A new country! (Again). Yesterday I took a bike and went on a temple tour. The hostel has bikes you can take for free-a lock provided, but probably not needed. I was debating whether to go round Angkor Wat, given that I’d already seen it the day before, then remember that the chance to see it was the exact reason I’d booked a flight to Cambodia instead of straight to Thailand in the first place, and so got on with it.
After the previous day’s stormy rain, it was a lovely day – a bit hot, perhaps, given this is Asia, but it wouldn’t have been fun cycling in heavy rain. This time I followed the long straight road out of Siem Reap; I’m glad I didn’t run it yesterday; it’s not the prettiest, and busier for longer than my curvy road. Tickets for Angkor Wat are sold at a booth-more like a toll booth really – off to one side of the road a few miles before you get to the temple. They take your picture and $20 then you take your pass and off you go – though I’d nearly cycled past, not making the decision to turn in time, but was stopped by a guard telling me to get a ticket. At least I think that’s what he said-he may have been only suggesting I get one, you can probably use the roads to go to other places without a pass. I was joining a nice air of cluelessness, the bloke behind me paid, had his photo taken and was about to wander off, until reminded that he had a ticket to collect.
Angkor Wat was about 6km away from the hostel, so an easy ride. It was much more of a thrill to be going in, not just looking from the outside. After a very quick and relaxed check of my pass, I was onto the bridge over the wide moat. The temple entrance looms, magnificent, as in any pictures you’ve ever seen of it. Lots of people stop for a photo there, so getting an uncluttered one is difficult, but there are occasional opportunities. Once in there is another walkway, a couple of smaller temple buildings off to each side, the main temple peeping out and tour guides offering their services. I waved them off, along with the lady offering food and drink at her stall, “number 007, like James Bond”. Finally, the temple proper. The carvings are, beyond the sight of the building itself, the thrill, as they’re magnificent. There’s a telling of the Mahabharat, though given that the plaque says it has been forgotten in Cambodia, I’m not sure how they knew what it was. You can wander the corridors round the edge of the quadrangle, or head straight for the 60+m high central bit straight off, but those carvings in the former are worth the look. The central piece is up some steep steps. Going up was fine, particularly since I was behind some slow moving Indonesians (nationality guessed at), but I had no impatience. I’d already watched some elderly Chinese (likewise) ladies coming down backwards, and knew I’d be similarly circumspect when it came to looking at the steps from the top.
There are more intricate carvings at the top, particularly of the Srupan (check!), ladies who smile their benediction down upon you. It’s a peaceful vantage to see the rest of the site.
I wandered to the exit. No one else was leaving, and I took one look at the slope of the steps and refused. A man came past and stopped to take a picture, then paused. Now there were two of us waiting for some security, and it arrived in the shape of the Indonesians. Several girls and one big boy; I went down straight after him, followed by the words of a Dutchman helping his mate with “think of altitude as your friend”. We all made it. Heading out, I stepped off the main walkway to walk the grounds a little and was immediately spotted by a group of kids who all sell postcards, magnets, key rings. “You buy, you buy. One dollar. Two for one dollar”. They’ve learned the numbers, too, counting out the ten postcards – I learned later that some will run through French and Spanish numbers, too, though they’d managed to stump the kids’ versatility by claiming to be Russian. I bought some magnets, but learned a few days later that it’s better to buy nothing, in the hope that if no one buys anything from kids under 11, they’ll be allowed to go back to school. The schools are free, it’s just the kids’ ability to charm tourists that’s keeping them away.
They were cute, mind.
I cycled on, passing the Bayon temple, centre of Angkor Thom, again, and this time heading onwards. I can see why the landscape inspires Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider type stories; at any moment a temple may appear round a corner, or through some trees, and one of the pleasures of the day was stopping to see what the next one looked like. They’re of similar style, but some built in different coloured stone, and of course on different scales to the biggest.
