Asia

Angkor Wat – We Came, We Saw, We Got Sunburned and Hopelessly Lost

When we drew up this crazy plan over a year ago, Cambodia got on the list with a bullet…that bullet being the Angkor Archeological Park. It’s the largest religious compound on the planet, and the many temples surrounding Siem Reap kept us very busy for a couple of days.  Before we get into the wonders of Angkor (and they were indeed wonderful) I must say that the 4 days getting to, visiting and leaving Siem Reap might have been the sweatiest, most frustrating and exhausting days in our entire year of travel. 

Siem Reap is not ridiculously far from Phnom Penh, just under 200 miles, but poor road infrastructure puts the journey at around 5.5 hours by bus. Another option is via speedboat, although it takes a little longer (6.5hrs), is by far the most scenic. You can also fly there in 55 mins, but the flights fell outside our budget. In retrospect, I would have happily coughed up the $400 for a plane ticket, but we were lured by the promise of great scenery via the speedboat option…I mean, we came all this way to see stuff, right? Not to visit every airport in SE Asia.

It was due to this lapse in judgment that we found ourselves on the dock at 7am, where we were ushered onto our speedboat. If we let our imagination take us away, the word speedboat could conjure up several images: bouncing down the river, squinting into the spray from the prow, safe behind sunglasses and possibly a fancy headscarf. Refreshments? Why thank you! At the very least, it should be speedy.

What we actually boarded was more like a river-bus. [John: I pictured water skiing.]

We were given seat assignments at the dock office, the clerk checking off our seats on a printed seating map and scribbling the assignment on the back of our ticket. The seating map showed a configuration that had at least 100 seats on the lower deck. John and I were given 50 and 51. We had read that the most enjoyable part of this trip was sightseeing from the top deck, watching Cambodian river life pass by. Seeing as it was 349F degrees outside, I figured we could manage this for a couple of hours before retreating below deck for an air-conditioned nap.

The top deck consisted of an 18-inch walkway surrounding an elevated, slightly-curved roof. There was a small bar running around the edge of the roof, about 3 inches in height, which apparently satisfied all safety requirements (there were some lifejackets on the boat, but all of the luggage was soon piled on top of them). Getting on the roof required a ungraceful scramble up the side of the cabin, over the 3-inch safety bar and then an awkward slip-and-slide maneuver to orient yourself on the slick convex surface to be facing out. Seeing as the roof was curved, it wasn’t long before you and your belongings started to slide back down to the edge, finding yourself pressed up against the metal safety rail that had been heating up in the Cambodian sunshine for a couple of hours. There was only one way to be comfortable on the roof of this boat, and that was laying down, feet braced against the bar. Unfortunately, there were 80 other people on the roof with you, so space was at a premium. There was absolutely no other way to be comfortable. John, myself and the rest of our fellow travels experimented with many possible configurations. 1) Sit on the edge, legs over the bar – legs fall asleep in 3 minutes. 2) Sit cross-legged – slide down the curve, ending up against the safety bar resulting in minor burns and loss of blood to the feet. 3) Slide legs under the bar – nope, legs too fat.

The other thing was that, once you were up on the roof, the prospect of dismounting onto the 18-inch walking platform without going into the drink was a bit unnerving…even when we were still tied up to the dock. When we were whipping along at 45km/hr, the prospect was even grimmer. It seemed as though once you were up…you were up for good. This did not bode well for my plan to dismount and hide from the sun below deck for the last 2/3rds of the trip.

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Adding to my dismay was the addition of three beautiful French girls, who boarded the boat with a case of beer and alternated between yelling “woo hoo!” and screaming “WOO HOO!” at a significantly higher volume. Settle down ladies…it’s 7:30am and we have 6 more hours to go.

As we left Phnom Penh, we passed many floating villages and small fishing boats. The breeze was actually quite lovely, and we settled for alternating between positions 1 and 2, switching whenever we lost feeling in our limbs.

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“I could do this for six hours,” I thought, “no problem.”

Everyone we passed waved enthusiastically at us and we all cheerfully waved back. It was rather sweet…kids would run from their huts down to the bank and jump around waving and yelling at the 80 white people baking in the sun. One young chap, probably around 7, gave us a quite a little shimmy. This was all the more amusing as he was completely stark naked.

