. It took a long time to process everyone through, and we sweated until everyone made it through. We boarded a shuttle bus to the bus station, transitioned over with our luggage, and we were on our way.
We stopped at a local restaurant for lunch, eating Khmer curries as our first local cuisine. The bus then took the flat, flat road to Siem Reap, the Angkor Wat town.
Siem Reap is a big town primarily tourism focused, and as such it has great infrastructure and lots and lots of bars, restaurants and markets. After checking into our hotel (pretty basic but clean) we headed into town for tea. The streets of Siem Reap are buzzing, with street food vendors selling everything from fruit, smoothies, satay and ice cream all the way up to one someone spotted selling cooked snakes and spiders (my encounter with which is coming later). Siem Reap also has a number of night markets selling souvenirs, and you can haggle and negotiate deals with the locals pretty well (I haven’t seen it in action yet, but one of our Canadian ladies is apparently a killer negotiator). We made our way to a pretty touristy bar, and over a couple of beer towers we ate Cambodian food including the curry Amok, which I’ll talk about next entry. Others were going to party on, but given our four am start the next morning Kayla and I called it a night, stopping only by a market stall so I could buy a sun hat.
We met out the front of the hotel at 4:30, some of us fairly bright while others (including the aforementioned Englishman) a bit worse for wear. Our bus and tour guide (Mr Chanphallin) picked us up and we were on our way to Angkor Wat, which is six or seven kilometres out of the city to the north. After purchasing our tickets (including a photo pass) we walked across a stone bridge in the dark, finding our way by torchlight while in the distance we could see a looming silhouette. Ly and Mr Chanphallin led us to the edge of a pool where lots of tourists had already staked out a spot, and we waited with our cameras at the ready.
The sun rose slowly, first lighting the sky behind the ruin, and over the next 45 minutes we saw the towers of Angkor Wat gradually resolve themselves, reflecting in the pool to give a lovely symmetrical picture. Despite having to elbow and negotiate with a couple of tourists, we managed to get a pretty good view of the sunrise as it came over the ruin and lit up the reflection in the pool.
After a breakfast break, we were ready to explore the temple. Angkor Wat is the largest temple in the whole complex, and is massive. We entered through an ancient gate house, and wandered through a forested path before we reached the temple proper. The temple is built on three levels, on a base of sand, pumice and sandstone, and all of the stones for the entire temple complex were lifted into place by hand or by using elephant power. Crazy. We explored the first level, which has a number of incredibly detailed bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, including deadly sins and their punishment and the story from the Ramayana called the churning of the sea of milk, which is a recurring motif in many of the temples here. We climbed up to the second level, a stone plaza decorated with many carvings of Apsaras, dancing spirits that are associated with clouds and water. The top level is inaccessible at the moment, but the towers are incredibly impressive from the second level, intricately carved with more figures. We wandered around for a good forty five minutes, before exiting back across the causeway that we’d walked so early that morning.
We boarded our bus, heading for the nearby temple city of Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is massive, about 3 km from the cardinal point aligned gates. The gate of Angkor Thom all cross the most, and the bridges all have representations of good and evil aligned forces wrestling over a large serpent- the naga- as part of the churning of the sea of milk legend. The statues on the bridge have been partially restored, with many having replacement heads and limbs based off of castings of the original. The actual gate, large enough to drive a bus through, is flanked by very eroded statues of 3 headed elephants, and the gate is capped by a massive 4 faced Buddha- the bodhisattva, a representation of compassion and resembling the commissioning king, Jayavarman VII.
These 4 faced gates would give us a taste of what would lay inside Angkor Thom. The central temple of the complex, Bayon (buy-juhn) is alternately named the temple of the smiling Buddha, and with good reason. It is covered with bodhisattva carvings, the 4 faces aligned to cardinal points, and no matter where you are within the temple you can see them, smiling serenely. We climbed to the top level of the temple, taking photos and marvelling at the faces, all exquisite, all identical. It’s my favourite of the three we visited.
The other thing Bayon is famous for is the western carving, a large wall that depicts a naval battle with the Vietnamese army, and also depicting scenes from daily Khmer life, including farming, fishing, drinking, washing, and gambling on cockfights. It’s massive, and like all of the stone carvings in the whole Angkor complex the craftsmanship is amazing.
After lunch, we headed to our third temple, Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is also known as the jungle temple, as it was chosen early in the Angkor exploration by the French that it would be kept in the state in which they discovered it. That doesn’t mean it’s been allowed to crumble, as even when we were there there was a construction crew on site repairing and reinforcing the remaining structure. For the most part though, the temple is moss covered and crumbled, with large trees (cottonwood and strangler vines) growing throughout and over the structure. You get a sense that without the maintenance it gets currently, it would be swallowed up entirely.
After a long hot day of temples, we left the complex, though you could easily spend a week visiting all the sites. It’s well deserved its recognition as a world heritage site, and it’s stunning. Do it.
– sure, if the toilets are OK it’s a happy loo. If not, sad loo, but still better than a happy bus, which would be happy for about ten seconds before becoming an inconsolable bus
-Thailand drives on the left, Cambodia on the right. At the border, this transition is a logjam.
– a note on currencies: the Riel, the Cambodian money, is pretty worthless, so you have to work in two currencies. Most purchases are made in US dollars, but any sub 1 dollar purchases are given as change in Riel. at a rate of 4000 Riel to the dollar, and Riel notes starting at 100, your fat stacks of cash are probably less valuable than monopoly money.
– Tuk Tuks: a Cambodian tuk tuk is actually a different design than a Thai one. In Thailand, the tuk tuk is essentially a 3 wheeled motorcycle with a canopy running all over the passengers and driver, and seat 2 passengers. In Cambodia, they’re bigger, with the driver in the open and a larger enclosure in the back that seats up to four passengers. We caught lots of them in Siem Reap, at a rate of about a dollar per passenger
– Horns: one thing we’d noticed in Thailand was that despite the chaotic traffic, there was very little honking. Apparently in Thailand it’s pretty rude to blare the horn and as such is only used in emergencies. In Cambodia they’re a bit more liberal in their use, honking when overtaking scooters on the road.
– to the guy taking pictures of Angkor Wat at dawn with only your iPad camera, I officially hate you. A phone I understand (and used), but if you’re going to drag an iPad around totake pictures just buy a damn camera.
– Business idea number one: one of the Canadian blokes reckons if you created a harness that let you carry around a fresh coconut to drink from you’d make millions. Probably millions of Riel.
– interesting note on Bayon: construction on Bayon was begun under a Hindu king, mostly finished under a Buddhist king, whose face adorns the temple, and completed under his successor, a Hindu. This means there are several areas in Bayon where representations of the Buddha have been struck off
-Children: a lot of children are around, Cambodia being a very young country. Schooling is technically free- to enrol. All of the other expenses, however, such as food, materials, uniforms, classroom resources and even payment for most teachers and some specific lessons must be borne by the family, so many children still do not attend. This also means you see a lot of children selling souvenirs etc, to which I’ve only caved once. I did hear one kid trying to sell the magnets others were selling for $1 at $10 a pop, and I figure if he can make that sale he deserves the money
-Ta Prohm is also known as the Tomb Raider temple, having been used (along with a few other sites in the area) as a set for the 2001 Angelina Jolie film. Not only was Jolie not there when we were there, our tour guide said she didn’t adopt him. To be fair, he was in his 40s.