Don’t Look Back in Angkor

Compared to Thailand you are maligned
But you’ve got some nice shrines
and delicious meals
You said that you’d speak Khmer
But forgot after 50 cent beers
which is only 2000 Riel





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Blogs, forums, and websites like travelfish are rife with horror stories about the border crossing from Bangkok to Cambodia, which is the only country I know of that allows you to shoot rocket launchers at a cow. The feared border crossing involves villains like corrupt guides, broken down buses, and disappearing travel agencies. The most prevalent, clearly stated advice was consistent: DO NOT take the tourist minibuses from Khao San Road.

So like the travel-savvy dudes we are, we went to the nearest, cheapest travel agent and promptly booked a bus. On one trip, we actually did encounter corrupt guides, exploitative border officials, and a broken down bus, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it might sound. Overall it was a remarkably straightforward process. What we learned was simple: don’t pay for your visa until you’re actually at the Immigration Office. Our tour guides offered to process our visa for us for 1200 baht (36 dollars). When we declined, they grew quite cranky and segregated us onto a separate bus, but we went through the border as quickly as any of the others with us.

TRAVEL TIP: Mentally prepare for a full day on transit days. Delays are the norm and if you do end up close to on time, it makes for a couple of bonus hours.

Our coverage of Cambodia begins and ends with Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. We didn’t really have the time (or the interest) to visit Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville was too far given our time constraints. Siem Reap, like Bangkok, isn’t a favorite of many travelers, but again we loved it. The Cambodians call it “Tourist Town,” which is absolutely true, but a quick moto ride gets you out of the city and into a more authentic experience. The western amenities in Siem Reap gather around a central area known simply as “Pub Street;” it is chock full of restaurants, cheap draft beer, night markets, Dr. Fish stations and bars with hidden crocodiles.

ANGKOR WAT

It is probably the most famous attraction of Southeast Asia, but it lives up to the hype and then some. We hadn’t realized how sprawling the temple complexes were–we bought the three day pass and saw a fraction of the temples. (Tuk-Tuk drivers aren’t keen to drive to the further ones, but there are plenty of drivers around so make sure you find one who is okay with your itinerary.) We were there in the off-season; it was very hot but not overly crowded; consider visiting in May if the thought of large crowds is more frightening than intense solar rays. The temples were everything we’d hoped for, but what made our trip unforgettable were the unexpected occurrences.

One cheeky monkey attacked a Canadian backpacker who had to throw her trail mix to him to get away. He went through it, rejecting the peanuts but savoring the dried cherries.

We also saw a man we dubbed “Cambodian Jesus” who spoke not a word but stood shirtless before us in a variety of poses while we waited for our tuk-tuk to be repaired.

Particularly amusing was an overweight American woman who, upon entering the ruins of Angkor Thom, stopped suddenly and inquired of her Cambodian tour guide, “Is English, like, your guys’ second language?” He simply nodded; surely whatever she was paying him was worthy of a few dumb questions. This was doubly annoying for me, as Rachel gets to pinch me every time we see an American do something stupid. (I get to return the favor when we encounter foolish Kiwis, but it somehow doesn’t come up that much.) My arm hurt for a few days after the mega-pinch that earned.

SAVVY VETERAN WISDOM:

* The best temples to see, in our opinion, are Angkor Thom (very close to Angkor Wat), Ta Prohm (which you should see the first day as part of the standard package), and Beng Melea (quite far out but generally agreed to be the very best, hands down.)

* Tuk-Tuk drivers are looking for 10-15 dollars a day; we found even after a price was agreed upon it tended to creep up.

* Touts can be as young as four or five years old and as cute as a baby panda sneezing, so you may end up with more bracelets, mouth harps, and postcards than you’d ever be able to use. They are very persistent but just remember that they are children; enjoy talking to them (they know the capitals of most every country) and if they are amused they’ll leave you alone. One thing that worked for us was offering to sell them items. Another winner is asking them where they are from; the inevitably incredulous response of “Cambodia” is always good for a chuckle.

* While travel is about meeting others, be careful who you choose. We teamed up with a strange Spanish woman who insisted on stopping the tuk-tuk for various reasons, including buying beer, buying fruit, taking pictures of laundry, taking pictures of goods for sale, and who refused to tip or spend 2.50 on lunch but bought elephant rides and many a hat. In short, both she and we would have been happier without having the other along.

* Enjoy the temples. We played hide-and-seek in one, swung on vines in another, and practiced our balancing skills in a third. If you just want pictures, save yourself the money and buy some photographs.

* Don’t be like us and rush straight from Bangkok to Cambodia and then back again. You get a free 30-day visa when flying into Thailand, and a 15-day visa when crossing overland. We didn’t really look into this and lost a week upon our return to Thailand.

Let us know if you have been to Cambodia and if there’s anything you’d like to add or comment on.

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4 responses to “Don’t Look Back in Angkor

  1. Nice one!

    I’m here in Siem Reap now, and eventually I’ll do a post on it and link back for a different perspective.

    I LOVE your little pinching game. Fortunately us Canadians don’t do too many embarrassing things (that I hear about anyways) so it would be a safe-ish game for me to play… I hope.

    • We didn’t see many embarrassing Canadians in SE Asia, but you certainly wouldn’t be safe in Korea. Stay away from there if you play the pinch game. 🙂
      Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Siem Reap/Angkor Wat.

  2. No pics of Cambodian Jesus? All that build up, just to leave me hanging.

    • Funnily enough, we didn’t take any pictures of him. He was posing, but for all I know he didn’t care that we weren’t taking photos.

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