Friday, June 30, 2017

Heading to Cambodia and Exploring the Temple Ruins at Angkor

June 30, 2017
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Our first pedestrian border crossing of the trip! Sure, there were vans on the Laos and Cambodian side dropping us off and picking us up, but it felt like much more of a transition than arriving at an airport.

After the longboat from Don Khone and a half-hour van ride to the border, we got to walk a couple hundred yards down an empty road to the immigration building on the Cambodian side. Karen and Janet, the friendly Australian ladies we met on our boat ride to Don Khone a few days ago, were on the same van, also heading to Siem Reap. Karen has been living in Cambodia the past couple of years working at various children’s charity organizations, so could teach us a few basic salutatory phrases in Khmer.

Immigration went smoothly, if a bit gruffly, and we made our way to the bar we were supposed to find where we’d meet our driver who would take us on the six-hour-or-so trip to Siem Reap, the utilitarian tourist town outside of Cambodia’s biggest tour draw - Angkor Wat. It was all easier than it sounded when researching online, and we were on our way. We stopped for an hour or so for lunch at a town at about the halfway point. Not quite sure where we were, but it was on a decent sized river.

It was here that I decided to get some Cambodian currency for our time here. Leaving Caroline with the group at the restaurant, I wandered the streets looking for an ATM to get Cambodian riel. Given the exchange rate, this meant getting a million or two riel, kind of like the millions of kip we spent in Laos over the past few weeks. When I tried to get two million riel, however, the ATM said it was out of money. I found a second ATM nearby, tried again, and got the same message. After two failed attempts, I went back to join everyone else at lunch. Explaining my failure, Karen politely informed us that US dollars are the de facto currency used by nearly everyone in Cambodia, with riels essentially given as change when cash is needed to break a dollar. Even the ATMs give out USD. Ahhhh…. So that’s why the ATM said it didn’t have the cash to give me – I was asking for it to spit out $2 million!  Laughs had at my expense, and lessons learned.

Upon our arrival in Siem Reap, we got ourselves into a Cambodian version of a tuk tuk, essentially a motorbike dragging a small covered carriage with turned wooden spindles holding up armrests on either side. The driver took us and our luggage around to our shortlist of hotels that we had researched. The hotels seemed modern and nice after our time in Southern Laos, but apparently things were busy in town. Hotels were booked up, and those that had rooms were charging more than expected. The friendly people of Cambodia did make a good first impression, however, with one hotel even bringing us welcome drinks and cool damp towels just for inquiring. We probably looked pretty sweaty and travel worn, and it was a nice gesture.

After our exploration, we ended up back at the same hotel as Janet (Karen lived in Siem Reap so didn’t need a hotel). We checked in, took photos of our swanky digs (Caroline's customary check-in habit), and met up with our new Australian friends for a dinner of pizza, pasta and wine at one of the many, many tourist restaurants in town. A very pleasant way to end a long day.

Angkor Archeological Park - Home of Angkor Wat

Monday morning and time to start our Cambodian tourism in earnest. First things first – I needed to find us a motorbike. Our plan was to be in Siem Reap for at least four or five days, so I wanted to get a deal (when don’t I?). We walked through the hot and humid streets to a less touristed part of town, but were unable to find the place I had set out for. Luckily, we passed a tiny shop on the way back to the hotel where a friendly young Cambodian woman was as happy to rent us a scooter as she was to make fun of me. Laughs had at my expense, and scooter secured.

Next stop was the Angkor Archaeological Park Welcome Center to buy passes to the park which houses the world-famous temple Angkor Wat among others. Situated between Siem Reap and the 400 square kilometer UNESCO world heritage site, the Welcome Center is set up to handle the millions of visitors that descend upon Cambodia each year for the primary purpose of visiting the temple ruins. Of all of the tourists we’ve met in Southeast Asia along our way thus far, it seemed nearly everyone was coming from or heading to the Angkor complex (and of course, Angkor Wat itself) at some point. It was for this reason that we were probably less enthusiastic than we were before setting off to Asia last winter.

We opted for the three-day passes (you get ten days from which to choose your three), at $62 per pass. Pricey, but the fancy passes even have your photo printed on them!

Passes in hand, we set off for the park, and were delighted to discover that although it’s crowded with tourists, it was pretty easy to avoid crowds by visiting the smaller and less famous but no less impressive, ruins that were not the Angkor Wat temple itself.

