Arrival in Cambodia
Beach bumming had been relaxing for the last few days on Tonsai. You could have spent many more days there, blending weeks into months. Eventually you would become an unemployed, smelly backpacker with dreadlocks. It was probably best to move on. However, this morning there was no one yelling "boat! boat!" Eventually, you met some Spanish girls going the same way and caught a boat to Krabi together. You had a long transit from southern Thailand, through Bangkok and onwards to Siem Riep in Cambodia. Time in airports was spent playing Carcasonne and pondering where watermelons are grown.
Cambodia is a small country with a population of 15 million. It has a "vaguely communistic free market economy" with the second fastest growth rate in Asia (after China) and is ranked the second most corrupt (after North Korea). It has a rich ancient history entwining Buddahism and Hinduism, and a turbulent modern history of civil war between royalists and communists. In 1994 after the complete restoration of the monarchy, an amnesty was granted and the communists reintegrated. Oddly, many of the pardons included taking positions in the government. As of 2011 some leaders of Khmer Rouge gorillas were still being trailed for war crimes In 2013 4.2 million tourists came to visit Cambodia, 3 million of which in Siem Reap alone. Angkor really pulls interest.
Getting a visa upon arrival in Cambodia was an amusing process, reminiscent of East-West Germany boarder crossings (according to someone who's done it). A row of seven frowning officials sat behind a high desk. The first asked for your passport, a photo, 30 USD and four identical forms with different titles (immigration, customs, health and misc.). Your papers were passed down the line, receiving a moments scrutiny and firm stamp from each official. The last official made you wait a bit and then gave back your passport, the rest of the papers having disappeared along the way somewhere. Why they can't just invest in a passport scanner and save themselves the work was unsure. Maybe they like stamping things.
You caught a tuk tuk from the airport, which was kinda fun. The nighttime air was very warm and the streets, which felt nice and safe, were free to cruise along with your tuk tuk's blingy LED lights blinking. The villa in Siem Reap was rather fancy indeed. You were met by very friendly staff who sat you down with some sweet iced tea while they handled check-in. You wondered if you'd been taken to the right place or somewhere with a few too many stars. Apparently 30 USD a night in Siem Reap is already fancy. Wow.
Angkor: The Grand Circuit
Day #1 adventuring in Siem Reap was done by bike. You had the general plan to ride the perimeter — aptly named the Grand Circuit — which looked like a reasonable adventure on the map. You left the villa at 7am and cautiously navigated the crazy Cambodian streets towards the complex. Streets in Cambodia were perhaps a little worse than in India, with vehicles driving in whichever so direction at whatever so speed they liked. The situation was made slightly better by the tourist density, so the lunatic local drivers were more mindful of pedestrians.
You bought a 3-day pass and rode up Charles de Gaulle (road). Many streets near Angkor had French names since Cambodia was part of a larger French colony — French Indochina containing Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and parts of China from 1863 to 1953. Since the fall of the Khmer in 1431 — a period known as Cambodia's dark ages, when Thailand nicked all their shit — the temples had been left to the jungle. The French had been very active in restoring the temples during their colonisation, freeing the lost temples from the jungle and restoring them brick by painfully-heavy brick. The restoration was interrupted by a Japanese occupation, a civil war, the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation running all the way up to the 1990's. On your way up the road you saw many piles of neatly stacked stone blocks — an ongoing work in progress.
The 7km bike ride up the main road and past Angkor Wat — which is actually just one temple of many — led to small empty temple with steep stairs named Baksei Chamkrong. Most temples are open to just wander through at your leisure, although you wondered how many wobbly tourists had fallen off them. You passed Prasat Bei, Prasat Thma Bay Kaek, and then headed towards main square of Angkor Thom.
Bayon is an easily accessible, rather pretty temple in the center of Angkor Thom. Every one of its walls are decorated with huge stone carvings of King Jayavarman VII's serene face. Legend has it that the Naga (snake-thingy with several heads) appears each night at the top of the temple in the form of a woman, with whom the king must share his bed lest disaster strike. If the king failed at his duty even once, it would spell his imminent demise. It sounds a lot like someone making excuses for dipping his wick... While the king may rule the land, the queen owns it. Even today Cambodian women own the rice fields. Again, you suspect it to be another subtle excuse to make the women do the work. Sounds good though...
