The beginning of our 9 weeks in BKK in SEASia may be found here
We awoke early our last morning in Bangkok, ate a hasty breakfast then caught a cab to the airport. We made good time and arrived early to find our flight to Siem Reap delayed – in this case for a mere half hour. We parked ourselves in a lounge and enjoyed some snacks and the last consistent wifi we would have for a while.
The flight to Siem Reap took only a little over half an hour. It seemed that no longer had we taken off than we were setting down. We made it quickly through immigration; found that customs was non-existent even though we’d filled out a form. We promptly found a cab and were on the way to our hotel.
My first impression of Cambodia and Siem Reap was of red dust, dirt roads, hordes of tuk-tuks (a generic term for small onomatopoetic motorized vehicles), motos, bicycles. (We hadn’t seen a single bicycle in Bangkok). Our hotel - the “Kool Hotel” - proved to be somewhat of a disappointment after Adelphi Suites. We’d made the mistake of switching to this hotel shortly before leaving on our trip. We’d mistakenly figured that a hotel with fewer rooms would be more pleasant. And we had not anticipated the difficulties involved in walking to downtown Siem Reap through congested, dusty unmarked streets. Our bed was hard, the furniture was uncomfortable, and the closet/storage space was next to non-existent. The air conditioner was oddly mounted in the wall above the bed and directed blasts of chill air at anyone attempting to sleep. On the plus side, the staff were pleasant, helpful and attentive. A request for a mango and a knife brought us a plate with what had to have been four luscious, ripe – and sliced - mangoes. After our arrival, I lounged by the pool while YT had a massage.
Later, we took a $2 tuk-tuk into town. This was a literal $2 ride; the Cambodian economy is totally dollarized. The only time we saw Cambodian currency (the riel) was when we received 1000 and 2000 riel notes as change for amounts less than $1; they approximated $.25 and $.50 respectively. We had dinner at Bopha Angkor, a boutique hotel/restaurant. We had a mild curry and chicken amok (amok in this case is a coconut sauce, not a state of murderous frenzy). Cambodian food tasted somewhat like Thai food minus the chili peppers. Before dinner we had wandered the beautiful grounds of the Bopha Angkor, peaking into some of the beautifully furnished rooms. The result was further regret in having booked the Kool Hotel. Bopha Angkor was much nicer for about the same price. Afterwards, we checked out the night market. (It’s not hard to miss given the “NIGHT MARKET” sign lit up in lights and strung over the small river that bisected Siem Reap.) The market was nice, if touristy, but the vendors tended to be persistent to the point of annoyance. After some wandering, we grabbed the Kool Hotel shuttle back to our room. We were touring various Khmer ruins the next day and wanted to be well rested.
Our next day’s tour was by tuk-tuk. Our driver was Suwan (pronounced "Suvan"), a very pleasant and helpful man who spoke excellent English and had been recommended to us by Moreweird. He showed up at eight and we were on our way. In retrospect, our itinerary that day comprised way too much for a single day. At some point, the multitude of sights, coupled with the stupefying heat, caused my note taking to taper off. Certainly it eroded my memory; everything became a mix of brick, stone, and bas relief. The scale of the Khmer ruins is simply immense. I knew they were large before we visited – but I still grossly underestimated the scale. This is not site to be seen in one day like Machu Picchu or even Teotihuacan. One could easily spend a week here touring various individual sites. I know what we saw, but I cannot assign specifics to individual sites with any certainty. It all began to run together. Further, the scale, particularly of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, means a lot of walking in brutal heat. I’ve done a partial reconstruction of what from my notes and photographs:
• Prasat Kravan (brick; relatively small area with five buildings; one of the oldest sites; some nice depictions of Vishnu in one building…they look almost Mayan art, except frontal rather than in profile.)
• Banteay Kdai (stone; large complex; much later period, very photogenic interiors…I did perspective shots down halls and of dancing apsara bas reliefs.)
• Ta Ked (no recollection; unless I’ve mixed these up with Ta Prohm, my photos reveal the interior of a stone building with some static bas relief figurines; my guess is that this predates Banteay Kdai.)
• Ta Prohm (memorable, still partially overgrown, I – and everyone else – made evocative photos of trees covering parts of this temple.)
• Angkor Thom, including
o Bayon (an incredible complex of a series of towers with huge stone faces facing cardinal points on each tower; fantastic bas reliefs; this was the highlight of the day and is worthy of a day of its own.)
o Baphuon (approached via a walkway; a somewhat pyramidal structure of large blocks of stone; I think interior was closed for restoration.)
o The Elephant Terrace (Just that, a very long terrace decorated with life-size carvings of elephants and other animals.)
o The Leper King Terrace (My notes – immediately pre lunch – indicate excellent bas reliefs in the process of being pieced together block by block.)
• Angkor Wat (Vast and crowded; too immense for the entire structure to be captured in one photograph. We entered via a long causeway and passed through two walls to get to the central structure. Our walks through the halls and buildings revealed numerous bas reliefs and apsara carvings as well as statues of Buddha that had been defaced or beheaded by the Khmer Rouge during those miserable years when they were in power. We climbed the steep central tower amid hordes of Japanese tourists. Angkor Wat, like Angkor Tom, is worth a day or two on its own: Start early and stay late.)
• We ate lunch in food market outside the Angkor Thom complex. The individual vendors are numbered rather than named and are housed in a large shaded open building. We had fairly good pork amok and so-so spring rolls, but regretted not getting the wonderful (we think) ginger chicken that we smelled at the next food stall.
• Several of the sites had government-sponsored amputee bands playing traditional music with their feet or what remained of other limbs. (They also sell CDs, which I regret not buying.) Khmer Rouge-planted landmines have taken an incredible toll on the Cambodian population; be prepared to see many amputees or otherwise disfigured people if you travel to Cambodia.