We spent the next three days riding our scooter around the vast park, visiting the different ruins, and snapping millions of photos. Google photos does have unlimited photo storage, but I fear we might fill up all of their servers. Our evenings were spent looking for food and drink at touristy restaurants and bars down on and around “Pub Street”. Easily our best meal was at a Haven, an establishment located outside the thick of the tourist zone, with the socially responsible mission of training orphans and at-risk young people with work skills and employing them at the restaurant. I will likely forget many meals on this trip, but suspect I will always remember my fish piled high with shredded green mango, accompanied by the careful and thoughtful service of the youthful trainees.

On the final day of our passes, we even managed to get up at 4am to get to the Angkor Wat temple before sunrise. Turns out, shockingly, we were not the only ones to think of that idea. But how often are you going to get the opportunity to snap your very own version of the photo on every postcard and other tourist’s camera, of Angkor Wat’s silhouette along with its mirror image in the reflecting pool. An amazing place, and we were glad to have gone. As usual, we set our expectations low and ended up enjoying ourselves more than we expected to. Also as usual, our favorite times were riding together on the motorbike away from the crowds.

Although our visit to the temples was complete, we decided to stay one more day in Siem Reap to take care of a few things – like laundry, and planning the rest of our time in Cambodia. A pleasantly lazy day with time by the pool felt like time well-spent. For our final evening, we decided to check out the FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club), where we could sip on cocktails in a French colonial-style setting. Afterward, we had tickets to a circus put on by a circus company called Phare, with performers who were again underprivileged youths taken into the circus program to train to be performers. As we travel through the country, I think we’ll see a fair number of efforts to help underprivileged Cambodians, as there seem to be so many after the horrors of the past 40 years.

The circus was actually wonderfully entertaining. Not being “circus people” we were not prepared to actually enjoy ourselves, but they put on a great spectacle around a theme of what happens when local Cambodians and foreigners meet and interact – where uptight foreigners can learn a thing or two about living from the locals.

Finally, after five nights at the King Rock Hotel, it was time to head to the Siem Reap airport and make our way to Phnom Penh. We considered taking the boat west toward Battambang, checking out the “bamboo train”, and heading by bus to Phnom Penh from there, but Caroline was not looking forward to long boat rides without bathrooms and more time in buses than necessary. Next time!

The farewell view of our floating bungalow in Don Khone, Laos, as we began our journey to Cambodia via taxi boat
The longboat taxi ride is always our favorite part of the journey!
At the bus station, waiting for our ride out of Laos, bound for Cambodia!
After clearing immigration, we walked across the border to Cambodia with fellow travelers, Janet and Karen from Australia
Cambodian gas station we stopped at on our way to Siem Reap - looks perfectly safe, right??
Our deluxe digs at the King Rock in Siem Reap - we're not in southern Laos anymore! ;-)
The tranquil pool area located right off the lobby at the King Rock. I really could stay here for a while...

 Lobby decor at the King Rock Hotel

  Scootering between the temples was so much fun!

 Preah Khan temple: Beautiful, even in the rain

 Preah Khan temple

 Preah Khan temple

 Preah Khan temple: the friendly security guard practically forced us to strike this silly pose with the light shining through the crack in the wall. And then extorted us for a tip. Don't say I didn't warn you. Haha. All in all, a small price to pay for this ridiculous photo.

 Bayon temple: a striking resemblance ;-)

Despite the crowds, Bayon temple was one of Caroline's top favorites at Angkor

Ta Prohm: Famous for its myriad tangles of roots and definitely a crowd favorite

Banteay Kdei temple

 The tourist-filled carnival that is Siem Reap's Pub Street

 Angkor Wat at dawn: the postcard version. Certainly lovely to see in person.

 Angkor Wat at dawn: the reality

 Angkor Wat at dawn: the reality, from a different angle

 Angkor Wat: Despite the sunrise crowds outside trying to get their iconic shot, the interior was quite peaceful just after the sun was up

 Angkor Wat: Interior detail

 Pre Rup: Beautiful but deserted on our early morning, post-Angkor-Wat visit :-)

Pre Rup: View from the top

 Scott's highly memorable fish with green papaya at Haven, a cause restaurant, yum!!

 Typical tuk-tuk on a busy Siem Reap corner not far from our hotel

 Hmmm, 'Anchor' beer is everywhere in Siem Reap, just outside 'Angkor'

 Enjoying a lovely French rose at the charmingly throwback FCC before attending the circus

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