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Published: October 24th 2006
After Jen left, I decided I needed some time alone, in a totally foreign place, to clear my head and gain a sense of perspective. Cambodia was an impulsive but inspired choice, with the vague plan being to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Stopping briefly at the university to arrange next term's enrolment, I set my room in order and then packed quickly. Photocopying the relevant sections from my LP guide and packing only the bare essentials, (half-filling my day-pack for almost a week away), I was soon ready to set off. It was with a strong sense of relief that I left Rangsit behind the next morning, relishing the open road before me and the week ahead. Day One
Catching a bus to the border town of Aranyaprathet, I shared a hairy motor-cycle taxi ride to the border-post with Koichi, a friendly Japanese backpacker I later bumped into a few times in Siem Reap. As I made my way through the confusing and convoluted set-up of the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border, I was approached numerous times by touts offering to process my Cambodian visa for me. Sometimes they were upfront about it, explaining they'd charge a small fee but
it would save me lots of time. Other times they tried to insist that I had no choice but to use their services, looking officious and demanding to see my passport. Each time I refused with a smile, and finally arrived at the official visa office after clearing Thai customs. A sign above the window clearly stated that a tourist visa cost US$20, but when I filled out the form and stapled a passport photo to it, the official at the window demanded 1000 baht instead, (about US$25). A minor scam, but I was in no mood to line their pockets like this.
"The sign here says 20 US dollars, I want to pay in US dollars please", I replied equably.
"No, no, noone can pay in US dollars today!", the man replied irritably, scratching at a sweaty armpit. "Everyone is paying in baht! You have to pay in baht too!".
"Then why does the sign still say 20 US dollars?" I asked. "I have my 20 dollar bill here, I'm just going to pay in US dollars." And I handed him my form and $20.
"Not possible," the official replied and then just sat and
glared at me, leaving my application form sitting on the desk in front of him, untouched. This lasted for perhaps a minute, with him glaring at me in an obvious attempt to intimidate and me waiting as patiently as I could. Finally, he gathered up my papers, pointlessly reshuffling them in his hands, and said in a conciliatory tone, "Ok, you can pay in dollars... But you have to pay a 100 baht processing fee. Everyone has to pay this. There is no exception."
Again I refused, pointing out that the sign above our heads clearly stated a tourist visa cost US$20 only. And again we had to go through the stand-and-glare routine, during which I began to smile back at him. This seemed to irritate him even more. Snatching up my papers angrily, he tried one last time. "Understand: if you do not pay this processing fee, your visa will take 3 or 4 hours to approve... Do you understand what I am saying to you?"
"Not a problem, I have more time than money", I replied happily, realising it was true. He responded by gesturing wildly at the bank of seats behind me. Stabbing a finger
at the front couple of rows, which were taken up by other waiting tourists, he told me "This is where the people who pay in baht can sit!" Then, pointing to the empty seats right at the back, "And that's where you
have to sit! You will be waiting there a long time!"
I couldn't help smiling at this absurdity but tried to thank him politely anyway. Wandering over to the nearby toilet, I emerged a few minutes later, pulled a book from my bag and started walking to the seats, (near the back, as directed!), to settle in for my long wait. Luckily, I happened to glance across at the visa window as I did so, only to see my passport sitting on the counter. Leafing quickly through it, I laughed out loud to find my visa stuck in, stamped and approved already! It had taken all of five minutes. =) Smiling my thanks to the official at the window, who nodded reluctantly back, I moved on through customs & immigration and found a mini-van headed along the bone-jarring dirt road to Siem Reap. They assured me they weren't affiliated with any particular guest-house, and that they would
drop us all in the centre of the backpacker area so we could stay at the guesthouse of our choice.
As I'd half expected though, we arrived in Siem Reap later than scheduled, after numerous (and totally unnecessary) delays. At this point, they explained that Siem Reap was "very dangerous" at night, many "bad people" around, and that they were concerned for our safety. For this reason, they were going to take us to a very "nice and safe" guesthouse they just happened to know about. =P Fortuitously (for me at least), we clipped the rear bumper of the car in front of us shortly afterwards, before they'd had a chance to drive us too far from the centre of town. When they stopped to argue angrily with the other driver, I used the opportunity to jump down from the bus, brushing aside their insistent protests, and find a motorcycle taxi to the town centre. Wandering around for about 20 minutes, finding my bearings, I finally located the guesthouse I'd settled on from the LP guide and checked into a room, with a sense of weary accomplishment.
