Continuing my bad luck in Phnom Penh the bus to Siem Reap broke down an hour outside the city. As we sat around in the scorching midday heat the drivers pulled the engine apart piece by piece to replace what appeared to be a rubber belt which had it’s teeth ripped off in several patches. Unfortunately they didn’t have any replacement bands the right size, which they only seemed to realize after reassembling the engine with a too big band added. In the end they settled for not replacing tr band at all, just having one band instead of the usual two. It looked dodgy but the bus could move forward again an we had only lost an hour, assuming it didn’t break down again.
Around 5 or 6 hours later we arrived in Siem Reap, the gateway to the expansive Angkor temple complexes and appropriately the tourist heart of Cambodia. We checked into our guesthouse, Siem Reap Rooms, where I had splurged for a private room at $6 a night enjoying the strong Aussie dollar. My old traveling companion Doug was still in town, it was his last night beige heading home to Canada (via Kuala Lumpur and London) so we met up for a reunion last supper. We went to a place called Angkor Palms Restaurant which got glowing reviews in the Lonely Planet. It lived up to it’s reputation with exceptional food and service, Doug and I split a Khmer platter which had 6 local dishes, Amok fish, green chicken curry, stir fried morning glory, mango salad, marinated pork ribs and fresh spring rolls. There was also a helping of banana sagoo, a coconut banana soup thing, for desert. Following dinner I arranged a cooking course at the restaurant for the following afternoon. Feeling thirsty we headed to one of the restaurants on the unimaginatively named Pub St and enjoyed some all night happy hour beers and cocktails beget turning in reasonably early as Doug had an early flight and Owen, Chantel and myself planned on getting up reasonably early to visit the temples.
For two days woke up around 7 and got a tuk tuk out to the temple complexes. The first day we visited the big sites, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon, and the juggle covered Ta Prohm. Angkor Wat is the famous temple with it’s three distinctive peaks, however there was restoration work happening site main temple wad covered in scaffolding. As expected the place was bursting with tourists, and the construction work made getting a nice photo difficult. Ta Prohms claim to fame was that the Tomb Raider movie was filmed here, and thus the hordes lined up to get a photo in front of the gnarled tree roots engulfing a wall section where Angelina Jolie once stood. My favorite temple of the day was the Bayon inside Angkor Thom. While waiting to enter through the one way arch into the the walled section of Angkor Thom Owen and myself jumped out of our tuk tuk to take some photos of the rows of Buddha statues lining the approaching bridge. Of course as soon as we were out the driver decided to punch it and cut the queue leaving us having to walk in. Once inside we found the bayon which was an old and interesting structure covered with Buddha faces. It was also nice that the temple was big enough that you could take decent photos wthout a bus load of Japanese tourists ruining your shot. I guess it’s too be expected when you get to the huge tourist cites like Siem Reap, but it’s always strafe when the backpacker crowd appears to vanish and be replaced by your more stereotypical bus loads of camera toting Asians who have to pose for painfully slow group shots in front of everything.
By about 1pm we were temples out and headed back to Siem Reap where Chantel and I had our cooking course. This was a fun an rewarding afternoon. It wasn’t a total immersion like some I had heard of where you spend hours with a motor and pestle grinding up your curry paste, for ours they told us what ingredients they used to make the paste (and they use a blender…) and then we cooked with one they had prepared earlier. We made fresh spring rolls for the entree, beef loc lac, Amok fish and stir fried morning glory for mains, and banana sagoo for desert. It was all surprisingly quick and easy to make, and I can’t wait to try making it back home. The best part was eating our handiwork for dinner after. While we were eating the owner of the restaurant came over and we had a chat with him. His story was that he escaped Cambodia to France in 1972, just before the Khmer Rouge came to power. A friend had warned him of the coming coup so he sold his motorbike to buy a plane ticket and took off immediately, and only just made it out in time. He didn’t hear from his parents or family for 5 years, and though he didn’t say what the news was when he did, i don’t think it was good. He lived in France for 31 years before returning to Cambodia and opening the Angkor Palms Restsurant in Siem Reap. It’s sad but most Cambodians of this age had similar stories. We ended up going back for a second cooking course two days later and added Green mango salad, Green curry and Angkor palms soup to our repitore. The owner taking a liking to our enthusiasm said that if we were staying for longer we could eat at his restaurant for free in exchange for helping him make a cooking DVD. Sadly I was flying to Singapore the next day.
