I left you on my bus journey five days ago heading to Siem Reap. It started badly when I realized that Andrea was not in her seat on the bus. I tried, in vain, to explain to the staff on the bus that we needed to wait for her as she had paid for her ticket, but they didn't understand me. Oh well?!
The ride was about six hours long and was quite trying on the senses. For those of you that are fans of my blog, you may recall a certain bus journey I had to endure in Chile in 2008, where an alarm kept sounding every 30 seconds for no apparent reason. Well, in Cambodia, the bus drivers honk their horns, for no apparent reason, incessantly every few seconds. They honk to say hello to other cars, they honk to warn people who are walking on the street, they honk when they haven't honked in
several seconds. After a while it really grates on the nerves and I cursed myself that I hadn't brought ear plugs.
To make it even worse, they were playing loud Khmer pop songs....AND a really bad martial arts movie...AT THE SAME TIME! yikes.
Good thing I was reading a book about the art of Buddhism. Read: sarcasm.
We stopped half way for some lunch. The heat hit you like a slap in the face as you stepped off the bus, and then continued slapping for the next 20 mins...you could feel your own sweat trickling down your legs. I decided to have what the locals were having...which was some kind of greenish looking soup, with weird brown looking fried thingies, and pinkish meat. It tasted OK and it cost 50c so I didn't complain.
At least not until later that evening...more on that in a moment.
We arrived to the usual ONSLAUGHT of Tuk Tuk drivers asking whether "Lady, you need tuk tuk to hotel? I know nice guest house, will take you", though they were particularly aggressive this time. I ignored them all, as usual, and immediately walked over to whomever was NOT screaming at me and haggled a $2 ride to my hostel choice. No, I didn't want to stop at another hotel on the way. No, I didn't care if my choice was "far far from town". No, I didn't want to see temple on the way. No I don't want to stop at shop. No, I don't care if I lady travelling on her own. No, no, no, no, no. I just want to get to my hostel. Thank you.
Jeez. Its like pulling teeth and you have to be downright nasty to get through: this is a land where "No" means nothing to the sellers, they see it as an opportunity to win a sale through repeating their sales pitch again, and again, and again (not to mention, that together with the Khmer accent...the words come out so harsh and the intonation sounds like they're yelling "hey you stepped on my foot!!" instead of making a proposition (this became ever more apparent during the temple visits at Angkor Wat, where you are greeted by a sheer CACOPHONY of "Hey Lady, you want cold drink?", "Hey Lady, you want food?", "Hey Lady, you buy postcard? Only 3 for $1!!! (which my future travel buddy, Camille, from France, hysterically corrected by calmly replying "No, its 3 for only $1!) "Hey Lady, you want pineapple?"...and so on. They SCREECH their questions at you- and I heard these expressions easily hundreds of times each day at Angkor Wat...the intonation of those voices have made easily as indelible an impression on me as the temples did themselves, which is kind of sad.)
Finally got to my hostel and was delighted to find an air-conditioned room overlooking the pool, including breakfast, for $17. Wonderful. Dropped my bags, and literally raced into my bathing suit and jumped in the pool. Amazingly refreshing.
I headed into town for dinner that evening with two lovely British girls named Katie and Becky. We started on foot and then decided to grab a tuk tuk (apparently the annoying tuk tuk driver from earlier was telling the truth about the distance, although this turned out to be a plus for me instead of a minus) to a little food stall area by the river for some cheap eats. He clearly had no idea where he was going and dropped us at some random restaurant at which point he refused to respond to our request to be taken where we'd been asked. We all were just so frustrated that we got out and plonked ourselves down there to eat. Sometimes, its just not worth the fight. And I have to say, the "fight", was definitely worse in Cambodia thus far compared with Thailand.
