Our trip from Sihanoukville, Cambodia into Thailand went pretty much how we predicted. Chaos and scams. We have yet to do a land crossing that hasn’t been ridiculous, so we were prepared. We took a tuk-tuk from the beach to the bus office, where we almost forgot our food bag (and discovered the rat from our previous accommodation had nibbled through it). Luckily, I spotted it out the window of the bus before we left. This is an important bag. The places the buses let you out for breaks tend to be over-priced and often not very clean. We always have snacks.
We had booked the bus to Koh Kong (on the Cambodia side of the border), but were actually able to take it all the way to the border, about 10 minutes further away. This saved us a couple of dollars and was much more convenient than finding a tuk-tuk (who will over-charge because they are the only other option). Having reached the border, we disembarked with all the other passengers, grabbed our bags and walked through the scorching sun to the departures and arrival building. This is where we encountered probably the biggest scam of our trip. The line for departures was only about 20 people deep when we arrived. So we stood in the sun and waited. And waited. And waited. The line barely moved. And this is why: There are a bunch of Cambodian guys who offer to take your passport for as much as $7 each and get the exit stamp for you. They are not official workers, just guys in polos and jeans. But what they can do, which we could not, is cut to the front of the line and pay off the guys behind the counter to stamp the passport faster. This just makes it even slower for the rest of us. Another reason the legitimate line is slow: they take your fingerprints. I’d like to point out here that they don’t take your fingerprints when you enter the country and Thailand doesn’t either across the border. And I have NEVER been finger-printed in my entire life. So what are they going to do with my fingerprints? Absolutely nothing. I purposefully put my fingers a bit sideways so they couldn’t have my full print. So there Cambodia. AND, the people who paid the $7 to expedite the stamp, they weren’t finger-printed either. After an hour of waiting, we finally got our stamp and were able to exit the country. And by that I mean, walk 100 meters down a dirt road to the Thailand arrivals counter, where it took less than 10 minutes to enter the country. No questions asked. Literally, none.
After all that, we were pleasantly surprised by our awaiting transport. We hopped in a spacious and air-conditioned minibus for the hour trip to Trat, where we planned to stay two nights before continuing onto Bangkok.
Trat is a jumping off point for some Thai islands, but it appears its glory days have ended. It used to get a lot more tourists, who had to stay over in Trat before continuing on after their trips to the islands. With more bus and boat options, you no longer have to spend so much time there and it appears not too many people do. We were only there to break up the 12 hour bus ride to Bangkok. It is a cool place though, small streets and many old buildings.
We spent that afternoon wandering around the city. They have an interesting short walkway along the water, complete with fire hose stations. The next day we went to the Trat Museum, which had loads of English signs, but not another soul besides us and the ticket lady. We also saw a wat or two. With decent wifi, we did a lot of research and caught up on blogging that night.
The next morning we took the bus to Bangkok. We stayed at the same place we have stayed at the past few times we were there. This was our fourth trip to Bangkok and were only coming to catch a cheap flight to Myanmar. We spent one day wandering around Chinatown, which was in full swing as this was just before their New Year.
That evening, Riki ordered the sauteed morning glory at one of our favorite cheap places. Unfortunately, his morning glory also came with two small pink worm-like bugs. When we showed the waitress, she squealed and jumped back. Good to know this is not a normal thing. She took 10 baht off our bill, a bargain, as lots of people actually pay to eat bugs in Bangkok.
Our last day in Bangkok we had an appointment to get our teeth cleaned (~$35 each), bought some more malaria medicine, did a little shopping and discovered our hotel had just built a pool. Score!
I almost forget we even went to Battambang, as I am about two weeks behind with my blogging. I have an excuse though. We had no wifi for an entire week.
Our trip from Siem Reap to Battambang, the second most populous city in Cambodia took about 4 hours. It was relatively uneventful, except for when we stopped halfway through for a break, got off the bus with everyone else and the bus drove off. It took quite awhile to return and we were a bit worried for our bags. Scams are notorious in Cambodia and you never really know what is normal or if you are being conned. Eventually the bus returned, our bags were intact and we continued on our way.
