“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
I think it is fair to say that the majority of people couldn’t point out Cambodia’s location on a map…unless of course it was one that had all of the countries labelled and I gave you some time. I fully admit that I was one of those people until 2005. I knew nothing of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge or Angkor Wat. Originally intending only to do a border run (to refresh my tourist visa) I had no intentions of spending anymore than an hour or two outside of Thailand. But with all of the organized trips to Siem Reap advertised in Bangkok, I quickly grew curious of what was there and what I was missing. To this day I couldn’t be happier that I decided to spend several days there and experience this hidden gem.
Siem Reap is a very long trip by bus. The road from Bangkok to the border is smooth, paved and quick, but from that point on, be prepared for an undeveloped dirt road which has become infamous in the backpacking community. I even recall having to wait for a bridge to be rebuilt so we could cross a small river. The small bus didn’t have A/C – so the windows were open the entire time, letting the hot dusty air circulate through the bus…it wasn’t all that pleasant. If I may be so bold as to suggest, please heed my words of wisdom. If money isn’t an issue, take the plane. And whatever you do, don’t change your money to the Cambodian Riel, no matter what. They will stiff you on the exchange almost everywhere and most places don’t even accept their own currency – it seemed like more of a hassle when trying to use their own money.
The lodging in Siem Reap was dirt cheap at $3 a night for a private room with two double beds and a personal bathroom. It was clean, large and spacious with a restaurant attached to the inn. Locals are available for hire to take you to the famous Temples. For just $12 you can have a chauffeur take you to watch the sunset over the valley in the evening and be up at 4am to make sure you don’t miss the sunrise behind Angkor Wat, the largest religious temple in the world. Travelling via tuk-tuk your driver will drop you off, let you explore and be ready to take you to the next site whenever you are ready to move on. If you are lucky, he might even sing on the way.
Built in the early 12th Century, Angkor Wat is now a protected Unesco World Heritage Site that hosts over 700,000 tourists every year. Guidebooks warn of King Cobras lurking in the cold dark shadows of the temples and instruct you to only enter the well lit areas. You might be thinking “WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO GO?”. The best way I can answer that, is show you. Take a look and see what it looks like to have the night disappear behind Angkor Wat as the sun rises. Some things in life are worth waking up at 4am for.
Even this early in the morning, the grounds of Angkor Wat are packed with tourists all wanting that majestic picture. It was cloudy enough that morning that I didn’t get that perfect picture, but the moments were beautiful nonetheless. There was something very special about seeing the temple for the first time reflect itself perfectly in the pools as the day lent just enough light to make out the majestic scene. The grounds surrounding this temple are just massive, complete with libraries, pools and even a moat 3.6 km long. You can literally explore this site all day if you wanted to. Large viper statues mark the entry to the main temple and the stairs to the towers are so steep you need to use all fours to reach the top safely. Angkor Wat is certainly one of my most favorite places on the planet.
As promised I am back tonight to finish telling the story of my experience in Thailand. (November 2005 – February 2006)
Let’s see – where was I?
Upon fleeing what I fondly refer to now as Monkey Mountain, we packed up, checked out and headed to the train station. We had purchased tickets for a 4pm train to take us further south. We were riding 3rd class and about to travel the distance from Calgary to Edmonton for a whopping $3. We were the only tourists aboard and had to find a seat alongside the locals that found the two of us very fascinating to watch. Which was funny, because we found them very fascinating to watch. Coming aboard hauling their chickens and giant baskets of vegetables. Selling their purple peanuts, plastic bags full of juice and dried plantain chips…I assure you, we were entertained. A very nice man came over to chat with us. He spoke very broken English, but he had been sent over to ask us some questions by the rest of his group. (I guess we looked pretty out of place) He asked where we were from…and that was the only question we could understand. There was a lot of smiling and nodding. I definitely recommend the 3rd class train though for situations where you are trying to get somewhere 2-4 hours away. It is comfortable enough (like being on a city metro), clean enough and you can’t beat the price.
I promised to do a travel post monthly and people have been reminding me all month that it is December and time for another country. So here we go!
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
For those of you that are familiar with the term “same same but different” you don’t need me to tell you the name of my featured country for the month of December, you’ve already experienced this madness…for those of you that have no idea what I am talking about, you will understand soon enough.
I had hardly been back from Costa Rica for a month before the travel itch struck and even if I wasn’t booking flights, at the very least I needed to start thinking about the next destination. It didn’t take much thinking at all. For a couple of years already, I had a place in mind, one I actually longed after much earlier than Costa Rica. So let me rewind a bit to a few months before my Costa Rica trip to help make sense of all this. In the fall of 2004 I was planning my very first backpacking trip, I just had to work up enough courage. I had my destination selected, I’d applied for my leave of absence at work, I had even started training my replacement. But on December 26th, 2004 all of that changed. My dream destination was one of the 15 countries that had been hit with one of the worst natural disasters my generation has ever seen. 227,898 people were killed, another 1.69 million people displaced.