“I really should start on a blog but I don’t have the energy!” I wailed to Peter as we stopped at a roadside cafe half way betwixt Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. (Yes I just used the word “betwixt; I love it and believe it should make a come back in the English language). This one particular weekend was particularly exhausting due to the amount we wanted to squeeze into it.
Travelling from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap takes 6 hours. If i could have moved that place closer to where we were I would have done, it would have made things so much easier! But alas, teleportation is still only within the realms of science fiction if you are larger than an electron. And so we planned to get there and back in one weekend by bus. Unfortunately the plane journey was just too expensive despite the extra time it would have given us.
And so on a typically hot and sweaty friday night we travelled from the Free the Bears volunteer house into the heart of phnom penh. We explored the night market and riverside area until it was time to board our night bus. Now firstly I never expected to board a bus with beds. It was never in my imagination that this was a thing. Secondly when I booked the beds online the visual representation of the bus was quite different from what we were presented with on board. Finally they mentioned NOTHING of double beds. And when all of these factors converged it resulted in Peter and I realising that we were to be sleeping separately yet sharing double beds with complete strangers. If nothing else it was an experience!
Peter had to clamber over an already asleep woman to get into his part of the bed with the horrible suspicion that she had not only covered herself with her own blanket but also stolen his as well. Due to the air conditioning he was shivering throughout the entire journey. I was in a top bunk with a lovely woman of questionable origin who immediately struck up a conversation by exclaiming how happy she was that I am a woman! We set of into the night and tried to get some sleep as we were due to arrive in Siem Reap at about 6 in the morning.
At about 4am I awoke needing to answer the call of nature. When you’re blearily eyed, unsure of where you are and half asleep anyway then going to the toilet is already a challenge in the middle of the night, let alone doing this in a moving vehicle. I tried my best to attempt this challenge with as minimal disturbance as possible, even planning the necessary route throughout the bus and, of course I would be as lithe and graceful as a gazelle in order to ensure no one was disturbed. What actually happened was as far from that ideal as you can possibly imagine.
Ever so carefully and clumsily I clambered over the woman sleeping next to me, managing to hit her with my camera bag at the foot of the bed and accidentally sitting on her leg as well. I then needed to jump down from the top bunk which ended up with me landing in an undignified sprawl in the aisle and managing to wake another poor passenger in the neighbouring bed. Finally, once I’d padded down the aisle to actually reach the toilet I felt a slow seeping of wetness oozing through my sock. To add insult to the whole debacle i had actually stepped in wee!
We finally reached Siem Reap just as the sky was starting to pale and then began the chasing of the sun. I was hoping to reach our first destination just as the sun was rising as it is supposed to be the best time to see it. We were approached by a friendly tuk tuk driver (who spoke very good English) and hired him for our entire temple tour. We were here to see the famous temples of Angkor – Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm were the big three on the list. So we went to the ticket office feeling surprisingly chilly in the morning breeze, bought our day pass and onwards we went. The sun was, by now a dazzling ball of gold erupting from the horizon in the endless clear sky and as we hurtled along the roads towards the temples I knew we would be too late to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat itself but the beauty of the surrounding jungle along the banks of the Tonle Sap river was still breathtaking in the morning light.
Arriving at this time actually turned out to be better due to the crowd issue. If you visit it will be crowded. There is no way around it sadly. It is an accepted fact that you will be wading through tourists, dodging selfie sticks and only just resisting the urge to shout at the idiotic people trying to stroke the wild Macaques and hoping they loose a finger or two. I mean really, are people STILL that stupid in this day and age? Do you not know what damage a Macaque can do?! Sorry, rant over!
Anyway the crowds are indeed intense but the timing of our visit worked out well for we arrived just as many masses were leaving. People stay to watch the sunrise and once it’s over they leave to have a coffee. This allows you about a two hour gap before the next lot of morning tourists arrive in which to explore in a slightly less crowded fashion. Pro-tip: aim for just AFTER sunrise.
Angkor Wat itself was very beautiful but I didn’t find it as “alive” as I had thought I might. It didn’t feel like it had much magic left in it. It felt much more like a big English country estate with added heat and monkeys. It is impressive as the largest religious building in the world but I was wondering if it was worth the cost and energy of our weekend jaunt. Peter and I had breakfast (cheeseburgers because why not!) and then it was off to the second temple of the day.
