By Ryan, Italics by Kayleigh
29.05.2015 - 11.06.2015 39 °C
Blog Entry 4 – Siem Reap
The Chatuchak Bus Terminal looks like a confusing open-plan mess when you first enter, but if you spend 5 minutes looking around you realise a more accurate term would be organised chaos, with counters for tickets with varying destinations sold by various bus companies. As we’d been there the day before we knew which bus stop we’d need and got there with enough time to buy some snacks from the 7/11. After taking several buses in SE Asia we’d started to judge how reliable the company is by the ratio of backpackers to locals on board, as well as the thorough research done beforehand. In THIS case however, we’d just bought a ticket to Siem Reap from the first terminal we found (probably my fault) in a panic. The bus was fairly decent with slightly more tourists than locals (a good sign), it was a fairly standard long bus journey, free snack and water, although it did include Cambodian music videos, which was a bizarre extra feature that quickly got annoying. We’d been told by several people and read several times that when you cross the border into Cambodia at Poipet town “they WILL try to scam you”. We knew that we were buying our visa on arrival, as were most people on the bus. The people working on the bus tried to tell us that we needed to give them our passports and an extra 20 dollars so they could get our visas for us and it would be a lot quicker; we could go through ourselves and get the visa, but it would take a long time and the bus would only wait an hour due to legal reasons. It was heavily implied that if we took too long getting our visas they would leave without us. Kayleigh and I stuck to our guns and went through the process ourselves, not only to avoid the scam, but to have the experience of getting our visas at a shady border town. We both had the feeling that everyone there was eyeing up our bags and seeing targets instead of people. At this point I realised I didn’t have any passport photos for the visa, or I did and couldn’t find them in my bag. A sketchy looking fella turned up and said he had a shop close by that could do passport photos for 100 baht. It seemed like a good price and I didn’t really have another choice at that point in time (turns out it can be done as you buy the visa in the official office) so we followed him. We followed him away from where all the other passengers were heading. We followed him over an abandoned railway line. We followed him past piles of garbage the size of a person, down a red dirt track into a shanty town, to his ‘office’. It was a delightful corrugated iron shack with a computer, printer and camera. There were several other Thai men staring at Kayleigh, though more likely the bags she was holding. I’m not sure either of us have ever gripped our bags so tight. But we got the photos for the price he said, and headed back to the visa office to get into Cambodia. We realised the guy was following us, he tried to get us to go into a cafe where apparently everyone got their visas before going into the office. We didn’t know either way but decided to ignore him and head to border control; if he was right we could always go back, if not we’d avoided a scam. We said no thanks, but he continued to follow us right up to the steps into the border control. As we started climbing the steps, he began shouting at us, calling us rude and asking where his tip was for being so ‘helpful’. He obviously realised he wasn’t going to get money from us from his fake visa shop and got angry. We gave him the equivalent of 10p and went to get our visas. To be fair to guys working on the bus, it did leave an hour after arriving in Poipet, but that was coincidently the time it took everyone to be back on the bus with visas. Although the journey from Poipet to Siem Reap is a blur (every bus journey is now) we remember thinking that Cambodia seemed a lot greener than Thailand. It looked a lot more untouched. We’d read that the Bus Terminal in Siem Reap was far out of town, but when we arrived the guys working for the bus company supplied us we a free tuk tuk that only took 2 minutes to take us to our hotel. The free tuk tuk was nice, but when were arrived at the hostel they all but begged us to use them for a tuk tuk tour around the temples, to which we politely declined. All-in-all I’d say we handled our first land border crossing pretty well.
Several other couple-backpackers we had met had mentioned that they found it cheaper to stay in mid-level hotels rather than hostels, as at a hostel you pay per bed and in hotels it’s per room. Taking this advice we chose a nice boutique hotel called Villa Medamrei. It was pretty central and so chilled out inside, with little fish pools, calm music and cool Arabian-style decor. After swapping rooms to a double rather than the twin they put us in at first, we were pretty settled. We went to the in-house restaurant and had khmer food on the balcony. I was shocked that there were so many vegetarian options, but Cambodia went on to be the best country we have been to for tasty vegetarian food.
After settling in at the hotel we ventured outside to find the night market. It turns out there were several big night markets, full of the usual tat but fun to look around once you learn how to not get pulled in by every store owner and their cries of ‘you buy something from me’. Street food wasn’t prevalent here, just the odd crepe stand or fried tarantulas, but there were a lot of restaurants and bars. Pub Street was the busiest street and had bars lining it all of the way down. We were pretty tired but wanted to scout out what the place was like and had a walk down.
The first thing that struck us about the place was how different it was from Bangkok! The tuk tuk drivers constantly shouted ‘tuk tuk?’ at you, but as soon as you say no they just smile (and maybe offer you drugs). The whole place was just so much more chilled out and friendly and the absence of sex workers was such a breath of fresh air. The other travellers were just as much of a relief as there was a noticeable decline in whorists (sex tourists), and more of a backpacker feel. There were a lot of people drinking, mainly backpackers and older western travellers but the atmosphere was still very chilled out, not at all reminiscent of places like Phangan or Phuket, it still retained its Cambodian-ness. We had a beer in a bar called Angkor What? and decided we had to come back the next night.
After sitting on the bus all day the day before, we had some pent up energy and wanted to stretch our legs. It was easily 40 degrees outside, temperatures like that sap the energy out of you and leave you wanting to just find a cafe with AC, so we tried to find a gym instead. A quick google and a quicker tuk tuk ride ($1!) brought us to Ankor Muscle Gym. It was only a dollar, and I had to pay an extra dollar to use the treadmill (because it was the only thing that used electricity). You could buy protein foods at the reception desk, like hard boiled eggs and chicken. Ryan was in heaven.
