Friday, August 6, 2010

Siem Reap

The ride into Cambodia was just what we expected - a rip off. Instead of taking us right to the border where we could apply for our visas in person, they dropped us off at a restaurant a kilometer away where they first tried to get us to order lunch, then wanted to charge us a $20 surcharge to get our visas. The visa itself costs $20, so for me and Chuck it would be an extra $40 on top of the visas, which is a lot of money in Cambodia and Thailand. If you're up for that sort of thing, then by all means, go ahead and pay it. But we knew we could do it on our own, which is just what we did. Once we refused to pay their prices they practically kicked us out onto the street, halfheartedly promising that the bus (that we had already paid for) would be waiting for us on the other side of the border. Yeah, right. We flagged down a songthaew that was heading towards the border and quickly covered the last kilometer. He was nice enough to only charge us half the normal fare because it was such a short trip. Once off the songthaew we were pounced upon by several men claiming they would oh-so-kindly show us to where we could get our visas. They said things like "This is where foreigners have to get them," or that it was "Very cheap." We ignored them and followed the steady stream of people flowing around the corner to where the immigration building loomed. And look at that, there was a line specifically for foreigners. We hopped into it, ignoring the other aisle that read "Overstay line." We ended up there anyways when the immigration lady saw our passports. She didn't bat an eye as she sent us over - it seemed like she was used to getting overstayed foreigners. There was a guy being processed in front of us that we had to wait for. He looked like a burly biker and was wearing a necklace heavy with Buddhist amulets, each plastic encased figurine hanging off like a somber Christmas ornament. He had overstayed his visa so long that he had hit the maximum overstay fee of 20,000 baht (or something like that). That's $600. I was glad we didn't have to pay that amount. Ouch. We were processed through after 15 minutes, having paid our $15-a-day overstay fee. Once through the Thai exit we made the short walk through no-man's-land (you know, that strange area between two countries) to the Cambodian visa office. They were quite helpful at the same time that they tried to swindle us. He asked for 800 baht ($25 US) instead of the $20 US that was posted on the sign above the window. We claimed we only had US dollars (we had gotten some before leaving because Cambodia, oddly enough, uses US dollars along with their national currency the riel), and he accepted our $20's without much fuss and perhaps even a sly smile. We had our visas in less than 10 minutes. Finally, we were allowed to pass under the big Cambodian archway that welcomed newcomers into the country. And boy was the country immediately different than Thailand. The first thing I noticed (mainly because I had read about it) was that most people's skin was quite a bit darker than the average Thai skin. Then I noticed a dusty dirtiness that seemed to coat everything - similar to the dirtiness we had seen in India. Buildings were a bit less kept than across the border as well. It definitely looked to be a country with less wealth than its neighbor. We took a few minutes to look for our bus, although I didn't have high hopes. I wasn't convinced it would have made it across the border yet, either. We quickly gave up on our bus and hopped onto a free bus that took us to the bus station. We sat at the station for a while, the only people there besides the taxi drivers, hoping that some other hapless traveler would come along looking to share a taxi to Siem Reap. It was ridiculously hot. Heat is not good for your pocketbook. You're more willing to spend your money to get out of the heat. You'll pay more to sit in an air-conditioned restaurant or to have an ACed hotel room. You'll pay more to take an ACed car rather than a hot bus. You'll pay more to just get on your way rather than wait around for other passengers, which is what we ended up doing. Anything to get out of the heat. Our driver certainly wasn't concerned with getting us to Siem Reap as quickly as possible. When he stopped for gas (the gas tank looked like a propane tank in the trunk of the car and there was no gas station like in the western world - it was just an industrial looking pump with a long hose) he took his sweet time chatting with some friends who were there. When we stopped for snacks and a potty break, he took his time chatting up some other friends. He even stopped once for the sole purpose of chatting with his friends. Since it's Cambodia though, we just shrugged and waited. No biggie. At the snack shop we stopped at there was a gorgeous young Cambodian woman who was covered from head to foot. She had on a brimmed hat, a scarf that covered her neck up to her chin, two layers of long sleeved shirts, gloves, tight black jeans, and woolen socks tucked into her flip flops. It had to have been almost 100*F out. Just looking at her made me feel like I was having a heat stroke. She spoke a bit of English and when asked wasn't she hot, she claimed to be comfortable - that she wanted skin like ours. She liked our lighter skin. I sat there stunned, thinking that she was more gorgeous than 97% of the "white" people walking around on the planet. I am constantly stunned by the degree to which skin color seems to be able to dictate beauty in some parts of the world. After 3.5 hours of driving we finally made it to Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Wat temple complex. Of course, we were dropped off by some tuk-tuks who would give us a "free" ride to our hotel. We were quite clear about where we wanted to go, but we still ended up somewhere else. We were told by the guesthouse owner that it was the Palm Garden Lodge (the place we wanted to go) but they had