While having a late lunch in Battambang, we ran into a Dutch/English couple who invited us to join them the following day for a tuk-tuk tour of some the sites around town. Turns out we had spoken in Siem Reap about e-bikes a few days before, but neither of us could place why we looked familiar until later.
Battambang has some French colonial architecture, a bit reminiscent of New Orleans. Low buildings and small streets along the river are semi-filled with shops, restaurants and hotels. Many were shuttered and we couldn’t tell if they were just closed or empty. There is not a whole lot to do, but we met up for our tuk-tuk tour the next afternoon ready for anything.
And I was pleasantly surprised. Our first stop was a bamboo train, which I had read was overrated, touristy and a waste of time. You have to take what you read online with a grain of salt. Usually the people who review either love or hate something, not so much in between. I review almost everything we do, whether good, bad or just ok. I really liked the train. It is expensive ($5 each) and weird and at the end they drop you off for 20-30 minutes and you are bombarded by young girls selling bracelets. But along the way, you bounce around on bamboo slats through some decent scenery. And when you meet someone coming the other way, you have a bit of a chicken fight. There were four of us, so we won a few, as it seems the larger groups get to continue. The others have to remove the bamboo platform and the two axles with wheels and reassemble when the other train passes. The wheels are fueled by a small, noisy motor at the back of the platform. It was fun. And at the end, before we turned around to go back to the start, while Riki was off taking pictures, I befriended some small girls, despite not buying any of their bracelets.
Our next stop was Phnom Sampeu and the killing cave. We declined the offer of a moto ride to the top and walked up the steep road instead. The cave is where the Khmer Rouge threw people over the edge to a mass grave after bludgeoning them to death. There is a small shrine of skulls and bones, but not much info otherwise. There is also a monastery up there too, which has a nice breeze and a good view of the surrounding flat area.
At the base of Phnom Sampeu is a tall non-descript cave. Easily missed most of the day, but just before sunset, millions of bats swarm out of the cave into the air. We sat around with a bunch of other tourists and waited for this spectacle. And we were not disappointed (except for maybe being peed on a number of times from above). The bats (perhaps a million or more we were told) streamed out of the cave in a thick line of black spots overhead. They swerved left and right and became a unified beast. After about 10 minutes of watching them emerge, our tuk-tuk driver took us to an open area where we could see much further and how they fly in unison and create a long ribbon over the skyline. It was awesome.
The next day we got on yet another bus, headed for the coast. But with a transfer in Phnom Penh (6 hours) where we had been assured that we would be dropped at a place where we could buy another ticket on another bus with the same company. Not the case. But we were only a bit surprised. So after some confusing hand-gesturing conversations, we managed to get a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus office, but not before trying to drop us at a closer office of a different company (one we had heard terrible things about). Luckily, there were seats on the next bus and we only had to wait an hour before the next bus left.
Another six hours later, we arrived in Sihanoukville. We had arranged to stay on an island half an hour away by boat, but could not go until the next morning. So we holed up in a decent looking hotel for the night, bought some supplies and did some last minute emails before going off grid.
Ko Ta Kiev is not the most popular island to visit out of Sihanoukville. And that is why we went. Ko Rong is more of a party place, way over-priced and not the kind of beach time we desired. We booked four nights at Coral Beach on Ko Ta Kiev, but liked it so much, we stayed for seven. There is no power on the island, only a generator to power a few lights in the evening. And no wifi. Hence, I am way behind on the blogging.
We spent the next week reading whatever English books I could find, lounging in hammocks, swimming in the flat clear water, and playing cards. There is a bamboo platform, not unlike the train that you can pull out into the water and jump into deeper, equally clear water. That and playing frisbee were the extent of our exercise for the week. And a few walks to meet up with the same couple from Battambang who had followed us to the island and to the absinthe distillery where they had three cuddly kittens.
We ate amazing fresh food, sometimes never leaving our little beach all day. Our bungalow was $20 a night, had no power, was enclosed on three sides and faced the water. Oh, and we had a huge round bed. I have seen numerous mattresses carried around on motorbikes and trucks here. None have been round. Where they got these is a mystery. Custom sheets no doubt. We loved it, despite the cold bucket shower and the sand in everything. We even had a night visitor, but a good one. One of the young cats slept by my pillow outside the mosquito net a few nights. Riki didn’t even mind, a few sniffles to keep away any other unwanted guests is a small price to pay.
