Sorry it took us so long to get this post up. Our last days in Bangkok were unfortunately spent getting our China visas, having pages added to our passports at the US embassy, researching plane tickets to Bali and accommodation in Jakarta. The later turned out to be very frustrating. It was extremely difficult to find anything near the airport online for under $100 USD, so we ended up not having anything booked as we headed south to the fourth largest city in the world that both of us had grown to fear after hearing numerous horror stories (which is why our stay in town amounted to a single overnight layover). We ended up getting to Jakarta about two hours later than scheduled because our plane from Hong Kong had a discrepancy between the number of passengers on board and the number they had on their records. By the time we taxied back to the terminal to sort everything out, we had to top up our fuel tanks. We finally arrived in Jakarta at about 10 pm, got our on arrival visas, met the nicest immigration officer ever, and wandered nervously out of security to find accommodation. It didn’t take long and we were approached by several people, wanting our taxi fare of course, but also offering accommodation. We are always really leery of these people, so we went to the information desk and asked if they would recommend one of the offers we had received. The best one they recommended, FM7, offered us a hotel only four kilometers from the airport that was around $47 USD including a nice breakfast- much better than the $100+ rooms online (although it was by far the most expensive hotel we’d had since London). When we arrived at the hotel we were pleasantly surprised; the place was beautiful and the people were very friendly. Five people came, took our luggage and drove us the 100 meters to the room. Our room was beautiful, very modern and even had it’s own garage. It is probably the most contemporary room we’d ever stayed in, and it reminded us of the Bier’s house in Germany. If you ever have an overnight layover in Jakarta ask to go to FM7 from the airport, we definitely recommend it.
So, to the main point of this post- Cambodia! On the plane from Laos to Siem Reap, we met two Australian girls, Kate and Erin and by coincidence we also checked into the same hotel as them (neither of us went to the hotel we had originally planned on). We had heard that a car and a tour guide to Angkor Wat was $40, so we asked the girls if they wanted to share the expense with us. They agreed and the four of us arranged a private tour guide, driver and minivan for the next day. On top of the $40 for the tour was also $40 each for a three day pass to get into the ruins (not to mention the expensive-for-south-east-asia $27 hotel room), so Angkor Wat was definitely a pricey place by our low-budget standards. Whenever we end up investing this much into an attraction (transportation to get there was also expensive) we get a little worried and wonder if it is going to be worth it or if it is just going to be more of the same that we have already seen. Well, Angkor Wat most definitely didn’t disappoint! The place is incredible, not only because of how extensive it is and the intricacies of the carvings, but also because of the nature that has taken over on the place. It is unreal and we just couldn’t help but think Indiana Jones. We also enjoyed listening to the stories about how the kingdom of both Buddhists and Hindus lived in relative harmony together under their Buddhist king. After day one at Angkor we had seen all of the main temples and ended the day with our tour guide drinking Angkor Beer (which has been our favorite in Asia so far) in front of Angkor Temple watching the sun go down. Yeah, life is rough! We did have to deal with 100+ degree weather and VERY dirty feet though. ☺
Another great thing about Siem Reap is that they had a Mexican restaurant called “Viva!” and their food really did taste like real Mexican food, which is something that we really miss. We have seen Mexican food advertised in other places in Asia, but when you get excited and try it, it just doesn’t turn out to be quite right. We ended up eating at Viva! twice while in Siem Reap.
In the past 10 years, Siem Reap has grown from about 25,000 people to close to a million. We were unprepared with how chaotic and built up the city was. Most of the modern hotels and restaurants are owned by foreigners, which makes a lot of the locals unhappy. They just didn’t recognize the tourism potential of the place, and many of the locals who could have capitalized on this resource were put to death by Pol Pot for merely being educated.
For day two of our time at Angkor Wat we hired a car and driver (no guide) with Erin and Kate. We checked the Lonely Planet for the top things to do after visiting all of the main temples, and had the driver take us two hours out of town to a river with ancient carvings in its bed. On the way there we saw a few soldiers scouring the area for land mines where the road was about to be widened. That was quite a wake up call for us, and a reminder that in Cambodia it’ll be a very long time before land mines stop hurting people. The tourist areas are safe in both Cambodia and Laos, but both countries still have areas that’ll be unsafe for a long time. The river turned out to be a nice hike through the jungle, but not as impressive as most of the things we saw the day before. After leaving this area, we had our driver take us to the “Woman’s temple”, which happens to be made out of pink stone and, while smaller, was the most intricately carved place we saw. We ended the day at a temple that was most likely the highlight of our time in Angkor Wat. This place was huge and by the time we got to the back we were the only ones there, and we actually had the feeling that we were exploring the place after it had been deserted for a very long time.