The raucous French girls were taking up a lot of space on the roof, clinking cans of Angkor beer and toasting us all. The party lasted for about 30 minutes before they collapsed in a stupor and fell asleep in rather inelegant positions. They slept for the next 7 hours…slowly turning an alarming shade of purple. Attempts to wake them up, or at least turn them over to acquire an even broil, was met with dispute (theirs). The roof community decided to let them be and instead amused themselves by marking the progress of their sunburn throughout the journey.

Other noticeable characters on the roof consisted of the middle-aged Italian man, dressed in long pants and a button up shirt, who fell asleep in a starfish position with a newspaper over his head. His leg hung from the roof, essentially blocking the walkway for safe travel, forcing people to edge around his limb while gripping onto the bar positioned one inch away from his crotch. There was an elderly English fellow kitted out with powerful binoculars, who eagerly referenced his SE Asia bird book approximately every 15 seconds.

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Having had no other choice but to study the landscape for 7 hours, I can confirm that there were exactly 4 types of birds to be seen. Gull-like birds, storky things, swallowy types, and sparrows…that’s it. Regardless of the lack of variety, he studied every single one of them through his binoculars for the next 7 hours…constantly consulting his book. He probably had a much better time than anyone else on the boat, including his wife, who sat in the cabin and rolled her eyes at him through the window.

I should point out that all the Cambodian folks were all below decks…they obviously knew something we didn’t know. The exact thing they knew became very clear around 9am: It gets very hot and very boring.

This was the view for the last 3 hours of the trip:

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We were no longer on the river, but rather crossing a huge lake. FOR THREE HOURS. Our seat assignments turned out to be a complete ruse. Seeking a change of scenery and relief from the heat, I headed down to the cabin. The seating chart the clerk had been working from had about 50 more seats than there were on the boat. All of the seats were taken, and there were still about 70 people up top. What’s more, the people that had claimed these seats spilled their time between being seated in air-conditioned glory and popping up for a quick visit to catch some breeze. Each empty seat was either blocked by personal belongings or guarded viciously by their seatmate. Back up top for me.

As we slowly baked, we turned a bit delirious, throwing caution to the wind and going for walks around the roof on the 18-inch walkway. I keep repeating this measurement as I feel it is important. I can barely walk in a straight line on land; 18 inches is only a bit larger than your average laptop screen. The platform was about 1 foot away from the water and we were cutting through the lake at about 45mph. It’s amazing what traveling will do to you…a year ago, this would have been an entirely unacceptable means of transport. We would have probably taken one look and caught a tuk-tuk to the bus station, or better yet, to the airport. Yet, here we were, 19 countries under our belt, amusing ourselves by walking around the edge of a boat, with no rail, in 95F weather. We also took a lot of pictures of Oathkeeper blowing in the wind.

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7.5 hours later, we arrived at the end of the lake. Expecting the de-boarding to be imminent, I headed to the cabin where our bags were located. I started a trend, as 8 more people joined me in a space that was designed to hold 3 normal-sized bodies comfortably. Instead of docking, the captain turned off the engine and was pulled by a tugboat into an endless tributary off the lake. Trapped in a crowd of bodies with no aircon, or air-movement…just a 90F cramped hell, we sweated, we stank and all of our hope of an end in sight slowly dissipated as we cruised for about 30 more minutes.

We finally bumped into the dock, where we leaped 3 ft to shore into the arms of grabby tuk-tuk drivers and beggar children trying to snatch our bags for some extra cash.

I have never been so pleased to be on dry land. If you are ever traveling between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap…ignore the guidebooks and catch a plane. I promise you, it’s worth the cash.  Also, if John Levy ever says “I don’t need any sunscreen,” knock him out and apply 35 SPF liberally.  He had lobster legs for the next 5 days.

After checking into our hostel and 15 minutes lounging in our chilly aircon room, we hit the streets for some grub.  Siem Reap is basically a tourist town, supporting all the white people while they visit the many surrounding temples.  This has resulted in a notorious Pub Street providing copious amounts of alcohol and all manner of foodstuffs…works for me!

