It dawned on me that I’ve been to Cambodia twice (Laos too) and have zero posts on either. My buddy Patrick is going on Friday and wants a few highlights and heads-ups. These are bolded. Anyway his upcoming trip is just the excuse I need to finally do this long overdue post on the land of C’bodes. I went into my safe, where I keep not money and riches but all nine and counting of my travel journals, and dug out both journals documenting each trip. On both visits I saw the Angkor temples near Siem Reap.
In January 2008 I flew from Singapore’s Changi Airport (a great one as far as airports go) with Auntie Liz and cousins Harry and Will- I had been visiting them in Singapore and had extended my trip twice already, the second extension allowing me to visit Cambodia for three days. While Liz had to attend Caring For Cambodia (CFC) meetings, the boys and I explored the temples with a guide- the boys had been several times but having an older cousin to show the ropes made another visit exciting.
On the plane we met Jamie Amelio, CFC’s founder. Upon arrival in the Siem Reap airport we met Safi, our Cambodian escort, whom we wai‘d to. To wai here in Southeast Asia is to greet with palms pressed together and a polite bow. Off we went to the Amelio School- Caring For Cambodia’s very first established school. At the time of my visit it was one of four in Siem Reap- now as I write there are six.
This school had a library and a computer lab. When I poked my head into the lab all the children looked up from their learning exercises and said “hellooooooo!” with huge smiles. But when I returned to the same room with Jamie Amelio, the kids actually stood up and wai‘d, delirious to see her. How at their young age (7, 8ish) could they comprehend and appreciate all that Jamie has done for them? These are kids who would be begging around the Angkor Wat complex if Jamie hadn’t founded Caring For Cambodia, but kids usually take these things for granted because they don’t always understand these things.
After a good look around we piled back into the van in which we had come, we went to scope out a potential future school- an abandoned building with a cracked foundation, a broken roof, and trash everywhere; but a solid candidate nonetheless. I think resurrecting and using old buildings is more fun and meaningful than building totally new ones anyway.
Then on to our hotel… The Raffles. Which is probably the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and certainly the poshest option in Siem Reap. You bet I swam in this.
I’m sure Angelina Jolie stayed here during Tomb Raider filming. Liz booked two rooms between the four of us but the boys wanted to sleep in her room which means I rocked mine solo: a double with a balcony.
After freshening up we took a tuk-tuk to FCC: the Foreign Correspondence Club. Here we all ate Cambodian delicacies (Khmer curry, really good duck salad, byy char and an Angkor beer to wash it down)… except Will, who ordered a pepperoni pizza. Then home to the Raffles, where we watched a little TV and fell asleep.
The next day after delicious hotel breakfast buffet we said goodbye to Liz who went off to do her CFC meetings, and the boys and I met our temple guide Yousroeun, who is now my friend on facebook and LinkedIn… his webpage is on my link list on this blog, so look him up if you need a great temple guide.
At the entrance I bought a $40 three-day temple pass and my adventure in the 8th wonder of the world began. They accept USD here and value it more than their own currency, the riel.
There are many ways to enter Angkor Thom (in Khmer, “Big City”)- by foot, bike, tuk-tuk, elephant, horseback… even hot air balloon. We did it on foot.
Yousreoun explained that everybody you meet here who live through the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot’s regime in the 70’s knows somebody who died. They killed Yousreoun’s father. There was much to learn… Cambodia was my very first third world country. Something clicked with me here. In fact, at this point in my life I had already been to Singapore twice, Vietnam, and Cambodia… and Southeast Asia in general was clicking. This was before I even returned to this part of the world a third time to live in Thailand and add Laos and Malaysia to the list (all of which clicked as well).
The vibe here is warm and happy despite everything Cambodians have been through. Just 30 years ago they had their own holocaust under the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot regime. Yet there’s no resentful attitude despite extreme poverty and post-trauma. Just grins. Probably because they’re all enlightened as hell and pity the rest of us in our privileged misery.
Amazing is an understatement for these temples. My favorite was Bayon– the one with all the heads and faces. This is the temple featuring the stone face that I appear to be kissing in my main Roasted Bugs and Sticky Rice home page photo.
cousin Will King peeks out of a temple window
We visited Bayon at sunset, when we could clamber through headed chambers and enjoy the bats coming out to feed- there is true peace here at this time of day, as all of the other tourists have already climbed up to the overcrowded Sunset Temple (which is fine, just not at sunset). For sunrise, get up super early and head to Angkor Wat itself, which was built to symbolize heaven on earth and is surrounded by a moat which makes the sunrise truly breathtaking. On this first trip, however, we came in the middle of the afternoon.
Also of note was Ta Prohm of Tombraider fame- known for the invasive tree roots that leech off the temple walls.
and Preah Kahn temple, with its bizarre doorways and windows.
Adventure highlights that happened around the temples included:
1. Feeding the monkeys
2. Agreeing to pose for photos with a Cambodian family’s children because they “had never seen such beautiful white people” (awkward ego points).
3. My first taste of sticky rice. See how much of this trip inspired this blog? It’s pathetic that I haven’t posted this entry until now. Anyway we ate sticky rice in two forms. One cooked inside hollow bamboo with sweet red beans; we had to peel the bamboo back to access the sweet sticky rice.
