We have been in Thailand for 2 months, and halfway through our 4 month's stay. The terms of my Tourist Visa dictate I had to leave the country every 90 days. With a short trip over to Siem Reap Cambodia, I would fill that requirement and not have to leave Thailand again until the trip home in March.
Our plan was to spend 3 days in Siem Reap and visit the ancient Khmer temples of the Angkor complex, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. “Angkor” meaning Capital City and “Wat” meaning Temple. I had done some basic research on the area but was about to get thrown into the deep end of Southeast Asian History.
A brief summary as I understand it. The people that originally settled the area to be known as Cambodia were part of the first migration out of Africa. Unlike a lot of other places I visit, they did not migrate from somewhere else. I found this hard to wrap my head around. Pretty much all of SE Asia was part of the Khmer Empire (Modern Day Cambodians). Eventually, modern Thai and Vietnamese people moved south from China and began encroaching on the land. Battles between these groups approx. 1,000 years ago, along with some environmental issues, led to the collapse of the Khmer Empire. Like Vietnam, they became a French Colony in the last 200 years. After WW2, communism in the area began to flourish and the US came in to attempt to stop the “Domino Effect.” That did not go well for Western Powers, so, like in Vietnam, locals were overrun and entered a dark period with the country controlled by the Khmer Rouge and the genocide of over 1 Million people. I will touch on more as we go.
The 1-hour flight from Bangkok was no problem. Immigration went smoothly and we got a Tuk-Tuk outside the small terminal to our hotel. It was a quick baptism by fire to the hustle of Tuk Tuk drivers in the region.
Halfway to our hotel, our driver stopped to ask me where exactly the hotel was. I began to show him on a map, but he had little interest. His reason for stopping was more to plan our time there and how he could insert himself into the itinerary. He pulled out a laminated notebook of all the positive reviews he received in various languages. It was the original Trip Advisor.com model I do believe. He then showed pictures of a local school he taught at. There was a banner outside the school with a picture of his face and name. He said the school was named after him. I imagined that they had multiple banners for each Tuk-Tuk driver to use, but who knows, maybe I am reading this wrong and he really did have his own school. He wanted to connect with me on WhatsApp, but he was no rookie. I told him I would contact him, "just let me have the phone number", but our guy insisted we exchange numbers and add each other as “friends” right now, so I could not escape that easily. He insisted that we allow him to pick us up at the hotel at 9 am the next morning. I said I would be in touch, gave him a healthy tip, and begged him to deposit us at the hotel. The next day I woke up to numerous messages from our new friend asking what time he should pick us up to come stay at his home for the rest of the trip. I did not respond and the messages became more feverish as he said, “he was waiting for our blessing! And would not rest until we provided it!” I told him we had plans, and that rest assured my blessing was sent to him. He seemed to accept that, but each morning, even after our return to Bangkok, I was required to update and renew that blessing via WhatsApp. I am not trying to be callous, I know, due to COVID, these people have had no money coming in and many, if not most, are in desperate times, but the insistent wrangling for transportation services was a bit over-the-top.
Our hotel was in a nice location near the river, Chateau d'Angkor La Residence. Somehow we ended up with a suite the size of my house back in Ann Arbor.
We stopped at an ATM to get some cash and realized how ridiculous the currency is here. I think I took out 400,000 Riel for grand total of $100. Unlike Thailand, in Cambodia, and especially in the tourist town of Siem Reap, they accepted any money you had, not just the local currency. I should have just stuck to one, but I had Thai Baht, US dollars, and now local Riel. Trying to pay bills with the combination of all three was a monumental task of conversion.
Siem Reap is basically the gateway to the ruins of Angkor Wat. It is very touristy. But tourist levels were still low. Even though it was the high season, they were only at about 10% of normal visitors. We walked down the main tourist drag of Pub Street. Lots of expensive bars. I mean stuff is even more expensive than US on this street. Can't walk 10 feet without 100 offers for every illegal vice you can think of. Or maybe not-so-illegal here.