In contrast, Bayon thrilled me in a way I don’t think any other building ever has done. I looked up from my camera as we rounded the corner and the image of all 54 towers with their faces and ancient secrets stamped itself on my brain instantly. All I could say was “wow!” The angular stone corridors were already beckoning to be explored but as the tuk tuk parked up something stopped me in my tracks.
An Elephant, huge and beautiful marched past us with a decorative red saddle full of tourists on her back followed shortly after by another. I had read that Elephant tourism still occurs here but was still sad to see it in the flesh. Elephant riding is not as magical an experience as it may seem. If you visit any of South East Asia and beyond, please do not ride Elephants. No matter how much you love them you will most likely be causing them much suffering by funding these practices. Even some, so called Elephant rehabilitation centres are actually just money making schemes so it is difficult to get right. Just look at the “revelations” within Tiger temple as an example. When it comes to animal conservation ignorance should not be bliss as it is ALWAYS the animal that will suffer.
Second rant of the blog over, sorry I’m getting into bad habits! So Peter and I went for an explore and our tuk tuk driver had challenged us to count as many of the faces as we could (there are over 200!) On each tower there are huge faces representing Buddha carved on every surface available. His serene and enlightened gaze stares down at you wherever you walk with a contented smile spread across his delicate bee stung lips, all carved out of aged weathered stone. The whole place sung of adventure and ancient rituals and mystery.
As we continued to walk upwards we heard the incredible high pitched squeals of huge colonies of Bats having harried conversations with each other across the din of the awe struck tourists. Strangely one of my favourite parts was actually at the other side of the temple from where we entered. A mess of ruined stone blocks lay strewn across a beautiful expanse of grass simply covered in Butterflies. There were so many stunning species in such a high concentration and it was wonderful to walk amongst them as they floated and fluttered around you.
Eventually it was time to move off and on to the last temple of the day. I was looking forward to Ta Prohm for two reasons: firstly because it was shady and the heat of mid day was getting incredibly intense. Secondly the trees! Ta Promh is a semi-ruined temple in which nature has fought back. The trees have grown in and around and through the buildings, waving their roots into the very stone work of the temples. These trees were also some of the biggest I have come across with impressive buttress roots (why is it that I remember that one thing from year 8 geography?!) and a determinedly straight stance as if they knew they belonged here all along, proudly anchored for hundreds of years into the ground.
Thankfully there were no snakes but a delightful surprise was the walk to the temple itself. Half way along I could hear the delightful bells and music of Cambodia. As we came closer we saw an entire band made up of Khmer people dressed in green. Stopping to appreciate the music Peter leaned over and pointed out what was truly unique about them. They were all missing at least one limb. These people were recovering from accidentally treading on land mines and other affects of the war. But instead of merely begging they had learned to play beautiful music and made their money that way. I like this initiative a lot and found several of these types of musical groups across Siem Reap.
Exhausted Peter and I finally headed to our hostel for the evening and basked in the glory of air con for a while before heading out in search of food. Now as you all know i am a huge fan of pancakes and had spied a place called “La Creperie” so of course we had to go! Run by a lovely Belgian man and tucked down an alley full of restaurants and twinkly lights we had a really enjoyable time with some lovely food.
We then went to explore Pub Street (literally a street full of pubs which we didn’t fancy visiting) and another night market. Now I was already wary of market stalls here due to the fact that earlier on in the day I had examined some trousers which I decided I didn’t want only for the stall holder to insist on a haggling war for which I was not even partaking in. I started to leave the stall after trying in vain to explain that I didn’t want the trousers only for her to grab them and chase after me all the way down the street! So I approached the rest of these markets with more than a little caution. However I had spied some trousers that I really did want – rainbow trousers! Light and airy and brighter than the sun I was determined to find a pair. What I actually found was three! After being asked for $27 for two pairs of trousers I embarked on a fierce haggling war of my own (never underestimate the power of walking away!) and managed to get a total of three pairs for $13. Peter also bought himself a hammock and we decided to call it a night.
It had been a really fantastic day but also hugely busy, typically uncomfortably hot and full to the brim of new sights, smells and other delights to intoxicate the senses. The next day we caught the bus (sans beds this time) back to Phnom Penh for our final working week at Free The Bears. It was nice to be back with our fluffy friends and the familiarity of the volunteer house but I was glad we had felt adventurous enough to stumble blindly from our comfort zone once again and see what we could find at the other side.