Two, sticky rice dough balls with sugar palm filling and topped with coconut shreds. Harry will demonstrate how to eat.
One night we ate dinner at Madame Butterfly which was a beautiful, serene restaurant with an antique Oriental motif and seriously good Khmer dishes, particularly the chicken/coconut milk/lemongrass soup (tom ka gai in Thai, not sure what Khmer name is). We made a new friend at dinner:
The day after I woke up to this phone call: “Hello your majesty, this is your 5:45 AM wake up call.” (Seriously? I’m cool with that). The four of us took a tuk-tuk to the Amelio school where we took turns ladeling out fish porridge (which actually smelled delicious) to every student for their breakfast. This is part of CFC’s Food For Thought program- basically every CFC school feeds the children in the mornings so that the pressure is off their parents to provide, allowing them to save a little. After feeding these smiling children and cuddling with a few mangy schoolyard puppies, the boys and I waved goodbye to Liz and headed back to the temples.
When we were all templed out for the day we visited the Old Market (very touristy- I wouldn’t recommend) where we bought a bracelet for my cousin/their sister Isabelle who wasn’t able to join us on the trip, and also a small green metal Buddha statue for myself. I paid too much for him and discovered after buying that the poor guy possesses but one nipple. In my journal entry on this purchase, snarky Eliza from 4 years ago wrote, “now I have to learn to love him since my capacity for unconditional love is usually reserved for men with both nipples.”
Then back to the Raffles for an afternoon swim and helping the boys with the homework that they brought along. We packed up our belongings and headed to the airport to return to Singapore. Harry got so sick from an airport smoothie (the ice must have been unpurified tap water) that he threw up all over the back of the plane- he puked himself all the way to a free upgrade to first class, and Liz followed, leaving Will and I stuck in the back row with an adorable girl of Will’s age who fell in love with him and kept turning around in her seat to bother him.
Back in Singapore, poor food poisoned Harry finally managed to fall asleep on the couch, clutching the waste bin for dear life.
A year later (Jan 2009) I was back in Siem Reap with a friend from the States. Being on a budget trip, we stayed at the Prince Mekong Villa in a “VIP” room for $22/night. Well, I have since googled said place only to learn that the owner, Erich Baden (who was very nice to us on our stay) was arrested last year over child sex abuse charges. Sooo… stay elsewhere. Anyway on the first day we lunched at good old FCC again- our tuk-tuk driver actually waited for us while we ate. Then off to the temples. Since this was my second trip to Siem Reap I decided not to take a single photograph- instead I allowed myself to enjoy the moment (besides, my travel buddy was borderline professional with photography). Sunset at Angkor wat makes the temple appear to be gold. It’s beautiful both at sunset and sunrise. Angkor Thom (the entire wat complex) closed at 5:30 (it gets dark early here) so we tuk-tuk’d to Psar Cha, the main strip of restaurants, bars, and even clubs in Siem Reap; all packed into two blocks. This is the place where the guidebooks send you but we had been traveling for 2.5 weeks at this point and needed a little cushy touristy stuff. At Blue Pumpkin we took advantage of the free wifi, and I enjoyed my cup of ice cream- half jackfruit sorbet, half honey anise. All delicious. Then to the Red Piano, where the cast and crew of Tombraider reportedly spent most of their evenings post-wrap. Here we enjoyed Angkor beers and people watching.
The next day we were up at 4:30 AM to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat and then continue the grand tour of the temples- same stuff I saw last year plus a few tiny off-the-beaten-path temples as well. Snacked here and there on sticky rice cooked in bamboo, unripe mango, “French” bread, and pineapple on a stick. Spent all day at the temples, then came back to Psar Cha for delicious pumpkin and coconut soup at Khmer Kitchen and another beer at Red Piano- $1.25 a pop. Not too shabby.
The following day was Victory of the Genocide Day in Cambodia, celebrating the fact that the Khmer Rouge nightmare was still over. However I saw no clues anywhere that anybody was celebrating. Perhaps it’s a quiet victory here, considering that everybody who lived through it knows multiple people who died. We returned to the temples to do the small circuit, starting with Ta Prohm (the Tombraider one with all the gnarly tree roots)- this particular temple gets swamped with tourists so seeing it in the morning was definitely a great idea- it was so quiet. Lunch in town at Angkor Palm, famous for its amok (baked fish inside banana leaf which has been stapled into a cup). Then back to Angkor Wat for sunset- while my friend did a time lapse on his camera we talked about what we would do if we had millions of dollars… So original, right? But I love hearing different peoples’ answers to that question.
The vendors were particularly bad that day- we were harassed to buy things like you wouldn’t believe. An old woman with a shaved head shoved burning incense sticks in my hand and beckoned for me to follow her. I couldn’t just put the incense down, it might have started a fire! I had to follow, knowing how this would end. When I caught up to her she showed me how to bow to a statue for good luck, and then pointed to her money tray. I gave her my leftovers from the other countries we had come from- 12 Thai baht, 50 Malaysian ringgit. She rejected the ringgit and took the baht.
This is a tad ironic because Siem Reap in Khmer means “Siam Defeated”. You’d think the baht would have been rejected as well.
We were too tired for dinner that night.
The next morning we packed up and went to lake Tonle Sap, where an express boat would take us to Phnom Penh in 5 hours. This will be the next adventure to post!