Cambodia diaries – Race to Siem Reap

This post comes almost 10 months later than intended. It was always there at the back of my mind to pen down every small detail from my trip to Cambodia, largely because it has been one of my most special trips. Special because of the experiences, the the history Cambodia carries, its unique cultural heritage and yes, its people.

Even as late as 2011, I had no idea about the Cambodian history. It was only when one of my professors showed his travel photographs of Cambodia, did I register the vast history of the country – once all glorious and later bloodied. Googling more about Cambodia, I felt a little ashamed of my ignorance towards this little gem of South East Asia, Cambodia – the country, the architectural wonder, the tragedy, the rebuilding. Being a history junkie, Cambodia shot up many notches above other places in my wishlist. But then like many other plans, this too took a backseat.

Until the later half of 2012.

I was working in Singapore at the time. With a long weekend coming up (a rarity in Singapore), two of my mates and I zeroed in on our travel dates. My idea of a holiday is to spend some quality time understanding the local culture of the place I am visiting – its people, food, history. I would have ideally wanted a longer break but work only allowed a 5 day trip to cover two Cambodian cities – Siem Reap and the capital city – Phnom Penh. Hopefully someday this will change (maybe a sabbatical? Fingers crossed)

Broadly my itinerary was: Fly into Phnom Penh, travel on to Siem Reap, spend a couple of days in Siem Reap, back to Phnom Penh for a day’s visit, fly back home (In retrospect I would add one more day to Siem Reap to really soak in the wonders).

With mounting excitement of finally visiting the place I had read so much about, I met the others at the airport. It didn’t take long for the excitement to die. An hour long check in line does that to you, you know. But then budget travelers fly on budget airlines, and budget airlines make you wait that much more. But the real killer was the flight delay. Anyhow, we reached Phnom Penh.

We had chosen to travel by bus to Siem Reap (good option if on budget and also some killer countryside views). The delay totally screwed up the plans as almost all bus services from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap were closed by the time we checked out of the airport. Staying over the night was not an option: with the bus journey being 5-6 hours long, traveling next day would have meant losing one whole day in Siem Reap.

We asked the driver to take us to ANY night bus services he knew of. But the driver seeing this as an opportunity, started selling us hotels to us for the night stay. Staying in Singapore for more than a year had blunted my bargaining skills and street instinct, something one grows up with in India. But at that instant, in the taxi, that instinct came alive. We realized that we were being taken for a ride. Not to be bullied, we forced the guy to call up various bus services and find a night one for us. After an hour or so and much haggling, we had 3 tickets to Siem Reap for 10 pm in the night. We could at least reach at day break.

Relieved, I finally turned my attention to the city I was in. At first glance, it seemed I had come back home to New Delhi! I guess many cities of the developing world seem identical – haphazard construction, hawker vendors, huge billboards and over hanging wires. In the midst of all this, we found a nice cafe to feed ourselves. Returning to the bus parking, we are told that the bus journey would take some more time to commence. Further delays.

After much waiting, we were finally assigned our seats. I crash landed into mine. Exhausted, I was sure sleep would takeover. But the day’s drama was far from over, even though the day itself was. A group of spinsters was making merry through most of the journey. Their merriment broken only by the broken highway on which the bus creaked and my uncomfortable seat groaned. The light Cambodian music in the background did little to soothe the bumps.

With sleep nowhere in sight, arrival to Siem Reap was announced just before day break. The bus stop was an early morning surprise. Not really a stop, but a deserted warehouse with some broken furniture and tools lying about. Praying for safety, we were rescued by the Tuk tuk ride sent by our hotel which, unlike other things in our jinxed day, was on time. The huge smile with which the driver greeted us was a reminder of why I was in the city!

Because of how the day unfolded, my first sights of the sleeping city were shrouded in darkness, a cool breeze and deathly quiet broken only by the various Tuk tuks transferring visitors to their hotels. We all went our own way knowing we would be reunited later in the day by the rich history of the city.

Reaching the hotel, it seemed that our luck might finally turn for better. Angkor Pearl hotel, a cozy hotel with wooden interiors, welcomed us. The staff was extremely welcoming and polite. Quickly arranging for a Tuk tuk and a guide for the coming day, I rushed to snatch a couple of hours sleep.

Utterly exhausted from the madness of the day, I couldn’t help but smile as I shut my eyes. The day had already begun.

And I had arrived in Siem Reap.



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