Sandwiched in between my visit to Thailand and Vietnam, I took a brief trip into the Kingdom of Cambodia for a few days after my stop off in Bangkok. My original plan was to stay in Cambodia for a couple of weeks, but I’d heard some fantastic things about Vietnam, so I decided to head there as soon as I could. It meant that my visit to Cambodia was fleeting, checking out the Ruins of Angkor in Siem Riep, before heading down to Phnom Penh to sort out my visa for Vietnam.My time with Matt (who I met on the plane from Kolkata) was cut short after only a couple of days in Bangkok, with the plan to meet up in a couple of weeks and head to Kho Phangan to check out the infamous Full Moon Party. He decided to go to Fiji for some diving and relaxation following his isolated and turbulent few months in the remote areas of India. After a heavy night out on the Khao San Road and hitting the sack at around 5am, I had to pick up my passport from an agency at 7am and catch a bus to Siem Riep. My decision to grab a quick snooze before I left was a bad idea. At around 7.30am, I bolted upright in blind panic knowing I was half an hour late, and ran as fast as I could to the agency on the Khao San Road. It wasn’t a revelation that the bus had left, but I luckily managed to pick up my passport and book a place on the next bus at 9am. I was struggling heavily from the night before and the next 14 hours were some of the most unbearable, introducing me to a world of scams and teaching me a valuable lesson to never party too hard the night before a long journey again.
The bus that I’d booked myself onto mimicked a cramped chicken coop, more claustrophobic than cheap flight seats in Europe. Even though I’m not the biggest person, I was completely squashed in, almost doubled up, with leg room that would only even just accommodate a small child. The air-conditioning was seemingly broken, with the windows of the bus completely sealed shut so we couldn’t even let in any fresh air. I passed out within minutes at a combination of tiredness from the night before and the intense heat that was building up on the bus.After cooking nicely for a few hours, we finally had a chance to get off the bus, stopping off for lunch in the middle of nowhere. The wonderful scamming pleasures then began. There was only one restaurant in the whole area that was owned by the bus company. The food, although tasty, was three to four times more expensive than normal. We had suffered so much from heat stroke on the bus, that we were pretty much forced into buying a few expensive bottles of drink to take with us for the rest of the journey – of course all after re-hydrating on a couple at lunchtime. The bus driver also started to sell extortionately priced hotels for our stay in Siem Riep. Although Siem Riep was only actually about 250 miles away from Bangkok, the bus driver tried to convince us that we would arrive far too late to sort out a hotel. As if a place like Siem Riep with its huge tourist attraction would be short of a place to stay? A few signed up, but I stuck to my guns and turned it down. Having wasted a good 2 hours at the pit-stop for the bus driver to do the rounds, we then hit the road again and only an hour or so later, we arrived at immigrations at the border to Cambodia. This took another 2 hours to get through, and en-route, the bus driver started to try and force people to sell up their Thai Bhat for Cambodian Riel at some of the Currency Exchange booths which he was clearly getting a cut from. Apparently, Cambodia was short of Riel, so it was best to get it from the booths there – all for a nice tidy fee. Amazing how many people got scared and fell for it. You can see why the scams happen if droves of susceptible people keep arriving on their doorstep.
Upon hitting the road again, by sunset, we finally started to approach Siem Riep. The crowd on the bus were getting more and more irritated by the conditions we were in, and I was pleased to see a sign for Siem Riep outside the window that indicated we only had 25 kilometres to go. Then, all of a sudden, we pulled in off the road into another huge restaurant. The whole bus went berserk at the driver who said we had to stop here for an hour or so for no apparent reason, and then vanished off the bus and out of sight! We were literally in the middle of nowhere again. Other than the restaurant, the whole area was pitch black for as far as we could see. We were stranded and it was little shock to us that the restaurant offered more overpriced food and drinks. An hour and a half later, the bus driver turned up again to much aggravation from us all. He threatened to not take us further if we didn’t leave him alone and get on the bus. Fuming, we all got on as we had little choice and half an hour later at around 11pm, we arrived in Siem Riep some 14 hours later. And guess what, it was one last chance for the driver to sell us a hotel room.
Refusing, I headed off to a hostel with a group of youngsters and arranged to meet up with Paul and Boi, a Canadian and Dutch guy I met on the bus for a couple of drinks later. They had earlier caved into the charms of the bus driver and booked a separate hotel. The main strip of Siem Riep was pretty similar to the Khao San Road, although a bit classier. Again, apart from the back-to-back restaurant and bars catering for the tourists, local girls would constantly beckon you for entertainment at a price.
