There have been plenty of early starts so far on this particular part of the trip. The hostels and hotels in Asia have a nasty little habit of lying to you about the time your bus pick-up is due to depart, in the hope that you will have breakfast with them while you are waiting for your supposedly late bus. Sneaky tactics that are sadly commonplace in Thailand, and have seen us getting up regularly at 6 and 6.30am when our bus was not due to depart until half seven or much later that morning!
On this occasion though, our hostel had not told us our pickup time, and it was instead the tour company that we booked with that had us there waiting for our bus at 6.45 am despite our bus not actually leaving until 8.30am that day, almost two hours later! And why would our tour company want us to be up so early and keep us waiting for nothing? Sadly, this next bus journey is the most notorious bus journey of them all, the famous Bangkok to Siem Reap scam bus that is the stuff of legend among backpackers.
And now it was our turn to see why!
After we finaly got on the bus at around 8.25am, we had a good laugh with the other passengers about the writing on the backs of our chairs that loudly exclaimed "Scam bus!" and "Get off while you still can". You might wonder why we were laughing about this, but we had all heard the stories and read all the warnings in Lonely Planet about this nightmare bus ride into Cambodia. Everyone says the same thing, that the bus will depart later than planned, will 'break down' frequently (despite there being no actual break down) and will eventually arrive into Siem Reap in the dark and much later than you had expected, leaving you completely knackered from the rough journey. The road to the city on the Cambodian side is also notoriously terrible, being in a bad state of disrepair since a Thai airline pay a large bribe to a Cambodian political party each year to keep it that way, so that those who can afford to fly do so.
No such luxury for us poor backpackers! And what benefit is there in this to the tour company, tiring you out and getting you there late? Well, simply put, they make commission from certain Siem Reap guest houses, so they hope that by completely tiring you out, you are more likely to stay at their suggested guest house rather than seek out cheaper accommodation. A cheap ruse that is really unfair on all of us weary travelers, but there wasn't a lot we could do but grin and bare it and stick together when the scamming started.
Once we finally got underway, the bus crawled along for about 3 hours, finally getting to within ten miles of the border and stopping for lunch. Here a couple decided to let the tour guide know that they had done the same stretch of road in half the time on a government bus before, and they left the tour to find their own way across the border! Making a point there for sure! At the stop a lady from the tour company offered to 'help' us with our visas, which translated to her filling in the forms for us instead of us doing it ourselves and her then trying to overcharge us considerably for the cost of the visa.
Again, we had been well warned and simply refused to pay her to do this. She lied to us consistently for an hour, saying first that we could not do it at the border at all and then changing this to it would cost us more to do it at the border, before eventually pulling me aside and giving me a sob story about the company making very little from the admittedly cheap bus fare. I naturally said that this hardly made it ok for her to lie to us and rip us off, and she finally said that she would do our visas for us with only a tiny overhead, less than a quarter of what she initially tried to take from us. We got through the border control without too much more hassle and changed to a Cambodian bus on the other side. Here our new guide told us further lies, about how there are no ATM'S in Siam Reap
and we need to change money here at his tour company's exchange center, for an extortionate 40 % commission fee.
On the bus he then told us that we could ask him any questions about Cambodia, and told us how he was so 'honest' that we could trust him with anything. We knew instantly this meant trouble, and sure enough within an hour we were !broken down!on the side of the road, changing a tyre that clearly did not really need changing. We made our feelings pretty clear to them that this wasn't acceptable and we set off within the hour. After stopping for food the wheel was once again off, this time apparently the same wheel that was originally taken off being put back on after being 'repaired', which delayed us further still. After I left them know how I felt about the situation, John joined in, making it clear that there was no way we would be staying in their suggested guest house no matter how late we got in, so they shouldn't bother delaying us.
And sure enough once we were back on the bus our guide said that we would now be getting to Siam Reap directly, and that they would just drop us off at the bus station, with would not call to any of their 'suggested' guest houses like they normally did. A small success at last! The rest of the journey had no breakdowns, and instead we enjoyed the gorgeous country side that by day was wet rice fields and quaint houses and by night had countless neon lights in miles long rows, each used to attract insects that get trapped in water traps below and are then eaten by the locals for supper. Yummy. Finally at 11am we arrived in the city, a solid 6 hours later than the 5 pm we had been told about in Bangkok and 18 hours after we had set out that morning. Nightmare over, the nice side of Cambodia could finally begin!
And begin it did.
Once we got off the bus the usual array of taxi and tuk tuk drivers were waiting to fight over our custom, and we jumped on a tuk tuk as soon as we had said goodbye to the other victims on our bus. He offered to take us to our hostel for free if we agreed to let him show us around the temples of Angkor
for the next few days, the two day fee meaning much more to him than the dollar for taking us to our hotel. We had to planned to book one anyway ans since he seemed very nice we agreed, and made plans to see him the next morning. At our hotel our room, which cost a mere 4 US dollars a night, was huge and really stunning, nicely decorated and clean and tidy throughout. We headed down town for food among the pretty French buildings in the cities center, taking money out of an ATM (the ones that don't exist in Siam Reap according to our tour guides!) and getting US dollars to our surprise, a currency used all over Cambodia as much as the local 'Riel' currency.
My new Birthday top :)
After a nice meal which cost less than 2 dollars between us were heading back to our hotel for a good nights sleep.
