Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cambodia: Siem Reap

When so many well-traveled friends tell you not to miss Angkor Wat, you listen.

One goes to Angkor Wat to see ruins of an empire, to ogle at the scale of the temple complexes, the delicate detail of the buildings, the technology required so long ago, and to wonder at the fact that all of it was abandoned -- forgotten -- literally reclaimed by the jungle -- for hundreds of years.  It's stunning and breath-taking and tragic.

For photos from the temples, see the next post.

We flew Cambodia Angkor Airways from Bangkok (BKK) to Siem Reap (REP, the city closest to Angkor Wat) on their second day of operating the route.  Conversation on board started with jokes about whether the pilot had been flying for more than two days (he had.  It was a perfectly smooth hour-long flight on a prop plane) and then invariably shifted to genocide and Cambodian history.  It was a stark contrast from Thailand, where the conversation centered around beautiful beaches, partying, and relaxation.

At the tiny Siem Reap airport (one of three international airports in Cambodia and the busiest one in terms of passenger traffic, according to Wikipedia), we had the surreal experience of watching our passports get passed, hand-to-hand, down a line of 7 Cambodian officials while Gangam Style played in the background.  Before Psy finished singing "Eh, sexy lady", our visas were granted.

While the temples dominated our time in Siem Reap, we also took an ATV tour through the surrounding area and stopped at the Landmine Museum.  Given that Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat and that millions of tourists pass through each year, the area is remarkably underdeveloped.  Nearly 30% of the country lives under the poverty line of $1 per day; even near the relatively prosperous tourist sites, there are communities without electricity.  We saw endless rice paddies, many waving children, and a gorgeous sunset.

* The official Cambodian currency is the riel, which currently exchanges at approximately 4000 KHR to 1 USD.  In practice, US dollars are used for most transactions, especially in the cities; even the ATMs dispense dollars.  We picked up a few thousand riels in change from vendors, but that's about it.

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