An Almost Wonder
No trip through Asia is complete until you have done at least one butt-jarring ride along a dirt path that would never be called a road in any normal country. The journey from the Thai-Cambodian border in Poi Pet to Siem Reap is one of the more well known off-road adventures and we had been forewarned. It didn’t quite prepare us though.
Latching on to the only other white people in sight at the border, we found ourselves buying tickets to board a mini-bus bound for Siem Reap, the city famous for its proximity to the ruins of Angkor. Having arrived last, we watched as the driver tossed bags into a massive pile at the front of the bus and loaded the other passengers on. Since there were only normal seats for 17 people I was the lucky 18th that got to sit on the weak little mini-seat that folded down into the aisle between to seats. With the supporting hinge on one side the seat flopped horribly to the right side and the back support was anything but. If I tried to lean back I was pretty much horizontal… and not in a comfortable recliner kind of way. To top it off, A and I were trying not to have our bags with camera gear too abused by the driver and so I sat with my bag between my legs and A‘s bag half on my lap and half on hers. For nearly six hours (with two small stops) I hunched forward over the bag and tried to rest my head on my folded arms.
Now would be a good time to mention that Cambodia is a very poor country. From the moment you step across the border the filth and squalor is everywhere. A yellowish haze blankets the sky and the smell of urine and garbage seems to come from every angle. Everywhere we go we are followed by ragged little children with their hands out crying “Sir! Madame! One dollar!” It is not an easy thing to deal with and I would be flat broke within an hour if I gave even one dollar to everyone that asked. With the standard of living at this level it is no surprise that the roads are a mess. Those that are paved have pot-holes that are more like large gaps in the road and the pavement eventually tapers off to a rough dirt track. Even on a relatively well travelled route like Poi Pet to Siem Reap the roads had bumps so violent that we were constantly being jostled up and out of our seats. Trying to take a drink of water from our bottle meant extreme care had to be taken lest you mash the edge up into your lips or gums. And if the bouncing of the roads was not enough to keep you from resting, the van we rode in was in such bad shape that every bit of it rattled at a different frequency making it impossible to concentrate on anything other than the misery of cheap travel.
To pass the time I composed limmericks in my head… only one of which I can repeat here while still keeping my PG-13 rating. I was trying to keep them related to the trip and it is difficult to keep things clean when trying to rhyme with Bangkok.
There once was a man from Siem Reap,
Who drove a bus from the border: Cheap! Cheap!
So we crammed in his van,
Like sardines in a can,
And had our butts pulverized by the seats.
Probably not my best work, but my brain was quite rattled at the time.
(For practical info on getting to Siem Reap and around Angkor see the bottom of this post.)
The next morning we were awake with the dawn and secured a tuk tuk driver for the day to drive us around the ruins of Angkor. Many people are under the impression that Angkor Wat is the sole attraction, but it is actually only one small–albeit the most visited–part of the Angkor complex that is spread out over 200 square km. Classified as one of the Seven Forgotten Wonders of the Medieval Mind, Angkor Wat was built by king Jayavarman II to support his claim of being a God King.
“Angkor Wat is a microcosm of the Hindu universe. The moat represents the mythical oceans surrounding the earth and the succession of concentric galleries represent the mountain ranges that surround Mount Meru, the home of the gods. The experience of the ascent is, maybe intentionally, a fairly convincing imitation of climbing a real mountain.” (Freeman & Jacques)
It is difficult to describe the feeling one gets when walking around these temples. Everywhere there is a sense of being humbled by the creations of those who lived so long ago. Massive stone blocks have been expertly cut and fitted together with unfathomable skill for such a primitive society and every small niche is full of intricate carvings or inscriptions. I could only imagine how imposing the temples would have been when they were newly built and decorated.
The temples of Angkor have gone through several religious periods and there is an odd mix of the hindu and buddhist religions. In some places carvings and statues dedicated to buddha were vandalized by later groups and remodeled as images of vishnu or krishna, while in other places you can see where buddhas have been added or more recently carved. Unlike other ancient temples around the world, the temples of Angkor are still revered as holy places and worshipped by thousands of devout buddhists each day. Colourful decorations adorn many of the buddha images and incense can be smelled in virtually all of the temples.
Today is our last day of exploration and then we are headed back to Khao Yai national Park in Thailand, followed by a brief visit to the city of Ayuthaya before heading back to Bangkok where I’ll likely be able to post again.
For those coming to Cambodia in the near future:
In Bangkok we took a cab to the northern bus station (Moh Chit) and then caught a bus to the border town of Aranya Prathet for 164B each. From the bus depot in Aranya Prathet it’s a 60B tuk tuk ride to the actual border where you’ll want to be prepared to spend a couple of hours getting through… especially if you’re stuck behind a group that booked a package in Bangkok like we were.
Save yourself some hassles and fill out your departure card before you get to the window and make sure that they stamp your passport with an exit stamp.
If you need a Cambodian visa then you can get one on the other side of the border on the right hand side of the road. We had read that it was US $20 but when we got there they wanted 1,000B. You will also need a passport photo which can be easilly gotten on Khao San Rd in Bangkok.
Once you have your visa you can get stamped into Cambodia.
Don’t worry about finding a tour company, they will be all over you as you make your way through the border. I don’t know the best way to find a reputable one, but we latched on to a group of other westerners and figured we’d all get screwed together. They will try to get you to pay 20B to take a tuk tuk to their office, it’s very close and you should be able to get them to take you there for free so you can look at the bus before buying a ticket.
The road sucks, bring water and a damp bandana is useful for all of the dust and exhaust that comes in through the windows. We were covered in a layer of reddish brown dirt when we arrived in Siem Reap.
The bus likely takes you to their own guest house, we got in at 11pm and just stayed at the one they dropped us off at (Sidewalk Guesthouse). It will probably be on the outskirts of town but things are generally cheaper there anyways and you may want to stay there for your time in Siem Reap. We ended up switching over to the Mini Guest House in the old market and payed $8 for a double with TV, balcony, and private Bath (it’s only $5 for a cramped single), although the matresses are quite thin.
For the park, it’s worth buying the 3 day pass for US $40. We read that a photo was included but things move faster if you already have one on you like we did. The pass is only valid for three consecutive days so you’ll have to go three in a row.
Hire a motor bike or tuk tuk for the day and they will drive you around and wait for you at each temple. There are two main circuits, the short and long. Many drivers will charge a flat rate, but there seems to be a basic standard of $8 for the short and $10 for the long.
Everything here runs in US currency so don’t bother changing any cash over. The rate should be about 4,000 Riel to every $1… a fact that took us a good two days to confirm and likely not the rate that we got when we changed money over at some shady counter in Poi Pet.
Hope that helps, feel free to email if you need more info.