Smiling in Siem Reap. A week of fantastic sites and self-discovery.


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Asia » Cambodia » North » Siem Reap » Knar
November 20th 2013
Published: November 22nd 2013
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A spontaneous decision to join a friend on his trip to Cambodia turned out to be one of the best ones I have made in a long time. Siem Reap was the destination and the promise of ancient temples and jungle treks wet my appetite. While these certainly did not disappoint and were unlike anything I had ever seen, I think the highlight of the trip was the people. Friendly, humble and smiling.

I left London on a Sunday evening and it was a long flight to Bangkok overnight with a transfer to Siem Reap. I would arrive in the early evening Monday. Part of the excitement of this journey was meeting my travelling companion, L. We have been "penpals" of sorts for over 18 months and this was our first meeting and adventure together. The balmy air greeted me as I stepped off the plane in Cambodia and immigration went quickly and smoothly. Bring $20 and a passport photo for your visa (or give them $21 if you forget a photo) and you will be on your way in less than 5-10 minutes. My friend was waiting for me outside and it seemed really natural to hang out with him and we jumped in a taxi to our hotel. The driver was very welcoming and offered to help guide us around for our first day by tuk tuk. We said 9am would prob be good for us and checked in to the hotel. After dinner, which was good and very cheap, we decided to call it a night.

Our tuk tuk driver, Chreak, picked us up and suggested that we head straight to Angkor Wat and then see Bayon and Ta Prohm to round out the "big three" of the ancient temples. Riding by tuk tuk (a moped pulling a covered cart of sorts) is great. It is almost sensory overload. You have the breeze in your hair and also somehow feel a part of the landscape. You can literally reach out and touch people and bikes and cars. There is a sort of a well orchestrated rhythm (that looks like complete chaos) and hierarchy amongst all things moving - including dogs and cows! I also liked how even my sense of smell was overwhelmed - open fires used for cooking, exhaust fumes, flowers, trees, food being cooked on roadside stalls and my favorite - that musty post-rain smell.

We arrive at Angkor Wat which is the largest of the temples and extremely well preserved. It is massive and impressive. The surrounding moat reflects the temple in all its glory. It is a bright sunny afternoon and we start taking pictures and L begins teaching me about the various technical things you can do with the light you have. He has a fancy digital SLR camera with a lot of different lenses and I have my point and shoot camera. While I start to learn about F-stops, ISO and the impact of shutterspeed, I begin to develop camera envy when I see his results. I think that I have an ok "eye" when it comes to taking pictures but have no technical ability. L manages to show me some options I can change on my own camera and how to use the histogram to see if my exposure is good. We navigate the crowds and the crafty monkeys (who steal Cokes from people, knock them over - the cans not the people - and help themselves to the sticky refreshments) and explore the temple. It has wonderful long hallways which seem to go on endlessly, open courtyards with tiered stone steps and fantastic carvings in the stone. Time to head back to the tuk tuk and on to our next temple.

Bayon is amazing and different to Angkor Wat. There are faces carved in all the towers of the temples. Capturing the shadows from different angles almost seems to give them differing emotions and expressions. I don't really understand the significance of all these faces but I am amazed how they have survived for over 1000 years. I do wonder how civilization seems to have been so advanced with these structures while now so many people here live in very primitive straw huts. On the way out of Bayon we stop at one of the gates which is also lined with more faces and carvings of people guarding the entrance. Time for lunch so Chreak takes us to his favorite spot. We drive into an area filled with souvenir shops and stop at a sort of pavilion with tables, chairs and lots of electric fans. We both choose something local from the menu and have a cold drink. L chooses fresh pineapple juice which quickly also becomes my drink of choice. After a cheap and cheerful meal we head on to the third temple we will see today, Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm was made famous by the movie Tomb Raider and the fact that this massive stone structure has been taken over by trees. The tree root systems seem to wrap themselves around doors and uproot walls in quite a spectacular way. I really liked the peace and tranquility here as it is set in the jungle. We walked around the perimeter before going in to the temple and a thunderstorm came upon us. We were sheltered for a bit but wanted to keep exploring so ultimately got drenched. It was only a bit of water really! I thought it was almost magical to be in an ancient temple in the jungle with thunder booming and the rain pouring. We would come back here another day to get a better look and some pictures.

