Thai visas last for 30 days from the time you enter the country. Upon arrival you are supposed to provide proof of onward travel within the visa period. So, a few days before leaving New Zealand Sarah and I sat in a pub and booked two tickets out of Thailand for 29 days after the date that Sarah was to arrive. There were two requirements for these tickets – they had to have a destination that was somewhere outside Thailand, and they had to be cheap. We had no real intention of using them, so we didn’t care where that destination was. They cost us $12 each.
Fast-forward a few weeks. Sarah’s visa was due to expire shorty, so we started to explore our options. Visa extensions are available in Bangkok for $60. But what about those tickets? Where did they go again? Cambodia? Cool. Where in Cambodia? Some place called Siem Reap…………………………….
A quick Google search revealed that purely by chance we had booked minibus tickets to the site of some of the greatest architectural achievements of the ancient world, including the largest religious site in the world – the world famous temple of Angkor Wat. (I had at least heard of Angkor Wat, even if I didn’t know where it was precisely)
“Well, that sounds kind of cool. Should we actually use these tickets?”
“Sure! Why not?”
It turned out to be a superb decision. Getting there was a great laugh – 14 people literally stuffed into a minivan along with all their stuff for 12 hours. Whenever anyone from the back wanted to get out we had to unload the whole van. You couldn’t see them the rest of the time as they were obscured by a wall of rucksacks. By chance I was allotted a plum seat – the one just behind the door on the port side by itself – and I was even able to stretch my legs through a wall of bags and lay them up against a window. Sarah wasn’t so lucky – she was stuffed in the back.
When I said it was a great laugh I wasn’t joking (har har) – it was genuinely great. We met some great people (REALLY met them! At close quarters!) and had a good time playing a game called ‘spot the scam’.
Cambodians are master scammers, and we weren’t quite ready for just how masterful they are. The bus was supposed to take 6 hours, but we stopped fairly frequently including quite a few hours at a restaurant about 20 kilometres from the border. We were offloaded, told that we would be changing buses, and also told that we were to arrange our border crossing documents here rather than at the border itself. Fortunately Sarah and I had arranged our visas online already but we still forked out 100 baht each (about $3) for ‘immigration fees’. One Swedish couple were really savvy and refused everything, but everyone else organised their visas with these guys and ended up paying about $10 more than they needed to. The whole service, as it turned out, was available at the border fee-free. In the meantime we were encouraged to eat and drink at the restaurant, and they took their time about things so that we’d eventually give in out of sheer boredom and buy stuff. The whole restaurant deal was a scam – it was owned by friends of the people who run the bus service and they were all getting a cut of the ‘fees’.
Next was the money-changing scam – telling us that we’d get a better rate of conversion if we changed our money to local Cambodian currency (Rials) at the border rather than in the city, another friend-shop-scam, and finally a tuktuk scam whereby the bus skirted around the edge of the city (so that we couldn’t see ourselves being deliberately driven through and then away from our destination) and then dropped us off at the far Eastern outskirts. Conveniently (and miraculously) there happened to be a host of tuktuk (a tuktuk in Cambodia consists of a 4-seater trailer attached to a motorcycle and driven by a madman) drivers waiting at our destination. Since it was now 9pm and many people had yet to arrange accommodation we were willing to pay the vastly-inflated fee of $4 for a ride into the city – a ride that should only cost $1. Oh, and they’d be happy to arrange accommodation at the very bestest and cheapest place in the town (“Same same as others, but different”). Any guesses who owned those establishments?
I’m making it sound like the whole experience was horrible but it really wasn’t. We were having a great time trying to identify which parts of what we were being told were true, which were embellishments and which were outright lies. Besides, it didn’t cost us all that much by our standards. We thought of it as paying a fair fee for life experiences.
We went out for a meal ($3 each including drinks) with some backpackers we’d met on the bus, checked into our hotel and lay down our heads for a long, peaceful sleep in our nice big comfy bed at Bliss Villas. Heaven on earth. ‘A calm, tranquil environment to relax and enjoy your surroundings’, said the marketing brochure. Well, at least we were spared the necessity of setting an alarm clock. We were awakened bright and early by this (note: in order to replicate the authenticity of the experience, I recommend you turn the volume on your speakers to maximum before playing this video):
We still have no idea what the festive occasion was, but the sound you can hear is that of monks chanting. They’d set up a pavilion just outside our window and had HUGE speakers angled outwards – directly at our bedroom – blasting out the chant (interspersed with occasional horrendous ‘music’ produced by what I can only assume was 10,000 cats being tortured) for most of the day. Fortunately our fears that this would be the modus operandi on subsequent mornings were unfounded. We chalked it down as another fascinating cultural experience.
