I had held a dream of visiting Angkor Wat since I was a young man. I first heard and read about it in an in-flight magazine decades ago whilst on the road touring in my previous existence as a singer/songwriter. It had a mystical quality to it and I wanted to see it for myself. I neatly filed it on the bucket list and got on with my life. Two marriages, two great kids and two divorces later I found myself living in Bangkok and enjoying a totally different life to the one that my school teachers had tried in vain to map out for me.
Then a few weeks ago I got the chance to tick this particular one off the bucket list and I jumped at it. I first checked out the plane tickets from Bangkok but was horrified at what they were demanding. Come on guys, 15,000 THB for a one hour flight! You can’t be serious. Then a friend told me that I could get a bus for only 900 THB. No contest, I thought and headed off to the travel agent.
Two days later and I am sitting in a hotel lobby on Sukhumvit Soi 22 waiting for the 7.30 a.m. bus to Siem Reap. Anyone who has ever tried this trip will know that it is not as simple as merely jumping on a bus at one end and jumping off a few hours later at the final destination. It is pretty grim to say the very least. I was taking a girlfriend with me for companionship and to act as interpreter if needed as she speaks Cambodian. Now I know you are all thinking coals to Newcastle or whatever the American or Aussie equivalent is, but I wasn’t going for the nightlife, honest!
The bus arrived about 20 minutes late which isn’t bad by Thai standards and away we went. There were only 6 passengers on the 12-seater and as the driver set off in the direction of Sukhumvit Road, I assumed he was picking more up. The morning rush hour traffic on Sukhumvit Road was its usual awful self and we took about twenty minutes to get to Asoke. He then turned right and hit a wall of stationary traffic. Amidst much grumbling and moaning he stuck it out for 20 minutes before attempting a U turn and eventually got back to Sukhumvit Road. Still assuming we had more passenger to collect I mused on what time we would hit the border. I genuinely didn’t want to get caught up in the crusty shuffle as the buses from Khao San Road start arriving and depositing the great unwashed at the border. We drove round and round for another hour. Two trips up Soi 1and down Soi 3 I eventually asked what he was doing. He replied simply, “highway.” I couldn’t believe my ears, he was lost in Bangkok! And we still had 400 Km to go. Had he turned the other way up Soi 22 we would have been on the highway in 10 minutes from our pick up.
After I showed him where the highway was we eventually got on our way. 30 minutes in and he stopped for the first scheduled fuelling stop. These buses run on liquid gas but I don’t understand why it takes so long to fill up. 20 minutes later we were on our way and eventually after 2 more stops we arrived at the border, bang on time to meet the backpackers from Khao San Road. The bus companies run a scam and try and get everyone to fill out the visa forms in advance and pay at their shop. I had been warned in advance and politely refused their 1300THB charge in order to pay 600THB at immigration. It isn’t any slower, it’s slow for sure, but it is slow for everyone.
The Thai – Cambodian border is unlike any I have seen. On the Thai side it’s OK, but the 600 metre no man’s land and the Cambodian town of Poi Pet just on the other side are quite frankly astonishing. It’s like Waterworld without the water, dirty and dusty with a real sense of unease about the whole place. Lawless kids will pick your pockets and you sense that some Faginesque boss will not be far away watching out for them. The queues are long and slow and it was raining which didn’t help anyone’s mood. Arguments were breaking out as people pushed and jostled trying to steal a place or two in the queue.
I had been told that I could pay an upgrade of 300THB per person to take a taxi for the remainder of the journey. They have to find 4 people all willing to share and I realised that the chances of finding two scruffy, dread-locked guys with a guitar slung across their backs, willing to cough up the princely sum of £6 was slim to say the very least. I told the guy I would pay for the whole cab and me and my girl would soon be on our way. What was so difficult to understand about the concept of paying for but not using two seats was beyond me but it took 45 minutes to get the party started.
To be fair the next part of the journey was extremely pleasant. We stopped at a small roadside restaurant and ate really good quality food and our driver was polite and helpful. That he had a right hand drive taxi in a country that drives on the right was of little consequence. I did wonder though when, as soon as we got out of Poi Pet he stopped, got out and peeled all the taxi signs off his car doors. But this is Southeast Asia after all.
Arriving at Siem Reap I was interested to find that there are no high rise buildings whatsoever. Apparently it is not permitted to build anything that could look down on Angkor Wat so nothing higher than 5 storeys is allowed. The city has therefore, a quaint colonial feel to it, with broad lawns and gardens running alongside a lot of the main roads. Many large hotels are moving in and it has the feeling of a city on the up.
The bars and restaurants are terrific, and we wandered around trying to make our minds up what and where to eat and finally settled on a place called the Red Piano. This has become somewhat popular in recent years following Lara Croft’s decision to drop in whilst she was in Cambodia raiding tombs. They have the Angelina Jolie cocktail and make quite a big deal out of it, but it's fine and the food and drink was great and really cheap. US$1.00 for a beer is great value in anybody’s language. The main entertainment area, Pub Street, is the place to be. I expected it to be somewhat tacky, I don’t know why, but it is far from that. Bars and restaurants with outside terraces were packed, giving the whole place a great atmosphere. We found a seat in The Temple bar opposite The cutely named Angkor What Bar (promoting irresponsible drinking since 1990) and settled down for a few cold ones.
