So, upon the realization that my Thai visa was about to expire, I rushed for the Cambodian border, upon the instructions of this site. It’s quite accurate, but the timing was very close. Turning in the motorbike in time to catch the ferry at 11:30AM was a close shave, but manageable. Upon reaching the mainland, however, I began encountering difficulties in locating a songthaew to take me to the ferry pier in Na Thon. I’d mapped it prior, it was about 15km, so I knew if worst came to worst I could walk, but as I staggered down the side of the road in the blazing sun, hailing each songthaew that passed, and being greeted with a friendly (and mocking?) wave as they flew by began to grow wearisome. To this day, I’m still not sure why not one songthaew would stop on the stretch of Hwy 3170 between the Big Buddha pier and the pier at Bo Phut. Eventually, I trudged out to Hwy 3169 and a songthaew grabbed me there. Even then, I had to wait about 20 minutes for one to show up. That’s like an anti-miracle. Those dang songthaews are usually two per minute at any other time.
So, I made it to the bus station. But, I hadn’t pre-printed my ticket, as I wanted to see whether I could simply show my e-version of the bus ticket to the driver. So i whipped out (ha, as if, more like dredged up) my laptop and the driver whipped out the ticket that had been sent from Bangkok in my name. Woohoo, good to go. In other news, the bathroom at the bus station is excellent–clean, and offering showers, toilets, several sinks and a long mirror. Got on the bus, bus went to the ferry pier, got off the bus, bought a ferry ticket, got on the ferry, landed on the other side (Don Sak), got back on the bus, and passed out. Woke up for some spicy noodle soup at a bus stop eatery–no problems this time. Woke in the morning to the bus driver barking, “Hey, you; leave!” and was promptly shunted from the vehicle. Staggered into the bus terminal at 6:30AM and excised my laptop once again to check how to get to the Chaloklum metro station. It looked walkable–just through some park. Totally doable! Repack, and set out.
Crossing under the freeway, I came upon a joke seller amongst a group of construction workers, and in the spirit of breakfast we supped together. I then realized the fence directly in front of me encircled the very park I was meant to cross. It looked huge. I circumambulated the perimeter for a bit without seeing an entrance, then gave it up and hauled myself over it–backpack and all. A cute young couple on a motorbike sped by laughing and pointing. I’m sure I deserved it. Trekking through the gardens of the park, I wished I was in a place to better enjoy it. The foliage was neatly labeled in Thai, English, and Latin, but I couldn’t be bothered to note it. My backpack was weighing ever more heavily upon my sweaty back, and I needed a restroom.
Handy Bathroom Information:
Bathroom in Thai is “Hong Nam”. To ask whether there is a bathroom, say, “Mee hong nam mai?”. To ask where the bathrooms are, say, “Hong nam you tee nai?”.
After the helpful ministrations of a young military man, I was ready to continue my journey. I had to cross through one more park, and then walk along the fence line for a bit before I stumbled upon the Chaloklum metro stop, conveniently located inside the park. Inside it was cool and clean, and I sat in the corner on the floor for a while to collect my wits. Onlookers glanced quickly, then looked away. I eventually hopped the train, and came out at the Hua Lamphong train station. Recognizing that the train to Aranyaprathet (the closest Thai town to Cambodia) runs at 6AM, I had planned to simply squat in the train station overnight. As I looked around me, this seemed to be a less feasible reality. I asked the lady at the information desk which bus I could take to get to Tesco (so I could use the fee-free Aeon ATM), and she told me 113. I waited at what I hoped was the bus station, ardently turning away tuk-tuks, and eagerly hopped on the bus when it arrived.
The ticket collector came around after a time, and I asked how much the ticket was. At this point, communication devolved. I could not for the life of me understand what he was saying. I offered him 20b, it seemed fair for a bus ride, but he kept repeating “20b, 20b”. I didn’t have another 20b. Then strangers became involved. A man who had been repeatedly asking me at the bus station, “Where you from? Lady! Where you from?” moved into the seat across from me and took up the call again. Passengers began asking where I was going. “Tesco,” I cried, “I’m going to Tesco!”. At the climax of that situation, the bus stopped, I looked out the window and, blessings be, saw Tesco across the street. I hurriedly left, and determined to walk back if it killed me.
As it turned out, the Aeon ATM in this Tesco did charge a service fee, which really ground me up, considering the trial it had been to come. I did get some more V-Fit 7-rice milk, which is what I pretty much live for, and some fried chicken and sticky rice (Tesco makes great food). Having regathered my strength, I set off for home, wandering here, wandering there, asking always the way to Hua Lamphong. It seemed much further on foot, but at least the sun had dropped below the buildings. I finally came back to the station, and put up at a coffee shop across the street. The girls asked where I was going, where I was staying, and when they heard I was planning on staying the night in Hua Lamphong, put their foot down. I had searched nearby hostels, etc. online, but had found only upscale results, running much higher than I wanted to pay. The girls told me about a cheap place right behind that very location, for $2 per night. Sold.
