Cambodia. Land of milk and honey this is not. But much like the Holy Lands, this is a place filled with monumental everything, echoing with silent murmurs of faded triumphs and dark tragedies.
Once again, I’ll leave it to wikipedia to explain the full history of the place. In summary, the temples of the Angkor complex were built by the Khmer Empire, who ruled a substantial section of SE Asia from maybe 802 AD 1432. This was the golden age of Cambodia and perhaps of the entire region. The empire stretched from the border of modern India to the Malay Peninsula across Vietnam and north to Yunan and southern China. While this may pale in comparison to the Chinese, Roman, Macedonian, Mongolian, or British Empires, the Khmers were nonetheless a power to reckon with at their peak. The Khmer were generally considered a warlike people who adhered to a version of Hinduism as oppose to the later Buddhism that became dominant in Thailand/Siam. The ethnic Khmers were always more closely aligned to India, by the way of Java, than to China. The script and spoken language, as far as I can tell, is much more Indocentric than Sinocentric. Thai, on the other hand, sounds very much like Cantonese and other southern Chinese dialect to my untrained ears. The Khmers are a far older lineage than the Thai, who came down from Yunnan not too long ago. After the decline of the Khmer Empire, the area of modern Cambodia was alternatively dominated by the ascendent Thai and Vietnamese empires until the French arrived and offered “protection” in exchange for trade etc. Cambodia became part of French Indochina along with Vietnam (which explains the delicious bread and cheap coffee). The Japanese took over for a bit, independence was granted by the French, and a struggling republic got caught up in the geopolitical fiasco known as the Vietnam War.
Chaos and no small amount of American meddling brought the Khmer Rouge into power. The Khmer Rouge was possibly the very epitome of brutal dictatorships, which says a lot. Upon consolidating power, their leader, Pol Pot, literally evacuated the capital city. Every single person in Phnom Phen was relocated into the countryside. Those who refused, or dallied, were simply shot and left to rot. Perhaps a quarter of the population was killed by their own government in less than five years. The victorious Communist Vietnamese army invaded before too long and too over much of the countryside. The Americans supported the opposition, including the Khmer Rouge. Somehow peace was forged and Pol Pot purged enough of his supporters to lose his grip on power. A coalition government, including many former Khmer Rouge members, was formed. The last bloody coup occurred in 1997, and pockets of Khmer Rouge insurgents were active until the early 2000′s.
I woke up on 4/17 at around 6:00 AM, excited and anxious to start my journey. I figured I should get an early start as it will take at best a very long time to get to Siem Reap in Cambodia (the “life support system for Angkor Wat and the most developed city in the country), and at worse, literally forever. Having considered my options I decided to take a government bus to the Thai-Cambodia border and continue on from there via shared taxi. From Bangkok to the border should take around 4-5 hrs. It’s 2.5 hrs or so from there to Siem Reap. If this was America and I drove that same distance (406 KM), it would take maybe 4 hrs. I estimate that it will take somewhere between 10-11 hrs from the bus station in Bangkok to a room in Siem Reap. Call it 12 hrs door to door.
Deduction by chronotweet proves me to be oh so very good at predicting travel times after I recalculated after getting to the Bangkok bus depot (note that the times are off by +11 hrs):
First tweet sent from breakfast at Hotel Reno, second from my room after checking in at Shadow of Angkor guesthouse.
So you might wonder where the 4.5 hrs of extra travel time came from. Well, +1 from getting from the hotel to the bus station, via BTS, some ill advised walking, and cab. +0.5 from getting my bus ticket and waiting for the bus. +0.5 for slow bus to the border. +0.75 for the actual border crossing. +1 for transiting from the border to the “International Bus Depot” and my final ride into Siem Reap. +0.75 for getting downtown and finding my desired accommodation. Totaling 4.5 extra hrs, combined with the 7.5 hrs listed transit time equals 12 hrs.
