I’m back. Blah, meh, gah, argh, and all other dejected sounds you make when your vacation is over.
‘Twas a clever idea to go to Cambodia. It’s true what people say, that in spite of its past, it is a picturesque country with the friendliest, happiest people you ever met – even more so than Thailand. Catch their eye and they are quick to give you a smile. The weather was also extremely good to us. Well, if you consider hot and humid good. I do. At least, when compared to rain. October is the end of the rainy season in Cambodia, but we were still anticipating rain to put a damper on our plans. Although it did rain, it didn’t rain so badly that any of our plans were spoilt. In fact, it was hot most of the time. I now have curious tan lines on my feet thanks to my strappy sandals!
We visited the two major cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, with a bit longer time spent in the latter. In Phnom Penh we rode in a tuk-tuk for the first time in our lives. I had never rode in a tuk-tuk before despite having been to Thailand. I always thought it was too dangerous. I’m not saying it isn’t – tuk-tuk drivers are all a bit mad – but it’s no more dangerous than riding in a taxi. Truthfully, just daring to be on the road in Cambodia, or perhaps anywhere in Southeast Asia (except Singapore), whether in a vehicle or simply attempting to get to the other side, requires a moderate level of courage. I only saw one traffic light. One. (In case you were wondering, it is in a big boulevard in PP.) But Cambodians are skilled motorists, and despite what it may seem, they give way to one another and are actually polite. There is a method to their madness.
The must-dos in Phnom Penh are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also known as S-21, and the Killing Fields, which we covered on day 1 in several hours. The Killing Fields is where most of the prisoners met their untimely deaths. The massive holes in the ground and the skulls in the glass cases were silencing. But it was S-21, with its prison and torture chambers, replete with creepy black and white photos of the victims upon arrival at the prison and in the midst or after they’ve been persecuted that struck real terror within me. How anyone could have the heart to inflict such atrocities upon another human being is beyond my grasp. Then again, the same could be said for a lot of things us humans do to one another.
We met up with two Couchsurfers I had arranged to hang out with, so we wouldn’t be friendless in Phnom Penh. One is a native Khmer with a personal connection to the Khmer Rouge era. As he narrated his story to us, it took me all I had not to cry. He is in his late twenties and is an entrepeneur with big dreams on becoming “a number one tour guide”. He works very hard whilst also attending university. An inspirational person and I salute his will and determination to succeed. The other guy we met with is a German who’s been volunteering in an orphanage for a few months. Not a unique backstory but a nice guy nonetheless who was a major help in getting us to the other side of the road safely. Ha!
Fried tarantulas and other critters I didn’t dare give a proper look – Central Market.
Days 2, 3 and 4 were spent in Siem Reap, which is about 470km away from the capital. A bus ride from PP to SR is widely advertised to take six hours. In reality, it takes seven to eight hours, depending on the bus company and road conditions. We bought our ticket to PP from the first bus company we saw at the airport, called Paramount Angkor Express. Don’t be like us. Do your homework. We were lazy in this aspect and we paid for it. Our bus ride took eight long hours and we were in so much pain from sitting too long. We found out later that this bus company is notorious for being late. Luckily we didn’t have any plans set in stone for that day, just that our tour guide had to wait an extra one and a half hours. He actually came to the bus station an hour later than our expected arrival time, on purpose, because he knew the bus wouldn’t arrive on time. But that extra hour and a half wait even left him perplexed. “What happened?” he quizzed us, laughing. “Umm…nothing?” we replied. Truly, nothing happened. No breakdowns, no accidents. We have no clue why it took so long. It just did.
Day 3 was Quad Bike Day. I signed us up for it based on recommendations on Trip Advisor. At USD 58 per person, it’s a little pricey, but the 43km trip through the countryside was worth every cent. The trip offered magnificent views of village life from an ATV. Not being a driver, I was somewhat apprehensive at having to operate the vehicle myself, albeit with some help from the instructor riding pillion. But even though my instructor said I drove like a maniac, we both survived with only mud stains on our pants. The trip was supposed to take a maximum of two and a half hours, but because they obliged us (umm, mainly me) in making many stops to snap photographs, our ride took almost four hours, with no extra charge or sour faces at the end. One of my personal highlights of the ride was seeing a large pig happily laying in the mud less than a metre away from me. Being a Muslim, I had never come that close to a real-life pig before and was quite fascinated!
