Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Angkor What?…Angkor Wat!

12/30 – 1/2, by Jason

As I mentioned earlier, we had purchased a bus ticket for the ride from Pakse, Laos to Siem Reap, Cambodia for a pretty good deal and in what seemed like record time. Pakse to Siem Reap is 858 km. Now in our experience thus far a bus in SE Asia averages 40-70 km/hr depending on the roads, number of stops, etc. We were told that we’d leave Pakse @ 7.30am and arrive in Siem Reap around 9pm…and don’t forget that this includes a border crossing too…so needless to say I was just a little skeptical that we’d actually arrive by 9pm. We were picked up by a minivan that left closer to 8.15am and about 40 minutes into the journey we stopped at a gas station to wait for 2 people that needed to be in our van to catch up to us. The minivan was an interesting ride as I was sitting next to a French born and raised but ethnically Cambodia man, former French military that now works as the supervisor of a security detail at the American Embassy in Paris…he had some interesting stories about our visiting politicians, and I got to practice my French. Around 10.30am we pulled over on the side of the road to transfer from 1 minivan to a similarly sized minivan, only 30 minutes from the border. Why?!? Don’t ask me, just part of travel here I guess. About 20m into our drive down the road the driver pulled over and we had a flat tire. Swiss, always willing to help (who knew, not me?!? ;-) jumped in and the two of them changed our tire in less than 12 minutes and we were back on our way.


We arrived at the border around 11am and had to exit Laos (easy) then walk down the road

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into Cambodia, which was a bit more of an “ad-hoc” setup. We first went through quarantine where we filled out a questionnaire, they scanned our temperatures without actually looking at the reading and then had to pay them $1 (which I will from here on out refer to as “the bribe.”) We then filled out paperwork and bought our visa ($25 plus one bribe) followed by another booth to actually enter the country, stamp and all (free, plus one bribe…so not really free.) We finally made it onto the bus waiting for us at noon, apparently a little over an hour later than we were supposed to leave that area…so not only was it an optimistic schedule before, I (always the pessimist) was certain that we wouldn’t be making it to Siem Reap that night. We stopped for lunch around 2.30pm and arrived at a random stop around 8pm, supposedly an hour from Phnom Phen, which meant 4 hours from Siem Reap, where we transferred to another bus (now making it our 5th piece of transportation that day if you count the tuk tuk that drove us to the minivan.) We were told it was 5 hours to Siem Reap from there, but somehow magically arrived at 11.30pm (don’t ask me how they do math here) The whole thing was pretty shady, though, as they drove us into a locked bus yard, closed the gate after the bus pulled in and wouldn’t tell us where we were in town. The tuk tuks all insisted on taking us to one of their preferred guest houses (where they get a commission on our stay) but we’d already made a reservation and after much emotional blackmail (the driver insisted he would only earn money by taking us to his guest house, even though they charged $4/person for the ride…saying that he had to give the entire fare back to the bus company) we were dropped at our hotel, the Apsara Steung Thmey. We checked in and passed out close to 1am, a very long day indeed!

Happy New Year from Siem Reap!!

The next morning we were up and going around 9.30am, off in search of cash, breakfast, bus tickets to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), setting up our tour of Angkor Wat temples and haircuts for Swiss and Chris (Chris wasn’t quite approaching Bozo the clown hair, like last time I saw him in Ireland :) but still ready for a cut.) We quickly found bus tickets for around $12 from Siem Reap to HCMC from Asia Tour Adventures (who, as you’ll see later, I recommend you not book with ever when in Siem Reap!!) The guys got haircuts ($3 US) and then we headed to the ATM for some cash, and for Swiss to pay me back to the 1.8 million LAK he owed me (nah, it wasn’t all that much! :) Now I’d heard that ATMs distribute US Dollars here, but it seemed hard to believe, but sure enough it’s true!

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Not only that, but prices everywhere are quoted in US Dollars. From restaurants, bars, convenience stores, hotels to the ticket booth at Angkor Wat. Large amounts of change are given in US dollars, but small change (typically less then 5 USD and definitely anything less than 1 USD) is returned in Cambodian Riel, the local currency (they don’t do US coins.)

We booked our tour for the next day and then headed back to the room for a quick nap (still tired from a long day before) and a few celebratory New Years Eve drinks. Pub Street is the main bar area in Siem Reap (aptly named, you see) but there’s a more quiet lane just parallel and one street over that we headed to for dinner. Chris ate, although the bug he picked up on the hike was still with him so we had to be careful. Afterwards we headed back over to a packed Pub St. for a few drinks and to join in on the street party, through the countdown at midnight, pic below!

