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Cambodia Day 1: Siem Reap

CAMBODIA | Monday, 12 February 2007 | Views [1108]

We met at the airport at 4 a.m. all bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived. All of us felt like we looked like shit, so no photos were taken. Changi Airport is very quiet and mostly empty at 4 a.m; I didn't expect that. Most shops were closed.

The flight was on time but -- none of the passengers were allowed to use the toilets for the duration of the flight! Something to do with a water problem? So I landed in Siem Reap busting for a pee.

We touched down at 7 a.m. Cambodia time. The morning air was cold. Ours seemed to be the only flight coming into the airport at the time. There also seemed to be only one belt for incoming luggage. Immigration was very slow. It took us one hour to get out of the airport! But the airport was still much nicer than Don Muang.

We peed and got outside. Our driver from the guesthouse was waiting to pick us up. He had been waiting for us for 2 hours!

The drive to the guesthouse reminded me a lot of Langkawi. However there were much nicer buildings here. A lot of nice hotels. Architecture is generally one of Cambodia's strong points -- ancient, colonial or contemporary, they have good-looking buildings. We got to the guesthouse and checked in. While lying prone on our beds, Uma and I proceeded to tease Farah about things I'm sure she'd prefer I didn't mention. Then we washed up, met the boys and went downstairs to have breakfast at the guesthouse restaurant. Breakfast was pretty expensive. Everything was in US dollars, so we weren't as rich as we thought we would be!

After breakfast we got the same driver, Chad, to take us to see the floating village of Kompong Chnang. We'd decided to save the Angkor temples for Day 2. During the ride we discussed what to do after the floating village, but there wasn't much of a conclusion.

Chad took us to a harbour of sorts, where we got on a boat and took a one-hour cruise on the lake. We peered into a lot of houses, several schools, a couple of churches, even a pig farm, all on the lake.

At one point I turned around and asked Farah, "Isn't this the Tonlé Sap?" She said, "No, this is the Tonlé Saab or something like that."

Clearly, none of us had done much research before the trip because of course, that WAS the Tonlé Sap. Or Saab. It's the same thing.

This was the first ever trip I'd taken where I was sort of in charge, planning the itinerary and accommodation and everything. I hadn't bought myself a travel guide and only relied on the Internet, and at the time I wasn't savvy enough to even know which sites to visit.

Through my (lousy) online research, I'd come to the (wrong) conclusion that to visit the Tonlé Sap/Saab, we'd have to go to Battambang. I didn't realise at all that Siem Reap was the easier and much more common base from which to visit the lake and yes, the floating village on it!


In the middle of the floating village, our boat stopped us at a tourist trap, which was a shop and restaurant on a big double-decker boat. (It was kind of too small to be called a ship.) The top floor of the boat offered us a nice view of the village, as well as of the boats (and basins) of kids crowding the shop-boat touting goods to the tourists.

Lianyi and I bought a small painting from the shop-boat for US$5. Later in Phnom Penh, we would realise that we had been ripped off.

After the boat-shop we took our boat back to the harbour and got back on our van.  We rode off, still not knowing what to do next. Chad had said earlier that he could try to get us into a mountain temple, but then now he was saying we couldn't do that without an Angkor ticket. Chad had also earlier suggested going to the flooded forest, but then when we brought up that suggestion again now, he pointed out that to do that, we would have to go back to the floating village and get back on the boat. If we wanted to go now we would have to pay for a boat again, and then another US$25 to go into the flooded forest.

We all felt kind of annoyed at the miscommunication, but had to move on, so we ended up at the Landmine Museum.

It was an open air museum, basically just an open space with a couple of tents showing posters, videos, articles and stories about landmines and landmine victims. There were animals walking all over the place, mostly dogs but also one huge pig. There were houses in the museum compound and all around it, so there were lots of people, some of them landmine victims.

And there were thousands of landmines all over the place -- hanging on the trees, laid out on the ground, being used as paperweights for the flyers. They were all supposed to be very safe but I didn't dare touch any of them.

As if the environment wasn't already depressing enough, I came across a dying kitten. It was skinny as hell and meowing non-stop. Well not so much mewoing as squeaking. I had no food to give it and the shop across the museum didn't sell anything a kitten could eat. I petted it a bit and it immediately became attached to me. It crawled onto my leg and sat there.

