So suddenly on my own… but not really! The Kiwi, Carl, and the French guy, Franc, were off to New Zealand and were leaving the English guy, Russell, behind. So, Russell and I decided we would travel together for a while. We got back from the trek and Chiang Mai with all options before us. Christmas was coming soon… where were we to go?? The beach sounded nice. But, it’s the thick of the high season for the beautiful, world-class Thai beaches, so we decided to hit the beaches next door in Cambodia. So after a night’s rest in Chiang Mai it was back on the 12-hour overnight train… this time kicking it with Russell and a local Thai guy who kept trying to rope me into going on a “special week-long trek” with him that was much better. Yeah right.
We arrived in Bangkok at about six in the morning. Russell’s mates Carl and Franc were actually still there. They were supposed to fly out that day, so we crashed their guesthouse room. They had just gone to bed… about an hour before. Hehehehe. They were troopers though and got up to have breakfast with us. Then, Russell and I went in search of a tourist agency that might be open that early. We eventually found one and explained we wanted to go to Cambodia. We barely got the words out when the lady was like “Okay. You leave in 5 minute. We take care of visa.” What?!?! So we rushed back to the guesthouse room to grab our bags and rushed back. The bus showed up shortly after and suddenly we were on our way to Cambodia. Where in Cambodia… we didn’t know. The road to the border was an easy ride. Then we got dropped off at a little joint to grab a bite to eat, while the organizers took our passports and disappeared to get our visas. Oh geez. But, that’s the normal procedure and they came back with our passports and shiny new Cambodian visas. Yeah! We found out by that time we were headed to Siem Reap, home to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. Little did we know what we had in store for the remainder of the ride there though.
We walked through a border market, went through customs, changed money for a ridiculously rip-off price and then waited in this empty room for a bus (there were other travelers). Finally, it was time to take off… and yeah, as I wrote before, it was nearly a 9-hour bus ride along a cracked and cragged dirt rode. We were bumping and bouncing like those silly gangstas in the U.S. with their cars tricked out with hydraulics. The landscape was just stunning though. We bumped past acres upon acres of wet marshland. The locals lived in stilted shacks with trash littered everywhere, clothes hanging off posts, pigs wallowing in mud. There were tons of little shack shops too that served as the local version of 7-11 or QT … snacks, cigs, batteries, etc. It’s just a different world. It is one major dry and dirty dustbowl though. The palms are all coated in thick, red dust and about half of the locals all wear cloth masks around their faces and noses.
We finally ended up in Siem Reap late that evening. At this point Russell and I had been traveling for a solid 30+ hours straight (with that brief breakfast in Bangkok). Whew! We made it! Sort of… we weren’t at the beach. But, at that point we gave up trying to make it to the beach by Christmas. We had to stay and check out the temples! Angkor Wat is actually just one of the temples. There are about a dozen ruins concentrated in the same area. It’s recommended that you take 3-days to explore them all properly. But, Russell and I opted to just go out and see what we could get in with just one day. We managed to tackle the three main attractions: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and was built in the early 12th century. The detail on the temple was… well, you really couldn’t get your mind around it really. There are more than 2,000 asparas, or goddesses carved into the rocks. Not to mention the tiny lotus flower carvings. Those would have to number in the hundreds of thousands at least. The detail of this temple really can’t and shouldn’t be downplayed. But, I can’t help but come out of it thinking that Angkor Wat, from a distance, resembles a drizzly sand castle. You know the ones I’m talking about? Where you made sand castles at the beach by just grabbing a handful of sand and slowly letting it drizzle from your fingers, allowing it to build into drizzly, peaked piles? Yeah. I always loved drizzly sandcastles. And I think it’s cool that the world’s largest religious monument reminds me of my childhood. Russell and I spent four hours just at this one temple. (The monkey pictured randomly showed up just as we were leaving Angkor Wat. I hopped up on the ledge of the temple where the monkey was walking and began snapping pics. He just kept coming towards me, and I kept snapping away until he literally just strolled on right around me as if I were some lump of rock in his way. It was funny. I then stalked him paparazzi style and he posed for a couple pics for me before getting annoyed and turning away from the camera every time I pointed it at him. He seemed pretty darn used to, and bored with, humans.)
Ta Prohm should be recognizable to most. It’s the Tomb Raider temple. I didn’t realize at first that they actually did shoot bits of the film at Ta Prohm and I kept commenting that it looked like something out of Tomb Raider. Well, dur, it is… Apparently, some French colonialists found these ruins pretty much as they are today… totally taken over by the jungle. The roots of these huge strangler figs and silk-cotton trees. I mean really, these trees have completely taken over. Wrapping themselves around the ruined stones and springing up from them as if they were nothing but mere soil. It’s really cool. Too bad it’s all touristy. It would be so cool if you just stumbled upon that in the jungle like the French guys did!
The only thing not so cool about these temples is that, as far as I’ve been informed, they’re not owned by Cambodia. It’s a bit unclear if it’s Japanese or Korean owned… but either way, only 10 percent of the entrance fee to see these ruins are used for any sort of upkeep. The rest of the money goes straight to a foreigner’s pocket. So much for using the ruined treasures of a country to help fund the rehabilitation of that country.
After three of those temples, it was time for a break. Especially after being haggled by relentless, high-pressure salesmen trying to hawk their goods off you the whole time. They were cunning. They were clever. They were mostly ages 4-15. That’s something I would like to explore further: these young kids that are learning the cunning savvy of high-pressure salesmen at such a young age. Learning that tourists are dopey targets for money, giving up so much of their normal childhood pastimes to sell, sell, sell. Russell and I tried to get some of the kids to forget their wares for just ten minutes and goof around and play with us. The best we could do is get a momentary crack of a broad smile, but then they were back to “You buy. One dollar. You buy. One dollar. You don’t buy, I cry. You buy, so I have money for school. You buy. One dollar.” More than once I just wanted to turn around and scream, “give it up already!!!” You say no, but they just follow and repeat themselves like only kids know how to do… you know, the old broken record routine. We did stumble upon some kids that were “salesman” but were actually taking a break to play. So we joined them. When they’re not selling, the kids are great. When they’re selling, they’re robots… or more like devils.
So, yeah, anyway, Russell and I headed back towards town, our hired Tuk-tuk navigating the streets. Along the way back, we saw this rather posh restaurant with a beautiful big terrace and decided to go for it. We’d been eating on a budget from local street vendors and markets for so long that we just craved some finer dining. It’s custom for the Tuk-tuk driver to just wait around for their customers. That’s what our driver did at the temples. But, I just couldn’t eat at this posh place leaving our tuk-tuk driver waiting outside. Plus, it was Christmas Eve. So Russell and I invited him to join us. He came and that was cool! It was Russell who actually did the treating though. He paid for all of it… Christmas present he said. He had quite a few of those “Christmas presents” though. Russell is an incredibly generous guy. Incredibly gracious too. He thoroughly enjoyed that he was in a 3rd world country with another random traveler… just living it up. His companionship and the timing of it was priceless.