There are many tour options for visiting the park, and many different types of tickets.  We settled on a three-day pass, although we were only planning on being there for two days.  We hired a tuk-tuk driver, Latke, who would drive us around the unending complex for the next two days.  Before we settled on a two day pass, John and I had many conversations about whether two days of temples would be too much.  In Thailand, we punted the ancient capital Sukhothai as we had been a bit templed out at Ayutthaya…would we feel the same way at Angkor?  We always check Tripadvisor but gravitate to the ‘terrible’ reviews as they are much funnier and cast quite the ugly light on tourists who expect everything to be comfortable and any minor inconvenience results is scathing reviews.  The terrible reviews consisted of sentiments like “Boring.  Just a bunch of old buildings.” and “Don’t waste your time, they are all falling down.”

Feeling superior, we decided that we are not those type of people, and happily signed up for two days of temple exploration.  I’ll say it now…pride always comes before a fall.

We started the day at the star attraction, Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat (trans: the city which became a pagoda) was built in the early 12th century during the reign of Suryavarman II, as both the capital city and State Temple to Vishnu.  The grounds are a rectangle of 1.5km by 1.3km.  We declined an English-speaking guide, offered about every 3.2 seconds, and instead wandered around without a clue as to what we were seeing.  This isn’t as bad as it sounds…it was a delight to explore on our own, but we definitely didn’t absorb as much as we would have armed with some knowledge.

As you can tell by the above picture, the place was heaving with people and the heat was really starting to crank up.  Seeing as we were scheduled to come back the next morning for sunrise, we did a couple of laps and moved on.  The few pictures I did take were of the incredible bas relief wall carvings that covered almost every inch of the Wat’s many galleries.

As we left the complex and walked back to the tuk tuk, there was a monkey sighting!  This one had already stolen some food from some poor visitor, so we were not relieved of any of our possesions as his focus was either on the corn or the crowds.

I had expected to stay for hours at Angkor Wat…it’s sort of the Machu Picchu of SE Asia, but seeing as we were coming back the next day and the crowd and heat were getting overbearing, we decided to move on after an hour.

Our next stop was Banteay Kdei, a late 12th century temple which is in a runied state appearing much as it was discovered.  Of all the temples we visited, the ruined ones were my favorite.  We entered Kdei through the east gate, under the watchful eye of the face tower.

Crawling over fallen blocks the size of coffee tables, we made our way through the small temple to find a seated Buddha, decked out with banners and ribbons.  An elderly woman offered incense for sale, which filled the temple with a spicy smoke.

Moving further in, we found the hall of the dancers, flanked by walls and columns covered with dancing apsara in various degrees of ruin.  The devata carvings were especially beautiful.  Devatas are a kind of smaller more focused devas, which is the general Hindu term for deity. The term “devata” also means devas (deva in plural form or the gods). They are male and female devatas, although over the two days we mainly saw female carvings.

On the west side of the temple, an enormous tree trows around the foundation of the terrace.  This was our first glimpse of invading trees, but certainly not our last.  The effect does not lose it’s power on repeated viewing and I ended up wading through hundreds of tree/stone pictures…sorry in advance.

Next up was the ‘Angelina Jolie’ temple, named so by many of the guides due to the fact that some parts of Tomb Raider were filmed here.  If you like trees growing out of temples…Ta Prohm is the place for you.

Ta Prohm is covered with strangler figs and silk-cotten trees bursting out of walls, terraces and towers.  The whole place is partly collapsed, again left as it was discovered, and the trees are interlaced among the ruins.

When the Angkor sites were discovered in the 19th century, most of the ruins looked like this.  Ta Prohm was deliberately left in it’s “natural” state, and actually involved a significant amount of work to prevent further collapse and enough clearing to allow people entry.  The trees grew up around the temple as a result of birds distributing seeds somewhere in the structure of the building, and the roots growing down to the soil.  As the roots work their way through the masonry, they thicken, gradually wedging open the blocks.

You may have noticed that I am equipped with more facts about these later temples, and that is due to the fact that John cracked and purchased a guidebook, mainly so that we would no longer be approached by a vendor trying to sell us one every 2 minutes.  We thought the Vietnamese were pushy…but the Cambodians put them to shame. Sales pitches run from cheerfully optimistic to low-blow guilt trips.  When John declined the 27th offer of the exact same guidebook by displaying the one we already bought, one enterprising young man asked hopefully, “would you like another?”

