Well, I am in Bangkok for the 2nd time now! I spent the past 5 days in Siem Reap, but the internet connection at the hostel was pretty bad. I wrote the following post on Sunday, April 10, but was unable to post until now. This is Cambodia: Part I. I’ll try to get the rest out soon!
I flew into Cambodia on Thursday morning. I will be honest here, I didn’t do a whole lot of research before I came. I guess I got lazy about it because I figured I’d only be here for five days.
When I was at the airport in Bangkok getting ready to leave, I went to a money exchange counter and asked to change the equivalent of $100 from Thai baht into Cambodian riel. The lady at the counter laughed at me, and said “mai mee” which means “we don’t have” in Thai. She held up USD. I had read online that USD can be used in Cambodia, so I switched the money over to USD. I had been thinking that it was an optional currency- that you can basically choose which you’d like to use. That’s not a lie, but it’s a little less optional as I had found out. Cambodia generally uses the USD for everything over $1. Everything under $1 is paid for in Riel. For example, when I first got here I paid for a $5.25 meal with 10 USD, and my change was 4USD and 3000 Riel. 1000 real is equal to 25 cents. I was perplexed by it for the first day, but now it makes a lot more sense.
I also didn’t realize that Cambodians drive on the right side of the road. I had finally gotten used to the traffic direction in Thailand that crossing the street here took me a minute to figure out. Since it’s what I grew up knowing, it’s been easy enough to adjust back.
When I got to my hostel, exhaustion had finally caught up to me. In the previous 3 days I had flown to Bangkok, took a 2 hour train ride up to Ayutthaya and back, and then flown to Siem Reap. I started to feel like it was necessary to relax a bit. The Thursday that I got here was pretty much a rest day. The hostel does laundry for $1 per KG, so I put on my pajamas and turned the laundry into be washed, and then I took a nap.
The lady at the desk said the clothes would probably be done by 9pm. I went to check at 9pm, and she said they’d be done the following day by 9am. I woke up at 8am the next morning ready to explore. At 9am I checked to see if my laundry was done but it still wasn’t. I ended up waiting around in the lounge in my pajamas until 1pm. I was pretty content with just resting up.
Once I went out to explore, I realized how crazy it is that I only flew an hour on the plane, and I landed in a country that has some pretty distinct differences from Thailand. The manner of driving, the writing, the language, currency, and even the landscape. There is a stark difference in the terrain. Whereas Thailand has a lot of lush greenery, Siem Reap is dry as a bone. The roads are mostly all dirt, and they’re in terrible shape. It was quite a shock at first.
The poverty is a lot more obvious than it is in Bangkok or Phuket, and with it comes a lot of begging. Walking down the street here, it’s amazing how many times you have to tell people “no.” There are tuk-tuks every few feet with men hollering, “where you go, lady?” “tuk tuk, lady?” and massage parlours with women shouting “you want massage? Massage, lady?”
There are children on the street selling packs of 10 postcards for $1. They all have the exact same schpiel, “Lady, you want to buy postcard? $1 for 10. See? One, two, three….” And they count out all 10 postcards. It’s heartbreaking. They’re on vacation from school right now (just like Thailand), so I’m not sure if they normally beg on the streets or if they’re just doing it on the holiday. It’s tough to decide whether giving them $1 would really help them, or if it’s encouraging them to beg for money as a way of life. Hard to say.
The 2nd day I was here I had a really hard time saying no to people. There are hundreds of landmine victims playing music on the streets, selling books, and finding alternate ways of panhandling. As I was eating lunch, I was approached by a man with both of his arms amputated at the elbow. He had a basket of books around his neck, and he was using what was left of his arms to pick them up and try to sell them to me one by one. He had a piece of paper that he took out of the basket that explained that he was a parent and couldn’t work because he was damaged by the landmines. I didn’t buy any of his $15 books, but I put $2 in his pocket. I felt really bad for him.
5 minutes after I did that, I was approached by a man in a wheelchair with no legs. He was selling books also. He gave me a piece of paper, gave me his schpiel, and asked if I’d like to buy a book for $15. I told him I didn’t have any money, and so he left. Less than 2 minutes later, I was approached by another landmine victim. And then a child selling magnets and bracelets. And then a street performer set up his act right in front of my dinner table, jumped through a ring of knives and fire, and then held out a hat from a tip. It because apparent that I had to keep a tough will and hang onto my money, otherwise I’d be flat broke.
Sticking with my budget has been a tough task overall. There are so many things that are $1 that they all add up, and soon I’m out $20 without even remembering what it was I paid for.
I’ve also been spending too much on food. Siem Reap is a huge tourist area, so there are restaurants of all kinds, with prices that are on par with prices in the U.S. I’ve been spending more on meals than I should be, because they have menu items such as feta salads. FETA. I had feta for the first time in 7 months, and I could’ve died. I need to remind myself that because I only have 5 days in Cambodia, I need to stick with authentic Khmer food.
