Siem Reap: Temple Hopping and Haggling

Our last full day in Siem Reap was an action packed one. Sister Srey cafe had become our breakfast place of choice – I went for the stuffed french toast with cream cheese and tomato chutney, and pineapple and mango over ice. The food was excellent as usual, and the staff were marvelling over Alan and I, convinced that we were twins. I messaged Neou Keo, my driver from last year, and arranged for him to take us round the temples at Angkor for a day. He was busy, so instead he sent Mr Sar. We arranged to meet him at our hotel at 8.30, which came and went with no Mr Sar. Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen. It is highly unusual for tuk tuk drivers to pass up business, so we started to suspect that something was wrong. I had the reception of the hotel call Mr Keo to ask where Mr Sar was, and it transpired that he had gone to the old Shadow Angkor, or a different hotel, and was now on his way to pick us up. He was very apologetic, but we were in no rush so all was forgiven.

Bayon - Angkor Thom

Bayon – Angkor Thom

First things first, we needed ticket. Last year, the ticket office was just off Charles de Gaulle road and the offices were more reminiscent of toll boothes. This year, we headed the opposite direction to the temples. I had no idea where we were going, as we passed a number of huge new developments and pulled into a complex including a massive museum and a new ticket office. It was completely different, and much more slick than last time. The tickets were still the same price though at $20 for a day. Tickets in hand, we were back in Mr Sar’s tuk tuk and off to see the temples.

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With only a day to spend in the temples, we decided to do the small circuit and skipped some of the minor temples. The Angkor Thom complex was up first, including the stunning Bayon with its epic bas relief and carved faces. The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of elephants scattered around, giving rides to tourists. It seemed as though there were much more than last year. The temples were packed with the usual selfie stick wielding hordes, making tourist-free photos nigh on impossible. I became quickly aware that I was taking many of the same photographs I took last year, so I held off and tried to find interesting angles. We found a few nice cats and butterflies throughout the complex, too.

Ta Prohm was our next stop, famed for its part in Tomb Raider, and for the vast trees pushing the structure apart. It’s hard to imagine the gargantuan plants starting off life as tiny seedlings in the cracks between the stone of the temple. It was easy to see why it was chosen as a filming location – it’s incredibly photogenic. On our way there, Alan picked up a hitchhiker. A praying mantis had landed on his bag, and flew at his face while we were travelling in the tuk tuk. It was a vicious little thing, and kept swiping for Steven. It refused to be intimidated by giant humans, instead choosing to fight its corner. The tuk tuk driver dropped us off in a mediocre and slightly expensive restaurant for lunch (as is to be expected – its part of the racket) where I had a beef salad.

Angkor Wat was up next – the one everybody knows. The image that makes it onto postcards, fridge magnets, and stamps. It is a massive structure spanning multiple levels, and even though it is packed with tourists, you can almost always find a quiet corner to stop and think. We didn’t stay to watch sunset, but did spend a few hours exploring the area.

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Our tuk tuk driver left us back at the hotel, then the heavy rain began. A full on thunderstorm. I hadn’t explored the hotel fully, and by chance noticed a review mentioning a balcony on the second floor. We were staying on the second floor, so I thought it would be remiss of me to not investigate further. No balcony was to be found. What was on the third floor then? I took a walk up the stairs and was suddenly on the roof. It was the famed balcony! There was no door between the stairs and the roof; it was all open to the air. I gathered Alan and Steven and we spent some time watching and listening to the rain, and watching the sheet lightning. The rain was on for the night, but that wasn’t going to stop us going out.

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Genevieve’s is a restaurant specialising in Khmer cuisine, but run by an Australian. Steven managed to get a booking for eight o’clock, so we decided to take a walk to the night market for some souvenirs. Borrowing umbrellas from the hotel reception, out we trekked into the pouring rain. It quickly became apparent that the umbrellas were not big enough, but the air was warm enough for it not to be an issue. I used my refined haggling skills to buy some table cloths and runners, bargaining them down significantly. Throw any reservations or shame out the window, and use every tool in your kit. “T’lai na!” is a favourite of mine, being the Khmer for too expensive. The banter is great if the other party gets into it. All you have to do is walk away and they will come chasing after you, throwing a variety of deals your way. The danger is that once you buy from one stall, everyone else identifies you as an easy target, trying to sell you even more tat. And that’s what most of it is, but the fun is in the experience.

We made it to Genevieve’s, which was packed out, and ended up ordering the same food. Beef lok lak, with prawn tempura and Thai chicken cakes for starters. The staff were great, and the food was excellent. I had my beef medium rare, and though it was cooked on the rare side, it was very flavourful and the portion size was generous. Lok lak is a strange dish, consisting of sauce made from lime juice and peppercorns, beef pieces, sliced cucumber, and some varieties include a fried egg. Is it breakfast or dinner? Who knows. On the way home we stopped in the Gelato Lab, and I had some great tiramisu ice cream. Steven had a rather unique tasting Irish coffee, which I couldn’t recommend. A packed day, but one capturing the best parts of Siem Reap – temples, food, and market haggling.

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