Our bus slowed to a stop, but something was different.
There was a growing din of Cambodian music and the groggy groans of other passengers. We heard a voice shouting in Khmer which we assumed was telling us to get off the bus. Fondling our way through the darkness, we reached the bus exit and were surrounded by a crowd of almost thirty people.
We knew this was our final stop in Siem Reap when we saw our bags piled up on the dusty ground. It turns out the people crowd comprised passengers waiting to board and tuk-tuk drivers offering to give us a lift.
Despite many travellers online warning not to take a night bus due to poor road quality and frequent crashes, we found it is a good way to save time and hotel costs.
After gathering our belongings and our senses, one of the staff members that was on our bus told us he could tuk-tuk us to the inner city where there were restaurants. We had two hours to spare before our tour started so we decided to go with him. Of course he wanted to make a quick buck, but we thought it would be a good idea to buy some more water and find WiFi.
After breakfast at the Blue Pumpkin, a Western-style restaurant (with Western prices) we met with our bus driver, a youngish, bald man donning a distinctive red fedora. When we asked him why he became a tour guide, he said that he has no choice; that is difficult to make a living in Cambodia. We remarked about the small number of ex-pat Cambodians, and the driver said that this is because most Cambodians are poor and never get to visit another country. It made me realize how fortunate all three of us were to be able to save enough money in a few months to travel across the world and enjoy God’s creation and people.
When we arrived at the temple area we were disappointed that our “tour guide” was just a driver who did not follow us into the temples to tell us their history. He did, however, tell us the general direction we should tour and where to meet him after each temple.
Left to our own devices, we took the opportunity to climb the temples and admire their beauty from the top.
At the Bayon temple and other smaller temples, Cambodians will try to start a friendly conversation by first guessing where you are from, and then asking what you do. They will follow you and show you good angles to take pictures — it is very easy to be captivated by their friendliness.
You have to remember that you are at a tourist area and everyone is trying to make money off you. While I don’t doubt those guides are informative, don’t expect them to be cajoling you because you are special. If you don’t want a tour, just firmly say no and explain you wish to explore the temples yourself.
Now, as for the temples, though time has clearly taken a toll on the stone, one can still see intricate carvings and the integrity of the structures. The gaps between the stones were tight, similar to the fit-and-finish the Mayan temples are known for. It is quite amazing to imagine people building the structures without heavy machinery.
The searing Cambodian weather was worsened by the distance between the temples where the sun bore down indiscriminately. You could try to find refuge in the temples, but the dilemma was that you are crammed with other sticky bodies and lack of air circulation.
At the base of temples you can occasionally see heads peeping from the upper levels which gave some motivation that I too could ascend and enjoy the view. Of course, you have to first climb stairs that were created before optimal rise and run ratios were discovered. I, personally, was impressed by the older tourists who seemed to be handling the ascents just fine — not to mention they were all much dryer that I was!
After the smaller temples, we had lunch at nearby restaurant which of course had prices of a tourist attraction (read: double at $6 USD). However, perhaps the AC and WiFi was worth the price of admission?
With our stomachs semi-replenished and a quick wipe-down of sweat, we headed to the most iconic temple in Cambodia: Ankor Wat.
At a distance, the anticipation was building as we saw the three tops of the roofs peeking eagerly through the trees. We were dropped off pat the trees at a sandy clearing. This was the rear of Ankor Wat without the typical water you see surrounding the temple where we would eventually end up.
As beautiful as the temple was, a long day of visually similar temples had dampened the excitement. We visited the many temples in Siem Reap in an afternoon evein though many would suggest multiple days. Whike visiting the temples there were many tour guides with large French and Korean groups. Unfortunately I was not able to make out any details.
Cheapskate’s tip: Learn foreign languages so you can listen in on a tour without them suspecting so. It helps to learn a language not associated with your race. E.g. Learn French if you are Chinese.
After the temples, we went to the Floating Villages which are restaurants and stores floating on the Tonle Sap Lake. We took a motor boat down the inlet to the main lake area. When we encountered another boat coming the opposite duration our boats nearly touched since only a narrow area of water deep enough to be navigable. We also got splashed with huge waves of muddy water so don’t wear your best clothes when visiting the Floating Villages!
The lake is extremely shallow and you can see people standing knee-high in some areas even though we were a few hundred meters from shore. We stopped at a restaurant/store which sold alligator leather goods and other souvenirs. We quickly perused the store and found nothing of interest.
We saw a church on the water near the floating store we were on, but apparently we could not navigate there because our boat was too big for the waters.
The tour guide apologized because he claimed he not know that the lake was low tide or that it was going to be murky. We found that hard to believe and felt cheated of our $22 USD.
We had about two hours before dinner so we asked the driver to bring us to a mall where we cleaned ourselves off and ate some Lucky Burger, a fast food chain. Ironically the burgers were awful, but the chicken was very good and inexpensive.
Our final destination was a buffet with a traditional Cambodian dancing show. The tour guide described it as “very attractive show” with “hundreds of food choices”. This was not my first time on a tour and I should have known that the show and buffet was of the tourist-trap variety.
Sadly, the food was very mediocre, especially for $16 USD. I normally try to get my money’s worth, but due to exchaustion and unappealing food, I stopped after my first plate — unheard of!
The Cambodian dance show did feature “attractive” dancers, but they were not very synchronized. We learned the hard way that the tour guides always try to make commission and may recommend activities that may not be worth your time.
We still had a couple of hours before our night bus home so we find a cafe and used their WiFi for two hours (of course we bought drinks)!
It took a second to remember we were in Cambodia after spending time in the comfort of the café.
We hailed a tuk-tuk driver didn’t know where our station was and had to call for help multiple times during our ride. He even turned into a lane meant for opposite traffic (not that it really matters in Cambodia!). Thankfully we made it back to the bus station in time.
The tuk-tuk driver wanted wanted $5 for he ride because it was further than he thought, but since we already agreed on $4, we held our ground and that was the end of that.
Tip: Make sure you negotiate the price before you get in a tuk-tuk.
We will be back in Phnom Penh around 6:30am tomorrow if all goes well 😀