After having a semi-decent breakfast at a semi-western place (I picked up Alistair Mclean’s “South by Java Head” there, as well), we went to pick up our bikes. Two dollars exchanged hands and we were the proud temporary owners of two six-speed bikes with properly inflated tires and tightened chains. Even the gears worked most of the time! It was a sheer delight to cycle along half-way decent asphalt, cool morning (by that point I found anything below 30c pleasantly cool).
We set off towards the Siem Reap river, a river that runs through the whole Siem Reap province and bisects the city. It was a bit harrowing, at first, to drive among the traffic, swallowing dust and exhaust smoke. But eventually you figure out the rules and it becomes easy enough, if you take care and watch out for the occasional (rather frequent, really) scooter barreling down towards you against the direction of the traffic. Once we reached the river we followed it north, later taking the Charles De Gaulle road towards the admission offices of the Angkor complex. Many mistakenly think that there is more than one “official” point of entry, that you can buy tickets at any point, but nope. You’ll have to go to the one and only building where they sell the tickets. We only bought a 20$ day ticket as we (correctly, as it turned out) thought that one day would be enough to see the Vats.
The vats were pretty gorgeous. And huge! And there were tons! I mean, we’ve all seen many pictures of the things, it’s even a miracle in the Civ games, and we have our own preconceptions. I thought that they’d be more inaccessible and overrun by jungle. And I guess they were, about a hundred years ago. But nowadays there are thousands of tourists, it’s all paved roads, mowed lawns and well marked footpaths. Oh, they even market one of the Vats as “The Tomb Raider Vat” because the Angelina Jolie movie featured some scenes filmed there. It turned out to be the most crowded one of them all, which seriously detracted from the experience. Truly sad, since it was one of the more spectacular vats of the area, with dark, brooding jungle, temple ruins, tree roots everywhere… And hordes of Asian tourists. Which often means spit and litter everywhere. We loved the vats, honestly, we did! It’s just that I wish there was a way to see them without the constant Zerg rush of tourists. And the way back was even more fun than the way there, since we were going home just before sundown, in the evening traffic jam. Grown-ups were smiling, children were waving and shouting hello from cars and motorcycle, mostly to the pale ginger wonder, but I got some token waves as well… We reached the hotel covered in diesel soot and dead tired, so handed over our bikes and had a shower. The unholy racket upstairs had stopped, but we decided to buy a 15$ bus ticket to Koh Chang, Thailand, anyway, since we were a bit tired of the third world vibe by now, and just wanted to enjoy the sun and the sea before returning to freezing Finland.
The bus arrived early in the morning, but not as early as advertised, causing me to spend an hour nervously pacing up and down the road. But, hey, local concepts of time and all that. We were afraid that we’d have to board a dinky pickup or something, but no, a shiny new double decker pulled up an hour later. We were then quickly whiscked to the border,where we had to crowd into a tiny tin-roofed shack filled to the brim with tourists, queued up in an orderly fashion (thank god) before four passport control windows. That was a tad depressing, what with the +35c heat and the press of unwashed bodies, but we made it, and it took only about 45 minutes, after which it was a matter of a short treck across no-man’s land (with a huge casino-hotel complex on it) to the Thai side. Where things got a little worse. We had to queue up with other Farangs for almost two hours to get out entry stamps. At least they had air conditioning, and the civil servants were friendly and apologetic, with one lady, seemingly in charge, rushing about taking pictures of the obscenely long queue, telling everyone that the photos would go to “the big bossman” in order for him to understand the need for more passport control officials. But in the end it was all but a waiting game, and after shuffling our way through the customs we were breathing the sweet, sweet Thai air once again. And this is where the cheapness of our ticket showed, we were divvied into groups and made to board small minivans which would then take us to our destinations, Koh Chang in our case. That took another two hours… By that time I didn’t particularly care. As long as we weren’t abandoned to fend for ourselfs I was happy as a clam.