Siem Reap, Cambodia
After leaving Bangkok, Thailand, we arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on December 11th, 2017. Siem Reap is the town where everyone comes to see the nearby complex of ruins of Angkor, the seat of the Khmer kingdom between the 9th – 15th century. This means that the town is mostly a tourist one, a sort of resort, with huge luxurious hotels but also smaller, less impressive hostels, for the low budget traveler, which we were.
The hostel staff was kind enough to arrange a tuk-tuk to pick us up from the airport. After a rather dusty ride, we arrived at the rustic hostel, checked in, and left in search of food. We found a sort of shopping center nearby where there were a couple of restaurants as well and where I enjoyed a meal of prawns and vegetables that also included peppercorn, which I have never tasted or seen before. Though spicy, the food was delicious.
As my partner is not one to enjoy rest, he insisted we went check out at least one of the temples. We again were driven there by the same tuk-tuk driver. You might remember me mentioning a tuk-tuk in Ayutthaya, Thailand, a sort of pick-up truck contraption. However, in Cambodia, a tuk-tuk is more like a chariot pulled by a motor scooter. All these motorbikes seem to be quite pollutant and combined with the dusty road, it makes it hard for the passengers not to squint their eyes or crinkle their noses. Otherwise, the ride is rather pleasant and once you’ve visited a few temples you’ll be so thankful for the life/feet-saving tuk-tuk.
As it was already evening and the sun was setting, we only got to see one temple. However, our “tuk-tuk-er” (i cannot remember his name) was ready to take us on a whole tour the next day, provided we were ready for pick up at 4 am. That meant we woke up around 3 am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Prepared for the dusty ride this time with sunglasses (yes, in the middle of the night) and masks (pandemic omen), we promptly arrived at Angkor Wat, where people were already gathering around a small lake with cameras and tripods to catch the best photo of the sunrise – some of them even went knee-deep into the water. We got a spot right at the muddy shore of the lake where we stood for probably about 2 hours until the sun rose.
After that, we decided not to visit Angkor Wat at the time, but rather return later on, as we saw the crowds entering and thought we might want a less stuffed visit. Instead, we returned to the parking lot where we left our tuk-tuk-er and…surprise! The parking lot as well as all surrounding areas were now full of tuk-tuks and we had a few minutes of panic as we were looking for ours. We finally saw one that I thought might be the one, but our driver was sleeping in a hammock resembling a cocoon hanging from the ceiling of the tuk-tuk and it was impossible to see his face. Some other drivers noticed us and before trying to wake him asked us if we were sure it was our driver…Luckily, he was. A bit groggy from his sleep and probably pissed that we woke him up, he drove us to the next temple. I think we might have seen a total of 10 temples, although everything is fuzzy now.
After this tour de force in which I most enjoyed a temple raised on an island in the middle of a small lake and the temple featured in the movie “Tomb Raider” as well as, of course, the grand Angkor Wat, we were back at the hostel by 2 pm. Judging by the clerk’s surprise, we were done with the temples in record time. You can buy Angkor Wat passes for several days, so I guess, more thorough tourists will take a longer time. It also depends on how crowded the complex is.
After a cold shower (the hostel didn’t have hot water, although, with the heat, there was no actual need, unless you count my long hair that needed washing) and a long nap, we went for a massage. I must say I preferred the massages in Thailand, although I only went to one place in Cambodia, so I’m probably not a reliable source on this.
We also found a restaurant near the hostel with a thick menu, serving really good food, both traditional and international, and where we ate every day. Speaking of the restaurant, another first for me was drinking juice straight from a coconut.
On our 3rd day in Siem Reap, we booked a trip to a floating village in Tonle Sap – a very large lake in Cambodia. A van picked us up from the hostel. After a longer ride than expected, in which the guide told us a bit about the history of Cambodia and where we noticed the agricultural landscape and the terribly skinny cows, which we found out are mostly kept for work rather than milk and meat as they are in Europe, we arrived at a quay, where we boarded a boat, that took us to the floating village.
In this village, the houses are raised on tall wooden pillars, so when the water rises, the houses are not flooded or taken away by the river. The only way to travel around is by boat, although there is a piece of land where the school and temple are located. We were told that the village has electricity for only 2 hours per day and that drinking water existed thanks to some donors who brought in water tanks.
It was incredible to see how simply these people lived and how children diligently went inside the school as the bell rang, how most of them were barely aware of how other people live in other parts of the world, as this life was all they knew. Most of them were fishermen or they dealt with tourists as there wasn’t much else to gain a living from. After this impressive tour through the village, we were taken out on the lake to watch the sunset, which came as a bittersweet end of the day.
Being so wrapped in our own lives, we rarely think of how others live…or rather our brain can barely grasp the concept that people live different lives, and have such different perspectives as each one’s happiness is brought by something different. The village and its people still come to my mind from time to time, and all I can think about is that whole day, imposing on their daily routines, just stumbling in there, a total stranger, peering into their lives, I felt completely inadequate and dumbfounded by their happiness, as I slowly became more aware of mine.
On this note, I left Siem Reap the following day and moved on to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. But that’s a story for another time.