Siem Reap was dusty, and dirty like India. It also felt exotic, in an undeveloped way. When I heard that the planets would be in an exact alignment just like when Lara Croft originally intercepted the little metal triangle that controls time, I figured it would be best to join in the fight and protect the world from the evil illuminati groups. Tomb Raider geek, but no illuminati or controlling time on this trip. Indiana Jones or Lara Croft fans are however guaranteed to be highly impressed by the ancient ruins in Cambodia.
The website www.seat61.com led me accurately from Bangkok to Siem Reap. I would take a train to a border town, then a tuk tuk (rickshaw) to the border crossing. From there after buying the Cambodian visa upon arrival and passing through the customs at the side of the road, I should catch a bus to Siem Reap.
The giant ancient stone temples of Angkor Archaeological Park are like the world’s biggest adult playground. You can literally climb up and down them all day for three days straight and still not have seen all of the park. There are thousands of temples of varying sizes spread out over green densely forested areas.
Walking between between major sites where transportation drops you, locals yell out: “You thirsty? You buy something? I have water, coke, coconut milk.” Little wooden and grass-thatched shacks sell souvenirs and expensive snacks. Expect to be engaged in a non-optional negotiation with booksellers throughout Angkor. They will persist prices upon you whether you’re interested or not, following you and dropping prices until they find another potential walk by. Kids under 10 are amongst the salespeople trying to sell you stuff you don’t need. Fake copies of National Geographic Angkor books started at about $10 and worked their way down to $5. “Ten dollar, eight dollar…… ok five dollar, five dollar. Ok? Okay? Okaaaaaaaay?”
Aside from some very pushy salespeople who work very very hard to make you buy, Cambodians are very genuine and animated. Meet as many locals as possible.
Tuk tuks have very specific routes they advise people to go on starting with the big three temples, followed by an outer circle, then a grand circle. Negotiations ran into difficulties both days we rented tuk tuks. Walking around town (particularly old town) you can expect an in-your-face sort of soliciting of services. Day in and out drivers would simply repeat “Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk.” in alternating tones ending first high, then low, as if they were asking a question, then also answering it. I would be approached by several drivers every single time I walked through old town, until I discovered the glorious power of wielding a mountain bike rental. This solved my problem, INSTANTLY. Even just walking down the street with a bike would magically reduce tuk tuk annoyance. Literally the bike only cost $2 a day to rent, but it was worth its weight in gold when it came to the energy it saved in avoiding tuk tuk. A Brit I met had mastered the art of simply holding her hand up in a stop sign fashion as soon as a glimmer of “Tuk—–” came out of someone’s mouth. Her “talk to the hand” technique was one of the only ways she avoided losing her mind with saying no every two seconds.
A free Khmer lesson at a nearby cafe one day presented itself as an opportunity to learn about Cambodian culture. The teacher had the group of about eight of us sit around in a circle around two adjacent tables. We all had a group discussion with our notebooks and pens in hand, furiously scribbling down the words mentioned. There was no point in getting the exact spelling. The point was familiarizing with the sounds and interaction. If we picked up a few phrases and words to use, great! I couldn’t remember anything the minute I left the table.
A wat next to the town center allowed drop ins to join in with monks chanting. The resonance from their chanting was energizing and peaceful at the same time. Orange robes of the buddhist monks showed they were all the same, with no competition in appearance and demonstrating a life of modesty. Anyone was welcome to attend the chanting and participate.
Biking the 6 kms up to Angkor Archaeological Park from Siem Reap takes 45 minutes of leisurely biking in normal road conditions and traffic. The roads I travelled on were clearly marked for the most part but extremely bumpy, especially off the main temple roads.
Two roommates at Siem Reap hostel were a biology teacher from New Jersey and TV producer from the UK. We wandered the park after negotiating a tuk tuk to take us around. Watching a golden firey sunset from the top of an ancient temple somewhere in the park was pretty memorable. A deep rumbling in the ground, the air, or distance resembling the same sound just before the spaceship took off in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull occurred right at sunset. The thrill of the location somehow cancelled out the potential irritation of sharing the sunset with 100 other google eyed tourists as they open mouth stared into the golden sunset on the forested Cambodian horizon.
Another point during the day left “Team Siem Reap Hostel” stranded in an old temple as the rain poured buckets. It started coming in through the ceiling of the temple and we had to take refuge in one small room with dry-ish ancient stone slabs that we could rest on while waiting for the rain to end. People sprinted in from all over to take refuge in the leaky stone shelter. The shadowy moss covered walls had upheld for decades, sheltering explorers and local people throughout the ages.
A Mexican restaurant called Viva had some truly amazing food. It was tough to find a meal in the centre of Siem Reap for under $5, but the food was pretty impressive. You could also get your feet eaten by fish on the way to dinner. Fish spa they call it. $2 for a beer and 15 minutes of foot treatment. Needless to say, there were multiple scrunched faces and uncomfortableness for the first few minutes. Once you got used to it, it got easier.
This last temple at the top of a hill was completely worn out and broken down with trees growing in and out of it. It was situated somewhere at the back of the old royal palace grounds. Quite likely this was a viewpoint for the Cambodian royalty at one point to look out over the royal gardens and ponds.
Technically, I did not raid any tombs but I did explore several sites that Tomb Raider was filmed at. A short piece written by Nick Ray, the location manager for the film can be read in a Lonely Planet book called: Lights, Camera… Travel. Knowing that such great films have been shot on location makes it easier for me to picture traveling to even some of the most complicated places. If Tomb Raider never had happened, I might never have visited Angkor or Cambodia.
Siem Reap was quite different from Thailand. Getting ripped off by roadside stalls on the way there made me feel like I was back home in India. Why was I so comforted by this? Is this what traveling does to us? Challenges our assumptions, ideals, comfort zones & creates this new version of you that welcomes the challenges at every corner, hikes the taller mountain because it is harder, to arrive at a distant galaxy of a person that is exposed, injured, tested, pried from their previous idea of normal. Yes please! I’ll gladly go back to Cambodia anytime to mix with the other adventurers exploring the hundreds of ancient stone temples alive in re-discovery.
Click here for a look into information about this world heritage site: UNESCO