I had to pay when I checked in (it ended up being $3), but there was an elevator, and clean towels, and an ensuite bathroom. It was cool and clean and had a fan. Much nicer than other hostels I’ve been in. It’s called The Station Hotel and I recommend it to any traveler coming to or going from BKK by train.
Got some khaotom to-go for the ride, got on the train, and fell asleep in a variety of yoga-istic positions. When I awoke around 11:30AM, we were about an hour out, and my hair was coated with train smoke and travel dust. The train has glass windows the slide up or down, slatted wooden shutters, and fans. You’re going to want that window open. Arriving in Aranyaprathet, I was approached by a tuk-tuk driver and actually wanted a ride. He took me to the bank (didn’t get enough money out of the ATM, dumb), and then to Poipet, leaving me near the border for 40b.
Getting into Cambodia is like trying to get into the U.S. from Mexico. You have to pass through a variety of stations, wait in lines, be sweaty, and pay fees, plus everyone is in uniform and means business. I had read online ahead of time that a common scam is to get tourists to buy visas before the border, claiming that it must be purchased before, or that you have to get them at such-and-such a place, so I proceeded to the border, heedless of the calls. I met two other tourist sets who had been scammed in such a way, once I got to Siem Reap, one set for $30 and one for $50! Be on your guard, everything you need can be purchased AT THE BORDER for $20. You should also be traveling with some mini photos of yourself, as many visas request those. I don’t have any yet, so I paid a 100b fine. Then lines, lines, lines. Finally, I got to the other side.
A helpful young man escorted me to the tourist shuttle going to the bus station, then, upon arriving, showed me which bus to buy a ticket for, and where to change money. Then he asked for “a little something” for the help. I only had $2, but he didn’t seem displeased. Then I was on the bus again. I fell asleep until we jounced into the bus station outside of Siem Reap. From this potholed dirt road you take a tuk-tuk to your final destination in Siem Reap. My tuk-tuk driver was very helpful, and drove me first to the well-regarded hostel The Garden Village Guest House. Being quite popular, as I’ve mentioned, it was full up. He then directed me to another hostel, this one in the heart of Siem Reap, I Win Hostel. I only had large bills, and he couldn’t break a $10, so he said he would come back to take me to the Floating Village on Thonle Sap at 3:30PM the next day, and that I could pay him then.
I was grateful then to climb the 3 flights of stairs to the sweaty garret filled with bunkbeds. I took a shower, felt revived, and went out to see the town.
Directly behind my hostel was a small market, comprised of very overpriced tourist items, etc. Passing through there, and across a canal, one comes to the Siem Reap “Night Market” : a city block of tourist stuff, encircling an inner food market patroned by locals; flanked on one side by the infamous Pub Street and on the other by tuk-tuk drivers and snack cart pushers. This market undergoes a radical change between day and night time purveyors. During the day, the perimeter of the market sells household supplies–literally, anything anyone would need for their house, including building supplies. There are a few tourist shops, but mostly jewelry and things that remain in cases or displayed in a certain way. After about 6PM, these household shops have all disappeared, to be replaced by shops selling the same Khmer dresses, pashminas, kramas, “Aladdin” pants, shorts, at prices dependent on the proprietors individual aims.
Did I mention the dress code in Cambodia? As whimsical and lax as Thailand is, so, oppositely, is Cambodia conservative and incongruous. 98% of Cambodians wear long sleeves and pants, all the time. There are varying styles to this. I could actually discourse long on the nature of Khmer fashion–it’s very iconic! In general, young men are much more neatly dressed than anywhere else I’ve seen–IN THE WORLD. They wear nattily fitted jeans, or dark khaki culottes, and button downs, with flip-flops. Young females have two apparel options : the long-sleeved, skinny jean style, or the “pajama” style. This entails a matching top and bottom set, usually in a bright floral pattern, with narrow legs and a buttoning front. It looks just like a pair of funky pajamas. This is also paired with flip-flops. Women of an age wear a Khmer skirt–a wrap skirt with a Cambodian print–and a 3/4 button down or long-sleeved shirt. All school children wear uniforms; the most common being a navy bottom and light button-down top. The girls all look like something out of a Hiyao Miyazaki film : bell-shaped skirts, doubled up on the back of bicycles or motorbikes.
Anyhow, you look like a boob if you go out in anything shorter-sleeved than a t-shirt, or shorter than knee-length. So I elected to grab a couple baggy pants. $3 a pop, I figured I could leave them somewhere if they didn’t work out. The girl I bought them from was vivacious and friendly, like most Cambodians I’ve met. She also taught me how to say, “No bean sprouts!” Or literally, “I have no need for those bean sprouts”. This unfortunate phrase was occasioned by my finding the perfect breakfast place just meters away from my hostel. It served borbor, the Khmer equivalent of khaotom, and even had those little doughnut things I like. But! Khmer-style borbor has bean sprouts in it! And I didn’t know! And I hate beansprouts in soup, glug.
