Alright, alright, alright… It’s time for some Cambodia talks. It was a February night 00:20 when I landed in Siem Reap International Airport. Don’t be fooled by the name “international” though, it’s like a taxi station. They open the door of plane, a guy with yellow glowy vest leads you to passport control zone, which is like 500m away. I don’t know how it works for other country citizens, but I got an e-visa through Cambodia’s official government website by sending a passport scan and paying 40$. A short note, Chinese citizens who I came on the same plane from Shanghai queued up with a form which they brought with them. I’m not sure if this is a regulation only for them, but it’s better to get the e-visa before arrival. That queue, at that time of the day, doesn’t look so pleasant. For the e-visa, you only have to print two copies of the document they send -one for arrival, one for departure- and head to immigration, that’s it.
I stayed in a decent hotel, not an amazing one, but not bad either. After I made reservation through Booking.com, the hotel sent me a mail saying that there will be someone waiting for me at the airport. Well, that was a promising start for the holiday. As I said, it was a decent hotel, not a very good one. I mean it wasn’t supposed to be taking customers from the airport at least. There was a surprise waiting for me at the arrival exit though. The guy who came to get me was a tuk-tuk driver. He said his name is Mr. Bean. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the beginning. By the way, for the ones who don’t know what a tuk-tuk is; it’s basically a three wheel motorbike kind of a vehicle, which is mainly used in Asian countries. You can see Mr. Bean and his tuk-tuk on the below picture, although it isn’t clear enough. I found out that Turkish white goods manufacturer Arçelik was also manufacturing these little tuk-tuks till 70’s.
Before I start with my first day in Cambodia, I would like to give some information about the country. This hot Southeast Asian country has a population of over 15 million according to 2014 approximations. Phnom Penh being the current capital, it became a sovereign state leaving “French Colony” title behind in 1953. The real history goes back to AD. 800, to Khmer Empire, actually even before. Once upon a time, it’s borders were going all the way up to China. It’s like Turkey’s territory being what’s left of Ottoman Empire’s territory.
Okay, let’s start the real traveler’s stuff. As it is for most of the foreigners visiting Siem Reap, my first stop was also Angkor Archaeological Park, where the famous temple Angkor Wat resides. Another short note; I little bit of like walking. Actually don’t bother, I like it a lot. Yes, more than a lot. I will pick up the details of my love of walking later on. I got out of the hotel and started walking around 10-11 am. No bicycle, no motorbike, no nothing. I started walking towards the most lively spot of the town, pub street, which was 1.2km from my hotel according to the phone. I thought I can check around and get some money from an ATM or something. I figured out that default currency used in Cambodia is already USD and I don’t need that. All the ATMs pay in USD. Cambodian currency Riel is only used for changes, I mean amounts below $1, nothing else.
As I mentioned before, I like walking. Angkor Archaeological Park, which you can see a map above is stated 7km to the north of the city center. I said to myself, let me walk a little bit towards that, I can do a little tour of the city, and if I feel tired or something I can get a tuk-tuk anytime. Eventually, I found myself at the entrance in about an hour. It wasn’t the right entrance though. I was walking through a parallel street, which you can see below, and the ticket office wasn’t there, it was way behind. They didn’t let me in, and I made a daily deal with a tuk-tuk that gatekeeper arranged. We went back to ticket sales office, and I bought a three day pass which was $40 as far as I can remember. Actually two days here is more than enough if you are not thinking of picturing every single detail. Most of the temples look alike anyways.
Our first stop in the park was Angkor Thom. As the last capital of Cambodia’s predecessor Khmer Empire, Angkor Thom covers an area of 9km², which consists several temples. The first one I went was a buddhist temple, Bayon, which is said to be built around 12th and 13th centuries.
After Bayon, I went to another nearby temple called Baphuon. The temple is dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, and 50m tall including its tower. The most important thing about is the entrance hall, which is very very long. It is a little hard to climb up the stair as they are substantially steep. Another thing I experienced here is that they didn’t allow a lady in, because she was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt. So no matter how hot it is, you have to watch what to wear, what not to wear at certain occasions.
