Getting to Siem Reap was about as easy as winning seven Tour De Frances without doping. If you didn’t see that one coming then I am guessing you also thought Barry Bonds head just naturally grew to double the original size and that is what gave him super home run strength.
Leaving from Don Khone left us confused and unsure about how long the expected journey was going to take and what was the best way to get there. The Laos guesthouses that sold the bus tickets seemed to lose track of how things transpired once the bus got across the border. They only had an ‘expected time range’, which varied by 2-5 hours depending on where you were trying to go. We had also heard rumours about how bad the border crossing was to get into Cambodia. Attempting it on your own required a fist full of dollar bills or a considerable amount of time and patience to contest the random charges. We thought we would get ahead of the game and purchase our visas in Vientiane. When our bus company came around to collect passports and cash for the border crossing we proudly showed that we already had ours. The guy gathering the money seemed unamused and stated we still needed to give them $6 each for the ‘crossing fee’. We weren’t sure if that was going into the bus company’s pocket or toward the immigration officers beer money. Either way it brought the grand total we overpaid for our visa/border crossing to $25 each. Turns out our Vientiane guesthouse was more than happy to help us with our visas at a small 190% mark up.
The word on the street was also out on the fact that the Laos/Cambodia international bus companies had no problem patting you down for any extra change the border guards didn’t get. Supposedly if you get a bus just across the border, then buy a ticket from a Cambodian company to where you want to go in Cambodia, you can save a bit of cash. We threw the dart at the map and decided on Stung Treng as our layover spot to break up the trip. The first city the bus passed through on the Cambodian side of the border. This decision proved to be the equivalent of resting your starters after the first five minutes of the game. The quick three hours (including border crossing) to Stung Treng left us with a staggering fourteen hour bus trip the following day. The taxing affair was broken down into two different buses and it was difficult to gauge which one was the more painful experience.
The first bus driver made it very clear he was having a bad day. In between scowling at passengers that arrived at the ‘bus station’ (side of the street), he spent his time banging on the engine, and throwing bags into the luggage compartment (literally, throwing them with as much force as he possibly could. We happily loaded our bags onto the bus ourselves.) Once we were on the road he proceeded to drive like he was Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street 2, driving the school bus into hell. Flying down the broken up street and laying on the horn every 10 seconds to warn drivers he was taking up what ever portion of the road he pleased. Causing cars driving in both directions to pull over to the shoulder of the road.
The second bus driver contrasted Evil Kanievel death defying speeds by driving at a pace that Ms. Daisy would be comfortable with. He had a friendly smile and was happy to allow his bag boy to utilize the television at the front of the bus. We hopped aboard after their lunch stop and were surprised to be watching the second half of King Kong (with Jack Black) in English. The problem began when the movie was over. With 5 hours left until we reached Siem Reap, we discovered the bus was limited on video content, and the kid with the remote wasn’t going to consider riding in silence, not even for a moment. The next five hours were spent watching the same 20 minute ‘funny clip’ two and a half times (70’s style Asians mimicking Three Stooges type comedy) and four Korean music videos. No Gangnam Style here unfortunately. It was the same teenybopper band for all four videos; three 17-year-old Korean Justin Biebers, singing slow and painful love songs, with horribly depressing video plots depicting adultery, best friends back stabbing, and lovers getting killed. (WTF?)
Siem Reap flirts with that finite line of providing all the amenities a westerner could ever want and over doing it to become a tourist trap that has no remnants of true Cambodian culture. You have the infamous Pub Street that is a Koh San Road in the making. The block of bars lure you in with their happy hour specials and late night clubbing. The street its self located in central Siem Reap the area as a whole provides plenty of cheap drinking spots, a massive array of food, and plenty of the mass-produced ‘souvenir’ shops with pushy owners. You can find everything from $1.50 Khemer food to $12 filet dinners. Every place has a happy hour with 50 cent draft beers and dollar mixed drinks that are enough to grab any travelers attention as they make their way to Pub Street. The various markets seem to have the same wholesale provider and marketing agency. The standard compliment of being a beautiful lady or handsome man is spoken loudly and used as the opening line for the two-minute single breath sales pitch. Showing you everything they have on display as you walk by and of course making you that special offer that is reserved just for you. If you dare to actually walk into one of the covered markets you will be met with a constant high-pitched noise of several vendors trying to compete for your attention. The merchandise is of course pretty much the same at every stall you go to but the Cambodians seem less enthused with the bartering process then their Thai counter parts and will usually cut their price by half if you simply show a little interest in an item then start to walk away. No back and forth necessary here.
