In my desire not to be left behind by the Cambodia-bound bus, my body heeded the Blackberry’s alarm despite the fact that my room’s bed was so comfortable that I almost didn’t want to rise. So after taking a shower, I packed all my stuff and promptly went down to the canteen to have my free breakfast by 6 am. The bus would pick me up at around 7:15 so I still had some time to take my eggs, baguette and tea at a leisurely pace.
DAY 2: MORNING RUSH
30 minutes later, I was done and returned to my room to prepare. For some reason, I spent too much time on this to the point that Chanh had to call me up in the room to tell me that I needed to board the bus. To make matters worse, I managed to drop my toothbrush at one side of the bed that was too close to the wall that I my arm could not squeeze into the small space in between. I had to ask for Chanh’s help in nudging the very heavy bed a bit so that I could reach the damned toothbrush.
After all that, I still had to formally check out. Good thing Chanh already prepared everything in advance and actually had change for the USD 100 bill I paid. He then helped me with my backpack as we went out of the hotel to look for the bus. There were a few nervous moments because the bus wasn’t at the appointed spot when we got there and I was then beginning to worry that I got left behind. Luckily, Chanh was able to spot the contact person with the bus company and he was able to point us to where exactly the bus was (it was at the other side of the public park.)
Of course, once I presented my ticket and boarded, all eyes were on me. I was sincerely hoping at that moment that I didn’t make them wait too long. Looking for my seat, I found that I would be seated beside a middle-aged Vietnamese woman. As I would spend the next 13 hours beside her, I decided to start on the right foot and smiled at her. She smiled back. Nice.
At 7:20 am, the bus left.
THE MEKONG EXPRESS
The name of the bus company is the Mekong Express Limousine Bus. (“Mekong Express” for brevity). It’s mainly a Cambodian company but also has a well-established route leading to Saigon. I specifically instructed Chanh to make reservations with this company because I heard that they serve good-tasting snacks and their buses have toilets in them. I didn’t want to suffer the indignity of begging the bus driver to stop in the middle of nowhere because I could no longer hold it in.
“Mekong Express” is something of a misnomer because the travel time is certainly not “express”. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have strict speed limits for buses – about 60 km/h, in my estimation. And for someone who is used to the speed demon bus drivers in Metro Manila, the pace of Mekong Express can be likened (frustratingly) to that of a turtle.
One other thing that would be a potential source of annoyance to tourists would be the Khmer music videos that the buses play while on the road. Apparently paying no heed to the fact that most of the bus riders are non-Cambodian and would therefore not easily appreciate these music videos, they play them anyway all day throughout the trip.
And what do these music videos look/sound like? For one thing, they’re all love songs, they all have heavy use of synthesizers and they all take place in a ballroom where everyone is slow dancing to the music played by a live band. Seriously, they’re all like that. They all even sound the same, and the volume is always set up 2-3 notches louder than it should, so the sound pervades throughout the bus.
Fortunately, I knew of this information beforehand and so I had the good sense of buying a nice set of ear plugs prior to the trip. My ears therefore didn’t suffer as much as the other tourists.
MOC BAI-BAVET BORDER CROSSING
The nearest border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia is located in a place where the Vietnamese town of Moc Bai and the Cambodian town of Bavet are adjacent to each other. This was just around 2-3 hours from Saigon so we’ve barely warmed our seats before it was time to prepare to disembark. We were all briefed as to how the whole process will go. The conductor also collected all of our passports and the Cambodia visa fee for those tourists who don’t have it yet. Like before, no fee was collected from me because of the ASEAN privilege.
It was a 2-step process wherein we first went through Vietnamese immigration to get our exit stamps. The we had to go through Cambodian immigration to get our arrival stamps. Cambodia was a bit stricter in the sense that we had to pose for a photograph and had our fingerprints scanned for their database. And just before exiting the building, our body temperatures were checked by a quarantine officer using a hand-held laser device (which wasn’t intrusive at all.)
The whole process probably took about 20 minutes. After which, we proceeded to a Khmer restaurant close to the border for the first stopover. Since I’ve just finished eating the free snack given by Mekong Express, I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry yet. So I just looked through the food offerings. The only thing I really remembered was the fact that someone meticulously attached price tags on the glass panel for each of the food items. So aside from Cambodian riel, they were also priced in terms of Vietnamese dong and US dollars.
