A Travellerspoint blog

Day XXVIII: Same Same, But Different

Week number four, country number four!

sunny 38 °C
View RTW 2013 on WorldWideWill's travel map.

I was a little too excited for a lazy lie-in today, and I don't exactly know why. Everything about Cambodia beyond the superficial Lonely Planet and National Geographic research was a mystery to me. Nevertheless, I was up and packed early and sat with my bag at Lucky Beer enjoying another fantastic fresh fruit muesli (no pineapple this time). While I waited for Charlie to join me I found a nice looking hotel in Siem Reap on my TripAdvisor app and pinged them an email to book three nights in a private room, and a free airport collection too.

My RV time with Charlie came and went, and picturing the likely embassy queues he'd be facing while getting his visa I grabbed some supplies and headed for the bus. I made a point of greeting the two travel agency girls by name, and was satisfied to hear that they had committed the Will Smith nickname to memory - this would surely become useful in a few weeks' time when booking day trips and our Chiang Mai transport. The bus arrived right on time and I left them with a message to say farewell and thanks to Charlie, it was a shame not to have said goodbye in person though.

I had the minibus entirely to myself so I spread out for the hour-long journey and tried to read up on the Angkor temples of Siem Reap. From what I could tell, there was lots to see and a single day pass into the complex wouldn't be enough so I made a mental itinerary around a 3-day pass and spent the rest of the journey trying to figure out how to get around the temples (bus? taxi? motorbike? tuk tuk? bicycle? walking?). Even though we had spent most of the hour sat in slow moving traffic we arrived at the airport bang on time, and I found it highly amusing (and rather efficient) that the traffic time had been so accurately calculated and factored into the journey estimate.

Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport is amazing. It's pretty much brand new, and so vast that the walk to my check-in desk left me out of breath! I was super early for my flight so took the opportunity to sit down and repack my bags, and while I worked I was approached and quizzed by a rep from the tourism office. My positive responses to her questionnaire were rewarded with a lovely little elephant magnet, and I was still smiling when I reached the desk and gave them my bag. It was impressive to see that my bag still weighed under 12kg (and worrying too, seeing as the jeans and fleece I'd worn on the last flight were now inside - I'd clearly left something heavy and important somewhere in Malaysia!), and my good mood was boosted even further when the check-in lady handed back my passport and wished me an early happy birthday! Relieved of the weight I sat down to try and get through the two large bottles of water that I'd bought (stupidly) with a strange lunch of fruit bread, crisps, nuts and an almond croissant. I'd hoped to have wifi to check my hotel booking but was told that the free internet access was on the far side of security. Bloated from downing three litres of mineral water I staggered through the metal detector and had a great hour on the immaculate departures side of the airport. I was surprised to see how well guarded the free wifi password was: only after registering your name were you given a blacked out payslip-style envelope containing the password. Bizarre.

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Our plane was a cute little turboprop with no more than 80 seats and a cargo hold where the front passenger doors usually sit. Having asked for a seat with legroom I was annoyed and relieved to see that the plane was half empty and that the whole front row next to the exits was free. A friendly German guy came to sit next to me, but I was on a mission and moved forward before we could start a conversation. I greeted the steward with my best 'sawasdee krab' before remembering I was on a Cambodian plane and quickly sat down to read through the language section of Charlie's Cambodia guide. We were kept busy in the air with immigration cards and snack packs for the whole 50 minutes of the flight, and touched down in SIem Reap to a captain's announcement that it was 4pm local time and 38C outside.

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We filed into the immigration hall and there was a flurry of activity as everyone grabbed a visa application form and fought for a pen and space on the writing desks. I was one of the few super organised passengers and made it to the front of the visa queue with my form, passport photo and $20 fee in hand. The visa desk is a daunting sight, a long wooden semi-circular desk with no less than 15 uniformed officials sat behind it. Once you have handed in your passport at the far left end you make your way to the far right man and wait for your application to pass along the bench through the different stages of approval. While I waited I was approached by Felix, the German from the plane, who asked if I would share transport into town with him. I agreed, having not heard from my hotel about my booking, and we passed through passport control (with our new giant visas) to collect our bags. It seemed we were the only ones without onward transport, and after a long and overly hopeful wait to see if either of our hotels was sending a car (plus a failed attempt to convince a jolly tuk tuk driver that one of us was the 'Emma Freeman' on his sign) we split a $7 taxi into Siem Reap.

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I decided to abandon my plans to stay at the Golden Temple Villa, assuming the email had never arrived, and joined Felix as he checked into the Siem Reap hostel only to find that they were fully booked. I rang Golden Temple and received the same news, and this was repeated at the next three hotels nearby. In desperation I even tried the 4-star lodge down the road but they had no rooms, but I was touched when they allowed me to sit down in their posh lobby to check my guide book and then brought me a cup of chilled jasmine tea. In the end I settled on a previous recommendation, Shadow of Angkor Guest House, and paid the jolly tuk tuk man (who had since found the real Emma Freeman) a dollar to take me there. I expected to be turned away again, so was happily surprised when the lovely receptionist man took me up to a private ensuite double room overlooking the river with a hot shower, air con, private balcony, mini-fridge and TV. I said I'd take it, relieved to find somewhere to lie down and more than happy to pay the $20-a-night rate to have a little luxury for my birthday week.

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Running low on currency after the visa purchase I went straight into town in search of a Canadia Bank ATM (apparently the only one that doesn't charge a fee). I instantly fell in love with Siem Reap town, with its French colonial buildings and its wide tree-lined streets. There was a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere to the place, a welcome break from the noise and stress of Bangkok. My card was rejected when I finally reached the machine, and an emergency message exchange with Dad discovered that the Caxton card system had crashed leaving me with no money to pay for my room or (worse) my Angkor ticket. I arranged to settle the room bill when I checked out and eventually managed to withdraw enough cash to get me through the first day.

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I'd given Felix my email address and we arranged to meet up after some dinner to discuss sharing a ride around the temples. I ate at the first place I could find and had my first experience of the strange 'US dollar only' culture. I ordered the all-you-can-eat veg fried rice for $2.50, paid with a $5 bill and received $2 and 2000 riel as change. Odd place.

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We sat poring over the temple map on the terrace of my hotel, and having established that the nice man at reception could book us a tuk tuk for the day at a good price we called him over to help us make a plan. He gave us a detailed 3-day itinerary, explained how the tickets worked and advised the best places to see at sunrise and sunset. We were suitably impressed and told him to go ahead and book a tuk tuk for us, asking if the driver would speak English as well as him. He seemed confused and we soon realised that he was going to take us himself, being a licensed Angkor driver as his second job! It all seemed too easy, but I felt like karma was on my side and we arranged to meet our guide in the lobby at 5am to go up to Angkor Wat for sunrise.

Posted by WorldWideWill 22:32 Archived in Cambodia

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