Getting a Visa in a country like Cambodia was probably going to be a challenge I thought to myself before we had even arrived. But three stages of queuing, two stamps in our Passports, reluctant finger prints and photographs taken, three kilometres of jogging through governmental buildings and people around us quite literally fainting from the heat (one poor Dutch girl next to us collapsed and had to be carried off by her friends) – and we are in! Well, almost. We still have to get to Siem Reap in the north 85 miles away via two separate buses with no food, no water and with a very fleeting grasp of the Khmer language. Our first bus is pretty straight forward; it’s an old post-colonial bus clad in unremarkable rusted grey panelling and with seats that creak like the Lib Dems self-esteem. With it though is the promise of adventure and we disembark twenty minutes up the road at the main poipet bus terminal with a spring in our step. Negotiations for food rations are exhausting as our tender knowledge of both the language and the odd looking, crumpled currency prohibits any easy communication. I resort to the most primitive degree of communication by becoming excessively English, pointing and winking a lot. I’m sure the pack of crackers and bottle of water the shop keeper thrusts at me was a complete fluke, and that in reality she was probably just trying to get rid of a loud foreigner winking and pointing at everything around her in a state of momentary desperation.
We hitch up with our provisions next to a Scottish chap called Graham and talk the two hour drive about our experiences in and around South East Asia. “You can’t even trust bottled water out here” he warns me in a thick Scottish accent before suggesting that even the plastic seals can be forged without too much effort. It seems that I’ve entered a country in which even the most mundane and basic of tasks is a bit of a Russian roulette. I dread to think what might happen when I flush the toilet or flick on a light switch!
We trundle down the only main road through the northern half of this small country for a further hour before we start to see signs of life. There has been a real economic boom here in the past few years and it shows. The road itself is in quite good shape and the new road signs strike me as more Australian than Asian. Big, bold and lots of Yellow. I’m reminded by Graham that much of the North is still one of the most heavily land-mined areas on the planet and am told to expect to see the effects of this in the local population at Siem Reap. I prepare for the worst.
The bus very absurdly drops us off two miles out of the city at a small (probably illegal) Tuk Tuk check point. We have no choice but to get a tuk tuk the rest of the way to our hotel. I am quite irritated by this commission-fuelled scam but Graham and others around me and Abbi are quite obviously much more rattled by it. Our tuk tuk driver is called Lucky and after some haggling on price we are on our way through dusty un-paved roads towards the city centre. He turns to us over his shoulder after a few minutes and casually announces “don’t worry, I don’t rip you off”. I probably find this less helpful than he anticipated but I suppose it’s always nice to be reassured by a complete stranger that they aren’t intending to do you any misfortune. Still, the ride is nice. The sky here is unlike any we have seen so far on our travels. It is such a gorgeous deep blue, clinically sharp and crisp and is broken only by the moon, a shining celestial ball in first quarter lunation, twenty degrees above the horizon. The sun is setting steadily and the light it shines onto the green plants and deep red earth around us makes it all very calm, glowing and peaceful. I get a Spanish-Australian vibe from the countryside as we pass through it and into the low lying city streets, many of which are still not paved. The buildings in Siem Reap are mostly still French-colonial and give the place a familiar European feel while the people, vehicles, shops and road signs present a very Asian picture. It’s a great fusion where East meets West, Bordeaux meets Angkor. In 1884 Fules Ferry wrote of the French occupation; “The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races.” While this colonial cultural-commodification is archaic, the French occupation introduced many Parisian luxuries aside from the architecture, and my small handbook suggests that we have to check out the French style cafes and bakeries spread across the city and in the aptly named ‘Old French Quarter’.
The staff at our hotel, Mango Rain Boutique Hotel, couldn’t be more welcoming and we are soon checked in, unpacked and back out into the dusty roads to go for an evening coffee. We have hired bicycles and the ride takes us 1km towards the compact city centre, and along a narrow un-paved road beside the river. Dogs are scattered around either laying down in the shade or walking slowly along the side of the road and looking over their shoulders cautiously. With them, children are playing on the sides of the road with toy guns and balls while their parents, keeping a watchful eye, ready their small food carts for the evenings business. There is a smell of barbecue and food in the warm air and the breeze is light and soft as we peddle along the bouncy road and park in the shade of a big oak tree adjacent to the old Market.
We stroll around the city centre for an hour, dipping in and out of the small markets and enjoying a couple of drinks and a meal at what is to become our regular Khmer restaurant in town ‘Lim Kim’. We save much of the exploration for tomorrow and head back to our hotel to get an early night.
The next couple of days pass in much a similar fashion. We rise early for breakfast at our hotel each morning and cycle our way along the same dusty roads into the city center. Blogging and reading in cafes, exploring the meze of streets and enjoying local Khmer cuisine become the norm and we meet lots of lovely travellers and locals who are keen to talk to us and share stories.