The next day was all about visiting the Ruins of Angkor. Visions of Lara Croft – Tomb Raider were in my head, and I couldn’t wait to go exploring like a kid again. The best way to visit the ruins is by motorbike and I decided to hire one with a guide for the whole day. The guide came under the alias, “Tom” – a lot of Asian people like to use a Western name with foreigners to avoid the possibility of embarrassing diction issues. He was a charming 21-year old guy who had been working as a guide for the last couple of years and his English was impeccably good meaning that we struck up a really good relationship throughout the day.
En route to the ruins, we had a chat about the struggles of Cambodia since the terrifying Khmer Rouge days in which one of the most atrocious and biggest acts of genocide occurred under the control of Pol Pot. An estimated 2 million people were killed which added up to a third of the population at the time. As a result of the country’s afflictions to this social engineering massacre, politics is extremely important and very comprehensible to the young population. A large proportion of the population who were killed were older which meant the demographic is much younger now, with many of them orphaned following the regime. He knew his country’s history through and through and was battling not only for his own survival, but for a political change in his country to try and bring greater democracy and standard of living to Cambodia. He respected the Western Democracies and had high hopes for reforms within Cambodia over the coming years to help modernize the country. He personally had worked as a guide for a few years and only earned $30 a month to care for his family. I have always thought that money was relative, that without knowing the costs of living, you couldn’t fully understand economic shortfalls. But, $30 a month here was still very minimal – he worked 7 days a week, living and sleeping at the agency where he worked, only getting a couple of days a month to go home to see his family in a village nearby. From what I gathered from him, poverty here was not as severe in comparison to India, but, people really were struggling for survival. He told me that he could make ten times more money if he had his own scooter rather than work for the agency. I asked him how much the scooter was, and it was a mere £200 ($320). I offered to give him a hand to get to his goal and help his family, cutting down a couple of years’ worth of saving, but he was too proud for me to give him even £50. He even almost didn’t take my tip at the end of the day. He knew how easy it would have been to take it, but he wanted to work for it himself. And that made me hugely respect him.
As we arrived at the ruins, my excitement started to build. Angkor served as an expansive seat to the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th centuries and covers an area of 400km squared, with a number of remnants of past cities, temples and hydraulic structures (basins, dykes, reservoirs, canals) as well as evidence of the Empire’s communication routes with expansive water reservoirs and huge urban estates. Temples such as Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Phrom are perfect examples of Khmer architecture, each instilled with huge symbolic significance. Social class and ranking were important values to the Khmer civilization, and the architecture and layout of the successive capitals bear witness to this. The park is still inhabited, and many of the villages there still practice agriculture and rice cultivation, with its ancestry dating back to the Angkor period.
I managed to take in a handful of the most important and breath-taking of the sites. One of the most expansive was that of Angkor Thom (“Large City”) which included the breath-taking Bayon. The influence of Khmer art came to fruition here, with the area playing a fundamental role in its distinctive evolution. Its artistic development was key to a new distinction of oriental art and architecture, later influencing other Asian sub-continent designs.
The Bayon was built by Jayavarman VII, a city dedicated to Buddha who is depicted heavily in its architecture. It also represented a spectacular maze of tunnels, turrets and sculptures.
The Phimeanakas just to the North was built by Suryavarman I around the year 1000 to act as a huge fortification around his Royal Palace.
In 1050, the impressive state temple of the Baphuon was built to supersede them, but I could only take a glimpse of the exteriors as it was under maintenance. Next to this, the Terrace of the Elephants and the Leper King sat, with a huge man-made lake at its centre.
Then in 1113, Suryavarman II started the next great phase of construction, which gave birth to the most impressive and famous of all Khmer architecture, Angkor Wat. This huge collection of temples is dedicated to Vishnu, set within an extensive enclosure to become one of the most complete of the complexes.
As you walked through, you could witness some of the impressive Khmer art with extensive galleries etched on the walls around you.
The foliage around was also breath-taking – not particularly in appearance, but in the raw sounds of the wildlife that hid away. The sound of the crickets was intense, so much so that I peeled away from the ruins for around half an hour to sit and listen. Later in the day, I then visited Ta Phrom, which for me was the most impressive and exciting of all the ruins. The remains of Ta Phrom sits within the jungle, with most of the structures now embedded within the jungle itself which over the centuries has surrounded the city. Within its walls, huge trees were interlocked into the temple foundations, with the great jungle fauna decorating it. For these reasons, the ruins still had plenty of life to them.
At sunset, I then headed over to the hills of Phnom Bahkeng, which was also built in the 9th century. Although it was far too crowded, you could see why it was the main attraction at sunset, with the spectacular views out over the rest of Angkor.
Before darkness truly engulfed me, I headed back to Siem Riep on the back of Tom’s scooter. With a fond farewell, I headed into my bungalow to settle down for an early night after the vividly adventurous day.
Further Reading on The Ruins of Angkor
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Angkor Guide
More Photography :
“The Photography Collection” by Antematters