My journey to Cambodia began with a 5:45am taxi to the local train station, a collection of trailer buildings alongside a barren track. There the station managers would point at oncoming trains and look at me going, “no, no. Next one.” At least someone was looking out for me.
The ride was 5 and a half hours directly across Thailand from Bangkok to the Poipet border. I sat with a father and his two sons in the open window cart. Women sat in the back chopping mangos and preparing their produce for the day. By 8am, they were walking up and down the aisles selling the foods. I bought a carton of fried rice with a perfectly fried egg on top, the yok oozing out into the rice just the way I like it. It was, by far, the most pleasant journey I have made yet. And all for the price of $1.50.
The border was a fiasco, as I had heard, but considering the horror stories I’d been told, the transfer was rather uneventful. I met a couple from South Africa and together we made it through the three border stops and shared a taxi, then tuk tuk, into Siem Reap.
The next day I met my father who had flown in just to see the wondrous Angkor Wat. I must admit, I knew next to nothing about Angkor before planning this trip. Built in the 11th century, Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world. Built as a Hindu temple, it has become Buddhist, Hindu, and Buddhist again throughout history. A common misconception is that Angkor Wat is the only building in the area, when really there are several. In true king manners, each successive king abandoned the temples built during the earlier reign to rebuild a temple of his own. During our three day tour we saw Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea. Each one was impressive for different reasons.
It doesn’t feel fair to say this, but I really can’t think of an accurate way to describe my experience at Angkor Wat. Maybe, otherworldly. Each structure was constructed between the 10th and 12th centuries, ending when Notre Dame’s construction was beginning. And maybe, with a Western mindset Notre Dame would be more impressive, but walking through these enormous buildings, covered wall to ceiling with stone carved tales and religious symbols, I found it completely incredible. Eerie, even, that something so detailed, so big and so imaginative could have been built at that time. There are just so many carvings, so many floors, so many Hindu structures turned into Buddhas then taken down. They call Cambodia the Kingdom of Wonder, and as corny as it is, now I get it.
Today we returned to Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise over the building. We arrived in the dark and waited the 45 minutes to see sky turn a pale blue, then pink, then orange. It was beautiful. The only issue I had was the number of tourists.
I am a spoiled traveler- I have also watched the sunrise over Machu Picchu. There, there were a limited number of backpackers, at least at the beginning, and I had the silence and space to appreciate where I was. Today, we had people offering scarves, books, bracelets, even bringing around menus to order breakfast. It is very Cambodian, getting in your face to sell you things, and I understand why it happens, but it really altered the experience.
After, it was time for a nap, then off to the floating village, a village out on the largest lake in Cambodia. It has been around for over 100 years. I had no idea what to expect. Everything we had done the past couple days had been exceptional. Each temple was fascinating in different ways, we had gone to a great butterfly garden and the depressing but enlightening Land Mine Museum. I figured the floating village would be tourist land- people selling goods, pagodas, smoothie stands. Boy was I wrong.
It was a tourist place, but more so “poverty tourism,” where Westerners go to see how poor people live, take pictures of their babies and tisk tisk at the situations they people deal with day-to-day. It broke my heart. And to be perfectly honest, it was the first time I was grossed out.
It is dry season and the lake this community lives on was very low. The human waste from the village made the water stink of sewage. Some of it splashed in the boat and hours later my shirt smelled of, well, poo (sorry, Mom). I was so unprepared for the conditions or the emotional toll of the day. Families in boats hung on to the sides of our boat, begging. It was, for sure, the most extreme poverty I had ever experienced first hand. Afterward Marty, our guide, told us that it is the poorest area in Siem Reap. The people who choose to live out in the lake cannot afford life on land (which, for meals without meat is about $1 a day for three meals). These people must fish for their own food instead of paying others. They build their own homes and live by what they can gather themselves. It was not at all where I had imagined the day going. Then again, I think it was good to see, experience at least once.
The rest of the day was far more uplifting. A pool break and then a visit to a silk farm (which was actually super interesting).
It has been a hugely educational week, in many ways. I am glad I had my dad here to experience it with me; it would have been very different otherwise. It was the right week to have someone along to discuss things.
If you ever make a trip out to Southeast Asia, I can, with confidence, say that Angkor Wat is an absolute must.