I’ve been dragging my feet about putting my experiences in Cambodia down on paper, it’s been almost a month. Not because I didn’t like it. I loved it, although some of its aspects were hard for me to comprehend. I recently went through what must be a zillion photos of Angkor ruins and decided now it was time…
On the day when I finished the Vipassana silent retreat in Thailand, I travelled with my partner to Cambodia’s border. We were lucky enough to not have to go back to Bangkok, as one of the meditation’s volunteers offered us to drive us there. A khmer Buddhist monk (yes, a real monk!) who happened to also be a participant of the course, travelled with us. He helped us at the border, walked with us through it and waited for us to get a visa. No scams, no issues, just as smooth as it could get. So far, so good. He waved a goodbye to us on the Cambodian side of the border as he was heading to Phnom Penh and we were going to Siem Reap. We promised to visit him in his monastery when the time came.
We took a free shuttle to the bus terminal and bought ourselves tickets to Siem Reap. An American couple happened to travel on the same mini van with us. My first observations of the country: the rice fields looked lush green and cows looked extremely thin, like they have been starved.
We got to the guest house called Golden Papaya (check out rates here) and worked out a deal with a tuk tuk driver for us and the American couple for the next 3 days. Or, it was more like the American dude – Dustin – who worked the deal out for all of us. 10$ per day per couple, so 20$ per day for the driver. Not bad at all.
We went out together for a dinner that night with our new friends and got to know each other a bit more. We told them about our meditation experiences, they told us about their jobs in San Francisco.
The following day was the first one of three we spent in Angkor ruins. We wanted to leave the most famous temple – Angkor Wat – as a cherry on top, for the last day. So we started off from the less famous ones. Don’t ask me to provide you all the names. Generally the ones that made the biggest impression on me had roots of trees climbing over the ruins. It looked surreal.
At some point on that first day we had to stop over as it poured down with rain. We sat under a roof of one of the local restaurants/cafes, 2 little girls playing with each other in a hammock just inches away from me. One of them came up to me and asked me for a banana (we had bought some a few minutes before). Of course I was going to give it to her! After a while the mother of one of the girls, who happened to be a seller at the café, sat next to her daughter. I saw a perfect photo opportunity and asked if I could take a picture of the two of them. The mother was telling her daughter to smile but instead she was covering her face with a peace-a’la-chinese pose of her fingers. So I did what I would do whenever I had a child’s photo shoot in the past – I stuck my tongue out in attempt to make her laugh. And she did what most natural kids do as a response – she stuck her tongue out back at me!
Towards the end of our day we stopped by monkeys that were near to the road. I’d seen monkeys before in Bali and I knew they could be quite aggressive, so I kept my distance. I loved one couple of them, the female one giving a scratch to the male one. He looked so relaxed!
Another monkey stole a coconut from our friend when he was not looking and sat with it on our yuk yuk, trying to work out how to open it! It took us a while to get him off the vehicle, he was so cheeky!
Our American friends bailed out by the end of the day 1, as they put it they were “templed out”. Couldn’t blame them, we must have seen 4 or 5 temples that day, and I had sweated my own sweat. I swear I had never been so sweaty in my life. Well, maybe similar when crossing the Panama Canal a few years back. So the next 2 days there was just me and my partner. It was actually nice to spend some time together, especially that we had not seen nor talked to each other for 10 days during the meditation course.
The temples could take your breath away, sometimes quite literally! There were quite a few of them that had a couple of hundred very steep steps to climb before you could take a closer look. Some of them were small, some were a truly huge complex. As soon as you got off the tuk tuk, you were followed by at least 1 or 2 vendors, asking you to buy something – from coconuts through to dresses, elephant pattern trousers, postcards and magnets. A lot of those vendors were children. One of them was especially stubborn, insisting that I should buy bracelets from her. I wasn’t even interested. After about good 5 minutes of walking after me, she told me: “I have no money to go to school”. It really got me, but I managed to keep my composure. I had to remember that buying things from those children or giving them money actually discourages their education. Instead of going to school (which in itself is free), they sell more stuff to the tourists and stay out of it. I just felt sorry for the girl. But I didn’t break.
On the afternoon of day No.2 in Angkor, after good a few hours of walking in almost unbearable heat and humidity, we asked our driver – Visky (we called him Whiskey) – to stop somewhere for a cold drink. There were 3 little girls playing with each other – 2 Khmer ones and 1 child of tourists. Despite their obvious difference in skin tone and features, speaking different languages and coming from completely different cultures, they played together, communicating without any issues. That’s why I love children – because they are so innocent and they don’t see what adults see. They don’t care about cultural or material backgrounds, they just want to play! I spotted yet another photo opportunity and took a series of images, obviously first asking their parents if I could.
