After more than 18 months living in China, I decided it was about time I visited a bit more of Asia. I’ve visited quite a few places in China, and in East Asia I’ve been to HK, Macao, Taiwan and Japan (my friend pointed out that some people may see this as not having been anywhere other than China…). But I’d never been to Southeast Asia, and after working like a dog throughout summer I finally had some time to myself.
I opened up tabs on my computer: maps of Asia, ctrip flights, wikitravel visa requirements. I faffed about for a while but in the end decided on Cambodia. It then took me ages to actually book the flights, because the thought of booking the wrong date stresses me out so much. I ended up booking my hotels in a rush and booked the wrong date! I felt really stupid.
I really wanted to fly from Hongqiao Airport but it wasn’t possible, so I decided to try to get into the holiday swing of things by taking the Maglev to Pudong Airport. Big mistake, the Maglev was terrifying and I spent the whole journey thinking the train would fall off the tracks, except it wouldn’t even be falling off because it’s not bloody touching the rails. I was relieved to get to Pudong Airport, which was an unfamiliar feeling as I absolutely hate that airport. I’ve made lists of airports I’d rather go to, and London Southend beats Pudong. This time the Starbucks was closed. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?! I thought the flight was only 2 hours, I’m not sure why, but anyway, after 4.5 hours I was quite sick of the amount of leg room I had on the budget airline I had optimistically booked.
My first task when I landed was to get a visa to enter the country. I got some $$$ (as in, literally $$$) out of the ATM in the immigration hall, then pushed my way past the hordes of tourists to get a visa application form, then pushed my way past yet more people to hand over my application and passport. I didn’t have a spare photo so I got charged an additional $3, but otherwise the visa cost $30 and took 5 minutes, during which time I trampled yet more tourists like the boor that I am. Living in China has taught me to use my size as weapon, coupled with a dead eyed stare when people complain about it (no one ever says anything, they just passive aggressively squeal – like that’s going to stop me).
Finally through immigration, I got a sim card for my phone and took a tuktuk into town. This got off to a great start as the driver pulled out across six lanes of traffic and started off towards town on the wrong side of the road. About 1km later we swung back across and continued on our way on the correct side, so presumably the experience was designed to make me value my life. At the hotel, he asked for a tip and I laughed at him (see above: living in China kills your soul).
I won’t go into the boring details of trying to sort out my incorrectly booked dates (screw you, ctrip) but the hotel was super nice. My room was huge and calm and pretty, though there was a gravel path to the bathroom with small boulders on it that I inevitably fell over every time I went to the bathroom. Design flaw or user error, I don’t know. I went for a curry at the restaurant next door and then flopped into bed.
The next morning I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before walking over to the Royal Palace. Walking in Phnom Penh is a nightmare, I think I saw two pavements all day. I walked in the road, dodging the motorbikes and cars and wondering what I was doing. It was hot, really hot. Eventually I got to the Royal Palace and it was closed, of course, because it was lunchtime. A couple were having their photos taken outside and a man chased me across a small park to hand me a worried-looking pigeon. I retreated to Sisowath Quay, an embankment along the river with some slightly shaded benches. An icecream later, I felt slightly more ready to take on the city (again) and after lunch, I went back to the Royal Palace. It was pretty cool, very royal, much gold, such shiny.
I set off again for the Genocide Museum, in a school-cum-torture prison-cum-museum. This was where the Khmer Rouge tortured people before sending them off to the Killing Fields, so it wasn’t at all uplifting, but it was extremely thought provoking. I had no idea that the Khmer Rouge had emptied Cambodia’s cities, or that 25% of the overall population died. It felt particularly pertinent given the UN trials of surviving Khmer Rouge officials (abandoned since my trip…).
The next day I was up bright and early on another tuktuk, heading for the airport. I was extremely worried that I didn’t have enough time, but once I’d checked in, I realised that the boarding gate was literally up a flight of stairs and past a shop, so I had enough time to browse the not-that-bad bookshop (until I saw the prices, LOLS!). I was probably the youngest person on the flight, everyone else being retired British people from Cumbria and retired Chinese people from Guangzhou. I sat next to a man who was fascinated that I was reading a book in Chinese and told me that he could read Chinese too. I smiled along with him but given that he was from China I wasn’t really that impressed at his advanced reading skills.
The flight to Siem Reap took a whole 30 minutes, and we landed at the domestic terminal, which is basically a room with a baggage carousel. There’s no bus to take you from the plane to the terminal (which is good as I hate those buses), you just walk across the tarmac. I felt like a hero in a film, or a 1950s movie star. I took a tuktuk into town, and told the driver I wanted to go to the Angkor History Museum. He insisted that we needed to buy a ticket from a ticketseller in town and we had a bit of a row about it. I still don’t know who was right but he’d told me about hordes of chinese tourists at the museum clogging up the ticket office (little did he know that that’s my bread-and-butter) and in the end said hordes did not exist. The museum was pretty cool, lots of statues and buddhas and hindu/buddhist mashup figurines.
