Thursday, December 27, 2012

Asia Adventure Part IV: Cambodia

With a 5:55 am train to catch, I slept fitfully on my last night in Bangkok, waking up every 20 minutes to check the time and trying to shake the sense of foreboding that consumed me. 

Mike and I had parted ways less than 24 hours earlier, but I was uneasy. Why hadn't I just returned with Alicia and Dayn to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party? It would have been easy and it would have been fun. I would have been in the company of friends, instead of here, alone in a hostel room, heading into the unknown. 

But it was too late to turn around. So at 4:30 am, I hauled myself out of bed and into the sticky Bangkok night to catch my train.

I didn't know what was propelling me towards Cambodia. But I did know this; the journey to Siem Reap wasn't going to be an easy one.

First, there was the train.

At 5:00 am, the train station was full of unmoving lines for tickets, families huddled on the floor waiting for their platform to be announced and monks yawning as they stared vacantly into the crowds. I paid 48 baht for my ticket (about $1.50) and went to find my platform. Still nervous, I scanned the station for other backpackers headed in my direction, but I was the only one. It looked like the journey to Cambodia was going to be a lonely one.

On my third-class train, I was the only tourist. I grabbed a padded seat near the window before a man started aggressively yelling at me in Thai--the seats in question were reserved for monks. Shuffling around, I finally found another empty window spot in a car further down. It was a hard bench, like the kind you'd find in a park, painted blue.

I spent most of the train ride to Aranyaprathet drifting in and out of sleep with my head propped on my hand. My hair tangled as it flew out the open air window and my exposed skin burned in the midday sun. The train was packed to capacity, with people spilling out the doors and standing for literally hours in the aisles. Two little boys were crammed on the bench next to me, one asleep against my arm, while the other stared at me in fascination. It was the first real bit of Thailand that I'd seen.

As the train chugged slowly across the countryside, the worry I'd been carrying around started to slip away and a smile spread across my face. A $1.50 train ride was giving me what I'd spent two weeks and hundreds of dollars searching for.

At Aranyaprathet, I took a tuk tuk (my first of the entire trip) to the border, where I was invariably dropped off at a fake visa place. I walked over to the actual border (another blogger had described it as "looking like a castle" so there was no mistaking it), bought my visa (and was willingly scammed out of an extra 200 baht, a small price to pay for not arguing with border officials), walked across the border and waited patiently in the painfully hot immigration hall.

At the border, I also met the first two Canadians that I'd encountered on my entire trip, Mandie and Natalie. Within a few minutes, I found out that we'd all been staying at the same hostel the night before--and that they were headed to the same hostel in Siem Reap, for the exact same number of nights. More so, Mandie and I were both going to be on the same flight back to North America. It was clear that we were going to be travel buddies for the duration of our respective trips. 

Together, we jumped on the government shuttle to the bus station. Safely in Cambodia, our guard was down when we were scammed into exchanging our money into riel at a likely inflated exchange rate (luckily, I only exchanged $20 USD). From there, we caught a shared minibus to Siem Reap, where we took a tuk tuk to our hostel.

Thirteen hours and $14.50 later, we had finally arrived.

Pub Street & The Night Market

Exhausted, Mandie and I left Nat at the hostel. Along with a guy from our hostel, Nick, we wandered down to Pub Street, which was a lot flashier than I had anticipated. 

Angkor Wat

Since we only had three days to spend in Cambodia, there was no wasting time. The next morning, our driver Jay (who had been our tuk tuk driver to the hostel the previous afternoon) picked us up to take us to Angkor Wat.

Jay was, hands-down, the cutest Cambodia man I believe that I'll ever encounter. At 23, he was working to save money to get married. He didn't have a special lady in mind yet, but it was clear that he was a romantic. As we drove to the ancient site, he turned up the radio and started singing along with the Khmer ballads. 

"This is my favourite song," he told us enthusiastically, before translating the lyrics about true love and romance.

First up, we went to the "Tomb Raider" temple, Ta Prohm.

There were a lot of tourists there.

Next up, we visited Bayon temple, which is best known for over 200 giant faces engraved on the temple's towers.

Finally, exhausted and overheated in the direct sun, we hit up Angkor Wat. (Look at all 'dem tourists!)

Cambodian Landmine Museum & Artisans D'Angkor Silk Farm

Although guidebooks and fellow travellers will insist you need to spend at least three days at Angkor Wat, doing the short circuit (Ta Prohm, Bayon and Angkor) is sufficient for those who have limited interest in pushing through hoards of tourists for the perfect photo opportunity in 40 degree heat. 

Since we fell into this category, the next day we asked Jay to drive us to the Cambodian Landmine Museum instead.

There, we got a personal tour from one of the museum's directors, who explained how the charitable organization works.

Next, we headed to the silk worm farm. Jay stopped on the way to let me take pictures with the monkeys, even though I think he thought I was being a little ridiculous.

Which is worse: pictures of silk worms or pictures of parasites?

It had already been a solid day of adventures, but the best part was to come. After spending two full days with Jay, listening to him talk about his feelings, we didn't at all hesitate to accept his invitation to meet his family in his home village.

We spent part of the afternoon hanging out with Jay's family, with Jay acting as translator. It was hands-down the highlight of my trip.

The Weirdest Ladyboy Show Ever

If you're ever in Siem Reap, wander into the night market until you see this stage. I guarantee you won't be disappointed, because you will be about to witness the strangest ladyboy show ever.

(Yes, the overweight ladyboy is beating another ladyboy, who is wearing a motorcycle helmet, with a giant fan. Amazing. You can't go wrong.)

Back to Canada

After four nights in Siem Reap, Mandie, Nat and I parted ways to find our separate ways back to Bangkok (they took the bus; I flew). Mandie and I met each other at the airport the next day. 

Even after over two consecutive days of travelling, Mandie looked awesome.

Me? Not so much.

On my penultimate night in Cambodia, I had gone out with a group of people from our hostel. We sat down at a table on Pub Street, drinking and trying to ignore the assault of tuk tuk drivers and Gangham Style blasting through the speakers for the billionth time. 

"Who here is travelling together?" I asked, curious to know everyone's relation at the table. 

"I'm travelling alone," everyone answered, one-by-one. We laughed once we realized that out of a group of eight, no one at the table actually knew anyone else.

Sitting there, surrounded by strangers, I thought about the uncertainty I'd felt in Bangkok about coming to Cambodia alone. And suddenly, it became clear why I'd felt compelled to cross the border. After becoming single for the first time in six years, the thing that I needed most was the reminder that even when I'm alone and scared, I'm capable of anything. 


  1. Good to hear that You've had some very cool adventures last year – Wishing you all the best for this year too.

  2. nice to see this Jess when I have hardly looking at your photos.
    I have a vacation coming up soon, and my mind is still blocking the whole issue of "vacation". This Asia cruise ships you upset me quite badly accident.
    glad you made it and had a great time.

  3. The struggle of life for two travelling tourists nearing the end of their arduous adventure in AsianTravel . . ENJOY BOTH my friends.

  4. When I see pictures of those old ancient structures in Cambodia, it reminds me of the game Temple Run. I've been there too once in 2010, and we had a lot of fun! Cambodia is love!

  5. Cambodia reminds me of the game Temple Run. Been there in 201, and I fell in love with place. I must say it was definitely a lovely trip!

  6. Cambodia is great, nice pictures there!


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