I have been waiting (not so patiently) my whole life to visit the Angkor Archaeological complex so even by the morning of our second full day I am almost at breaking point with restlessness, like a child sat kicking his feet around and huffing until he gets his way. We decide that the most popular way of seeing it by tuk tuk doesn’t appeal to us and air-conditioned taxis would just take the adventure, dust and exposure out of it. We decide to do it via the humble bicycle and by 9am we are out the door clutching maps and on our way towards Angkor Wat 6km away to the north. The temperature is already in the mid-twenties by the time we get to the bottom of the main road through the city and it isn’t long before the condition of the road deteriorates substantially and we bump along avoiding large pot holes, tuk tuks and motorists driving on the wrong side of the road. 3 kilometres up the road the buildings give way to jungle and farmland, and red earth replaces tarmac. Sunlight beams through the trees and the warm breeze makes me smile as it engulfs us. We reach the check point into the national park (a few smartly dressed officials stood by the side of the road) when we realise that we were supposed to buy our tickets 4 kilometres to the East and not here. Fortunately a police officer swiftly offers to ferry us down to the other checkpoint on his motorbike (for a small fee of course!) and collect our day pass. A quick zoom, jog, picture of our faces, exchanging $40 for tickets, hopping back onto the bike and zooming back later we are at the first checkpoint again and on our way into the park.
The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of the Angkor complex. We grab at our big bottle of water and take a few deep glugs before we unravel our map and drag a finger around the route we want to cycle. We are heading North first past Angkor Wat and towards the 12th century city of Bayon before finally turning East to Ta Phrom (also known affectionately as the Tomb Raider temple). The rule, we have been told, is not to try to squeeze too much in so we have picked the three most popular attractions for today and will take it from there. We spend our first hour walking around the main Angkor Wat complex and try our very best to avoid the crowds. Luckily we have come at a good time – many people have scampered back to their respective hotels for lunch so there is less pushing and shoving than anticipated! We find ourselves completely alone in many cloisters and rooms of the giant complex and are able to really test our photography skills in the bright light. Angkor Wat itself is the main religious structure in the 200 square-mile complex and, with most of it having been restored over the last 120 years first by curious antiquarians and then by archaeological organisations, it is in great shape for its age and feels more like ten cathedrals next to eachother than just a single structure. I’ve been told that it is the largest religious structure on earth and it really shows.
We hop on our cycles after a quick bite to eat from a street vendor ourside Angkor Wat and cycle twenty minutes towards Bayon past other mysterious temples and under the gorgeous Southern Gate of Angkor Thom. Bayon really has to be seen to be believed. It’s blackened towers rise out of the jungle like giant serpents, each with its own apotropaic carved face in the likeness of king Jayavarman VII. Our two hours exploring the dark corners of this complex were among some of the best hours spent on our entire trip so far and we were reluctant to leave and move onwards towards the East Gate of Angkor Thom. We stop for a quick smoothie at a huddle of little wooden restaurants in the large open plain opposite the Terrace of the Elephants. It takes us about 30 minutes more to reach Ta Phrom. The sun is getting lower now and gives the moss-covered towers and buildings of the temple a mystical green hue as it pours through the gaps between stone and tree. We approach from the Western gate and are struck by the volume of other travellers who had the same idea as us. Nevertheless the place is really special and feels very grand and archaic. Time has been hard on these blocks of stone as the three or four hundred years of solitude has given nature a chance to reclaim them. Ginormous Ficus and Ceiba trees stretch out from the buildings, their roots spilling out over ten foot high walls like disembowelled whales – the reality being that if they were removed the whole thing would probably fall down. This complex is not one giant temple but rather lots of smaller buildings, causeways, cells, enclosure walls and pavilions and it seems to go on and on. Large information boards are dotted around the skirting walls which portray the amount of archaeological work and restoration that has happened over the last two decades. It’s a delicate balance really because I suspect the temptation is there to leave them in situ and their natural context as they are but this would allow the site to degrade further as the forest continues to grow. Restoration and proper management also allows safer access for the increasing crowds of tourists who, until recently were allowed to clamber all over the rooftops and walls which in itself damaged the site. Lighting is a big factor here for me. I love seeing things in a different light and at different times of the day and during different seasons and it makes for some very dynamic photos! Crouch, angle and.. Snap!
The setting sun struggles its last thirty minutes of light before it holds its breath until tomorrow morning and we decide that, with a 15 kilometre cycle ahead, it’s probably a good time to leave and go grab a glass of wine in town.
The ride home is as bumpy and evaisive as it was on the way there but it is good fun and much easier in the cooler evening air. The sky is still clear and the stars are starting to ignite across the sky while we ‘ding ding’ our bike bells to the friendly staff as we pass through the hotel gates. We have two nights left at this hotel before we move onto a smaller guest house at the opposite side of the small city. We already love Siem Reap and the gorgeous Cambodian people and have assumed to eachother that we are probably going to stay here longer than we anticipated! We are considering a further three day pass for Angkor Wat as well as Khmer cookery class and yoga classes. There is still lots yet to come in this surprising part of this beautiful country.