We went to a couple of other temples after that, but I don’t want to talk about each and bore the article and the readers. So I quickly jump to Angkor Wat as a symbol of Cambodia as well as of Siem Reap. The temple, which also gave it’s name to an American thrash metal band, is the biggest religious structure in the world. It was built in 12th century as a Hindu temple. Putting three iconic towers differentiating it from the other temples aside, the most significant detail about Angkor Wat is that it is oriented to the west, instead of the east. This has led many to think the empire of the day Suryavarman II wanted it to serve as his funerary temple.
One of the hardest things of traveling alone is that you have to ask strangers to take pictures of you. I lost the count of how many people I asked to take the picture above. It’s not that people are not willing to take pictures, or I’m lazy to ask though. It’s that they either don’t know how to take pictures properly, or they are taking randomly as they don’t know you and they don’t care if the result is good or not. My initial approach was to ask people who are carrying SLR-like cameras, thinking that they have some idea on taking pictures. But for most of them, that huge machine they are carrying is just an accessory. They know nuts about taking pictures. They are either showing off, or buying those machines thinking the bigger, the better. Finally, I realized that my tactic was almost useless and I should find another one; I asked people to take their pictures first that they can understand what really I want. It worked actually, but one of the end results was just hilarious.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I walked to the entrance of Angkor Archaeological Park and got a tuk-tuk from there. The lady who arranged the tuk-tuk was the gatekeeper. The guy who is posing on the right to understand how to take the picture is my tuk-tuk driver, and the flying one, trying to make some sort of a history is the gatekeeper of Angkor Wat Temple, aka Flying Cambodian. Hilarious isn’t it…
Yes, that was my first touristic day in Cambodia. It was around 5pm when I came back to the hotel. After walking that long and getting burnt under the sun, I threw myself into bed. I was literally tired. It was around 8-9pm when I headed out again to have dinner and experience the nightlife. I found a couple of restaurants through Foursquare and TripAdvisor, but they weren’t looking promising, I have to say. Some of them were even closed. I started to walk around the pub street thinking I can find something good to eat, but unfortunately all the restaurants were super touristic, looking like tourist rip-off spots. I got myself into Hard Rock Cafe at the center of Siem Reap, which was glowing with it’s gorgeous building and lights. It might sound a little weird to go to Cambodia, and end up in Hard Rock Cafe. I’m a little picky with what I eat, and I was so hungry after a tiring day that I just couldn’t resist it. They had live music, Angkor Beer, a comparably better crowd inside, guaranteed good food, literally the lot. I stayed till midnight, finishing up two liters of beer in the meanwhile. Then I went to pub street thinking I can find some good place for further drinking.
I hanged around for a while, but I couldn’t find any place that was really calling me in. Frankly, it was full of tourists dancing on the road, and fifth grade bars playing fifth grade pop music. Then a place called Beatnik caught my eyes. It was a cozy place, with limited amount of people inside. Music was fine, I went in, got another beer and randomly started talking to people. Beatnik is one of the places that made me think Cambodia wasn’t a bad place at all. Getting more than a little tipsy, I ended the first they over there.
At the end of the first day, I made a deal with the tuk-tuk driver to take a day off, and continue with the rest of archaeological park on day 3. So I had a full day off on the second day, and I had to figure out what to do. Considering I was very tired after the first day, I woke up a little late, had a late breakfast. It was around noon when I left the hotel with the bicycle they lended, riding towards the city center. I had an idea on where to go and what to do, but I wanted to go for a coffee and let the sun go down a little bit. I wasn’t super tourist minded, and as I was moving 2-3 times faster than an average person, I didn’t think I needed to hurry. I went to a cafe called Sister Srey, which I found on Foursquare, and which was closed the evening before. It was a super cozy, small, intimate, nice place. Interestingly styled glasses, plates, and menu(both the menu itself and the ingredients). As it was the case for most of the tourists, I connected to free wifi and started to look up where to go. There were two main attractions that really grabbed my attention on TripAdvisor; War Museum Cambodia, and Phnom Krom. Phnom Krom is another temple 11km to the south of city center, which is an attraction for sunset. There was still more than a couple of hours for that, and I thought it would be better to go to War Museum. War Museum was about 5km from where I was, so the plan was going there, coming back, having an early dinner, and riding to Phnom Krom. Later it appeared that this was an amazing itinerary.
