A quick note: this is from the blog I kept when I was in Asia during 2014 and 2015. I haven’t edited it at all – this is it, in its full glory. You can read old posts here.
I’m back in Taiwan now, with internet and bubble tea, so I can update you on my short little adventure to Cambodia.
When we hit the ground, I got a distinct Indiana Jones vibe. What can I say, I’m not used to being dumped on the tarmac and waiting for thirty minutes in a pushing crowd while surrounded by barbed wire and with planes roaring overhead.
When I booked my room, the guesthouse owner told me to “not change money” because everyone used US dollars. Which was bizarre, but also a problem, as I’ve been using Taiwanese money for the last three months and had about five cents to my name in US currency. I pulled two hundreds from an ATM–more than enough for the visa fee and four days, as it turned out. The visa officer changed me a crisp two dollar bill like it was nothing, and after incredulously holding it up to the light and squinting at it, I figured it was real enough to stash away for back home. Those just don’t crop up anywhere.
My passport and forty dollars now traveled down a line, from hand to hand. “Stand over there,“ a visa officer told me. So I joined another mass of people, trying to figure out what the fuss was about.
Here’s how getting your passport back works in Siem Reap: a swarm of fifty people pack into a small space, surrounding a passport officer who stands on a desk. He gets a passport, looks at it briefly, then holds it open, calling out the country and owner’s name.
“Korea! Kim! Kim? Kim?”
Mrs. Kim jumps up in the back of the room, waving her arms.
The passport officer throws Mrs. Kim her passport over twenty bobbing heads, and when she catches it, we all clap. People are filming, and laughing, and making consolatory noises when someone drops their passport.
I finally heard my name–and middle name, as they seem to be stuck together now a days–and waved my hands around. (I’m happy to say I caught my passport, to faint applause.)
Outside, I found the driver that the hotel had sent.
“Two hours!” complained my tuk-tuk driver. His name was Lucky, and his English was good.
“You’re telling me.” I told him that I hadn’t wasted any time, and I wasn’t sure why it had taken so long.
“The Koreans,” he told me matter-of-factly, declining to explain.
I stayed at The Cockatoo, which was lovely. Close enough to the center of town to walk, yet far enough away from Pub Street to be peaceful–any night except December 31, at least.
“The mosquito net is for the Indochina flair,” Angel told me. “…and for the mosquitoes. Make sure you shut the door behind you.“
I crawled under my mosquito net early and managed to net* five hours of frequently-interrupted sleep before the highlight of the trip: seeing the first sunrise of 2015 behind Angkor Wat.
I’ve wanted to see Angkor Wat for years, ever since I saw it on some “Wonders of the World” flashcards that we had lying around the house. Angkor Wat is unusual because it faces the west, not the east, which means better sunrise viewing. Archaeologists like to have little scholarly spats about why this is, but all it means for most people is a spectacular sunrise.
Waiting for the sun to rise was one of the most magical things I’ve ever done. Thousands of us picked our way over a ten-centuries old bridge, armed with little flashlights. We staked out spots here and there, then waited. I’ve never heard so many people be so quiet outside of a prayer–people talked, of course, but always in tones of hushed anticipation.
Angkor Wat itself was barely visible in the darkness, so it was only as the sun rose that I realized two things: first, the pictures didn’t lie, and second, it was huge. Massive. Angkor Wat is the biggest religious monument in the world. It’s a huge temple surrounded by lots of green space and ponds, then a huge wall, then a massive moat. The walk way that leads from one side of the moat to the front of the temple is a quarter mile long.
Part of the center of the temple, meant to represent the mountain of the gods.
I wandered around until the whole temple was visible, then walked straight to the back. I had a hunch it would be quieter there, and it was. After an hour or so of wandering, I decided it was about time for breakfast.
Everywhere in the Angkor archaeological park and in Siem Reap, people call to tourists. Follow tourists. Push menus in tourists’ faces.
“Hey lady, tuk tuk?”
“Ten post cards, one dollar. One, two, three, four post cards–you buy lady?”
This last monologue goes on for several seconds and is frequently repeated by small children as you walk to or from a temple. Once I heard it from a girl who couldn’t have been older than three. Her mother coached her from off to the side, yelling instructions and encouragement in Khmer.
All of this yelling has an upside–if you do want food, or a tuk-tuk, or flowy pants with elephants on them, all you have to do is walk twenty feet and someone will make you an offer.
Breakfast in the park was expensive, but better than any I’d had in a long time. (Good breakfasts are scarce for college students trying to make their 8AM, so that’s not saying much.) I tried an iced coffee–it was intensely sweet, probably with more sweetened condensed milk than coffee–but very good.
After breakfast and more exploring, I headed out to another temple. Hopefully I’ll get a post on that finished soon!
*apologies for the terrible pun