Cambodia... Our first mission, after having left the 4000 islands at 08:30 that morning (21st December), was to negotiate the notorious Tropaeng Kreal Cambodia-Laos Border. We had heard stories of corruption at 'ground level', and we equally found out ourselves that very morning.
On the Laos side of the boarder, we were required to pay a $2 'admin fee' for stamping us out of the country. We had decided to not kick up too much of a fuss and just get to the next bus 'on-time'. So we stamped out of Laos for $2 more than we had expected to pay. But wait...
As we came across the boarder and entered the compound, we were instructed over to a little hut, in line with the main building. Within this hut, there stood a tiny man, who proceeded to tell us that we were required to show our vaccination records. That was easy for me. I had some tastefully decorated booklet that I received after having my inoculations before we left. I therefore was granted my yellow slip. Gaëlle, on the other hand did not have a plush array of paper to show the man, so was therefore required to pay $1 to obtain one. After discussing with the man, who was holding his position, that what he was talking about was complete rubbish, we decided to just say Au revoir and tackle the actual business end of deal (no need to say he wasn't happy about it... but as it's was ppure corruption and illegal, it was hard for him to really stop us).
There had been a bus, full of people, arriving just before us and so we chatted with a few people, and filled out our entry form, and we just watched. The process when dealing with passports here was so lax that you could simply walk away, or more to the point someone else could walk away, with your passport that you had to be aware of what was happening. The official had at least three passports within his booth at any one time. Someone almost did walk off with my passport, but because I recognised it by a little sticker on the back, I asked here if I could see it. It was mine. Crazy...
At the first booth the officer told us, with a straight face that the price for the entry into Cambodia was $35. Complet bullshit as we perfeclty knew it was $30 . A more lavish 'admin fee' for these guys, huh? But with no one arguiing at over, and our bus "supposed" to leave soon after, we didn't want to risk it (even though we would have been right). As we left the compound, one last final check was made of our passports and then we were officially, legally, in Cambodia. Oh, and the yellow slip was never required - Just a gimmick.
As we walked from the boarder, we came upon to a line of shops/waiting areas, made from wood, with a little foundation of stonework and a tin roof, standing there before us. There were people sat in the others and we were welcomed by the final one. This was where our bus would pick us up from, we were told. Little were we to know that actually yes, this is where our bus would pick us up from, but not anytime soon. We were in for the long stay. Majority of the day stay. People left before us and, again we watched. One 'bus', with FULL capacity of 14 left with what we counted as to be 20 people inside, plus bags. Luckily when our bus arrived we weren't as many as that, packed in like sardines or Être serrés comme des sardines, in French, as they say.
Finally at around 5pm, we were on our way. Over 6 hours after we had first sat at the little cafe, bar, probably and most likely, little home, we'd made the hop, from walking speed to Cambodian minivan speed. The road started out very much as it had ended in Laos, with tarmac and lovely painted lines. It wasn't soon though before that would come to an end, and it would be dirt road, with the occasional sudden brake, or just finding the inevitable pothole made unavoidable due to someone over taking, or more normally an oncoming vehicle. Just over an hour later and we arrived at the next bus station. Thankfully here we wouldn't wait as long, but still we waited. Oh and the presence of Tarmac again, had made the journey a little easier.
Arriving in Siem Reap at around 9pm, we were dropped off outside of the city centre at a 'bus station' with the usual suspects outside bombarding you upon the door opening to try and win business. after collecting our bags, most of them had dispersed with the others in the bus. We bargained with the guy that finally approached us and after a blunt comment from Gaelle ("listen, I've got only $2 with me, I'm tired and upset, so it's that or nothing"), well, we were taken to our hotel.
As you can imagine, in a country where you speak 2 words of the native language, the certainty of knowing what is being said is very minimal and reading what you hope you're going to get, is just comical. The next morning, after a good night sleep, we went in search of breakfast. Our search was a tough one. As we had landed in a very touristic area, prices for a simple pancake were up at $4. Muesli and Yoghurt, equally as expensive. In our search for breakfast, we also needed to find out how much cash machines charged, and therefore decide which was the best to use. Along with, of course, the standard SIM card. Wifi in most places can be terrible, and to find info, your sim card connection is more than likely a lot quicker.