After this, it was a very long road filled with boredom, Khmer music videos and two more stopovers (one of which was a bus change in Phnom Penh) before finally reaching Siem Reap at past 8 in the evening.
ARRIVING AT SIEM REAP
It was already completely dark when the bus arrived at Siem Reap. Mekong Express had it’s own arrival terminal where, I was assured, I would be picked up by somebody from Happy Guesthouse – the lodging house I made reservations with. I just had to hope that there was indeed someone waiting for me there and that the person I corresponded with online was a legit representative of the guesthouse.
I need not have worried as I was able to spot a man carrying a sign with my name even before I exited the bus. I immediately introduced myself to him and he then carried my backpack as he led me to the guesthouse’s service tuktuk. This would be my first and last tuktuk ride by the way, because in the following days, I would be touring Siem Reap by car.
The Mekong Express terminal was located around 2 kilometers from Siem Reap proper, so the first half of the ride, we drove through a very provincial atmosphere. Eventually, it gave way to more lights and a bit higher noise volume as we approached the city center. The tuktuk suddenly turned left into a side street and after 2 more turns, I found myself at the front gate of Happy Guesthouse, which looked exactly as it did in the photographs I saw online.
CHECKING IN AND GETTING SETTLED
Upon arrival, my check-in was handled by a perpetually-smiling front desk person named Song. He led me to my fan room where I lingered a bit to unpack before going back down to the dining area to have dinner. The way I planned it, I intended to explore the city at night just like what I did in Saigon before finally retiring for the night. But I discovered for myself that there is a different kind of fatigue that one experiences when one sits on a bus seat for 13 hours. I wasn’t in an exploring mood and I decided to cancel that night’s plans.
Going back downstairs, I got seated at a table in the dining area near the front desk. On the next table nearby was the owner/manager Chhorpoan, who was the one I corresponded with through email when I was making a reservation. She looked busy as she was talking a lot of other visitors, but I briefly got to exchange pleasantries with her.
Song also acted as my waiter and I ordered a simple rice meal with chicken and young corn, plus a soda to chug it down. Observing the dining area, I quickly noticed that I was the only Asian guest, as everyone else was Caucasian. It seems that this place is pretty popular among Europeans (I was able to discern at least 3 different European languages while I was eating my dinner), but I’m willing to bet that I’m the very first Filipino customer they ever had.
Song tried to initiate some small talk with me as he commented that my physical features and complexion are very similar to that of a typical Cambodian’s. (This will be a recurring comment by different people in the following days.) Either I really look like one – which I doubt – or that they rarely have Asian guests in Happy Guesthouse. Anyway, I was later on asked if I would want to join a tour group with other newly arrived guests, but I had to decline because I already have made tour arrangements beforehand.
Also while having dinner, I took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and contacted Sam, my tour guide, and Leika, a fellow Filipino who I’ll be touring with, that I have already arrived in Siem Reap. With nothing else to do afterwards, I promptly returned to my room and prepared to sleep.
DAY 3: MEETING SAM
So I needed to wake up at at least 3:00am so that I’d be prepared when Sam picks me up at around 4:30am. At 4:00am, I was already downstairs but it seemed like nobody was up yet and the front gate was padlocked so I could not get out. Luckily, there were others guests too who needed to go out at that hour and one of them managed to find an employee who was sleeping nearby under a mosquito net (whom I totally did not see in the dark) and he opened the gate for us. Not more than a minute passed after the gate got opened that I saw someone walking towards where I was, and when he asked, “Chito?”, I then knew that he’s Sam.
I didn’t directly make tour arrangements with Sam. It was Leika who did. Prior to this trip, I have never even met Leika before. In the course of my online research, I came across people who were going to Cambodia the same dates that I was and sent them messages to see if we could tour together to cut costs. Among the three that I messaged, it was Leika who responded most favorably. And the good news is that her arrangement with Sam is already a done deal so all I had to do is join them and everyone ends up paying less.
So the plan was, after picking me up, we would then drop by the Angkoriana Hotel, where Leika and her friend were staying. We still had a lot of time before sunrise so we didn’t really mind when it took them really long to show up. They probably had a busted alarm clock or something. (It turned out that they indeed did. Sort of.)