It was at this guesthouse that I met Map
, (who first
introduced himself as "Fat Man!"), a genial and genuinely decent guy who worked at the guesthouse some days, and as a guide on others. He offered his services for the next day, to take me round some of the temples on the back of his motorbike. When I asked him how well he knew the temples, to gauge what sort of a guide he might be, he told me "I know the temples very well sir!" Pausing for a second, he scratched his chin thoughtfully and then qualified that claim somewhat, "I just don't know any of the history..." How I could resist honesty like that? =P I agreed to meet him at 5am the next morning, to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat - something I'd wanted to do for a long, long time. Day Two
Riding through the thick jungle surrounding Angkor Wat, in the pre-dawn darkness, one is treated to an atmospheric introduction to this amazing area. I felt the anticipation build and build as we made our way deeper into the reserve, craning my neck and squinting at the dark jungle silhouettes to try and catch my first glimpse of the temple towers. Perhaps
I'd read too much about the temple and listened to too many people raving about it, but I have to admit that my first impression when I finally saw Angkor Wat was a sense of vague disappointment. I remember thinking at the time This is it?... This is the world-famous Angkor Wat?!
Map had suggested a good spot to watch the sunrise from, so I made my way there immediately, threading through the excited crowds of Japanese tour groups, (an over-dressed riot of flashing cameras and V-for-victory poses). Standing at the edge of the pool to the left of Angkor Wat's causeway, watching as the first hints of colour & light seeped slowly into the sky, my initial sense of disappointment began to fade and I was able to appreciate the temple & its grounds more. Still, the feelings that Angkor Wat inspired in me were nothing close to those I experienced on seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time (Lost for words before the Taj Mahal
Leaving before the sun had actually risen, I beat the tourist hordes on to my next stop of the day - the walled city of Angkor Thom. In fact, I had the Bayon, an atmospheric jumble
Angkor Wat bas-relief: a scene from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk
An interesting creation story from the Hindu tradition, involving the cooperation of gods & demons to churn the cosmic sea (Ocean of Milk).
of grey stone in the middle of a misty clearing, almost entirely to myself. This heightened the sense of exploration and discovery enormously, and I felt like a modern-day Indiana Jones as I clambered around the site, impassively watched by the 216 massive carved-stone faces the Bayon is famous for. Stumbling across a group of young Japanese tourists at one point, I was amused to see that they had allowed this feeling to get them a bit carried away. Unaware that anyone was watching, they were all gathered around a strange-looking knob on a carved stone door, attempting to push on it or turn it in some way. It was obvious that they were vividly anticipating the sound of scraping stone, as a hidden and previously unknown passageway was revealed... =P
I spent the whole morning in Angkor Thom, moving on to the Baphuon next. Sometimes called the world's largest jigsaw puzzle, the restoration of this huge temple must be one of the biggest challenges in the history of archaeology! Taken apart by a French team decades ago, meticulous records were kept for eventually piecing it all back together. Unfortunately, these records were lost during the madness of the
Khmer Rouge years, making the current restoration efforts incredibly difficult. Most of the site is still a work area, inaccessible to the general public, but it's still very impressive to walk around.
I also visited the Phimeanakas, the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King, Preah Palilay, and wandered around the ruin-filled jungles that surround these major monuments. I loved Angkor Thom, and enjoyed it more than Angkor Wat, perhaps because I had no expectations of the place and could simply enjoy it for what it was.
I had been right; this was exactly
what I needed. While I still missed Jen just as much, at least it wasn't the heart-wrenching, lung-collapsing feeling I'd experienced at the airport and back in Rangsit. By removing myself from the places that formed part of the context of our relationship, I think I was able to take a small step back from my own raw emotions and begin to come to terms with them. The hardest part was seeing other couples wandering around the ruins together. Worst of all, many of them seemed totally unaware of how fortunate they were to be here, in this amazing place, together
I occasionally felt like grabbing the guys by the shirt collar and shaking them until they appreciated their good fortune, but I restrained myself and tried to ignore them instead. After all, I didn't want to be banned from the Angkor temples on my very first day. =P
After a lunch of fried noodles at one of the many stalls around the temples, I visited the temple I'd been looking forward to most of all - Ta Phrom. I'm a little embarrassed to say that all I really knew about it was that it was the one used in the filming of "Tomb Raider", (as well as "Two Brothers"), but I couldn't wait to see the place for myself. Will Ta Phrom live up to expectations? Is it possible to spend two minutes on the streets of Siem Reap without being offered a tuk-tuk ride, massage or "boom boom, beautiful girl"? The answers to these questions, and many more, will be revealad in "Angkor Two: In the footsteps of tomb raiders", coming soon to a PC near you...
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