I stayed at European Guest house in Siem Reap. It’s about a 15min walk from Pub Street and the Night market, but it’s $3 a night and on a street with other guest houses. My first meal in Cambodia was the traditional Amok curry. It was good, a bit too much ginger, but definitely not spicy enough for my taste. It was the first time I had fish in weeks though- the fish was the same price as chicken. I also treated myself to a glass of house red wine that tasted like Manoschevitz. Happy Hanukkah?
My first morning I woke up early, had breakfast on the rooftop of a guesthouse across the street, then boarded a tour van for the temples. I chose a tour vs a tuk-tuk for a few reasons. One, I’m alone and didn’t particularly feel like being on my own all day. Two, with the tour I have an English speaking guide. A huge plus since I don’t know much about the history. Three, a tuk-tuk for the day is $15, and the tour is $13. A better deal for me since I’d be paying for the tuk tuk alone. Also, the temples are very expensive to get into. [I had been hoping to get into the city earlier the day before to make friends to share a tuk-tuk with, but it didn't work out that way.]
With the tour I did the Small Circuit.
First we saw the South gate, then Baoyon, Bapaoun, Phimeanakas, Taprom and Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, the one you see on all the postcards. Taprom is the temple used in Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie- it has a large twisted tree throughout the center. Baoyon is famous for its smiling faces that face all four directions.
Our tour guide was Hean, from Siem Reap originally. He spoke fantastic English, which he learned in school. During lunch he privately asked if he could motorbike me around the large circuit the next day as a date, and I politely declined. Awkward. He was nice after but definitely looked like he felt rejected.
Lunch was not included with the tour. The van driver drove us to an expensive restaurant right outside the old city along the old Angkor pool (now just a pond.) It was not in my budget to spend $7 for one plate, so I left. I found a restaurant nearby that asked what I could spend, I said $4 (still more than my $3 budget but everywhere was expensive,) and they agreed. I had a huge plate of sautéed chicken with kale.
The temples were incredible. Huge, detailed, worn down, and unique. All the temples were different but the same. Carvings in all the stone. Some had small stones, Angkor’s stones were much larger and therefore preserved themselves better. Almost all of the temples were being restored. New stones were being put in to replace those that had fallen or were falling apart. All landmarks are always being restored when I visit.
At night I walked to the Old French Quarter, the city center. The walk from my hotel was picturesque. I walked along the river that runs through the middle of the city. The bridges along are all lite up with white lights, and fancy modern hotels line the streets. It’s not at all what I expected. It’s very modern. The Old French Quarter looked like a mix between Greenwich Village, New Orleans (what I imagine it looking like,) and Epcot Center. There were flashy light up signs everywhere, LED lights taking you towards Pub Street and the Night Market, touristy restaurants/bars, cute stores, massage parlors, fish spas, locals selling the usual elephant paraphernalia and millions of tuk tuks.
I walked off the beaten path and found a local restaurant and had stir fried seafood with vegetables, which was awful. After dinner I went to a restaurant on Pub Street and had a few $0.50 drafts before going home.
The next day I ate lunch at Khmer Kitchen in the old city. I had Pumpkin in the Oven with beef. It was like a non-dairy pot pie filled with sliced onions, shredded carrots, mushrooms, garlic, egg, beef, and topped with mashed pumpkin then baked in the oven. It was delicious and felt almost like a winter-y holiday meal.
My plan was to walk around after lunch, then get a massage. What was supposed to be a relaxing afternoon was more like a nightmare. There were millions of tuk tuk drivers out harassing me. Every single block you pass at least 10 drivers. Every single one approaches you screaming “tuk tuk?” in your face. Even if they hear you say no to the guy next to them they still do it. They also whistled at me and made sexual comments, even though I was in the tourist area and was wearing loose pants. It is the most annoying thing I’ve had to deal with on this trip so far. I completely lost my patience and was screaming no at all of them and they still didn’t get it. On top of that there’s also the usual women trying to get you to buy elephant pants, or a massage.
I ended up trying to escape and found a massage place a few blocks from the center. I had an oil massage which was good until the very end when the woman started telling me about her salary and how I must give her a tip because she won’t be able to feed her children otherwise. She has 2 children, makes $50 a month, and a husband whose a jerk. It wasn’t a sob story, she was informing me that it’s partially my fault she doesn’t get paid enough and it’s my duty to tip her. Tipping is not the norm here. I tipped her because she literally followed me out the entrance and down the street with her hand out. I paid her to go away but I definitely didn’t want to tip her. It’s not like Laos where you can see how poor they are. This woman was fine.
After that I had to get out of there. I went to the local market, bought a papaya, and walked home along the non-touristy side of the water. I settled into my lobby area and started watching the tv, which was playing Jingle All The Way. I completely forgot it’s Christmas movie time. Eventually I started talking to another guest who was from Milan. We decided to head to town to play pool since there wasn’t much going on at the guesthouse.
