Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Modern Kingdom of Cambodia

The Angkor Wat sunrise!

"You are all lucky. We still have seats for you to Siem Reap. Tomorrow is a national holiday in Cambodia. Many people are coming home!", the front desk officer told us gleefully.

The early morning rush in Saigon didn't stop me from thinking about the possible scenarios after crossing the borders of Vietnam and Cambodia. I had this irrational fear of getting scammed, mugged, or worse, mulled along the way. With only 4 hours of sleep, we left Saigon at past six in the morning and made our way to a place where an ancient kingdom once flourished.

The Road Less Traveled

Surprisingly, crossing the Vietnamese and Cambodian border was a breeze. The only problem we encountered was the bus ride to Siem Reap. It took us forever before reaching our final destination. We crossed a river, numerous bridges, and an endless stretch of agricultural land. Arriving at Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia was a relief - we're halfway there, or so we thought. We switched to a less sophisticated but air-conditioned bus bound for Siem Reap. We were scheduled to leave the capital at around 3PM but it was moved two hours earlier.

The bus attendant removed all of our bags while waiting for the rescue bus.

At around 3PM, our bus encountered some mechanical problems. The air-condition system went bonkers, and the bus became a mobile oven toaster. Ultimately, the bus driver decided to park beside the national highway, right in the middle of Cambodian nowhere to investigate the predicament. I bet Google Maps would have a hard time to locate us! We asked the bus driver about the situation but he didn't give us concrete answers, all thanks to his limited English vocabulary. We waited for almost two hours for the 'rescue' bus to arrive from Phnom Penh.

We left the Cambodian Nowhere at almost five in the afternoon, and the ordeal didn't stop there. The national highway to Siem Reap was poorly maintained, and occasionally, we'd encounter pot holes. The rescue bus was in good condition however as hours went by, the cold of its air-conditioning system became too harsh to handle.

Midnight Welcome

It was almost midnight when we have finally arrived in Siem Reap. I should be proud of myself for enduring the 19-hour butt-numbing bus ride. It really had pushed me to the limit.

Upon arrival at the bus station, a young, scrawny tuktuk driver, wearing plaid long-sleeved polo approached us and offered us a ride to our hostel, Okay 1 Villa. His name was Tiger and he even offered us a day tour package in Angkor Wat for USD10. He told us to meet him outside the hotel at exactly five in the morning to catch the famous Angkor Wat Sunrise.

To break the awkward silence, Tiger began to ask some random questions.

"What is 'I love you' in Tagalog?"
"Mahal kita", my companion said.
"Ma-haaaal keeeta", Tiger said with enthusiasm.
"How about, it's so nice to meet you?"
A long pause.
"Ikinagagalak kitang makilala", my companion said.
"Ikigaga...ahhh! So difficult!"

We all laughed.

Entering the Khmer Kingdom

Capturing the Angkor Wat sunrise

We woke up late, freshened up hastily, and went outside the hotel. There, we saw Tiger, sleeping on a makeshift hammock inside his tuktuk. He thought we left him. After we paid for the day tour pass ($20), we hurriedly went to the Angkor Wat Temple to witness the famous sunrise.

There were many tourists flocking at the gates of the temple. I guess we were not the only one who'd love to see the sun peeking from the intricate pillars and fortresses of the ancient temple. We were deprived from a high quality sleep for two days straight but to witness the Angkor Wat sunrise was truly worth it.

Bas relief.

Angkor Wat temple.

The Locals
Obligatory tourist shot.

While eating breakfast, Tiger shared a part of his life.

"I was once a part of an international Christian group, that's why I know how to speak English. There, I learned how to play a few musical instruments."

He continued to puff his cigarette.

"My father died when I was young and I was really devastated by it. I became rebellious and asked God why he took my father away. But I realized everything happens for a reason, you know. Because of that, I found light and I became a Buddhist."

"Life is really hard, but it is also beautiful and precious." he continued, while finishing his first stick.

We then proceed to other temples of the complex. If you're really into temple running, the day tour pass wouldn't be enough to cover the entire Angkor Complex! It is said that the Angkor Complex housed at least one million people. I couldn't imagine how busy this ancient metropolitan was, complete with road networks, irrigation system, and a complicated water management network.

