So there we were: it’s 5 am and Elizabeth, Lauren, and I are aboard a train that cost us a mere 48 Thai Baht (that’s $1.36) from Bangkok to the border of Thailand/Cambodia. Two weeks into SE Asia prices, and we still couldn’t get over how cheap that is. It’s a 6 hour train ride! It’s a rickity, decrepit, dirty, open air train that wouldn’t be up to any US standard, so it was AWESOME. We were lucky we got on when we did because a few stops later the train was jam packed with the cutest of cute Thai people, and it was standing room only! Cute, elderly Thai ladies pass us every few minutes with baskets of snacks they’re selling. The homemade, fly-ridden meat sticks (stored at room temp) is the only food we can actually decipher in the basket, so we politely decline. After a few hours of watching the beautiful Thai countryside go by, we arrive at the border.
We had done our research before we got here to know what to expect at the border (overland border crossings tend to have a few more obstacles). We got stamped out of Thailand perfectly smoothly, and headed on toward Cambodia’s “Visa On Arrival.” We were ready to fight the scammers we were told would try to sell us overpriced visas, but we didn’t have to! We paid the $30 that was legitimately owed and only a $3 bribe on top of that (we’ve heard some travelers have had to pay way more), and we were stamped into Cambodia! Here’s where things got a bit questionable.
We were directed by a few people to wait for the “free shuttle bus” that would bring us to the bus station from the border. We had read about it online, and a reputable source said it was a legitimate free shuttle bus. There was even an official sign….. so, we took it, along with a handful of other travelers. When we pulled into said “bus station” we soon realized it was just an abandoned building they had turned into a pseudo-bus station where they could get us far away from any other company’s competition. We had been fooled! Now that we had no other choice, we booked a mini bus that they told us would leave immediately (we paid extra since they said a large tour bus wouldn’t leave for 2 hours… another scam…) FINALLY, an hour and a half later, we squeezed our way on to a bus. Scammed again. Accompanying us three gals on our way to the town of Siem Reap was another American gal (who Elizabeth and I deduced and confirmed is a spy working for the CIA….it’s too long of a story to tell now, you’ll have to wait for the Extended and Uncut Version of the blog), an Indian guy who lives in Sweden, an older couple from Oregon who had moved to Cambodia to start a farm and introduce a new nut to the region, and last but definitely not least, 20 adorable Buddhist monks. Hours behind schedule and tired from the scams, we were happy to finally be on the road. The monks must have been as well– they all pulled out their selfie sticks simultaneously (at one point we counted 5 selfie sticks and 2 iPads in the air at one time), and they wanted us in all the pictures! Hilarious. We happily obliged (but the spy ducked for every one!) The bus company had assured us that the mini bus would take us to the city center, where big buses couldn’t go…. but, sure enough, we pull into what they called their “bus station” yet again on the far outskirts of the city. They demanded us 7 foreigners to get off the bus, that the bus wasn’t allowed to go any further. We knew this was a total lie, so even as they literally threw our bags off the bus, we remained seated. We politely demanded they take us to the center as they told us they would or at least to the hotel that they were taking the monks to. They not-so-politely yelled at us again to get off the bus. They even accused us of disrespecting the monks and Buddhism as a whole, which our Indian friend (who is Buddhist), heatedly but politely told the bus drivers how this is not how Buddhist people treat others. We proceeded to get off the bus since we realized we were not going to win this one, and all the adorable monks waved at us and said “sorry, sorry! Have nice trip!”
Fortunately, the scams we had endured over the day were never too big of a deal, but it was just the principle of the whole thing that got us frustrated. We were able to take a tuk-tuk (basically a motorcycle-drawn chariot) into Siem Reap for a couple dollars and everything was fine.
Why go to Siem Reap, Cambodia you ask? Well, there are ruins of an empire city built in the 9th-15th centuries by the Khmer Empire here. The place is known as Angkor Wat. Truth be told, I had no idea what the place was before planning our trip in Asia. After getting to spend two glorious days there, I cannot believe it’s not officially on the list of the 7 Wonders of the World (it’s commonly known as the 8th). It’s absolutely astounding. I’m talkin’ Machu Picchu astounding.
Our first day to spend in Angkor Wat fell on a Sunday, so before we entered the park, we hoped to find a Catholic Church for Sunday mass. And by a true miracle, Elizabeth found the ONE Catholic church in the town and we were able to make it to their one mass that morning. It was such a neat experience to celebrate the mass in a primarily Buddhist culture. There were no pews, just mats on the floor, and the music was just beautiful. The priest (who was Jesuit… #gozags) even gave a tiny part of his homily in English for us! We spotted the Missionaries of Charity as we left the church (the order of nuns that Mother Teresa founded) and we shyly and nervously went up to them to introduce ourselves. These nuns are all bad ass, so we got some stage fright 🙂 Like it was no thing, they invited us back to their home, where they run a short-term children’s shelter where kids from very poor families can get the food, medicine, and care that they need. We walked the few blocks from church with them and soon found ourselves in a Cambodian children heaven. Kids were running all around us, grabbing onto our legs and arms, the nuns were handing us the babies who needed to be held, we were passing out gummy candies, and so on. It was a glorious mayhem, and the Sisters were just so spot on with their loving care, assertiveness, and welcoming spirits. It was such a fun surprise for us, with ringing similarities to the Bolivian orphanage experience Elizabeth and I had over a year ago!
