I’m running a little bit behind on writing! I’m back in Northern Ireland, in the cold and wet. Back to fleeces and jeans, and monsoon-proof raincoats. Back to porridge. No more sushi. No more kimchi. No more laksa. I miss Asia already. These posts are going to be completely out of order, as I’m just writing them as they come.
So I left Cambodia as I had arrived, clutching onto my case for dear life and hoping to make it to the airport in time. My driver’s brother-in-law was taking me to the airport, as my driver was in the hospital with his wife (she had come down with malaria a few days earlier). I was at the airport in good time, and I gave him all the money I had left: four dollars and 100 riel. My suitcase, though a behemoth at 27 kg, was still within the 30 kg weight allowance for Malaysia Airlines. It was the main reason I was travelling with them and not a low cost airline such as Air Asia. Thankfully they didn’t weigh my cabin bag as it was well over the 7 kg allowed. I will never travel with this much stuff again. It has been ridiculous, and I’m amazed the case has lasted all of the abuse. If I could, I would happily travel hand luggage only. It is a far more convenient way to go. The issue for me would be bringing back restricted items such as knives or liquids, but even a second small hard case would suffice. Back to the interesting stuff!
I can’t believe my time in Siem Reap is already finished. I had hoped to get so much more done while I was there, but my travels have made me weary, and add to that some dodgy street food I ate (you know who you are, stupid baguette with map wrapping), I spent most of my time divided between ancient temples and bed. I didn’t feel like eating anything, or doing anything constructive. I spent my time half awake, half asleep, half watching the TV. I was so groggy I couldn’t even do fractions correctly. I managed to make it round a lot of temples and even got to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. A shame it didn’t rise that day, thanks to all the clouds. It got a little brighter, bit by bit, but nothing dramatic happened. And I had managed to keep the contents of my stomach in place and got up to leave at 4.45 am for one of the most anticlimactic moments of my life. I had hoped to see the sunset, too, but it wasn’t on the cards. The rainy season is too unpredictable here – scorching hot one moment, then torrential rain the next.
The Day of Arrival
I wasn’t in a hurry to leave my hotel room. It was comfortable. It had air conditioning. Everything I needed was there. But I could be cold and comfortable at home, but I may not be back to Siem Reap for some time so it was probably best to make the most of the time. First stop, the hotel roof terrace bar. My booking included a free welcome drink, so I thought a cocktail would be in order before I ventured into the outside world. For a small hotel, the Soria Moria is reasonably well appointed. I discovered the hot tub opposite my room, but had to resist. Probably for the best since I found out after it was being chlorinated at that time. And apparently it wasn’t a hot tub, but a cold tub, as a result of customer feedback. In addition to the “tub”, it also has a small pool and lounge. But enough of the hotel, I had to get out of it and do some exploring.
I chose the pineapple mojito on the recommendation of the bartender, and it was probably the best cocktail I’ve had in my life. No exaggeration. The sky was threatening to open as the sun set over the cultural capital of Cambodia. Siem Reap is to Cambodia as Kyoto is to Japan. I was being drawn back to the markets, but I needed to get some supplies for my temple exploration first.
My primary concern was avoiding malaria, and since I had already been a mosquito magnet in Tokyo, I thought it was best to invest in some repellent. To the other side of the river, where all the action is. Pub street. The night markets. And some great Khmer restaurants awaited. First, the supermarket. I found the insect repellent section but got into a katsup/ketchup situation (a classic Simpsons reference, for any of those feeling lost). There was a deet based spray, and a citronella oil variety from the same maker. The deet would probably work, but mightn’t be the healthiest long term. Part of me wanted to avoid potentially harmful chemicals, but an even bigger part of me didn’t want dengue fever or malaria. I stocked up on snacks too, including red potato chips, taro chips, and banana chips. I assumed the banana chips would be the variety I was used to at home. Nope, they were banana crisps. Banana thinly sliced, and salted. Why? They were okay, but it seems slightly pointless to overpower the banana flavour with salt. I bought some tea on impulse, only to see it later in the night markets. The supermarket must have attached their (poorly printed) labels to the widely available stuff, and marked up the price. Lesson learned – the supermarket is not the place for souvenirs. You can’t haggle! I spent the rest of the evening trying to resist buying more tat from market stalls. The sellers are professionals, and before you know it, they have you haggling for five of those t-shirts that say Cambodia. I didn’t even want one, and they’re selling me five now?! Witchcraft! Ancient Cambodian witchcraft…but thankfully you can buy an ancient Cambodian witchcraft manual at the night market. Probably. Many people have already tried to sell me “best quality” watches with “sapphire glass”. Almost believable, with some suspension of disbelief.
Pub Street is one of the main tourist spots in Siem Reap. In reality, it is more of a sort-of open restaurant street with cheap beer, but that isn’t as catchy, and doesn’t fit as nicely on a big neon sign. There are a lot more tourists around the streets of Siem Reap than Phnom Penh, and for good reason. Phnom Penh doesn’t have that much to appeal to tourists, beside the Killing Fields, S21, the Royal Palace, and the National Museum. Two days is more than sufficient to see the main sights, and take in the atmosphere.
