Cambodia 012 – To Siem Reap
March 1, Thursday 2007, Siem Reap
Here I am in Siem Reap with one of the greatest temples of the word just a few kilometers away and where do I end up? At a gas station coffee shop, of course. I’m sure Angkor Wat will be big and impressive and all that, but I’ll bet it won’t give me as much pleasure as this cup of coffee.
Given enough time I’d much rather have ridden my bike up here, but it just wasn’t an option. Of course, there was also a bus. I could have taken the bus just as easily. It would have gotten me here at pretty much the same time as the plane. I’m glad I didn’t take the bus, though. It would have been a 12-hour journey and involved getting up at the crack of dawn and changing buses in Phnom Penh and driving through Phnom Penh. The plane was very pleasant by comparison.
The flight was at 5:30, and I didn’t really know how long it would take me to get to the airport. My maps said it was about 23 kilometers away, but including the distance from Serendipity Beach it could have been as much as 30 or 35 kilometers. And that stretch of road was the one area with a lot of hills. It was going to be slow. No matter how long it took, though, I didn’t have to leave until the afternoon, and I passed a wonderful morning just hanging out down by the beach. I went to the Internet cafe right after I woke up and I wrote while drinking a cup of coffee or two and looking out over the ocean. My body is much happier with me lately and I decided to have breakfast. I say my body is happier, but I still had only had one meal on each of the previous two days. I was quite hungry for a change and ordered the big Coaster Breakfast which is one of those standard sausage, hash browns, eggs, bread, bacon breakfasts.
Service wasn’t exactly speedy and I was there for a long time. By the time I was finished, it was time to go back to the bungalows and see when checkout time was. There is a big whiteboard at the bar of the Serendipity Beach Bungalows and they write down on this board which bungalows are occupied and reserved and all of that. I’d told them that I was leaving yesterday. So had Michael and Michelle and the Australian (can’t remember his name right now). They’d written our departure dates on the white board and then when people came by to ask about bungalows they would then write “keep” next to that bungalow to indicate these people wanted it. Now, call me crazy, but doesn’t that sound like a reservation? It is a reservation except that they don’t write down anyone’s name. They just are keeping that bungalow for someone who had wandered by and asked about it. So essentially it is a reservation with no security and no system. Actually, I think this whole “keep” system just came into being. The “boss”, the Dutch fellow Richard, was in Phnom Penh for four or five days and the Cambodian staff were running the place. Richard probably wouldn’t have gone as far as writing down “keep” on the white board. His staff, though, were willing to do that.
The people for whom they were keeping Michael and Michelle’s bungalow weren’t showing up until four, so Michael got a late check-out time. The people moving into my bungalow had already moved out of their other place and dropped off their backpacks. I saw them behind the bar. So I had to get out by the regular checkout time of noon. That didn’t give me much time since it was already about 11:15. I did it in stages, timing it so that it would end with my bike and bags all down at the bar except for my survival kit and toiletries bag. That way I could go through all the sweaty work of packing and then still be able to take a shower at the last minute and then stroll out with just one bag. It all worked out pretty well and I was strolling down the steps fresh as a daisy and fully packed at 12:05. A little late, but that was okay. The housekeeping staff was busy cleaning one of the other bungalows.
I went down to the bar area and sat there in some comfortable chairs and read a book in the ocean breeze. Michael and Michelle had made arrangements for a taxi to take them to the airport for $15. I could have gone in on that with them, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t. My main reason was that I just like to do things on my own and not be dependent on other people. I like to be free to indulge my own quirks such as leaving extra early even if that means hanging out at the airport for an hour or two. When you are going with other people, you suddenly have to take their schedule into account. I also like things to be simple and you can’t get any simpler than just getting on your bike and riding to the airport. Taking a taxi would mean negotiating a new price with the driver who would want more money for more people and the bicycle. Then there would be the hassle of putting the bike in the taxi. In the end, it wouldn’t be a problem I’m sure. This is Cambodia after all and there is no such thing as a load that a car or truck or bus won’t carry. Still, I didn’t want to deal with those details and I didn’t want to force them on Michael and Michelle. By joining forces with them, I’d have to take their schedules and requirements into account, but they’d also have to deal with all the problems that I bring to the table.