moved and changed their name (to the Green Banana, in case you're wondering). We knew he was a big fat liar, but I asked if they had AC, wifi, and hot water and he nodded yes for all three. I convinced Chuck, against his better judgment, that we may as well stay at least one night, just for convenience sake. It had been a long day after all. After moving all our stuff into our room and relaxing for a bit we began to feel our stomachs growling. Food time. Chuck had done a bit of research on different restaurants in the city and had an area in mind, which is where we headed. A place called Angkor Famous won us over with their free popcorn. I hadn't had good, salty, buttery, machine-popped popcorn in a long time and oh my, was it even more delicious than I had remembered. Along with bowl after bowl of popcorn (they just kept bringing them) we tried some Cambodian dishes from their menu, one of which was a snake dish. It was pretty tasty, but the snake had basically just been chopped into half inch segments, bone and all, before being cooked. This left us the fiddly task of gnawing around the bones to get the small bits of meat off. Too much work. The pork dish that came with a hard boiled egg soaked in broth or soy sauce was fantastic though. Trying new food is almost always an interesting experience. Another interesting experience was being harassed at dinner by the numerous kids selling knock-off books. First, I'd like to comment on the books. I had been living with the idea that although pirated books were possible, it wouldn't be worth the cost to copy and reprint them. Apparently I was wrong. Apparently, it is worth the cost. Frequently, the books are pretty decent copies too - the text is dark enough to read, the pages stay together, and the cover is glossy card stock. At least three kids came by trying to sell us their shrink wrapped bootleg books, and some were pretty good at their "jobs." One cute little 8 year old boy came buy asking "Would you like to buy?" as he thrust his shoe box of books at us. "No thanks," we told him. "Where you from?" This is where he tried to get us engaged and develop a connection with him so as to butter us up. At least, I suspected that's what he was up to. Chuck countered with "Where are you from?" He gave us 10 guesses, ticking each one off with his fingers as we guessed. "Thailand. Africa. America." He gave us a funny look when we suggested that one. "China. France. Germany. Japan. The moon." That last one was my suggestion. The boy laughed out loud as he told us "No" and put down another one of his fingers. "Hey, You can't count that one," Chuck complained, but the kid insisted on doing just that. Two more guesses. "Vietnam." Nope. "Cambodia." He shook his head no. I was all huh? Seriously? Where else could he be from? All was revealed when he giggled and proclaimed "I am from my mother and father!" Ahhh, clever kid. After he was finished being pleased with himself he asked again "Where you come from?" "Bangkok," we told him. "You want to go to Bangkok?" Chuck asked. He sat back on the edge of a big flower pot and told us "I want to go to the moon!" Ahhh, what a charmer. Chuck and I both nodded our approval at that, in an attempt to keep his hopes of going to the moon alive. Not that it's impossible, of course. Just that it will obviously be a bit more of a struggle for him to make it to the moon than some rich kid in Boston. Life ain't fair, as we all know. "In America it is easy," he continued. "$1000, you can go to the moon." I didn't have the heart to tell him that no, $1000 hasn't gotten anyone to the moon yet. That it would take a whole lot more than $1000. Instead we gave him the cliche lines about working hard and going to school and that he can do whatever he wants, blah blah blah. The last question he asked before he finally wandered off to find some other foreigners to try and sell to was, "You want to buy?" Another of the boys that came by had a great personality. He was, however, missing a leg. All the way up to his hip. One might think this would limit his mobility, but he got around just fine using a pair of crutches, one with a platform he could rest his - for lack of a better word - stump on while he was standing around. When it was time to move he tucked the crutches into his armpits and used them for support. Because his arms were otherwise occupied he had strapped his box of books to his chest with a sash that wrapped around over his shoulder. On the front of his box was a laminated sign with a picture of some disfigured kids. The writing above the photo said something about orphans or children affected by landmines and had a suggestion to donate money to help them. He came over to as as we were stuffing our faces with popcorn and encouraged us to buy a book with a big smile and charming conversation. Chuck had been recommended a book about Cambodia back in the 90's that he thought I would enjoy, so we ended up going through this kids books. He actually had it. We (and by we, I mean Chuck) bargained him from $5 down to $4 (which was actually probably not much less than it would retail for in the US...) and handed over the equivalent amount in riel. The kid counted the money and as he finished, hesitated as though he were going to say something. Instead, he quickly changed his mind, said "Thank you" with a smile and took off. The odd behavior led us to realize that we had give him more than the agreed amount - we had given him $5 instead of $4. We laughed at ourselves. Obviously, we weren't at all bent up about paying a dollar extra. Although we always try to haggle with street or market vendors, it's more because that's just what you do rather than really striving for the cheapest possible price. When he passed us by again a little while later Chuck jokingly asked him "Hey, where's my change?" The kid flashed his big grin and actually offered it back to us, but we refused. The street kids in Siem Reap were certainly an interesting lot.