So when they finally went out, quick introductions were made as Sam drove us to the registration area, where we had to secure a pass by having our photos taken and pay the fee. We had to keep the pass on ourselves at all times because without it, we would not be permitted to enter the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park.
ANGKOR WAT IN THE SUNRISE
At that hour there were already a lot of cars, tuktuks, motorcycles and bicycles en route to Angkor Wat. So we were not really surprised to find out that hundreds of other tourists have gotten there ahead of us. Sam dropped us off at the entrance of Angkor Wat where a squad of park inspectors were checking if each tourist coming in had a pass. Sam could not join us as he had no pass, and we agreed to meet him again at the same spot after about an hour once we were done taking pictures.
Entering Angkor Wat, we had to walk along this wide stone bridge that passed across the wide moat. This then ended where the gateway began and this led to an equally wide pathway leading straight to the main temple, with its distinctive 5 spires. It could have been a difficult walk because it was still quite dark but the hundreds of tourists who were streaming in with us meant there were also lots of light sources. I don’t remember ever tripping or losing my way. We just followed the people.
And so this is really happening. Just a few years back (when I was still far less adventurous), when I imagined this scene playing in my mind, I thought then that it was quite unthinkable. Now I’m doing it. I’m walking towards Angkor Wat.
Eventually, we came to a part where a lot of people were assembled. This was a point opposite some distance off the main temple where it would be right in front of the sunrise, and thus the best spot to take photos at. There’s a big man-made pond that separates the spot from the main temple, so the best location was at the very edge of that pond. Needless to say, a lot of people were already positioned there so we had to jostle for space to get a passable angle for our own photos.
The crowd was so thick at one point that I got separated from Leika and her friend. It took probably another 15 minutes before I was able to see them again. Like me, Leika kept changing locations to get the perfect shot, so it took a bit more sunlight before I was able to find them again.
Anyway, I didn’t go there to just take pictures. This was, after all, the fulfillment of a dream. I wasn’t about to waste the experience by just looking at it through a camera’s lens. I soaked up everything. I walked more slowly. I inhaled more deeply, breathing the air and trying to see if the surroundings have a distinct scent for me to remember it by. I touched the centuries-old masonry with their eroded carvings. And most importantly, I looked at the surroundings with my own eyes. There were long moments where I just stared at the main temple and appreciated the view.
I realized that while I can always come back here, the experience of seeing Angkor Wat for the first time can never be repeated. I didn’t want to end up someday wishing that I did things differently. Whatever it is I do at this moment is how I am going to remember it for as long as I live, and so I wanted to be special and to make the most out of it. I’d like to think that I succeeded in this regard.
The plan was for us to go back to our respective lodging houses to have breakfast for about an hour prior to resuming the whole-day tour. I would have wanted to stay longer in Angkor Wat as I didn’t want to leave it so soon after I arrived, but we were assured by Sam that we would have time in the afternoon to go back and do a closer exploration of the temple grounds.
Back in Happy Guesthouse, I ordered the breakfast that seemed to be the most filling item in the menu. As expected, Song was there to serve my food and to initiate some conversation. The breakfast wasn’t as filling as I expected, but since I’ve just seen the one of the most beautiful man-made structures in the world, I was in a pretty good mood while eating breakfast and talking to Song. In no time at all, Sam was back to pick me up for the tour resumption.
(Next: Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei and why there’s no such thing as “temple fatigue” for me.)
= = = = = = = = = =
This entry is part of the Vietnam-Cambodia series dated November 27 – December 3, 2011:
1. Preview: Contrasting Motorcycle Scenes in Vietnam
2. Preview: Temple-hunting in Cambodia
3. Suggested 7-day Itinerary for Vietnam and Cambodia
4. Budget Estimate for a 7-day Vietnam-Cambodia Tour
5. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 1 – Arrival in Saigon, Cu Chi Tunnels, City Tour
6. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 2 & 3 – A 13-hour bus ride, Angkor Wat at Dawn
7. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 3 – All-day Temple-hopping in Siem Reap
8. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 4 – Beng Mealea and Koh Ker
9. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 5 & 6 – Two bus rides to Mui Ne
10. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 6 – Mui Ne’s Natural Attractions
11. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 7 – Last-minute tour of Saigon
12. Vietnam-Cambodia Travel Tips
13. The 24-hour Mui Ne Travel Guide