Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ancient Greats: Angkor Wat

For us, the journey to Angkor Wat was a long bus ride from Bangkok. The border crossing to Cambodia is a very frustrating place where corruption is rampant -- even though we had taken the time to get e-visas ahead of time, which the government encourages to expedite border crossing. Since we were on a bus with other tourists which (although we initially were told it did) did not check that everyone had a visa prior to leaving Bangkok, we had to stop at a visa office just on the Thai side of the border for people to get Cambodian visas on the spot. Then we drove to the Thailand exit office and received a stamp in our passports, and returned to the bus. When we arrived at the Cambodian entry office, there was a long line of people waiting outside the entrance which I understand is characteristic. There was no signage to explain what we were waiting for and we never determined whether there was actually a separate e-visa line or not. After a short while of standing in the line with everyone wilting under the heat and humidity, we started to come under pressure of a different sort: the bus driver and some of the passengers were suggesting that we each give 100 Thai baht ($3) and our passport to one of the men hanging around the office who promised to return the passports with a Cambodian entry stamp in 10 minutes, while we waited on board the bus. It wasn't something I wanted to do, but because the group did we were left without a choice. That actually did work out as promised, but Diego had happened to use his Spanish passport to enter and exit Thailand and had gotten the Cambodian visa in his Argentine passport. The Cambodian side insisted that they wouldn't allow him to enter the country without a Thai exit stamp in the same passport and he was forced to go back to the visa office in Thailand and get a second visa in his Spanish passport before returning to the Cambodian office where we were all waiting. Just when we thought we could finally leave, our bus driver stopped and negotiated with a Cambodian police officer, to whom we apparently had to pay another bribe in order to pass into the country. It really made me feel bad to see a government that is clearly trying to fix this system be in such a counterproductive state when it actually gets to the level of the people. Beyond not wanting to be taken advantage of on a personal level, I don't like supporting corruption, but it seems nearly impossible to enter Cambodia without doing so.

On the way I wondered if it was worth all that hassle, but once we finally got to Siem Reap and saw the temples I understood their enchantment. Built at the height of Angkorian civilization hundreds of years ago, the structures are truly an architectural feat and it's impossible not to marvel at the sophistication their society must have possessed. Although the centerpiece Angkor Wat is the most famous and maybe most impressive, we spent two mornings moving around by tuk-tuk as there are dozens of sites worth visiting in the Angkor Archeological Park. In addition to temples, we saw the stone remnants of libraries, hospitals, living spaces, and many walls, bridges, stairs and moats to protect each location. It was really an amazing experience to literally step into a different world.

We also saw many living things, including chickens, dogs, monkeys, cows, elephants, and people, all of whom looked skinny. Diego even said he understood why Angelina Jolie couldn't stop herself from adopting kids when she spent time in the area! In all seriousness, we could both see and hear from locals that the standard of living for most is low, and many NGOs have appeared in Siem Reap, likely born out of its heavy tourism. Unfortunately we heard that almost all of them are not having the desired effect.

In a few days in Siem Reap, we found fun things to do when we weren't looking at temples using TripAdvisor. In Asia, we have also started using primarily TripAdvisor to find the best budget inns, guesthouses, and small hotels to stay at because everything is so affordable; in the rest of the world, we're using HostelBookers. We visited Siem Reap's (and possibly Cambodia's) only mini golf course, which was quite small but had pretty good replicas of the major temples! We went to the Old Market, where I got an elephant purse! We found a nice local vegetarian restaurant! We saw 1000 buddhas at the Angkor National Museum!

We even visited a professional when our feet were weary from walking in the dusty ruins -- Dr. Fish, a practitioner recommended to us by the locals. Commonly called "fish spa", this involves sitting with your feet in a tank of fish that gently eat your dead skin, which is not really a massage but makes your feet feel sort of good, after you get over feeling tickled and weird. It was a little scary at first, especially since Diego made me put my feet in before he would, but we actually enjoyed it and would recommend that visitors try it once. Have any readers done this before? Leave a comment!

A highlight of our time in Cambodia was a street food tour we arranged through the Seven Candles Guesthouse, where a local resident with good knowledge of food culture and history took us around in a tuk-tuk and introduced us to authentic street food, the only food outside the home many Cambodians eat since a sit-down restaurant has a higher price range. It was interesting and tasty eating rice flour balls, assembling crepe and vegetable bites with our hands, and waiting for banana pancake rolls to cool before we could enjoy them. Maybe our favorite part about street food is its transparency; it is more fun to see your food made hot in front of you! It was also a great opportunity to learn more about daily life in this part of the world, and our guide even told us stories about smuggling Cambodians across the border to Thailand to work. We found out he had a 3-day old baby at home but was happy to take a break and come out to eat and talk with us! Highly recommended.


  1. That is unbelievably beautiful, and how awesome that you played mini golf! I keep hinting to Michael that we should go on some trips.

    1. Thanks Michelle! It's always fun to do little nostalgic things like that :) We went to Disneyland and California Adventure parks on a long weekend last year and it was unexpectedly SO much fun! Maybe a good way to start taking some trips? ;)