While it was surreal to be on Cambodian soil, a distant land I had only seen on paper; entry and exit, into and from the Kingdom was quite a challenge.
I applied for the visa on the internet via evisa.com and they responded within three days as promised. I had to print out two copies of the visa, one for entry, the other for exit. I had one print out in hand and dutifully filled in my arrival card when I landed from Singapore. When I approached an immigration clerk at one desk, I was bumped from desk to desk.
Number 1 sent me to number 8, number 8 would tell me to go to number 2, Number 2 sent me to Number 3. Here a motherly-looking bespectacled lady received my Kenyan passport. She took one look at it and summoned one of the immigration officials who begun to cross-examine me with an earnestness that suggested that my intentions were probably to set up camp there.
“Why are you visiting Cambodia?”
“To see Angkor Wat and the genocide museum.”
“Where are you going next?”
“I will be going to Thailand.”
“How much money do you have?”
“200 euros in cash and 155 dollars in-between the two debit cards.”
“Not enough” the stern short man curtly replied, while shaking his head vigorously.
I begun to pull out the other cards I had. My resident permit showing that I had my domicile in the Netherlands.
He didn’t budge an inch.
Finally, I blurted out the address of friends in Singapore, and gave a print out, mentioning that they would support me if I ran out of funds. (My return ticket was Singapore to Amsterdam).
His icy demeanor suddenly thawed, and he softened at the sight of an english name. He handed the passport back to the lady who promptly stamped it, and had me press my four fingers and thumb on the immigration fingerprint reader.
I had officially entered Cambodia.
My exit while humorous was as well a nail-biting moment for me. There were three lines to exit Cambodia at the Poipet border crossing. As I joined one, some Cambodian uniformed officers sitting nearby chose to find some humor at the sight of me. They talked among themselves and laughed, I didn’t understand what they were saying and didn’t care, turning to one of them for a pen to fill out my departure card, and smiled thank you when I handed it back to the guy. The lines were going fast. My line stopped going fast when I reached the front of it. The immigration official examined all the pages of my passport painstakingly. The other lines were emptied of the westerners I had travelled with from Siem Reap. I begun to panic. The official whipped out a magnifying glass and scrutinized my passport.
“Is there a problem?” I asked nervously. I knew that Cambodia had a weak law enforcement, which meant as well that they wouldn’t give a hoot about my human rights if it came to that. I was literally at their mercy.
“No problem,” he responded while still going through my passport, examining it like it was a blue print for some secret code.
“You don’t have an exit stamp on your passport from the time you were in Malaysia last year..” he finally declared.
I didn’t know how to respond to that. I recalled getting off the Malaysia-Singapore train at Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore, and getting one stamp there. One stamp. I remember being warned by the Singaporean immigration officials with dogs on leashes to stop taking photos as I rapidly clicked away after walking away from the train. Now I wondered, was the stamp an entry into Singapore stamp or was it an exit from Malaysia stamp? Was I at fault that I only had one stamp, and what had that got to do with my desire to leave Cambodia at the time I said I would leave?
The man called his colleague to the foreground and they examined the passport together. The second man left with my navy blue passport to the other room outside, past the laughing officials. I breathed a sigh of relief when he re-appeared with it a few minutes later. Finally, I could leave Cambodia.
It would be a shame to gloss over Cambodia, and completely forget one of the most striking places on the Asian continent. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was a beautiful if not magical experience. At that point nothing mattered; waking up at 4 am didn’t matter, waiting for the tuk tuk to collect me and my friends didn’t matter, lining up in the darkness to purchase our tickets and a ‘flash-blinding’ photo-for-identification being taken didn’t matter, parting with 20 dollars didn’t matter. Angkor Wat is like that, the beauty of it makes you marvel. For a brief moment in time everyone stands still just to acknowledge that the sun is rising and to draw in the breathtaking display. Then you realize there are several other temples to visit and that your day has just begun.
Bayon temple is fascinating with several structures each having the many sides of King Jayavarman, a record of narcissism intricately carved in stone.
Ta Prohm is amazing as well; it was the backdrop for Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider where she played the role of Lara Croft.
Other temples include Banteay Srey, Kbal Spean, Phnom Kulen, Koh Ker and Beng Melea.
My evening was made pleasant by the Khmer dancers at Koulen II Restaurant. After a hearty buffet dinner.
It is worthwhile seeing Angkor Wat, at sunrise and/or sunset. The gate charge is 20 dollars for one day, which covers all the other temples you can see during the day. Three-day passes go at ($40) and seven-day ($60) blocks that must be used on consecutive days. In all instances you should always carry your tickets, as it will be checked upon each park entry and at major temples.
Visiting hours are 5:00AM – 6:00PM. Angkor Wat closes at 6:00PM. Banteay Srey closes at 5:00PM and Kbal Spean at 3:00PM. Always carry your ticket. A regular admission ticket is not required to visit Phnom Kulen, Koh Ker or Beng Melea, but there is a separate entrance fee of $20, $10 and $5, respectively.
The Koulen II Restaurant is a must-go, while at Siem Reap. The buffet starts at 6pm daily and the dancing performance begins at 7:30pm.