The $8 bus out towards the border town of Aranyaprathet (wow google is on top of this foreign names shit, autocorrecting even for that) was super air conditioned and smooth. The roads in Thailand were smooth. It looked much like the Taiwanese countryside with fairly well organized concrete towns every so often. We stopped for snacks, gas, and bathrooms a few time. There were also a two or three military checkpoints as we got closer to the border, checking for illegal Cambodian immigrants/workers. ID cards of any SE Asian looking persons were inspected. Apparently I passed for being Western/Chinese and did not have to whip out my passport.
The bus went all the way to the border, I only had to walk 500m or so to get out of Thailand. LP and many online sources warned me extensively about touts and other enterprising individuals who would offer to take care of visas and all paperwork for me and then charge me an exuberant sum. No one bothered me despite my obvious tourist backpack. Guess my mean face worked. And the fact that I maintained purposeful forward momentum, regardless of if I actually knew where I was going. It took maybe 5 minutes to pass through Thai immigration and cross this bridge across no-man’s land.
Cambodia beckons beyond that ceremonial gateway. I follow the signs to the visa on arrival office, produced my passport and passport photo and a just-crisp-enough $20. Some banter and knowing smiles directed towards the immigration officers milling around and an extra $10 for their troubles turned into a nice visa, personally signed by Maj. Hor Sith just for me. Chuckling inwardly at the various confused fellow tourists around me, I moved on to the actual Cambodia immigration post past the little strip of Special Economic Zone where I had been. Apparently Thai tourists come here by the busload and unload piles of cash straight into the row of casinos lining the road without a need to enter Cambodia proper. Cambodian immigration was also smooth and relatively efficient. It was in this line that I started to realize that not all backpackers are the same. By defining myself as a backpacker I hope to separate myself from the package tourists exemplified by the omnipresent and obnoxious Chinese and American hordes. But at the same time, I may have more in common with those people than I did with any given dreadfully smelly and smelltatically dreaded hermit I run into. While I do envy people who can travel for years at a time…I have come to realized that they have sacrificed far more than I would be willing to remain on the road for so long. It’s nice to have a home. It’s nice to feel clean once in awhile. Onward.
Past the final checkpoint, I had to find my way to Siem Reap, 151 KM away. LP tells me the transport to Siem Reap, or at least out of the border town of Poipet, is runned by a taxi mafia/cartel of sorts. While this seems antithetical to my good capitalist ideal of free-competition, in reality it might actually lead to increase efficiency in the current context. But, “fuck the man”, I thought to myself and strode down the muddy road alone. As foretold by LP, a man followed me and asked me what I was doing and if he can offer me a ride. I said no, I was just looking for a bite to eat. It was true, I was very hungry…but the only food cart I encountered was unacceptably unhygienic, even to me. Unfazed, I walked on, determined find a private taxi out on the highway. People catcalled at me. One man asked me if I was going to the moon, probably because they’ve never seen anyone drink from a camelbak before. It was raining. Eventually I swallowed my misplaced moral pride and turned back, looking for the free cartel operated shuttle bus to the cartel operated bus station some kilometers down the road. It had already pulled out from the border post, but I hopped on as it passed me.
At the station, I asked about the next bus to Siem Reap and was told it will be $9 and it should leave in 30 minutes or so. What about a shared taxi? $40 for the whole car, none currently available. I pondered. I walked to the departure area and spot a van loading up and asked the man seemingly in charge if I could get in. After some haggling, I got shotgun for $15. Nice. However…we had to wait for 2 more passengers. Apparently most people arranged their transportation beforehand and pay significantly for this convenience. Which is understandable, if not for the also significant risk of handing your money over and never seeing anything in return. I prefer to deal face to face and step by step in these situations. While we waited I had a nice chat with a younger Swedish kid (innocently douchey), some older Brazilians (intrepid but boring), and a couple of more worthwhile Swedish dudes (chill, but trying a bit hard). Finally, our two missing passengers (overwhelmed and Asian) arrived and we were off.