So far, all of the Khmer curries I’ve had are, and I hate to say it, just not on par with Thai curry. They’re still good, but they’re not nearly as strong or spicy. I’ve also gotten lots of questionable cuts of meat. I’m trying to hang on to every last bit of my sense of adventure when it comes to food, but it’s been tough. They have tons of edible bugs here, from tarantulas to scorpions, but I just can’t bring myself to try one. I’m growing pretty tired of dinner being a mystery dish, and I think a big part of me is gravitating toward the feta salad because I’m craving the confidence to know that I’ll enjoy my dinner and it won’t be a waste.
I’m already 1200 words in and I haven’t even gotten to Angkor Wat. I’m going to have to stop fluffing around with these posts.
So the hostel that I’m staying in helps organize tours. They have a board with the tour offers on them, and it’s easier than walking around trying to find a decent tour in town. I saw a tour advertised on the board for $6 that included 5 different temples (including Angkor Wat). It was a sunrise tour that left at 4:30am. I thought it was a pretty good deal, so I signed up. The price was cheap because it was a shared tuk tuk ride between 4 people. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t going to be a guided tour.
Leaving the hostel at 4:30am was a weird experience. There were people still awake and partying from the night before, and I was too groggy to comprehend anything. There were four of us that were put into a tuk tuk and sent on our way to the ticket office. One of the girls that was awake from the night before was part of my tour. It was cool to talk to other travelers about their travel timelines, where they were going and for how long, what their plans were, etc. We got to the Angkor Wat ticket office at 5:15. A single day pass is $20, or a 3-day pass is $40. Despite being here for five days (with the sole purpose of visiting Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat), I opted for the single day pass. Every single person I’ve talked to who has been here has told me that three days of touring is exhausting and overwhelming. After having completed the one-day tour, I’m glad that I only bought the single day.
The temples that we visited were amazing. I am so glad that I woke up as early as I did to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. It was a beautiful experience. The other temples were pretty cool too, but the problem with not having a tour guide is literally having zero information on the temples themselves. They hardly had signs in English about the history of the temples. Most of the information signs were about archeology and restoration of the structures. They were cool to look at, but I felt like I didn’t get the full experience without a tour guide. Nobody else in our tuk tuk group wanted one. By 5:30am the German girl started to sober up and she complained about absolutely everything. She was really dragging us down. We were dropped off at each temple for about an hour, and she kept trying to convince us to leave early so that we could get back to the hostel because she wanted to nap. I had to try pretty hard to not let her dampen my spirits.
Even at 5:30am, the temples were absolutely packed with people. It’s funny when you look at the pictures I took you’d think that there wasn’t anyone else around. The truth is, most of the most famous parts of the temples had a line to wait in if you wanted your picture taken. I took a bunch of cool pictures of the sunrise over Angkor Wat, but I was taking them alongside hundreds of people.
For each temple I stood tried to seek out an English speaking group tour and follow them around. It worked out well. As it turns out, one of the temples that we went to was where they filmed the movie “Tomb Raider.” I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t followed a random tour. It was pretty hard to stay motivated to tour the temples because it is unbearably hot here. By the time we’d gone to our 5th temple at 11am, it was 104 degrees. The dress code is very strict about women covering their shoulders and legs, so I was in a lot of clothes too.
I guess if I were to do it over again, I would still purchase the single day pass, but I’d look for a guided tour to get the full experience.
Today I took it easy again, and did a walk around the old city checking out the markets and little stalls. The souvenirs are eerily similar to the souvenirs in Thailand. I’m pretty confident I’ll see the same souvenirs in Vietnam and Indonesia as well. There are some really beautiful fair trade handicrafts, but with the backpack as small as I’m carrying, I have to be strict with myself about not buying anything.
I did, however, buy a baseball cap. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve actually worn a hat around since I was a kid. I’ve read dozens of packing lists for SE Asia and they always include hats, but I’ve always ignored them. I finally caved and bought a hat after walking around touring Bangkok and Siem Reap, because the sun has been horrible to my face. Despite loading up on sunscreen every couple of hours, I have another sun rash across my forehead that’s worse than the first time I got it back in Phuket. So far the hat seems to be helping.
Ahhh, there’s so much more to say, but I’m afraid this post is long enough already. I have two more days here. I’m going to the circus tonight and on a “Day in the Life” tour tomorrow, so I’ll have plenty more to write again soon. I also have tons of pictures to upload, but I’ll have to wait for a hostel with better wifi. I also had not one, but two sketchy massage experiences in Cambodia, so I’ll try to include those into Cambodia: Part II.
It’s also impossible to upload a lot of pictures given the crappy wifi situation, but I’ll be uploading a lot once I get to a better connection.
Thanks for reading!