(Emily) It had only been a short stay in Phnom Penh but we’d visited the important sites of S-21 and Choeung Ek and we knew that with all the nice cafes, bars and shops so close to our guesthouse, our budget-conscious resolve would soon be in danger of weakening if we stuck around. All in all, it was better for both our wallets and our waistlines to move on! We rode out of the capital on a Sunday so the traffic, though equally chaotic, was slightly less busy than when we’d arrived on Friday evening. That said, we still encountered some maniacs once back on the main road and James had a particularly close call that saw him veering off into the dirt at 80kph when an oncoming truck took an inopportune moment to overtake. I had my heart in my mouth as I watched him struggling to keep control of the bike, convinced that he was going to come off, but he somehow managed to slow down before the wheels slid out from under him and soon joined me back on the road. Luckily, things became more sedate once we’d got a sufficient distance away from the city and we covered the 325km journey in good time, arriving in Siem Reap by mid-afternoon.
Siem Reap is the nearest town to Angkor Wat and, as a result of its serendipitous location next to one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions, it hosts more hotels and guesthouses than it does temples (quite a feat in southeast Asia!) There was almost too much choice but in the end we found a great place tucked away off the road with secure parking for the bikes, a leafy green courtyard and clean, if compact, rooms for $6. We were a little bit behind on the diary (who, us?!) so after a refreshing cold shower (we’d been riding in near 40 degrees humidity all day,) we sat down to type in the pleasing ambiance of the plant filled patio. We didn’t get very far though, for who should turn up minutes later but Donato! Originally part of our China-Pakistan KKH group, our paths hadn’t crossed since early November in Agra when we visited the Taj Mahal together ( it seemed that we were destined to convene in locations of the ‘great wonders’ of the world!) We had a lovely evening catching up and hearing tales from his travels; it’s fair to say that Donato’s journey on his Harley has been about as filled with bike-related problems as ours has been trouble free! (James: not too surprising as it’s a brave man who attempts a journey like this on a Harley which certainly isn’t built for the job!) He’s pretty philosophical though, and accepts that it comes with the territory (unlike Juan who would swap his GS for one of our XTs in a heartbeat on the rough stuff, Donato remains steadfastly loyal to his beast!) In addition to the mechanical dramas which can always be sorted somehow or another, he did tell us about an altogether more alarming incident. Recently, when riding through northern Laos, he’d just parted ways with another two overlanders when he was stung by a flying insect as he rode along. He continued on his way but before long, started to feel faint and dizzy. He managed to pull in and stop at a small roadside village where he all but fell off the bike and within minutes he had lost his vision and was lying shaking on the ground – he said he truly felt that these were to be his final moments. There was no doctor around and no one spoke English but someone got him some asprin and water – not exactly first aid but luckily his condition started to improve and he seemed to have come through the worst of it. After resting for some time, he got back on the bike and woozily road back to the town he’d left that morning where he then spent 24 hours in hospital. Bloody hell! It seems he’d had a severe allergic reaction to the insect sting. Needless to say, he now carries antihistamines and keeps his jacket zipped up when he’s on the bike! (After hearing his cautionary tale, I resolved to do the same but, of course, had forgotten by the next time we were on our bikes…)
The following day, it was James’ birthday! After a celebratory breakfast of omelette and baguette (admittedly, the same breakfast we had most mornings in Laos and Cambodia) we met again with Donato and all piled into a tuk-tuk to take us to Angkor Wat. Several fellow overlanders we knew had been through this way recently and we’d heard varying reports on the possibility of getting our bikes into the ancient site – John and Kelly had tried several routes in but been denied at every turn, Dean and Dave had tried a more sneaky approach and managed to get a few photos . We decided that it sounded like more trouble than it was worth and, although it would be nice to get that shot of the bikes in front of the main temple, we could live without it. We stopped at the ticket office where, after we parted with $60 for a three day pass (ouch!), they took portrait photos to print onto our tickets – tourism here is serious business! Then our tuk-tuk drove us the rest of the way down the road to the main entrance: I hadn’t quite realised it, even from looking at the guidebooks, but the whole temple complex is huge! We’d been planning to walk our way round the sites but it soon became clear that this would be an impossibility, especially in the current weather – it was over 40 degrees but even worse was the humidity. We’d only gone a few paces before the sweat was running down our faces (well, for me and Donato anyway – remember James and his non-sweating anomaly) which was pretty gross. We decided to just do a short route on foot that afternoon and arranged for the tuk-tuk guy to give us a tour the following day.