We stayed the first night in a guest house that was right in the mix of it all. But once we decided we were going to stay in Siem Reap for the week we quickly changed locations. The staff at the first guesthouse was good enough so we didn’t mention the filthy floors, rat poop, and the fact that we paid for breakfast and didn’t get it. But left it at the fact that we wanted to be able to venture in and out of the madness as we pleased. Giving us the ability to not get bombarded as soon as we walked out the door.
After four hours of walking around and checking out seven different hotels we finally found a guesthouse that shinned above the rest (Sam So). It’s a really nice family run operation and everyone is involved in making sure you are comfortable and happy. We found it refreshing that every time we walked into the compound we were greeted by everyone and even the kids seem to take a genuine interest in your presence. Their smiles and waves make you feel like you are an old family friend coming by to visit.
To some of our readers dismay, we didn’t come all the way to Siem Reap just to eat western food and drink ourselves stupid. . . . We also caught a movie! They have a mall with a mini movie theater that allows you to watch any movie you want, at any time!
The world-renowned temples of Angkor rightfully serve as a great point of pride for the Cambodian people. The amazing Angkor Wat has even made its way onto the country’s flag. The ruins themselves are in various states of restoration and some still serve as active places of worship. The amazing architecture aside, the Khmers rich history of Hindu and Buddhist fusion created and displayed in some of these temples is clearly a lesson of acceptance that unfortunately seems to have been lost in the pages of history.
There is no better way to prepare yourself for the trip into the sacred grounds then to visit the National Museum. The well-funded and detailed exhibit explains the spiritual convictions of the Khmer people, their purpose in designing the temples, and what each of the very detailed statues and wall carvings represent. We spent several hours walking through the seven different wings and found it to be a great prerequisite to visiting the temples. Though noted that our interest would have dissipated if completed in reverse order.
The short 5km trip from Siem Reap to the temples was close enough to the city to entice us to grab some bicycles and make a day of it. Unfortunately discouraged in some of the hotel reviews (Tripadvisor) the bike ride itself is actually extremely simple and easy. It took us 15 minutes on a straight road out-of-town to reach the ticket gate and only an additional 10 minutes to find ourselves at the door step of Angkor Wat.
It is always amazing to observe the extraordinary architectural ability man possessed before we became obsessed with the bottom line. It seems the world of today is more interested in touching the sky rather than leaving a structure that will last and impress for thousands of years.
The main ruins (known as the short circuit) are overrun with tourist groups and unfortunately provide that same claustrophobic, over populated feeling, that can be achieved when trying to battle upstream against the lemmings that frequent Machu Picchu. The narrow hallways are jammed packed with large groups of high frequency photographers that are attempting to compensate for their condensed tour with an overwhelmingly large amount of pictures. They obliviously push you into a corner as they snap their way through the corridor and attempt to halfway absorb the tour guides dissemination of information. I am not sure they will really marvel at what they are witnessing until they are flipping through photos with family friends over Christmas dinner half a year later.
If you are patient enough to wait for the hordes of cattle to trample their way through the amazing relics of history, you are left with a peaceful and meaningful glimpse into the past. The delicate detail that was put into the stone work is overwhelming and it clearly demonstrates the acceptance of time as part of the equation, rather than a foe that needs to be confronted with expedited labor.
The bikes provided us the ability to venture our way through a majority of the temples in the Angkor Wat region (known as the short circuit and the long circuit). We were pleasantly reminded that our choice to avoid a tuk tuk driver is always the correct one, when we stopped for a water break and observed an English couple reaching their limit.
