Can I just start by saying that air travel is a blessed thing? A journey that would have taken 3 grueling days by ground was covered in under 120 minutes as we took to the air above the lush green mountains of Luang Prabang and northern Laos and flew south into the flat landscape of central Cambodia and Siem Reap. And just like that we were there...getting our visa was easy, and we even came out to a young kid holding a sign for "Mr. Gina Lutzke". He was our TukTuk driver sent to get us from the airport and he quickly had whisked us out to our hotel, the brand new Siem Reap Niche Hotel. They had only been open for a few weeks and so were VERY happy that we chose to stay there...literally 6 of them to help us check in, a welcome drink, cold moist towel apon arrival. The place is nice too, big comfy beds with private bath, A/C, and good WIFI. And get this...it cost US$12.50/night. Scoreboard!
We settled in and then got a free tuktuk ride into town from our hotel and got a little snack before checking out the market. We had a little time to kill before meeting up with our friends Chris and Christy with whom we had parted ways with back in Chiang Mai just before our hellish journey into Laos. They had also flown in and were going to be in town for a few days doing more research for their new business EdVenture Intl. We met with them on the aptly named "Pub Street" and had a few $0.50 happy hour beers before cruising down to the food stalls to grab some dinner. Gina instituted a Cambodian Beer blind taste test; Angkor wins, and we had a great meal while catching up about our trip in Laos and hearing about the rest of their stint in Chiang Mai. Later that night, we were finishing up a final beer when we saw that they were BBQing Khmer Frogs for $1...so of course Chris and I had to try one of them. We actually sort of liked it...as the photos can atest.
In the morning we were up early for what ended up being a massive day at the Angkor Wat temples. While Siem Reap is a cool little town, it really only is what it is because it is the town that supports the Temples which is why everyone comes through here, and we quickly figured out why. They are exceptionally impressive. For one they are OLD, dating back to the 800's and 900's. Another thing is that they are MASSIVE. And lastly, there are TONS of them. I hadn't quite realized in my reading just how many of these things there are. You really need a week to see everything, and even then it'd be a stretch. We had 3 days, so were going to make a go of it.
We were picked up by our TukTuk driver at about 8am (same kid from the airport the day before) and headed out. We chose to do the outer loop on day 1 and to save the main inner loop for the next day when Chris and Christy could join us. We basically let our driver lead the way and he was pretty thorough. In that day we saw 13 sites. What's interesting is how different they all are. There are some that look like something straight out of a Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones movie, and there are others that are more pyramid-esque complexes. What is constant is how amazingly detailed the carvings and craftmanship are at every site. A few of our favorite from that first day were Banteay Kdei, Preah Khan, Pre Rup, Bapuon and Bayon. All amazing. We had a blast that day, even as the afternoon wore on and we started to get a bit hot and tired. It was one of those places that really gets you excited to be traveling. Sunrise and sunset are BIG things at Angkor Wat. Our TukTuk man took us to spot called Bakhang for sunset...the thing is that so did everyone else's tuktuk man, AND the tour buses and the rest of the tourist zoo. This spot is a temple on the top of the hill which obviously has a great view for sunset. We climbed the hill and then literally had to wait in a line for 20 minutes before we were alowed to climb to the top of the temple...it was crazy. When we got up there it was packed and everyone was jockeying for position and elbowing each other out of the way to get that one great sunset photo. We couldn't really be bothered, so we snapped a photo or two and then made a run for it. We managed to find our tuktuk man amid the chaos and had him steer that puppy back to the hotel.
One thing that has to be said about the temples is, like most things in Cambodia (as we're discovering), there is an ugly side to it. Cambodia is an extremely poor country with a tumultuous history and the tourist boom is a relatively new thing. There are countless people aggressively trying to sell you something (anything, really) which is fine. The thing that is not fine is that quite often they are young children. Instead of being in school they are spending their days trying to sell things to tourists. It's a real problem and shame on the government for not cracking down on it more seriously.
We had an interesting experience for dinner that night. We decided to keep it local as we'd had a big day and had another one scheduled for the next day. We went to a place on the corner and I'm not sure if we're the first westerners to eat at this place, but there certainly aren't many because like our hotel, they were VERY happy to have us there. They brought our menus and waited there 2 feet away staring at us until we ordered our drinks and then ran off to fetch the drinks and returned to take our order. After they ran to put the order into the kitchen they ran back out and stood watching us drink our drinks and smiling. Right. At last the food came out and they presented it with a big smile and then retreated a whole 3 feet back to watch us eat. After about 30 seconds dude stepped forward to ask if we were enjoying our food. After we confirmed, he stepped back to his post and just stood there. Watching. Smiling. I've never had anyone just stand and watch me eat from 5 feet away. It's weird. Anyway, dinner lasted a long time even though we ate quickly to finish and be done with the awkward encounter. I think he was just being friendly, but there you go with that whole culture thing.
The next day started with a 4am wakeup call in order to meet our TukTuk driver for a 4:30am departure. We were supposed to pick Chris and Christy up from their hostel and get out to Angkor Wat temple for the sunrise. At 4:45 we finally got ahold of our driver; he'd slept in and by the time he showed up and we'd made it to their hostel, Chris and Christy had split! We figured (hoped) they'd just gotten their own TukTuk out there and we'd be able to find them there. What we didn't know is that Angkor Wat at sunrise is every bit the zoo as the sunset was the night before. Unbelievable! We shuffled in with the masses and in the predawn darkness perched ourselves at a decent enough looking vantage point and we waited. Finally the first dim light started to appear on the horizon and eventually it was bright enough to silhouette the distinctive shape of the spires of the temple. Soon it was bright enough to see the full scene in front of us. Hundreds of tourists again jockeying for photo position in attempts to capture their perfect version of the signature Angkor Wat sunrise photo; backlit temple with front pond reflection...and then, there amoung the masses we spotted a familiar blonde pony tail. We'd found Christy and not far away in great photo position was Chris furiously clicking his Nikon. We waited a bit until the sun's rays finally eeked over the temple and then we made haste for our TukTuk where we found our driver sleeping soundly in the back. We spent the rest of the morning visiting another 5 temples including Ta Phrom, made famous as the set for Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider movie.