On the 2nd we checked out of the Green Banana. It was an okay guesthouse, but really nothing special. It was more that we had read such good things about the Palm Garden Lodge and decided we really wanted to stay there. The tuktuk driver this time was a good guy and took us to the right place, which we were surprised to see was quite a ways down a very red dirt road. The lodge was much more special than the previous place, and came with lots of smiles, a glass of orange juice, and a fruit basket. Much better. After putting our stuff away we walked back down the red dirt road looking for food. The buildings were much more rural than in the center of the city, and spaced further apart. But it was a busy road, with a steady trickle of traffic (mostly motorbikes) heading back and forth. There wasn't much in the way of food so we stopped into the first restaurant we saw. Good food. We had some sort of soup. We noticed a girl walking around in PJs there, although it was after noon. Full-length Pj's and thick socks. She looked quite comfortable despite the blazing heat. That afternoon we were treated to a lovely rain storm, complete with huge cracks of thunder and ferocious winds. Chuck sat on the veranda area enjoying the rain while I took a nap. It was still raining when I woke up and joined him. It continued for another hour after that. The ground was a soppy mess and there were a bunch of little frogs jumping about in the water. Chuck had befriended one of the young guys who worked at the hotel while I was sleeping, so we lightly chatted with him as we watched the rain fall. He said he had learned that thunder is made when two clouds crash into each other. Chuck and I looked at each other for a moment before responding. We were both trying to figure out exactly what to say to that. The exact physics of thunder are a bit hard to explain to someone who is living under the assumption that it comes from crashing clouds. Chuck did his best, though, talking about charged particles and opposites attracting, etc. And I don't want to give anyone the impression that I'm implying he was a dumb guy, either. He just wasn't given the opportunity to have an education like those of us in America or Europe. I found it a reflection on the Cambodian government rather than his IQ. Besides, I wouldn't have been able to accurately explain the thunder phenomenon myself. And he knew that the frogs hopping around were edible if one wanted to eat them. I didn't know that! He was just equipped with a different set of information than Chuck or me. He also told us that when the first rains of the year come, children are told not to play in the puddles and rainwater. Apparently all the pollution that has been gathering during the previous dry spell is trapped in the puddles, making toxic little pools. He said that a lot of chickens die during the first rains. But it's all washed away over the next few downpours making it safe enough that at least you won't die or grow a third eye. We tried to go to a karaoke BBQ for dinner, but apparently they don't know what that is. We read online that karaoke BBQ (which is just what it sounds - eating BBQ while watching karaoke) is all over the place, but everyone we asked was clueless. Our first tuktuk ride dropped us off outside a fancy-shmancy BBQ joint that had puppet shows or something. We decided against that and walked up and down the street, but didn't find anything like a karaoke restaurant. This led us to our second tuktuk which drove us back across town to the street our hotel was on and dropped us off outside a strange, colorfully lit building. I dashed inside to check it out quickly while Chuck waited with the tuktuk and was immediately creeped out. It was slightly maze-like and I had to walk down a few hallways just to get to the main lobby, the scent of perfume getting stronger as I went. Poking my head around the dimly lit corner I was faced with 20 beautiful women, dressed up as if they were going to a cocktail party, waiting around and looking bored. My first thought was that we had been taken us to some strange brothel, but upon further reflection it might actually have been a karaoke place. I have heard that you can hire a girl to come to your karaoke room (you have your own personal room to sing in at nice karaoke bars in Asia) to sing and have fun with you. They were probably those girls. Karaoke girls. But it was still a really strange sight, so I turned right around and went back to the waiting tuktuk. We gave up at that point and decided to just go back to the area we had eaten at the night before. We found a BBQ place (no karaoke) that offered a combo of kangaroo, ostrich, snake, and crocodile. It wasn't that good, but it was BBQ. After dinner we ended up back at the place we had eaten at the night before, eating free popcorn and having some drinks. Oh, and fighting off the vendor-children. The same ones from the night before.