We had decided to go to Angkor Wat early in the morning. It is the done thing to either go for the sunrise or the sunset. Getting round Siem Reap is easy with motodops outnumbering cars by many times. This small motorbike drawn landaus are cheap and an ideal way of seeing the sights. We arranged for a driver to pick us up at 5 AM. Normally seeing 5 AM means I am coming in, not going out. Last time I saw it going out I had a paper round. But it was good once I woke up.
The temple simply takes your breath away. I had no idea it was so big. The main temple is big enough but the entire site is simply enormous. As we walked along the causeway towards the front gate we were joined by a young Cambodian girl asking if we wanted breakfast. I said that we wanted to go straight in. She replied that we could eat at her restaurant on the way out, adding, “My name is Angelina Jolie.”“Wow Angelina, I’ve always wanted to meet you, we’ll come and eat afterwards”, I replied. “You can’t miss my restaurant she said,” pointing to a row of shacks, “I’m number three, next to the one owned by Lady Gaga.”
We went in and took our seat on the wall near the front gate with about 5,000 others to watch the sunrise. I pointed out to my girl that it was cloudy and there wouldn’t be that all important scene of the sun rising over the towers. So we forsook the money shot and simply went on in and enjoyed a full 45 minutes of peace and solitude. It was really uplifting to walk around the corridors and courtyards without the constant noise of chattering tourists and clicking cameras. We were completely alone in this 900-year old ancient wonder. It is incredible to think that this was built in 35 years. That really is no time at all when you consider that a large cathedral in the UK, like Gloucester which was started at the same time, took 410 years to complete.
We wandered around the inner courtyards and gardens then eventually went for a stroll around the gardens to the rear of the temple. As the hordes started to join us we were about ready to leave and wandered back to find our motodop driver. He took us to Bayon where the giant faces are carved in the stone towers and to Ta Prohm where Ms Croft strutted her stuff. Here the trees are growing into and out of the stone buildings in a bizarre battle of nature versus humanity. Nature will of course win the day, but it’s very cool that they have left it in the state that it was discovered 100 years ago.
We only did half a day but were completely worn out. Back to town for a well earned beer whilst we looked over our photographs. It was happy hour and the cheap prices became ludicrously cheap prices. A jug of beer for $1.75; we looked at our photos for quite some time. At night I had to do that manly thing of visiting the night market with my girl. Why is it the whole world over that women love markets? I shouldn’t complain, we didn’t spend too much time there and I got a few presents for friends. All too soon it would be time to leave Siem Reap, but we managed to find a great Mexican restaurant and a really cool wine bar called Picasso, where the host, Liam, regaled us with stories and plied us with drinks. It was great fun.
I booked the return trip to Bangkok in Siem Reap as I was told it would be considerably cheaper. It was, at only 300THB, I ignored the voice in my head screaming TAXI, TAXI, TAXI and decided to take the bus. We were collected from our hotel at 7.30am, well it should have been 7.30 but the two backpackers who were also being collected didn’t come down until 8.00am. No apologies were offered, but then again I didn’t expect any. My experiences of backpackers over the years has led me to understand that they operate in their own tiny little bubble and expect the whole world to revolve around it.
We were taken to a travel agent's office and the two backpackers became 70. This was turning into a nightmare. They crammed us onto two buses and eventually at about 9.00am we set off for the border. Had I taken a taxi we would have been more than half way to the border by now. Trying to ignore the mindless conversations going on around me I decided to try and sleep. This was simply impossible, the driver for no particular reason whatsoever decided that he had to sound his horn as he passed every motorbike, pushbike, pedestrian, dog, buffalo or anything else that resembled a living organism. Not just a short blast either but 7 or 8 blasts. It was totally ridiculous and went on for 4 hours.
The border was the same Mad Max film set as before just in reverse and we eventually found ourselves at the same small shop where they had tried the visa scam on the way in. We were informed that the bus would leave in one hour so we ordered food. As we waited for its arrival we watched in horror as those lucky enough or smart enough not to order food were shepherded onto a bus and it left without us. Yes, another scam! All the people who ordered food had to wait for the next bus. I managed to blag the front seat and was very grateful to have done when they filled the entire back of the minibus with backpackers and their enormous backpacks. I have grown tired of being barged in to on the BTS by these huge rucksacks over the years so I afforded myself a certain amount of schadenfreude as I watched them all sweating under the excessive weight.
After 30 minutes we made the ubiquitous stop for refuelling and moving on had only gone about a further 15 minutes when a young woman sitting behind us, tapped my girl on her shoulder and said, “Tell the driver to stop, my friend needs to pee.” Bite your lip, Keith, bit your lip! She asked the driver who grunted and carried on driving. After 10 more minutes another shoulder tap was delivered and the girl said, "Why are we not stopping?” At this, I turned round and pointed out that a) my girlfriend wasn’t driving the bus. b) She would no longer be acting as interpreter for anyone as rude as her. And c) If her friend had been grown up enough to have gone for a pee when we stopped the first time, she wouldn’t be crossing her legs and grimacing now. The driver afforded me a small smile and carried on driving.
After discovering that the bus would only make one stop in Bangkok and this would be at Khao San Road we persuaded the driver to stop at Bang Na and let us off. We arrived home 11 hours after the motodop had picked us up; an average speed of 22 miles per hour. The problem is though that Siem Reap and Angkor Wat are so good an experience that you are left almost feeling that it is worth the effort. Almost, next time I am flying!
Brings back nice memories of trips to Siem Reap. And yeah, the bus is to be avoided at all costs!