angkor bar

Three quarters or 3,000 riel for a beer, it’s up to you.

I’d wanted to get into Cambodia for years; just never seemed to have the time even though it’s just a quick run from Thailand. But I finally decided to pre-book the trip to make sure I actually set the time aside. I mean any country willing to sell a kid to Angeline Jolie has gotta be worth seeing, right?

Now you have several choices of destinations within the country, Phnom Penh (third world capital), the killing fields (historic, tragic, but not exactly Disneyland), the countryside and the mighty Mekong (land mines, flooding, and dirty brown water), or Siem Reap and the many ancient wats surrounding what probably was a quaint little town a mere 10 years ago. My choice was Angkor Wat, which meant Siem Reap for accommodations.

I flew in on Bangkok Air . . . you can also make a long overland journey by bus, well known to be a major opportunity to participate in a scam (yeah, you get to play the part of the victim). The short haul was a 45 minute flight that they actually tried to serve a meal during – which I have to give them credit for since my last 5 hour flight to Hawaii on United came with no food unless you wanted to buy some from them. Watching the locals, I caught on quickly: take the food, wolf it down, because they come right back around to grab your tray. My seatmates from Australia tried the casual dining approach and didn’t get to finish. On landing, I was expecting third world type conditions and so was pleasantly surprised by the airport – quaint for sure, but very clean and it looked like it belonged in SE Asia.

Daytime colors of Siem Reap.

Daytime colors of Siem Reap.

Unless you previously obtained a visa, you need to get one before clearing immigration. Fortunately I had read a guide book for a change and came prepared with a photo of yours truly and $20 for the visa. No photo, you get fined. No $20 in US, well, noting I’d come in from Thailand the visa clerk first quoted me a 1,000 baht price. That’s like $35. Ha! I ain’t your typical stupid American touri!

After paying for the visa, you wait for it to be processed and your name to be called. The guy handling this part of the operation was quite funny and was having a wonderful time mispronouncing names. I always appreciate a man who enjoys his job. But then I also always appreciate weary travellers whose journey has beat them into submission leaving them basically brain dead having to then deal with officialdom in some tiny foreign country where they don’t have the good sense to speak perfect English. Immigration at Siem Reap was not the dreary experience it is in other countries; the entertainment value of Immigration Officer vs. Touri alone made the trip worthwhile. Provided you matched the immigration guy’s English with your last name you get your Visa, and you next get into yet another line to clear immigration.

Now I get to digress. You probably noticed I do that quite often. Live with it. In this case it’s a rant about damn Eastern European touri. Sneaky mf’s . . . World War II just didn’t do a complete enough job. The reason for this rant was a 30 something woman who wanted to cut into line. Her trick was to stand to the side of where she wanted to cut in, drop her bag, and then every time the line moved forward she’d kick the bag over a bit more into line and follow it. Bitch tried in front of me and when she got too close I strategically, but oh so casually, swung around allowing my heavy carry-on to bang into her. She got the message and cut in behind me. Ours was the slowest moving line (yep, I’m blessed) and I watched her pull the same move cutting into the next line over. Long line, long time to watch my fellow touri. My seatmates from the plane and I saw each other and nodded. International travel can be sooooo rewarding!

siem reap at night

. . . and its cooler colors at night.

A $5 cab ride to my hotel (the Ta Prohm, not to be confused with the wat of the same name) taught me the first rule of Cambodia travel: Don’t be cheap, fool! Very few of the streets of Siem Reap are paved. Even those that are are covered in dirt. An air conditioned cab cost the aforementioned $5. For $2 you could instead ride in the Cambodian version of a tuk tuk (more of a motorcycle pulling a buggy). So by saving $3 you get a noisy, hot, bumpy ride guaranteed to fill your nose and mouth with dust. Yeah, master those possibilities . . .

The second rule of Cambodia travel is that if you were smart enough to follow rule #1, your cab driver will offer to be your driver/guide for the entire trip. Sounds like a scam. But unless you come off as a total idiot, the fee he charges will be about the same as you’ll find anywhere else. I lucked out. My driver spoke excellent English and was 1 year away from completing his studies to be a licensed guide. Booked ‘em and he proved worth every penny (which is about what the local currency is worth – but that comes later).

My guide, Juan (Okay, that wasn’t his name but I couldn’t pronounce his name so we mutually agreed he’d be Juan for the trip) planned out my visit to the major wats for the following day to avoid the rush of touri. Seems there are certain times of the day everyone wants to be at special spots, which end up being not that special when viewed with every touri in Siem Reap. First up was Angkor Thom with the Bayon – some 54 towers of quadruple gargantuan faces on them. Way cool. And probably my favorite wat in the area.

Siem Reap Blues

Siem Reap Blues

Ta Prom (the wat, not my hotel) was next. This is the one that has been overgrown by large ficus trees, their roots encompassing the remaining walls of the wat. Cool, but did they have to name a tree after Angeline Jolie just because she bought one of the country’s kids as a souvenir? Lastly, for the day, was Angkor Wat, the mother of the local wats, and it really is awe inspiring. At Angkor Wat, as well as the others, locals are quite evident, still using the sites for religious purposes ( as opposed to the even greater number of local using the sites to fleece touri out of a few bucks for books, postcards and knickknacks available at a much cheaper price back in town).

With cultural duties taken care of my evening was free for more less than salubrious pastimes and I decided on a beer and dinner at The Red Piano. Both because it was close to the hotel and for its grand patio – dining outdoors with the hustle and bustle of bar street tableside. I’d barely quaffed down half my drink when a white pair of legs appeared with an Aussie accent asking, “Mind if we join you?”

The legs ended up belonging to the female half of the couple I’d been next to on the plane. Sylvia and John. They joined me, which seemed right since I’d constantly hooked up with Aussie touri on this trip. Nice folk. While I’d spent my first day touring ancient wats, they’d spent theirs trying to find a place to stay. Sometimes the ‘take it as we go’ mode of travel can be a pain. After several rounds of drinks and enjoyable talk about our travels, Sylvia lamented the fact that not thinking she’d exchanged her Aussie dollars at the airport for Cambodian riel. The country offers more than one source of comedic relief at the airport, there’s a money exchange booth there too. Feel free to snicker at those lined up in front of the cage when you scurry past headed to the taxis and tuk tuk waiting outside.

The Red Piano is a great place to soak up some shade during the day.

Had my new dearest friends taken the time to read a guide book, they would have discovered the Cambodian riel is worth zip, nada, zilch, or for those into actual facts, a bit over 4,000 to the U.S. dollar. And the local economy runs on the US buck. The only local stuff you see is when someone tries to give it to you as change. Anyway, Sylvia had a stack of riel piled on the table in front of her, and after watching her count out about three inches of it I offered to pay for the drinks and dinner (real generous, at the end, five rounds of drinks and dinner came to about $20). Good move on my part as we ended up dining together nightly for the next four days, it was like travelling with friends without having to actually spend the day with them.

I’m not that big on guidebooks preferring to strike off and find things to do and see on my own. But they do serve their purpose when it comes to the basics. A few minutes of pre-trip fact gathering can pay off. Or you can instead choose to be the punch line for some other traveller’s tale.

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