A WEEKEND IN CAMBODIA
09.09.2011 - 09.12.2011 83 °F
There’s no sense in saying that you’re “traveling abroad” unless you really do travel all around your new homeland, and I’m proud to say that I am officially traveling abroad in Southeast Asia. Cambodia was my first stop! I have a multiple entry student visa for Thailand, but in order to avoid paying a $200 fee for the year that it’s valid for, I had to “activate” the visa by traveling exiting and re-entering the country within the first three months of my time in Thailand. And as Thai luck would have it, I ended up traveling to Angkor Wat on a budget of less than the fee! There's nothing like some rule forcing you to travel.
Tons of past UC EAP participants had severely warned me about crossing the Cambodian border—they’ll scam you, they’ll overcharge you threefold, and sometimes they’ll even lock you in the bus until you cooperate with the travel company’s terms, I was told—but in my opinion, we crossed that border with ease. The travel agency (called Good Well Travel, in case you’re interested in using them!) did tell us that by paying $20 extra, they’d handle the Cambodian visa paperwork and get us across in under 30 minutes, but we stuck to our research and the agency even drove us to the border where we could get a cheaper price directly from the government. Piece of cake! The ride from Bangkok to Poi Pet at the border was almost 4 hours, and then we hopped back into our shuttle van for the 2 more hours to Siem Reap, where we’d be staying. Our hotel was Lonely Planet’s #1 pick for the area, and it would have been my pick as well! I was seriously contemplating smuggling the duvet cover and pillows out of that hotel by the end of the trip.
We woke early the next morning to conspire about our must-see spots and hire some tuk tuks to drive us to and between the temples all day long; they were only $5 a person and could even rough it through the rainy streets! Oh yeah, I suppose I had forgotten to mention that the streets of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat were FLOODED due to the rainy/low season. Even so, our first day in Angkor Wat consisted of visiting the five most beautiful temples I had ever seen. My favorite of the five was undoubtedly Banteay Samre—it had been surrounded by two moats in its prime (and because of the all the rain, they filled up a bit again!) and was absolutely deserted of other tourists. We finished our tour with Pre Rup in time to see the sunset, but the clouds blocked any color that may have shone through, so we sat on the cliffs on Pre Rup playing brain-teaser games until the guards asked us to leave our post. Although we didn’t see any reds or oranges or yellows in the sky that evening, the fantastic company easily made it the most wonderful of sunsets.
Day #2 started at the wee hour of 5am in hopes of catching the sun rising over the Angkor Wat complex, but that darn storm blocked out the sunrise as well! Mai pen rai, we had our ponchos at the ready and took on Angkor Wat in style that morning anyhow! Ta Prohm was the most breathtaking of this cluster of temples because the structures were engulfed by oh so many tree roots. It was a scene out of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider! Honestly though, Angelina Jolie shot most of the movie at these temples in Cambodia.
We made it back to Siem Reap before a storm hit, grabbed some of the abundant baguettes that are sold in carts on the street, napped in those heavenly beds, and were jazzed and ready to experience some traditional Cambodian dancing for our last supper! I sure hope that taste buds have memory space because the delicious Cambodian amok paired with 50-cent Angkor beer deserves to live there forever and ever. That final night in Cambodia, we danced our hearts out to personally requested songs at a bar called Temple and skipped home along the flooded streets well after midnight. The streets were deserted and flooded and perfect, so you can bet that we had at least a handful of “I love Cambodia!” moments within that short walk.
Crossing back to Thailand was an even simpler process than entering Cambodia, and my visa is now good until December 10th. That means that I’m required to take one more trip out of the country before the end of my stay in Thailand—what a rough life, I know! Even though the two countries are so close, the cultures were so very different and made me appreciate my Thailand home all the better. The poverty of Cambodia was much more visible, for starters: swarms of kids (I’m talking 10 to 20, minimum) would beg for money, milk, and our watches as soon as we stepped off of the buses or exited the temples in Cambodia. In almost two months of living in Thailand, I have had one person ask for money, and he was a grown man. Every tuk tuk driver and food vendor spoke impeccable English in Cambodia (sometimes even Spanish, French, and Chinese too) while I find myself having a tough time getting my point across while chatting with the staff in the lobby of my apartment building. Angkor Wat is so blatantly a city built around tourism and although I could never live in the area without getting seriously sad about those kids’ living situations, I’m so thankful that I was able to live the culture, even if only for a weekend. Thailand can be the most frustrating place to figure out some days, but I wouldn’t trade it for any other study abroad experience. Today, I walked two minutes from school to the Grand Palace for a field trip and later successfully had an entire conversation in Thai with my taxi driver. It’s little things like these that make Thailand the most magical place in the world to me!