From my first night here, I knew this city didn't quite click with me. I arrived quite late due to a few longer than expected bus rides and an incredibly busy border crossing at Poipet. Once I organized myself at the hostel, I hit the town for a late night snack before bed. I was prepared for a place unlike any I had been too. But the scene was more familiar than expected.
Just down the road from my hostel lie the two central night time attractions for the city: the night market and Pub Street. While the night market is filled with typical southeast Asian sizzling street grub and tourist trinkets, Pub Street is transplanted from a Western background.
The two blocks are lit up like a Christmas tree from lights draped above. Dance music pounds from the clubs as drinks are served in sizes ranging from half pints of Angkor beer to fish bowls of neon glowing liquid. A myriad of visiting ethnicities mash their way through the crowds taking it all in. All prices are listed in American dollars, the preferred currency in the city.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of the one dollar mojitos, and I like having a few drinks with friends just as much as the next guy. That's just not what this trip is solely about for me, as it seems to be the purpose of many a traveler here. I've come to try and experience other cultures, share my own, and grow from that. I understand that will be harder now that I'm not living and working with locals as on the farm. But the only Khmer people I have met in the city are asking me to come into their shop or restaurant, trying to get me to take their tuk-tuk, or whispering,"wanna buy some weed or coke?" as I walk past in the night. As a side note, I think I must really be looking like a hippie nowadays with my longer locks, because I get offered marijuana way more often than others passing by.
In short, I'm a little disappointed in the seeming lack of actual culture and the relationship between tourists and local being reduced to cheap booze and drugs. Still, I must say to each his or her own, and if one wants to travel this way who I am to stop them. It would just makes me feel empty and frustrated doing something I can do right back at home.
So enough ranting by me. I was bummed out about everything written above for one afternoon while I paced along the pleasantly decorated river front, until I came to the decision that I wouldn't just melt into the city's culture. I would do things my way.
So this morning I flopped out of bed at 5 am and hopped onto the bike I had rented the night before (this would turn out to be the best dollar I think I have ever spent). My goal was to arrive at Angkor Wat for sunrise. Surprisingly most of the other people in my room had the same idea, so I was not alone fumbling around in the pre dawn dark.
The ride to the temple entrance took around 45 mins including a stop for the purchase of the ticket. Mine was the only bicycle I saw in the headlight processional. Tour vans and tuk-tuks alike rushed past me and lit up the pavement. As we rounded the moat before the bridge, the lights of the vehicles twinkled like fireflies on the roadside and in the dark water. At the entrance bridge, the parade abruptly became only walking, and everyone marched with their guidebooks and cameras in hand. I choose to stake out on the bridge to get some water reflection in my pictures, but in retrospect I should have remained on the far side of the moat for a view of the temple and the gate. Regardless, it was a magical experience.
As the sun began its scarlet ascension, a soft east wind rippled along the water in response. The colors slowly melted from deep crimson and indigo to pink and gold laced baby blue. Despite the crowds, I could get lost at moments, feeling like I was arriving hundreds of years ago to a feat on engineering unheard of. The three pronged gate rose into the watercolor sky as the day took flight.
After sunrise, I spent the rest of the day biking and walking to as many parts of the park as possible to make the most of my 20 dollar ticket. I started with Angkor Wat and the surrounding area. The temple is worthy of its wondrous categorization with 5 spires that are surrounded by walls, smaller temples, and airy corridors with etched walls that echoed with the footsteps and voices of many nations. As with all the buildings in the park, all the stones there tell a story in carved writing.
Until today, I was unaware that Angkor Wat is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire Angkor park is far too vast for jut one days viewing but I gave it my best shot. The whole area was the Khmer capital back in the 12th and 13th century. The landscape is covered is mostly preserved remnants of this time, many of which I thought were just as wonderful as Angkor Wat.
Some of the highlights included: Bayon temple which had thousands of faces carved on its towers and walls as well as a shrine tucked inside sheltered from the bustle outside, the elephant terrace which is mostly how it sounds, a wall of carved elephants, Bamphuon temple which is a towering monolith with stairs steep as mountainsides to get to the top, a collection of watch tower structures that gazed over the dry grass, and a temple where the king and queen would meditate. This last one may have been my favorite. Visitors are given mostly free reign to roam in the ruins. In the meditation temple I explored to my hearts content. Crumbling corridors crisscrossed throughout the complex. I would find myself in open squares golden with afternoon sun and open doors into tombs where the air was stale with age and memories. As with many of the ruins, I could have spent hours lost in time.
I finished my tour de Angkor on a man made lake talking with some Cambodian kids. After they realized I wasn't going to buy a flute, the group of seven or so sat on either side of me. We tossed some English and Khmer words and numbers back and forth and they giggled and smiled amongst themselves until I moved on. They were cute, nice, and smart. As I slowly peddled away, I wondered at the differences in our lives, and how the innocence of children moved past those differences.
I made my way back to the city slowly due to the heat and the length of the day. In the late afternoon sun, local families were enjoying Sunday at their local park. It happened to house one of the seven world wonders, but there activities were reflections of my own past excursions. Families spread blankets out for picnics, couples inched closer on the waterfront, and friends cracked beers to accompanying laughter. I finally found a piece of Cambodia I could trust.