To get to Siem Reap we had to journey over 400 kilometers over the border of Thailand and Cambodia. The journey in total took over seven hours in rain soaked countryside. Before heading to the bus station, Nat enjoyed her last bite of mango sticky rice before hitting the road. Besides staring out the window and watching bustling city life turn into farmland, the highlight of the trip was no-mans land between Thailand and Cambodia. Conveniently placed between the two countries was a large Vegas-style casino. Of course we had to gamble the last of our Baht while we waited for our visas to be accepted. Ross started to win in the slots and Natalie promptly started Snapchatting, what else would you do? As if she had just pulled a gun out at a Vegas blackjack table, two guards swiftly approached and asked politely, but purposely, to delete the photos (and watched as she did – the lost in translation part of the incident was that it was Snapchat so the images would disappear anyway but that was a bit too much).
We had heard that Siem Reap was a party town but had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we arrived the first day to Funky Flashpackers (by far one of the best hostels we have stayed in the whole trip) drenched from a torrential downpour that started when we were about ten minutes away from the hostel that we of course decided to walk to so that we could save approximately $5 USD. As we checked in, we noticed a big board next to the bar with parties and activities for every night of the week. Hungry from our day of traveling, we headed up to the rooftop bar (one of three bars in the sprawling hostel) and ordered food. Surprisingly, the menu was a mix of Tex-Mex and other American dishes; also, Cambodia’s currency was in US dollar bills and Cambodian change. For example, our quesadilla (the first of many during our stay at the party hostel) was $3.50 (yes, super expensive) and we got the bills back in change along with the equivalent of 50 US cents in Cambodian currency, a couple thousand of their dollars.
After our first dollar beer we decided that if we couldn’t beat the party people that we should join them; after consulting our itinerary (the party board we saw upon checking in) we knew that we had found our Shangri-La, scheduled for that night was a costume party, our specialty. Thankfully the theme was Gender Bender – where girls were to dress like boys and boys were to dress like girls. Either the hostel was piggybacking on Bangkok’s lady boy success or it just knew that people like us were only traveling with a certain number of clothing items. Or the final option… it was trying to preemptively decide that people should get drunk, get naked and switch clothes. A few hours and a few beers later, Ross squeezed his way into Natalie’s pineapple bikini and Nat followed the classic Halloween tradition of looking sexy while also going to theme and decided to wear Ross’ collared shirt for flying standby. That night the hostel lived up to its expectations of being a party hostel and Natalie exchanged shirts with a friendly couple who had actually just broken up but were still traveling together (we ended up traveling with them for the next week) and we were officially matching in dueling pineapple outfits. The rest of the evening consisted of drinking too many dollar beers, learning the hard way what the talley board of “Overloads” for your country was (a lethal concoction of a Red Bull, a shot of vodka mixed with Jaxx (a powdered energy drink made for water not vodka) and a shot of Geiger all mixed together and chugged), sang far too loud to Justin Bieber with all of the other cross dressers at the hostel and most importantly made a bunch of new friends. When all of them begged us to go out at 1am, we decided to call it quits.
The next morning we woke up feeling worse for wear (we have no idea why) and decided to take it easy at the pool and that night we visited the number one unpublicized activity that came highly recommended by a local tour guide that we met on our bus to Siem Reap, we went to the circus. We hopped into a rickshaw and after chatting to the driver, found out that the rickshaw was donated by a doctor from Florida who had taken a liking to the driver and over the years had visited him and each time he came for a visit, we would further fix and restore his mode of transport until one day he just decided to buy him one. The circus in Cambodia is a social project built to improve the lives of Cambodian disadvantaged youth who were born into unfortunate families or suffered extreme poverty that forced them to work for their family’s instead of going to school. The Cambodian Circus School taught these kids skills for later in life and also gave them something to do so they would not become involved in less favorable activities. The circus was set in a small round tent just outside the city and the aerobatic performances by the young performers were incredible and it felt like we were at a Cirque Du Soleil show, with slightly less thrills and safety devices (well, no safety devices or padded flooring).