Our meal was lovely and the three of us ate handsomely for only $9, although the fresh spring rolls I ordered were disappointingly bland. I was too hungry to care. We all enjoyed a lovely conversation getting to know each other and then we headed back to get to bed, having decided to brave the 5am departure for sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Not for me. That night, my stomach awakened me with the command that its contents needed to be emptied. Over the next 36 hours I wretched and writhed around in blissful travellers' tummy agony. Oh how I enjoyed crawling back and forth to the bathroom on my hands and knees. How I enjoyed laying there and counting the minutes tick by. How I loved not having anyone with ambulatory skills nearby that could kindly fetch me some water and flat sprite. How slowly the day passed.
On the bright side, I read over half of my new book....and I had A/C so that I wasn't sent over the edge with being ill AND relentlessly overheated. I was also very grateful that we had a bar/restaurant in the hotel...and that the staff were kind enough to read in my face when I finally made it down the stairs with the words "water and 2 bottles of sprite, please, now please" that I wasn't going to be able to wait the customary SE Asian amount of time for service.
In the end, despite the fact that Andrea had disappeared (she emailed me saying that she took a later bus but she'd given in to the tuk tuk driver's guest house recommendation and not come to Earthwalkers where I was staying) I was glad that I'd given myself 4 full days in Siem Reap since I missed a day and a half being out of it.
So, the second day...feeling a little wobbly still, I tentatively ate dried toast and tea for breakfast and struck up a conversation with a French girl who came and sat nearby. She was also travelling alone (yay!....Becky and Katie did a one-day Angkor wonder and had already left) and after some persuasion, as she was on a tight budget (to which I responded that I would pay for the tuk tuk for the day tour of the temples anyway, and I'd prefer to have the company) she agreed to join me as we hit the road to see the Eighth Wonder of the world. Camille was wonderful and very inspiring. She had been "working" her way around the world for the better part of a year, at age 23, and explained that she left France with only 500 euros to her name, and still managed to have about the same amount in her bank account today. See folks? You don't need money to travel!!! Just guts and determination....(and hopefully a passport from a developed nation. ugh.)
Our driver, Si, was recommended to me by Katie and Becky. He claimed to speak English, but that was questionable. I completely forgave him because he never failed to smile...all day long. I called him "Smiley". He was lovely and gave us zero pressure- which was very refreshing.
On that first day, I explained that I wanted to see some of the outer temples and save Angkor Wat itself for the following morning at sunrise. No sense in seeing the Big Kahuna on day one and having the other sites not have quite the same impact.
Camille was the perfect temple companion because she took her time, and was a bit of a history nerd like me. I was worried that I might get "templed" out, as I sort of did in Thailand, but nothing could have been further from the truth here. The more I saw of these incredible 9th, 10th, 11th century stone meccas built by Kings, married with nature (sometimes overtaken by it, such as the trees at Ta Prohm) and dedicated to the practice of Hinduism and Buddhism, the more fascinating they became.
The crowds were another thing. They were annoying. Though not as annoying as the hawkers. Which included children. Tiny children. I had a little girl, barely 3 years old, try to sell me 10 postcards for over 15 minutes while I rested on a tree trunk. We agreed that, sadly, her first words were undoubtedly "only 1 dollar", and not "Mommy".
We were very lucky that day to have also had a reprieve from the heat in the form of an early morning rainstorm that cleared the air nicely. I even had to wear a jacket on the tuk tuk ride in because there was a chill! It meant that we were able to spend most of the day getting in four or five temples before heading back to town for lunch.
My high spot for the day was the temple of Bayon: which has faces carved into numerous towers; a fabulous display of the egoistic nature of its designer King Jayavarmann VIII. It was captivating to look at the level of detail that went into all of the art work, the painstaking depictions of everything from legions of armies...to a women giving birth!
Camille and I took lunch in downtown Siem Reap. The town itself did not impress me much: it was a tourist trap and the prices were surprising (woo hoo! It just started thundering and raining here!) The smog, traffic and noise all made me thankful for my choice of hostel. After another slightly disappointing meal (I had a "platter" of Khmer food, but none was to my liking except for the banana in coconut milk dessert), we walked back to our hostel and enjoyed a lovely evening in the pool and getting to know our fellow backpackers.