Then this Cambodian girl about 4 years old came, took the kitten, flipped it backwards and threw it on the ground. I screamed. I thought, "Ok that's it. No more Third World travelling -- it's way too depressing."

I took the kitten to a bench, where it snuggled up against my leg. I sat there feeling sad and helpless. Then Lianyi said, "Dying cats are supposed to be very affectionate." I cried.

I walked away from the kitten when my friends looked for me. I stood around waiting for them to finish buying landmine t-shirts. When I looked over at the bench I saw a landmine victim, a guy without a leg, in his 20s probably, petting the kitten. That made me feel a bit better. Then I stood around waiting some more and a souvenir-seller came up to me and tried to make conversation in very bad English.

Finally we got back on the van, all the while being mobbed by kids trying to sell us crappy souvenirs. We gave them two bottles of water instead, and they kept asking for more. Even when you shut the door of your vehicle they stand outside and shout at you. It's just terribly depressing.

The mix of emotions is almost overwhelming. These kids look so pitiful. You want to help, but as a tourist, there's not much you can do except give food or money, and even when you give, they never seem to be satisfied. They're always asking for more. And then you get annoyed that they're hounding you endlessly. And then you feel guilty that you're annoyed.

We went back to our guesthouse and ventured outside on foot to look for lunch. Being the pathetic travellers that we were, we ventured about ten footsteps, into a thoroughly disgusting, unhygienic Chinese restaurant. Needless to say, the girls were utterly horrified while the boys were excited about what food would appear before us.

There was used tissue paper all over the cement floor of the restaurant, and I do mean ALL OVER. There were dogs running around everywhere. The tables and menus were greasy. The guy who came to take our order had a lit cigarette in his mouth. Lianyi had a fun time laughing at our distress and betting that the food would be delicious.

The food tasted ok actually, but soaked in oil. Not that we were expecting anything else -- the menu said that all the dishes were cooked in "oyster oil". Not oyster sauce, mind you. Oyster oil. And that's what we got. Oodles of it.

We then took the van and made our way to Angkor Wat to catch the sunset. Thanks to my lack of research before the trip, I was completely unprepared for the first sight of Angkor Wat. This was a blessing. When it first came into view, it was breathtaking. Really majestic. Too bad about the hordes of tourists.

We walked around the temple and waited for sunset. It was too late for us to climb to the top of the temple and the keepers were already closing off the stairs, but we watched and laughed at other tourists making their trembling way down the steep steps of the Angkor.

After we'd had our fill of tourists, we went back to the guesthouse, washed up and went out again for dinner. Dinner was at Bar Street, the Holland Village of Siem Reap. There were a lot of really cool, chic restaurants there.  After walking  around what seemed like  hours, we finally settled on a restaurant called Le Tigre de Papier and had Khmer food. It was ok, nothing exceptional. Not that Khmer food is unimpressive -- we would have much better later on in the trip.

After dinner we moved on to Blue Pumpkin, a café that was recommended by Lonely Planet. It turned out to be the best part of the day, because we are all fucking First World bourgeosie brats.

First, the second floor of Blue Pumpkin was made up of bean bags and tables and fans. There was nobody there so we conquered the entire area. Then we were served iced water and mint-scented wet towels!!! Everyone made orgasm noises while using the towels to wipe our faces, necks and arms. For the rest of the trip, we kept talking about these mint-scented wet towels.

Then we ordered dessert and drinks. I had a wonderful sundae made of mango and chocolate ice cream with mint-flavoured honey and mango slices. Lianyi had this delicious milkshake made of coconut and berries. Soo Hian had a bottle of Angkor beer. Uma and Farah, in a flash of genius, both ordered the same drink: the Morning Glory Fizz. It tasted like Chinese herbs plus donkey sweat. They then spent the rest of the evening trying to force others to finish their disgusting drinks for them. Eventually they gave up and ordered a caramel-chocolate ice cream-kahlua sundae to share.

And then we went back to our guesthouse to sleep, promising to meet the next morning at 4.30 a.m. - yes, 4.30 a.m. - to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Tags: cambodia, siem reap

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