I had not seen my friend Annick for a few years when she called to tell me she would be in DC the week of Thanksgiving. I had barely finished adding her visit to my calendar when she called again to tell me there had been a change of plans. Her job was sending her to Laos, where she had worked for many years, for a brief project. She asked if, instead of meeting up in DC, I would be interested in meeting her in Cambodia. Naturally, I said yes. We made plans to meet at the Bangkok airport and fly to Cambodia together.
I decided to arrive in Bangkok a day early so I could adjust to the time change while Annick finished her work. When I arrived, it was early Saturday morning. I had reservations at the Royal Orchid Sheraton, and they gave me the option of a guaranteed early check-in for a half-day rate. It was money well spent. Arriving at 8 a.m. after 24 hours of travel, I wanted nothing more than a shower and bed. Of course, also wanting my body to adjust to the local time, I had to force myself to stay awake. It was hard, but looking out at the amazing river view from my room, eating the best pad thai of my life at the hotel cafe, and enjoying an afternoon massage at the spa all helped me through the day. Rough vacation so far.
The next day, I was supposed to meet Annick at the airport at 6 pm, so I had some time to explore the city. Before my trip, I found a day tour company through Trip Advisor called Tour with Tong. That morning, my guide Daeng met me at the hotel and we took off the see the sights. I had the option of using a car service or taking local transportation, and decided to it would be more fun to go the local way. Daeng was a really cool girl, and we hit it off right away.
We took a cab to the Golden Buddha. It was the first of what was to be many Buddhas over the course of the week. The Golden Buddha is the largest solid gold Buddha in the world. Over 700 years old, it had been wrapped in plaster for protection generations ago, and was only rediscovered in 1957 when it was accidentally dropped and the plaster broke. I was eager to go looking for my own plaster Buddhas to accidentally drop, but Daeng said it was time to move on.
We next walked through Chinatown. It was still early on a Sunday morning, and businesses were setting up shop. It was fun to wander through the city, and I was fully immersed in the exoticness of it all when Daeng suggested we grab a drink. I didn’t expect she would take me to a 7-Eleven, but as we sipped the amazingly good Thai iced teas we got from the the soda fountain, I enjoyed the experience all the same.
We finished our iced teas just as we arrived at Wat Po, where the Reclining Buddha is located. Before I had left DC, a friend told me to be sure to see this, describing it as a really big Buddha. I didn’t think much of it when she told me, but when I arrived I was blown away at sheer massiveness of the Buddha. It’s really big. I mean, seriously big.
While we wandered the grounds of Wat Po, Daeng received news that the Grand Palace was closed for the day. It was to be our next stop, and so we decided to continue on to Wat Arun. We boarded a river taxi to get to Wat Arun, a temple with walls decorated in pieces of Chinese porcelain. The temple steps are quite steep, and I was glad Daeng suggested we replenish with some coconut water before beginning the climb. Drinking from straight out of the coconut, I was perfectly content daydreaming how I could totally survive off of coconut if I were stranded on a desert island. In my relaxed state, staring up at the incline, I no longer felt compelled to climb. But I eventually did, and I’m glad I reconsidered, as the views from the top were amazing, allowing me to get a better appreciation of the layout of the city.
After a brief stop to enjoy some street vendor food – pork balls, which Daeng said were her favorite – we continued on to the Jim Thompson House. We started in a cab, but the traffic was awful, so we hopped out and headed for the Skytrain. I loved the Skytrain. It makes the DC Metro look like a horse and buggy operation. Clean, bright, and cheap, with televisions in each car, it was a great way to get around.
Jim Thompson was a CIA officer stationed in Thailand just after World War II. He fell in love with the area, left the agency, and settled in Bangkok, establishing a silk export company. He mysteriously disappeared in Malaysia in 1967, and his home is now a museum. It’s a beautiful teak house in traditional Thai style, with an impressive collection of antiques and artwork. I could easily see myself living in his house, but instead I had to return to the hotel, grab my bags, and head off to the airport to meet Annick.
After some confusion about our meet up point (well, confusion on my part), I met Annick at our gate shortly before boarding began. The flight to Siem Reap was about an hour, and we arrived around 8 p.m. The Bangkok airport was very cosmopolitan and active, but when we stepped off the plane in Siem Reap, we walked across a dark and quiet tarmac towards a small and simple airport. I felt like I was arriving under the cover of night on some covert operation. Yes, I was already romanticizing.