Prior to entering the grounds of Ta Prohm, we were directed by our driver to have a quick look at the lake across the road, while he puttered off to the other side of the temple to take a nap until we finished touring.  The lake visit required walking through a gauntlet of pre-teen girls, two of whom attached themselves to our hips and ran through the standard opening lines of a hard sell.  This is how every pitch starts in Cambodia:

“Hello, where you from?”

“The US.”

“Big country, capital Washington D.C.”

“Yes”

“What’s your name?”

“John/Becci”

“You please buy magnet/postcard/bracelet/keychain/pen/cold drink? Only 1 dollar.”

This is where John and I handle things differently.  I happen not to have a soft spot for children of any nationality, and they typically don’t like dealing with me either…so I am naturally hardened (trans: heart of ice) against doe-eyed offspring, no matter what they are offering.  If kittens or puppies ever crack into the begging market, I would be hopelessly doomed…but kids have no affect on me.  John, however, has a heart of gold and is often hopelessly drawn into the plots of small children.  Whereas I decline their services with a sharp “no thanks”, John tries to soften the blow by saying something along the lines of “not right now, maybe later.”

HUGE mistake.  Terri (not her real name), the small child that had latched onto his hip outside Ta Prohm, was offering cold drinks for sale, and the fact that we both had a full water bottle in our hands did not dissuade her. Also, once they know your name, they use it constantly.

Terri: “John, would you please come to my shop and buy cold drink?”

John: “No, sorry…I already have one…”

Terri: “Please, John…you need a cold drink”

John: “Er…no, I am okay right now.  Maybe later.”

Terri: “John, I remember…buy drink later from me.”

She eventually drifted back to her shop.  Meanwhile, we reached the lake which was about 20 meters away, immediately realized there was absolutely nothing to see, and tried to waste an appropriate amount of time before we had to pass by Terri again.  I’m ashamed to say, we tried an alternate route back which involved pushing through some undergrowth to ponder some fallen blocks of stone with great intensity, in an attempt to avoid a 9 year-old.

Terri was not having it.  She intercepted us at the path and laid the ultimate guilt trip on John.

Terri: “You buy my cold drink now.”

John: “Uh, actually I don’t need any”

Terri: “John, you promised to by my cold drink”

John: “Ah…er, sorry, erm…”

Terri: “You broke your word, John.  Why did you break your word?”

Me: (Damn, girl, you are good)

John escaped, but he was bummed out for the next 30 minutes. Every so often I would catch him shaking his head and whispering softly, “damn, man.”  What did I tell you?  Sweetest man alive.

Ta Prohm is a labyrinth of tunnels, hallways, pagodas, towers and broken statuary…all in the process of being claimed back by the jungle.  It’s hard to keep track of where you are, as down every pathway is another magically enchanting corner.  John and I lost track of each other almost immediately, as I wandered off to explore the outer walls.

I didn’t intend to lose him, in fact, I thought I was carrying on a discussion with him about why exactly people constantly taking pictures of themselves in front of things (a mystery to me…sure, a couple of pictures but every single one??!??) I snapped a picture…turned around, and he was no longer there.  Shrugging, I continued down my path.  We’ve been doing this for 11 months now, the plan if we get seperated is ‘always meet at the end’ and it’s worked every single time…until Ta Prohm.

For the next hour, I busied myself with taking pictures and marveling at the size of the trees that are intertwined with everything.

Warning: from here on out, your opinion of my character will drop quite rapidly.

The Cambodian sun is intense, and the hudmity is stifling…even more so than Nashville in August.  After 15 minutes, I was drenched in sweat and remained that way for the next 45 minutes until I reached the end of the complex.  I usually get through these sites well before John, so I sat down at the exit and waited, fanning myself with my entrance ticket.

15 minutes passed. What’s he doing in there? 

30 minutes passed. WTF?  Where is he?

35 minutes passed…the ticket flapping was doing nothing.  This is the hottest, sweatiest, and smelliest I have ever been in my life.  

40 minutes after I had plopped down, I decided to leave the small pool of water I was creating and head back inside to find him and hurry him along.  I peeled myself up from the step, leaving an enormous sweaty ass-print in my wake, and headed back inside. The number of French and Chinese tourists seemed to have increased three-fold, which is the worst combination of people with cameras ever, and the interior resembled a mosh-pit with an extra bucketload of sweat for good measure.  Three more tours of the interior of the temple and I still couldn’t locate him. 

