Burma 1 - Cambodia 0 but Siem Reap still celebrate

Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Siem Reap, Cambodia
The journey to Cambodia from Sumatra was a long one to say the least. A day spent getting from Pulau Weh to Medan was followed by two days getting to Siem Reap in Cambodia including what now seems to be our regular sleep over in KL airport.

But before I move on to Cambodia I need to give Sumatra the credit it deserves and 'big' it up a bit as it's been a really great place to visit and a truly fantastic experience . I'm not sure if the experience would have been as good or the same during peak season mind so if you are thinking of visiting put a little thought into what time of the year you come. We were there during the wettest month of the year and it was brilliant. Hardly any rain at all, at least not during the day time, but then again maybe we were exceptionally lucky. What I do know is that Sumatra is home to some of the friendliest, welcoming folks I've had the pleasure to meet and boasts some of the most stunning and varied landscapes of any country I have visited. Throw into that mix some of the cheapest food and digs you can find in Asia and you can't really go wrong. So it's a big thumbs up from me and it's well and truly on my list of places I would go back to in order to explore some more. Give it a thought if your traveling Asia as it isn't always on every-ones route, especially if you are doing the usual mainland loop of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia etc.

So, speaking of Cambodia . It has most certainly been a culture shock for sure, especially after Sumatra. Aside from the very occasional beer while at Lake Toba and too much of the local palm wine moonshine there, we spent 3 weeks in detox prior to Siem Reap. We didn't touch a drop of alcohol after Toba due to the fact that most of Sumatra, particularly the North, is very very strict Muslim. We couldn't even find a drink anywhere other than Toba and the Batak area, and that's maybe not a bad thing given our Herculean drinking exploits in Langkawi. Siem Reap has definitely reunited us with alcohol in a big way. The place is absolutely bonkers and is one constant party. We arrived mid afternoon. Grabbed our Visa, were in town and at our digs within twenty minutes of clearing immigration and a further 10 minutes later we were out grabbing food and a few of the local 50 cent beers.

It appears that Siem Reap is geared around just two things. Getting up and out stupidly early and touring the famous Angkor temple ruins, and getting absolutely destroyed on cheap beers, strong 5$ buckets and any crazy combination of drugs you could possibly imagine . And when I say any I mean ANY. From Opium to Yabba and Cocaine to Crystal Meth, it is all available here. I hasten to add though at Siem Reap I declined to indulge in anything other than alcohol. Due to our very limited budget it would have been a bad mistake to sample and head down the path of the dark side with anything else I felt, and to be fair after our detox I was happy just to enjoy the days and nights with drink alone. And what crazy nights they are as well.

Siem Reap is a small town and if not for the vast array of tourist accommodation, restaurants, bars and travel shops it would be positively tiny. Aside from the temples there really isn't much else to see or visit in Siem Reap so they cram all the bars, clubs and restaurants into just a few streets and let everyone go absolutely wild. We found this out on the first day when we popped out for a bite to eat and a quick beer mid afternoon and before we knew it, it was God knows what time in the morning and we were sat drinking cocktails by the bucket full (literally) on the street at one of the many tiny pop up rickshaw bars that appear around the pub street area, and it was absolutely brilliant . Great fun was had. The pop up bars here are tremendous. They are tiny in size but they certainly make up for their lack of dimensions with more volume and bass than a 90's boy racers Vauxhall Corsa, more lights than Blackpool and a bigger drinks menu than most boozers back home. The customers are even their own DJ's as all the bars come with a keyboard and small LCD screen linked to the owners phone for data and you play what you want via Youtube. There was even one that despite having no screen or Internet did have a huge blue-tooth speaker allowing you to stream music from your phone. Brilliant! Why don't we have these back home especially in the summer? Oh yeah that's right, License's, no drinking on the streets, rules, laws, regulations, health and safety, idiots that would abuse them......yawn.....yawn. We had a great first night, can't remember stumbling back home but pretty sure it was great.