Annick had made reservations at the Borann Hotel, recommended by some of her friends and family. They had a car waiting for us at the airport, and after driving down an avenue of large, resort-style hotels, I was glad that our hotel turned out to be much smaller and intimate. We celebrated our arrival with some Angkor Beer at the pool lounge, then turned in for the night.
The next morning, we ventured out on foot to explore Siem Reap. As eager as I was to start taking pictures, I quickly refocused my attention to not getting run over by a motorbike. Everybody and their brother was on a motorbike. Make that everybody and their entire family. I was amazed at the number of people crammed on one motorbike. And while the lack of clear lanes and traffic signals seemed chaotic to me, the movement of pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and the occasional SUV did seem to have its own type of order.
We made our way to the Old French Quarter and the Old Market, where I couldn’t get over the variety of stalls. Fresh produce, live fish, and chicken legs down one aisle, a row of beauty salons down the next, and endless stalls of silks.
We stopped for lunch at a Khmer cafe, and enjoyed a delicious mango salad, noodles, spring rolls, and fresh squeezed passion fruit juice. Everything was so flavorful. As the mid-day heat became uncomfortable, we returned to the hotel for a dip in the pool, cleaned up, and then hired a tuk-tuk to take us to Angkor Wat.
As I was told, the logistics of Angkor Wat work like this: if you want to see the sunrise, you should purchase your entry pass after 5pm the day before. This allows you get in quickly the next morning, plus you can enter and see the sunset at the time you purchase your pass. This was all I knew. After getting our passes, our tuk-tuk driver – whose name we could never quite grasp despite repeated attempts – drove us down a tree-lined avenue that was crowded with tuk-tuks and small vans. We passed families having picnics around a lake, and I was reminded of Central Park or Retiro Park in Madrid.
Our driver stopped amid a flotilla of tuk-tuks and told us that we had arrived at the place to see the sunset. I had no idea where we were supposed to go, but since a large crowd of people – including a group of monks – was all headed up the same hill, I figured that was where we were going, too. Everyone was moving quickly, and so I increased my pace, not entirely sure why we were all in a rush. There seemed to be plenty of time before the sunset.
At the top of the hill stood a large ruin, and everyone began frantically making their way up the steep steps. If I had been alone, I would have never imagined climbing this thing. But since everyone else was doing it, I just followed along, using both hands and feet to make it up. It was all a bit crazy.
I continued to follow the crowd to an area where everyone was holding their cameras above their heads and snapping away. I realized then that the sun was beginning to set, and this was why there was such a frenzy. Everyone was trying to grab the perfect spot to capture it. As much as I wanted to enjoy the view, there were simply too many people. I wandered to the other side of the ruin, tried to figure out how I was going to get down, and really, really hoped that the rest of my visit would not be this crazy.
We returned to our tuk-tuk, planning to head back to town and have dinner. But our driver asked us if we wanted to see where the locals hung out and took us to a carnival. Watching children on the rides, teenagers hanging out, and families strolling around, we could have been in any American town. I have to admit that I thought we were going to be expected to buy something. Why else would he take two female tourists to a local hangout? Just to be nice and share his culture? But it turned out that yes, he was just being nice and sharing his culture.
We had to be up at 4am for sunrise at Angkor Wat. Around 2am, I was awakened by heavy rainfall outside our window. With memories of my washed out trip to Machu Picchu running through my head, I was sure I screamed out, “No, not again!” but Annick claimed she heard nothing. As it turned out, the rainfall was not that intense, and so by 4:30am we were on our way. It was fun to ride through the quiet streets, with only the occasional tuk-tuk headed in our direction. We got to Angkor Wat about 5am. It was still pretty dark and we realized that we should have brought a flashlight.
Following the flashlight of some other – and smarter – tourists in the distance, we made our way to the temple. There were not nearly as many people as the night before, and we were able to find a quiet spot, enjoy the moment, and await the sunrise. It was nice to have the time to take it all in and allow myself my own whispered freakout that I was really here. I mean, not just here, but actually experiencing this moment, this very brief time of the day when the sun emerges across the horizon. Five minutes later, it was daylight, and we off to explore.
Angkor Wat is actually one of a number of temples inside the Angkor Archaeological Park. For 500 years it was a hubbub of political and cultural activity, the Los Angeles of its time. In the 15th century, the center of power shifted, and the temples fell into neglect until being “rediscovered” in the 19th century. Most of the temples were originally Hindu, but went back and forth as Buddhist and Hindu depending on who was in charge.