We were craving something more authentic on the 3rd, so we headed into town looking for a place where locals were eating. We ended up at a busy little street cart in the market with pre-cooked selections of food. The rain blessed us with it's presence while we ate our fish head, veggies, and sweet diaper sausages (that is not their actual name, but one I gave them because they tasted like what I imagine a candied diaper would taste like). Since the rain was still doing its thing once we had finished, we walked around the covered market ignoring the offers and demands for us to buy shirts or scarves. I did end up getting a cute little coin-purse to replace my cumbersome money belt that I had stopped using. I didn't even bother haggling for it because it was $1. I know, I know, so pricey. Once the rain let up enough we walked through the touristy streets of the city, where all the Western bars and restaurants are. The beer in Siem Reap is super cheap and many restaurants offer $0.50 draft beers. So, that's just what we did. We sat and had hot tea and luke-cold beers for much of the afternoon, watching the tourists, beggars, street carts, and tuktuk drivers going about their day. One interesting sight was that of a small, toned, very muscular man towing a cart of odd and ends with a speaker blaring dance music. He stopped on the road outside our restaurant and set up a metal hoop ringed with knives at 4 or 5 feet off the ground. He did a lot of walking back and forth, making false running starts, and checking his mat before he finally did run and leap through the hoop, head first, tucking into a ball as he hit the ground and rolled back onto his feet. Then he came around asking for tips from people. I went ahead and gave him some money. He was kinda cool. My favorite encounter of the day was with some young girls who were out trying to sell bunches of bracelets for $1. When I say young, I mean 7 or 8 year olds. The girls were some of the most annoying child vendors, but Chuck managed to get them interested in something other than selling for almost 10 minutes. Somehow he managed to get them interested in math problems. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but they were trying to figure out what 4 x 2 was, and 10 x 10 and 10 + 10, etc. They seemed to have the addition and subtraction down, but multiplication and especially division seemed to be quite a bit more difficult. It started out as one girl, but after a few minutes she had two other girls by her side, all three with their heads bent together trying to figure out what the answers were. It was neat to see. As soon as the lesson was over their genuine smiles faded into fake ones and they pressed us once again to buy their bracelets, which we did not do. Before heading back to the hotel for the night we made an agreement with one of the numerous tuktuk drivers hanging around, for him to pick us up at 5:00 AM the next morning to go to the Angkor Wat.