The driver spoke very little English, though I suspect he understood more than he let on. I tried to establish some rapport with him before attempting to doze off. Alas, I was still too excited to sleep. The landscape between Poipet and Siem Reap was flat as a pancake, with the occasional (man made?) mounds. I wondered if this was forested at one point, or maybe it’s always been too dry. The road, recently paved, was plenty smooth. My man turned out to be a good enough driver, and even seemed apologetic when he pulled into the mandatory rest stop/store owned by the cartel. It took more than a few “c’mon man” stares from me and “sorry brother, it’s not up to me” looks from him before we got back on our way. In reality he probably just waited the prescribed amount of time before leaving. The dumb Swedish kid couldn’t stop talking about how indignant he felt at being charge $5 for a can of pringles in order to use the bathroom. What did you expect, kid? Just piss in the street if you can’t hold it. He also made some comments about how worthless the Cambodian reals were and how he should just use it as toilet paper. Good one. Oh, and for whatever reason neither him or the Brazilians would believe me when I told them that USD was the defacto currency of the country (because Pol Pot actually banned all forms of monetary instruments in his time), and even bahts would be accepted in Siem Reap. They went ahead and changed money at the bus station, paying at least 5x the normal commission. Sometimes I don’t know why I try to help people. There are those who don’t read LP because their ignorant, and those who spurn all guides because they are “too experienced”. All are fools. More information never hurts, as long as one is a capable winnower. And if one cannot winnow, one should stick to guide books anyways.
Siem Reap, which literally means “Siam (Thailand) Defeated,” is a bustling metropolis and veritable tourist heaven. It sits pretty squarely on the sweet spot between overly developed and inconveniently rustic. Despite its troubled past, the Cambodian government has done quite an excellent job with the city, which just goes to show how important Angkor is to the collective national conscience. The town itself is a few kilometers south of the archeological park and is sprawled out over a decent area. Fortunately, the main tourist hub, around Pub Street and the old market square, is very compact. Cheap, delicious, and sanitary restaurants abound. I can get a cocktail for $3 and a beer for 50 cents, even in town. The entire district is blanketed by free wifi provided by the various restaurants, cafes, and hotels. Siem Reap may be the most internet friendly place I’ve ever been (other than on campus). There is also a huge array of accommodations available, ranging from rat infested closets to the Four Season.
I rode into town on my first tuk-tuk moto-taxi with the two Swedish dudes. They were looking for a bus to take them to the south and onward to some Beach beach. We moto’d around and went to the hostel/hotel the duo stayed at last time around. It was far too corporate and large for my taste, so I went off on my own after they sorted out their bus ticket. Following LP’s advice, I settled on the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse, operated by a matronly old lady and her, presumably, family members. I wasn’t too impressed by my windowless room, but agreed to stay for $15. I told them I will let them know tomorrow if I wanted to stay on. After tweeting news of my arrival and taking a quick rinse, I went in search of food. All I had that day besides breakfast was a bag of chips, a snickers bar, and some coke. Dinner was tasty and uneventful, after which I promptly went to bed.
I had hope to make it to Angkor in time for the sunrise next morning, but it would seem that the sun rises way too early for that in the summer/spring months. Nonetheless, I mounted my noble steed at dawn-ish and rode north towards the temples. Prior to departing, I had to sort out my room for the night as my indecision the night before caused me to lose my room. I had to either stay in an AC-less room, or pony up an extra $10 for a larger room with a window, which won’t be available until later in the afternoon. Choosing the latter, I had to go upstairs and pack my bag prior to departing. They would move me into my new room while I was gone. Ok. And this is, hopefully, for yours and mine sanity both, where I can let the pictures do most of the talking.