The day 3 was the big day. We were going to see the sunrise above Angkor Wat. We had to get up before 4am and our driver took us to the place. It was still dark when we arrived. There must have been a couple of hundred of tourists wanting to see that amazing view as well, ready with their cameras and selfie sticks. Oh, I loathe selfie sticks. You walk around with a stick a meter ahead of you and a camera (or more likely phone) stuck to it, taking picture of yourself every 3 seconds. They drive me mental, lol! Anyway, what was I on about? Ah, the sunrise. Well, we waited. It was 5.30, then 6, then 6.30. It was getting brighter and brighter. But the sun never came out. Yep, the sunrise never became visible. Too overcast. What came to my mind there and then and I said this aloud to my partner: “The most beautiful things happen when you don’t expect them”. So instead of beautiful sunrise we had humidity so intense you felt like passing out, at 7 in the morning. My partner had had enough. It was 7am and we looked like participants of Miss and Mr Wet t-shirt competition.
Angkor Wat was still impressive, a truly huge complex. But I think I liked the smaller temples with tree roots all over them more. They were quite something. After the early start and breakfast, Visky drove us a good 30km, outside of the Angkor complex, to the last temple. It was pretty small, but so amazing. The amount of detail on the stones, the red colour of them… Truly something. It looked well preserved as well, I think the Swiss and French governments helped recover it.
On the way to the toilet there, I noticed another little girl – a child of the security officer lady. Another photo – snap! People bring their children to work here. There is no such thing in Cambodia as a childcare support system, or nurseries. There is no maternity leave either. So mothers bring their little ones to work, to make a living and continue to support the baby and themselves. I’d seen children playing around working areas of local shops, cafes and restaurants, and even toilets and Angkor temples entrances. They seemed to entertain themselves most of the time, without interrupting their parents.
I also noticed local children walking / riding bicycles / motorbikes to and from school, around the Angkor ruins. The views they have there are truly quite something. Do they realize that, or take it as everyday life? I wish I’d had views like that on my way to school when I was a child!
After seeing about 12 temples over the last 3 days or so, as impressed as we were, we also were quite templed out. We’d read about the landmine museum on the Lonely Planet guide and decided to go and see it. Something different, something that was speaking for itself in terms of Cambodia’s latest history. There were around 5000 objects there, collected by 1 Khmer guy. He first fought for the Khmer Rouge as a child, then against it. Then he realized how the landmines were hurting civilians – innocent people, so he started demining Cambodia, by hand. The amount of landmines in the ground is lowering, so is the amount of victims every year. The man collected so many objects over the years that he decided to open a museum. He also runs an orphanage for children. In 1997 all of the children were victims of landmines. Nowadays none of them are, they mostly come from extremely poor families who wouldn’t otherwise send them to school, or are somehow handicapped. If you don’t exactly have an idea what was happening in Cambodia in the 70’s of the 20th century, watch the Killing Fields movie, it will give you some idea.
After such a heavy subject, we thought it would be nice to do something more light-hearted, so we went to the nearby butterfly farm. People looking after them collect the eggs,
grow the caterpillars and then the cocoons that finally become the butterflies. The butterflies lifespan is about 2-3 weeks, the whole cycle takes about 6 weeks. They were gorgeous. See some
Through those 3 days we got to know our tuk tuk driver. He had a wife and a small child, a nice enough guy. Every time we stopped for a drink or meal, we offered him one as well. Most of the time he would politely refuse. He charged us more at the end that we had established, as he had to make up cash for the couple that dropped out and we never saw them again. $15 on average for the entire day of his work (about 8 hours each day) I don’t think is too bad.
If we weren’t driving or walking around the temples, we would go for a walk into town, usually to eat something. We came across a couple of really nice places. One of them was called Helping Hands, and was run on a charity basis, to help underprivileged women gain some independence. On our first night we had a curry and it was fantastic. We went back there at least a couple of times since. Their milkshakes (my favourite was avocado and banana mix of a shake) were to kill for. And so affordable. They were located in the same street as we walked down to the main road from our guest house – Golden Papaya.
Our guest house was alright, for 10$ per night there is only so much you’re going to get. The staff were nice, but every morning we had a march of ants along the wall in our room. If you left even a tiny crumble on the floor, they were unforgiving.
On our last day it was time to rest. We stayed that extra day, doing nothing physically. Updating the blog, writing messages and walking to the nearby restaurants for meals was about all we had energy for.
Our next stop was Phnom Penh. I’d previously read on one of the travel blogs that you could get a fast boat going down Tonle Sap river from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. Unfortunately for us, it did not happen. The monsoon was delayed, and there was not enough water in the river. In fact, we only had a couple of short downpours during our first days of stay, and it was incredibly hot (have I mentioned that before? Oopsie). So we had to take a 7-hour bus journey instead. But I’ll save the details for the next post.
Thank you for reading.
Hello stranger! My name is Bogna, but you can call me Boogie. I come from Poland, but have lived in a few different countries, including UK and USA. In the past I have been a summer camp counsellor, special needs teacher, cruise ship photographer and IT Support. I am the author of BoogiePlanet.com This website is all about the experiences I encounter in different cultures and the World I see through my lens. You can help me fulfill my dream to be a travel photographer and perhaps to inspire you to travel by liking my page on Facebook, or following me on Twitter.