We set off the next day at 9am, our drivers waiting outside to take us around the vast temples. The date of course was June 20th, and so it was my 27th birthday would be spent exploring the most renowned historical sight in the world. The temples themselves are between 800 and 1100 years old, having been built by the Khmer civilisation that commanded large parts of South East Asia back then. The complex covers over sixty square kilometers and the entire area made up the largest city in the world at the time. While London barely pulled in thousands of inhabitants, Angkor had over a million residents living among its temples, palaces and universities, and was the envy of the world at the time.
Even today, most engineers, sculptors, travelers and historians call it 'mankind's single greatest achievement', so needless to say we were excited about seeing it first hand!
Sure enough, after walking across a long bridge that spans the man made moat surrounding the finest of the temples, Angkor Wat, we found it hard to disagree, as all around us vast stone caverns and huge stairways led to rooms and towers filled with intricately carved walls and ceilings. While the sheer size of the complex makes it impossible to comprehend how it was built, its the incredible carvings on every inch of its miles of walls that really make your realise why this is considered to be the pinnacle of human achievement. No space is untouched, and every room and doorway offered new carvings and sculptures that were hidden from human eyes for 700 years went the jungle consumed Angkor but were re-discovered by the French in the early 20thcentury.
"You wanna buy post card?" One of the irrisistable street sellers.
We spent two hours just getting from one side of the temple to the other, its huge size and the massive stairways proving tiring but very rewarding. We finally headed back to our driver after another hour to set off to another set of temples.
Back by our driver we were surrounded by young children and women, who were offering us guide books and postcards and all sorts of trinkets as they tried to earn a living. There is no social welfare system in Cambodia and so sellers and beggars are sadly a common feature of the country, but everyone we met was curtious and smiling. The children had lots of character, and on approaching John and asking where he was from they would say 'Ireland, capital Dublin, Population 4 million, Conas ata tu'. They could do the same for me, and in fact for just about any country that a tourist might be from in an effort to impress.
Many would take our their postcards and say "Look, I have ten for one dollar", and would then count to ten in about 5 different languages, an impressive feat for kids of whom some were not more than 6. After a while they could become tiring as they were around but not in most temples, but most were light hearted and good natured with big smiles on their faces and willing to have the banter with you as we exited and entered.
At the next temple, Angkor Thom, more of the same awaited us when we arrived, with this particular structure having 168 huge stone faces carved into its sides, most taller than myself. They were apparently built as the king who commissioned them wanted to remind his subjects that he was watching them at all times. Sounds like a spooky guy.
Around this area was a pyramid type structure that stood 40 meters high and the 'Terrace of the elephants', a 300 meter long terrace on which a wooden viewing platform was erected so that the royals could watch parades go past. Last on the list for today was P Penh, which is believed to have been a university or possibly a monastery that housed 1000 students during its day. Equally vast as the others, here much of the building is fighting a losing battle with the jungle for supremacy, as huge vines and trees tear at the walls for a foot hold. After taking a few hours just to walk its length we were off to our hotel again, exhausted but delighted with what we had seen. The bus journey was forgotten, no small achievement and that says how impressive the temples are. That night we set off for Siam Reaps 'bar street' to celebrate my birthday.
Bar street is, as you'd guess is a collection of pubs and restaurants that helps us tourists part with our dollars. We had a great Italian of all things at an outside restaurant and then a couple of beers afterwards to celebrate my big day, but not too many as we had a 4.30am start the next morning. No, no more scam bus rides, we were just seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat, a highly recommended sight that we did not want to miss.
Struggling with tiredness we managed to drag ourselves up in time to catch the sunrise, which was a great experience and very atmospheric. Knowing that we might fade fast with the mid-day sun we soon headed off to the other temples we wanted to see, having a quick breakfast of steak and chips at 6.30 in the morning! Not our usual choice needless to say! We took in a few more significant religious sights before heading for the distant Bantray Seai over 30 kilometers away, which many call the jewel in Angkor's crown.
On the way we passed many local schools and small towns, where the kids would wave to us with huge smiles and enthusiastic cheers. The people couldn't have been nicer and the innocence in the children was a refreshing change from the 'grow up fast' generation that abounds back home. We stopped on the way at the Cambodian land mine museum, which was a startling reminder of the impact landmines still have on the country. The museum's founder has personally removed tens of thousands of mines from the land, but over 3 million still remain. Every year hundereds are injured or killed, and in the museum we saw loads of the removed mines lying around. There were also many kids who have been the victims of landmines, most of them amputees who live at a special centre by the museum.
It was a sobering moment amid all the adventuring.
We arrived and the temple, although tiny compared to the other temples, had carvings that were extraordinarily brilliant, showing the most intricate of scenes and details as if etched by craftsmen using techniques no longer known to us today. The rest of the morning and afternoon was spent seeing the countless other sights around the area, and after about 9 hours of exploring we headed back to our hotel, completely templed out and ready for some more good food at the city's center.
Although we had a pass valid for another day we didn't go back to the temples on our third day. We were simply shattered from the previous two and couldn't face the mid-day sun as we would have had to gone on bicycles since we had parted ways with our always smiling driver.
We instead relaxed on our hotels comfortable balcony and watched a game of soccer nearby as the charming locals went about us on their business. Although we had spent 4 days in Cambodia during which time we had been the victims of attempted scams and been approached by countless sellers, we couldn't help but say that we had loved our time there so far. The country has a massive charm with its bumpy roads, countless rice fields and super friendly people, the nicest people we have met on our trip so far, or at least joint friendliest with the Kiwis. We have another 3 nights to go in the country and we have a sneaky suspicion that we will both want much more.