Now, I don’t do well with the heat.  In fact, I become a bit of a monster (understatement of the decade). The state I was in was disgusting…I might have well have just walked out of the shower…that’s how damp I was at this point.  Knowing that we had three more hours of temples to go, I had cultivated an intense dislike for my situation and I turned ugly and evil.  I say this in my defense, although it’s a weak one.  I’m ashamed of my thought process over the next hour, which included cursing the person I love more than anything in the world to heaven, hell, and back again.

That idiot didn’t pay attention…I bet he’s at the front even though Latke told us to meet on the other side.  Ugh…idiot.  I guess I will go to the front.  Why doesn’t he ever listen?!?  F*ck I am HOT.  He’s probably all mad because he thinks I didn’t listen and won’t it be incredible when he realizes I was right?! Bastard! WHY IS IT SO HOT?!?!??!?!?!?!

Went to the front.  Wasn’t there.

Stewing, I went back to the end and glared at this view for another 30 minutes, practicing my ‘don’t even talk to me’ face.  I told you: MONSTER.

I decided to go and find latke and the tuk tuk.  I dont know why this was the plan, but I was tired of being stepped around in disgust by the French tour groups.

I exited the complex and walked the half mile path back to the parking lot.  Tuk Tuk not there.

F*ck.

This is when I realize that John might have thought I was the one who was confused and had gone back to the front gate to find me…with our driver.  Harumph.

Idiot!  Of course I am not confused…I listen!!!!

Back down the path, into the temple, out the other side…no John and no Latke.  Back to the exit, sit around some more…walk back to the parking lot.  It’s now been 2 hours of seperation and I am starting to wonder how in the hell I am going to get home.  I spent my last dollar on a water, which had already been sweated out of me and I was stuck 12km away from civilization.

I walk out into the parking lot and I hear a shrill whistle.  Looking around, I see a uniformed guide pointing at me and gesturing wildly.  John (dear, sweet man) hauls ass around the corner.  I adjust my body language to communicate a “where the hell have you been?’ pose when I realize that he is absolutely terrified/relieved to see me.

Uh oh…

For the last three hours, while I was thinking uncharitable thoughts and working my way into a seething rage, John had been doing the following in order.

  1. Waiting at the gate of the parking lot.  He was finished way before me.
  2. Becoming increasingly worried.
  3. Going back into the temple. looking for me x 3
  4. Taken the tuk tuk driver to the front.
  5. Taken the tuk tuk driver to the back (repeat several times).
  6. Convinced himself I had fallen down a hole and was unconcious, never to be found.
  7. Called the hostel to see if I had abandoned him.
  8. Engaged a team of policemen to look for me.
  9. Paid a stranger with a scooter to drive him around the temple grounds about 5 times.
  10. Tried to imagine breaking the news to my parents.
  11. Generally worked himself into a state of controlled panic.

Oh, the shame.  I felt very small.  Not one ugly thought had this darling man had for me.

It’s been a long standing joke between us that John would rather die a painful death than ride ‘bitch’ on a scooter/motorbike.  However, he did it for me that day.

It turns out that in our constant search, we had been missing each other just barely for 3 hours.  Re-united, and blood-pressure back to a more reasonable number, we looked at each other and I asked him “do you want to go to the next temple?”

“I think we are done for the day.”

Latke seemed fairly amused by the whole thing…for the rest of our days with him, he made clear to give us very explicit directions and, with a twinkle in his eye, told John to keep an eye on me.

We headed back to the hostel, fortified ourselves with beer and food and went to bed early.  The next day we had booked Latke for an even bigger circuit of temples, starting with a sunrise viewing at Angkor Wat.  I must say, after day 1, our hearts really weren’t in it.

4:30am came very early and that beautiful sunset we were hoping to see was an absolute no-show.  The day was overcast and the sky went from slightly grey to a lighter grey over the course of an hour.  The thousands of people who showed up to cross an item off their bucket list went away dissapointed.  Not us, though…you can’t control nature and you can’t be too annoyed when it doesn’t bend to your wishes.  We could have done with the extra 2 hours of sleep, though.

