Cambodia: Reaping the Rewards

Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Sunrise at Angkor Wat

There couldn’t have been a greater contrast between the Myanmar-Thailand border and the Thailand-Cambodia border at Poipet. My day started early with me grabbing a 48 baht (£1) train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, a town a few km away from the border. The train chugged away at 5.55am and was a long 6-7 hour ride, made even more bizarre by the ladyboy sat opposite who spent the best of an hour trying to entice me with some sort of diabolical Beyoncé/Bollywood remix dance. It was tough but I managed to resist the temptation to leap across the train into her arms and she eventually stormed off in a huff and left the train. All the other passengers had no reaction to this so it was most probably a regular occurrence during the Friday commute. In a Sliding Doors moment, I contemplated how different my weekend could have been if I’d been unable to resist the routine which resembled the Duracell bunny trying to do Gangnam Style whilst having a seizure. I figured I’d probably made the right decision.

From the train station, tuk tuks are ready to take you to the border for around 100 baht. This is where the madness begins. I got my e-visa in advance and was pretty glad I did as it was just chaos and confusion. Ignore the people who, on the Thai side, give you an Arrival Card for Cambodia and then offer to fill it in for you. They’re after a tip. You shouldn’t get your card until you’ve crossed the border. It’s the same with the visa if you’re getting it on arrival. You can’t get a Cambodian VOA until you’ve left Thailand, no matter what the “friendly” helpers try to tell you. The queue to get my visa checked was long and boring but the chaos didn’t stop there.

Once I got over into Poipet, a whole bunch of other tourists and I waited at a free bus terminal for a free shuttle bus to take us to the actual bus terminal. It’s a convoluted way of getting the tourists into the middle of nowhere. You can avoid it. I met people later on who said they pushed through down the road and went directly through bus companies going to Siem Reap or Battambang for $5 or so. I paid double that to go to Siem Reap on a minibus from the tourist bus station.

Then, of course, in Siem Reap you end up stuck in the middle of nowhere and have to take a tuk tuk driver to get you anywhere near where you want to go. Overall, it’s just not a pleasant experience thinking that everyone’s out to get you so it wasn’t the best introduction to Cambodia. Siem Reap looked ace though.

The intense tuk tuk drivers aside (there are so many – they literally stare at you in restaurants waiting for you to leave so they can pounce) Siem Reap is a nice little town, with a relaxing river and most things within walking distance. I stayed at Siem Reap Hostel which, at $8 a night was more flashpacker than backpacker but it was a really great place with a laid-back vibe, a very cheap happy hour ($.50 beers) and a good atmosphere to meet other travellers. It didn’t take me long to meet others and arrange nights out/sunrise trips to the temples (the latter having to be postponed due to the former).

Facing up to one of the smaller temples at Angkor.
Facing up to one of the smaller temples at Angkor.

Obviously Siem Reap’s big draw is the Angkor Archaeological Park which is every bit as stunning as the pictures suggest. Logistically, it’s a hard one to suss out. You can get a 1 or 3 day pass for $20 or $40 respectively. I’d say that 1 day isn’t enough and would probably be a really intense day of temple hopping, but for me three days seemed like too much (stubbing as they are, there are only so many temples you can see). I got the 3 day ticket but then only spent 2 days actually wandering round. You can also use the 3 day ticket within a week long period if you don’t want to do three consecutive days. Two was fine for me though. I spent the first day doing an afternoon tour by myself ($15 for the tuk tuk) of the smaller temples whose names I couldn’t remember if I tried. They made for a nice introduction and were pretty much deserted, mainly because I think most other people weren’t stupid enough to go out in the heat of the day.

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I took a day off the next day (which had nothing whatsoever to do with my hangover…) and then went with a group the day after to see sunrise at the iconic Angkor Wat temple (again, $15 for the tuk tuk so it pays to have more people). The pictures don’t even come close to showing how stunning it was. Most people go to the left of the lake but the right was just as good and there weren’t nearly as many people so you could watch the sun come up in relative peace. I’m rarely up early enough to see sunrise so it was breathtaking to see the sky go so many colours. Afterwards, we explored Angkor which not many other tourists seemed to stick around for. Not only did the poorly translated signs provide a laugh (“Possibility of Visit”) but the temple was amazing as the first light of day began.

Following Angkor, we headed to Bayon which is another fantastic temple, rather like a maze and with huge faces etched onto the rocks. After this, we browsed the so-called “Tomb Raider” temple with its incredible trees. It was a fantastic morning but 4 hours of temple wandering was enough for us so we headed for breakfast and a beer. But if you’re going to do one thing in Angkor, do sunrise.

Bayon
Bayon

If you’re good at evading tuk tuk drivers, Siem Reap’s a great place to chill. I think that’s why getting a good hostel/guesthouse is important as the temples are quite far out so unless you’re spending the whole day there, you’ll have quite a bit of free time. Most of mine was spent beer drinking, preparing for beer drinking or recovering from beer drinking, but it depends what floats your boat. There’s always a Happy Hour on the infamous Pub Street in the centre of town and… well… it’d be rude not to.

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