Once we escaped from Pub Street, we found the city was actually quite charming. The temperature was about 10 degrees cooler than Bangkok. Why, I am not sure. There were plenty of open-air restaurants with greenery, something lacking in most urban areas of Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
We ended up having dinner at Sugar Palm. We had a local specialty of Fish Amok. Sliced snakehead fish mixed with kroeung, coconut cream & noni leaf then steamed. It took 40 minutes to prepare and was the best meal of the trip
At the end of the evening, the waiter brought our bill and it did not have anything we ordered on it, in fact, I looked at the table next to ours and realized it was their bill. I pantomimed to him just that, but his response was, “It's ok” and handed me back the bill. “Not ok” turned into another “it’s ok” and this went on until finally he retreated and came back with the correct one
A bit more walking after dinner and stumbled upon a night market/festival
A few things I noticed. There were no traffic lights here! And it was not some new-age roundabout city. They had plenty of intersections, just no lights. All the people would slow down and just weave in between each other. How does this work during the busy traffic times of the day? While at the festival I also saw many handicapped children. Handicapped is generous, I really mean invalid. The mothers had them laid out in front of them, begging for food. One lady might be selling thread bracelets and the next had a human displayed on her blanket. We gave money, but I am not sure what it would do for them, as it was just a heartbreaking scene.
We had an early morning, up at 4 am for a ride into the ruins to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Now, normally I am asleep by 9 pm, but for some reason that night I could not fall asleep until 2:30 am. Needless to say, it was an early morning. I had hired a Tuk-Tuk driver and English-speaking tour guide for the day. It was not our taxi driver from the airport yesterday, but when we left in the pitch dark that morning I was waiting for him to appear and cause a scene. If you tell one of these drivers you may need a ride tomorrow at 9 am, even though it is currently 5 pm the day before, the driver will wait for 16 hours outside your place. The $3 they might get from you is worth the inconvenience.
We headed over to Angkor with our English guide. His accent was so rough that I was 2 sentences behind trying to manipulate a word by rolling it around in my head hoping to come up with what it meant based on the context. By the time I got it, I was lost in the conversation as he was spitting out facts and figures at a rapid pace.
Here is a Bird’s eye view of the temple complex. As I mentioned earlier, this area developed into a civilization about 1,000 years ago. Each king would build a few temples and then after a few hundred years, the area was deserted. Roughly 1 million people lived here at one point, making it the largest city in the world.
The crowds were really not that bad. Everyone sat around waiting for the sun to rise. Like many ancient temples, they are all built with the position of the Sun and moon in mind. Angkor Wat was a Hindu temple. Other temples in this area were Buddhist, and some celebrated both religions. The Khmer people were heavily influenced by Indian culture, as opposed to the Chinese up North. They adopted their religion of Hinduism, and then also incorporated Buddhism as it migrated East from Nepal.
The reverse shot of all the people fighting for that perfect angle
After getting our fill of the views of the outside of Angkor Wat and the five pillars representing the mythical mountain range of Meru, our guide walked us through the temple itself. Constructed from limestone and lava rock floated down river about 50 miles, it was an engineering marvel. The carvings were all done by hand after the stones were in place
AK-47 bullet holes from the 70s and 80s during the Khmer Rouge genocide
The 4 sides of the main temple had folktales carved into the walls
Battles of good vs evil, and elaborate supernatural explanations for how things came to be. It was about this time that Amy began to realize that pretty much all of the history that she attributed to Thailand, was actually borrowed from Cambodia, when the Thai moved down from China and wedged themselves into the Khmer Empire.
After Angkor Wat, we moved on to Angkor Tom, which is actually much larger than Angkor Wat. This place is all about water. In SE Asia 90% of the rainfall happens in half the year. If you have a million people and can’t feed them in the dry season, your empire will not last long. There are large basins and moats around the complex for channeling and storing the water.
This temple complex of Angkor Tom was built much faster than Angkor Wat and as a result, the carvings were not as detailed and some were not even completed
Below is one of the tools used to move large stones into place
Much of this temple and one coming up were made famous by the Tomb Raider movie filmed in the early 2000s. Amazingly, this entire site is neither one of the “Original 7 wonders of the world”, nor the newer “7 wonders of the Modern World”
The image below is a common sight
Each of these outlines originally contained a stone-carved likeness of Buddha. Basically, each new king might have the icons destroyed from a temple if he adopted more of a Hindu belief, or vice-versa
We walked by a couple more temples
A brief stop to talk to some temple monkeys
The monkey and I are discussing COVID effects on the local community and whether he predicts a rebound for tourism in 2023.
Stopped for lunch and invited our driver and guide to dine with us.