We had $21 cash left and we realized we had to leave. It was tough, but we went back to the mainland to hang out for a few more days of beach time before our visas ran out.
Unfortunately, the guesthouses in Otres were pretty booked up and we settled on a place on the beach for $12, which turned out to be infested with rats, roaches and termites. The worst place we have stayed on our whole trip. Luckily, we found a great pizza place and moved to another guesthouse down the road.
We ate pizza every night and even caught their quiz night. Proudly, I must say, we won two rounds (of the small groups), and thus two rounds of beer. We stayed longer in Otres than we thought, but were able to correct Riki’s Myanmar visa (as he had been classified as female) and research a lot for our next leg.
I managed to get my first sunburn on our last day, despite being in the shade all day. Must have been the glare off the water. We packed up and prepared for our border crossing to Thailand on the very last day of our Cambodian visa.
Our dismay at the number of tourists at Ta Prohm (Tombraider location) the day before prompted a 5 am start on our second day visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park. We hopped on our e-bikes and headed in the pitch dark to the site. We weren’t the first to arrive, but the two British girls we encountered at the entrance with their slumbering tuk-tuk driver had been waiting for an hour. They ventured in with us, just as the sky was starting to lighten. We didn’t see them again. It was a bit too dark when we first arrived but we waved flashlights at some interesting parts, which made for some cool photos. Large strangler figs and silk cotton trees devour the stones, as this temple has been left largely to show the state it was “discovered” in.
It is one of the most popular temples after Angkor Wat, probably because of its immense size and maze of corridors, blocked and open. And maybe because of the fame brought from Angelina Jolie’s part in Tombraider. In many places, additional support beams and posts have been added for stability and safety. It was a completely different feeling wandering the ruins without the hordes of tour groups snapping photos and being overly loud. I was even able to spot the “stegasaurus” bas-relief, though it took me 40 minutes to locate. Who knows if they had found bones from dinosaurs, or just made up this imaginary creature. It does look remarkably like a stegasaurus, though the head is more boar-like. We spent about two hours here and I only ran into Riki once, to show him my favorite spot. Turns out it was one of his too, also discovered sometime that morning. Then the tour groups started showing up and we bolted for the next temple.
Pre Rup is a temple-mountain, with loads of laterite, an iron-rich clay used to make many blocks here. It has a dimpled finish though and was thus often finished in stucco or stone. The temple was very tall and we were able to see out over the trees, though all you saw was more trees, and a tiny bit of East Mebon (the temple after the next one). The laterite walls here were stacked in an odd arrangement to me. Rather than overlapping like bricks, they were stacked in a grid. One directly on top of the other, so the joints in the walls were straight vertical. Something that we learned in school was not stable, but since these are still standing, there must be some trick to it. Or they were reconstructed incorrectly?
At this point we were a bit worried about the life left in our e-bike batteries, but we decided to risk it and head out 4 km to the east (we were told the bikes could go 40 kms before dying and weren’t sure how far the next charging station was).
I’m very glad we made it out there, as this turned out to be one of my favorite temples. Banteay Samre is a bit isolated and doesn’t receive as many tourists as the other temples. It has tall concentric laterite walls enclosing a tight cluster in the central sanctuary. It has been completely restored and has so many layers and a moat-like interior. Despite following a Spanish tour around trying to figure out what was going on, my Spanish is not good enough to discern if it was a moat or just a raised temple. Either way, it was unique to what we had seen so far.
We backtracked the 4 km to East Mebon, the top of which we had viewed earlier from Pre Rup. East Mebon also appears raised, but actually it was surrounded by water, but is no longer, thus giving the illusion of a temple-mountain, though it is not. A large draw for this temple is the elephants placed on all corners. One is currently being restored, so they are in various states of completeness. There were also some incredible lintels at the top, one showing a monster eating an elephant. This temple also was largely constructed with bricks, unlike many we have seen. The bricks are heavily pitted, presumably to help decorative stucco adhere, though it is long gone.