The man was storming away from the tuk tuk and screaming that he was fucking tired of being asked if he wanted to eat at the drivers friends restaurant, he didn’t want to buy any fucking souvenirs, and he already had a hotel, so shut the fuck up about the ‘deals’ you can get. “I already paid you, so just do your fucking your job!” The outburst caused several concerned looks from those enjoying their hotel catered tours. But those of us that have been in SEA (South East Asia) for a while smiled to ourselves and congratulated him on saying what was on everyone’s mind.
Once you get to the big circuit the heavy traffic dies down tremendously. The temples are equally amazing in their own right and being on our own really gave us the chance to sit down and observe our surroundings. Unfortunately there is the contention of the local sales crew that has managed to lace virtually every nook and cranny they can find. Your emotions become torn between frustration and compassion for the 8-year-old girls that harass you for ten, unrelenting minutes as you try to make your way through the courtyard. Their mother found fast asleep in a hammock as they try to sell you trinkets from the local market. The annoying persistance is obviously driven by boredom and their desire to meet their parents expectations. You struggle to smile because you know they should be in school and hold back an eye roll because it is your fifth time dealing with the situation. You know your dollar would go a long way for them but the Pandora’s box it would open would leave you struggling to gain some alone time.
The experience as a whole was tremendous. Even with the soliciting locals that pulled at your heart-strings, while testing your patience, and the crowded adult Disney Land feeling created by the photo snapping ‘flash tourists’. The power of the Khmer architecture found a way to shine through and overwhelm you with its beauty.
The ten-hour bike ridding extravaganza left Sally and I yearning for the creature comforts of home and feeling like we deserved to reward ourselves. Half a bottle of Jack Daniels later, we found ourselves strolling to the popular Mexican restaurant El Camino. This is due to the fact that I have an insurmountable struggle to not sample any place attempting to throw out my favorite cousin in a foreign country. Most attempts leave me feeling like I just watched ‘The Dictator’ and was expecting the quality of ‘Ali G Indahouse’ or ‘Borat’ (This analogy might be lost on some of you. So allow me to relate it in a more straight forward manner in which you might be more comfortable. Its like expecting a delectable dish of soul touching Mexican food and getting served dog shit instead). El Camino proved to be worthy of its Tripadvisor praise and we happily found ourselves overindulging in their cheap drinks while munching on their excellent fajitas. The American owner makes himself known as he over-watches the service and ensures his critical Yankee patrons are enjoying themselves.
It took us five days to realize we may have booked too much time in Siem Reap and a day of sitting around with nothing to do left us struggling not to break our budget and partake in our favorite pastime. Our guesthouse helped us move our bus tickets up a day and a quick internet search had us hanging out poolside at the River Garden Hotel. The hotel is kind enough to share their pool, bar, and restaurant with the public. You only need to order something off of their menu to justify kicking back for the entire day. A feat that was only accomplished with the perseverance to struggle our way through three jugs (pitchers) of beer. The pool creating enough of an excuse for us to justify an afternoon filled with our shared hobby.
Our time at the pool had us ready to hit up Pub Street and continue the overindulging. A few poorly made cocktails and 50 cent beers later we found our way into the other Mexican restaurant in Siem Reap, Viva. The owner of El Camino mentioned that he had started the restaurant several years earlier and sold it prior to opening the competition. A direct comparison was not just a desire, it was a necessity. At least that was the drunken one-sided argument I presented to Sally. A plate of nachos and a shredded pork wet burrito later, the verdict was in. Siem Reap is the place to get American Mexican food! El Camino has a culinary graduate (the owner) creating a unique spin on the classical dishes. The flour tortillas for the fajitas could be found at any upscale dining establishment. While Viva turns out the large portioned familiar tastes with a salsa that is on point. Nothing is more depressing then tasting a Pace Picante style ‘salsa’ tainting a would be excellent dish. I would eat at both several more times if given the opportunity. Of course the $2 margaritas don’t detour one from making the visit either. . .