“You can wait here….the airport is still closed”
“The airport is closed?”
It’s my last morning in Hué, Vietnam and I’m bobbing along in the back of a tuk tuk on the way to the airport. We pull up at a small building in an empty car park. I think this is a first! I always imagined the setup at an airport needing hours of preparation for all the security, airport staff, customer service, pilots etc. in order to defy one of nature’s strongest forces. My flight is in less than 2 hours and I’m the only one here.
After everyone (well, a few people) arrives to get the airport running, and after one smooth flight later, I arrive in Siem Reap, my first stop in Cambodia and grab a taxi on my way over to my accommodation. Over the last few months, I’ve gotten used to tuk-tuk, motorbike and taxi drivers being a bit pushy or try to get an inflated price. It’s fine, and all a part of the game. I don’t mind paying a bit over the odds, just not getting completely ripped off at 300% of the fee…that’s the boundary I’m comfortable in :-) However, this taxi ride was probably the most awkward one yet as the taxi driver just did not stop, and I was already in the cab so I couldn’t walk away!
At Siem Reap airport, you pay the fixed fee at the stand and just get the next available driver to take you into town. The driver started with small talk and all was well, but then it swiftly went to ‘how unlucky he was to get me as his taxi ride’.
“After I finish this I have to go to the back of the queue at the airport”, he tells me, “I was hoping to get a family or tour group who wanted to go and see the temples for the day instead of just going to a hotel”.
“Really, people go straight from the airport to temples and sight-see with their bags?”, I ask, slightly sceptical.
“You’d be surprised”, he mumbled, and then (I swear to god) he stuck his bottom lip out and looked at me through the rearview mirror. “Yes, very, very unlucky”
“Er, ok. Sorry man”
After 10 minutes of this, I’m tuning out, gazing out of the window.
“It’s ok, I can tell you don’t have enough money to hire me for the day”
“Err…Ok?”, Interesting change of approach.
“Yes, I could tell when I first saw you. You can’t afford my car for the day”
God, I can’t wait to get out of this taxi.
Finally after we arrive at my destination, I’m able to get away from the taxi driver who is still angling to try to get me booked on some sort of tour with him. After grabbing some food and getting my bearings, I meet up with Ian again who I last saw in Manila, and we have a quick, booze-free catch up. Ian and a group of his old buddies had entered the Angkor Half Marathon for the next day and were being (relatively) sensible the night before.
I was a bit gutted, as when Ian had told me about it, I had promptly forgot and then the entrance deadline was closed a few weeks later. I woke up the next morning with a severe case of ‘fomo’ (fear of missing out), and then it hit me…..I’ve got my running gear. Can I just run my own 21k? Running shoes on, water bottle in hand, camera in a backpack, I start jogging up to Angkor Wat, with just a few stops on the way to wander around some of the monuments and temples on the road up, including Wat Thmei (nicknamed ‘The Little Killing Field’)
I arrive at the iconic Angkor Wat, just as the real race is wrapping up. I didn’t realise this at the time, but you need to purchase a pass to gain access to a lot of the temple sites around Siem Reap. However, as I was in running gear, everyone just presumed I was part of the race….oops!….I felt like was stealing a temple experience!
Despite, seeing countless images of Angkor Wat beforehand, even when you are standing right in front of it, it is still hard to fully wrap your head around just how large and impressive this series of buildings and temples actually is!
After finishing my own little run, I head back for a shower and a nap. I wake up with a bunch of text messages from Ian. The run is done and he already had his first beer at the finish line! I meet him at the infamous Pub Street….I had a bit of catching up to do.
The infamous Pub Street
Pub street is lined with wall to wall bars and pubs. Full of tourists and vendors, it was a flashback to Khao San road in Bangkok. One difficult thing to come across was the amount of begging children, and mothers with babies who are out on the street. There is a well-known scam in Siem reap, called the ‘baby milk scam’, where a child will ask not for money, but for you to buy some baby formula for the baby they are carrying. It’s really hard……..there is something far more hard-hitting when someone is asking for help wanting food opposed to wanting money. The scam works if the milk formula is bought, the buyer leaves, and then the milk is returned to the store owner at a discount. Money for the kid, money for the store owner. Is that even so bad? So you gave money inadvertently? Well it can be argued that it’s a form of child exploitation……the children are pressured to do this by adults and by giving them money it will perpetuate the behaviour. The child should be in bed, in school etc. not successfully begging in the street. Well, at least that’s the theory but when your confronted with it face-to-face it’s a lot more difficult.
When I was asked by a mother with an infant strapped to her waist, I already knew of the scam but still just couldn’t bring myself to completely ignore her. Instead I offered her the bag of nachos I was carrying, which she took after a moment of deliberation.
I saw a boy of probably no more than six charm these two european girls in their early twenties. They were fussing over him and remarking on how cute he was, took a few selfies and then were led by him to the store to pick up some baby milk. It was so strange, you could tell just by looking into their eyes…..that six year old looked smarter then those two girls….in six years he’s more streetwise, more cunning, and has had to get that way as he has experienced so much more struggle than they have.
They disappeared and I watched him go back inside the store, alone 5 minutes later. He didn’t come out with baby formula.
I meet up with Ian and some of his friends, all glowing from the run in the morning and comparing stories and times :-) Really nice group of guys. Later that night we end up pub-hopping with some friendly strangers we had met at the restaurant (and one of the waiters there too). Before I know it, the night has flown by and Ian and I are stood at, yet another, bar talking with a guy from Liverpool. He was drunk (well, more drunk than we were), and not making any sense…but feeling fully passionate about the sounds he was making at the same time :-)
I break eye contact for a minute and look around, it’s already dawn and daylight is creeping its way into the bar. Ian and I look at each other and the same thought passes through our heads, “We’re in Siem Reap at Sunrise…..It’s has some of the most beautiful spots in the world to catch this…..and here we are….listening to this drunk guy talk about a fight he got into when he was 16 in Newcastle….”
This is our cue to leave, I think. We grab some breakfast before sleeping and say our goodbyes for now (Ian is also doing a travelling stint around South East Asia).
I spent the next few days, renting a bicycle and exploring as many of the other temple grounds as possible (I bought a full 3-day pass, and stopped feeling guilty about stealing a Angkor Wat viewing :-) ). This included the Bayon, a temple within Angkor Thom, which houses 216 stone faces, which are said to represent the king who oversaw the construction – Jayavarman VII…..this is king level narcissism! :-)
“I want statues”
To wrap up, some photos from the other sites outside of Angkor Thom, including Ta Prohm, famous derelict temple which has been overcome by nature over time. Thanks Siem reap, you have been boozy and beautiful!