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It might’ve been nice to enjoy the party late into the night but we had a full day of touring planned for the next day so it was off to bed around 12.30am.

The Majestic Temples of Angkor

The main guy running things at our guest house was incredibly helpful and arranged our tour for the next day. It included a visit to 4 different temples, which given the size of these temples and the distance between them, I would only recommend trying to see 4-5 temples in one day and if you want to do more, plan on spending 2-3 days there. Our driver was waiting for us as we finished breakfast and we left as planned right at 8.30am and first headed north to the ticket office. An amazingly large and advanced operation, they take your picture and print it on each ticket, shown upon entrance to each temple ($20 for 1 day, $40 for 3 days and $60 for a 7 day pass) Since we were leaving the following day for HCMC, Vietnam, a one day pass would be all we needed. I was worried about long lines but it was an efficient operation and we were on our way within 5 minutes. Our first destination was Bantey Srey, the temple furthest out in our itinerary, about 35km outside of town. Now, while Angkor Wat is the most famous temple in the area, it’s really the temples at Angkor that people to come to see, which is really a collection of many temples spread over a very large area and built between the 9th and 13th centuries. Bantey Srey isn’t the largest temple but has some of the nicest and most intricate carvings and stonework to see. Enjoy a few shots below:

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After that it was time to head back a little closer to town and to see Ta Prom. While walking around I heard a lot of people mention “Tomb Raider” and while they were right, it did remind me of scenes from the movie but it seemed a little silly to be saying that. Well, upon returning to town later in the day I did read that scenes from Tomb Raider were actually filmed at Ta Prom. It’s a beautiful temple built in the 12th century and one of the few that they let the forest grow wild around, in and throughout the complex giving it a unique look. Enjoy a few pictures:

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We stopped at a local place that our driver took us to and had a quick lunch. (The place was quite pricey, about $2-3/dish higher than town, but we chalk it up to part of the experience, like eating inside a museum cafe back home, and all the drivers ate together at tables outside, so I assume they get free lunch for bringing groups there, so it’s all good.) Afterwards it was off to Angkor Tom and specifically Bayon. Angkor Tom is a large walled complex, about 4 km^2 in area with many temples within. We went to Bayon, a fun temple to climb and enjoy the beautiful history along with nice views of the area. Enjoy a few pics!

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And finally, over to Angkor Wat…the most famous temple of them all. We spent about an hour and a half walking around, exploring the site and enjoying some of the fine carvings. The temple needs no other introduction, here are our pictures to add to the heaps of photos already on the web:

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While touring the site Chris got a chance to practice his bargaining skills with the dozens of people offering books for sale. They typically come up to you saying that they’ll sell you a book for $1…but once you start looking and pick a book, it’s only a certain smaller portion of the books that they’ll actually sell at that price. Chris found the book he wanted, a very nice history of the Temples of Angkor, which of course was not being offered for $1. After a nearly 10 minute bargaining session he walked away with his book for $5, triumphant pleased that he didn’t pay the $15 they initially requested:


By this point it was close to 4.30pm and we were pretty tired after touring all day with a lot of walking and along with being up late the night before, being New Years Eve and all, we were ready to relax, so we headed back to the hotel, but not without stopping to see these dogs on the way out:

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That evening was pretty uneventful with a nice meal back in town and then to bed to rest for our journey to Ho Chi Minh City the next morning.

An Easier trip to Vietnam, once we finally got on a bus

So we were up and ready at 6am the next morning to be picked up at our hotel. Now, I know the travel agency had the correct location for our place because they copied the name and address of our place off the business card I’d given them. Long story short it was 6.50am, just 10 minutes before our bus was scheduled to leave, and no one had shown up to pick us up. I was pretty nervous (me?!? go figure :) and went down the street to what I thought was a local office for the bus company we were booked on. After a few conversations with different people they first tried to get me to walk to our travel agency and finally a small (15 person) bus came by and I was told to get on and show him how to drive me to pick up Swiss and Chris. We arrived at the bus station a little before 8am and luckily the 7.30am bus hadn’t yet left so we boarded and were on our way. We arrived in Phnom Phen around 2pm and transferred to another bus for the 5.5 hour journey to Vietnam and HCMC. The rest of the trip was uneventful except for the one girl on our bus who apparently was denied entry after leaving Cambodia and attempting to enter Vietnam. Our bus continued to Ho Chi Minh City and she had to get off there. Not sure what happened but certainly feel bad for anyone having to go through that! We arrived in HCMC a little before 8pm and started our search for a guest house, but Swiss will tell you all about that!


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