Temple Runs, Crazy Tuk Tuk Drivers And The Spy That Wasn’t In Siem Reap

I met up my friend Haki at Bangkok’s airport, to catch a flight to Siem Reap. I’d just arrived from Tokyo, while Haki arrived a couple of days earlier from Singapore. We became friends in the most random way, in a Kyoto train station when he asked for directions.

I was on my way to Fushimi Inari and was waiting at the platform for the train to arrive. He walked up to me and asked whether this was the train to Nara. I told him no.

Surprised, he went to ask an attendant who confirmed he was right and I was wrong. He saved me from getting onto the wrong train and ruining my day.

We started talking and it turned out his story was almost identical to mine. He had just quit his job/life and was also taking the year to travel.  We compared our itineraries and saw that we were overlapping in Cambodia and Thailand. As the train pulled up, we exchanged Facebook connections.

Little did I know that in the span of those 5 minutes, I’d just made a great friend. We’ve traveled through Cambodia and Thailand together, and we crossed paths (again) in Melbourne.  This is what I love about traveling; the randomness of how you meet people.

Cambodia was a short flight from Bangkok. Stepping out of Siem Reap’s airport, we found our hotel’s tuk tuk drivers. Looking at the carriage I wasn’t sure it would fit me and my bags.

It did — just barely.

As I settled into the back seat, Kiri (the driver) took off like a bat out of hell. I held onto my seat for dear life and I tried my best not to look ahead.

Kiri sped between traffic, passing other cars and tuk tuks, like he owned the street.

I found God in those 20 minutes. I’ve never prayed that hard in all my life.


Arriving at our guesthouse, I stagger out of the tuk tuk, relieved that I’d made in one piece. I settled into the hallway of our hotel entrance and waited for Haki to arrive.

As I sat in the dusty entrance, a huge rat ran across the empty hallway. I blink and promptly decide to forget what I just saw. We’re eating breakfast here and I don’t want to think about any sanitary issues.

After Haki arrived, we checked into our rooms for quick shower and to relax before heading out for the night.

Siem Reap is a small funky town that’s packed with tourists. Our hotel was only a short walk to Pub Street, which is (as the name suggests) filled with bars and night clubs. This street was one massive outdoor party, framed by intense neon lights that were probably visible from the moon.

The side alleys were filled with vendors selling everything from food and drinks, to booze from neon decorated stands to local delicacies that would make your stomach squirm.

Anyone interested in deep fried spiders?

Haki and I had a blast that night. We did a bar crawl, sampled what we could from the vendors (nothing too crazy) and found a live band doing decent covers of hard rock songs from the late 90’s & 2000’s.

Halfway through the night, the electricity failed and pitch darkness enveloped us, but that didn’t dampen the party spirits. People started howling and laughing at the dark night.

Neon lined Pub Street
Neon lined Pub Street
Street vendors selling booze on Pub Street.
Street vendors selling booze near Pub Street.
For those with an adventurous spirit can try fried spiders.
Those with an adventurous spirit can try fried spiders.

The next morning we sat in the hotel terrace having breakfast. Happily, I successfully suppress the memory of the large rat scurrying across the lobby floor.

As I’m munching on my eggs, Haki strikes up a conversation with our neighbors. A pretty young backpacker and an older-but-kinda-youngish fellow. As we’re talking, they mention that they’ll be attending a Cambodian wedding later that day, and that they’re planning to dress in traditional Cambodian garb.

I get a pang of jealousy, that sounds pretty cool.

We find out that the girl recently graduated and decided to do some traveling. While her friend said that he’s been living in Asia for a while, working as a secret service agent.

As he says that, I choke on my eggs. I look over and I can see that he’s being serious.

Haki asks him “Is it normal for a secret service agent to tell other people that he’s a secret service agent?”

“Naww, it’s cool ….. I’m hard to track”  he replies (again) with a straight face.

At that point I completely zone out from the conversation. I’m thinking we’re having breakfast with the dumbest people in the world. How the heck did this girl graduate? How the hell does this guy think anyone with half a brain cell would buy his crap?

We say goodbye to the girl and the spy (who wasn’t) and head off to do a temple run of Angkor. I might not have done research on Siem Reap, but I knew we were in for something special with these temples. I had high expectations.

Our first destination was Angkor Wat.

As I walked up to the entrance and the temple revealed itself, I came to a stop. I was unable to move. I silently stood there and tried my best to take in the moment and create a memory. I’m paralyzed by an intense feeling of wonder and awe.

How …. how can an ancient culture build something as magnificent as this?

We spend the next two hours exploring this temple, and I want to find the words that properly express and share that experience. I’m just not that good a writer, no one is.

In fact Antonio DaMadalena, a Portuguese monk who visited Angkor in 1586 said:

“It’s of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”

Truer words have never been said. As we continued our tour of the temple grounds, my awe of Angkor’s designs and architecture never subsided.

There was Bayon, a trippy temple and its carvings of 216 stone faces that followed us wherever we went. Ta Prohm, made famous by the movie “Tomb Raider”, now overrun by the jungle’s trees, that have fused with the building. Making for an eerily beautiful scene.

Then there’s Neak Pean whose entrance is breathtaking. This temple is designed as an artificial island. We had to cross a wooden pathway and the water that surrounded us shimmered like a mirror.

Finally Angkor Thom, set over a 10 km sq area, this huge temple had a lot to explore. Just like Neak Pean, the entrance to Angkor Thom is a showstopper. It’s lined with mythic statues of Gods and will give you chills as you enter the grounds.

The beauty of Angkor Wat can not be exaggerated. It's stunning.
The beauty of Angkor Wat can not be exaggerated. It’s stunning.
Bayon Temple faces follow wherever you go
Bayon Temple faces follow you wherever you go
Parts of Ta Prohm have merged with the forest trees.
Parts of Ta Prohm have merged with the forest trees.
The statues of the Gods stand guard on the South Entrance of Angkor Thom
The statues of the Gods stand guard on the South Entrance of Angkor Thom

As we returned from Angkor, I’m silent.

I gaze outside of the tuk tuk, watching the shifting landscape that’s moving in front of us.

I’m not focused on anything. I just feel numb and a little cold.

I can’t believe a place like this exists on Earth. They say these temples were designed as a representation of the God’s home. I believe it. I feel like I’ve just returned from a different world. One that holds more beauty and originality than I thought any human is capable of. I feel privileged and grateful to have had this experience.

As soon as I return to the hotel room I simply crash. My body is exhausted.

The next afternoon we checkout, and the hotel orders a tuk tuk for us. As I walk out I see Kiri (the crazy driver) waiting for me. I throw my bags into the tuk tuk, thinking “I guess I don’t have to worry about missing my flight  ….  I just hope I make it to the airport in one piece”.

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