Our last day in Siem Reap was the reason for going to Cambodia in the first place – the majestic Angkor Wat. We opted to see it at sunrise, leaving the hotel at 5am to do so. Loud chatter and laughter from hoards of tourists stole whatever serenity there was, but thankfully pictures do not get ruined by sound. As the heat got more and more oppressive, we continued to explore the temples of Angkor Wat, concentrating mainly on Ta Prohm and Bayon. Ta Prohm has big trees growing out of the ruins and is also famous for being featured in a scene in Tomb Raider. The Bayon is the temple with smiley stone faces. I desperately wished for a better camera and/or better photography skills…I snapped many many many photos but I’m not certain that they actually did the temples justice. At some point of the day my battery decided to die too, with no warning whatsoever! My S3 takes great pictures, but definitely not as great as my actual camera. Ugh! Fortunately our guide is cool and agreed to let us take a short break back in the hotel for me to recharge my battery, putting my miserable state of cameralessness (not a word, now totally a word) to an end.
I don’t know what else to say about these temples that hasn’t been said already. They are awe-inspiring and worth getting up at 4am for, no doubt about it.
After the temples we visited the Chong Kneas Floating Village. At USD 25 per person, it was rather expensive, but I thoroughly enjoyed the tour, mostly thanks to the boat ride. I know I said I’m afraid of water, but for some reason I was fearless on this tour and decided to copy another tourist on a passing boat by sitting on the bow – yes, the front! Granted the boat wasn’t going that fast, but I can’t swim, remember? A jerk and a splash and I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now! I don’t know what I was thinking…all I wanted was to sit in the front so I did. Haha. My travel bud, S, gingerly followed suit, but not without holding on tightly to the rope attached to the bow that is used for towing. (By the way, the nautical term for it is painter. I learned something new!) I laughed at her for that while secretly wishing I had thought of it first!
Day 5, yesterday, we returned to PP. This time, another bus company took seven hours. Oi. We were famished and hurriedly headed to a Muslim restaurant that we ate at on day 1; the buffet costs only USD 5 and the food is delicious and 100% halal. Then we checked in at our hotel and met with the German again for some drinks. I cut the outing short as I had never been so exhausted in my life. But still a lot of fun was had by all.
This morning was our flight back to Singapore. There was a group of Cambodians most likely on their first plane ride who would.not.shut.up. It was so annoying. They even squealed collectively when the plane ascended and descended. Come on! Be cool! We landed at 11am and upon turning on our phones, S discovered a missed call from her mother. When she called her mum back, she was told that her dad had suffered an asthma attack and had lost consciousness, and was being rushed to the hospital. S ran like the wind the moment we got off the plane into a cab. Two hours later she still hadn’t updated me on her dad’s condition so I texted her. Imagine my shock when she replied, “Passed away.” I don’t know if her dad ever regained consciousness and if they got to meet for one last time – I don’t think I’ll ask these questions until much, much later – but how tragic is it to come back from a holiday and have your parent die? How tragic is it to have your parent die at all? Actually, I could tell you…
The weird thing is we talked about her father a lot on this trip. Seriously. She told me funny stories about her father, the funny things he said and the funny things he did. And she related how he had asked her to buy a batik shirt for him from Cambodia. He never did like wearing batik shirts but he asked her to get him one on this trip. She didn’t question his sudden change of heart and bought a blue batik shirt for him from Siem Reap. She was looking forward to presenting it to him and seeing him wear it. But now it will only serve as a reminder of him. It’s really sad but life is sad, so. S and I are not particularly close, we don’t discuss “feelings”, so I’m not sure how to approach this. But I guess I’ll find out soon enough.