My favorite temple was The Bayon, which features over 200 faces with an enigmatic expression. The face is believed to be either a god or a king, but I was sure it was our tuk-tuk driver. We also visited Ta Prohm, where parts of Tomb Raider were filmed.
By now, we had seen almost all the temples in the park, and the heat was starting to wear us down. As we headed back to our tuk-tuk, some little girls approached us selling bracelets. At first I said no, then Annick questioned why the girl next to her was offering 3 bracelets for $1 while the girl next to me was offering 4 for $1. Realizing I had the better deal, I bought the bracelets, which caused the other girl to offer the same. Annick bought the bracelets, and the girls ran off happy. In retrospect, I think they may have planned that whole pitch, but I admire their entrepreneurial spirit.
We ended the day with massages at Bodia Spa and a few Singapore Slings at a bar called The Warehouse. The next morning, it was on to Phnom Penh. We could have taken a bus or boat, but because Annick had some work equipment with her, she felt more comfortable hiring a car. At $35 for a five hour drive, I had no objections. We enjoyed a nice drive through the Cambodian countryside, on one of the few highways in the country.
I had no idea what to expect of Phnom Penh. Annick and I considered going to a beach town after Siem Reap, but couldn’t make it work logistically with our time frame. Phnom Penh was an easy choice, but I had heard that it wasn’t that nice of a place, and that crime – particularly bag snatching – was a problem. But when we arrived at our hotel, the Kabiki, located on a side street closed off to traffic, it was such a beautiful, secluded oasis that I knew we had made the right call.
We got settled and then went to explore the neighborhood. Two blocks over, we came across a street full of cute boutiques filled with jewelry and clothes made by local designers. It was all more sophisticated than I had imagined.
We had dinner at The Sugar Palm, a charming restaurant at the end of block. Sitting on the upstairs terrace, drinking mojitos and listening to Al Green, we finally got around to trying Amok, a Cambodian specialty that takes 40 minutes to prepare. The fish curry souffle was well worth the wait.
The next day, we took a cab to The Killing Fields, located about 20 minutes outside of the city. I knew of this place, and of the Khmer Rouge, but did not have a full understanding of the history. Emotions swirled as I walked around, from incomprehension to anger to sadness to guilt. The fields were so pretty and peaceful, yet I felt sick to my stomach while pausing at the large pits in the ground that once served as mass graves.
We then went back into town to see the Genocide Museum. The museum was once a high school that was turned into a prison under the Khmer Rouge. The cells and torture rooms were preserved, and walking through them was disturbing. The hardest thing for me to comprehend was how a people who had suffered such terrible atrocities could be so warm and welcoming just two decades later. The more I learned and saw, the more remarkable and inspirational the Cambodian people became to me.
With the morning’s activities weighing heavily on our mind, we needed a break. So we headed over to the Russian Market. The market got its name from the Russians who would come to get Western goods during the 1980s. After a quick bite at the Melting Pot Cafe, a cute little place run by a French expat, we spent the afternoon souvenir shopping.
We finished our evening with dinner at the Friends Cafe, a restaurant that keeps young people off the streets by training them to be servers and cooks, and a drink at the Foreign Correspondents Club, a popular spot overlooking the river. The FCC was just as I imagined, very romantic and exotic a la The Year of Living Dangerously. But I couldn’t help but notice the many older men hanging out with girls (and boys) far too young for them, which quickly dispelled my fantasy.
The next day was our last in Cambodia. After a yummy breakfast at the hotel, Annick decided to hang out by the pool and work on her tan before we had to leave. Feeling adventurous, I decided to head out on my own. I planned to see the Royal Palace, but, just like in Bangkok, it was closed for the day. I ended up at the National Museum, which offered a nice respite from the heat. I returned to the hotel to find a much tanner Annick, and we got ready to leave.
At the airport, I realized that I didn’t have any local currency left. Wanting some as a souvenir, I saw a currency exchange and told the cashier that I wanted to exchange one dollar. She looked at me like I was crazy, but I got 3800 riel for it, in 8 crisp bills, enough to share with others and still have some for myself.
I left Annick where I had met her, at the Bangkok airport. She was continuing on home to Stockholm. I still had one more day in Bangkok. We enjoyed a beer before saying goodbye, and I sincerely hope that someday we can meet up in another foreign airport and do it all again.