We reluctantly left the kids and the Sisters and set out towards Angkor Wat.
Highlights from day one at Angkor Wat were as follows:
1. We rent $1.50 horrendous bicycles to see the temples and ruins.
2. Lauren gets turned away from one of the main temples for wearing athletic shorts and a see-through cover-up… we never saw that one coming! Don’t worry, she bought pants an hour later so she would be allowed into the rest of them…Classic Laur, always dressing too scandalously….
3. Sunset on top of one of the temples on a mountain overlooking Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.
4. Biking back on the Cambodian roads with insane drivers after dark…. a great memory that we wouldn’t recommend anyone else having.
Day two highlights:
1. We hired a tuk tuk driver, Huan, for the entire day, who brought us anywhere around Angkor Wat that we wanted to go.
2. Sunrise at Angkor Wat. Albeit a little cloudy, it was still astounding as the sun illuminated the beautiful temples early in the morning.
3. Exploring around all of Angkor Thom (which is comprised of the majority of the ruins from the Empire). It’s basically anything goes as to where you can explore the ruins, which is incredible. So we Indiana Jones-ed the heck out of the day, climbing up and down the huge ruins.
4. Speaking of Indiana Jones, Ta Prohm temple was by far our favorite of all. It’s where Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider got their inspiration. It had a beauty and spirituality to it that we truly can’t describe.
After two incredible days at Angkor Wat, it was nearly time to say goodbye to our Lauren. One of the three of us just has to be employed, and unfortunately that person is Lauren. We should have spent her last night at a fancy restaurant, but instead we found ourselves still haggling and getting our $1 dinner that we so love, and hunting through the night market for souvenirs. We found that Cambodia is the most fun place to haggle prices. There’s a constant echo from each market stall of “Ladyyyyy, special discount for yooou!!”
After saying a sad, sad goodbye to Lauren, (she truly was the the best-of-the-best of travel buddies), Elizabeth and I were off on another bus heading to the capital of Cambodia- Phnom Penh. We were immediately taken aback with how insane the drivers were in this city; it was the craziest driving we had seen yet. There were no stop lights or cross walks (or at least, no one abides by them), pedestrians actually never have the right of way, they average five people on ONE motorbike, one way streets are merely a suggestion, and somehow, the mayhem all works. It’s a beautiful chaos and we loved it. (And we didn’t realize this driving was pretty tame compared to our future Vietnam ventures.)
We came to Phnom Penh mainly to tour the “Killing Fields.” We only vaguely remember learning anything about the Cambodian genocide in school or while growing up, but we knew it had affected the country and millions of people greatly. We spent the entire next day touring one of the over 130 killing fields that the Khmer Rouge used as a place to kill any and all people who would not fit into their plans of forming an agrarian culture. Anyone who was educated, spoke a foreign language, or even simply had glasses or soft hands, was brutally murdered. It was haunting, horrible, and unbelievable to tour such a seemingly peaceful place. In the afternoon, we toured S21, which had been a school in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge transformed it into a prison and torture center during the genocide. It was truly the most haunting experience of our lives, something that I will have nightmares over. It was so hard to see how cruel humans can be to each other; we heard testimonies from the few survivors of the torture center and saw the still-intact prison cells that were in what had been the classrooms. Both tours left us asking ourselves, “How? How could humans ever do this to one another?” The self-guided audio tours were extremely well done and left us feeling heartbroken, angry, horrified, and determined to continue the fight for this to never happen again.
Our final day in Cambodia was spent with a surprise lunch date with one of our Aussie friends we had met on a trek through the mountains in Colombia last February– she saw that we were in Cambodia and messaged us. Such a small world!! She is doing a year with Engineers Without Borders in Phnom Penh, and is doing great things. She was quite the inspiration for potential future endeavors of Buns and Bert……..
We finished the day at a coffee shop doing a bit of Vietnam planning and having a potential Dengue Fever and/or malaria scare, and then we were off to Vietnam! (Turns out, sometimes our street food/market food choices aren’t the best…. the hemorrhagic fever that I thought I was getting and would need to be airlifted to Bangkok for, turned out to be food poisoning). With a few doses of oral antibiotics and two days on a starvation diet, I was ship-shape!!
We left Cambodia feeling way more positive about the country than upon our arrival. We only wished we had more time to enjoy all the country has to offer, and wishing we had more time with the wonderful and most smiley people in the world. We will be back, Cambodia!
Next up: we bus our way into South Vietnam and start in the wild metropolis of Saigon!