Siem Reap, July 26
Our travels through SE Asia continued as we moved five hours north from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Prior to departing Phnom Penh we had our new friend Juan (our Cambodian tuk tuk driver, tour guide and drinking companion) organize his friend to pick us up upon arrival in Siem Reap. Our tuk tuk driver (Juan's friend) picked us up from the bus company's location, I want to say terminal but that would give you a false perception because it was really an enclosed dirt parking lot that resembled more of a vehicle junkyard than a bus terminal.
Our goal for Siem Reap was to visit the famed Temples of Angkor, 77 sq miles of ancient history and archeological sites that rival the most spectacular in the world. Angkor Wat was one of Cameron's top five destinations for our journey so we were excited to finally be within striking distance to one of mankind's greatest architectural achievements. We will post a separate blog for the Temples of Angkor following this one (it's worthy of its own section!).
Our first impression of Siem Reap was not the greatest.It seemed very small, dirty and lackluster. However, that opinion quickly changed once our tuk tuk driver brought us to the 'downtown' area where all of the action is. We shopped a few different hotels and settled on one within walking distance to the markets and pub alley, which is a small network of streets designed to feed and entertain the endless waves of tourists.
Siem Reap is a great place for cheap drinking, eating and shopping. It is a really fun, safe, friendly touristy location that is quite unique; we can't compare it to any other location that we've visited. That said, there is a large problem with street begging, mostly children forced to sell knock off books and postcards to tourists while they dine at patio restaurants. It actually got very annoying very quickly, but they're only doing what their parents tell them to do so we gave them a little leniency.
We ended up spending five nights in Siem Reap and were glad that we chose Angkor Wat as the destination to travel with our good friends Andrew and Nicola. For those that know Andrew and Nicola, they've also got a travel blog on the go; you can check it out at http://twocontinentsacoupleoceans.blogspot.com
Although we were quite comfortable in Cambodia, there were still moments when we were reminded just how far from home were. One of those moments came on the evening that we ate fried crickets. Yes, you heard me correctly. We ate insects… and we weren't even on a reality TV show! Insects, specifically crickets, are considered to be a delicacy in the region (including Thailand) and Cameron was adamant that we all push our comfort levels and try something completely out of the ordinary.
While the girls shopped, Cameron and Andrew got to talking with some locals while enjoying $2 jugs of Angkor Beer at a makeshift bar within the night bazaar. The Cambodian family purchased a large bag of crickets from a street vendor and started munching on them. This was the perfect opportunity! The family gave us a small bag to sample, to the delight of Nicole (can you sense the sarcasm?). Trying new foods (can you even call crickets food?) is not one of Nicole's strengths, so trying an insect was definitely not something she was keen on. After a few attempts, one of which resulted in a cricket being launched from her mouth across the table, she finally managed to get one down. They weren't terrible, but they definitely weren't tasty either. The fact that they were deep fried made them tolerable and crunchy like a potato chip. The team is pleased to have tried something very different and can now confidently say that we've eaten crickets… but I doubt any of us will try them again!
After visiting the killing fields and S21 in Phnom Penh we were all left with many questions and curiousity about the appalling Khmer Rouge regime. The night bazaar shows an evening documentary-style movie about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the series of events that took place, which was a great opportunity to catch a movie and further educate us on Cambodia's dark history. The makeshift theatre seated about 40 people and was an interesting experience; not your typical theatre but it did the trick.
Before leaving Siem Reap we wanted to have a traditional Khmer massage. We planned to do this on our off day from temple exploration. One of the hotel employees also drives a tuk tuk. He overheard us talking about getting massages and had an offer for us. The average price for a massage in the city centre was around $5. But for $6, he would drive us outside of town for free to a 'better' massage parlor. The catch was that he would get a $1 commission per person directly from the massage company (for bringing us to them). We liked his forwardness and honesty and had no problem with him earning a quick buck, so we rolled the dice and went with him. The massage parlor ended up being a really nice, classy location, far better than any of the others that were within walking distance in the city centre. Typically we'd just say no thank you and do our own thing, but that was one of those moments where we put trust into someone and they actually came through as promised. A common occurance in Cambodia!
Cambodia is a country filled with charm and potential. The people are some of the friendliest we've come across on our travels and we never felt unsafe or the victim of a scam. The country is quite poor, one of the poorest we've visited, but the people seem to always be smiling and joking. There is simplicity in their lives and in their character, something that we admired greatly. It makes you reflect on what is truly important in life (and it's not expensive cars, clothing and electronics). We found Cambodia to be fairly easy to navigate and the majority of people spoke at least a little English, at least enough to get by with some creative hand gestures.
We'll post a separate blog for our exploration of the temples of Angkor in a few days.