Breakfast sourced, SIM card too, I then went off to the bank whilst Gaelle went to the Post Office. I then proceeded to go to check out banks and make a withdrawal. After having been to 5 or 6 banks, I took the decision that I would go to ANZ Bank. Their charges weren't as high as the other banks and they didn't give me a stupidly small withdrawal limit either. However, their wording of the question "would you like to use the home currency or foreign currency exchange rate" wasn't so clear. And as I didn't want to make the wrong decision, I took a little too much time in answering and the card was gone... Damn... How was I suppose to get it back?? Luckily for us, unlike in Europe, the card was just kept in "custody" at the bank and I just had to wait 2 days (it was the weekend) to get it back (proving it belongs to me by withdrawing money).
But the positives of the day were, Gaëlle sent her parcel home, we also moved hotels, into a newly 'softly' opened hotel, !!BREAKFAST INCLUDED!!, swimming pool, for $15 a night. In our math, that was $4 each for breakfast, and so the room was only $7. Amazing. That evening we secured a bicycle each, and also, ordered our breakfast to take away the following morning, as an early start was needed: we were about to do our first visit of the Angkor temples!
Awake at 4:30am, we set off to the ticket office to purchase our Angkor tickets. Our breakfast ready and in the front basket, we took the long trip out to the east to join others in having our photo taken, and it taking pride of place, at the top of our tickets. We then returned back on our tracks and north up to the famous world heritage site.
It was just becoming light as we sat down to enjoy our breakfast - and oh what a breakfast it was too! Toast, Boiled Egg, Marmalade, and Fruit. Best thing we had eaten since coming to Cambodia! Well, that wasn't hard.
Sitting on the banked steps of the surrounding moat of the temple, we watched as the sun light reflected across the water, and witnessed the sheer amount of people all doing the same thing. This place is busy from the moment it opens at 5:30am, until 6:30pm. And everyone here within that time is wanting to take in the temple's vastness along with the beautiful architecture and stone carvings. Don't forget the monkeys, they too are awake at sunrise and they make their presence felt, especially if you do happen to have a plastic bag. This was a similar moment that we had back in KL @ Batu Caves with monkeys attempting to climb up you for food. Thankfully though, it seemed that as soon as I came onto the bridge, he was no longer interested - maybe he doesn't swim?
As we had decided that the first day in Angkor was going to be doing the Grand Loop, we knew that we were in for a big ride. And I can't say that riding a scooter or bicycle in Laos, a few weeks earlier had prepared me for sitting on such a seat for lengthy periods... Gaelle however, well, she looked as dignified and happy with her choice of bike as ever, joking about the fact that I said "I want a mountain bike". I'd later find out that it wasn't the greatest mountain bike ever, even if my principles of wanting one were going to be dented, I tried to show I was fine.
The Grand Loop was to take us the whole day, covering over 40km - including our ride too and from the world heritage sight. No hills, but scorching sun and lots and lots of stairs. It was certainly going to make a day that would be equivalent to a few trips to the gym.
Our plan was to skip Bayon, and be in front of the masses and it was here, on that ride, when we understood how widely spread these temples were. Our ride to Ankgor Thom - that alone was a couple of Km's. And then inside another 1.5km's to reach the centre temple, Bayon. Around it we went, past the tuktuks we rode, and on to the next temple which for us would be Preah Khan.
This is a late 12th Century (1191) Bayon Style temple, was one of Jayavarman VII's largest projects. It is believed that this temple stood as the Buddhist University, along with also being a substantial city. As we had managed, at the beginning of the day, to bargain and purchase an Angkor information book, we were able to read about what we were seeing. The book was something that a lot of people visiting didn't have. One guy even noticed us reading to ourselves, as we sat in a doorway, and offered to take the picture. He was another tourist but one who appreciated what he was seeing.
With our minds full of words, and a rough understanding of what a hall of dancers was, we continued on and to Neak Pean. This small temple monument was built again in the late 12th Century. This monument was built to symbolise the sacred Himalayan Lake of Anavatapta. This lake was famous for it's healing properties.
As you can see in the middle picture, to get to this monument, you had to access from the long path from the north. It was typical that when built, most of the temples within Ankgor would, at points, be surrounded by water. For us to see a temple, as it would have been seen by those living at the time, with the water surrounding the building, was less common now, Ankgor Wat is really the only current example, along with this monument. Once we had walked along the path, we came up to the main monument. The lakes, of which there were 4, had on each pinnacle corner either, a lion, an ox, a horse or an elephant.