All those concerns are nothing though next to the simple idea that I had a bike and wanted to ride it. I finally rolled my bike down the beach at 1:00 p.m. I thought that was still way too early, but I figured I could stop in town and get a drink or dawdle in other ways. It would also give me enough time to deal with any flat tires or mechanical problems that might come up. When I moved into the bungalows I did it in two trips. On the first trip, I brought most of my heavy bags. Then I went back for the bike. I thought I wouldn’t be able to roll my bike through the sand if it was fully-loaded. But in the days that I’d been there, I’d learned that if you rolled the bike along the sand closest to the water, it was no problem. The sand was packed hard by the water and it held up my tires quite well. So this time I just loaded up the bike as I would normally and rolled the whole thing along the beach until I got to the main road. I was sad to leave the ocean and the waves and the breeze, but at the same time it felt good to be moving. This was a bicycle trip after all, not a beach holiday. I’d been on the beach for three full days and that was long enough for me. Michael and Michelle had been there about nine days. I don’t think I could have survived that long. If there was a nice area for snorkeling I could have spent more time, but there was nothing like that. In fact, I didn’t go swimming once. I didn’t even realize that until I was leaving. It just never occurred to me to go into the water. I waded around in it taking some pictures and climbing around on the rocks, but I never went to the sandy parts of the beach and actually went in for a swim.
I had a pretty good idea that the airport was on the road that I had followed coming in to Sihanouk. As far as I knew, there was only the one road anyway. But I didn’t know for sure where I was going and there was that little bit of tension in me as I cycled off, and I kept my speed up a bit higher than I normally do. I think there was a shorter route I could have followed, but I decided to play it safe and I rode all the way to the shipping port and out that way. That’s the way I was familiar with, and I knew it would get me onto the main road.
The first thing I had to do was climb the long hill up out of Sihanouk. Then it was a steady series of climbs and descents. I don’t know why it would be, but there were almost no big trucks at the port, and there were almost none thundering in on the road as they were when I cycled here. It was much quieter and much pleasanter. Perhaps there are certain days when they are loading up ships and on those days lots more trucks are arriving. Perhaps I cycled to Sihanouk on one of those days.
I stopped at the same gas station variety store to stock up on water, and I asked them how far it was to the airport. No one really knew, but estimates ranged from 20 to 30 kilometers. That was farther than I was planning on since I had already cycled about 15 km and I picked up the pace. Then almost before I realized it I saw a big sign for the airport. I had arrived. Or had I? There was suddenly a wrinkle. The sign indicated a direction to two airports. One was to the right and the other was straight ahead. In all my talking to people about flying to Siem Reap and buying tickets and looking at maps, no one had said anything about two airports. Which one was mine?
The one to the right was already in view, and I turned off the main road and cycled towards it. It looked to be quite new. Four uniformed guards were at the gate, and they all got to their feet and smiled at me as I rode up. They wouldn’t let me in though, until they had used their walkie talkies to talk to someone at the airport. I have no idea what they could be asking or what they needed to know before they let me in, but I guess they got the right answer and they raised the barrier and let me pass.
At the airport building, another group of men in uniform smiled at me and watched with interest as I started to unhook the bags and pack everything up for the flight. I joked with them that it was a good thing I got here so early. It was only 3:00 and the flight didn’t leave until 5:30. They said, no, I wasn’t too early. The schedule was changed today and the flight left at 4:30. That worried me because Michael and Michelle were also under the impression that the flight was at 5:30. No one had told us that the schedule was changed.