A convoy of cattle trucks (see African Adventure Part 4) surrounded Bayon, from which hoards of Chinese tourists with selfie sticks and no manners whatsoever lobbed forth. You immediately reciprocated their conduct of barging through you, by barging right back and photobombing at every opportunity. There were a few official-looking monks there dressed in orange, with ID lanyards and cameras offering to take photos. It was a bit odd.
You climbed Baphuon temple which gave you a nice view over the area. At the top were more steep steps and four door frames leading into a room which no longer existed. It looked like a stairway to heaven with the blue sky behind them. You rode on past the elephant and tiger pavilions, then had lunch inside a random stone building in the middle of a field (Preah Pithu). Behind, in a small swamp, a man and his son were wading about, perhaps fishing of collecting plants. Cambodians still very much live amongst the temples. After lunch some small kids asked for you to write in their books, and for the privilege "one dollar". Hmm... No.
You passed some nameless temple ruins empty of tourists. They were some of the nicest ones, hidden in the jungle away from nagging food-stall owners, painted with bright-green glowing moss and inhabited by dragonflies. Further down the road you met some cheeky monkeys. You stopped to watch them, giving one the chance to sneak up behind Meike and jump onto her backpack. They seemed to know their way around tourists.
Continuing around the Big Circuit you left Angkor Thom passing through the North Gate (it's really big). The gate was decorated with more serene grinning faces and the bridge lined with statues of men carrying a naga — it made for quite a stylish wall. You took a shortcut through the forest and saw some squirrels and a green snake, emerging at Preah Khan which was very overrun by the jungle. Some temples of Angkor had been intentionally left half-consumed by tree roots and vines to preserve the wonder that explorers once experienced. It was a balance between preservation and over-sanitation.
Next you passed Bantaey Prei – a very dry temple – and Neak Pean – a very wet temple. To visit the latter you had to cross a long boardwalk bridge past many crap-sellers and a small band of land mine victims. They were playing traditional Cambodian music. It was hard to tell one song from another but it was nice to listen to. At the temple some young kids were washing/swimming, further enforcing your opinion Ankor wasn't a crumbling relic, but a lively inhabited living space.
Ta Som on the Grand Circuit's east side was overrun by both nature and loud clothing saleswomen. The yelled:
Lady, you buy something! Sir, you want shirt? I have shirt for you! You want coconuuuuut? Cold driiiiink? Somthing eeeeeeeeat?
It got very tiring very fast. You were just waiting for Meike to come out with a great one-liner but the hot, humid weather stifled a good comeback. She resorted to a sharp German "no", which stopped a book-seller right in his tracks and impressed a pair of British girls.
Both your butts were sore from sitting on bike seats all day, so you had a nap in the steadily lengthening shade of East Mebon's pitted red stone walls. Continuing further down to Pre Rup things were pretty similar to the last temple, and in fact quite similar to ever temple so far. Angkor's grandure wasn't losing its charm so much as being buggered from riding all day had. You passed Srah Srang (a big pond) as it started to rain and headed up the east side of Ta Prohm, where an unfriendly guard didn't want to let you through on a bike; he let the locals ride their scooters through, so it felt somewhat unfair. You skipped Banteay Kdei since it looked closed, and entered Ta Prohm from the west for sunset. Now that was a pretty temple! No wonder it was used as the backdrop for the first Tomb Rader movie. The cheap producers only paid about ten thousand US$ to use it exclusively for a couple of weeks. Bastards. Probably still a lot from a Cambodian perspective.
You turned towards home as the last daylight was fading from the sky. The daylight was replaced by a stream of vehicle headlights in procession out of (and some into) the greater Angkor. There were no streetlights so most of the time you were riding blind. About an hour later, through the crazy traffic of over-laden scooters – you saw a 5! – back at the Lodge you had your complimentary Thai massage. The lime foot wash was nice. So was your bed.
Tuk Tuk at Sunrise
One must do outing in Siem Reep was to wake up at 4:30am and catch a tuk tuk to see the sun rise from behind Angkor Wat (the specific temple). It was jittery flickering of torch-light that lit the way over the bridge into the temple. The torrent of tourists fanned out along the rim of the pond before the temple, and set up a defensive line of tripods. There was a bit of pushing to get to the front; some asked politely if they may block your view. Meike had her strong German no's ready. Several go-pro cameras on monopods were stuck in the soft mud - not the worst idea of all time.
