The Rocky Road to Siem Reap

I’ve stayed in Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Seoul, Hong Kong, Phnom Penh, and now I’m in Siem Reap. So much has happened in a relatively short period of time and I’m having a hard time keeping up with it. I had a long bus journey to get here so I had the chance to make notes along the way on my phone. It wasn’t ideal, but I managed to write an essay all the same.

One of the many cats at Wat Phnom

One of the many cats at Wat Phnom

I didn’t have the greatest night’s sleep, thanks to some friendly hostel goers. I had planned to get up around 6.30 to collect my laundry and get packed for the 7.45 bus, but as always, I ended up staying up longer. I managed to almost get off to sleep when the girl staying in my room flung open the door and turned on the lights. It was after 1 an. Who the hell turns on the lights in a shared room after 1 am. She proceeded to make as much noise as humanly possible, including shouting at a cat that was trying to make it’s way into the room. Either that, or she was tripping. I didn’t see her or the cat as I was hiding underneath the sheets from the burning light. A few moments passed, and the room went silent. She had left. With the door open. And the light on. I swore under my breath and hurled myself off the top bunk and back to the light switch. Once more, and with gusto, I plunged the room into darkness, hoping silently that my antagonist would get the message when the light “magically” turned off. She returned to make a further racket, but thankfully she realised that switching the light on mightn’t be the kindest thing to do. Unfortunately kindness wasn’t crossing the minds of the guys who returned after 3 am to make more noise than humanly possible. They communicated in hushed tones, yet still managed to shout to each other. This is one of those times you want a knockout gas release button. Or a big stick. The world was determined to not let me sleep, but I managed to disappoint it.

One of the resident monkeys at Wat Phnom

One of the resident monkeys at Wat Phnom

It’s always harder to get up after a crappy nights sleep, when bed seems like the greatest and most comfortable place on earth. I had a deadline – laundry pickup was at 7 am, which was quite important as they had almost all of my clothes. When I had laundry done in Hong Kong, it was a proper professional affair. They were doing it on a near industrial scale, and had a very definite time for pickup. I assumed everything was fine, as my tuk tuk driver had been translating for me the day before (it’s funny how helpful people become when they smell money), but the accuracy of translation was quickly called into doubt when I turned up at the laundry place. Lundry, I should say, was the English name on the sign. In retrospect, that should’ve been a hint.

The shutter was closed with no sign of life. I had very definitely told them I needed it early and the woman said 7 am. It was only a small space with a washing machine, but it seemed like a normal local business. Great…just great. I needed to get back with the clothes and pack, so I went to the alleyway beside the “lundry” where a door opened to the backside of a restaurant kitchen. Not a word of English. Gestures and grunts, but I couldn’t make sense of it at all. I couldn’t leave without my clothes, and I started to fear that I had been scammed and my clothes were off being sold in a market somewhere, so I knocked on the shutters. An irate man was making noises from within, and hauled open the shutters. It quickly became apparent how much of a family business this was. The mother was lying asleep on the floor, next to her baby on some matting. The father took my laundry ticket, and handed it to another woman who went to find my clothes. I had literally woken them up. Imagine having a knock on your door at 7 am by some foreigner speaking a different language to you, and wanting to know where his clothes were. It was an odd situation to say the least. The other woman appeared with a pile of my clothes and bagged them so I could pay and be on my way. $3.75. This country is crazy. A Westerner’s can live like a King on not much more than a student’s budget.

Bikes are everywhere!

Bikes are everywhere!

So all this excitement and I hadn’t even left. My case was a challenge, as I keep adding to it and it is well beyond capacity now, but the pickup was uneventful. The bus brought me and a few other travellers to their office in the city, then I went to find before we set off on the epic journey. In a minibus. I was already regretting the decision. Nobody told me that the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap isn’t actually finished. After a while it simply runs out, and in its place is a bumpy and dusty dirt track. There are tarmacked sections in between, but the bumps are somewhat stomach churning. The first stop was at a petrol station, about an hour and a half into the journey. I wasn’t going to buy anything but then I saw people walking around with Cornetto style ice creams, and I couldn’t resist. What followed was the most disappointingly limp and sad ice cream I could have imagined. The cone started to bend under the weight of the ice cream, thanks to the sogginess of the cone. $1. That was too much. I should’ve haggled, but I thought it would be okay. Yesterday I bought a whole filled baguette for $1, but the touristy things generally try to screw you for cash. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s the principle, damn it! The minibus is packed with backpackers from a number of destinations and a few Cambodians. We pay one price, they pay less. Quite a few places operate dual pricing which is unfortunate. Apparently arguing in Khmer can get the price down, but all I know is “T’lai na!” – too expensive! A useful phrase for the markets.

The market at the first stop

The market at the first stop

I was looking forward to getting into my hotel room and having a base to do some actual writing. Hostels are good ways to meet people, but I find them terrible if you want any peace to work. I had a few administrative tasks to catch up with yesterday evening and they took an age because people kept arriving and giving me their life stories. My writing has been restricted to short bursts on the tablet and note taking on my phone or on paper. I’ve found myself a tuk tuk driver for three days, and I need to plan out my itinerary for the temple hopping and tomb raiding. No, seriously, they filmed Tomb Raider near Angkor Wat in Ta Prohm. Angkor Wat is meant to be a spectacular place – one of the remaining wonders of the world. Why the road between the capital city and the most visited place in the country is so awful is a mystery to me. Well, not really a mystery as it probably comes down to money or a lack there of, but it is annoying.