Most of our time in Siem Reap was spent loafing. The food was excellent and very inexpensive. There’s an appropriately-named street called Pub Street where we spent a couple of enjoyable evenings and a night-market where we were able to haggle for some new clothing and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the place. We spent a day just wandering around to see what we could see and discovered another market, a beautiful temple and had a remarkable conversation with a Cambodian gentleman who approached us on the street and then, instead of asking us for money as we were expecting, astounded us by asking us to explain why the UK wanted to leave the EU. We were more than happy to spend a while exchanging cultural, political and economic comparisons between our countries and thoroughly enjoyed chatting to him. Then came the shift. He did want money after all. He claimed to be the headmaster of a school for impoverished children in one of the rural villages and he put on a very convincing show, with various pictures and publications to show us. He did such a good job in fact that we gave him $10 despite being on-guard for scams. Either he was genuine or he was the best actor I’ve ever met. We looked his school up on facebook when we got to the hotel and found pictures of him with the children. Even that, though, is no guarantee. They will go to enormous lengths to scam people – mothers will rent out their children to ‘orphanages’ for the purpose of extracting money from tourists. See what I mean about the mastery of the scamming? It’s quite admirably resourceful in a way.
Of course, we also visited the temples. After all, they are the main attraction of Siem Reap; and for good reason.
The temple of Angkor Wat and the surrounding structures constitute the largest religious site in the world. The whole site is surrounded by a huge moat, and it boggles my mind to try to comprehend the amount of manpower that went into the construction of that moat alone – never even mind the temple itself, which is truly spectacular. But Angkor Wat is only one of a score or so of similar buildings, many equally spectacular in their own ways. Prasat Bayon at Angkor Thom houses huge arrays of stone faces looming from the sides of a collection of grand towers. Beautiful bas-relief scenes are carved into the walls of every temple depicting intricate scenes of the daily lives of ancient Khmer people as well as recording great battles and scenes of spiritual significance. The area as a whole – the ancient Khmer city of Angkor – was the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It’s a truly amazing place, with a fascinating history spanning over the last 1,000 years or so, in an area of the world that has frequently been subjected to large-scale warfare and great social, political and religious unrest. The sites have not survived unscathed. Khmer Rouge forces (led by the infamous dictator Pol Pot, under whose brutal regime a staggering 25% of the population of Cambodia died as recently as the 1970s) occupied the site during the Cambidian-Vietnamese War, burning any remaining wooden structures for firewood. A US shell destroyed one of the pavilions, and a bas-relief was subjected to a barrage of bullets during an exchange of fire with Vietnamese forces. Subsequently the majority of statues were decapitated by thieves, who sold the heads to black-market collectors. Presumably these relics are still to be found scattered around the planet in the living rooms of affluent (and unscrupulous) persons. This alarming thievery led to the site being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. Fortunately this put a stop to the destruction, and the site has been well-managed since then. With about 2.1 million visitors every year and an average ticket price of about $55 the site generates a massive $115M annually, and that doesn’t include the income generated from the accommodation, food and transport that all those tourists require. Not inconsiderable in a country where the average wage is $120 per month.
Our trip back to Bangkok was relatively uneventful. We’d paid a little more for our bus tickets and we’re going with a different company. There was no changing buses or scamming along the way. I did have one small problem though. My stomach was feeling decidedly delicate on the morning of our departure so I paid a visit to a pharmacy and asked for some Imodium. “We don’t have any”, said the pharmacist, “but this is the same thing”. He handed me a packet of pills. I paid him, pushed a couple of pills through the foil and popped them in my mouth. I didn’t have any problems on the bus, and the whole trip back was remarkably relaxing and enjoyable. It wasn’t until I looked at the pill packet much later and saw what I’d been given that I understood why. It was Diazepam, better known as Valium 🙂
It’s a good thing the Valium did the job that I hoped for. As it turned out the bus was so luxurious that it had a toilet on board, but this sign makes clear certain restrictions associated with it’s use:
Now for some photos of nicer stuff:
The appropriately-named ‘Pub Street’, where we spent a very enjoyable few evenings, including one at a reggae bar (not something we expected to find in Cambodia!):
The temple of Angkor Wat, displaying typical characteristics of Khmer architcture:
Because of the lighting at the time of day we were there and also the shear number of tourists getting in the way of the shots it was really tough to get a good picture of Angkor Wat (despite Sarah’s top-notch photographic skills). It’s worth googling an image of it to get a better idea of the scale, taken from an angle that we didn’t have access to.
Another view of Angkor Wat with me standing in the doorway to give an idea of scale. The steps, as you can probably tell, are very steep. We wondered if this was meant to make the site defensible. Certainly the moat and the general construction of the place would tend to suggest a construction with fortification in mind as well as religious practicality.
Water features are a predominant feature among the ruins of Angkor. This one is within the temple of Angkor Wat, but others are huge. The largest is a full 8Km by 2Km, all dug by hand 1,000 years ago. The purpose of these reservoirs, basins and pools is not known and is disputed by historians and archaeologists.
One of the huge faces carved into the sides of Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom. Whose face is depicted is another subject of dispute. Some say it is Buddha, some say it is the face of the Khmer king of the day, and still others say it is an amalgamation of the two.
Sarah standing beneath the ancient archway of a viaduct or aqueduct (we’re not sure which). The trees in and around the temples have grown into the structure of the stones such that the trees and stones are now often mutually dependent on one another for support.
Last but not least, a bas-relief depicting some sort of nautical war theme. It’s amazing to think that this level of intricacy was achieved by hand and chisel. There are several miles of these to be found on the walls of the various temples of Angkor.