Angkor Wat proper:
Small brick temple, on the road to Angkor Thom/Bayon:
This is where the drivers and guides waited while their customers had lunch. I accepted the invitation to take a nap as well:
Angkor Wat, redux:
(actually a 50 mp composite…but dunno where I can upload that in full res)
As you might imagine, biking around in the sun can get pretty hot and tiring. I must have drank more than 6 liters of water while out at the temples. Also, someone cut the flimsy bike lock I was given while I explored Bayon. They cut the lock and left everything. Maybe someone happened upon him while he was carrying out his dastardly deed, but my personal explanation is that he thought “hey, fuck you mister fancy pants foreigner, Cambodian people don’t steal things. Here, look, I could have easily stolen your bike but I chose not to!”. But maybe that’s just me. When I returned to Angkor in the afternoon I asked a policeman to keep an eye out for my bike, which he reluctantly agreed to do after ineffectively trying to convince me no one would steal my bike.
The sites were busy, but not mobbed by any means. I suppose smart people who plan their vacations tend to come during the cooler months. There were, however, more than enough obnoxious Chinese tour groups to go around. I returned to my guesthouse around 6. Feeling incredibly dusty I asked if I could use the pool at Shadow of Angkor 2, across the river. I was told I would have to pay $5. Ugh. I went looking for it anyways but got lost and found a rooftop pool instead. Sadly I had neither my camera nor my phone. The sunset over the city was spectacular. Guess that one’s for my own enjoyment only. Well, me and Matt Peel, the English dude that I met on said roof. He had been traveling Asia for a few weeks with his girlfriend (who had recently gone back home for work) and spent all day recuperating and nursing his hangover. Apparently some American drank him well under the table. We agreed to meet up in 40 minutes or so for dinner.
Dinner was spent quizzing this Englishmen about the subtle differences between British and American sports culture. We also got ice cream and ran into that dumb Swedish kid, who seemed to be enjoying himself well enough. Being an old man at age 26 or so, British Matt went off to bed after that. I went to a bar for trivia night. The trivia was impossible, but I did manage to find a pair of teammates. One American and one Dutch. Both younger than me, and both rather clueless. Nice enough chaps, but fortunately they were equally as inept at trivia…which lead me to the bar for more drinks which led me into the company of two Canadian girls. Both of whom were crazy, in mostly the good way. They were classmates from university. One of them has “traveled” for a whole year, spending most of her time in working in Australia, then lived in Canada for another, and is now back on the road. She had, and in all likelihood, has, strong opinions on a variety of topics. The other just finished nine months of teaching English in S. Korea. She loves Koreans, Korean babies, and all things Korean, and dancing. Trivia was followed by 2nd dinner, drinking, and then dancing. I went to bed no earlier than 4 AM. Now I see why Matt hung out by the pool all day.
Alas, I don’t have months upon months of time to laze my way through Asia. So I woke up at a reasonable hour (10?) and considered my options. I could charter a moto-taxi and head to Banteay Srei, one of the more remote and better preserved temples, or I could do something less strenuous. One thing I knew for sure, I wanted to go for a sunset horseback ride. So I called up the ranch and booked myself a 5:00 PM ride in order both catch the sunset and dinner with the Canadian girls. What was I to do before that? LP, once again, came through. I would visit Artisan d’Angkor and pick up some worthwhile souvenirs, and if I had time, check out the official Angkor Wat museum on the outskirts of town.
The Artisan d’Angkor program/workshop was an exemplary demonstration on the value of effective cooperation between the government and NGO of developed countries and the people and government of Cambodia. The program is officially sponsored by both the EU and the French government. It provides valuable training for local artisans and a well developed apprenticeship program to keep the artistic traditions alive. Skills such as lacquering, wood carving, stone carving, painting, weaving, and jewelry making are passed onto the younger generation while providing an excellent income and stable employment for many. All in all, it was a very professional operation. I was impressed by not only the products, but also the facilities and staff. And damn, they even have an online store. Highly recommended.
The Angkor Museum was also a worthwhile stop. The architecture was fine and the exhibits detailed. Photography, unfortunately, was forbidden. It’s a nice place to learn more background on the magnificent temples as well as Khmer history and beliefs in general. Parts of it were even air-conditioned. My visit, as is often the case, was cut short by hunger.
