So, first of all, yes, I know it has been a month since I last posted anything. The main reason is that wordpress had been either blocked or incredibly slow for the last month. And the second reason, I’ve just been busy, haha. But, without further delay, here is part two of my Spring Festival trip in Siem Reap.
So, as I mentioned back during the last post, it was delightfully hot in Cambodia. Now, yes, I know I’m from Michigan and shouldn’t be able to get cold that easy. But, I’m sorry, it was damn cold in Shenzhen during the winter, so the hot and humid climate of Cambodia was amazing.
So anyway, we arrived at our hostel, which, again, was incredibly nice. We ate dinner at the hostel and then took a brief stroll around the hostel. Our hostel was about a 5-10 minute Tuk-Tuk ride outside of the real downtownish area of Siem Reap. Fortunatley during the day, they offer free rides into town so on most days it was incredibly easy to get into the downtown area. But, since it was the first night, we figured we’d walk it and check it out. It was an incredibly interesting experience. At first you’re walking by these open-air restaurants/beer garden type places and then you reach a river and once you cross the river you have much higher quality buildings (including the Foreign Correspondents Club). But it was in this dichotomy (I wouldn’t say dichotomy is the best term but given the fact that I can’t think of a better word let’s go with it) that the true beauty of Siem Reap was found. And, what I mean by that is, it didn’t matter where you met a Cambodian person. Whether it was in the “poorer” district or the more well developed tourist area, these are the single nicest people on the face of the planet. Now, I know I mentioned it earlier, but it just bears repeating. The people at the hostel, the people that worked at the temples, the people that worked at restaurants, everyone, met you with a smile and a joy that I just simply have never experienced.
Now, stepping away from that, let’s get down to business shall we? Because at this point you’re thinking, “good lord, shut up, we get it, the people are nice, what the hell is the city like?” And, fair enough, let’s move on. So we went back to the hostel and got a good night’s rest. Our friend Stephanie was flying in the next morning from Singapore, so we got up early and had our complimentary breakfast (fried egg, fruit, and toast…yeah, did I say how awesome this place was…oh and we’re sitting outside in a bungalow…yeah) and waited for her to arrive on her tuk-tuk from the airport. Once she got there we decided to venture on to the big momma of temples. In case you were wondering, yeah, I’m talking about Angkor Wat. And everything you may have heard about it, read about it, or seen in pictures, they do not do it justice. The place is pretty incredible. We spent the better part of our day there and decided, since we were all there for a pretty hefty amount of time (9 days for Colin and I) that there was no need to rush through the complex (there are literally dozens of temples dotting the area around Angkor Wat). So after our time at Angkor we headed back to the city proper to explore the downtown.
One thing you immediately notice about Siem Reap is the massive number of tourists. I mean that in the most extreme way you can. Nearly everyone you see walking around the downtown/restaurant/bar district is varying shades of white (read: lots of f-ing tourists). There seemed to be an extremely large number of German tourists in particular. That’s not to say its bad, it’s just very jarring at first. I’ve been living in a country where, though you will see a few everyday, white/foreigners are the minority. So, to be in a country where I was suddenly surrounded by a bunch of people who looked exactly like me, was, well, strange. And I suppose good practice for getting back to the States, haha.
Anyway, so, Stephanie, Colin and I explored this downtown and grabbed dinner at one of the many Cambodian restaurants where I ate one of my, now, all-time favorite dishes. Khmer Amok (I have no idea what Amok means, but Khmer is in reference to the local culture/language of Khmer–and is somewhat well-known in the West from the dictatorial regime called the Khmer Rouge). Basically it’s a less spicy version of Thai Curry as it is made with coconut milk and other spices…soooo good. They will make it with any number of meats: fish, chicken, pork, beef. My particular favorite (and the first one I tried) was pork, although fish is the, sort of, “official” version. But to be honest, any of those meats paired with the Amok, just amazing. I ate a lot of it over those 9 days to say the least.
After exploring, eating, and grabbing a couple of cocktails at a local bar, we headed back to the hostel for an early-ish night. The reason being, we were going to head back to Angkor Wat first thing in the morning (ok, late evening really) to see the sunrise over the temple. So, yeah we had to get up early. 4:30am came far too early, but up we were and out the door by 5:30 to be at Angkor by 6:00. We arrived and got great spots right along one of the reflecting pools. The sun rose, and it was pretty spectacular, definitely worth the early call. We then trekked northward to the next complex of temples called Angkor Thom, including the spectacular Bayon Temple. For those of you wondering, the Bayon temple is the one in the pictures with the faces carved into the towers. It was pretty amazing to see this temple so early in the morning in the beautiful light. Also, we were delightfully mostly alone in this temple due to how early it was. This only added to how amazing this place was as most of the other tourists stuck around Angkor, which we had spent time in the day before.
We also trekked around the Elephant Terrace and the Terrace of the Leper King. We then grabbed, as expected at any other tourist site in the world, a very expensive lunch. However, we rather randomly ran into another group of CTLC teachers who were trekking through SE Asia as well. So we grabbed lunch, hit a few more temples and then headed back into the city. Now, I have to make a disclaimer here. There are quite literally dozens of temples in Siem Reap, and I’m pretty sure we hit all of them, so to say the least, I don’t remember all the names, especially the small ones. I’ll let you know what they are when I can, but from now on, it’ll be a lot we went to a temple…haha
Anyway it was back into town for a stroll through the night market. Which was, not surprisingly, very similar to other Asian markets I have seen, but with its own Cambodian twist. So we did some shopping and then headed back to the hostel, pretty beat based on the early day. Also, we were excited to be meeting up with some friends of ours the next day who would be coming in from a stint in Thailand and Laos.
