To be perfectly honest, I can't say this trip has been exactly easy or even 100% enjoyable so far. In fact, I've felt a little discombobulated since getting on the plane on Monday -- first there was the whole last minute shuffle with the hotels in Bangkok, which I had no time to research, meaning I ended up in parts of the city I might not have booked. Siem Reap, while certainly amazing to be here to see Angor Wat, has also had its own set of annoyances and frustrations. To add to it, it's been amazingly hot (40 degrees celsius) and I've been majorly jet-lagged. On one hand, I think we enter a trip of any kind with a lot of expectations of how wonderful and mind-blowing and fantastic it's going to be and usually are let down by something, whether it's less than ideal accommodations or the sights not living up to the hype. Add to that a world where we are not just constantly plugged in to each others' lives but also have a constant display of people who seem to be always having the best life/travel experience ever, and it's easy to compare our own regular time against the sheen of what's in everyone else's social media streams.
So to continue with the honesty, I also have to say I've been kind of having a hard time getting into the trip. Yes, certain things have been really awesome to behold and I always enjoy getting out of the country to see new things, but I wrapped things up so quickly back home that I wonder if I am needing a little bit of an adjustment period. (My last day of work was Thursday and I left for this trip on Monday.) Whatever it is, something didn't click right away and I've been kind of dragging myself through the experiences out of a feeling of obligation. Maybe it's knowing I have a ways to go, and maybe it's also been the lack of planning meaning I am now in Siem Reap trying to research places to stay next.
Anyhoo. I booked a guesthouse in Siem Reap for 4 nights, arrived here on Friday afternoon. According to Lonely Planet, anything less than 3 full days at Angor Wat is an abomination, so I made sure to not make this mistake. And, accordingly, bought the 3-day pass for $40 like they told me to (1-day for $20). Well, unless you're a lover of archaelogy or heatstroke, I can't imagine needing to go to Angor Wat for three full days. Perhaps if you had an excellent local guide and were going to do very in-depth tours of each site it would make sense. For the other 99% of us who have a very small understanding of what we're really looking at, 3 days is probably overkill. My guesthouse arranged a tuktuk to do a tour through the grounds, which was $15. Maybe if you are staying at another hotel, you can arrange a cheaper tuktuk visit, but $15 seems to be the going rate. This means if you're going to go for 3 days, you'll have to factor in $45 in cost to the actual site. Yes, you can hire a bicycle for $2 or even walk like two guys at my hostel did, but when it's bakingly, boilingly hot outside, this is not a viable plan for many of us. Lonely Planet, strike 1.
On the bus from Siem Reap, I sat next to a young New Zealand guy having a holiday from his job guiding tours in Europe. He opted to venture to my hostel with me to see if they had rooms, and we checked out the town of Siem Reap together that night. I would love to know what this place was like 10 or 15 years ago when it was more of a sleepy backpacker town than the tourist destination it is now. The central tourist area is packed with restaurants and bars and nightlife catering to foreign appetites; there's throbbing techno pulsating from the various clubs competing with the blare of bands screeching into the night droning out the shrill sounds of the Cambodian Landmine Victims Orchestra. Is it fun? I'm sure it is, especially if you're at a certain age where your main objective is to get blackout drunk every night. I just have a hard time getting fired up about a town that seems refashioned solely to appeal to hordes of tourists. I mean, it is nice, and there are some cool spots to check out. I did find myself on a swinging bed at a venue watching a cheesy cover band drinking a mojito, and that was definitely a good time, so it's not like it was all bad or anything. It's just not a town I feel like I want to stay in for days on end.
All that aside, visiting the Angor temples was a pretty incredible experience. Because of the heat, you leave super early. Our driver took us on a solid circuit: first Angor Wat, then Angor Thom, then Ta Proehm, passing various other temples along the way. We wrapped up at noon and suffered a very, very hot and dusty trip back to the hostel, where I literally stripped off my clothes upon entering my room and headed straight for a blissfully cold shower.
Today, I put my pass to work for another day and had the driver I'd arranged take me to another circuit of temples outside the main Angor complex. We drove on a very crowded and chaotic road for several km before turning off down a side dirt road to see the temples of Preah Ko and Bakong. Here, I finally had the Indiana Jones experience I was hoping for -- these temples are far less visited than the main Angor ones, and as I approached Preah Ko, I could, for a moment, pretend I was an intrepid jungle explorer discovering these ancient buildings for the first time. At Bakong, a group of little girls approached me and chattered excitedly with me in broken English, asking me my age and if I could take their picture and if I would sing with them. We sang the ABCs together -- this is why I travel.
After the third temple, Lolei, I asked the driver if he'd take me to a village described by Lonely Planet as a "short trip" from these temples. (Not really.) We set off down dirt roads, motoring past villages mixed with modern homes and modest dwellings constructed of bamboo and propped high on stilts. After driving for thirty minutes or so, the driver stopping to ask for directions, we came to a kiosk where two men dressded in uniform said the cost to visit the village is $10, $35 if by boat. Thinking about how much I'd already spent on the 3-day pass and the Bangkok hotel snafu, I declined.
As we turned around to head back to the hotel, I grumbled for a minute about the cost. $10 to see a village! But as we sputtered along back down the dirt road we'd motored in on, I spotted signs next to several houses, crediting the donors who'd provided the money for those homes to get wells and access to clean water. Here I am complaining about the cost to see a village, I thought, when these are literally the people benefitting from the ads you see charities run that remind you for the cost of a meal a day you can provide clean drinking watewr or education or a goat or whatever to someone a lot needier elsewhere in the globe. (I mean, I had freely spent $10 to drink two mojiitos while lounging on a swinging bed whilst watching a terrible cover band.)
So I have to admit it, while Angor Wat was a sight to behold, for me the real joy so far has been singing the ABCs with a group of locals girls at the Bakong temple and adventuring off down some backroads in the hopes of finding a village on stilts and getting a glimpse into the real life of the Cambodian people.
I'm heading to Sihanoukville tomorrow where I am staying in some kind of treehouse for two nights, hoping to really relax for a couple days before heading to (hopefully) Kampot and then Phonm Penh. Hopefully the joy of travel will begin to really take over and the anxieties about money will subside (I think that's one thing affecting my outlook on things, all these unexpected costs have thrown me a bit).
Off to bed and pack and not read Lonely Planet for the evening.