Next stop, Ta Som, just to the north. This is a smaller temple, where many of the lintels have been left displayed on the ground rather than in their original positions. It has a huge tree growing over its east gate, which is a fabulous sight, but ominous, as when these trees ultimately die, they often leave little stability left for the stones, which can crumble.
Along the north side of the park is Neak Pean, a completely different type of temple. This one is basically a crucifix of ponds surrounding a small monument. We didn’t spend much time here as most of the area has been cordoned off and many people were already crowding the small viewing area.
Preah Khan is a huge complex, possibly a former Buddhist monastery. We dropped our e-bikes outside at a charging point and headed in for about an hour and half, hoping that would be enough charge to get us all the way back to Siem Reap, where we had to return the bikes. Preah Khan is a maze of rubble and cleared areas, easy to get lost in. A unique round-columned two-storied structure, of unknown use is one of the highlights at this complex. There are some incredible hidden niches filled with carvings that can only be seen if you know what to look for, or get lost, as I did.
With our bikes charged, we headed back south to Angkor Wat to check out the tower, which was closed the first night we visited and the bas-reliefs that we had not had time to see. The views from the top as the sun was lowering in the sky were great. And we watched as monkeys left the forest and climbed onto the roofs of the outer galleries. Using our guide book, we followed a path around the bas-reliefs depicting all sorts of stories, including victories, losses, heaven and hell. We left before sunset as we had been gone 13 hours and were exhausted from climbing over rocks all day.
Needless to say, we needed another rest day, physically and mentally. Too many temples can be overwhelming, especially when you are too tired to realize the uniqueness of each. We sent out our laundry (except for socks), caught up on some blogging/pictures and went for a walk to find an information center and prints of the layouts of temples (both of which we failed to locate).
LAST DAY – MORE ROCKS
Our final day, we arranged for a tuk-tuk ($40 all day) to pick us up at 6:30 am. He was about 15 minutes late, but we didn’t think much of it as he was good-natured and spoke English pretty well. However, not long into our drive, we realized something was definitely wrong with his bike. We were going at a snail’s pace, being passed by all the other tuk-tuks, even those crowded with fat tourists. We had left early to try to avoid the crowds and it was clear we weren’t going to be as early as we would have liked. We were headed to Banteay Srei, some 25 km from the other monuments. We managed to arrive before most of the big tour groups and walked around the relatively small temple with only a handful of other people. This temple is miniature compared to the others and made of pink sandstone. It also has a plethora of exquisite carvings, everywhere. I shadowed an Engligh speaking tour guide as he explained the details, before finding Riki just as numerous giant tour buses arrived.
Our last stop was Beng Mealea, some 40 km from the Angkor temples, but in the same direction as we had already travelled. Unfortunately, our slow tuk-tuk was not the only problem. When our driver pulled over to buy water for the slightly smoking motorbike, he also asked for directions. He’d never been there. Great. It took over an hour, with some very nervous moments by our driver, where he obviously didn’t know if we were going the right way, but we eventually made it. This temple is on private property and not included in the three-day pass we had bought for the other temples. We had to pay an additional $5 (did I mention everything is in dollars here) to enter, but it was definitely worth it. This temple is one Riki had shown me months and months ago as one he wanted to visit. He knew it would be harder to visit, but the pictures were amazing. We almost decided not to go, as the $40 for the tuk-tuk is a big hit in our budget. But that doubt was gone pretty much as soon we arrived. Because its much further than the other temples, not many people make the journey, though that appears to be changing as the roads get better. We ate our pb&j at the entrance and ventured into the un-restored and ruinous temple.
Wooden walkways have been added to make it easier for tourists to clamber over the rocks, which are everywhere. The central sanctuary is literally a pile of rubble. Riki ventured to the top and could see stones with intricate carvings in the pile. You can still climb over many rocks, but some areas have been deemed unsafe and the rangers in the temple will yell at you if you enter one of those areas (not a personal experience we had, but one we witnessed). We spent almost three hours here and the pictures really do a better job explaining than I could.