Speaking of new gustatory experiences, Cambodians put other mysterious things in the otherwise unassuming rice porridge, such as offal. Buying some borbor on the street, I arrived home to find some exciting kidneys? veins? liver? in my bowl. I’m not sure how to decline these things, but the taste sort of blends when it’s all together and sliced thin.
Siem Reap is a funny place, kind of a big-little town. The streets are dusty and poorly paved, and a few hundred meters outside of the city center you will find yourself on a dirt road surrounded by stilt houses and children laughing, calling, “Hello! Hi! What’s your name!”. A canal runs through town, and along it are mansions that look like they’ve survived French colonialism. Classical parks grace the sides of the canal, and frangipani drops blossoms along the street.
Then there’s the shantytown aspect. Corrugated tin houses, stirred only by the wings of flies; pregnant dogs panting in the heat, skeletally thin; begging children (always girls), naked kids dredging the canal for miniature clams and waterweeds to sell, shaved-headed old women with eyes that don’t see straight, hands held in front of them; land mine victims. Children playing in a construction site while their fathers work behind them. Men pulling carts taller than themselves in lieu of a cow or horse. Young girls asking if you want a massage. Women trying desperately to sell you a pair of pants, or some cut pineapple. “What you pay?” they call, as you try to run away, “How much you pay?”. Don’t look interested in anything, or the proprietress will try her hardest to sell it to you. If you get out once, don’t go back that way, or they’ll remember you and get you again.
Aside from that sadness, there are excellent, fun aspects of Siem Reap; not limited to $1 a day bicycle rentals, the Angkor temples, how nice everybody is, the excellent Khmer taste in music, the delicious food, and the free tea at meals. Street food and lodging are cheaper here than in Thailand, and people everywhere will approach you to meet you, just because they’re interested in you. Expect to be treated with extreme frankness; Cambodians don’t pull any punches when it comes to personal appearance or any embarrassing thing you might do. They’ll openly ask you if your piercings hurt, or if you have any injury, they want to know what happened. They’ll also tell you that your nose is big (every nose is big compared to Khmer noses), that such-and-such a size won’t fit you; and if you’re near a group of Khmer women, you can be sure they’re talking about you, and yes, laughing at you. Sometimes they even laugh at you for being too polite. But it’s not just you! They often laugh at each other, and regularly play tricks and tease one another. Cambodians are always smiling, and usually laughing. Don’t be fooled by that smile though, sometimes it serves to hide their true feelings of fear, embarrassment, or uncertainty–Cambodia is a face-saving culture.
I generally make a little wai to each person I meet (in Khmer these are called Som Pas) or see. Most people seem to think it’s cute, or nice, but I’ve had women tell me that I shouldn’t som pas to them, they are “too low”, so there’s more to the story, but I don’t know it yet.
I know you’re all wondering about Angkor Wat. Well, to me, this is just one part of the experience, not the whole reason for visiting. You can get a day pass to the Angkor temples for twenty bones, or you can pop $40 for a three-day pass. If you have the time, I’d recommend the latter. I got up before sunrise to ride my bike to the temples–my favorite borbor place wasn’t even open yet–and was passed the whole way by like-minded tourists in tuktuks. Everyone crowded around the first pool at the temple to watch the sunrise, but I went on to find the highest point–the Bayon. Unfortunately, you can’t get into this until 7:50AM. Shucks. But the sunrises and sunsets here are nothing to get excited about: a gradual coloration of a grey haze.
Yes, the stonework and sheer immensity were breathtaking; yes, it’s impossible to believe the length of time necessary to complete such a work; yes, it’s very, very hot and you didn’t bring any water and you’re on a bike, trudging from temple to temple (there are a gang of them); yes, there are at least three steep staircases per temple; yes, some of the temples are crammed with tourists.
There are so many temples, you will certainly enjoy yourself more if you only take on a select few per day. The ride isn’t bad from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat–about 5 miles. Then you can ride the short circuit or the long one, don’t ask me the distance. The short one is less than 10 miles I’d say, the long one is supposed to be 32 km. If you’re not getting off and on your bike every five minutes to look at temples, you’ll enjoy the ride, the temples you do choose to see, and the day. My favorite temple was definitely Ta Prohm, or the Tree Complex. It has been majorly reconstructed, but is not yet complete. The trees growing all over and around give the temple an additional otherwordly/anime feel, like Laputa of Castle in the Sky.
The good news is, you can probably lurk onto a tour group in your language, if you don’t want to pay for one, as I heard Cambodian guides speaking Russian, German, Mandarin, Japanese, and French, not to mention English. You will also see a ton of monkeys! They are relatively fearless, and you can get quite close, but watch your food! They will snatch it right up, be it a health bar or a bag of sliced pineapple.
Sorry I skimped on the Angkor descriptions, but what I remember most is being hot and thirsty. To make up for this, I have included a selection of the kadgillion photos I took. Enjoy!