The next day was more of the same. We hadn't arranged any transport to the temples for our second day there . We knew we would be tired following our night in the airport and 3 day journey from Pulau Weh and most people usually get up really early, around 3-4am to go out and catch sunrise at Angkor Wat before having the full day with your Tuk Tuk driver to go and explore the other temples around Angkor. Makes sense to me, to catch the sunrise and get your moneys worth from your driver and there was no way on Earth I was ever going to make it up in time for sunrise, although that said I can't remember getting home so it was most likely after sunrise anyway for all I know. Either way neither of us where in a fit state to be out clambering around temples like Lara Croft at that time of the day. Hence we booked our Tuk Tuk driver for the following morning, 4:30am pick up and headed out for a bite to eat and a couple of quiet beers. Unfortunately I now realise that there is no such thing as a couple of quiet beers in Siem Reap. Yet again we were out partying and drinking on the streets, no recollection of leaving or getting home, although I do vaguely remember being sensible at some point in the night and setting several alarms for the following morning so that we wouldn't miss the temples . Unfortunately this plan relies heavily on you ensuring that you plug your phone in to have enough charge for the alarms to go off. When you can't remember getting home it's highly unlikely you are going to remember to plug your phone in to charge and that's exactly what happened.

I woke around 9:30am and felt so bad for our Tuk Tuk driver. He was a nice enough young lad and probably very happy to get a job that week. Most of the guesthouses, hostels and hotels in Siem Reap offer free pick up from the airport. It's not very far at all and the Tuk Tuk drivers do it for free in the hope that you use them for your temple trip. It's a bit of an un-written rule that you always use the same driver that picks you up from the airport and now standing down stairs apologizing to the guesthouse owner with my hair sticking up like Ron Jeremy at his birthday party and my breath smelling like a cocktail shaker, I felt absolutely terrible for the poor lad. Maybe his only fare that week, out of bed and waiting for us at 4:30am and idiot tits goes out gets a tad squiffy and messes it all up for him . I asked the owner to give him a ring, see if he was still willing to take us the following day and that we would give him an extra few dollars for his time, trouble and petrol. Thankfully he agreed so it was all back on for the following morning. This time we would not fail and disappear into the bottom of a plastic bucket filled with 2 liters of strong long island iced tea. And indeed we did not fail, we were the ambassadors of early nights and the champions of waking up. Angkor Wat here we come.

Angkor Wat is probably the best known temple in the world. It's the biggest religious monument and was built initially by the Khmer king as a Hindu temple before being slowly transformed into a Buddhist temple in the late 12th Century. It even appears on the Cambodian flag such is it's importance here and we expected big things. We had our $20 days pass in our hands by 5am when the ticket office opened and were dropped outside Angkor Wat by 5:20am ready to grab our position for sunrise . We were a little clueless where was best to head for sunrise once inside. Maybe we should have done more reading up than we did instead of disappearing into buckets but were here now. There was a faint bit of lighter blue appearing on the horizon. Enough to just make out the famous four towers that you see in all the photos and we ran about from place to place trying to find a good spot. Too far back and you could hardly see the towers amongst the trees and other structures on the skyline. Too close and it felt as if the sunrise would be lost behind them. There was a huge crowd gathered to the left of the central walk way to the temple in front of a pond and we checked it out but it was far too busy. At least 1,000 people all crammed in so we eventually settled on a spot a bit more central and waited for the sun to make it's way above the horizon.

As the colours in the sky warmed into purples and oranges and the temple became more visible we couldn't help but feel, well, a little underwhelmed to be honest . The four spires were just that, four relatively small spires poking a little way upwards against the backdrop of the sunrise and before we knew it that was it, the sun was up and the grand opening event for the day was over. We since learned everyone heads to that pond on the left as you get the reflections of the spires and sunrise in the water but we couldn't help but feel disappointed compared to the hype and what we were expecting. Sat at one of the most famous, most photographed temples in the world thinking 'Is that it?'