We had a long, slow, bumpy and dusty ride back, with a few trips to splash more water on the motorbike. Riki made a lot of little friends along the way. We rewarded ourselves with a $2 fish massage (including free beer) and bought our bus tickets to Battambang for the next day.
We left Banlung in a standard minibus, cramped and speeding down the road, in hopes of meeting our connection in Stung Trang, which should have been waiting on the side of the road for us. Well it wasn’t waiting, but it showed up a few minutes after we pulled over at a deserted intersection. We switched to the empty minibus, expecting the worst, to be put in a packed vehicle for the next 6-8 hours. But we were wrong and the rest of our trip to Siem Reap involved only 5 other people and few stops. Riki was even able to lie down in the back seat and nap. A far cry from our normal bus trips. We even arrived after only 5 hours.
We checked into our guesthouse, a recommendation from an American from Kansas we met at the crater lake in Banlung. A steal at $7 a night, but pretty much deserted as far as we could tell. That night we walked to the central market and tried to get our bearings. We had heard so many different opinions about what to do here and the order to do it in that we were a bit overwhelmed and hoped to meet some people who could offer more insight. We were delighted to find 50 cent draft beers and an American/Swiss couple who had done a quick one day tour of the temples, a bit too speedy for our liking.
The next day, we wandered Siem Reap and bought provisions for the upcoming marathon of temple-viewing. We had heard food near the temples was expensive and it was best to bring your own. Fortunately, we found a bakery and a giant grocery store (not a common sight here). Riki was even able to stock up on Goldfish, and if you know Riki, that is heaven on earth for him.
There are a few options for tickets to see the temples. You can get a one day ($20), three day ($40), or seven day pass (all of which involve getting your picture taken and printed on a paper card). They also all allow you to buy the day before, at 5 pm and enter for free to see the sunset, not counting as one of your days. We hired a tuk-tuk and for an astronomical $7 he agreed to take us to pick up our tickets, watch the sunset at Angkor Wat and bring us back. Angkor Wat is not highly frequented for its sunsets. Most people go there for the sunrise, as you can get a good silhouette as the sun rises behind the temples. So when we arrived at Angkor Wat, the tuk-tuk driver was a little confused why we wanted to stay there the whole time and not continue on to the hill where most people watch the sunset. But this turned out to be the first of a long list of good decisions we made this week. There were not very many people and the crowd thinned rapidly as the tour groups were ushered to the sunset hill. We were too late to climb the tower, but we wandered through the massive complex until we were forced to leave because it was closing. Dilly-dallying the whole way, we managed to be some of the last few to leave and Riki was able to snap some shots with little to no people in them (a rare thing we discovered).
The next morning at 5 am, we took our rented bikes ($2 each) and rode about 40 minutes into the park. It was pretty chilly and very dark, though the bikes had lights that were supposed to turn on when you started going fast enough. Riki’s worked and mine worked occassionally if you kicked it hard enough or went over the right kind of bump. Though commonly just called Angkor, the archaeological park is home to many many temples, some huge, most not. The Khmer kings a thousand plus years ago would each build a new capital, but not that far from the old ones. The temple part was the only part built of stone. The surrounding city was built of wood and thus did not stand the test of time. Consequently, the remaining stone temples are a bit spread out, with lots of walls, gates and towers remaining. It is possible to reach some on bikes comfortably, but the rest are a bit far and require a tuk-tuk, private car, or as we discovered, an e-bike.
The first temple we reached was Bayon, about 45 minutes before sunrise. The place was deserted and we clamored with our flashlights into the maze of stone. We had counted on being alone and only saw a quiet couple appear just as the sun was rising over the many giant stone faces of Bayon. The sun slowly changed the faces from purple to orange as it rose higher in the sky.
Like many of the temples we were to encounter, this one had never been fully completed. For almost an hour I followed the guide we had bought and read about the incredible bas-reliefs depicted in every corner of the temple. Incredible chiseled images of war and day-to-day life lined the walls, some twenty feet tall. And then, just as other people started showing up, having already seen the sun rise at Angkor, I was studying a particularly gruesome image of people being eaten by alligators and a tiger engulfing a man and engorging his claws into his stomach, I was startled by a movement to my right. An agile monkey (as if they aren’t all agile) scampered up the wall and sat right above the scene I was studying.