As it usually does, 5:00 AM rolled around way too soon on the 4th. Our tuktuk was already there by the time we groggily strolled out of our hotel and into the dark morning. He drove us to the Angkor Wat ticket office, where we had our photo taken and actually printed onto the ticket. Then he dropped us off outside the main temple and went to wait with all the other tuktuk drivers for our return. The whole point of waking so early in the morning was to see the sunrise from Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, that ended up being less than spectacular. On the bright side though, it was cooler than it would have been during the afternoon hours. After the anticlimactic sunrise we walked around the huge temple looking at the carvings and structure and wondering what it must have been like back in its heyday. It took us a few hours to go through the place so we were hungry once finished. We had some mediocre noodles at one of the many food stands next to the temple and were bugged by vendors the entire time. If I told them "No thanks" then they wouldn't go away. If I ignored them, they wouldn't go away. There was no winning. We were glad to be leaving them behind as we went back to find our tuktuk driver. It was hard to find him though, since there were so many tuktuks parked together. And then the fact that the poor guy was fast asleep when we found him didn't help. A fellow tuktuk driver woke him for us as we stood around looking awkward because we felt badly about disturbing him. He was good natured about being woken up, and even looked a bit sheepish at having been so soundly asleep. He drove us to the next big temple called Bayon, where we climbed up to the top and back down. It wasn't nearly as big as the previous site so we only took 30 minutes to wander around. The last stop was at my favorite temple called Te Phrom. It had been left as it was when first discovered, halfway crumbled with trees growing out of it. This gave it a fantastic sense of ancient history that had been swallowed by the inevitable march of time and mother nature. The trees that had broken their way through the walls and begun to swallow the temple were the main contributors to the atmosphere. It would have been more mysterious if the site wasn't swarmed with masses of tourists, though. Te Phrom seemed to be the most popular temple at the complex. We met back up with our tuktuk driver after about an hour there. It was only 11:00 AM and we were already finished with Angkor Wat. That meant there was still time to enjoy the free breakfast at our hotel. And after that we took a nap. We were so tired. The afternoon brought buckets of rain and we once again sat on the veranda enjoying the show. This time we were joined by one of the young women who worked at the hotel. Chuck asked her what she thought of my lip ring. She giggled and said that on Cambodian girls it is a gangster thing. Hah! I thought that was pretty hilarious. She ended up inviting us to have dinner with her and some of the other hotel people that evening. We joined them but only had a bit of food. We didn't want to eat their whole dinner. After eating we sat around watching Animal Planet - some show about monkeys where they named one Romeo and the other Juliet and made their every move into some sappy love story. It was pretty ridiculous. One of the Cambodian guys seemed to think it was hilarious and I had to agree. During the commercials they would describe a concept and then ask what the English word for that concept was. One such concept had something to do with when a mother favors one child over another and whether that's a fair thing for her to do. Or something like that. Unfortunately I couldn't help them out because I don't think we have an equivalent concept in English. This made me wonder if sibling rivalry, or favoring of one child over another is a common and important aspect of Cambodian society. I was going to mention the cliche example of how in Eskimo languages they have a bunch of different words for snow because snow is a crucial part of their life and culture, but I just looked it up on Wikipedia and read that it's all an urban legend. That English has the same number of words for snow. So nevermind on that comparison. Myth busted!

The 5th was a day for relaxing and getting some work done. That means that I blogged all day. We wandered out into the disorienting heat for an hour or two for lunch, which turned out to be pretty good despite our concerns to the contrary. Siem Reap is such a tourist town that it's hard to find the good places where the locals eat. Even though the restaurant we ended up at wasn't catering to locals, it was still good food. That evening we had dinner with the hotel staff again. This time we contributed $5 to help cover the cost of making more food. We had some dried fish, BBQ chicken, sour soup with fish (one of the girls who worked there proudly announced that she had made it), fish amok (a delicious Cambodian specialty), and rice. Dinner wasn't as conversational as the previous night because new guests kept arriving while we were eating, causing the staff to have to get up and check them in and all that. Despite having eaten with them, we went out a while later for some more food. We ate at a promising street cart stall that turned out to be a big disappointment. Not only was the food bland and oily, but there were a lot of beggar girls bugging us. Not the kind who were trying to sell bracelets or books. Just straight up beggars. They hovered around us for about 5 minutes before one of the girls began to count my freckles. I could feel her finger gently poking my shoulder as she counted. It was really quite odd. The final straw was when another one reached across our table for whatever reason. I suddenly got fed up and said "Go, go go," as I shooed them off with an annoyed wave of my hands. I was surprised when they actually left. Responding to beggars or touts at all - negative or positive - tends to give them hope and they stick around. I guess I seemed agitated enough that they decided it was best to go elsewhere.

We left Siem Reap for Phnom Penh on the 6th. We were picked up from our hotel by a small, cramped mini bus at around noon. I was grateful when they dropped us off at the bus station because the thought of having to travel all the way to Phnom Penh in that tiny van was very depressing. Our official bus was a big, AC'd bus - much better. We grabbed a few unhealthy snacks from the stalls set up around the bus station before finally taking off for our next destination.


  1. As usual, a marvellous read. I love the way you tell of how you feel and your interactions with people. Also the stuff about the puddles and chickens. Not just boring touristy stuff - Thanks.


  2. Thanks Mom! Yes, I felt like we had a lot of interesting interactions with the people in Siem Reap, despite it being such a little tourist trap.

    Always nice to hear your feedback :-)