My last evening in Phnom Penh was spent in style - $2 cocktail, $0.75 beer, and dessert

My last evening in Phnom Penh was spent in style – $2 cocktail, $0.75 beer, and dessert

The first travellers to join me from the hostel were rather funny. The guy was asking if there was anything to do in Siem Reap, and the girls said there were a few temples. Maybe Angkor Wat and one other one. They had no idea how important the temples are, or the sheer scale of the place. I’m going into this a little blind as well, because while I’ve seen some photos, I prefer to discover it for myself.

Lunch?

Lunch?

I hadn’t thought much about the journey to Siem Reap, but looking back now, I would definitely choose the night bus. It’s pretty damn far. I’ve been on long bus journeys before, even in minibuses for hours on end, but it’s different when you know everyone and there’s a sense of camaraderie. Here, it’s just like public transport with no frills, and yet again, no road. Thanks dude at the bar, who recommended the minibus to me. If not for him, I would have probably had to suffer through an air conditioned coach with WiFi and space for my legs. Thankfully I’m beside the door of the minibus, so I can stretch my legs into the depression, but that was by sheer luck. You are assigned seat numbers, and it just so happened that mine was one of the best.

The baguette with an interesting map wrapping

The baguette with an interesting map wrapping

The twenty-ish minute stop for lunch was uneventful. The bus pulled up at a restaurant with rip-off prices (probably part of a deal, with cash for the drivers), but I went walking in the opposite direction, looking for street food. The street food here has been generally of much lower quality and less appealing looking than in Seoul. I know it’s hard to compare the two places, but Seoul’s street food was the best this trip, and most things I had were delicious. I found a few stalls selling questionable, unidentifiable foodstuffs then gravitated towards a baguette stand. The French colonist influence still lingers in some of the food, though the filling was not quite as…European. The guy didn’t speak English at all, so had no idea what I was asking. First he spread some creamy yellow stuff, followed by a smattering of brown-ish mashed things. Next came some red oily stuff, topped off with sliced cucumbers and spongy cheese/tofu/pork/fish/despair. Take your pick. Then he filled a little bag with some sort of other salad and handed me them both. I handed over a dollar and was somewhat regretting the decision. We are extremely protected from the hardships of real life in the Western world. There are many layers of legislation, health and safety, and food hygiene engrained into (most of) us. None of these exist in Cambodia. Food sits out in stalls, and raw meat sits on counters, covered in flies, and in the sweltering heat with no refrigeration for entire days at a time. I suppose it is whatever your digestive system is used to, but given our clean water and meticulously clean food, that kind of treatment wouldn’t sit well with most of us. When in Rome, I guess.

The contents!

The contents!

The food hasn’t wowed me so far. The quality is incredibly variable. I was spoiled coming from Japan, particularly Tokyo, where even cheap food could be fresh and delicious. It’s not a fair comparison, but it’s one I have to draw. Cambodia is a much poorer country than Japan, and though I don’t have much experience to speak from, I don’t feel their passion for food. It was self-evident Japan. Almost everyone loved food. Seoul too. But when, as a nation, you’ve suffered through hardships and famines in the Khmer Rouge times and before, you probably lose the food obsession. Food is a means to an end. Fuel for the tank. It’s not true of everywhere of course, but it’s the general feeling I get here. I saw another difference in attitudes between here and the west. A woman was drinking sugar cane juice in the front of our van, which was an ordinary enough scene. Sugar cane juice is really popular here, and all around markets you’ll see people with juicing machines for squeezing the cane. It’s hard to describe, but I enjoyed the taste. When she finished drinking the juice, she opened the window and, with some vigour, hurled the plastic cup and bag to the roadside. It looked like it was second nature to her, almost reflexive. No wonder the place is disgusting! Apparently it is spotless compared to India, but I’ve been spoiled by home and Japan. Littering is just something people do here. Such a very different world this is.

Keo, my driver for the next few days

Keo, my driver for the next few days

It took a long time but I made it to Siem Reap, and met my driver, Keo. He picked me up from the bus and brought me to my hotel. It’s amazing being able to hire your own personal driver for three days for a very reasonable amount. I was swarmed on by tuk tuk drivers offering tours as soon as I got off the bus, but all it took to put them off was a simple wave. My driver was standing with a big sign saying “Welcome Adam”, which brought a smile to my face. I’m staying at the Soria Moria, a three star boutique hotel. There are quite a lot of cheap affordable hotels in Cambodia, in some cases cheaper than hostels in Europe and abroad. The hotel is nice, and the room is bigger than I need realistically. It’s light and airy, and quiet. After spending so much time in guesthouses and hostels, it’s nice to have my own space to unwind. And two beds. Because everyone needs two beds. I might just alternate between the two of them, just because I can. For now, I’m recovering from the bone-rattling bus ride, and it’ll take some effort to get me out of this room.

My room at the Soria Moria, Siem Reap

My room at the Soria Moria, Siem Reap

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