Our second day in Siem Reap was much like the first, we spent the morning explore more temples, this time Banteay Srei which was a little disappointing, a few other smaller temples I’ve forgotten the names of, and Preah Khan which was probably my favourite. While walking back from the far side of Banteay Srei to our waiting tuk tuk we took a side path the skirted the complex. Here, as with nearly every tourist place in Xambodia, we were accosted by beggar children though one in particular was far cuter than most. Usually these sort of kids will follow oh with dirty pleading faces saying things like “miiiiistrr, moooney” in tortured voices. It doesn’t take long till you learn to ignore them. This girl though followed us in a little purple dress and kept saying in a cute sing song voice with a rising intonation “Hello, yum yum?”, “hello, money?” “hello, candy?” “hello yum yum?” “hello dollar?”. It was priceless. She still didn’t get any yum yum or money though.
In Preah Khan while taking a time out in the centre of the temple a young hyperactive Cambodian boy came over pretending to snipe at us from behind rocks, and then started chatting. His name was Will, and he ended up becoming out got guide for that temple, showing us around and telling some history about the place. The little guy was actually one of the best tour guides I’ve had, and spoke some of the best English, his only problem was his taste in music as he kept singing “gotta get some boom boom boom” and doing little dance moves as he ran between sections of the temple. I gave him a dollar for his little tour.
That night while walking home Chantel was accosted by a dirty street kid outside the supermarket who wanted food. She is a sucker for these kids because as soon as she sees tem she pulls this sad little face like you would make at an injured puppy, and this screams vulnerability to the beggars and they always go straight past Owen and myself to get to her. This kid dragged her into the supermarket and tried to get her to buy a can of baby food, one of the most expensive things in the shop. I played devils advocate and told her its probably just a scam and he will sell it back to the shop keeper for money. As we were leaving the boy attached himself to her dress and wouldn’t let go, just hanging limply as she tried to walk down the street. We told he to get him off but she was too panicked and didn’t know what to do. Owen looked at a nearby tuk tuk driver for advice, who signaled to punch the kid in the head. Instead of that Owen an I just pulled off his arms at the same time and the kid shouted “fuck you!” at us then ran off.
There were many such beggars in Siem Reap. The more plausible kind were the land mine victims, who usually tried to sell you books. These was one guy in particular who had no hands, just two stumps ending at the elbows, who seemed to always find us when we were eating lunch. I didn’t want any books but I ended up giving him a donation anyway. There was also a younger disabled kid, Jerry, who also sold books. Chantel bought a book off him, but after shrewd barge ing we only gave him $4.50, he wanted $5 originally. We kept seeing him around town after and would say “Hey Jerry, how’s things?” to which he would reply “No not good, you owe me 50 cents”.
For my last day in Siem Reap Owen and I hired bikes and planned to ride out to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We woke up at 4:30am to find it raining so went back to bed instead. We ended up riding out to see the sunset at Phnom Bakheng, an old temple near Angkor Wat. There were literally hundreds people covering essentially every available inch of this temple, all eager to see the sunset. It was quite a nice sunset in the end. That night we hit the town for my last night in Cambodia, though we didn’t ht it big as I had to get up at 5am for my flight, and it was pissing down with rain. We ended up getting foot massages at one of the many Dr Fish tanks which you can find everywhere in Siem Reap. Basically you dangle your feet in a big fish tank, and these little fish come and nibble all the dead skin off them. It wad quite a pleasant feeling once you got over the initially burst of extreme ticklishness. With our feet thiugherly nibbled we had a couple of cocktails in the bar next door and got chatting with a middle aged Aussie guy there called Tony. Tony was a cop who spends a lot of time visiting Cambodia helping defuse land mines and other unexplored ordinance left over from the Vietnam War and Khmer rouge. He was a real stereotypical Aussie bloke, and a good laugh. Apparetly the day before he had to defuse a mine while battling a mean hangover and diarrhoea. Not a job I would want. He also paid out bar tab as he ducked out early so not to repeat his hangover defusing gig, which was a rather pleasant surprise. So after a relatively early night I said my goodbyes to Owen and Chantel with plans to meet up again in Laos, and said goodbye to Cambodia. I had come to quite love the country, especially it’s food and people (the people not trying to sell you something that is).