It didn’t take me long to get ready. I unhooked all the bags and put them in the duffel bag. Then I took off the pedals, lowered the seat, and turned the handlebar sideways. I was told once more that that was all I needed to do.
I then rolled my bike into the airport and walked up to the check-in counter. The whole time I was expecting chaos and to be told that I couldn’t take the bike on the plane. But nothing happened and they checked in my duffel bag no problem. Then they asked me to put my bike on the luggage conveyor because they had to weigh it. I looked at them quizzically. It hardly seemed a smart thing to put my bike on the luggage belt. It’s not like it could just join the flow of suitcases. But they insisted, and I hoisted the thing up and tried to balance it up there. Of course the wheels were too far apart and they couldn’t really weigh the bike. When the rear wheel was on the scale, the front wheel wasn’t. When they tried to roll it backwards to put the front wheel on, the bike just rolled off the end of the belt. In the end, they compromised and weighed the bike with just the rear wheel on the scale. That must have worked out to my advantage because the bike is a lot lighter when you only weigh half of it.
I enjoyed the whole process. I’m no fan of big airports and international flights anymore. I used to enjoy it and look forward to flying, but I don’t anymore. It’s just a painful chore. This was a small domestic flight, however, and it was lots of fun. There was only one other passenger in the entire airport so far, and I had the entire airport staff helping me. I didn’t have to produce my passport or any ID at all. I just handed them the piece of paper the travel agent had given me. It was not even a real ticket but just a reservation form printed off from the computer. The woman asked me for my nationality and that was it. I was checked in and was good to go.
I then tried to find a way to contact Michael and Michelle to tell them about the change in the schedule, but there was no way. There were no phones at all in the airport. And even if there were, I didn’t know the number of the bungalows. I asked the airport staff if they had cell phones and if they knew how to contact any of the places on Serendipity Beach. They had no idea how to call any of those places. They also assured me that there was no need. They said that the ticketing agents all knew about the change in the schedule, and they would have a list of the passengers and they would contact them all and let them know. I asked them how that could be. I was a passenger and no one had contacted me. In fact it would have been impossible to contact me. They had no information about me other than the name I gave them when I bought the ticket. But they insisted that everything was fine, that everyone knew about the schedule change. I pressed them on that, but nothing I said was getting through and eventually I had to just let it go. Deep down, I didn’t think Michael and Michelle would actually miss the flight. This was Cambodia after all and a small domestic airport. Even if they arrived at 4:25, a good bet since they thought the flight was at 5:30, they’d likely still get on the flight. It was all pretty casual. Still, I was worried. It wouldn’t be a disaster if they missed the flight, but it wouldn’t be pleasant. They’d have lost the day and their bungalow and would have to go back and find a place to stay all over again.
When the time came, I went through to the departure lounge and took a seat. The one other passenger had been joined by a second and there were now three of us waiting for this 4:30 flight. Time started to pass. The new boarding time of 4:10 came and went and there was still no sign of the plane. None of the airport staff seemed to think this was a problem. I thought about asking someone what was going on, but there didn’t seem to be a point. More and more time passed. It got close to 5:00 and there was still no plane and no other passengers. Then at around 5:10 all these people including Michael and Michelle started showing up. Of course they were there for the regularly scheduled 5:30 flight. No one had told them about the change to 4:30. After all that trouble, it turns out that the only people who thought the flight was at 4:30 were the people at the airport. Everyone else, including the pilots flying the plane apparently, thought the flight left at 5:30. The plane landed a few minutes later. I have no idea what kind of plane it was except that it was on the small size and had one prop on each wing. None of us had reserved seating. I hadn’t even asked about it, but Michelle had and they told her to just sit wherever she wanted. I saw that one family with two very loud and obnoxious whining little boys had arrived, and I joked that with my luck no matter where I sat, I’d have those kids right beside or behind. Sure enough, when we got on board and sat down, that family came and sat right behind me. The boys were little monsters and whined and cried over every little thing. It was awful. I wanted to turn to the parents and tell them to discipline their kids. They were the worst kind of parents, the kind that just talked to their kids and argued with them and argued with them and explained everything – essentially dealt with them like they were their playground playmates. These boys of course wanted window seats, then aisle seats, then to sit with my mom, then to sit with dad, then to have this book or that book. Whatever they didn’t have, they wanted and they whined and cried and threw tantrums until they got it. Of course, they didn’t want any of these things. They just wanted whatever they didn’t have. It was awful. I have no idea how parents can let things get to that stage with their kids. The father eventually just gave up. He went and sat down somewhere else and said to his sons, “OK, you just sit there and cry. I don’t care. Do whatever you want. I’m going to sit here. I’ve had enough.”