Our next temple of choice was East Mebon. To get there, a 45 minute bike ride. It was fair to say that I was now experiencing how annoying my bike actually was. Every time I was trying to stand up and pedal, the gears would skip. Annoying to say the least. Still, we arrived at East Mebon, and were immediately approached by the ladies outside each of their cafés. "Water, Mr, would you like water. Hello Sir, Water Sir." I promised the older of the two ladies that we would come back after visiting the temple and take some water.
As we walked away, we could see more people arriving, and so these two ladies, (sometimes three) were their bombarding any people who were stopping. Their conversion rates, getting 'bums on seats' weren't great though.
Our first climbing expedition. East Mebon, built 953AD. - Reign of Rajendravarman.
The steps were pretty huge, and the views from the top were worth it. This was almost like a "Lion King - Simba and Mufasa moment at the top of Pride Rock. "Everything that is green is our kingdom..". East Baray was built by Yasovarman I and the foundations for a 'building' were put in place where the temple now stands. It wasn't until half a century later that the temple was then erected. To give you a size of the reservoir, here are the dimensions 7.5km x 1830m wide. and this temple would have stood in the middle surrounded by water, 5 metres deep, on each side. Today, due the lack of water surrounding it the temple seems bigger due to the fact you now have another 5metres of height visual, but would have normally been under the water line. Nonetheless, within it's small compound, the temple that was full of little nuances, made easily 'spot-able' thanks to our book. We were quickly finding out that this information was great, otherwise you'd be in for a really hard game of spot the difference - maybe for no difference at all.
As promised, after visiting the temple, we went back to the lady, and we had our lunch. The prices were very inflated here compared to even central Siem Reap. We therefore haggled a little, as we only wanted basic vegetable based food. She gave us a price that we were happy with and she then signalled to us that we shouldn't say anything. Fair enough! Thank you.
After lunch we visited 2 more temples before heading back to Ankgor Wat; Pre Rup and Banteay Kdei.
Pre Rup, built in the 10Century (961), it was the state temple of King Rajendravarman's capital. This was a temple-mountain Pre Rup style. This temple stood south of the East Baray, and was similar to East Mebon, just a lot bigger. Still though, there were details to be found in the stone carvings.
Baneay Kdei, on the other hand, was Bayon style - built late in 12th to early 13th Centuries. Here we had the towers of faces at each cardinal point, which was very similar to what we had briefly seen as we rode past Bayon earlier in the day. Our book told us that this temple was considered to be a similar, but slightly smaller version of Ta Prohm. We planned to visit Ta Prohm on our next visit, so we had no understanding of what the book was telling us, but it was good to keep it in mind as we walked through the grounds. Within the temple we witnessed the Hall of Dancers again, and a number of the carvings were still in very good condition - so much detail.
We finished the day backtracking to Ankgot Wat to catch the sunset, before venturing back to the hotel. With lots of traffic on the road as we returned and after such a hot day, it was so nice to enjoy a cold and refreshing shower at our amazing hotel.
- Angkor temples are not cheap to visit: 1 day pass = $37, 3 days pass = $62 (they increased all the prices in 2017 (it used to be $20 and $40...))
- We really recommand to buy the book "Ancient Angkor" by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques (original version in French). The official price is $28 but as the vendor illegaly copy them (we guessed), you can bargain it for $7 (maybe $5 if you're really good)
- Don't visit the site without either a guide or a book. You would miss half of everything AND get bored very quickly
- If you have the time (and the interest), you should definitly take the 3 days pass. You can use it over a week, which means you can rest between each visiting days (and you clearly need it!)
- Cycling there is fine: it's flat and little traffic. But it's demanding and you will be tired at the end of the day
- A bike to rent for the day costs $5, where a scooter costs $15 and a tuktuk (with the driver for the day) will be around $25. Some tuktuk drivers can be great and play the role of unofficial guides. But mainly it's just more relaxing.
- You need to prepare in advance your itinery for the day. Wandering around will lead you nowhere and you will lost a lot of time, energy and always be with the crowd
- Angkor site is ALWAYS full of tourists, so there is no better time to go. And some of them are rude and behaving like morons. It's life.
- "early bird catches the worms" never been truer than here. You must get up at the crack of dawn to have a change to beat the crowd at the main temples (Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm)