When we boarded our flight to Cambodia, a feeling of relief washed over me. While we really enjoyed the last few days in Ho Chi Minh City, we were excited to be getting out of Vietnam, to put the most difficult part of our trip (so far) behind us. It's amazing what a difference a matter of miles can make in the disposition of a people. Our flight was only about 35 minutes, but Vietnam and Cambodia could not be more different.
For starters, the Cambodian people are so NICE, painfully nice! They are a quiet people, a respectful people, and so, so sweet. It's even kind of off-putting. For example, the employees of our lovely little $10 per night hotel, the Angkor Orchid Central Hotel, always stand, clasp their hands in prayer position just under their chins, nod, and say "hello!" and "Have a wonderful day!" over and over again, without fail. Even if we open the door slightly, then change our minds and turn around, they still stand up. Their politeness is such a drastic change from all that we experienced in Vietnam that we don't really know how to accept it. We have to recalibrate here, drop our guard. After three weeks of conditioning to ignore people and blow people off, it's a hard adjustment to make!
Secondly, they drive so much more calmly than the Vietnamese! There was no honking, no unsafe passing, so useless rushing. In fact, our tuk tuk from the airport was going so slow that we probably could have run faster! Right off the bat we could tell that life is slower here in Siem Reap, and we were excited for the change of pace. At the same time, there was no way we were going to hire that incredibly slow tuk tuk for our exploration of the temples - we still need a little bit more energy than that!
And they don't pester you as much. Sure, there is always someone trying to sell us something (books, bracelets, postcards, massages, tuk tuk rides, fruit shakes, whatever), but when we say "No thank you", they usually back off. We rarely had to repeat our decline over and over again, and we even more rarely resorted to just ignoring people. Instead, we would look them in the eye, smile, and politely say "No thank you", and they would in turn smile and say "Ok" or "Thank you" regardless.
What we do see more of here than in Vietnam, though, are the disabled, the Agent Orange and UXO victims. People with missing limbs (some with the actual bones popping out), disfigured hands and arms, and other disabilities are everywhere, and they all ask for money. It's a terrible sight, and there's a certain sense of guilt we feel each time we decline to give them money or buy their trinkets or pay to listen to their music. But at the same time, we can't fix them, we can’t make their lives better. But seeing the effects of the war in real life, not just in pictures, is disarming and sad.
Something else that was interesting was the fact that we saw very few older people. Most of the local people we saw in Siem Reap were under 40 years old. I can only imagine that this has to be due to the fact that 20-25% of the Cambodian population was murdered in the 70s under the rule of Pol Pot during the Cambodian Genocide. Before coming to Cambodia, I had no idea that there was a genocide in Cambodia. I had know idea who Pol Pot was or how the Cambodian people suffered under his rule. I couldn't help but wonder, how come we don't learn about this stuff in school? It all happened so recently, and I never knew about it. Shouldn't we be learning about these atrocities? I don't understand why our history programs seem to skip such important information. There is so much that we don't know, so much that we could learn from. One thing is for sure, our travels are certainly teaching us a lot about the history of each place that we visit. I just wish we would learn about it in school, too.
We didn't do a whole lot with our five days in Cambodia. The main event was exploring the Temples of Angkor, which we did over two days. We found a wonderful tuk tuk driver named Phan who gave us a great deal - $15 for the Big Circuit and another $15 for the small circuit at sunrise. Tuk tuk drivers are everywhere, always asking if we need rides. "You need tuk tuk, sir? How about later?" When we approached a group of them the morning we wanted to start our temple tour, Phan was the first one on his feet and talking to us. After we agreed to the $15 for the day with no time restrictions, another driver tried to undercut him and offered us a $10 deal. We hesitated, and you could see the fear in Phan eyes. "I found you first," he said. And he was right - we made a deal with him, we committed to his services, and we needed to honor our word. In we climbed to his bright yellow tuk tuk and off we went. In the end, we're so glad we stuck with Phan and feel bad for even hesitating for that split second - he is kind, flexible, and just a good person. He even helped us buy water at a great price! "Phan, where can we find a good deal on water?" we asked him on a day when we weren't using his services as he was waiting in his usual spot for a fare. "For you, it will be expensive. For me, it will be cheap. You give me the money and I will buy it for you. " So we did, and he brought us two giant, cold bottles of water for 50 cents each. (Side note: we don't usually buy water because we purify our own using our Steripen and the tap water in the hotel room. But the water from our hotel was SO metallic-tasting that we really couldn't stomach it anymore. So we resorted to buying bottles, which we hate to do- the last thing this part of the world needs is more trash.) This man is the best!
Over our two days of temple hopping, he took us around to 11 temples, including Angkor Wat (the largest religious site in the world) at sunrise and Ta Prohm (the one that was in Tomb Raider with a tree growing over it), and the ancient capital of Bayon. We enjoyed wandering around these fascinating ruins from the 12th century, taking in the intricate detail of the carvings in the stone, and admiring the differences in each one. Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat as spectacular, despite the fact that we were two of hundreds of people there to do the exact same thing. We loved the butterflies that were everywhere, making each site a bit more magical with their theatrical presence. It was like we were on movie set or in some fairy land! Stone faces and dancing devas where everywhere, in every stone surface, every tower. Moss covered ruble and jungle overgrowth gave the sites an other-wordly feel, like we stepped into Pandora, the word of Avatar. In a word, it was cool!
