We fit right in, riding a rickety old bicycle (no helmet in sight) down a bumpy dirt road, in the dark with only our LED headlamps (the only indication we were tourists), alongside a mosquito infested “river”, with motorcycles, tuk-tuks and a few cars whizzing past us. This was the beginning of the #thingsyouwouldneverdoathome list, but really we should start on the bus to Cambodia.
The bus ride from Bangkok to Siem Reap on Thursday morning (direct bus, 750 baht / $25 each) was comfortable and uneventful…Until we reached the border. There we got off of the bus, easily went through the Thai exit station, and walked across a bridge on foot into Cambodia. On the other side of the bridge, we found ourselves in Poipet – a dirty border town full of garbage, poverty, casinos and sweaty tourists fon their way across the border.
Our bus operators (driver, attendant and organizer) herded us all into a small shack where the random mess of tourists (which in Cambodia qualified as a line) inched along at a painfully slow pace. In the course of the full hour in which we stood waiting in this sweaty unventilated “line”, a British girl who was sitting behind us on the bus fainted. It was pretty scary to watch her go down. Luckily, she recovered quickly and to our dismay just continued to wait in line instead of cutting to the front to get back to the A/C on the bus, as we would have done.
Upon arrival in Siem Reap, after being dropped off on the outskirts of town, we were met by a throng of tuktuk drivers, eager to make a quick buck off of the still-naive tourists. True to our form, we remained last to be picked up and negotiated with our driver for a fair price – 100 Baht ($3.33). Tired from our 12-hour journey, we arrived at our guesthouse, and were greeted with a smile. This was by far the nicest place we have stayed at thus far, and we were so excited to have the combination of a window, floor space, surfaces, and a nice bathroom with soft towels. Oh, and a swimming pool, which we definitely made use of every day.
Ready to explore the town and in search of dinner, we took a pair of bikes (free with our room) and ventured outside. So, as we were saying before, we felt quite comfortable to do something that we wouldn’t normally do. The ride to the Old Market area was a straightforward 15 minutes, and we had already picked out a veggie restaurant in advance. We found Chamkar easily and parked our bikes around the corner. Dinner was delicious, including fresh spring rolls, mushroom tofu salad, and a pumpkin curry. Jordan ordered a soda water, as they were out of fresh coconut, and Felix enjoyed a fresh mango-pineapple-watermelon shake. A little pricy for our budget, but to be expected on the most touristy street in town, dinner was a whopping $17, paid in real greenbacks. Although Cambodia has its own currency, the Riel, US dollars are used for most transactions.
On Friday morning, true to our form, we woke up late, and went downstairs for our breakfast (also included with the room). Coffee, bread and fruit – basic, but it did the job. We set out, once again by bike, to explore the ancient temples of Angkor. Stopping at the ticket booth to purchase our 3-day passes ($40 each) and continuing on, past Angkor Wat (we decided to save the best for last), to Angkor Thom. Probably the capital of the Khmer empire in the 12-16th centuries, it is surrounded by a moat, with a very impressive bridge and gate at the entrance. Figures of ancient demons and mythical beings lining the way as we entered on our bikes. Inside the city, as we biked down a tree lined street, we saw a family of monkeys wandering about. At the center of the city lies Bayon – a temple dedicated to an ancient king, full of enigmatic faces carved into stone towers above us. As we wandered through the rooms and hallways of the temple, one of the local guides flagged us down and asked if we wanted an Eskimo kiss. Flattered, Felix immediately said yes. The guide then positioned him in such a way that through the camera lens it appeared that Felix’s nose was touching the large stone head behind him.
From there we biked a quick 5 minutes to the next site, an impressive temple called Baphuon. We climbed up the Elephant Terrace (named for the carved elephant statues at its base), and walked down a long stone bridge to the entrance. Inside the inner courtyard, we climbed up two levels almost to the top. The steps were so steep that we felt as though we were climbing a ladder. Down on the other side, built into the side of the temple wall, was a huge sleeping Buddha. We continued along the loop (“Way of visit” arrows guiding us), passed another temple and appreciated it from the outside. Then we stopped for a much needed coconut break, purchased from one of many villagers scattered throughout the park. The coconuts in Cambodia look and taste different than those in Thailand. They are larger, tangier, and not as sweet. Jordan was a little disappointed, but realized that she will have another Thai coconut soon enough.
