Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Ancient Temples of Siem Reap: Part 1

We learnt an important lesson this past week: never take a 12-hour-long cross-border bus ride the morning after a night of heavy drinking. We had a fine evening in Bangkok, but Dad, that was one sambuca too many. Three hours we both slept, too drunk to notice our alarms go off at 6am, and if it weren't for my bowel movements a mere twenty minutes before our bus was to leave, I don't know if we'd have woken up in time. We had to pack our bags and rush to our pick-up spot near Khao San Road in the early morning rain while dealing with with pounding headaches and a groggy urge to vomit.

Needless to say, those first few hours on the bus east out of Bangkok were some of the most unpleasant travelling either of us had experienced. Our bus was actually an old minivan with about ten passengers packed in, and Angela and I got the worst seats of the lot, crammed at the back with no leg room or air-con. As we lurched for several hours along miles of bumpy road, all we could do was sit there, sweaty and nauseous, waiting for it all to be over.

As with most hangovers, things got better as the day wore on. Angela vomited at one of our pitstops near the Cambodian border, but once we had some cold drinks, crossed through customs and changed onto a bigger and better bus, we were both in a much more functional condition. So, we've been in Cambodia for almost a week now, and despite the slightly cheaper costs than in Thailand we're now trying to take it a little easier with our alcohol intake. We certainly won't be drinking before taking any overland transportation ever again.

As for Cambodia itself, at first we weren't sure how we felt, but the longer we stay here the more the country grows on us. As with Thailand, the people are friendly and trustworthy for the most part (in fact the tuk-tuk drivers seem much more honest than we'd gotten used to), and the country seems to have its share of interesting historic sights and things to do. There are definitely some big differences between here and Thailand though. I feel sad to say it, but the thing that stands out to us the most is the sheer poverty here. We've heard some people describe Thailand as a "third world country," but it honestly never felt that way to us. Sure, many rural folk live in wooden shacks but the cities at least seem very developed, the people dress well, there are few beggars or homeless people, and the infrastructure is pretty reliable for the most part. Cambodia, on the other hand, is a completely different story. As soon as we crossed the border and started driving towards Siem Reap, it was clear that this country had not found the same wealth and prosperity as its neighbour to the west. There are beggars everywhere, many of them young children dressed in rags, the roads are extremely dirty and often half-finished, with long stretches of unpaved gravel and dust, and the towns and villages assembled along these roads have a sort of grubby, wild wild west quality that we never found in Thailand. We've even seen some horse-and-carts along with the hundreds of smoggy tuk-tuks and motorcycles.

There is also a very strange atmosphere here that makes it feel very different to Thailand, and I can't describe exactly what it is. Part of me thinks it's the eerie uniformity to everything. We've travelled across the whole width of the country, spent hours watching the roads scroll by, and the landscape has stayed almost exactly the same for the entire time: flat, green farmland rather like the central prairies of Thailand but a lot more empty and expansive, with only the occasional hill or orange temple to break apart the monotony. The settlements, too, seem lacking in character or distinctiveness. Travelling here, you'll pass dozens of little hamlets and townships made up of small scrappy buildings that have accumulated along the edge of the wide, dusty road, and each one looks almost exactly the same as the next.

Of course, I don't want to put the country in too negative a light. As I said, all the people we've met here have been very kind, and there's certainly lots of beauty to be found here. It's just not as instantly accessible as a place like Thailand. But then few countries are. And in regards to the monotonous countryside, we actually just arrived in Kampot, a small riverside town surrounded by lush, mountainous scenery that actually seems lovely so far, and we'll later be heading to some islands that everyone seems to rave about. So we're actually really starting to enjoy it here a lot, despite my less-than-flattering descriptions.

For now, here are some photos of our first few days in the country, as we based ourselves in Siem Reap and explored the famous temples of Angkor Archeological Park.

Our route from Bangkok to Siem Reap.
Groggy, hungover, and not so in love with long bus journeys, we arrived at the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet to cross over to Cambodia.
Visas arranged, we went through customs and crossed the border.

We entered Poipet, a dirty Cambodian border town filled with seedy casinos that cater to day-tripping Thais.

These men wear masks to protect themselves from the dust on the road.
Soon we were on another bus heading through the Cambodian countryside. At one point we stopped at a bus station and were encouraged by our guide to change our Thai baht into Cambodian riel. We changed quite a lot of money, about £300 worth, and received massive wads of riel in return, way too large to fit in our wallets. Despite this huge amount of money, we later found out our guide had scammed us, since we actually got a very poor exchange rate. Not only that, but the main currency used here is the American dollar, with riel only used for very small transactions less than a dollar! Next time we'll be much more careful where we change our money.
Cambodia's major roads are mostly paved, but there are occasionally unpaved stretches like this, where trucks and motorbikes kick up clouds of dust.
We arrived in Siem Reap around dusk, immediately accosted by dozens of tuk-tuk drivers as we got off the bus. We'd learnt to be very wary of these types, as they're often out to charge exorbitant prices to tired, just-arrived tourists. However, the driver we spoke to, named Korun, was very friendly and upfront, helping us find a hostel near the town centre, and offering to take us around Angkor Wat for a good price. He became our personal driver for our stay in Siem Reap, and we were really impressed with his honesty and desire to help us.
That evening we ate some Cambodian food, including lok lak américain (marinated beef and red onions served on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes, with the American addition of french fries and egg in place of rice)...
...Sach Ko Ang Jakak (beef and lemongrass skewers)...
...and Amok (a sort of curry made from fish and coconut milk)... The food here has generally been pretty good, and seems to be a cross between Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
At night, the streets of Siem Reap light up with depictions of Angkor Wat, the national symbol of Cambodia (it's also found on their money, their flag, and their national beer).
The next day we explored the town by day. Siem Reap's name means "Siam Defeated," referring to centuries of historic fighting between the ancient Khmer and Siamese Empires. The town today is a quiet, laid back place, and it reminded me a little of Thailand's northern capital, Chiang Mai, especially its river, which was similar to the moat in Chiang Mai.
We briefly toured a small temple on our way to the old market.

As we exited the temple, this frog made us jump as it fell from above and landed in front of us. It then proceeded to climb back up to its perch somewhere at the top of the temple gate.

At the old market.
Angela, always happy when she's surrounded by clothes.

Exploring more streets in the town centre.
That night we went to Pub Street, the main stretch of bars and restaurants.
For dinner, three miniature burgers, each a different style: American, Mexican, and Khmer!
Afterwards we had a few drinks at a bar called the Red Piano.
Here I am, drinking a Tomb Raider. Apparently, between filming scenes for the 2001 film, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider at Angkor Wat, Angelina Jolie made the Red Piano her local hangout, often opting for a cointreau, tonic and lime. Because of this, the bar renamed the cocktail after the film.
Later we explored the pretty night market.

The next day, Korun spent the day with us, taking us around the many different temples of Angkor Archeological Park, which is located very close to Siem Reap.
Of course, we started with the most famous of these temples, Angkor Wat.

Although it's not widely enforced, it's respectable to cover the shoulders whilst on the temple grounds, which Angela did, despite the sweltering heat.

Climbing the steps up to the main heart of the temple.

A child sleeping in the temple. Sadly, there are lots of very young beggars in and around the various temples of Angkor.

Click here to see more of Angkor's temples in Part 2!

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