Journey to the unknown : Cambodia
The last week of this vacation was upon me. As difficult had I found it to come, it was now equally difficult to think about leaving. I was at the border town of Aranyaprathet in Thailand and planning to get to Cambodia today. I had long been waiting to see Angkor Wat. With that intention in mind, I started early hoping to reach early. I checked-out and found no one at reception. So I just left the key at the door and got a tuk-tuk for 50 THB to the border.
I got down at a 7-11 and bought a cheap coffee. I clicked a few pictures of everything around while I finished the coffee and walked to the border. I walked with head high and purpose since I knew what to do. Hence there was no scammers asking me for stuff. Got stamped out of Thailand again. Again! 😉
Walked across the road to Cambodia. The Cambodian VISA fee is 20USD but was converted to 800THB for some reason. I paid the fee and got my Visa on arrival for Cambodia. Walked a small distance and got the VISA stamped for one week. And that was that! I was now free to travel in Cambodia. I got onto this free shuttle bus to the main Poipet bus terminal and was expecting my hotel to pick me up in Siem Reap.
I waited for 20 minutes and the bus didn’t move. In fact it didnt seem like it will move. After a frustrating half hour I got off and started walking towards Poipet. A lot of people approached me and finally one guy offered a shared taxi for 350 THB. He asked for a tip and I gave him 50 THB. Now came the difficult bit. It was a crowded taxi. I think there were like 4 people + driver inside and then me as well. And another guy up front. All of this in a normal sedan. For almost 2 hours I felt okay but then the cramping kicked in.
Next to me was another guy who spoke very good english by some lucky coincidence. He was from siem reap, a tour guide at Angkor Wat and he talked about various things including this new found belief in Hinduism. He told me that Angkor Wat is a Hindu temple. He talked about Cambodian civil war. He made sure the taxi dropped me to my hotel and was very helpful. He offered to show me Angkor wat without any charges and it was slightly shocking. I was thinking perhaps there is a catch but there wasn’t. He said he will pick me at 5.15AM next morning tomorrow and then we can see the morning sunrise there.
I checked in at the hotel. It turns out they use USD alot in Cambodia. In fact the ATM dispenses USD since the local currency is very volatile. I got some USD and had a quick lunch. For some reason the traveling had tired me a lot so I took a nap. I had planned to go to angkor wat after waking up. But when I woke up it was dark and cool inside and hot outside. I went out around 5.30PM when the sun had gone down somewhat and I felt relaxed. It was however still very humid and sweaty.
I walked around the central garden. I had sort of expected the river Mekong to be mighty like Brahmaputra but it was slightly smaller. The gardens were wonderful however and I just walked a bit and then sat on a bench. That was a profound moment for some reason. Suddenly I had a feeling that I had traveled so far just to be here. To not do, to not visit or see or eat. To just sit in this garden. That all of this trip was just a reason so that I can come and sit in a garden, in a city, in a country none of which I knew existed. I sat there and watched the people. They seemed so wonderful in general. I walked a bit more and saw a temple which wasn’t a tourist attraction but just normal praying area for local people. Somehow it connected to me spiritually, made me feel wonderful inside.
I walked around the city and saw the cheap beauty salons, the various pubs and restaurants. Finally ended up going to a dinner buffet with an Apsara dance show. It was nice in a way but boring too. And it was hot and sweaty inside. After the show ended I walked back slowly, leisurely to my hotel since I had to be up early next morning. I felt at peace. I knew that this vacation was changing me in a way I cant explain. But I felt warm inside with all of it.
We started early the next morning around 5. My friend had hired a tuk-tuk and we went to Angkor wat. I bought a day pass for USD 20 and were in front of the temple by 5.10 AM. I would have thought it would be dark and lonely this early on a weekday but I was so wrong. There were already more than 50 people and it just filled up by 5.35AM. I guess everyone wanted to see the reflection of Angkor wat in the lake and the beautiful sunrise.
As the sun came up the sight just mesmerized me. It looked so majestic and beautiful, something we humans made 100s of years ago. I just browsed around and clicked some pictures. No words can describe how it felt at that moment. It was just wonderful do these lonely explorations. I found a quiet little spot at the second level of the temple and i sat down with my feet dangling in the air, perhaps 50 ft off the ground and I put on my headphones and listened to one of my favorite songs. I guess it is one of the moments I still go back to seek peace. By the time I finished my wanderings it was close to 7.30 AM and so I ate some breakfast and we headed out to other temples.
It was a slightly confusing situation. My friend here was a guide at the temple for sure. Yet we had not negotiated a price or anything. I wasn’t even sure if and how he would charge me. We got on his motorbike and saw some of the other temples around the area. Then we decided to go to a mountain he referred to as the holy mountain. In fact I even got to ride the motorbike for some time. It was fun! 🙂
I would say it was a hard and long and tiring ride. The roads were bad and the amount of dust was amazing. Half way up the mountain he showed me the riverbed with 1000 lingams. It was fascinating to think that Hinduism was perhaps as deeply embedded in this foreign land than in Indian cities. We went to a village where my friend also ran a school for poor kids. We talked about people and things and various issues. He told me about how it costs 300 USD to run a school here for a month and about 4000 USD to buy land to build some resort. It suddenly gives you a completely new perspective on value of money. 300 USD is what it will cost me to stay in a 4-star hotel for a day. It just amazed me. And perhaps made me a little sad about how we never realize the value of all we have.
After the village we came back down the mountain and stopped at the reclining buddha. We had lunch and my friend paid for it. It was one amazing experience after another. Next we went to a waterfall where we relaxed and chatted for a bit. There was a moment where I saw all these little Cambodian kids shouting “One dollar please” to anyone who passes by. I wondered whether that was the first thing they learned here, how to beg for money.
We went to another temple called Baiteany srei. Here I saw carvings of Indra, of krishna and kamsa, of lakshmi and of shiva. I was awestruck to know that these were all hindu temples in cambodia. Their culture, apsara dance, traditional wear, belief in hindu gods, jewellery love etc. I just felt that if I knew cambodian I might as well settle down in this small country. The confluence of Hindu culture, buddhist beliefs, asian people and a land full of strangers just made me realize that in another life I might have been born here.
A day full of traveling and temples and talking and riding. It was perhaps the most exhausting day of the complete trip. I think I probably had like 2 KG of dirt on me by 5PM in evening. We went to a small place for dinner that was owned by his friends. We had a good simple Cambodian dinner of rice and Chicken etc and a couple of beers. He dropped me to the hotel and volunteered to take me to a nice Khmer massage place. The shower at my hotel lasted 45 minutes and I was dripping red dirt all over. Then we went for the Khmer massage and it was just the right relaxation after the exhausting day. When I got back to my hotel I was asleep before I closed my eyes. I think I slept well that night.
I woke up earlier than I had planned next morning. Finished a quick breakfast and decided to start off early on the journey back to Bangkok since I had a flight back from there. I took a bus to Poipet for USD 7. It was a 1.5 hour of boring journey with no legroom at all. I was glad when the cramped ride was over. I thought the going back would be a breeze: Stamp out of cambodia, stamp into Thailand and done. However I was wrong and it took me multiple visits to multiple embassies and about 1.5 hour to get this through. Around 2PM I got a minivan to Bangkok and that took another 300 THB. I had hoped to get to my hotel by 5pm but when I finally got there it was 7.45PM and I had just had a gruelling travel day. I ate Khao pad at a local street stall and went to bed after a wonderful shower.