After a couple of days in Bangkok, I decided to make my way to Cambodia. First stop in the country would be Siem Reap. This city is one of the few built up and largely tourist established cities due to it's infamous appearance in Tomb Raider II. Just kidding. Tomb Raider chose this prime location to film because of the Angkor Wat temples that lie a few miles outside of the city.
Crossing from Thailand to Cambodia, the feeling and atmosphere changed instantly. Where Thai people are quick to smile and overly polite (though constantly making fun of you as soon as you turn your back, probably for good reason) the Cambodians I encountered offered stern glances and general disdain at anyone's appearance. Considering Cambodia is a relatively poor country, particularly in the region, and tourism is it's second largest economic industry next to textiles, I was surprised at how unwelcome I felt. Though I wasn't entirely surprised considering the influence my country has had in their history which completed devastated them for years following the Vietnam War.
But still, after arriving at the border every interaction I had with locals involved money, and left me feeling slightly cheated. Between additional bus fares that weren't supposed to exist, and a stop at a roadside market for lunch that cost infinitely more than a meal in Bangkok, I began to feel slightly uneasy about the area.
Fortunately, I shared the small mini bus I was traveling in with four other overly friendly and welcoming tourists that completely compensated for the feeling of hostility that hung in the air. Once at the guesthouse, we were all best friends and the two french girls offered me to stay in the extra bed that was in their room. I graciously accepted, anxious to get away from the feelings of isolation and loneliness that I'd experienced since leaving Tel Aviv.
That night I checked out the tourist friendly, and lively night/bar scene in Siem Reap and after a delicious local dinner and a taste of BBQ frog, I headed to "Pub Street" (yes, that is in fact the name of the lively street in Siem Reap lit up for all to fine by a bright neon sign) with the two expats of Dubai.
The scene was fun, and the night was young, but I ditched the boys early anticipating a long day of trekking through ancient temples. By 11:30 pm I arrived back at my guesthouse where my suspicions of the local population grew. There were about five male employees of the guesthouse barely managing to stay in their seats which were set around a table completely covered in empty beer bottles. They spoke with their eyes closed when I said goodnight, and I had to step over two of them who had passed out on the floor inside. While witnessing their drunken stupor wasn't threatening in any way, it added to a feeling of unease about the city. There is obviously a lot of pain buried underneath all of the stoic faces, and the drunken stupors didn't seem to be induced as a means of festivity, but something more sad.
The next day I woke up early, and all of the men were up as well, ready to work for the day. We headed to the temples which were a beautiful sight! Construction of these temples first began in the 800's a.d. and finished in the 1400's after nine dynasties ruled over them, alternating times of Hindu and Buddhist reign. The temples were rediscovered in the 1600's by the French (yay colonialism!) and attempts for restoration began. Today Angkor Wat is the most restored, and most definitely a sight to marvel at. We were able to go back for another view the next morning at sunrise, to see the light ascend over the the temple illuminating it with serenity and mystery simultaneously. Currently the temples are still used as sights for worship. Orange clad monks can be seen walking amongst the ruins.
I was told that Angkor Wat had the potential to rival Petra. I found that hard to believe because the experience I had in Petra was one of the most memorable I'd ever had. But it was explained to me that while Petra's buildings were empty on the inside, the Wats of Angkor were covered in engraved designs and statues of Buddha. This was true, and the insides were stunning, just as much as the grandeur on the outside. The place was miraculous and slightly magical. However, my overall fondness for the place was slightly diminished, again, by the people. I'm used to begging, and selling. It happened in Petra too. But overall, the Bedouins there are laid back and friendly. They respect the land and most still live in it. In Angkor Wat, the feeling from the locals was different. At the entrance and exit of every entryway children were sent to sell small goods and beg incessantly. Sometimes swarming you. And when you offered an answer like, "I'm sorry, no thank you," they answered with "Sorry no buy me food." While I suppose it's true, I was slightly shocked by such exploitative comments coming from exploited children. The one moment I was able to step outside of that interaction with these kids was when I caught a group of boys jumping and playing in a pool of water near the temples. Then it was no longer about money. I sat with them and asked to take their photos and they were thrilled as I caught them mid-jump into the water, laughing and shrieking at their image on LCD screen of my camera.
Following our second full day at the temples, the tension that I'd felt since arriving reached a culminating point when our tuk-tuk (motorcycle) driver, who led us through the temples each day, flipped out demanding to be paid 50% more than the agreed upon price. We (the two french girls that I toured Angkor Wat with) tried to negotiate with him, but it ended in him screaming at us that he never wanted to see our faces again. I didn't want to back down, simply out of pride, but since the french girls had to travel back with him, we decided it best to just pay the few dollars. For awhile, I thought perhaps it was simply just one guy. But when I arrived back at the hostel that night, I was again literally screamed at by the guesthouse owner about money as well. I suppose it was this hostility I sensed from the start, that was suppressed between the chiseled faces of the locals I had met. Though it's not surprising given the fact that less than 45 years ago, Cambodia endured a mass genocide that killed 2 million of it's people by the communist Khmer Rouge. This was influenced by the Vietnam war, and no one made an effort to stop them. Given a history like that, mixed with the dependence on tourism, the barely hidden hostility can be understood, I suppose. But this is not to say that one shouldn't plan a visit to Cambodia. I would've loved to see more, just not as a solo traveler. And I did meet some great locals as well. The Cambodians I met and had good conversations with were gracious and had a fantastic and sarcastic sense of humor. This is not to be overlooked as when learning a new language, translating humor can be one of the hardest aspects.
Either way, I was pleased to make a decision to leave Cambodia after this and head up towards Vientiane, Laos via a 25 hour bus ride. My terribly planned route through Southeast Asia was due to the fact that I was trying to meet up with my sister who is living in Vientiane (the Capital of Laos), join her in Halong Bay by the beginning of September, and adjust to her rapidly changing schedule due to work demands that would have her in and out of Bangkok, and Vientiane. So I said goodbye to Cambodia, though I saw so little and would love to someday see much more, and headed in the direction of Laos in the longest way possible.