Hot and thirsty, I stopped for a drink. There were temples either side of the road, and several stalls touting their wares as soon as I stopped. I haggled for a couple of drinks, turned down lunch, postcards, key rings and magnets and then wandered the temples, pretending not to notice the Scotsman who had been eating at the same place and to whom I’d already said goodbye. After a snooze I wandered back to the same place and she offered me lunch again, as she’d promised to. I turned down magnets and postcards, but entertained myself while waiting for curry by haggling over t shirts. Not from the kids this time.
Hot from the curry I grabbed water, beating her down from $1 for one to 50c for two. Which is, in fairness, the supermarket price. The next person who came along paid the dollar, so they win some, do okay on some.
Turning off the road, I was asked for my pass again, and when I paused for a moment the guard asked if I wanted to see a waterfall. I couldn’t see where he was going to pull it from on this straight road but said yes to find out, but in fact he was offering to accompany me to a waterfall the next day. No matter, then. This temple was a tout fest, from water lady (“but I have one already” “you drink, then buy on way out. Or I cry”) on the outside, to scarf girl, handbag woman and souvenir Buddha man. “You like my art? I make special price because blah blah” I was really enjoying myself by now, turning down magnets and postcards left, right and centre. “I have magnets” “you buy from me. One more, one more”.
From there – I didn’t buy more water, she didn’t cry – I cycled back, completing the loop I’d meant to run, more or less the half marathon course. Crikey, but that’s a course and a half, temples and countryside coming out of your ears. Pushing the pedals on the ancient bike a bit harder, I caught and passed the Scotsman, then stopped to watch some kids jumping off a bridge into the river, but they stopped, intimidated or offended by my presence.
I thought about sticking around for sunset, but the need for a shower and a cool in the pool won over and I headed back. It turned into a sociable evening, as my dorm friends had had a huge day, travelling hours in their tuk tuk to the far off ruined temple and waterfall, and arguing with the driver on their return. After happy hour beer, I disappeared-so they said, nice that they’d looked for me-but had only gone to watch Rocknrolla in the cinema room upstairs. Decent, though with the same ‘but he can’t act!’ problems as other Guy Ritchie films. More importantly, we were all into it, with a few belly laughs, but the cinema room closes at 11. The lights came on, we were told it was closing. “But there’s only a few minutes left!” “Ah, okay.” We relaxed, but the screen went blank-the big climax, stolen from us all.
Slightly bemused, especially when we spotted it was not yet 5 to, we milled about downstairs, and the two Dutchmen from the stairs earlier led the charge for a beer, which turned into a conversation about politics, music (The Heist, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis is great, the kids say) and English time descriptions. It is generally agreed that “half six” is three.
The next day I was up earlyish, thinking I’d head to the market to replace a once white but now grim shirt, but Singaporean dorm mate Stefen joined me for breakfast and I was having too nice a time chatting and getting food advice for Singapore. Other dorm mate, North Carolina girl whose name went in one ear and out the same way, let me know that another lady downstairs was heading for the same flight as me – “a little older, with kinda voluminous hair”.
Right. We did meet up, and did share my tuk tuk. Her hair was perfectly normal. Flying to Bangkok was dead easy, avoiding rumoured several hour queues at the border with a 45 minute flight. I had checked in online, which gave me access to a special slow lane-Karen checked in there and was waiting for me when I finally dropped off my bag. I had at least had a nice long chat with the British couple ahead of me.
I took the slow but cheap option from the airport – Don Mueang is the equivalent of Stansted, with free shuttle bus transfer to the main airport. Wikitravel suggests an hour, but it only took 40 minutes, and then I hopped on the city line which took me straight to the hostel, pretty much, at Ratchaprarop. “You need hotel?” No, not really, I’m up here. I took myself off for a wander around, realising all the big hotels were nearby, seeing a big crowd exercising in Lumphini park, alongside a tent village ‘protesting the government corruption’. The noise of traffic is a constant, enlivened by the lawnmower sounds of tuk tuks. I like it, but can see why people have suggested a couple of days is enough. See some sights, go somewhere a bit more peaceful.