Anyway, ‘wat’ about the temples?! Well, the infamous Angkor Wat itself was the first one we could see and it is indeed pretty awe-inspiring. Nearly 1000 years old and remarkably well-preserved, it is certainly evocative of an ancient time. The outer wall is a continuous tableau of intricate carvings relaying battles and religious stories whereas inside, stone towers and endless arches give the impression of a labyrinth where you might easily get lost in time. The white sky wasn’t exactly playing ball for photos but James and Donato got pretty absorbed with their cameras nonetheless and when a trio of young monks obligingly appeared it made for some great shots. After cooling off over lunch (we’d managed to find an air-conditioned café amid the various food stalls), we went back into the sweat zone and walked over to Phnom Bakheng, a hilltop temple cited as the place to be for sunset. However, we were bemused to find, at the end of a long hot walk, that from the top of the stone steps, Angkor Wat was a mere speck in the distance visible only through the treetops so it wasn’t quite going to be the magical ‘sun setting over the temple’ that we’d anticipated. In fact, it wasn’t going to be a sunset at all because, as James pointed out, the sky was suddenly looking ominously full of gathering thunderclouds. We sat a while to rest and watch, amused, as hundreds more tourists clambered up the uneven and ridiculously steep steps to bag themselves a spot for sun down, completely oblivious to the fact that it was a non-starter. After a while, we left them to it – there must have been pushing a thousand people up there by this point – and sure enough, whilst on our way back to the guesthouse, we heard the first rumblings of thunder. We’d just got into our room when the heavens opened and we watched for two hours rain of an almost biblical nature (James: and had a quiet smile thinking about the chaos that must have been unfolding on top of the viewpoint as a thousand people descended the muddy slope to find just a couple of waiting tuk-tuks waiting at the bottom!)
The following morning, the plan had been to leave at 5am to catch sunrise over Angkor Wat but a combination of a late night celebrating James’ birthday and an overcast sky at dawn was all the excuse we needed to stay in bed! Later on though, we explored the temple complex a little more thoroughly thanks to our tuk-tuk chauffeur service! Once again we were amazed by how many structures are spread over the site, all impressive in their own way. The one I’d been looking forward to most was Ta Phrom, an Indiana Jones-esque temple over-run with vines and trees whose roots have ruthlessly pervaded the stone work to produce a wild, abandoned aura as if you might have just stumbled upon the ruin yourself. It was an atmospheric place, though the sense of wonder was somewhat diminished by the hordes of tourists and the huge work team currently doing extensive repair work to some of the outer walls. I have to say, I was also slightly disappointed that the temple wasn’t quite as overgrown as pictures had suggested it would be – apparently the undergrowth has been cut back in recent years, perhaps in an attempt to preserve what’s left of the temple from the destructive force of nature. That said, it was still pretty cool! Once again the humidity was almost unbearable so we relished the short rides from site to site when we could get a little wind in our hair (or beard, in Donato’s case!) One of the most impressive sights is the gated entrance to the walled city of Angkor Thom, where huge stone gods are posed in a perpetual tug of war with their stone demon counterparts, apparently representing the Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Hindu and Buddhist symbolism can be found all over the temple complex, indeed many of the ancient kings of the Khmer dynasty believed themselves to be earth-bound representatives of Hindu gods. Self-aggrandisement, much?!
After another rainy night, our sleep interrupted at times by a deafening cacophony of what we assumed must be frogs, we woke up bright and early, eager to get going: we were returning to Thailand, our home from home! The map indicated that the road to the border was ‘under construction’ but we were pleasantly surprised to find that we had smooth tarmac the whole way, plus the added bonus of a return to more conventional driving by our fellow road users. It was pretty much one long, straight road for 200km so our last experience of Cambodia wasn’t exactly a thrill a minute but we did manage to get photos of some more ‘unusual’ moped loads such as a wardrobe and a couple of large, live pigs! We had a bit of a wait at customs on the Cambodian side of the border – it seemed that the entire staff had gone to lunch (there literally wasn’t one person around, we could have had the run of the place should we have wanted to!) – but once they’d returned and signed off our carnets it was a pretty quick process to leave. One notable thing was that the area between the Cambodian and Thai border posts – essentially no mans land – was chock full of casinos. Why? Because gambling is illegal in both countries so they solve the problem by building mega casinos in the space in between. So hypocritical!! Once we’d got through to the Thai side, a couple of police were throwing their weight around a bit and telling us we’d have to get a bus into Thailand to buy some insurance before coming back for the bikes… er, how about no? Having already been into Thailand at least twice, we knew this was rubbish but kowtowed a suitable amount to put them at ease and then promptly ignored their instructions, did the usual paperwork without them and went on our way. We’d thoroughly enjoyed our loop through Laos and Cambodia but it has to said were excited to be back in the ‘Land of Smiles’…
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