The moment I saw the riveting Tomb Raider movie I knew that sooner or later I will get to the temples where some of the scenes were filmed.
This dream started to become real when we were organizing our first trip to Thailand, more than a year ago. I was staring at the map when I realized how close Bangkok and Siem Reap actually are. A fast check on trip advisor confirmed that getting there should be as easy as pie. So, the online visa was obtained, the hotel was booked, we only had to buy the tickets for the bus that would take us from one city to another. It wasn’t possible to purchase them online and as soon as we arrived in Bangkok, we went to the ticket office at the bus station (Mo Chit II). And guess what? They were all sold out. The only available option*** was taking a bus to the border, cross it, and then look for another mean of transport that would take us to our final destination. This seemed quite an extreme adventure to do on the only second day in Asia, but hey, take it or leave it, Angkor was waiting for us!
The bus drove us near the border and we had to take a tuk tuk for the final 1-2 km (it is all about business there). When we got there, we and our travel companions were approached by local men who handled us the immigration forms we had to fill and asked us for 600 baht (currently 18 usd) for a shared private car to Siem Reap. Basically we had to pay, cross the border and then look for our car. We were extremely wary, suspicious and distrustuful about the whole thing, but since no one else was and we didn’t really have more valid alternatives we decided to go for it. Luckily everything went as smooth as silk.
Once on Cambodian territory, the first thing that grasped our attention was the so called national highway which is actually a two lanes road, one for each direction. The ‘motorway’ boasts plenty of segments in abysmal conditions, large unpaved areas, people and vehicles moving in all directions, unsignalized intersections and men at work. We enjoyed this authentic and unpolished experience though, even more when we arrived safe and sound at the hotel later that evening.
Siem Reap is an extremely touristic city whose laid back, peaceful past, has been long forgotten. Now it is full of bustling bars, pubs, restaurants, massages and night markets with cobra whiskey. It took us no more that half an hour to explore.
The next morning we hired a tuk tuk driver for the day (15 usd) and we headed to the main purpose of our trip – the stunning architectural gems of Angkor. We spent hours exploring the hundreds of structures that testify the rise and fall of the Khmer empire. I can not put into words how immense and incredible and inspiring they are. I was in a constant state of awe and I couldn’t believe it that I was actually seeing this grandeur with my own esys.
The next day we met the our tuk tuk guy from the first evening and he drove us to the boat that would take us the floating village of Kompong Phluk and to the flooded mangrove forest that surrounds the area (another one that has been on my wish list).
On the way there we were passing on unpaved red-dirt roads, through rural areas and small villages with small wooden one-room huts, kids in pijamas playing in the dust and anorexic dogs chasing cars. The vivid scenes of heart-breaking poverty that unfolded one after another during that day made me wonder how this could still exist in the world. And another trivial questions arose in my mind like why I wanted that glossy Chanel bag that I saw on the last issue of Vogue and why our Western world is so materialistic.
Later, while we were having dinner with our driver, he confessed us that he sleeps at the temples of Angkor and is desperately looking for another job that will allow him to pay the studies of his younger brothers so that they can have a better future. The most coveted jobs in the city are the ones in the luxurious hotels and resorts. But to get there you need to be recommended by a friend and this is not for free. You must give a one-time fixed amount plus a percentage of your monthly pay.
This is Cambodia!
***For our way back we headed to one of the many tourist agencies in Siem Reap and booked a shared mini van that took us to Khao San Road. The driver was probably trying to beat all the speed records and we were sure we wouldn’t arrive alive in Bangkok ( but we did). Now we know that an infinite number of mini vans and buses leave the area daily, in all directions.
*****We found the best hotel rates on Booking.