After a quick change out of wet clothes, we are headed to Tonle Sap lake to see a floating village. We take the tuk tuk to a boat landing where we are given our own boat to head out the river to the lake. The scenery is beautiful and soon stop at Kompong Phluk, a floating village. We transfer from the motorized boat to a sort of canoe where we paddle through the village and a flooded forest. It was breathtaking and serene. There are children as small as three and four years old padding their own canoes around the village and many of them wave and say "hello" or "bye bye" to us as these are the only English words they know. A quick jump back onto the bigger boat and we go out to see the lake and a glimpse of the setting sun. The lake is the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia and covers 2700 square kilometers.

We decided to take an adventure outside of town for days 2 and 3 to the ancient city of Koh Ker. It was the seat of the kingdom instead of Angkor Wat at some times in history. We were picked up at our hotel and taken to one temple in the outskirts of Angkor Wat. It was called Banteay Srei and had a lot of red stone which was different to the temples we had seen so far. As this was part of a photographic tour, our guide Ke Nit showed us some good angles to shoot from and also had us wait for just the right light. We left just as a tour group arrived and headed for Kbal Spean. This is another area of Angkorian archaeological significance that is a 45 minute hike up a hillside into the jungle to the Siem Reap river and several waterfalls. There are carvings on the rocks under the water and on the banks of the river that have survived since the 11th century. It is deep in the jungle and the high pitched hum of the cicadas in the trees is almost deafening...even above the rush of the river and waterfall. We take lots of pictures, cross the river on a tree trunk and I am captivated by the beauty of the natural setting and how much of the carving has been preserved. On the way back down the hill, we stop and say hello to the children hanging out on the side of the trail and observe a daily grooming process between two local women - lice removal. I told L he would have to do that for me later if required...which thankfully it was not! We went for lunch at a nice restaurant across from Kbal Spean and then headed to Bang Mealea, our final temple for the day. Again we encountered a group of smiling children. They were having a tug-of-war between the boys and girls. Nice to see such pure joy from such a simple source. Bang Mealea was impressive and apparently a forgotten temple. There are massive piles of rubble and it has not been restored. At this temple you are free to explore by climbing around the walls and over the rubble. The trees are also taking over this temple. We now have a long drive to a small village outside Kor Ker where we will spend the night. We arrive at a guest house in Sroyorong. The rooms are simple and have a bed with a mosquito net and fan. They tell us the showers and toilets are out back. The toilet is a squat hole which I am getting used to and the "shower" is a large tub filled with standing water you are meant to pour over yourself. I decide I can wait until the next evening to get cleaned up at the hotel. We take a walk before dinner through the village and market. The people are definitely not used to seeing westerners and we see things that are unusual too including whole pigeons on the grill. The villagers are a bit more shy here but eventually the kids smile and wave and one group did a sort of a jump rope show for us.

Since we were in the countryside, dinner was going to be wild boar and venison. We had soup and then two dishes with the game meat and lemongrass and ginger and chili peppers and peanuts. The food was delicious. It was my birthday so L told the guide that we needed to have a cake and a candle and sing Happy Birthday. This is not a Cambodian tradition though apparently it is becoming more popular in the city. The guide chatted with the restaurant owner and the mother and two daughters jumped on a moped and were on a mission. I was quite touched when they came back a while later with some sweet rolls and a candle. L led them all in song and I celebrated a truly unique birthday. It was pretty special.

In the morning we head to Koh Ker for more temples. There are very few people around due to the remote location and we see several more tree covered temples and then the impressive Prasat Thom which is a seven story pyramid style temple. It reminds us of an Inca pyramid in Mexico. Lunch is more wild boar and we see about 10 more temples in various jungle and tree covered locations. I must admit I was tiring a bit of the temples so spent a lot of time talking to our guide about the trees, the history and the Cambodian culture and beliefs. It was time to head back to our hotel for a long hot shower. Once you leave the main tourist areas you are acutely aware of the land mine situation in this country. We were advised not to wander off the beaten path and every temple had a sign at the entrance listing the dates, organizations and country responsible for removing the land mines in that area.