The next day, we got up very early to take a boat to the capitol city of Phenom Phen. We piled into a little pickup with a ridiculous number of fellow tourists and their luggage for the drive to the boat. We went by a place called the “floating village”, where the poverty seemed particularly bad. The touts in Cambodia were all pretty bad, but here they seemed particularly desperate, which is always frustrating and sad. The boat was relatively fast and modern, and gave us excellent views of the daily life of the river people. All the children, and many of the adults, were always excited to see the boat, so we were always returning waves. Most of these people were fishermen. It is unbelievable how many fishing nets (using empty insecticide cans for buoys) are spread across the river. It is so ridiculously over-fished, it is a wonder there are any fish left at all. When we saw nets being hauled out, there were usually only a few small fish in it. (Poor planning for the consequences of today’s actions is a common theme in Cambodia- both with the government and the people).
The boat ride was about 5 or 6 hours, and took us through an enormous lake. From the middle of the lake you couldn’t see the land. It was probably nearly as big as lake Eerie. This lake is so big that hundreds of years ago, naval battles were fought upon it- some of which are depicted in carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat.
Once we arrived, we were completely overrun with desperate, harassing tuk tuk drivers. Actually, they didn’t drive tuk tuks. They drove motor scooters pulling trailers called “moto trailers”. We decided to walk past the throngs and pick a driver who wasn’t harassing people. He took us to a nice backpacker hotel, where we got an enormous room with hot showers, AC, and HBO for $11/night. Around the corner was a very large and modern grocery store selling all western products, which got us unusually excited. We’re starting to miss developed countries. ☺
The next day we hired a moto trailer driver to take us, along with Erin and Kate, to the macabre tourists attractions around the city. Our first stop was the S-21 detention center, which was a school before the Khemer Rouge took over. We saw pictures and heard stories of people who were tortured and killed for minor offences, such as being an educated person. Once, we made a wrong turn and stumbled upon a room full of piles of ragged prisoner clothes- very creepy. Many of the 6’x 3’ cells are preserved, along with many of the torture rooms, which still have their torture devices in them (notably including an apparatus for waterboarding). The place was terrible, but we were disappointed that all of the displays merely talked about how terrible it was, rather than delving into the more important question of what brings a country to the point where they can do these things to their fellow countrymen.
After S-21, we went to the edge of town to the infamous “killing fields”, where many thousands of the prisoners from S-21 were executed. All that is left here are tons of trenches where the mass graves were excavated, and a memorial tower that is about four stories tall and completely full of the skulls of the victims. The skulls are grouped together telling the age range and sex of the group.
We finished off this depressing day with a visit to an orphanage (how else?). On the way there we stopped by a market and got toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap for all the children. This place was actually much nicer than we expected. The people who worked there were very nice, and the children seemed healthy and happy. They all spoke English, and were probably better educated than most of the local kids, as they were given English lessons and learned traditional dancing to perform for the public as well. There was a local girl that hung around there all the time, she spoke no English but the director of the orphanage said she was welcome to be there as much as she wanted. They said she could even take part in the English lessons and dancing, though she hasn’t yet expressed interest.
We spent the evening hanging out with Erin and Kate at the hotel restaurant and bar drinking Angkor beer and Angkor Stout- by far the best beer in Southeast Asia (particularly the stout- it was nice and hoppy like a Northwest micro). While there we saw a guy who looked just like Erik (Shawn’s brother). The next day we went to the thoroughly modern airport, and headed back to Bangkok for the third time of the trip.
We are now in the Gili Islands, Indonesia! After a few days in Kuta, Bali (where we met Raz again- Katherine has already gone home) dealing with obnoxious touts and scams, and swimming through garbage (but also staying in an amazing hotel, pool, and breakfast for seven USD a night- which was only 150 meters from the site of the 2002 bombing) we hopped on a series of busses and boats to come here. It is very laid back and we are really living the slow paced island life here. We plan on spending a lot of time in the water and on the beach (Adam saw a sea turtle and white-tip shark snorkeling yesterday). Adam is thinking of taking a diving course here, after which we’ll head back to the main island of Lombok and then back to Bali to see the “real” Bali, which is not seedy Kuta Beach. Internet is slow and unreliable on the island here so we will post this with no pics for the time being. The pictures are already in the photo gallery section, so you can view them there- it is just too slow here for us to view them. Hopefully we will get them added in the next couple of weeks.