The next day we set off at 3:30AM to the sounds of party people still drinking and dancing at the rooftop bar of of our hostel to see what we had come to Siem Reap to explore, the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Given that the temples are the main tourist attraction in the area, people are willing to pay to see them and also the ongoing restoration efforts, tickets to the sacred area were a steep $38 USD per person, per day, just to enter the park. By 4:30AM we were set up in the perfect location to see the sunrise over the famous monument, along with about seventy other eager sleepy-eyed tourists. It was beautiful and we could see why the area was considered holy by many and why the grand temple was pictured on Cambodia’s rarely used currency. We wish that our guide was a little easier to understand and spoke a little bit more English as we were left wondering which level of the temple was for which king and also why the Khmer Rouge left so many bullet holes in the building’s facade. The next stop on the agenda was Angkor Tom, Natalie’s favorite, a temple with over 40 Buddha heads carved and sculpted into its stone structure. Ross’ favorite temple was the fourth, Ta Phrom, the temple that Tomb Raider was filmed in. Our guide pointed out that most of the Hindu carvings in the temple were originally Buddhist images and the owners of the temple had switched the carvings to suit their religions at the time. The temple is known best for its overgrown trees that have stretched their limbs, branches and roots through the stone of the temple walls.
After a well deserved nap, we met up with our couple/not-anymore couple of friends, Jake and Allie. Some friends we had met by the pool earlier said they had the best day with a few local rickshaw drivers and that they had invited them and friends to go to a local bar that night. We hadn’t really gotten the chance to hang out with locals yet since the hostel had so far provided everything that we needed and didn’t need like hangovers, so we decided to round the troops and go out with these new friends. One of the “scams” of Asia that every tourist traveling with a Lonely Planet book reads about is the over friendly local who ends up either robbing you or taking you to an incredibly expensive place and leaves you to foot the bill.
We were a little skeptical of the plan to go out but our new friends were going to take us to a “local place” so we thought it must be some sort of dive bar or a hidden gem off the beaten path. Once we met up with our new Cambodian friends we were back to being slightly skeptical. They said that we could go anywhere we wanted and they would take us there on their rickshaws, we weren’t sure if we were paying them to take us somewhere or if they were planning on joining; one thing was clear, we were not going to a dive bar. We agreed to go to a K-Box bar, aka a Karaoke bar that looked more like a strip club on first glance. All of the men at the counter were wearing suits and greeting us in the entry way were about 30 or more girls dressed in little black dresses, very little. After ordering the cheapest thing on the menu, a bottle of Red Label whiskey and a bottle of terrible white wine in our own private Karaoke room with two dedicated scantily clad servers, we knew we were maybe falling for the second part of the scam we were warned about. Oh well, we thought we might enjoy the Karaoke anyway. The next two hours consisted of us horribly singing traditional “white people Karaoke classics” like Journey and Mariah Carey until our Cambodian friends finally had enough liquid courage to sing some Cambodian pop songs. Once lubricated and upon questioning, in broken English, they also told us that the ladies in the front of the bar were not actually prostitutes by the traditional sense but you could buy drinks for them and they would come hang out with you in your private room. For a few more lady drinks, they might make out with you, only if they liked you, but he reassured us that they were definitely not prostitutes.
The next day we rented bikes and headed into town to grab food before heading to the Siem Reap War Museum just outside of town. We pulled up chairs at a small food stall where a boy no older than 12 cooked us delicious noodles. Next we headed to a spa maned by a peculiarly hungry group, fish. Dr. Fish, supposedly a really big thing in Asia is a foot spa where hundreds of little fish eat the dead skin off your toes, heels and all over your feet. Slightly freaked out we put one toe in and twenty hungry little sucker fish latched on to our toes. It felt like a vibrating chair at the fair but it was slightly creepier due to the fish’s tinny mouths eating every inch of exposed feet skin. We laughed until we cried and then carried on to our next journey.
A few dirt roads and a lot of sweat later we hoped to arrive at an indoor air conditioned sanctuary and instead arrived at an outdoor American war machinery graveyard. The museum housed US military planes, tanks, land mines and all kinds of guns from the Vietnam War. Our tour was guided by a man who lost two family members to land mines in the Northern parts of Cambodia that touches the Vietnam border. We learned that there are still over three million land mines hidden in Cambodia and every year more people die or are injured from the deadly devices. This was only the first sobering museum that we visited during our time in Cambodia. On the way home from the museum we begun to start to feel small drops of water on our helmets and before we had time to get out rain slickers out of our bags, we were fully saturated in a torrential downpour. We biked back to our hostel as fast as our little legs would take us. That night we had a final beer with our friends at the bar, one honorable mention h ere is Tik, one of the sweetest ladies we met on our whole trip to date, a lovely lady who works at a resort on Koh Samui who promised that she would remember us if we got married and decided to go on our honeymoon in Koh Samui. If we have money we might just take her up on it! After one last beautiful quesadilla, we boarded our hotel bus (instead of seats, the bus had two rows of double bunk beds) bound for the southern islands of Cambodia with Jake and Allie.