This was the most testosterone fuelled, old school weights gym I have seen. It was full of older but stacked Khmer guys who were more intent on checking themselves out in the mirror than looking at the few girls there, which put Kayleigh at a bit more ease. The gym was stocked with more weights and machines than I could use. After an hour we had to call it a day, there was no air-conditioning and only a few working fans; and as it was open plan, the 40 degree heat, with no breeze made us sweat profusely. I actually felt rather faint after, but it was worth it for a good work out.
After the gym we had a nice walk back past the river. We got in, lay in the AC for a while, showered and left to get food at the hotel, which was just as good as the night before. We went back to town and had a better look at the night market and decided to go to a fish spa. Unlike the ones you see in England, the fish were HUGE! And it was so ticklish when they bit you. After that Ryan had a foot massage and I got a great manicure for $2. Feeling a bit of a drink, we headed back to the bar we had been in the night before, Ankor What?. The bar was a bit of a dive, in a cool way, and had every available surface covered in graffiti. If you bought two or more pitchers at one time you got a free tshirt, and buying into the gimmick I did just that, but as it came in a large rather than the small I asked for, Ryan has worn it ever since, I will make sure to steal it back one day.
We stayed there a while listening to the great music, steadily getting drunker and drawing more and more juvenile graffiti, and at some point ended up sitting with a group of just as drunk English guys. We have videos of us standing on the seats, but I couldn’t honestly write about that as we can’t remember it! We left the guys because Ryan said he didn’t trust them... we are both still unsure why but he was pretty drunk and it was time we left anyway. It was a great night!
We were inevitably hungover the next day, which meant barely leaving the air-conditioned room until we recovered. I’m pretty sure our diet during the day was Pringles and water. A bit later on I decided, pretty much on a whim, that I want the back and sides of my head shaved. Not being used to the heat, I needed my head to be a bit cooler. Kayleigh did a really good job of it, and although it was a very drastic change from my usual hair, I thought it looked great. We went out for food that evening at the Temple bar, which substituted as a restaurant during the day. Kayleigh had some form of tofu dish, whilst I ate a crocodile burger. I was unsure what to expect, but it more had the texture of fish than meat, but very tasty. We had a quiet evening as we would be up early the next morning to visit the temples of Angkor.
I had assumed, based on previous temples we’d visited that Angkor would be a few old, but cool, buildings fairly close to each other. I was wrong. We had to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day to drive us between the temples as they were so far apart. Each temple was huge. Our first stop was Angkor Wat, probably the most famous temple of the collection. An ancient palace in which Kings resided and wars were fought over, the spires were huge and the detail in the carving along the walls was incredible. We decided not to hire a guide to take us round (in hindsight, it would have been nice to know the history as we were there, but Wikipedia has had to suffice since then), but you could still imagine how grand it would have been when it was first built. There was an outer wall, enclosing the main temple and large grassy areas, which was about 300 square meters. Inside the central palace were several shrines to Buddha, with people praying and lighting incense (a smell I will forever associate with temples); and many corridors with intricate carvings telling stories of battles. Angkor Wat is the largest man-made pyramid in the world. Our next stop was Ta Prohm. It’s the temple seen in the Tomb Raider movie, probably most famous for the giant sprawling trees growing around it, and covering the buildings. It’s an impressive structure, which has since been given a linear path throughout the several different stone edifices that allows fantastic views at the trees and temples alike. Although on a smaller scale than Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm was, for me, more impressive. We had a lunch break in small cafe, and bought some of their home-made rum. Our final stop of the day was Banteay Kdei. A very old and crumbling, small temple, often held up by planks of wood with one end jammed into the floor. Here we sat and prayed with an old Buddhist monk, who blessed us with a long life and good luck. After walking through the length of the temple we told the tuk tuk driver that we wanted to head back as the heat had finally worn us down. Our route back took us past Angkor Thom. I’m still upset we didn’t manage to look in there, but my disappointment was quelled by the presence of some very cheeky monkeys. Our driver stopped and let us out, and we foolishly left our bag in the tuk tuk. We wandered about 20m to a stall on the side of the road to buy some hard boiled eggs to feed to the monkeys. When we turned round a monkey was in the tuk tuk and rummaging through our bag, fortunately the driver saw in time we didn’t have anything stolen. We sat on the side of the road next to a few of them, who were quite curious, some grabbing at Kayleighs dress or the string on the handle for the GoPro. They were very gentle taking the eggs from our hands, and just sat down next to us and slowly ate their snack. It was a satisfying end to an eye-opening, if sweltering, day.
The next day we made the strange decision to have a ‘Happy Pizza’ for breakfast. That is, a weed pizza. It tasted disgusting and I didn’t actually manage to eat more than two slices. Ryan ate the other four or five slices and we went back to the room and waited. We both kept thinking it had kicked in but it actually took several hours to have effect and when it did it was pretty strong. We needed to go to the shop to buy chocolate and Ryan had a big problem paying the cashier. He looked so confused! I had to go outside because I was laughing too much.
A lonnng while later, the effects wore off and we went to a restaurant, it was pretty eventless except that a waitress came over to us with a packet of pills, she said the elderly man who had just left had left the packet and wanted us to tell her what the pills were for (as the writing was in English). Viagra. It was Viagra. We managed to get the point across with the help of some cruse hand gestures and she got really embarrassed and then laughed for a long time!
The rest of the stay was pretty uneventful, too, and we go the day bus down to Sihanoukville via Phnom Penh. We managed to stay for six nights in Siem Reap, a town where most travellers stay only for two or three but for us it was great and we loved the chilled out, social backpacker feel.