By this time, Michael and Michelle had gotten up and moved to the back of the plane. They said it was because we had chosen seats right beside the engines and it blocked our view. Getting away from those kids was probably a part of it. I actually enjoy sitting beside the engines. I like to see the landing wheels retract and the propellers start up and to feel the shake and roar of the engines. So I stayed where I was and luckily the boys had tired themselves out and fell asleep.
The flight was only 50 minutes long and for most of that time I saw only clouds. Only when we descended above Siem Reap did I see much of the landscape. Most of the land seemed empty, but right near Siem Reap there was farmland and green fields. It was still light when we landed and got out of the plane. It was just as casual as boarding. We simply walked down some steel steps and walked across the tarmac and into the airport. There was no luggage conveyor belt. They simply drove the luggage carts up to the building and then carried the bags in one by one. My bike and duffel bag were among the first of the luggage to come out. I was pleased to see my bike, though somehow they had twisted the front wheel all the way around so that it was facing the wrong way. At first I thought the entire front of the bike and the rack had been completely mangled. But they had simply turned it around. It didn’t do any damage that I could see, but it had pulled the cables all out of position and put a lot of pressure on the brakes and gears. I was thinking that I should have tied the handlebars to prevent that from happening. If I don’t box the bike in Phnom Penh, maybe I’ll do that.
Michael and Michelle had booked a room in Siem Reap through the Internet. Michelle had just chosen a place from the LP that was recommended. It was a backpacker guest house called Jasmine. I hadn’t even looked at the LP. I just figured I would bike around and find a place.
Putting the bike together was fairly painless. The only problem was the same one that I had in Phnom Penh. For some reason it’s very difficult to get a good seal on the valves of the tires with my pump. The front tire is OK, but for some reason, I can’t get a good seal on the rear wheel and it is very tough to pump any air into the tire. It took a long time and by the time I was finally done, I was drenched. I figure it is a problem with the design of the pump. When you get a good seal, it pumps with no effort. Just getting that seal is not easy.
By the time I was done putting the bike back together and putting the bags on it, it was already dark. Michael and Michelle had left already. The Jasmine Guest House had sent a tuk-tuk to pick them up.
Getting into Siem Reap was fairly straightforward considering I’d never been here before and it was dark. I asked someone if I should turn left or right when I left the airport. They said I should turn right. That was where all the traffic was going, so I turned right and cycled along the airport access road until it joined up with the main road. There was a sign there and it indicated that Phnom Penh was to the right and Siem Reap to the left. I turned left and then cycled for six or seven kilometers to downtown Siem Reap.