So we met up with Julie and Evan and did some more temple exploring. The most notable of the temples we visited was what we commonly referred to as the “Tomb Raider Temple.” It has an actual name, Ta Prohm, but Tomb Raider Temple was just more fun to say. And, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, this is the temple where they did some filming for the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movie. In the photos it is the one with all of the trees growing in, over and through the buildings. It’s pretty amazing to see these mammoth roots that have pushed their way through the walls of the temple. This temple was also a very popular tourist destination for that reason, so there was quite a large crowd. But, it was a pretty mammoth complex so it was easy to wander down a pathway and find yourself completely alone. We would actually make a return trip here later to see it a second time with other CTLC friends we would meet up with in Siem Reap. We also made another trip to Angkor Wat with Julie and Evan so they could check it out. Let me just tell you, it is still incredible the second (or third if you count the sunrise, although we didn’t go in) time around.
Alright, well this post is already getting a bit long and I’m only about 1/3 of my way through this SE Asia trip, so I’ll try and wrap it up here soon.
After exploring some lesser known temples and enjoying more lovely Cambodian food and culture we decided, along with James, Carter and Justin (more CTLCers) we would check out Banteay Srey. Banteay Srey is a temple complex about 2 hours outside of Siem Reap by Tuk Tuk. So the six of us set out relatively early (ehhh 10amish) to check out this complex.
Now, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and some of those main temples in the central area may be well known, and spectacular in their own right. However, there is something pretty incredible about Banteay Srey. For one, it is, relatively speaking, left pretty much to nature. That is, there hasn’t been any real restoration done and the buildings are literally crumbling. Coming from China were everything seems to be artificial in a lot of ways whether it’s kitchy or an even attempt to make it look historically accurate yet still fake, it’s refreshing to see this complex that is literally falling apart. There was a sort of “tourist path” of elevated wood walkways and bridges that you could take should you chose to. However, you were welcomed (and in our case encouraged by a rather chatty security guard) to explore wherever you could squeeze your body. So there we were climbing, crawling, and exploring all the nooks and crannies we could. It was pretty spectacular and was probably my favorite place in Cambodia.
Now, again, I know it’s a long post, so bear with me, I’m getting towards the end.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the things that was the hardest to deal with in Cambodia. And that is the poverty aspect. There is just a lot of poverty. And, one way they seem to try and fight the poverty is to use children as collection systems. That is, they send the children out either with books, or trinkets or whatever and try to sell them to you. These kids all speak English and all have that look you’ve read about. The I am poor please help me look. The hardest part about it is, you know that whatever money you give those kids, they will never see any of it. Now that’s not entirely true, but it’s definitely something you have to think about. We met some girls at one of the temples, they were probably in there mid-teens who seemed to be selling stuff to help their families when they weren’t in school. Were they just telling us that to get us to buy things? Perhaps, but they seemed to be telling the truth so some of the people we were traveling with felt less bad buying stuff from them.
But, in Siem Reap proper, it was just depressing. Here are these sweet, adorable children, who again all speak varying levels of English, basically being pimped out to get money from tourists. It’s really sad, and makes you feel particularly bad and perhaps a bit exploitative by being in their country. Knowing full well that your life was exponentially easier than theirs.
Now, that being said (and to try not end this post on a completely dour note), these children had their moments of hilarity. And I will end this post on my favorite story from our time in Siem Reap. We had been mobbed by a bunch of children selling bracelets, post cards and what have you outside a temple (couldn’t tell you which one). We managed to escape all but one who was particularly persistent with Colin. Colin said he would look at her stuff when we got back, probably hoping she would be gone or forget. She didn’t. So there she was patiently waiting as we hit the exit. Now if you look through the photos there should be one or two of a girl with beaded bracelets talking to Colin and Stephanie, this the girl. Colin really didn’t want to buy a bracelet, I mean really didn’t want to. But she was insistent. One of these kids favorite tactics was to produce information that would impress us. For example, they would ask where we were from. We say America, they say: “Oh America, capital: Washington, DC, President Obama.” So by the time this girl came up we had heard that speech quite a few times.
So, as she’s going though that speech, Colin interrupts and says, I know you know all that stuff, you all do. Without missing a beat she says, “OK, fine. How about you name a country and if I know they capital you buy my bracelet?” Now, a bit of background, Colin is particularly well known for being some sort of Geography savant. He literally knows every country and capital in the world. Why? I have no idea, but he does. So anyway, this girls says this and he thinks she’s played right into his wheelhouse, and this sly grin comes across his face and you can tell he thinks he’s got her. So, he agrees. And says, “Ok, what’s the capital of Estonia?” Now, I dare any of you to know the answer to that question without reading ahead or looking it up on Wikipedia. I know I didn’t know it. Without hesitation the girl yells out, “Tallinn!” To which Colin exclaimed “Holy Shit!! Fair enough literal girl, you win. How the hell did you know that?” Apparently she had learned from other European tourists, who knew? But Colin stayed true to his word and bought an orange and brown beaded bracelet.
So there you have it, a long, not particularly coherent account of my time in Cambodia. I skipped a lot (the floating village, temples, food, Cambodian waitresses hitting on Colin), but tried to hit the high points. You’ll just have to talk to me about if you want more stories, because this post is already way too long. So, next time I’ll talk about the beginning of our trip through Vietnam!
Until next time…