By and large, the Philippines is a peaceful and safe place for tourists. As long as foreigners like myself stay away from the parts of Mindanao controlled by Islamic fundamentalists like Abu Sayyaf and separatists like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the most you will have to worry about is getting your wallet pinched in a marketplace. In the last two days, that reality has been overshadowed by an isolated act of one disgruntled sociopath who hijacked a bus of tourists from Hong Kong, killing 8 of them before being taken out by a sniper. It is a tragedy for a lot of reasons, and it is going to have some sad implications for the country.
Last week I spent three days visiting Angkor Wat and the nearby city of Siem Reap. I’d arrived two nights before and, in the span of 48 hours, had already become cynical and jaded about the entire experience. I’d spent the last three days getting ripped off by street vendors, restaurants, and taxi drivers, and was ready to snap. Feeling downtrodden by the constant scams and suffocating hordes of tour groups, I opted for a more natural, pure means of transportation the second day: a bicycle. For $1.50, I rented a fixed-gear Chinese bike for the day, threw on the muscle-tee I bought that morning, and started off for the Angkor temples north of Siem Reap.
The city of Angkor contains over 1,000 ancient stone temples, dating back over ten centuries. Built using stones dragged by elephants from mountains miles away, it is both the biggest pre-industrial city in history, spanning 1,000 km in its heyday, and home to the largest religious structure in the world – Angkor Wat, the famous temple depicted on the Cambodian flag. Once the capital of the great Khmer empire, Angkor was home to over a million people – an impressive feat in 1,200 AD. Despite it’s shortcomings (to which I am an active contributor), it’s an amazing sight to see.