I first heard of Angkor Wat through a video game. Throughout high school, Tomb Raider was my favorite game on Play Station, and I would spend countless hours after school playing. The beautifully animated scenes in Tomb Raider were inspired by real places, and one of those places is in Cambodia, more specifically Angkor, an ancient city of temple ruins. Heavy blocks of cut stone create pools of water. Dilapidated tombs and ancient Hindu relics grow green with the intricate vines of trees taking back their land. Angkor had been abandoned for hundreds of years before being discovered by modern civilization. It must have been glorious in it's day 700 years ago. Today, it displays a beauty unintended by its original creators: gloriously unkempt, a hybrid creation by both man and nature.
Many years later when I left my pleasant-but-not-challenging-enough life in New York City to travel, naturally my plans had to include Cambodia. Little did I expect that the voyage to Cambodia would be more of an adventure than being inside the country itself.
It is February 2015 Bangkok, Thailand. I've begun traveling with a bright, determined young gentleman named Lars who has also left New York City to pursue new challenges in life.
Lars and I decide to make the journey by land, so our adventure begins at the Bangkok Railway Station. It will be a seven-hour train ride via third class rail (the only option) followed by 10-minute tuk tuk ride to the border crossing, walking across the border, and finally a two-hour bus ride to Siem Reap, the nearest tourist town to Angkor.
Upon entering, the train seem spacious with ample seating and flooded with daylight. But just three local stops into the journey, the train reaches maximum capacity. The train conductor begins moving through the rail cars reprimanding passengers and demanding we make room for others. Seating becomes uncomfortably tight with more passengers crammed to a bench then what its designed for. Six hours and forty-five minutes to go...
As the train moves along, there are children crying, children playing and there are unofficial food vendors that begin to sell curried chicken and rice to grumbling passengers. The windows in the rail car don't have glass panes to keep out the dust or weather. Luckily it is dry, so we don't get wet, however, within hours we are covered in the soot of the arid, red landscape.
The scene outside is idyllic at first, but gets dull after the first couple hours. The scene interchanges between skinny oxen ploughing fields and serene village neighborhoods.
There is a significant train delay, but we finally reach the border eight and half hours later. So far the research we have done online regarding how to make the journey by land is accurate. We are in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, and we must now cross by tuk-tuk to Poipet which is located just beyond the border into Cambodia.
Our tuk tuk driver gets us to the border gate. Cambodia is immensely poor, even poorer than Thailand. As a result, there are scammers and swindlers everywhere. The next steps are fuzzy. We not quite sure where we must go. This is a border town, and it is laid out to confound tourists. There are food vendors, beggars, and strangely enough: casinos! The roads are not even paved, yet there are institutions set up here to exploit optimism.
In the midst of the chaos, the ambiance is unnerving, but we eventually find our way and get our exit visas (after the visa officers intentionally overcharge us). Our final step to get into Cambodia is to obtain a tourist visa, but we can see that this may be the most daunting step: the line is extremely long, and it could very well take hours.
It is within only a few minutes that we can see what's taking so long. There are large groups of people paying two men cash for "VIP" access and cutting to the front of the line. It is overt bribery triumphantly taking place in broad daylight. And what's happening at the end of the "VIP" line? Uniformed police officers stamp visas into the tourists' passports. Meanwhile, the two men collecting the cash pass the bills into the pockets of the officers. So now we have witnessed unchecked corruption. What more can we expect for the rest of our journey?
We still have at least two hours until we reach Siem Reap.
TO BE CONTINUED....
Written by Zahra Ali