At about 11 we headed back into Siem Reap and had our TukTuk drop us off in the middle of town where we had a nice late breakfast. It was during this meal that we first got propositioned by a TukTuk driver in a Batman themed black and yellow TukTuk. After breakfast we walked through town for a bit before settling on renting bikes and riding back out to Angkor Wat to tour the main temple. While we were handling this task we ran into "Batman" again and got to talking about a tour with him the following day...the price was right so we agreed to meet him at 9am the next morning and with that we hopped on ourbikes and headed out of town.
The bike ride out to the temples took about 30 minutes, but it's so perfectly flat that it was pretty painless and actually alot of fun to be on a bike again. We spent a good two hours touring the main temple at Angkor Wat. Gina acted as our tour guide by reading our guidebook and explaining all the different areas as we toured. It's a very impressive site and she's a fine tour guide.
After we'd had our fill we headed out and back on the bikes which we peddled into town without incident. We stopped for a little happy hour session and a nibble at a place that boasted the "Best Pizza in Asia". It was just O.K., but they had cheap, cold beer and reasonably priced wine so we enjoyed ourselves without trouble.
After ditching the bikes at the shop we headed over to hit the Siem Reap night markets. A few hours of haggling left us hungry and thirsty and we headed back to the food stalls for some cheap eats. After a night cap down the road; Johnny Walker Blacks for $2, we called it a night and grabbed yet anotherTukTuk home and crashed hard after another massive day.
We met Chris, Christy and "Batman" at 9am and quickly were on our way out of town towards Bantaey Srei which is yet another temple, but a bit further afield and not part of the main temple complex. I think we were all feeling the effects of the 4am wakeup call the previous morning because we were all dragging a bit that morning as we walked the temple, unique and known for it's crazy intricate carving and decoration. We made the loop then finished off with a nature walk blefore heading back to find 'Batman' waiting for us.
We headed back towards town and then further south to the river where you can take a tour of the "floating village" called Chong Kneas. Christy had heard of it and was keen to investigate as a potential visit spot for their programs and, well it sounded pretty cool, so we were game. We got all the way there passing time by listening to Batman curse other drivers on the road and laughing to ourselves only to find that the whole boat tour thing seemed a bit shady and way more pricey then we had figured. After a few minutes of hard negotiating and even walking away at one point we finally got to a price we were comfortable with and we hopped in the boat. It took a while to get going as we puttered along in a virtual river traffic jam, stuck behind a couple of slow moving boats that were tied together and inexplicably dragging a tree behind them and loaded to the gillets with huge piles of sand. Eventually we passed the slow pokes and began to speed across a huge flooded river with some speed and made our way to the village. Wow, it was something to see, much more impressive then any of us thought. There are 3,000 people who live in the village. Apparently, in the dry season you can drive a motorbike through the village, when we were there only boats could navigate the maze of stilted houses, schools and even a large temple that were there amoung the many meters of murky water. There are pig pens and chicken coups that float hanging off the back of people's houses. We stopped at one building which turned out to be a restaurant and one of the makeshift school houses where we met a local teacher who told us all about his life as the main teacher in the village. Really interesting and a really nice guy and a great contact for Chris and Christy. We got back to Batman and his TukTuk feeling pretty good about the afternoon. As we cruised back to town Batman asked if we were interested in visiting the orphanage where he lives and in fact was raised. He'd mentioned it a few times during the day and although initially a bit weary, we decided to go ahead and go. What an experience! As we pulled into the orphanage we were immediately mobbed by dozens of young kids who were so excited to have visitors. Many of them latched onto our hands and arms, really just looking for physical contact. It was at once an amazing experience and completely heartbreaking. These kids had been abandoned by their parents for whatever reason and I think just really relished having some people to show around and show them some attention. We ended up spending about an hour there getting shown around their place, we sang songs in their class room, played games in their courtyard and saw the mushroom farm and gardens that they keep as food sources. A few of the kids that latched to me became very interested in my SLR camera and eventually they were taking photos of everything, us, each other, their gardens, pets and more of us all together. It was an amazing hour.
Unfortunately, eventually, we had to say goodbye and head back. We snapped a few photos and said our goodbyes before finally ripping ourselves away. It was an emotional experience and we all looked at each other in a sort of stunned silence as we headed back into town. We made one last stop and were glad to do it. Batman brought us to a rice store where we purchased a 50kg bag of rice as a donation to the orphanage. We wrote some notes in marker on the bag thanking the kids and adults in charge for having us.
Back in Siem Reap we sat down for a final meal with Chris and Christy. We were all still buzzing from the day, actually the entire last 3 had been huge and we spent the evening rehashing it all. Finally, totally exhausted we called it a night, exhausted, but so stoked on a great 3 days in an amazing place. We said our goodbyes to Chris and Christy and made plans to catch up for Easter wknd back in Aus. We had such a great time traveling with a few good friends in such an amazing place.
Siem Reap- one of the best yet!