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Captivated by Cambodia

It is not really part of the American lifestyle to take a year or so off and go backpacking around the world.  However, as my friends would tell you I am not one to do what is expected of me.  So, I bought the most insane around the world ticket and ended up in places I never dreamed of going.  Out of 13 countries the one that made the most drastic impression on me was Cambodia.  A country I knew nothing about except that it was somewhere in Southeast Asia.  In Thailand, I met the most amazing travel buddy.  A young lady from India who is now living in Japan and had never set out into the world on her own.  In Bankok, we both purchased visas and a bus ticket to Siem Reip, Cambodia.

The road to Siem Reap

As we were crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia the border crossing gaurds gave my friend a very difficult time.  Apparently, if you are from India or Bangladesh you need to not only purchase a visa to enter Cambodia but also a visa to reenter Thailand before you even leave.  The border itself is a kilometer or so in length and is quite hectic.  REMINDER: pack light and bring lots of water.  On the other side of the border we had to hop onto a minibus for the remainder of our 7 hour journey.  A young Cambodian gentlemen informed us that the bus was old as they could not afford to buy new ones.  Also that the airconditioning was prone to shut on and off as we hit bumps in the road.

I have never seen a road like this in my  life!  The dust was so thick the driver could only see a few feet in front of the bus window.  There were so many  potholes that it was impossible to avoid them but rather pick the smallest one to run over.  Bridges were only one lane and appeared to be held together by a few pieces of wood and a couple of nails.  The minibus barely fit and when I saw a huge doubledecker cross over I felt there was no way it would make it.  The road was dangerous as the visiblity was bad and locals were riding their motorcycles, bikes and tractors along it.  As we passed trough small villages I was so overwhelmed by the amount of rubbish piled in the front of family dwellings. 

A face at Bayon Temple

In the late evening, the dust began to thin and the once dirt road changed to pavement.  We entered the upscale section of the city of Siem Reip.  I could not believe it-a stretch of about 10 five star hotels.  The bus driver dropped us at a guest house that looked unaffordable for my backpacker budget.  It turned out to be really inexpensive-only $2 US dollars a night for shared accomodation with bath.  In the city you can hire transportation by the day:  motorbike with driver $8US, tuktuk $9US and shared taxi with a/c $10US.  We took a shared taxi in order to explore the
ancient wonders for which Siem Reip was known.  First stop was the fortified city of Angkor Thom, more than 10 sq km in extent, built in the 12th century.  Inside the walls there were magnificent structures such as the faces of the Bayon temple and the 350-m long wall of elephants.  The most memorable part of Angkor Thom was not the sites but rather what we referred to as the ‘sacred forest’.  On a trail behind the elephant wall we encountered several local children who spoke very good English.  For a small fee they led us through the forest where 1000’s of buddhist monks were praying, sleeping and bathing.  This place is very hidden and must remain this way for future generations.

Angkor Wat

The last stop was one of the ancient wonders of the world-Angkor Wat.  This architectual marvel was built by Suryavarman II (r. 1112-52) for use as his funerary temple.  The most impressive structure is the central tower rising 55 m above ground.  There are only two ways up to the top and both will leave you shaking in your boots.  If you are not afraid of heights-take the plunge-and climb the steps with no railing!  The veiw is worth the effort.  I was informed by locals that I should wait until sunset to get the best photo of the temple complex.  The funny thing was the sun does not set near Angkor Wat but behind the forest across the street.  Supposedly, there is another temple down the road from the entrance where hundreds gather to capture the ultimate shot. 

It was not the sites that left an impression on me but rather the Cambodian people.  The most memborable experience was on the local bus from Siem Reip to the capital city, Phnom Phen.  Most tourists take the most comfortable route to the capital which is either by a/c bus ($6 US) or by speed boat over Tonle Sap Lake ($25 US).  However, they don’t know what kind a great time they could have taking the local non a/c bus ($6 US).  We only got on this bus because there was no space for us anywhere else.  I realized in my seven hour bus ride just how sincere and unique the local people were.  The bus stopped along the way at various places where I saw everything being sold from fried tarantula to fried sea turtle.  However, other unfamiliar dishes were being offered such as lotus flower and stuffed bamboo shoots. 

Wall reliefs at Angkor Wat

I would never have bought these items myself but was offered a taste by the Cambodians sitting next to me on the bus.  I could not believe that people in a poor non-English speaking country would offer me something out of the kindness of their heart.  They were offended when we tried to give them money for their hospitality.  Cambodia was all I had imagined and much more……..

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