I went back into town for a bite to eat before heading out to the ranch. I got a little taste of Siem Reap: the local city while enroute. I walked through many a residential streets and even got briefly trapped in someone’s courtyard. Alas, once again, it proved overly ambitious to walk to my destination. It didn’t help that the ranch was not where LP thought it was. And few locals spoke good enough English out here to understand “horse”, let alone “ranch”. Eventually I was able to flag down a moto-taxi and after he took me to a buddy’s roadhouse for translation, we were merrily on our way. Turns out I walked past the place twice.
I arrived at Happy Ranch around 6:00 PM and was promptly informed that it was too late to go out. Something about the horse being unable to see in the dark and the tackle being put away. For some reason this totally had not occurred to me before…that a horse can’t see in the dark. I suppose I can’t see in the dark either, but that has never stopped me from prowling the night. I suppose horses aren’t much for prowling. But after some desperate and pitiful pleading, the manager lady agreed to let me go out for a half hour. I was overjoyed. My guide John and I took a short ride through the countryside, and yes, I did catch the sunset. Just in time.
Having ridden only 2-3 times for a total of no more than 3 hrs, I did pretty well. Though fear for my camera limited my trotting…and fear for my life prevented me from galloping. Nevertheless, it was an awesome experience. And it provided me with perhaps the funniest portraits of me in existence. Perhaps.
It was dark when we returned to the stables. I checked out the new foals and chatted to the owner, Mr. Sary Pann and Mary, a British girl from Hong Kong who was volunteering there, for awhile. Mr Pann used to work in the American embassy in Phnom Phen and spent the tumultuous years around the Khmer Rouge period in San Jose, CA. Happy Ranch is apparently the only ranch in the country. The Khmers were never really horse people. Mr. Pann offered me a lift back to town on his scooter, but as we were about to leave some family member or another arrived and he had to take her and her baby home instead. I caught a ride with the driver who dropped them off.
Arriving back in town shortly after 7 PM I hustled towards my rendezvous, little did I know I was in the process of being stood up. I ran into the two Canadian girls just as they were leaving, having gotten takeout. One of them, the former English teacher, had complained the night before that someone stole her sneakers (along with $400) a few days ago and she was really bummed and couldn’t find anywhere to get replacements at a decent price. Me being me, I remembered this, and while I was wandering around town earlier that day, made note of the two sneaker stores I passed along with their hours and inventory. Well, turns out they also found out about the stores and my painstakingly undertaken reconnaissance was all for naught. And they had to go before the store closed, and they were feeling really hungover and therefore going to bed early. Toodles. Ok fine.
I sat down and had a free beer with a bunch of overaged Texan bros we met the night before to plan my next move. Then I went and showered and then out for dinner by my lonesome. Then I met Ciran the Irishman, had some drinks with him, and then resumed dancing. We tried to convince people we were brothers…and some people actually believed us. Or so it seemed. We also tried to guess everyone’s nationality, and he would always guess “Swiss” for whatever reason. I found this to be hilarious, especially when one, very attractive if I may add, girl turned out to be actually Swiss. Met quite a few fellow Americans, among others. This was undoubtedly the highest concentration of Americans I encountered my whole trip. Maybe it’s the Wild West feel that is so attractive to us. Met an bonafide American expat from Hotlanta…and only belatedly realize I should’ve stuck with him to keep tabs on the after party instead of bumbling all over town on the advice of some tuk-tuk driver. I did run into Mr. Hotlanta again later, however by that point sobriety had sapped my spirits and I had to make my way to bed once more.
“Is that the sunrise or just light pollution?”
Woke up at oh, 7 AM to begin my epic return to Thailand. I was to make it back to Bangkok by 7:30 PM and catch my pre-arranged night train to Chumphon, arriving around 6:30 AM and catching the ferry to Koh Tao, arriving at 11:00 AM. I would spend that day recuperating, and start diving the following day.
It worked out, more or less. To be continued…
More pictures on Google Plus, here.