Siem Reap, Cambodia
Yet another early morning start (6.30am) to ensure that I was packed and ready for Mok to pick me up and deliver me to the minibus that would whisk me away to Siem Reap in Cambodia’s north. Apparently I was the last passenger to arrive so got the honour of the front middle seat, wedged between the driver and his wife.
I reasoned that it was probably a good seat to take photos from but I quickly discovered that no seat going at 130kms, even through 40km/hr zones, is good for photography! It was however a prime spot for a lesson in Cambodian road rules – it was a brief lesson because apparently there are none! The question of whether to drive on the left or right hand side of the road seems largely unresolved with as much time being spent on both and more often just going straight down the middle. As best as I can tell, it works like this: little gives way to large – at the bottom of the food chain are pedestrians then bicycles, horse or cow drawn sulkies, a vast array of motorised farming equipment, tuk tuks, scooters and bikes, cars, vans (seen to be carrying motorbikes tied to the back), minibuses, coaches and at the top, the megabeast trucks piled so high with anything you can imagine that they blot out the sun and still carry passengers on top of the heap! Of course I’ve left out everything in between. From that front seat, I saw more manner of vehicles than I possibly knew existed. I was also astounded at the sheer volume and variety of their cargo including an inordinate number of dead pigs and one recently deceased cow.
Surprisingly though, it didn’t feel unsafe. It seemed to have its own hierarchy and flow and once I understood that the constant honking wasn’t aggressive but more a courtesy to let the bottom feeders know they were about to be set upon by an almighty slipstream, I was able to relax and take in the surrounding scenery while the drivers wife snoozed away on my shoulder. And oh what sights I saw! It was like being in live version of the National Geographic – I hardly dared to blink for most of the five and a half hour journey for fear of missing something! I had expected that we’d get out of the city and hit a vast stretch of lush greenness but the habitation just didn’t stop. There was a lot of farmland in the middle but still, the road was lined with the pageantry of every day Cambodian life – largely poor, incredibly colourful, mind blowingly inventive, religiously observant, keenly industrious and infinitely different. Every second, we passed at least 10 things worthy of documenting and I hope some day to come back and do just that… especially the dilapidated workshop for old novelty fibreglass paddle boats – it was all I could do not to hit the brake myself considering my foot was practically on it anyway!
Giddy and exhausted from the drive, I was relieved to find Sam, the tuk tuk driver, waiting to take me to my home for the next two days – The Cashew Nut Guesthouse. I was greeted with a cool face cloth, a refreshing glass of cold water and all the information I needed to make the most of my time in Siem Reap. I’ve just arrived and already I want to come back! More than helpful, the staff here are cool, friendly and clearly have a bent for ethical tourism – the lack of which is a big challenge facing the ever burgeoning industry in Cambodia, especially in terms of child sex tourism.
I retreated to my room to nurse a headache that had no doubt resulted from pure sensory overload on the long and dusty ride. Again, my body and brain exchanged stern words – my body recommending a little lie down to sleep it off, my brain pointing out that time was ticking and there was a lot to see. My body won the first round but my brain kept nagging “can we go now?” (it’s usually the more grown-up one but it was quite petulant this afternoon) so my body gave in and dragged me downstairs to be pointed in the right direction for the self-guided walking tour they’d given me. I also wanted to make arrangements to go out to Angkor Wat tomorrow. They let me know about a tricky little loophole that allows you to get your ticket the day before from 5pm and then go into the temple grounds to watch sunset. Sold! They arranged for Sam to come back and take me but before then, I had an hour to kill so off I went to attempt the first half of the walking tour.
I’m not great at reading maps but I quickly discovered that Siem Reap is pretty small when I hit the Old Markets far sooner than I’d anticipated. None the less, I had worked up quite a sweat in the short distance under the searing sun. Being that this trip is ostensibly a cold climate one, I hadn’t packed appropriately for these four days thinking I’d just tough it out but my jeans were filthy with dust and perspiration and I couldn’t take it anymore. The whole time I was in Thailand, I’d resisted buying the ubiquitous fisherman’s trousers, today, I caved! Tourist attire in tow, I completed a lap of the main drag and headed back to the Cashew Nut to find Sam waiting. I quickly rushed upstairs to change into my new duds (later discovered to be on backwards!) and then away we went to Angkor.
I’m not going to go into great deal about Angkor Wat right now considering this was more of a recognisance mission for tomorrows main event but I will say that it was a spectacular first glimpse that left me a little overwhelmed about the magnitude of tomorrows excursion! I took a fair few cursory snaps before returning to the city to check out the night markets. It was still relatively early but I was satisfied to just browse and avail myself of a $2 half hour foot massage. I took a furtive walk down the subtly named “pub street” but wasn’t much up for drinking alone though I certainly could have killed for a cold beer. I meandered on and came across Chamkar Restaurant which one of the guys at the guesthouse had recommended. It looked lovely and expensive but I figured I hadn’t really had a proper meal yet and this was guaranteed vegetarian so I decided to splurge… my bill came to $7 for a main course and a lovely, cool beer! Believe it or not, that is expensive by Cambodian standards but when I think what I’d pay for the same slow cooked, organic meal in Sydney, that wouldn’t even cover the tip!
I eschewed all the offers of a tuk tuk home deciding to walk the short distance and expend the last of my energy. No admin tonight, just sleep. Another early start tomorrow…