Every serious traveler has a list in their head of places in the world they simply have to see. Some places are on everybody’s list: the awe inspiring pyramids at Giza, the carved wonder of Petra, and the aerial ruins of Macchu Picchu, for instance. These sites, in addition to being beautiful and steeped in history, evoke feelings of amazement at the engineering feats from antiquity. Among these great displays of human achievements lies the Cambodian national treasure of Angkor Wat and its outlying complex of ruins.
One can fly to Siem Reap, the city closest to the ruins. Traveling by train or bus are also options. Though the bus seems to be the cheapest option, there are a few other considerations to take into account. I took a bus from Thailand. It is much further from Bangkok to the Cambodian border than it is from the border to Siem Reap, but it can take more than twice as long to traverse the latter distance. The Cambodian equivalent of an interstate is a dirt road that would be a blast on a dirt bike, a mud dogger’s delight in the rainy season, but in a bus it amounts to a hell of painful jolts and motion sickness. Getting into Siem Reap in the middle of the night, there is little choice but to stay at the guest house that the bus drops you off at. Just as there was little choice but to cough up double for the Cambodian visas that you got stopping in the middle of nowhere in the Thai countryside along the way.
While in Cambodia, it’s difficult to feel indignant at the minor cheating that tends to afflict independent travelers in most destinations outside of the developed world. Rattling along in a bus and grinding gears on the way, you see people bathing and drinking the same water that is also used for what passes as public sanitation. Looking toward the side of the road, there are dozens of stands displaying plastic, liter soda bottles filled with yellow liquid. A fellow traveler and I speculated it might be some local beverage that we should stop and sample. A while longer on the road however, we discovered what these stands really were: they were gas stations. Eight liters of gas? Off came eight plastic tops that once held Coca-Cola and each one was dumped into the tank.
I got my own room for what amounted to about 3USD a night. There was a leak in the bathroom that, in the tropics, amounted to a mold outbreak so thick I had to sleep with a scarf over my face. I resolved to upgrade to a better room the next day and was fascinated by a western spin on the southeast Asian preference for water over toilet-paper; in the room was a western style kitchen spigot, the kind on your sink you use to blast the last spaghetti noodles off of your plate before popping it into the dishwasher, only connected to the toilet for your bum.
The next day I found a guide. After passing over the first few that jumped in front of me after breakfast, I selected a guy that I thought had an honest face. Luckily, my instincts were on as Vibol, my guide, proved to be almost like renting a friend with wheels who knew everything about the area. I paid him in Thai Baht, being one of the only people on my bus who knew better than to convert any money to the worthless Cambodian Reil. Vibol and I negotiated guide service for three days for the equivalent of about 20USD, an amount that seemed to please him. I made my first trip out to the ruins clinging to the back of a moped, which, after having spent a few weeks on Thai motorcycle taxis, was no problem. On the road, I got to know my guide who sent all of his money to his ailing parents and told me stories of the days of the Khmer Rouge and the fallout. He told me of the land mines that still lay dotted across the country from those times and of the one that killed his brother. I didn’t think much of the town of Siem Reap, and I saw a good bit of it as my guide wheeled me at night between local watering holes. One of these nights, he even found another two-wheeled taxi for a friend I made as we stumbled out of a bar to have another drink at her hotel. No matter what I needed, Vibol saw that I got it. He worked all day, even into the wee hours one night. I found the people of southeast Asia to be honorable, friendly and hospitable in all but the most tourist soaked areas. The morning we took off, Vibol took me by a temple that was also an orphanage. Tears came to my eyes when I saw the children, every one of which was an amputee of one kind or another, and I was moved to donate some money. Cambodia is a country that has been sucker-punched by history. How long it will take to recover is impossible to say.
At this point, despite being a seasoned and intrepid traveler, I considered the wisdom of my trip into the jungle that is the Southeast Asian peninsula. I had intentions of going further in, but this country was poor beyond belief. The terrain was the same that still gives some Vietnam era GI’s nightmares of malaria, leeches and rot. I considered turning around and going back to the relative opulence of Thailand, but as soon as the temple complex of Angkor Wat began to tower out of the thick vegetation, my jaw dropped and I became intensely glad that I had made it this far. The ruins were spectacular.
The Khmer dynasties had dissolved into barbarism by the time the French landed on these shores. The kingdom of Siam to the west was now the seat of civilization, but once, this place had been one of the great places on the earth. Different parts were built by Hindu and Buddhist dynasties, each surpassing the other in construction, engineering, artistry and devotion. Like the Pyramids at Giza, the ruins of Angkor Wat defy description and one must stand at their feet to understand what travelers have known for years stretching back into history. Each inch of the sandstone, carved in bas reliefs of Hindu Gods, worn by centuries of monsoon rain, still boasts to their former glory. Like the Sphinx in Egypt who had its nose shot off by Napoleon’s soldiers, many of the sculptures in the complex were decapitated by the Khmer Rouge, so that nothing could compete with their Maoist state in the minds of the people. However, the majesty of the place seems undiminished. In addition to the Hindu works, Buddha statues, both massive and small, are everywhere. Many are dressed in saffron robes with offerings of incense and candles at their feet. It took days to see the whole complex and, even so, according to Vibol, there were other parts that we had no time for as my plans included heading in the direction to Phnom Penh and time came for my departure. I said goodbye to my new friend and gave him a crisp 20USD bill for a tip, a gesture that brought tears to his eyes. Thinking back on the experiences of the days before, climbing the Bayoun, examining the trees that drooped over temples almost a thousand years old and feeling a rain so strong I could hear it coming, I knew that I had gotten one hell of a bargain. I would go back in a heartbeat.
Written by: Jake