And there were a lot more, coincidentally arriving just as the tour buses arrived from Angkor Wat. And that was our cue to move on. This was our second good decision. The temple complexes have become even more popular, with so many tourists that it can be overwhelming, especially when visiting a place that was meant to be pretty serene. Our itinerary became based on avoiding the crowds as much as possible, something I highly advise to future visitors.
Our second stop was Baphoun, just north of Bayon. It is a largely restored 11th century pyramid with a 16th century giant reclining Buddha at its west wall. Apparently, the very top tower was dismantled to make this Buddha, as they couldn’t find any of the top pieces when it was being restored. Many of the temples have been restored in the past hundred years or so when a French group re-discovered the area and started putting resources together to reassemble the temples. Some temples have been left largely in their dilapidated conditions, either because of lack of funds or just to show the state they were discovered in.
The tour groups started showing up and we high-tailed it a little further north to the Terrace of the Leper King. This 20 foot tall terrace flanked the entrance to a Royal Palace and had two sets of carved walls, one inner and one outer. I overheard a guide tell his group it was because they wanted to expand the terrace, so they just built another wall further out and filled in the gap. It was later excavated so you can walk between the two walls and see both sets of carvings.
We decided not to hire a guide for any of our three days and bought a book ahead of time to read up and be our own guides (see pic above). This didn’t keep me from following around the English speaking guides I came across though. I love the elephants with the supporting tusks and the five-headed horse. The Terrace of the Elephants, flanking the other side of the entrance, surprisingly had less awesome elephant carvings than that of the Leper King terrace.
Next stop, Preah Pithu Group, oddly named Temples T, U, V, X and Y. These were a bit off the main route, almost deserted and really cool. I don’t think much is known about them, otherwise they would have better names.
We continued east, to guess what, the East Gate, or Victory Gate. Here, we got off our bikes and walked them up the dirt wall to the path at the top, where we rode south to the next gate, the Gate of the Dead. Apparently, if you came back from fighting your enemies and had won, you could come through the Victory Gate. If you had lost, you had to hang your head and come through the Gate of the Dead. Both were pretty incredible and remarkably similar for having such different purposes, in my opinion.
Just outside the gates of Angkor Thom (which houses the aforementioned temples), we stopped briefly at two temples that have undergone extensive reconstruction. Thommanom was redone in the 1960’s and has interesting concrete ceilings.
Ta Keo is being re-done by a Chinese organization. We didn’t even climb up this one. The reconstruction had too much smooth concrete, which made it unappealing to us.
This next one was my favorite temple of the day, though second favorite experience (after the sunrise at Bayon). North of Ta Keo along a sandy overgrown path is Ta Nei. It is not on the main route and is largely in its natural decay. The central area is cluttered with piles of stones and the outside is not much different. We sat and ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and encountered a guy and his guide looking for a lost brown wallet, no luck unfortunately. Probably one of the worst temples to lose something that would just blend right in or get stuck between the rubble.
Ta Prohm is known for being the place that Tombraider was filmed and it is HUGE. We arrived and immediately encountered dozens of tour groups. Having looked forward to this one because of its overgrowth and protruding trees, I gave it my best shot and sped for the far side, hoping it would be less crowded. It wasn’t and I made an executive decision that we would have to come back the next day before the crowds arrived. At this point, I had lost Riki (very easy when he is off photographing things). I headed for our meeting point and sketched until he came to the same realization as I had and returned, overwhelmed by all the people getting in the way of his pictures. Third good decision.
Right down the road is Banteay Kdei. There were far fewer people, lots of lichen and is much smaller. A good one to end on as the view from across the road is nice out over the Srah Srang – a huge royal bath.
We returned almost 12 hours after we had left, exhausted and not sunburned. We took the next day off to do some shopping and catch up on some blogging. We also did some more research on the temples and rented e-bikes ($10/day), which are essentially electronic scooters with pedals that you aren’t supposed to use because it wastes more battery. Seemed backwards to me, but it was cheaper and less hassle than having a tuk-tuk driver hurrying us along all day. Fourth good decision.