We returned to the Kool Hotel in the late afternoon dazed and exhausted. We later roused ourselves to take the hotel shuttle into Siem Reap for dinner. We ate at the Blue Pumpkin Restaurant (the upstairs is air-conditioned and popular with backpackers). YT had a salad; I ordered one of the few non-western items on the menu, eggplant stuffed with pork. We again briefly perused the Night Market before taking the regular shuttle back to the hotel.
The next morning, Suwan again picked us up at eight. This time we went in a car as we had a long (30 kilometer) ride over dusty roads to fantastic Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei was our favorite of all the Khmer ruins. It is both small enough to appreciate and filled with fantastically detailed stonework. Unlike every other place we visited it did not involve going up and down stairs – another reason we liked it. Perhaps it also benefited from not sharing the day with numerous other sites.
After Banteay Srei, Suwan took us to Pre Rup. Pre Rup is brick and was constructed in an earlier period than Banteay Srei. It comprised several large vertical towers. From the heights of the central temple you can glimpse the distant central spire of Angkor Wat eight kilometers away.
YT notes —AW had been a dream of mine to see. Like Machu Picchu, its existence was a feat that seemed incredible to me. However, I did not have nearly the reaction to it that I expected – I was not awestruck or even taken by it. The accomplishments of these ruins in the jungle so long ago—and their survival—is indeed incredible. But it did not compare to me with the majesty of Machu Picchu. As mentioned above, Banteay Srei impressed me the most. Perhaps it was the massive crowds that detracted from the structures themselves. I am glad I experienced the Khmer ruins, but they did not live up to my very high expectations. I also was disappointed in Siem Reap itself. I failed to see the charm that many others have written about.
On our drive out to Banteay Srei, it had quickly become obvious that Cambodia is a very poor country - much poorer than Bangkok (or, as we later discovered, any other part of Thailand). And Siem Reap, buoyed by tourism, was a relative oasis of affluence. In the countryside, housing was extremely primitive, sometimes little more than thatched huts. There were also some houses on stilts, a remainder from the era when livestock were sheltered under the houses for protection against tigers. In this relatively dry section of Cambodia, only one rice crop is harvested each year. The rest of the year was devoted to making palm sugar. Palm sugar is responsible for the nearly ubiquitous stickiness of food in Southeast Asia. It’s prepared from the fruit of the female flower of the palm tree. The people constructed bamboo ladders to reach the fruit; the ladders are literally a bamboo pole with inserted pegs. They’re leaned against the palms and they scramble up to harvest the fruit. The juice from the flowers is then reduced in large roadside vats until the liquid is evaporated. The resulting sugar, light brown in color, is delicious. We stopped by some reduction vats and bought three large packets of palm sugar for a dollar. Since returning to the USA, I’ve made a practice of hunting it down in Asian markets. It’s wonderful with coffee.
After our palm sugar stop, Suwan stopped at the Landmine Museum. Neither he nor YT would enter it. Understandably, because it was one of the most depressing places I’ve ever been. The Khmer Rouge had mined Cambodia extensively, both to keep the Vietnamese out and the native population in. The Vietnamese had also planted landmines. In addition, there remains a problem with unexploded American ordnance from the Vietnam War era. The museum displayed landmines from the USSR, Czechoslovakia, China, Vietnam and Thailand – and probably other countries as well that I missed. Suwan said that when he was young - he’s in his early 40s now - and his family lived in the countryside, he heard explosions almost every night from livestock or wildlife stepping on landmines. The founder of the museum had personally deactivated over 50,000 mines. However, they continue to be an issue and people continue to be killed or maimed, particularly since there’s a secondary market in scrap metal from the wars.
Suwan drove us back to Siem Reap by early afternoon. He recommended lunch at a traditional restaurant called Angkor Chey (sp?). It had a very pleasant atmosphere – a shady second story room on stilts above a courtyard with several crafts workshops. We had mango salad with fish and ginger chicken, all of it good although a tad bland compared to Thai food. After lunch, he took us to an artisan complex where all the craftspeople were deaf. They practiced traditional crafts – stone carving, wood carving, lacquer, painting. It had a nice gift shop and we bought some items for friends and offspring.
Then we went back to the hotel, where we bid farewell to Suwan. Our time with him had been a real eye-opener and we won;ld recommend him to anytraveller to the Siem Reap area (firstname.lastname@example.org) We went to our room, packed and rested. We went out later to Viroth Restaurant for a dinner of banana flower chicken salad, shrimp salad, and some leaden spring rolls. Viroth restaurant was very stylish, modern with a soundtrack of downtempo lounge music and an attached art gallery, not unlike something you would see in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires. (The latter comparison became particularly poignant when an old 1940s tango canción came improbably floating over the sound system.) We didn’t wait for the shuttle and instead took a cab back to the hotel after a spot of negotiation over the fare; the driver initially quoted twice the going rate.
The next morning we killed time at the Kool Hotel before our departure to the airport for our Luang Prabang flight. We had lunch at the hotel – what was termed “Cambodian BBQ” (satay) and mixed vegetables. Come our 1:00 p.m. departure, the hotel attempted to send us off to the airport via tuk-tuk. We immediately refused. The idea of bouncing through the dust with our suitcases on our knees was simply unacceptable. The hotel staff relented, loaded us into a van and off we went.
We cleared immigration promptly and soon were hanging in the tiny departure lounge. Our flight, perhaps a quarter full, was on a smallish prop plane. We left on time and soon found ourselves flying over Cambodia’s flat, tragic landscape on our way to the mountains of Laos.