We experienced our first land border crossing traveling from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was pretty sketchy, but I must say, Marc and I OWNED it.
First off, all the bus companies, even the government-owned companies, will try and scam travelers by stopping before the border at some random restaurant. Then a man will come aboard speaking perfect English and offer to expedite your visa for a fee, normally its 150% of the cost you’d pay to do it yourself at the border.
The man gave his pitch, and I was proud to see only three or four people agreed to it. The rest of us chose the more difficult but rewarding/cheaper path of getting our visa on arrival independently.
The bus dropped us off at the entrance of these large silver gates. We have few photos of the border crossing because it felt like something bad would happen if we started snapping pictures. There were a series of buildings, none of them marked, and about a thousand cars, buses, motorbikes, and people in a crowd. A man from our bus shuffled us off and pointed in the direction of one of the mysterious buildings. The building he pointed to was yet another visa expediting place, completely unaffiliated with the actual border crossing. First we got our visas stamped to leave Thailand. This process didn’t take too long, and afterward we were brought through a gate and into a hallway. The hallway spit us back out onto a sidewalk that ran along the street. This sidewalk was caged-in with steel pipes and barbed wire. The traffic to the right of us remained heavy and jammed. It was super dusty and hot. There were pedestrians mixed in with the traffic carrying luggage, packages, small children, etc. It looked like a scene from the Gold Rush of ’49. Very lawless. To make matters worse, traffic had to switch sides of the road, from driving on the left in Thailand to the right in Cambodia.
The caged sidewalk led us beside numerous stands selling snacks and drinks, some tour stalls, and some counters that looked more official looking. There were groups of travelers standing around, nobody really talking or looking like they’re in the right place.
The sidewalk ended at a busy intersection, still tossing up dust like some sort of Wild West town. Off to the right were rows and rows of parked cars. Across the street was a 5 meter tall steel fence. We eyed an inconspicuous sign saying “Visa on Arrival” that pointed to the right, across the busy lanes of traffic, to yet another mysterious building. We waited for a larger group of us travelers to cross so we had strength in numbers. Surely the trucks, bikes, and cars wouldn’t run over a stream of 12 people?
It didn’t feel like a real place at all. There were numerous large casinos dotted along the road. There was a large parking lot of what looked to be abandoned vehicles. Marc and I had a conversation about this interstitial space. It felt like if someone was killed here, nothing would happen, the traffic wouldn’t even stop.
We finally found the building we needed after scooting along the fence on a narrow sidewalk next to the busy street. Once there, government officials gave us forms to fill out, we paid for our visa, and then they gestured to another building down the road. We left the comfort of the air-conditioned room and went back out into the dust bowl of no man’s land. After another block we found the second visa checkpoint, this time I guess we got our actual visa stapled into our passports. We filled out yet another form. Through all of this we kept an eye out for our bus where our luggage was. There were so many vehicles along that crazy road, and we’ve heard some bus companies make you switch busses after the border crossing, which could leave you stranded. This visa on arrival could have been hell, but we glided through each checkpoint and were the first ones back on the bus. Go Marc and Mary! Even the travelers who paid to have their visa process expedited weren’t back before us.
I love observing a country from a bus window. Watching people in their communities, taking in the sights, appreciating all the businesses lining the roadways. Sometimes it can be especially fun when you drive past a festival or lively market filled with locals or a wedding. It’s a fun site seeing energetic school children heading home after a long day. They’re all wearing school uniforms and a few lucky kids have bicycles or even scooters to ride home. If they spot you on the bus they’ll wave frantically and flash a smile or a peace sign. Throughout our travels we continue to notice large groups of people hanging out together at each other’s homes. They are under the shade of a hut, drinking beer, playing cards. Women are carrying their babies next door to probably their sister’s home or their parents. Toddlers are pantless and peeing on the sidewalks.
At first the homes in Cambodia seemed large and luxurious with a good amount of property. They were huge two story homes with terraces on both levels. The trims were painted bright white and the rest of the house was colored bright orange, yellow, and blue. Very Florida. Once we got more inland there was a greater variety, and we once again noticed homes that were made out of thatched palms, old timbers, and corrugated steel.
Mini-marts and fruit stands were every hundred meters selling the same goods. Dozens of bananas on strings hang above the large table filled with mangos, watermelon, jack fruit, oranges, and durian. Pineapples were on separate tables arranged in huge pyramids.
Our hostel in Siem Reap was named “White Rabbit,” and it was Alice in Wonderland themed. Kooky decorations cluttered the walls and ceilings, unique furniture was set into small seating arrangements for mingling guests. There was a narrow swimming pool in the center. When we arrived and settled in, we got our first taste of the incredibly cheap prices in Cambodia. We got a pitcher of beer for $3, and would later head to Pub Street where most places sold a mug of beer for $0.50.
We weren’t there to drink beer all day, although one day spent in the pool doing just that might have been fun… We were there, like everyone else, to see the famous Temples of Angkor Wat. What we didn’t quite realize until we got there was that the park was home to dozens of temples, with Angkor Wat just being the largest and most famous. The first day we decided to rent mountain bikes to explore the park at our own pace.
There are two common routes visitors use: the small circuit and the grand circuit. We chose to ride the small circuit on our bikes, opposite the direction of the tours, to try and miss the crowds who would all be going clockwise. We explored Angkor Wat first and were taken aback at the amount of tourists roaming the grounds. Angkor Wat is huge, the length of one side of the square shaped temple is 1 km. Even in this vast space we were constantly bumping into other visitors, waiting at the bottom of steps to have our turn to ascend, and trying to be patient while others snapped photos so we didn’t ruin their shots.
Angkor Wat really was incredible, and our minds reeled at the thought of building these temples almost a thousand years ago. Sometimes we would stop as we walked past a window or a doorway and reflect on how this temple may have looked all those years ago. Monks may have stood exactly where we were standing now! Every inch of the place was picture-worthy, and we loved being able to explore inside the temples. I didn’t know visitors were allowed to go inside, so that was a nice surprise. Although I would later read that the Cambodian government and those working with UNESCO are constantly figuring out ways to preserve the temples because they obviously weren’t built to withstand this amount of traffic. Around two million people visit each year. We observed the steps that were wearing down, the corners of thresholds rounding where thousands stepped each day, and the edges of door frames rubbed smooth by a million hands.
A lot of work goes into refurbishing broken down temples and replacing some stones with new concrete. You could tell which parts of temples were new and which were original. We understood the need to preserve these historical sites, but sometimes we thought it would be better to let the temples topple over and let THAT be a part of its history.
Here are some of the temples that we visited.
This was the only water temple. It was in the center of a ginormous man-made rectangle pond. You walked a long boardwalk to get to the center.
This was probably the second most famous temple after Angkor Wat. Tomb Raider was filmed here. There were ancient trees growing through and around the temple. This temple is unique because there has been a conscious effort to NOT reconstruct and conserve the original nature of the temple but to let it fall into its more natural state.
The second day we hired a tuk-tuk to drive us around the grand circuit. We were picked up at 5:00 am so we could watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, which is a very popular activity. There were a thousand people there by 6:30 am all crowding around a small pond to get a shot of Angkor Wat reflecting against the water and the bright colors rising behind it.
Watch this short clip to hear how we feel about this:
Despite the crowds and the heat and the tuk-tuk drivers squeezing every last penny out of you, we very much enjoyed touring the Temples of Angkor and highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Cambodia. Although I doubt anybody would consider skipping it if they’re in the area. It’s popular for a reason.