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Travel Image: Cambodia
Travel Image: Cambodia

Angkor Wat: The Jewel in Cambodia’s Crown
By Brendan McGuigan

It’s a hot day. Of course. Our bus pulls into the border town of Poipet at around noon, just as the sun is at its hottest. There are only two border crossings from Thailand to Cambodia, and this – the northern crossing – is known for two things: casinos and poverty. We have to cross on foot, and each step is a step away from the first world and into the third. It is a twilight realm – a meeting of such stark opposites it’s stilting. Palatial hotels line the dirt road, and luxury cars make their way cautiously amidst the naked beggar children.

I’m hefting my luggage and trying not to make too much eye contact. I want to be kind and compassionate, but I know how it works: more than a passing glance and they’ll decide they’ve found a mark, following you every inch of your journey. And in the end, I won’t give them money, because I can’t give it to them all. So I steel myself and keep my gaze focused in front of me, sighing at the overweight German tourist who is eagerly snapping pictures of the children lying in the dust with flies swarming them.

We’re stuck at the border station for two hours, and after a few failed attempts at banter with a Swiss couple (mostly just self-deprecating humor about my American nationality), I focus on the scene. The crossing itself allows no automobiles through, but there is a steady flow of human traffic, consisting mostly of men and women pulling enormous carts on their back. They are the beasts of burden in this wealthy town of poverty. Occasionally one of the border guards will stop them and peek under the tarps at their wares, then wave them through. As I watch, a guard pulls back a tarp and reveals what must be at least two-hundred pounds of opium. He chuckles and shakes his head, walking towards his station to radio it in.

The woman who had been dragging this cart drops it and runs after him, frantically yelling and waving money. Everyone stops what they’re doing, watching her as she is pulling more and more money out of her pockets, trying to get his attention. Finally she appears to hit the magic number, and the guard stops, turning around and taking the money, waving her through. Everyone watching is laughing, and business quickly resumes as though nothing out of the ordinary has occurred.

A few formalities at the border station and we’re through. I’ve arrived. I’m in Cambodia. You can taste the difference in the air, see the difference in the people, and – most importantly for the next eight hours of my life – feel the difference in the roads.

Gone are the opulent paved highways of Thailand. We travel over roads scarcely big enough for our bus – yet with trucks and tractors whizzing by constantly. The ground is a red dust that you learn to hate during your time in the north of Cambodia. It’s a dust that permeates your existence, coating your clothing and luggage, filling your mouth, and hiding everything in a thick red fog. As nighttime settles, the drive becomes a matter of faith – with visibility down to five feet – and the near brushes with death are lost in the haze that’s settled over my mind. By the time we reach Siem Reap I’m no longer conscious of how many times we’ve avoided a collision by an inch. I’m ready to crawl into a (somewhat) clean bed, and sleep my aches away.

* * *
Siem Reap is a dream come true. Since I first learned of Angkor I have been fascinated by it. Seeing it in person surpasses everything I could have imagined. More than thirty structures of such immensity and intricate detail that they stagger the mind, all wrapped in a sacred energy unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Within five minutes, I am in love.


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