Saturday, March 15, 2014

Siem Reap

Our train left at 5:55 AM from Bangkok and we paid 48 Baht, or $1.46.  This was the same train as the last nightmare one we took a couple of months ago.  No AC, just the open windows and the countryside.  We stopped at the smallest “train stations” I have ever seen, as well as random places where Thai men seemed to just emerge out of nowhere to get on.

When we got off, Brittany and I took a 20 Baht truck to the border.  Here, we smoothly obtained our tourist visas and entered Cambodia!  Our first glance was a strip of hotel casinos, one being the Tropicana.  Encouraged by a man at the border to only get Riel, we exchanged 3,000 Baht for Riel, and on we drove to Siem Reap on a bus for two hours.  We were swarmed by a load of tuk tuk drivers who wanted to take us to our hostel.  They immediately charged us in dollars, making us very confused about what the dominant currency in Cambodia actually was.

The Siem Reap Hostel warmly welcomed us, and it was a great stay.  The staff spoke amazing English, they offered tours of different attractions in the city, there is a swimming pool and a full bar with food, and the dorms were extremely nice for a hostel.  I guess all of those hours spent planning on Trip Advisor paid off after all!  The first night in, we were exhausted.  We found a restaurant down the street, and we enjoyed great chef salads and our first Cambodian beers (Angkor and Cambodia).

The next day, we decided to explore Siem Reap, just me, Brittany, and an old fashioned map.  This became interesting as we both seem to be directionally challenged.  We found many nice Cambodians along the way willing to point us in the right direction, as well as many persistent and annoying tuk tuk drivers trying to give us a ride.  HELLO, can’t you see we are using our legs and walking?!

Finally, we stumbled upon Pub Street at 11 AM extremely dehydrated and sweaty.  Of course, I was thirsty for a $0.50 beer, so down we sat to rehydrate.  We did a bit more walking and went back to shower.  Side note: Siem Reap is dirty.  Not so much dirty with garbage like Thailand, but dirty with dust.  There is bronze dirt lining each side of every road, and it is constantly blowing in the air.  It made our feet look like we had gained a tan, but the fake tan faded with a shower.

That night, we paid Vice, one of our hostel’s tuk tuk drivers, to take us up to Angkor Wat to see the sunset.  The entry fee to get into Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples is $20.  This is a decent fee for it being one of the seven wonders of the world.  Instead of going inside, like the thousands of other tourists, we sat on the opposite side overlooking the water.  Unfortunately, thre was nothing spectacular about the sunset that night, or maybe we just picked a bad spot to sit.  Vice, who waited for us, practiced his English by telling us a short version of the history of Angkor Wat.  He praised our hostel for employing the drivers, and we also found out a bit about his family.  We gave him an extra dollar because he was so wonderful.  Even though it doesn’t sound like very much, that will go a long way for a Cambodian family.  Vice dropped us off at a place called Khmer Kitchen, which has amazing authentic Khmer food and there was a wait at the door for tables when we left!

On day three, Brittany and I rented bikes to do the temples.  4:30 AM came quickly.  We got up, jumped on our rented bikes, and followed the path of the tuk tuks in the pitch dark to get back to Angkor Wat for sunrise.  We sat in the same deserted spot as the night before, and hoped that as the thousands rushed inside, we would see the best rise of the sun come above the temple.  Wrong again.  The sky was a disappointing haze.  We only saw the tiniest hint of pink, and by 6 am we set off on our bikes before the rush of people had the same idea.

In the area, there is Angkor Wat and many other temples and stupas.  We decided to head towards Ta Prohm first.  This is where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed, and we assumed that it would be mobbed during the day.  Biking there seemed to take forever.  My legs were already tired from my rented bike that was stuck in 4th gear, and by 7:30 AM, it had already reached 90 degrees.  Luckily, this temple was well worth it.  We were smart about going early, as Ta Prohm was nearly empty.  Ta Prohm is undergoing restoration, as is Angkor Wat and many other temples, but it was still amazing.  We got to walk through the tombs and see all of the impressive work from so long ago.  We also ran into so many cute Cambodian kids.  No wonder what Angelina Jolie made all that fuss about.

Back on our bikes we went, stopping at smaller temples along the way to Bayon.  Bayon was my favorite temple.  I’d say it has a lot of character, mostly because of the faces staring at you from the carved stone.  As impressive as it was, we spent a small amount of time there, due to our patience with tourists running low and the sun testing our hunger and exhaustion.

We saved Angkor Wat for last.  We were told to save the inside of Angkor Wat for last because it is the most extraordinary of all the temples.  Well, it was, but I do not recommend saving it for the end.  Brittany and I were so hot, hungry, sunburned, and exhausted at this point that we almost decided to not even go inside.  But, we were there and felt that we would regret it if we didn’t at least snap a few pictures.  So, amongst all of the excited and mesmerized tourists, we climbed the steps and briefly went in.  It was beautiful for sure, but I would have appreciated it much more if it was cooler than 105.

After, we still needed to bike back to the city, which was painful just thinking about.  I don’t think I have been that cranky in all of my bad travel situations in Thailand.  I think Brittany saw me mad for the first time even.  So sorry!! Hot and tired is not a good look for me.

We went to the air conditioned haven of the Blue Pumpkin.  We heard rave reviews and went in to refuel.  Who knew how much AC, wifi, and an iced latte could turn your day around!  The food was spot on as well.  I had a huge chicken pita that had zucchini and HUMMUS!!! Two things that I have missed so so much from home.  I became a much happier camper.

At the dorm, we showered, read, and napped in the comfort of the AC.  We eventually made it out to Pub Street, which is lit up and closed off to cars at night.  We got 'dressed up' and I even put mousse in my hair.  This was all for nothing though, as these restaurants are all open with only fans.  Even at 8 PM it was still 90 degrees.  After discussing our budget, we responsibly decided that staying out was not really an option (nor will it ever really be), and we called it a night.

Our last day in Siem Reap was very low key.  I met Brit at Sister Srey Café, where I had the most amazing breakfast: Pancakes stuffed with dragon fruit, watermelon, and caramelized bananas.  Oh, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream of course.  It is the cutest place, and a portion of all bills go to an education program in Siem Reap.  We did some reading there, and I finished To Kill a Mockingbird.  The café happened to have a book swap upstairs.  So, being a good backpacker, I left To Kill a Mockingbird behind and adopted a Jodi Picoult book.  This saved me from spending $14 on a new book, and I hope to be able to do this anytime I need a new read!  We checked out of the hostel at 12, but the hostel let us keep our bags in storage since our bus wasn't until 7 PM.  We found another place to sit and do some writing.  At Café Central, we found a bucket of French fries and the manager Mike, from Canada.  He had volunteered in Cambodia for nine months and liked it so much he decided to stay.  He spent over two months on Koh Rong, which is our next stop, so he wrote down some things for us to do and some people to ask for!

I’d say we started off on a great note.  So far, no travel glitches, an amazing and very helpful hostel, and new sights to add to the list.  Off to Koh Rong we go!

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