The next day was the highlight of my trip to Cambodia. Together with another hostel guest, Marius from Norway, the three of us decided to rent bicycles and brave a 4:30am departure in the morning to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat, before tackling the "Grand Circuit" of just over 40km of road in total.
It was so exciting to don my headlamp and head out into the dark streets, dodging cars on the same mission as us. It was a 10k ride out to the pearl of the temples, and you could just make out a glow in the sky as we parked our bikes and took what felt like a surreal march to heaven along the long path across the moat leading to the glorious structure that is Angkor Wat.
It was one of those moments that I'll never forget. It was spiritual.
That is, until we parked ourselves by the lake to capture the rising sun on our cameras together with a couple hundred other tourists ( including of course the Japanese tourists, who, I'm sorry, but who CANNOT EVER shut up and appreciate a truly tranquil experience like the rest of us manage. They have to shriek at each photo and share, and point, and yell at one another with wild hand gestures.) It was still magical, regardless.
After a few hours of clambering inside the giant building itself and climbing to the top of its highest turret, we set off on our bicycle discovery and took in about four more temples before we crashed for lunch. Of course, I ate at the woman's stall who hadn't screamed at me- telling her so as well. She understood.
My favorite was Preah Kanh because it had the same trees as Ta Promh magically taking over the walls and roofs of the structure, but it also had very intricate tiny passageways and rooms that you almost had to crawl through. Wonderful.
After lunch, Marius and I decided to begin the long ride home as we were completely beat, and the afternoon sun was starting to get brutal. Oh my god. That bike ride was so very very long. I was so happy to make it back and quickly got in the pool. The three of us could barely move, so we decided to ask Si to drive us back to catch the sunset. We all went to the popular sunset spot, but turned around after we realized that it was just the classic sunset looking at the sky from a hill, and we wanted to see the changing colors on the walls of the temples themselves. Si, so generously, zoomed us back over to Bayon so that we could see the faces change shade with the setting sun.. Unfortunately, after about 20 mins of exploring, a guard came by to inform us that it was "cloe". Not a spelling error.
That night, someone said the magic word "pizza" and we happily devoured a large spinach and mushroom washing it down with good ol' Angkor beer before taking our wrecked limbs to sleep.
The following morning I awoke early to bid goodbye to Camille who was busing it to the border and then getting the train to Bangkok. Interestingly, she would only arrive about an hour before I did, and my flight didn't leave until that evening!
I spent the day chilling out mostly. I read, swam and wrote my blog. Si gave me a ride into town. He was so lovely. He even made me well up in my throat and choke back tears when he bid me goodbye at the airport. He thanked me for being "special lady good customer", and asked if I might email him to help him with his "very bad engrish". Of course I agreed, shook his hand, and then as I waved...he yelled out what he'd said to me the previous 3 evenings..."Good night Miss Anita...see you in d morning!"
The flight was strange. 35 minutes in total, and they served a full meal. Weird how the Thai's will constantly haggle and then give things away like that when they're not expected? I shoved mine into my backpack as I was not feeling good - again! Can't say I'm a fan of Khmer food :-(
Landing in Bangkok, I grabbed a cab to my familiar hotel in Rambuttri.
Today was amazing. I did SO MUCH in Bangkok and I have a far improved opinion of the city as compared to before. I saw the giant reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, took in the crazy crazy narrow market streets of Chinatown, rode the river boat along the Cho Phra, saw a VIP movie at the cinema (think food and blankets provided!), watched Thai people doing mass aerobics in Lumphini Park, took in the skyscrapers around Siam Square and then rode the Sky Train home.
Then I wrote this. Didn't mean for it to be so long...but sigh......
Tomorrow, I head to the airport at 7:30 for my flight to Kathmandu. Not sure if I'll write much in the next two weeks as I head to Everest Base Camp. You can follow the journey online at Alpineascents.com
Will be back in Bangkok on April 19. Till then,