And it gets old (I know, I think I sound like a uncultured brat, too). After awhile, all of the temples start to look the same. And as the day grows and the sun gets higher, it got HOT. Too hot to really do much exploring and still be happy to be outside. So when we weren't exploring the temples, we were hibernating in our hotel room, or eating ice cream in air conditioned stores.
Speaking of ice cream - Siem Reap has some incredible ice cream! We tried three places, Blue Pumpkin, ____, and The Glasshouse. All three were awesome for different reasons: Blue Pumpkin has the best offerings of flavors and the best cones (the cones are probably the best we've had on the whole trip so far), ____ has really good pistachio ice cream and passion fruit sorbet, and The Glasshouse wins best chocolate flavor. Ice cream was probably the best thing we ate over our five days in Siem Reap; it's not exactly a culinary destination. Most of the articles I'd read on food in town were lackluster, describing things as "what Thai food was like 30 years ago" and "nothing special". So when we did find a decent family run spot with food that tasted good and had good prices, we stuck to it. We ended up eating at Khmer Family Restaurant and Bar four times!
We also didn't each any street food since I'd read it's either just fried food that doesn’t taste very good, or silk worms. And I was not about to eat any silk worms! In fact, we did check out many of the street side carts one night, trying to find a good noodle spot. What we kept seeing in all of the woks, though, were one to two inch long white things that looked like worms. Nope. No thanks, I do not want to eat bugs! So, of course, we ended up back at Khmer Family Restaurant. During lunch there one day we discovered those weren't worms at all, they were short rice noodles that are quite popular around Cambodia! When we saw a picture of them on the menu at our favorite restaurant, we laughed at ourselves and told our waiter. He, too, laughed at us, and brought us a plate of stir fried short rice noodles. They did, in fact, look like worms, but they tasted like delicious noodles in sauce Phew!
The night we arrived in Siem Reap we got to share a meal with two of our favorite travel companions; Surprise! Charlotte and James were in town for one more night the day we arrived, so the four of us caught up over Khmer BBQ, Blue Pumpkin ice cream, and 50 cent (hell yes!) draft beers! We are so glad that we got to see them one last time before they head back home to Bristol, England! They showed us the ropes of the Khmer BBQ, the most interesting meal we had in town. It was a simple offering of pickled salad (green mangos and cucumbers, I think), BBQ pork skewers, and grilled baguettes with sugary syrup in the middle. And the best part, we were stuffed for $1.50 per person! You really can't find a better deal than that! Thanks for sharing your trip with us, Mr. and Mrs. Norris! We're so glad to have met you and will definitely be in touch in the future! We sure hope our paths cross again! Until then, keep it "riel"! (See what I did there?)
Jake and I liked the cheap BBQ place so much that we went back for more the very next night. Only this time it was a bit more interesting - in our serving of meat skewers, two were unidentifiable. We were faced with the dreaded mystery meat. While the rest looked like muscle of sorts (what I would call "normal meat"), these to rogue skewers looked like the nasty bits. Maybe liver? Maybe pancreas? The word may never know. But, like good, not picky eaters, we ate them. And, as expected, they were terrible. Rich. Dense. Oddly textured. It was a fun experience (I guess?), but it was enough to make us not go back. No more mystery meat for us, thanks!
For our last night in Siem Reap, our last night in South East Asia, Jake and I had a bit of a celebratory dinner at a local BBQ joint and enjoyed the hot pot style dinner like we had shared with James and Charlotte back in Luang Prabang, only it wasn't nearly as delicious, cheap, or recognizable. Easy Speaking BBQ was smack in the middle of Pub Street, a ridiculously out of place block of loud bars, clubs, and bright lights - a scene that would have been popular with the party crowd back on Koh Phi Phi. It's also a great people watching spot. So we grabbed a table outside and checked out the options available for our hot pot dinner. For a fixed price, we get five meats: beef, shrimp, frog legs, snake, and crocodile. Hmm. Not what I was hoping for.
Thankfully we were able to switch the less familiar selections for something a bit more mainstream, and we ended up with chicken, beef, shrimp, fish, and yes, crocodile (hey, we have to branch out a bit every once in awhile!). The crocodile tasted like chicken, only much chewier. We enjoyed our expensive-by-Cambodian-standards meal with our 50 cent draft beers beneath the red, yellow, orange, and purple lights of the crowded street. As we walked back to our hotel, we had one last chance to interact with the local tuk tuk drivers and massage people - "Hello sir! You need tuk tuk? Maybe later? How about tomorrow?" "Massage for you lady? Tomorrow?" No matter what time of day or where we were going, no less than a dozen people always asked us if we'd like to use their services, whatever they were. Perhaps we should have just bought the t-shirt at the market that said "No tuk tuk today. No tuk tuk tomorrow."
In the morning, our temple driver Phan picked us up at 7:30am on the dot to take us to the airport. We had a lovely time exploring Siem Reap and are glad we were there, and happy to have the chance to see it at our own pace.
Cambodia, and the rest of Southeast Asia, sure was HOT. SO HOT EVERYDAY. And the food in each place, while very tasty, had very similar flavors. We feel like we've seen a lot of the same stuff for the last six weeks, and we're ready to change it up a bit. We're looking forward to cooler temperatures, different architecture, and new flavors in our next destinations - Hong Kong and Japan!