War Museum of Cambodia, which was formed with leftovers of last three quarters of 20th century was just staggering. At the time you step in, a guy welcomes you and asks whether you would like to join the tour. Considering it’s a free one, you just wait for a couple of other tourists to buy their tickets and move on with it. Inside, you can find any sort of war weapon; a fighter jet, a helicopter, bunch of tanks, rifles, rocket launchers, the lot. Those are the least important things that you should pay attention to though; the stories told by the guide is just mind blowing. After 70’s, Khmer Rouge composed of gerillas, People’s Republic of Cambodia(formed after Vietnam intervention), and the regime that was led by current president Hun Sen took the country into a civil war. As a result, Cambodia has around 4 to 6 million planted landmines, most of which are located on rural areas. Worse than that, even the people who planted them don’t remember where they planted. The guide starts talking about how one of his friends stepped on one of them on the way home from school and amputated after, continues with hundreds, thousands of ferocious stories that farmers were amputated after stepping on mines. Considering Cambodia is highly dependant on agriculture, this is just so sad.
According to the statistics, there are approximately 40.000 people that were amputated as a result of these mines going up to 6 million in number. This number of amputation is the highest in the world. Today, rural areas in Cambodia still aren’t completely clear. There has been a commission established to clear the land, but I think you can guess how fast things are processing in undeveloped countries like this one.
After having finished with the museum tour, I went back to city center to have an early dinner and head to Phnom Krom for sunset. As I mentioned before, Phnom Krom is located 11km south of city center, which meant 22km of bike ride. The bike was super shitty that it was almost begging to leave it alone. The road is another story to tell; it’s tarmac, gravel, then tarmac again, then gravel again, then concrete and so on. I can’t describe how much I swore at myself for not taking one of those tuk-tuks like normal people, which were overtaking me one by one.
Reached Phnom Krom after all that struggle, but a steep climb was waiting for me to go up the hill, where temple was.
I can’t say the sunset and the temple were extraordinary experiences; maybe it’s just me, because I don’t have such sunset-sunrise sort of a mindset, I’m not sure. Most of my friends who had been to Cambodia said they went to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise around 4am in the morning. For me, waking up that early and messing up my sleeping pattern just doesn’t worth it. Highlights of this trip for me was pushing myself to the limits on the bike, but more important than that, it was seeing the real Cambodia. Kids being washed by their mothers nearby the road, local Cambodians near big wedding hall style speakers dancing… Was it worth that, definitely…
That was an end for the second day. I think I mentioned how I swore at the bicycle and the road. Now think of the way back for a moment. At the time I reached the hotel, I was feeling like a truck went over me. Knowing that I would have to wake up early in the morning for the rest of archaeological park, I just took a shower and put myself into sleeping mode.
After getting sunburnt on day 1, I put on everything I found; sunscreen, cap, sunglasses, even a keffiyeh. I even covered my mouth after inhaling all the dust while riding bike the day before. What I can say about day 3 is almost similar to that of day 1. Before we started with the rest of five other temples in the archaeological park, we went up to another special one called Banteay Srei, which was around 35km to the northeast of city center. What makes this one special is that it is much smaller compared to other gorgeous Angkor temples. That’s why it receives more tourists, they say. It was full of Chinese aunties, so I had chances to ask for photos using my Chinese skills. A foreigner speaking Chinese, especially a foreigner in Cambodia speaking Chinese is just too interesting for them.
As you can understand from the above picture, one of the things I should mention about Angkor is that it has been under protection of “World Heritage” programme of UNESCO.
There are still five other temples left for me to talk about, which I went right after Banteay, but I would like to keep it to the photos I shared below. To shortly sum up my Cambodia trip before I end this article; I would say it was one of those very interesting ones which I won’t forget for a while. Don’t be fooled by me saying I walked here and there, and it was super tiring; it’s super easy to do anything in Cambodia as it is a very touristic place. The local people are unbelievably warm and welcoming, and this trip which I was a little skeptical on going alone was literally fun. I didn’t feel alone even for a moment. So the bottom line is that Cambodia is a place definitely worth visiting. As UNESCO puts it, it’s a world heritage.
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