We went the X-Bar, a huge bar that has live music, two pool tables and foosball tables. It’s also one of the late night dance clubs. We started playing one-on-one but after two games two locals asked if they could play us. Neither spoke English. So we played 5 games against a pool Coach who was 26, and his pupil who was 17. The whole time the coach was telling his pupil exactly which balls to hit and where. He kept banging on the table and strictly pointing. We actually beat them the first 3 times and they were in shock, as was I. The coach was mad, and the pupil was disappointed in himself so eventually we threw the fourth game. We were by no means amazing in comparison; they definitely had better skills. I think they were just nervous playing us (tall white people.) We also were drinking and playing casually, which I think confused them more.
The coach wanted to be Facebook friends. I let him add himself- give him some American entertainment for a while, although he won’t be able to read any of my posts. I bought them each a beer after the third game and after the fourth game the pupil claimed he was too drunk to play. It was hilarious.
After dinner I attempted to get noodle soup from a local restaurant. It was horrible. I miss Thailand street food.
My last day I did the Large Circuit of temples. My tuk-tuk driver for the day was named Heang. He’s 24 and from a village about 1km from Siem Reap. My tuk-tuk was purple with ruffles and detailed silver railing- I had the royal tuk-tuk. I was able to spend a lot more time looking at the details of each temple since I was on my own; however, I didn’t get to learn anything about the history- my tuk-tuk driver wasn’t a guide. I did enjoy being able to rest at each spot though and take it all in. Unlike the temples on the Small Circuit the temples on the Large Circle were not being restored and therefore looked older.
Pr. Preup has reddish stone and almost looks Mayan. There are lions at all entrances. The temple is mostly ruins but the main pillars still stand proud. I climbed to the top and it’s a great view of the nature around. There are plants growing out of the stones, with random purple flowers on their own. This temple was beautiful in its grandeur and backdrop, even though it’s crumbling.
Eastern Mebon has the same architecture, stone, lions, and carvings, but is less grand than Pr. Preup. The only addition is that is has Elephants on all 4 corners. Seeing this one second was not impressive.
Ta Som was beautiful even though it’s almost completely in ruins. Rubble and stones lay throughout and around the temple. There are rooms sectioned off with rubble, but the remaining temple stones are amazing. There are carvings on almost every stone (ivy, flowers, guards, women, Kings, etc,) and like the past two temples, ivy and flowers are growing throughout. When you enter the temple you just see doorway, after doorway, after doorway. It looks like a labyrinth even though it’s not.
To get to Neak Pean you walk down a long Boardwalk pathway through a massive lake. In the distance on both sides there are barren trees growing from the water. At the end there’s a small forest followed by the temple. Neak Pean is a single peak sitting on top of a circular plate with stone steps in the middle of a reservoir.
It’s its own island. Serpents lay in the water facing the temple. The reservoir is square with stone steps all around, and 4 small structures in the middle of each side. The larger lake is surrounded by a fence where you can view the temple from. The whole scene looks like it belongs in a fantasy movie.
Prah Khan was absolutely massive. The facade was being restored, which is the first construction I’ve seen of the day. You then walk down a forest pathway for about a quarter of a mile to reach the temple. It’s the biggest temple I’ve seen (width not height.) I think I walked through at least 100 doorways (and stepping stones) to get from one end to the other. Along the way there are passages, some open and some blocked off with rubble. There is rubble everywhere at this one too. It looks like random bombs exploded throughout and no one has touched the area yet. There are also a few incredibly tall trees in the front of the temple, one of which is boarded up for safety. This temple however is more like the ones I saw in the Small Circle- the stones are larger.
By 2:30pm I had been touring around for 4 hours and I was done. Haeng wanted to take me to see more but I was exhausted. Same same but different. We stopped at the Khmer Rouge Memorial on the way back. The memorial was nothing special- the real one is in Phnom Phem which I’ll see in a few days. But at the entrance I saw an infant with hydrocephalus. It was scariest and saddest thing I’ve ever seen. I then got dropped off half a mile from home and walked my way back. Haeng was offended I wouldn’t let him take me home but what can you do.
The one time I should not have been cheap was taking the bus to Phnom Phen. I took the local bus for $7 instead of the mini-van for $10. The bus was 9 hours instead of 7, and it was definitely local. I was the only tourist. Half the people were wearing face masks, there were babies crying, and and the whole bus was just plain old. However, it was nicer than the local Thai buses. The seats were soft and there was air-conditioning. It was a little too cold for me but with all the locals and kids around I figured it couldn’t hurt with the germs.
It started off okay but within an hour went drastically down hill. The smell was horrific; it reminded me of my first China Eastern flight to Shanghai. Dried fish snacks loomed. Then the babies starting crying and pooping their pants, and I think the old guy behind me peed himself. A woman came and sat next to me even though there were plenty of other free seats. She crossed her legs up with her bare foot touching my leg. I also forgot to factor that the local bus would be built for Asians, so even with my seat and butt back my legs still didn’t fit (with the guys chair in front of me back.) I literally couldn’t move. My legs were spread with a chair in between with a foot keeping me pushed towards the wall. And to top it off they were all randomly talking on their cell phones screaming into the receiver. The one highlight was playing peek-a-boo with the cutest girl sitting in front of me.