On the subject of food, I had done some research into restaurants in Siem Reap and picked out HAVEN, which fared very well on Tripadvisor. Second on my list was Nest Angkor, but it was a tad pricey. Not that I didn’t manage to squeeze it in later in the trip. HAVEN appealed to me because of the food and the cause. It is a training restaurant for less fortunate young adults, equipping them with the skills for work in the catering industry. Unfortunately they were all booked up, but there was a small chance of squeezing me in after 8 if I turned up at the door. I had plenty of time so I did some walking around the markets and side streets. The usual hoard of tuk tuks plagued me, but I managed to find a bar that had happy hour until 8 pm. I sat down, ordered a 50 cent draught and relaxed. I have spent most of my time in Cambodia relaxing, apart from the Killing Felds and S21. All I wanted was to grab an iced coffee after, but one of the bartenders sat down beside me and we started chatting. I ended up staying for longer than I had intended, and got invited out the following night, but it was time to pay up and head to HAVEN in the off chance of a table. I took a tuk tuk who was chancing his arm, asking for $4 for a short ride, but I haggled him down to $1. My hopes were dashed when I arrived to see a full restaurant, and a couple waiting for a table. It wasn’t looking good, but the waitress told me I could hold on few a few minutes and see if anything freed up. There was some movement, then I was called over to a free sofa. The excitement was starting to build! This place has a great reputation, so it was the perfect place to try proper Khmer cuisine. I already knew what I was going to have before the menu arrived. Amok fish with a Khmer dessert. I settled on the rice dumplings with ginger filling in soy milk, as they sounded a bit different. As soon as amok came out, I was sold. It looked stunning, like a Thai yellow curry with pieces of fish and vegetables, served along with rice and a little bowl of sauce. The fish was perfectly cooked, and delicate. The dessert wasn’t really my thing, but I could tell it was well done. All in all, a great meal at a fantastic venue. If you’re in Siem Reap, I thoroughly recommend HAVEN Cambodia.
Tomb…I mean Temple Raiding
Breakfast was an experience. French toast, pasta, potatoes, and a bacon sandwich. An interesting combination. Keo, my driver, was not there to meet me. Instead, he sent his friend as his wife was sick with malaria. Conditions were not the best. It had been raining heavily for some time, though I was in a covered tuk tuk so all was well.
The first stop on any traveller’s tour to Angkor is the admissions office to pick up a ticket. $20 for one day, and $40 for three days. It felt more like a temple theme park than a spiritual journey, but the money is going to a good cause (I think). Many of the temples are still undergoing restoration so a lot of money is needed. The road was even rockier than on the way to Siem Reap, and the street food from the other day wasn’t agreeing with me, so it took a lot of effort to hold onto the contents of my stomach. The first stop was Angkor Thom, and Bayon Temple, along the small circuit.
Bayon was a fantastic sight, and a great one to start on. There were already a crowd of people by the time I got there in the morning, concentrated on the top of the temple. There were some excellent bas-reliefs, and some very steep steps that I had to climb up. Definitely a challenge given my lack of climbing ability…a slight challenge, but it was still a little bit hairy. I had a walk around some of the Royal Palace, and the surrounding temples. I almost got pulled into a scam too, as there are a lot of dodgy characters offering tours and looking for “sponsorship” for questionable causes. He approached me asking if I had seen the Buddha head in the ruin I had just passed, and before I knew it, he was leading me up to the top, clambering over toppled rocks. Sure enough, there was a broken Buddha along with more debris in the top chamber of the ruins. The man talked me through of some of the history, which may have been of questionable accuracy, and then produced a double sided A4 sheet with his cause on the front and a suspicious list of donors on the back. Suspicious because the handwriting was very similar for each “person”, and the donations were extremely generous. $20, $30, and $50. There was no logo or name of a charity, or way of verifying anything he said, so I gave him $4 for the tour (which was generous), and had to walk away as he tried to guilt me out of more money.
Onto some more temples! The most memorable of the bunch was Ta Prohm, better known as the Tomb Raider temple – the film set for the first Tomb Raider movie. There were many ancient trees, some with massive roots wrapped around the temple stonework. Like most of the temples, the magic was somewhat dampened by the presence of the much-despised selfie sticks, and disrespectful tourists.
The last stop of the day was Angkor Wat, easily the most impressive sight of all the temples. I managed to find a quiet spot to sit and reflect, which wasn’t the easiest task given the large number of tourists in and around the temple. After a while, I ascended the steps to Bakan, the principal sanctuary. I ended up spending an hour while the rain got heavier and heavier, just sitting and watching the rain bouncing off the stones, and thinking about my travels. Not many people in the world have the amazing opportunities we have in the West to travel the world and see completely different places and experience different cultures. Most people in Cambodia could only dream of flying to another country, yet I can do this as a student. The world is not a fair place.