At around 3:30pm, we hopped back on our bikes and headed into town (a 45 minute ride) to buy provisions for Shabbat. We stopped to buy some fruit along the side of the road – longan, rambutan, and langsat (it took us a combined hour to figure out what this fruit was, even though we had some in our bag). In the center of town, we found a western-style large supermarket, but before going in opted to explore a little in search of a snack – and it’s a good thing we did! Only a few steps away, we caught a Hebrew word out of the corner of our eye: Falafel! We excitedly walked inside and were greeted by a friendly Khmer woman, Sou-Kay who immediate invited us to Shabbat dinner. Caught a little off guard, we asked about the owner who we were told would be back shortly. We decided to go to the supermarket to get the food we would need for Shabbat after feeling assured that Shabbat dinner would be taken care of. We returned to Mother Earth Falafel to meet Kobi, the owner – an Israeli guy who moved to Cambodia 7 years ago. He was friendly and happy to have us join his weekly Shabbat dinner. Relieved and excited, we went back to our guest house to take a quick dip in the pool and change our clothes before heading back to a lovely Shabbat dinner.
Shabbat dinner at Kobi’s was delicious and interesting. Kobi leads a very traditional meal and Felix was honored when he asked him to say kiddush. The first course was a variety of Israeli salads and fish followed by the main course of chicken, rice, potatoes and grilled tomatoes. Everything was incredible fresh and delicious. Cold watermelon was a refreshing dessert. The other guests were two Anglo/Israeli pilots, a local agricultural engineer and his wife, and Justin – an American from Kentucky dressed in a white turban and robes with a long red beard tucked into a ponytail holder (a self identified Rastafarian). Kobi’s story was fascinating, but way too long for this blog post.
On Shabbat morning, we awoke at 5am and biked to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. Once again biking in the dark, this time without our headlamps, we thought #thingsyouwouldneverdoathome! With motorcycles, tuktuks and cars whizzing by us, we were not alone. Sitting in front of the moat, the sunrise over the Wat was exceptional. Once the red sun was blazing in the sky, we biked back to our guesthouse for a relaxing breakfast (Felix loves his mango-banana sandwiches), and went back to sleep. Around 2:30pm we headed back to the park to explore two more temples – Bantei Srei and Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame). It was so cool to see how the massive trees had grown into and become part of the ancient temple. The Indian conservation team working at the site now needed to preserve the trees in order to preserve the rest of the temple.
On Sunday morning after breakfast, we took a tuktuk (our butts were a little sore from biking) to see Angkor Wat. Having saved the best for last, we were not disappointed. They say its magnificence rivals that of Herod’s temple, and having been to the Old City in Jerusalem, it was easy to see the comparison except that this place has remained nearly intact since the 12th century. We climbed up level by level, through carved hallways and ornate doorways, adorned with flowers, war scenes, mythical beings, dancers and Buddhas. From the third level, you could look out on the surrounding jungle and imagine the grandeur of arriving here thousands of years ago, a giant masterpiece rising between the trees.
Ready for a break, our tuktuk took us to West Baray, once a reservoir for Angkor, and today a lake, where locals go to swim, boat and fish. We rented a spot on the beach (two hammocks and a mat under a shade tarp, clustered side by side on the beach) for $2. We spent the afternoon relaxing, swimming, and getting laughed at by locals (mostly Felix) for our very white bodies and use of sunscreen. It was a nice change of pace to be surrounded by locals and get a better sense of real Khmer life. Arriving back at the guesthouse in our bathing suits, the obvious next step was to go to the pool, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
On a tip from Justin (redhead Rastafarian from Kentucky who we met Friday night), a vegan, we headed to a local Khmer vegetarian restaurant, called Vitking House. Located outside the tourist area, we biked over (took us a few wrong turns until we found it) and sat down on cushions at a low table. We ordered fried straw mushrooms (tasted just like shwarma meat), dumplings with soy meat, and Chinese noodle hot plate with egg and soy ham. Everything was better than delicious, and we wished we had discovered it sooner. After dinner we went back to Old Market / Pub Street (the tourist area) for some yummy ice cream and to pick up a bag of mixed taro/yam/banana chips (that Jordan had been eyeing since Thursday).
So far, Cambodia has been rewarding – the people are incredibly friendly, the sights have been interesting, and the food is delicious (and not too spicy, so Felix is happy). Having debated where to go next for the last two days, we finally (at 10:30pm), with the help of Don, our friendly guesthouse manager, booked a 12:30pm bus to Phnom Penh, where we will have an overnight layover before our next destination. You’ll have to read the next post to find out where we go next. Ah Khun (Thank You)!