Friday we decided to get up early and watch the sunrise over one of the temples. Angkor Wat gets very crowded so we went to Pre Rup built in 961. We decided to climb up on top of the temple and await the sunrise. The steps were stone and very steep as with all the temples so it was lucky I had my iPhone flashlight app to light the way. We were the only people here and it was eerie at first. Besides the roosters crowing we could hear some chanting and drumming in the distance. As first light came it was very atmospheric. There were too many clouds to get any dramatic photos but I was still glad we got up at 4:30am and communed with nature and history in such a unique way. We headed back to Ta Prohm to take another look without the rain and then to Preah Khan which was a large sprawling temple set in the jungle. Apparently it used to be a rather large monastery. There were some nice colors here and apparently one side was Hindu and the other Buddhist. After a bit of wandering we went back to the hotel for breakfast and a nap. The afternoon's activity was a trip into town for massages. I highly recommend the Frangipani spa but caution you to have the 'hard' treatment rather than soft or moderate. I went for moderate which was strong enough and very relaxing while L went for hard and apparently was given quite a work over by a couple of small Cambodian women. We went back to the hotel to change for dinner at the Raffles Grand Hotel where we would see an enjoyable traditional Apsara dance show. Raffles was almost incongruously luxurious and somehow seemed excessive. I did enjoy dinner and the show.

We decided to give ourselves a small break from the temples and go on another adventure. It was a moto tour (125cc engine - guess it was a moped/scooter) into the countryside. I had never driven one before so they picked us up at the hotel and took us to a side street for lessons. L already is very experienced so didn't need any help. I was a bit nervous but with some basic instruction and a lot of encouragement from L, I revved up the accelerator and off I went. It took me a while to get used to turning. You need to keep your right foot on the bike as that is the brake and I forgot that a few times. After 3 or 4 practice runs we set off with our guide with me in the middle and L bringing up the rear. We quickly got off the paved road onto a dirt track and started driving through small villages and stunning scenery of rice fields and palm trees. We stopped a few times for photos and were greeted by children running out to the road each time we passed a village. They wanted us to wave or give them a high five. It took me a while before I could release my strong grip on the handles and make this happen! There were lots of puddles and pot holes and I found it quite fun to navigate the dirt path. I relaxed after a half hour or so and decided I definitely enjoy driving two-wheeled motorized vehicles. We made a stop at a monastery and friendly locals proudly showed us their catch that they were cooking up next to the water. We chatted to a few monks and got back on the road. We also stopped at a temple where we encountered a wild turkey strangely enough. Our guide had brought us a snack of some rice cookies and fruit which was delicious. It was time to get back on the bikes and avoid cows, dogs, the occasional snake, children and other road hazards on the way back to town. There was a water crossing and a rickety bridge crossing that the guide did for me while skillful L forged on ahead on his own. This was a great way to spend the day and see what rural life in Cambodia is really like. That evening we went into town to the markets and had dinner and drinks on Pub Street. This is the center of the nightlife in Siem Reap and cheap beers...oh and foot massages.

Sunday morning we decided to take it easy and do some reading by the pool. This was my last day and we decided we wanted to go back to the lake so had organized an afternoon trip with a sunset dinner on a boat. This trip took us to Chong Khneas which is a 70% Vietnamese occupied floating village. On the boat there we were chased and in some cases, boarded while moving, by children with snakes around their necks and children trying to sell us cold drinks. We stopped at a crocodile and fish farm which was only really interesting in that it afforded us great views of the children playing on the water and the busy boat trade happening all around us. The boat then took us briefly to the lake and then dropped us on another large boat where we had dinner and watched the sunset. It was a nice ending to a great trip.

I was definitely sad to leave though I felt we had done most of what could have been done in that area. I would definitely recommend a visit to Cambodia and Siem Reap but also make sure you get out of town and see some of the rural life and things further afield.

So what is the self discovery part of all this? Well I re-ignited my love of adventure and I long to leave my desk behind and explore more of the world. I realized that I don't smile nearly enough and I have so many things to smile about. The people, sites and my friend, L, ensured that I had a grin on my face most of this trip despite being sweaty or hot or tired. I also really want to learn more about photography and get a proper camera. While none of this may be profound, it was a great place to be reminded.


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22nd November 2013

Lovely Blog
What a wonderful recount of your adventure! You have sold me, wish I could pack up and go. !!
23rd December 2013

Cambodia
As you said full of genuinely friendly people. Ancient temples a plenty and floating villages amidst the chaos that is organized. It is Cambodia. I would not be brave enough to take the moto tour on those roads but enjoyed reading about your adventure.
7th May 2014

Thanks
Hi, sorry for the delayed response. Appreciate your comments - moto tour was great. I have been to Sweden and Uganda this year so hope to post blogs soon!

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