The next site we visited was one that we skipped the previous day: Bayon.

Latke dropped us off at the bridge that is the entrance of the Angkor Thom complex, of which Bayon is the largest remaining temple. The bridge over the moat is lined by an avenue of statues.  On the left and right, two rows of figures each carry the body of a giant serpant.  The figures on the left are gods, while those on the right are demons.

The most impressive thing about Bayon is that there are many face towers, 37 of the original 54 are still standing.  Each face tower has at least two huge heads looking down, and many have a face on each of it’s four side.  The effect is quite overwhelming.

Angkor Thom has many sights, and we were left on our own to navigate a couple of kilometers of temples.  Even though it was only 8am, it was muggy and hot…we were starting to doubt that we would make it to 4pm.  We strolled through the grounds, first visiting Bapuon, which was closed but impressive.  There were no other people around, which was a much better experience than the throng at Angkor Wat.

Next up was some unidentified buildings on the site of the former royal palace.  We wandered around, took pictures…then left.  At this point, everything had started to merge together in a seemingly endless collection of ruins.  We had officially become those Tripadvisor people.

After being sucessfully reunited with Latke, we headed to Preah Khan, a late 12th century temple which was also though to have been a Buddhist university.  It was partly ruined, almost like a little Ta Prohm, but we managed to navigate through without becoming seperated.  I cracked my head a couple of times on the low lintels of the passage ways.  After being stuck behind a tour group, we found out there was a reason behind the height of the doorways.

There are 4 entrances to Preah Khan, and only the one the King entered has towering and uniform doorways.  Entering the temple in the other three directions, the doorways get lower and lower, so when you came to the King’s chamber, you were already prostrate before him.

It was 10am…we called a meeting on the mound.  It’s awful to say, but we were running out of steam.  We’d been up since 4:30 and we were due to go until 4pm.  The problem was, we didn’t want to dissapoint Latke…leaving early because we were bored seemed like taking a big crap on his entire culture.  We decided to hang in there and headed off to Ta Som.

More trees in temples.

We got back in the tuk tuk, trying to figure out how to break the news that we were effectively out of battery.  “Maybe the next one will be awesome”, we kept saying.  If it’s not cool, we’ll tell him we want to go home.

We walked down a path, surrounded on both side by a lake that Gollum would have been happy to call home.

15 minutes later, we came to this:

We turned around, committed to calling uncle as soon as we found Latke.

We pussied out and went to Pre Rup, which looked very different from everything we had seen so far.  The stones were orange and sandy, and there were elephant statues (a big plus).

At this point, all we could think about was 1) how hot is was, 2) how long we had been awake and 3) how much further we had to go.  If you are wondering, this is what a combined total of 12 hours of temples looks like:

On the other hand…this is what it looks like when you finally grow a set and tell your tour guide that you want to go home 4 hours early and get $1.50 frozen margaritas:

Oh yeah, baby!

In a fit of extravegance, we went home and took a nap in our frosty air conditioned room.  We rose, only to find the nearest Cambodian BBQ joint and snorfed up a bunch of delicious grilled meat.

 

Something that seems to be popular in South East Asia is fish massages.  This is where you dunk your feet in an aquarium and fish suck the dead skin off your feet.  We had jokingly dared each other to do this in other cities, but that night we were in the mood to pamper ourselves.  The deal was, if it was $5 or less, we would do it.  Bonus!  It was $3 for 30 minutes, so we climbed right on in.

They should have comped us the fish massage, as we were probably the best advertisment they could have hoped for (John: they shoulda comped the fish. Poor bastards!).  We sat right on the main drag, with out feet dangling, squirming, squealing, and laughing for the entire 30 minutes.  Many people stopped by and took pictures of us.

We were offered weed and opium by the opportunistic fish massage proprietor, which we declined.  The fish massage was very ticklish, and our feet did indeed feel like babies’ bottoms when our 30 minute session was up.

It was an exhausting three days getting to and visiting Siem Reap.  I will let John carry on the next leg of our trip, which was a horror bus to Bangkok…I’m glad we went, but I don’t think we will be back. Maybe if we weren’t ramping down from 11 months of travel and dying for some recognizable food, Cambodia would have charmed us more; however, I am ready for showers that are separate from toilets, and a climate that doesn’t crack 90F in February.

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