Looking back now, it's clear that we had been spoilt a lot with the temples we visited in Bagan, Myanmar. The next temple we headed to after Angkor was one called Bayon which we found more impressive and interesting as a structure with it's imposing size and huge stone Buddha heads before moving on to Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom which was made more famous after being used as a location in the Tomb Raider film. I quite liked Ta Phrom. It was interesting with it's maze like ruins and huge gnarled trees that have now grown up and out of the temple walls . Certainly more interesting than the relatively basic Angkor Wat. We visited a few more temples after that which were again nothing spectacular and before we knew it it was mid afternoon and we had been out temple hunting for ten hours. That was it, we were done in. No more same same temples for us so we headed back to town, gave our Tuk Tuk driver his fare and headed out for some well needed food and a couple of beers.

We sat and talked about the temples and both of us felt let down by the experience. If you come to Cambodia, yes of course come and visit the temples at Angkor. They are of huge historical importance and there are a couple of interesting ones to go and play around in such as 'The Tomb Raider Temple' Ta Phrom. It is very very busy and over-crowded though. Don't expect to have the place to yourself. Think more guide ropes and routes, queues for photos at the overgrown trees at Ta Phrom, people constantly waving selfie sticks in your face as you are all crammed in . Once at the top of the temples don't expect an interesting view out across to the other temples as the trees here are huge and block out any prospect of a view elsewhere. Bagan in Myanmar however is a completely different experience. Sunrise you sit atop a temple looking out above the tree tops at 400 other temples all lit up by the morning sun. Temple after temple that you arrive at to explore only to find out there is nobody else there and you have the place to yourself, such are the sheer number of temples at the Bagan site. If temples are your thing Bagan is vastly more impressive than Angkor so maybe it would be wise to carefully pick which of the two sites you visit first to avoid disappointment. We were done with Angkor in a day...time to move on.

We plotted our next move over a few beers that afternoon and decided to head down South towards the islands for some nice beach time and R&R for our final couple of weeks this trip. Trying to get 'safe' reliable transport around Cambodia is, pardon the pun, a minefield . So at 10pm we were still sat there reading up online how was best to reach the islands and after a few more beers and our brains mangled by information overload we decided it was best to head out to the busier pub street and that a few buckets would be the way forward for helping us move on from Siem Reap. I'm really not sure why that would be of any help, and obviously it wasn't but it seemed like a decent idea at the time.

Another late night, another night out with no recollection of making it home. It's safe to say we were never going to make it up in time the following morning in order to sort some transport out and sure enough we did not. We paid for another night at our digs and made sure we only had a couple of beers for a change. Eventually we finally settled on our transport South. An overnight bus to Phnom Penh followed by a 5 hour wait and then another 5 hours on a bus to Sihanookville where we could catch a boat to the island of Koh Rong. If you ever read up on buses around Cambodia every single article will advise you against taking the night buses. They have a notoriously bad safety record. There are regular incidents of the luggage bay being opened whenever the bus stops and locals helping themselves to tourists bags and even more alarmingly regular incidents of sexual assault and rape of female travelers by the driver. It all sounds a bit daunting but if you are ever traveling here I highly recommend a relatively new company called Giant Ibis. They are THE only bus company that puts safety first, and they really do. They use two drivers that alternate as opposed to one tired driver pumped up on a multitude of drugs to try and stay awake. They also limit the speed of the bus to 60km/h by using GPS info relayed back to the management in the office to ensure that the drivers are not speeding. It takes maybe an hour longer to Phnom Penh than the other companies and around $3 more each but it's worth it to make sure you arrive intact and with your bags untouched.

Eventually after a long 15 hour journey we arrived in the seedy, Casino packed, bustling small town of Sihanookville. Sihanookville comes with a bad reputation. Mainly down to drugs, gambling and a large amount of unsavory types that you expect to find around such places. Thankfully we only had to stop there the one night before catching an early boat over to the islands and after a sleep free night of traveling we were tucked up in bed early dreaming of pristine beaches and crystal clear waters. Siem Reap has taken it's toll on me but been great fun, it's now time to kick back and relax. Next stop Koh Rong.
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2020-08-08