Welcome to Asia

I hear the thunder
I feel the wind blowing strong
I welcome the rain

Open my window
Gaze upon the distant gloom
The darkness cometh

And with the darkness
Amid the trembling of air
A familiar sound

Not pitter patter
Joyous precipitation
Not the sound of rain

It is but the sound
That makes a grown man furious
Mosquito buzzing

Welcome to Asia

Reaping The Benefits

So there I was, thrust out of a tuk tuk, overcharged, undernourished, and the darn hotel didn’t get my booking. Good thing I didn’t pay in advance.

I trudged morosely through the Cambodian dirt, shaken but not defeated, tired and lost but not really afraid. It was the afternoon and I was certain there would be plenty of lodgings nearby.

Long story short, I found a bigger and cheaper place just a brisk walk down the road, slightly out of the way. The folks there seemed nice and they gave me a pretty good room, complete with air-conditioning! Score!

After winding my way out of the land of everything that is golden and into Cambodia (considering how many people cross those borders, their facilities and amenities are sorely lacking), my expectations for the vivid and extravagant diminished rapidly. Not that I was expecting the red ruby carpet upon entry, but everything in Cambodia was literally rock. Thais are all like: “Talk to the golden hand.”

Can’t touch this.

But not Cambodia. Cambodians are well-grounded, down-to-earth, and not afraid to get their hands dirty. They may not have all those fancy, rare jewels and minerals, but what they do have will last a very, very, very long time. Well, most of it anyway.

I was greeted by a casino. Right as you step foot into Cambodia, there is a big casino. There was probably more than one, I was merely unable to tell where one began and another ended. Then dust. Then lots of green fields. Then back to dust.

Siem Reap is a pretty little tourist hotspot that sits happily on the sublime Tonle Sap lake, which is incidentally the largest freshwater lake in South-East Asia.

Fun fact time! The Tonle Sap is a very fickle body of water. Why do I say that? Because throughout the year its size balloons and deflates dramatically, like it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a lake or a little puddle. But that’s not all, it also changes its direction of flow twice a year! I never knew inland lakes could do that. Nothing like a bit of flow reversal to get the uh…juices flowing. Am I right?

Think of the city of Siem Reap as a convenient service centre for some of the maddest man-made structures in that whole Asian region. The city is bunched up in the middle, with the mighty Tonle Sap to the south, and the indomitable Angkor family colossi to the north (the most notable being Angkor Wat, of course). All made of stone, by the way. Pure, unadulterated (just heavily chiseled) stone.

Wow, I just gave some lame-ass Lonely Planet exotic town description. Where are the wheels, boy? The wheels that go round! Patience, patience.

So the first thing I do after I drop my backpack and freshen up is waltz across the alley and get me some wheels. Cheap rental, standard safety bike, all the features. You know, two wheels, metal frame, even had brakes!

By the way, the locals cheerfully accept American currency. Theirs tends to have more zeros than anything; reminds me of Nam. Basically, everyone’s a millionaire. Except the locals. Okay, okay, too soon.

Now that I’m mobile, I’m alive! Suddenly everything isn’t so dreary anymore. I whiz down lanes and back alleys, between shops and crossroads. I even stopped at this rad joint called the Tuk Tuk Bar for lunch. Nice people there.

For those playing at home, cycling to the places of interest in Siem Reap isn’t that hard. Once you hit any of the major roads, they tend to take you either north or south. North goes to Angkor Wat, south goes to the water.

Angkor Wat is easily under 10 kilometres from the part of the city with all the accommodation, which is more northerly. Honestly, the place isn’t all that big. So head north and you’ll hit a big crossroad where the main highway intersects. Just cross that and you’re in Angkor territory!

This is where the fun begins. Now, before you go too far in, try and locate the ticketing area, because it’s not intuitively located at the expected entrances to the grand ancient Cambodian city. I guess there are lots of entrances. On the plus side, they take your photo and print it onto a neat square ticket for you to keep as a souvenir, so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

Take in the tall, tranquil timber that lines the roads into Angkor land. Pause at any stall you like and pick up a few local uh…drinks! Vendors tend to be more mobile in countries like this. If you’re there get some coconut; fresh coconut is sweet tropical nectar.

And in no time you’ll see lots of people and parking and a big body of water, and you’re there! Welcome to Angkor Wat.

Do you see Wat I see?
Do you see Wat I see?

It really is something else. I say that because it’s also a little quirky in that it faces a very unorthodox direction: west. Which I’m told is the direction of death (maybe something to do with the ol’ Sol?). And the direction of Vishnu. Good old Vishnu. Also it’s the largest religious monument ever. Angkor Wat

Unfortunately you can’t take your bike in. Not that you would want to, because the palace roads are unsealed and highly uneven. Fear not, lots of parking opposite. And if you hired a cheapo bike, then no one is going to bother stealing it. Even if they do, hire another one from the parking zone. Chances are it was the one they took from you in the first place. I jest, I witnessed no crimes of the sort.

So take a stroll into Angkor Wat and take your time. Enjoy the palace grounds and the stony grandeur. I wasn’t kidding about that stone, huh?

Halls of Angkor Wat

Now when you’re good and done sightseeing, go chill on the north side of the courtyard grounds, where there should be a multitude of shops and stalls. Be prepared to get harassed by salespeople a little, and be aware that everything is tourist price.

Angkor Wat Clouds
They have pretty nice clouds too.

Head on out and hop back on your bike. Now if you’ve still got enough adventure time, keep heading north along the road that brought you here. It gets better, especially if you have a bike.

You’ll approach a bridge and a tall stone archway that is so narrow it becomes a single lane bottleneck. Feel free to halt the bike and peer over the side of the bridge. You’ll see this:

Bridge GuardNot too happy, is he? Actually this is more like it:

Angkor Thom Moat
I wonder if there are crocodiles in there. Or maybe just piranhas.

And if I’m not mistaken, this sizeable expanse of still water is actually the moat for the regal city within! And I thought it was natural!

That's my bike!
That’s my bike!

Now ride on into the mighty Angkor Thom, my friend! And behold the gargantuan palace grounds! This place is a modern explorer’s wet dream: scattered ruins of various temples and structures, and heaps and heaps of nooks and crannies and niches to poke your head into. If your name is not Indiana, then there’s lots of rolling green fields for your picnic on. This place is perfect for a casual bike cruise, and you could spend an entire day crisscrossing all over this tiny tropical park.

Did I mention there were even more monuments up north? Yeah, you can keep going and going. But you probably want to rest for the journey home, so pace yourself and don’t worry so much about chasing all the major sites that you miss the odd pool and forgotten ruin.

Bayon Temple
Bayon beckons.

This has certainly turned into a bit of an essay. If you’d like to check out more of Siem Reap and other Cambodian delights, please visit my gallery nearby. All proceeds go to nowhere in particular. Just keep it.