That ride was a bit of an eye-opener. I’d read before that Koreans make up the largest number of tourists to Cambodia. The figures were extreme and supposedly hundreds of thousands of Koreans come here every year. That had seemed odd because I hadn’t seen any anywhere. Based on Phnom Penh and the places I’ve been, you’d think that Europeans and North Americans made up the largest group of tourists. And looking at us, you’d have to wonder what the big deal is about tourism. People go on and on about how tourism is a huge industry and will likely be the future savior of the Cambodian economy. But that seemed odd, because we don’t really spend a lot of money. How can my $5 a night that I’m paying for my room and the $2 I spend a day on bottled water do anything for the Cambodian economy? But it’s clear that when they’re talking about tourism, they’re not talking about this small backpacker crowd. They’re talking about what I saw last night as I cycled into Siem Reap – dozens of luxury hotels jammed to the rafters with Koreans on package tours. As I rode in, I was passed by an endless convoy of tour buses. Each one was full of Korean tourists with a guide at the front speaking into a microphone. I suppose some of them could be Japanese, but they looked Korean to me and all the writing that I saw was in Korean. There were also Korean restaurants. The parking lots of these big hotels were overflowing with these tour buses. I imagine that the areas around the temples will be equally full of these buses.
Things got a bit crazy as I got farther into Siem Reap. The traffic became heavy and since it was dark, I really wasn’t oriented. I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I planned on not even trying to find a guest house in a nice area. I wouldn’t be here long enough to enjoy it. I just wanted to find a place as soon as possible. Then I just happened to see a sign for the Jasmine Guest House – the place where Michael and Michele were staying. I pulled in there and found it to be a very typical backpacker place. The walls were covered in travel information and there was comfortable seating where people were crowded around a TV watching The Killing Fields.
I went up to the reception area on the second floor and asked about a room. No one bothered to explain anything to me, but just told me to wait and that someone would show me a room. I waited quite a long time and finally a young guy was there. I was told to follow him. I went downstairs and he hopped on a scooter. I guess I was expected to hop on the back with him. I had my bike, though, and got on that instead and followed him. He drove out into traffic, crossed the street and went down an alley. At the end of the alley was another guest house that I guess Jasmine had purchased. It also had a sign that said Jasmine and the guy showed me a $5 room there. It was a pretty typical place. It had a large double bed, a fan, a bedside table, and a stinky bathroom full of mosquitoes. But it was still a pretty good deal for $5. The bed had clean sheets and a blanket. They supplied soap and towels. I guess I was spoiled from my days in the bungalow and I looked at the room a bit askance. I remember when I first got to Cambodia I was raving about the rooms like this. They were far nicer than I was expecting especially for NT$160 a night. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective and expectations.
I unpacked, took a quick shower and then went back to the main Jasmine building to check in. I also brought my laundry and gave it to them to do. I paid for three nights in advance and then joined Michael and Michelle at a table. I wasn’t sure that I would see them, but they were right there when I went back. I ordered another pizza – this one was delivered from Happy Herb’s – and had some Beerlao which I’ve decided is much tastier than Angkor Beer. The pizzas seem to agree with my system so I’ve been ordering them when I’ve had a big appetite. I think all that cheese (and there is a lot of it) makes my stomach happy. Maybe it makes up for the lack of milk in my diet.
We stayed there till about 9:30 or 10:00. They were staying at a third location down a different alley. I went back to my room and took a shower. I had it in my head that I’d go to the temples for sunrise, but when it came right down to it this morning I couldn’t be bothered. I thought I’d rather spend the morning with a good cup of coffee and getting oriented. Then I could cycle out there in mid-morning when it was light. It seemed silly to rush out there first thing for sunrise when I hadn’t even seen the place in daylight. I wouldn’t have a clue where to go. And I’d read that sunrise was actually one of the busiest times. I can’t imagine that many people getting up that early, but I guess they do. I also figured that even if I did get out there that early, then what would I do all day? I can’t see spending 12 hours out there just going from temple to temple to temple. I barely managed to handle one temple on my way out of Phnom Penh that first day. We’ll see. I’ll cycle out there at my leisure and ride around today and poke around. If I think it’s so amazing that I have to see a sunrise there, then I can go back tomorrow morning. I think I can only do the temples in half-days. Michael and Michelle (at least Michael anyway) was planning on getting out there for sunrise. I doubt very much that they managed it. They were pretty tired last night and I’m willing to bet they decided to stay in bed.