Siem Reap, Spiders & Angkor
On 23rd November 2012, I left the miserable UK winter and flew to Bangkok. For the next month, I’d be joining 14 strangers on a one-month, 3,000+ mile journey through southeast Asia. It was the first time I’d participated in a group tour, and I wasn’t sure how I’d fare; I’ve always travelled with friends or family. From the outset, however, it was clear that there was going to be no issue. The people were friendly, and (bar one or two incidents here and there with tensions running high) everyone got on.
I had a handful of things that I wanted to make sure I experienced before I left SE Asia, from riding in a Tuk Tuk to riding an elephant. On the drive between Bangkok and Siem Reap, the first day of the tour, I was thrust headfirst into the culture a little too soon for my liking. The bus pulled off the road in Sa Kaeo for a short food and toilet break. We piled off and were greeted by lovely smells coupled with horrible sights. Tarantulas, crickets, grasshoppers and pupae had been fried in chili oil and were sitting ready for the hungry locals and daring tourists. After buying a bag of bugs, I sat down to tuck in.
It wasn’t the most pleasant thing in the world to eat, but “eat a tarantula” was on my list, so I didn’t have much choice. Ever since I was little, spiders have made my blood run cold, and I’m sure the fact that this one was dead and therefore wasn’t likely to crawl back up made it much easier. Only downside? I was pulling little hairs out of my teeth for the next three hours.
Once settled in Siem Reap (hotel found, rucksacks unloaded, cashpoint visited, “Pub Street” located for later that evening), we had the chance to visit a small charity-run school in a secluded village, surrounded by paddy fields, a few miles from town. To get there; Tuk Tuks. Check. This was my first experience having home-cooked Cambodian cuisine, and I wasn’t disappointed. Chicken and ginger/coconut milk and as many rice and noodle dishes one could imagine. The premise is as follows: you each pay US$5 for your meal and the kids get the materials they need for another few weeks. Simple as that. And after dinner, they all come and say hello. Quite humbling, that.
The next day was the main attraction, the thing that people travel thousands of miles to this city just to see: Angkor. So famous that it appears on the currency, this group of Hindu temples built during the Khmer Empire rule is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and spans over 1,000 square kilometres. We were up and out of the hotel by 4am, and arrived at the gates at 4.30. With our tickets bought, our friendly guide, Dat, ushered us to the best corner of the pond in front of Angkor Wat. “There’s only one place where you can get the reflection of all five spires in the pond”, he told us excitedly.
And he was right. For the next hour we stood in awe as the sun rose above Angkor Wat, the sky turning from deep purple to red, orange, yellow and blue, with the clouds evaporating as the heat made its presence known. It was an incredible sight, and one that won’t be forgotten any time soon.
The rest of the day was spent with our guide, who showed us around some of the other temples in the complex: Ta Prohm (filming location for the Tomb Raider film), Bayon (216 huge faces carved into stone) and Baphuon (70-metre long reclining Buddha). We had two injuries that day: first, and this is a tip to bear in mind should you visit, don’t play with the monkeys. They may look all cute and innocent, eating bread off the floor and playing with their parents, but as soon as one lands on your back and starts crawling around you, it takes all your willpower not to thrash about. Joaquin ended up in hospital with a deep cut in his lip, and joined us later in the day with ten new stitches. Second, eat lots of sugar and drink lots of water. Shortly after Joaquin was whisked away, Heidi fainted and fell down the stone steps.
Bar that, the day was enjoyed by all. I learnt a lesson in Siem Reap; if a man on a motorbike offers you “beautiful lady for tonight”, “cocaine” and “marijuana”, don’t joke and reply, “How much for all three?” They don’t seem to understand sarcasm. Next stop was the capital, Phnom Penh…