Afterwards I went to check out my hotel, a 10 minute walk up the road. 20 minutes later I realised I was lost, but didn’t want all the tuktuk drivers to realise, so I carried on walking until there was something I could pretend to be heading for… then of course I had to walk back past the drivers, who could see straight through my sham. Finally, finally, I found my hotel, and the hotel staff all very sweetly commented on how sweaty I was. My room was spacious and clean, with another gravel installation in the bathroom (only the shower this time). I was meant to be having an online class but my student didn’t show up, so I called my friend and ranted at him about it for a while, before realising that actually, it was a great thing and I should enjoy my freeeeeeeedom. I went to check out the rooftop pool and swam about in the pool, laughing to myself. Later on I changed into slightly less sweaty clothes and went to a fairtrade khmer restaurant, even finding the odd bit of pavement to walk on on the way.
The next morning I spent some quality time washing my (aforementioned sweaty) clothes, before heading out to explore Siem Reap. It’s a small city, based almost entirely on tourism thanks to the proximity of Angkor Wat. I’d read about art gallery, but the whole street was closed for renovations, so I wandered along the river, sipping on iced Khmer coffee and trying to write my diary, before shopping and lunch. While having lunch, it started absolutely chucking down so I sat under a large shelter by the restaurant pool and read a book about Tony Blair (light holiday reading). Later I walked to the ticket office for Angkor Wat… Some facts:
- The site is about 7km north of town and there is no ticket office on site
- The ticket office is about 4km out of town, though of course not on the road to Angkor Wat
- The ticket office is open from 5am-5.30pm
- You must buy your ticket in person, as they take a photo to go on the ticket
- You can only buy tickets for that day, unless you go after 5pm, when you can buy tickets for the next day
- Sunrise is at 5.30am
This all seemed like an overly complicated ticket buying system, and presumably designed so that you have to hire a tuktuk for the day, from 5am. I decided against that and hired a bike instead.
I woke up at 4.30am, got dressed and went down to the reception desk to pick up my bike… only to find no one was there. Eventually a receptionist showed up, and I had to restrain myself from being too impatient about it all, particuarly when he couldn’t find the bike lock key. I really wanted to make sure I was at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. It would be stupid to go to all this hassle and then miss it. Finally my bike was unlocked and I set off at full pelt up the road. At first there were streetlights, but then there weren’t, and I didn’t have lights, so I had to try to see ahead as far as possible whenever a tuktuk passed (luckily quite often). I was quite glad that I didn’t know about all the stray dogs and monkeys on this road at the time. I ditched the bike by a tree and walked over a pontoon bridge to the main Angkor Wat temple site.
By this point it was edging towards sunrise, and I jostled into position by a lake in front of the temple. And wow, just wow. What an amazing sunrise.
Afterwards I wandered about the temple, checking out the frescoes and looking at the carvings. I wasn’t aware before I got to Siem Reap that the famous Angkor Wat temple is only one of about 20 temples in the Angkor Archaelogical Site, but having a bike meant I could go and explore them at my own pace. The next temple had lots of faces – hundreds of them.
Shortly after this, I got chatting to another cyclist and we decided to look at the rest of the temples together. Some of them were very small and in need of restoration, others were much larger. A few involved very precarious stairs! It was really great to have company, and Christian was the best kind of company – smart, funny and a cyclist to boot!
By about midday it was getting very warm and I was also pretty tired from such an early start, so we cycled back to town (much easier in the daylight) and I went back to my hotel. After some lunch (well, breakfast really) I planned to read by the pool but I fell asleep. In the evening Christian and I went for dinner and beers near Pub Street, which is a street full of bars. I found Pub Street really weird, actually, so many tourists, and while it didn’t feel sketchy, it just highlighted the massive gulf between Cambodians and tourists.
The following morning I flew back to Phnom Penh. I decided against taking a tuktuk into town and followed the signs for the Airport Express. The signage was of a high speed train and I was intrigued, as (terrible experience with the Maglev notwithstanding) I do love a train. I got to a small waiting room and paid my $2 and sat down. Suddenly I heard a terrible noise, the blaring of horns and metallic scraping. I looked out the window, and a small diesel engine was honking its way past the waiting traffic and pulling into the station. I got onto the train – an engine and a single carriage – and after sitting for a while, we started off towards the city. The train track, a single track, ran through some dusty roads and delapidated, temporary-looking housing, at slightly faster than walking pace. It was quite an experience, and took longer than a tuktuk but was possibly more interesting.
I hadn’t really liked Phnom Penh earlier in the week but I was feeling much more relaxed and had spent a lot of time thinking and being by myself, so had a much better experience. I went to a temple on a hill, the Central Market, a river boat along the Mekong at sunset, and finally a huge firework display outside the Royal Palace to mark Cambodian independence day. After all that, I headed back to my hotel and hung out by the pool (where I met a Scouse girl who asked me whether it was true that Chinese men have small penises).
My trip ended with a final tuktuk ride to the airport, which I can’t remember at all, and an entirely uneventful flight, which I slept through, so I can’t write about either but I know happened because I ended up in Hong Kong…