We were dragging after lunch and stopped at Ta Prohm for one final photo-op before checking out a few more from the comfort of our Tuk-Tuk
Back to the hotel by 3 pm in time for a massage and dip in the pool. That evening, the Tuk-Tuk driver had convinced us to take in a local dinner and dance performance. I had wanted to catch the event at the Aspara Theater, as it looked like a beautiful theater, but I was not specific and our driver dropped us off at this sterile restaurant outside of town instead.
Not a bad show though. Amy recognized some of the stories from her childhood
At the completion of the show, our waitress told us to go up on stage. We assumed there was some communication breakdown, but she was insistent. We stood by our table as she continued to force us all the way up on stage.
To this day I still have no clue why we were led up there.
The next day was a relaxing one of exploration. We spent about 4 hours at the National Museum. It really helped to understand a lot of the gibberish our tour guide was spewing yesterday. We learned about the various Hindu Gods, Buddha symbolism and even the melding of the 2.
They had complete reproductions of the folktales displayed on the stones from yesterday, and the interpretations to go along with them
We found the origins of the national Emblem of Thailand.
To summarize. Vishnu, a major Hindu god, rides around on an Anthropomorphic Chicken called Garuda. So even though people don’t practice Hinduism in Thailand, their history is tied to it, the same way Cambodian history is.
Many of the stones of the Angkor Complex have Sanskrit writing on them
This is one of the earliest forms of written language, coming out of India. Modern-day written language of Cambodian/Khmer and Thai are based on it
Many of the important pieces from Angkor reside in this museum or a much larger one in the modern capital of Phnom Penh. Often times they are replaced with a cement or stone reproduction at the ruins. Much of the ruins are being restored in this fashion as well. In fact, as it is a UNESCO Heritage site, many different countries are collaborating. As you drive around visiting the temples you will see signs signaling what country is responsible for each temple project.
I think if/when I come back to see more of the area (some people spend up to a week exploring the temples) I would revisit the museum as a primer, then rent a scooter and take guidebook and/or audio guide for each temple. I don’t think the guide is necessary and the freedom of your own scooter is nice.
This country is much poorer than Thailand. As our guide explained to us, they only stopped fighting 20-30 years ago. So not as much time to work on infrastructure and trade. Took me until day 2 to realize people drive on the opposite side of the road as Thailand. Must be due to the French influence.
After the museum, we walked to lunch. Amy was so excited that the owner of the restaurant was present and forced me to take their picture together
This became funny only after getting the bill. We tried to pay with our usual assortment of currency, but our change came back way off. Amy returned the bill and change and it took 30 minutes to get the correct change after the waitress was forced to go to bank to figure out the different currency conversions. Amy had lost her new best friend in the process.
On the way back from lunch we ran into an elderly Australian couple. They were struggling to walk around in the heat. We asked if we could help them. They said they were looking for a bank called ANZ. I did not recall seeing one with that name and asked what it stood for. They said it was their bank, Australia and New Zealand (ANZ). I told them I doubt there is a branch here in Siem Reap.
After some back and forth I learned that the ATM ate their bank card, they had no other sources of money and were looking for their home bank to get a new card. What! How did these people get here? Were they just dropped from a plane over Siem Reap? There is no way they are travelling on their own. I led them back to the ATM in question and from there we went back to their hotel to get the passports and find a open branch for the ATM. At the bank, we were able to get them to retrieve the lost card from that machine and get them more cash. I then learned that there was a tour guide but he was at home for the day. I had the hotel contact him and he was kind enough to come over. I still found it unbelievable and also quite exciting that this couple who could not find their way out of a paper bag ended up walking the streets of Siem Reap Cambodia on their own.
Some more quality time spent with massage and pool that afternoon
We stopped by a local market and picked up some gifts for people back home. I found an artist doing some watercolors that I liked, and asked him to sign a print and take pictures with me. Channa Chhum
From there we went to a local Circus performance. Not the type with trained animals, rather acrobats. They put on a good show and thought it a good idea to donate to their cause. Maybe I will pick a charity from each country I visit and support them each year as opposed to the number of US-based charities I currently support.
Phare Cambodian Circus . Thankfully they did not drag us on stage after this performance. These performers are all graduates of this art school and go on to work here and in various other art-centered professions locally. It seems like a worthy cause because I think the arts are appreciated even less here than in the US. Not too many theater or music productions in my searches even back in Bangkok.
A quick trip, but for once I was leaving a country when there was still some "meat left on the bone", as opposed to overstaying my welcoming and eager move on to the next locale. Maybe it means I will be back, at least I hope that’s the case.
Until Next Time
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