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Thoughts On Cambodia

We are now in Bangkok, for just a day, as we head south into Malaysia. We'll need to be in Singapore in the next week to catch our flight to Australia on the 16th of November.

I last wrote from Phenom Penh. We left early from PP to reach Siem Reap on a busy, bumpy minibus ride. For a short distance, it took a long time, which is pretty much the norm for SE Asia. We ended up in Siem Reap around 5 pm, which was good in that it was light enough to walk around looking at guesthouses. Of course, it wasn't as easy as that; we'd agreed in PP at our guesthouse to have a tuktuk pick us up in Siem Reap, knowing that we'd end up having to go to some GH of that driver's choice. Sure enough, we had a driver waiting for us, which was nice in that it saved us a couple of dollars since their "bus stop" was about 2 km from town. Yet we ended up far away from any of the attractions of Siem Reap (i.e. restaurants, shops, the riverfront) and we were a 15 minute walk along a dusty, busy road that would be rough after dark. So, against the protests of our tuktuk driver and the manager of the GH that we'd ended up at, I headed out to find another place. I didn't have much luck, the large numbers of wealthy visitors to Siem Reap (to visit the nearby Angkor temple sites) had jacked up prices far above what we'd pay anywhere else in Cambodia. So I headed back, reluctantly. In my absence, the manager confided in Jess that he had another GH, in the center, for the same price; he'd been very nervous that I'd found something else. Before I could tell them I'd found nothing, we found ourselves being whisked down to the center via the tuktuk to the other hotel, which was much nicer, much newer, and directly in the center. And, it was the same price. Those shady characters, trying to get us to stay in their other crappy GH.

Anyhow, there is remarkably little to do in Siem Reap besides the temple sites. We arranged a tuktuk to take us to the temples in the early morning and relaxed in our room, which even had TV. We were up at 4:45 in next morning to go to the temples. We started in Angkor Wat, the largest, best preserved, and most famous temple in the area (most people don't realize that there are dozens of temples spread out in a large area). The sunrise didn't happen, as it was too cloudy, but while all the crowds waited expectedly, Jess and I headed into the temple itself as soon as it was ligth enough to see, which gave us unexpected solitude from the infamous crowds and time to examine the temple. We'd heard a lot about Angkor Wat from other travelers and had sort of developed a feeling that it was not only very crowded but probably overrated. Actually walking around the temple, seeing its beauty and intricacies up close, in relative quietness, showed that you can't take other people's opinion or experience for anything more than what it is. We found Angkor Wat to be really amazing, a place that is far more incredible in person than in print. Our experiences in the other temples continued to follow this trend throughout the day.

We visited probably six or seven temples, each unique and beautiful in its own way. We'd purchased a book on Angkor in Phenom Penh, so we were able to read about the temples a little as we walked through them. We had a bit of an issue with our guide, who wanted to finish our tour at 1 pm; we demanded that we stay there the rest of the day at least, as we paid $20 each in entrance fees. We even felt that we should stay to see the sunset, which the tuktuk driver was very against until we offered him more money. In the end, we were too tired to stay out past 3 pm anyhow, so it was a moot point about the sunset; we did get to stay past 1 pm, after we insisted. 

 The Angkor temples are difficult to describe, better represented in pictures than words. We did feel at times like explorers, when we found a certain temple more deserted than others, or were wandering through a temple more dilapidated than others. It was amazing to see the carved reliefs on the walls, images of people and animals, battles and villages, that had been carved between 800 and 1000 years ago. We really enjoyed our day there; I'll try to put up pictures of some of the temples.

That's not to say that our day was entirely relaxing. Being budget backpackers, the prices we had to pay for just one day was a big issue to us. We paid $40 for entrance fees (for a single day pass), we paid the driver $13 ($1 because he had a traffic fine/bribe that somehow we ended up paying), and $20 for the overpriced food out at the temples (for breakfast and lunch). The cost was the reason that we only went to see the temples one day, though they deserve at least two. Besides, we weren't so happy with the tuktuk driver; besides the stress and hard feelings about what we were getting for our money, he took us to his friends' restaurants, and we had to pay for his lunch. What has happened in Siem Reap is that a lot of people have gone there, with loads of money to toss around because it is so cheap (at least if you're on a two-week vacation), and so the prices go up and up. Apparantly, they've more than doubled in the last five years, because people know that they can get money from tourists. So budget travelers find themselves worried about the costs or not even visiting these beautiful temples, which is a shame. 

Also, we experienced the worst of Cambodian people around the temples, as one might expect in such a touristy spot. There were loads of touts, everytime we left a temple we could hear their high-pitched calls about water, food, and souvenirs as soon as they sighted us. Having only experienced those types of people, and the folks in Siem Reap (the hotel hustler, the tuktuk drivers), we really didn't get a good perspective on Cambodian people. This was my big complaint about how we traveled through Cambodia. We rushed through, since our time in SE Asia is running short, and we didn't get to meet the real Cambodians. We also didn't get to see any cities or villages off the beaten path, which in Cambodia is pretty much anywhere besides Siem Reap and Phenom Penh.

We met a German couple and had a good conversation with them here in Bangkok. In Siem Reap, somehow they found an opportunity to visit an orphanage, where they were able to buy some jackets and blankets for the kids, as well as spend a full day with them. That experience seems like it would have been just as rewarding as visiting the temples, especially since it would have given us the chance to sit down and spend time with Cambodians that weren't interested in helping us part with our money. Looking back, I think at least a week, maybe even two, would have been great to have to spend in Cambodia, I'm a little sad that we had to rush through so fast. That is the nature of this trip, to keep on the move. Our next week, passing through southern Thailand and Malaysia, will be no less busy and fast-paced. 

One last thought on Cambodia. Everything that travelers experience in Cambodia should be considered in relativity to the Khmer Rouge era. Cambodia has had a long, painful path of recovery in the last 30 years, they've had to rebuild everything in their society from their government to the tourist infrastructure from scratch. Traveling in Cambodia isn't easy, it's frequently stressful, and often travelers either feel like they are being scammed or they actually are being scammed. There's also a large communication issue, which impedes many encounters with Cambodians. Still, you have to respect the Cambodian people for what they have accomplished; reading online descriptions of travel even five years ago makes it sound like there have been vast improvements to infrastructure and ease of travel. Again, spending more time in Cambodia would definitely improve our perspective of the people there, and of how difficult their lives must be.

Until next time, be safe.



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