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A father and his sons find adventure and their own enlightenment
Bangkok’s main Hualamphong train station was already a steamy hive of activity at 5:30 a.m. After a nervewracking hour of negotiating with uncooperative taxi drivers and a bare-knuckled drive through Bangkok morning traffic, my two adult sons and I made it to the train station and were on our way to the small town of Aranyaprathet, Thailand, the next stop on our overland journey to Cambodia and the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.
The train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet is third class only, but it is very clean and surprisingly spacious, especially considering the shockingly cheap ticket price of 48 baht (about $1.50) for a six-hour train ride. The blue vinyl-covered seats were padded and as comfortable as any American public school bus. There was no air conditioning, but the constant breeze flowing through the open windows and the oscillating overhead fans kept things pleasant during the mesmerizing, sometimes monotonous ride through rice fields and past the small villages that dot the Thai countryside.
We disembarked at Aranyaprathet, had a delicious lunch of fresh springrolls and bottled Cokes at an open-air, roadside Vietnamese restaurant and got ready for the next step—crossing the border into Cambodia.
The overland trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia (the city considered the gateway to Angkor Wat) is one of the most talked-about routes in Southeast Asia because it is fraught with tour bus scams, dicey roads, visa rip-offs and scores of rogues, scoundrels and con men that will construct elaborate schemes to separate you from as much money as they can.
In the three hours between leaving the Vietnamese restaurant in Aranyaprathet and arriving in Siem Reap, we were taken to a visa scam by our tuk-tuk driver, besieged by touts as we went through Rongklua border market, paid “extra fees” to Cambodian border officials to pass through one checkpoint, and I was taken on yet another hair-raising ride through traffic on the back of a motorbike being driven by a Cambodian Tourism official—with no helmet, going the wrong way through oncoming traffic.
Oddly enough, those three hours marked the beginning of my love affair with the beautiful country and people of Cambodia. The dusty and chaotic greeting we received in the border town of Poipet was quickly balanced by the friendly and extraordinarily helpful people we met throughout our stay. The aggressive crowd of touts and tuk-tuk drivers that surrounded us as we exited Cambodian immigration soon became our unofficial welcome wagon, offering $1 packs of cigarettes, 50-cent bottles of Angkor beer and our first taste of the enormous pride Cambodians have for their people and their country. In spite of how utterly different our cultures and languages were, we sat with this group of Khmer men, drank a beer, laughed at each other’s attempts to communicate and shared a moment that highlighted more of what we had in common than our obvious differences.
We arrived in Siem Reap well past dark, and after settling into our guesthouse, ventured out for our first taste of Khmer food and an unexpected performance of “You Give Love A Bad Name” by an inebriated Khmer gentleman wailing away in the impromptu karaoke/dance bar tent that had been set up across the street. That night we learned Khmer food is delicious, Bon Jovi is greatly improved by adding a Khmer accent and that tokay geckos will bark loudly at each other throughout the night with no consideration for your sleep schedule.
We spent the next two days exploring the temples, ruins and awe-inspiring sites at the Angkor Archeological Park, commonly referred to as Angkor Wat. The main complex was impressive with its soaring towers and stunning bas reliefs. The Bayon temple was a bit dark and mysterious, especially with more than 200 massive stone faces staring at you from every angle. Ta Prohm (referred to as the “Tomb Raider temple” in tourist brochures) was other-worldly with the tentacle-like roots of the silk-cotton trees and torso-sized vines from the encroaching jungle appearing to slowly strangle the ancient stone walls and buildings.
After having our minds blown at the “big three” Angkor temples, we asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us to a part of the park that is off the beaten path and rarely seen by tourists. We drove past mango farms, roadside markets and fed some monkeys hanging out by the side of the road, which immediately turned us into grinning children. Pro tip: Don’t grin at a monkey, especially a semi-wild monkey. They take that as an aggressive move and the last thing you want is an angry Cambodian monkey on your back.
“Lucky,” our tuk-tuk driver, did not know the English word for the temple he took us to. It was far away from the main tourist areas and was barely fighting off the encroaching jungle. We seemed to be the only visitors other than a couple of zebu cows grazing in the midst of the toppled, moss-covered ruins. Wandering alone through this ancient temple gave each of us a chance to absorb the enormity of the experiences of the last few days, which gave way to a sense of reverence in the quiet of the stone buildings. We made our way to the shadowy center of the main building and found an elderly woman sitting to the side of a large Buddha statue. She smiled, approached us slowly and without a word guided us to kneel in front of the statue, light a stick of incense and make a small offering. She then took our hands and shakily tied red and yellow threads to our wrists as she recited a blessing in Khmer.
My sons and I walked slowly out of the ancient ruins, occasionally looking at each other in disbelief at what had just happened. As the evening wind blew across our faces and the sound of the tuk-tuk faded into the background, we began to talk about the value of openness, the beauty in difference, and the vastness of our world. That is one reason we travel, to get closer to each other and to ourselves. Jawaharal Nehru once said, “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” There truly is no end to the adventures we can have.