This young lad forced me to buy a Fedora hat for USD3.00. I can't help it, he's too charming.

Ancient guardians.

Angkor Thom

Elephant ride.

We visited the Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Phrom temples, in which the third one served as one of the shooting locations of Tomb Raider. You can also ride an elephant at Angkor Thom for USD20/30 minutes. The weather in Siem Reap that time was dry, hot, and humid, but that didn't stop us from exploring the ancient complex! Just a tip, wear a comfortable attire i.e., shorts, flip flops or sandals, and a bright-colored shirt if you want to stand out in your photos (I wore a bright red polo shirt).

Japanese tourists.

Ta Phrom aka Tomb Raider temple.

So beautiful.

If you're planning to buy some souvenirs from the kids, learn how to say no. These kids are really competitive (they're even more competitive than those sellers in Baclaran, Divisoria, or even in Saigon Square) and they'll convince you to buy their stuff. I repeat, learn how to say NO politely to these kids.

Celebrating Pchum Ben Day (Spirit Commemoration Day)

We were lucky enough to witness how Cambodians venerate the spirit of their dead loved ones and ancestors. Tiger, our trusty tuktuk driver took us to one of the temples to honor the spirit of his father together with his family. Like some of the Chinese families here in the Philippines, Cambodians offer variety of food to the graves of their loved ones.


Buddhist Temple.


Traditional Cambodian ensemble.

In Retrospect

Two days in Cambodia was fun, life changing, and amazing albeit the long bus ride from Saigon. This particular trip was an eye opener. Most people here live below the poverty line yet they are still happy with what they have got. Happiness is not about owning a lot of material things; it's all about being with your family and loved ones.

"You know, I've been wanting to visit other countries. I also wanted to visit your country (Philippines) because I've heard it's different from here. But, I already have a family and traveling outside Cambodia is really expensive. You two are very lucky to be here. Enjoy life while it lasts," he told us while finishing his third cigarette.

Just in time.

Dramatic sunrise.

At your service.

Simple joys.

Indochina Series:

The Great Indochina Trip: Prologue
Day 1: The Mui Ne In My Mind
Day 2: The Hidden Gems of Mui Ne
Day 3: The Modern Kingdom of Cambodia


  1. Wow.. this is one memorable trip! I love what you said "Happiness is not about owning a lot of material things; it's all about being with your family and loved ones.", I believe so too!

  2. The photos are breath taking. Cambodia's culture is rich and the architectural structures are amazing.

  3. Seems like a great trip and you enjoyed this as well.Nice pictures.

  4. I tried taking the bus from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat and luckily we didn't encounter problems like this. Their highway system has a lot of rooms for improvement. There was an even an instance where people were digging the roads and transferring the stones in their house.

    1. Forgot to mention that their soil is red. Haha!

  5. Incredible! Enduring 19 hours of bus travel sounds a nightmare. But if it's worth the travel just as you said when you witnessed the sunrise at the Angkor Wat, I could probably endure the bumpy ride.

  6. You thought him a very matalinhagang tagalog. No wonder it's hard to pronounce :D. Masaya ako nakilala kita will do. That is such a very historical.Hmmm. One of the things I am scared of is being bitten by a mosquito from a foreign place.

    1. HAHA! Never thought of that. That's what the first thing that came from my friend's mind.

      Mosquitoes? Well, I always apply off lotion

  7. Beautiful place. I wish I can visit Cambodia soon too.

  8. Thank you for all your comments. Really appreciate it. :D

  9. Love your story! Hope to see Cambodia!

  10. Awesome photos and great experience you had there! I am looking forward to seeing Cambodia next year. Weeee!

  11. Like your post. Indeed, travelling is not just about the places but more importantly the people we encounter.

    I like your story about the tuktuk driver. Diba dami nating natututunan by just talking to people na nai enounter natin sa travel.

    Makes me wanna go back to Seim Reap, my favorite place. Chilax lang, rich in culture at simple lang ang buhay ng mga Cambodians. :)


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