You wandered behind the temple while everyone else was focused on the front, and met your first scammer of the day. He tried to give you incense and suggest you pray at a Buddha statue, then indicated a suggested donation by uncovering a $20 note. Not bloody likely mate! Twenty US dollars is higher than most Cambodian's quarterly income. Moving on, met some other cheeky monkeys – these with more fleas. One had stolen a bloke's sunglasses and was proceeding to rub the lenses on the sandstone steps. He threw a muesli bar to distract him and grabbed them, while his other monkey friends were busy inspecting under his girlfriend's long skirt. You had some breakfast – fruit and a coke – at table 007 "licenced to coffee", and had a chat to the owner. He mentioned he was working to give his kids an education at the American school. Afterwards, you sat about on a pile of to-be-sorted stones and tried collecting some seeds from a tree, while waiting for your ride.
A short tuk tuk away was Banteay Srei, the "Lady Temple". It was nice, and had lots of butterflies to chase with a camera. You continued north through many small villages of women cooking over charcoal-fired earth ovens, and an innumerable series of rice fields. From somewhere in the Kulen Hills you started hiking through the jungle towards Kbal Spean. It didn't feel too jungley since every 100m was a new sign counting incrementally down from 1500m, and the frequent rain had washed the trail clear. The jungle was alive with butterflies; it was a veritable butterfly house: swelteringly hot and humid. As advertised, Kbal Spean had carvings in the river bed. They dated back to the 11th century, and were supposed to purify the water (in a religious sense). It was worth the trip – the jungle had been nice to visit.
The way home was fun: the heavens opened and you were engulfed in a deluge of monsoon proportions. You decided to push on through, electing not to pull the tuk tuk covers down as a sign of solidarity with your dripping-wet driver. Some traffic took shelter, while others continued with care. You saw one dude driving a tuk tuk holding a umbrella in front as if he was jousting with the rain. Back in town you visited some fishy markets, grabbed some random street-food, and toured the night markets. That evening you saw many more over-laden scooters. You even spotted a 6!
Phnom Krom and a Long Taxi Line
After a hearty Cambodian breakfast option of grilled chicken on rice – a far better choice than Cambodia's take on western food – you took one of the villa's bicycles and headed out. You'd seen enough of Angkor, and wanted to see some of the local area. Lake Tonlé Sap lies to the south of Siem Reap: an unusual and enormous lake that changes its flow direction twice a year. During rainy season it fills from upstream rivers fed from the five surrounding countries, but reverses in August-September, when the Mekong River swells from Himalayan melting. It changes from a 1m deep, relatively normal lake into a 9m deep mega-lake the size of Bangkok. This unusual flow phenomena was used by the Cambodians to transport their temple stones – about one billion tonnes of stone blocks in total. Wow.
You rode along a bumpy dirt road past lotus flower and rice fields. It was a hot and sunny day with flowers blooming in abundance, ponds filled with ducks and buff-looking chickens running about. You locked your bikes at the bottom of the small mountain and headed up the stairs. The humidity was really exhausting. The Phnom Krom temple at the top was quite run down and inhabited only by bats. From the top you could see how far the lake had crept over the land; the mountain was surrounded by water on three sides, and all surrounding villages were underwater. Buildings in Cambodia are almost all built on stilts. The locals seem happy with their improved views, also taking advantage of the abundant fish supply literally served at their doorstep.
You stopped off at a random roadside... house? Although unclear if it was a restaurant or just somebody's bamboo house, they served some coconut and pineapple frappés as you lay in a hammock. Back in town you relaxed with some passionfruit mojitos while chatting to a Portugese couple from Angola. In the mean time, another 6-man scooter pootled past. It was time to move again.
Back in Don Mueang airport in Bangkok you met the longest taxi waiting line you've ever seen. Initially, you were unwilling to believe a taxi line could be so long – extending all the way from baggage claim to the opposite end of the building. Eventually you just accepted it and stood in line. By the time you'd reached the bend, you noticed a pattern: people would walk past the line, arrive in disbelief at the end where the sign "taxi" hung, get annoyed, ask someone if it really was the taxi line, pack a sad, ponder and finally accept it. It was the classic five stages of grief played out over and over again. Some Germans cut the line. Your lady-friend felt a little ashamed. You lol'd. Great day!