Saturday, 7 November 2015

My Tuk Tuk Journey Part 2: Siem Reap

By the time I got home from the killing fields it was well into the evening. I ate my last dinner in the Cambodian capital and collected my luggage from the hostel. The next part of my journey would take me to Siem Reap, what I’d call the archaeological capital of the country.

Before leaving for Cambodia I had booked an 8 hour night bus, so as to lose the least amount of time humanly possible travelling. After all I needed to save the few days I had left to indulge my inner geek and obsess about all the ruins.

Now for anyone who has never taken the nightbus in Cambodia it is not a particularly pleasant experience. The traffic is only mildly better at night, so your first hour is spend trying to drown out the honking and screeching of tires. The bus is set up with reclining bunk beds so technically you can sleep, but I am quite tall and the bus company takes no responsibility for your personal affects so I ended up with a bag of your valuables taking up most of my foot room, so not much sleep for me.

I guess I have had worse bus experiences, there was one trip where I decided to take a megabus from London to St Andrews in Scotland which was far more painful. It also drove through the night but there were no reclining seats, or really anything made for sleeping on. Plus it was completely full and we were quite late so we ended up sitting by the toilet so that kept us up most of the night.

On the other hand I have also had some really lovely bus journeys. The bus connection between Eastern Europe and Turkey for example is quite nice, they serve you snacks and tea and it is very clean and comfortable. Then again maybe I just got lucky in the company I picked and the other busses are terrible, who knows.

So after about 3 hours of sleep I arrived in Siem Reap at about 6 in the morning. I immediately walked out to my hotel, the sister establishment of Velkommen in Phnom Penh, got shown my room, a smaller dorm then my previous one with only 6 beds instead of 16 and I fell asleep for another two hours.

At 8:30 am my pre-booked tuk tuk driver was set to pick me up from the hotel and start my tour of the temples. Slightly groggy, but enthused, I grabbed a few granola bars, packed a camera and set out to see the sites.

Now travelling around the temples solo is not a cheap endeavour. It is not particularly expensive, but it is definitely something you are meant to do with others to split the cost. I was aware of this so I booked a tuk tuk on the cheaper end of the scale. While my partner was not too keen on this, he wanted me to book with the company he and his friends had travelled with, I did not see the need to book an air-conditioned jeep with a guaranteed fluent English speaking tour guide who would accompany you to every temple. Of course I knew he was just looking out for my safety but at double to triple the cost it just didn’t seem worth it.

It is a good thing I didn’t listen to my partner because my tuk tuk driver was incredible. I honestly don’t think my experience would have been even half as lovely with any other guide. His English was completely fine, he was patient and flexible. While he couldn’t enter any of the sites with me, he gave me a guide book to take along and gave a short history for every temple. As I narrate my experiences at Siem Reap you will find out just how amazing he was.

Originally I had planned for two days of temples and one day of visiting floating villages and the mangroves on the lake by boat. After a long session trowelling the internet for reviews just before leaving, I discovered the area I was set to visit on the lake was more of a painful tourist attraction than anything else. I had canoed past floating villages when I lived in Singapore, and that had been an extremely positive experience, I didn’t really want to tarnish it with a memory of being exploited to sit in a dingy and be ferried between shops where I was forced to buy random things I did not need for fear of not being brought back to shore.

Anyway I told my tuk tuk driver this on day one and he was nice enough to completely change my schedule, more temples and time in town with a short drive by the lake to see everything from afar. Sounded good to me.

My first visit of the trip was of course to Angkor Wat, the most visited tourist destination in all of Cambodia. Now while being a much beloved attraction what many tourists don’t realise before their entry into the temple complex is that it is still an active religious site. The statues of Buddha intermixed among carvings of the Hindi pantheon still receive daily offerings and rituals of worship are conducted by monks all year round. Like many traditional churches and mosques this means that there is a strict dress code at the site. People are expected to cover legs and arms. While they are moderately lenient, allowing a scarf to cover the shoulders on hot days, they will bar your entry if they see you are completely flaunting their dress code. If you happen to forget your temple-appropriate garb there are dozens of merchants selling scarves, flowing skirts, shirts and harem style pants that you can buy. Just remember the closer to the temple complex you get the more expensive everything becomes so better to buy stuff at the market the day before. This also applies to things like drinks and snacks.

It may surprise you to note that I spent less time at Angkor Watt then some of the smaller sites. While this may not be reflected in my photo album (I took ridiculous amounts of photos of the bass reliefs), I found Angkor Watt a bit too crowded and stuffy. Don’t get me wrong it was incredible, an amazing feat of architecture with beautifully carved decoration, but I just wanted a break from all the tour groups. My guide was a bit surprised that I came out of the complex after only 2-3 hours as you can easily get lost there for an entire morning. However, he told me we would be returning to catch the sunrise before I left so I could spend a bit more time in the temple then.

As we got away from Angkor Wat the crowds began to thin and I was able to enjoy my visit much more. I know, hypocritical, a tourist complaining about other tourists, but I can’t help how I feel.

It was fascinating to note the different colours, materials, layouts and decorative styles of each temple. I was able to connect these to wider historical trends as my guide gave a short explanation for each one, its builder, religious affiliation, time period and often a myth related to the site. armed with his teaching and his guide book I was able to better appreciate each temple and its role within the region’s development.

From an archaeological point of view it was also interesting to note the level of preservation of the different temples. While temples like Angkor Watt or the Bayan were fully restored including the installation of mobility ramps and ticket stalls a number of temples had merely been cleared for tourist access, with trees growing into the structures and tumble from ruined buildings littering the site. One such complex was that of Ta Prohm, actually used as a filming set in Lara Croft. Even more critical were sites like Kbal Spean, still half submerged in water or Beng Melea, that had been completely abandoned to the elements. Here the best thing to do was ask a worker to give a short tour. Most of the maintenance men and women were willing to help a tourist out and help them navigate the rubble. Their English may not be perfect but they can get the point across and they know the ruins better than anyone. I really discourage anyone from attempting to walk around in the complex on their own. The chances of tripping and falling off a roof onto a pile of rocks is very real. If money is an issue, like me you can ask a local worker on site rather than a guide to show you around and you can pretty much pay them however much you have on you. Just please be fair, they did just help you avoid a serious concussion.

While food around the temples is more pricey than in town it is still very reasonable in comparison to cities in Europe or America. Most restaurants do a simple rice and meat dish that is quite cheap. If you are strapped for cash (a poor student or backpacker) you can always ask your driver to bring you somewhere that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. If he is nice, like mine, he’ll make sure you can get a good meal for a good price.

For an afternoon pick me up try buying some palm sugar sweets. I found that I got quite tired of all the walking and climbing in the afternoons, especially since I decided to do a short intense trip rather than giving myself a week or two to really relax and see the sites at a reasonable pace. The palm sugar candies are cylindrical in shape, and often packed in palm leaves. Have one in the afternoon and the sugar rush should last you an hour or two. Just don’t get them wet, in fact make sure you don’t have any unpacked food in your room, I made that mistake and there are these evil little red ants that crawl into everything and then come out and bite you when you least expect it.

Anyway, for people whose travel plans permit it, I really recommend watching the sun rise over Angkor Watt. It is absolutely beautiful, seriously, I couldn’t get a proper photo of it because my camera was horrible but I am sure if you have one of those fancy professional-looking ones or just a really good smartphone, you can find a setting where the colours come out.

I actually encountered a slight hiccup the morning of the sunrise. I had plugged in my phone, which was nearly out of battery, with my alarm set and went to bed early the night before. However, my roommates were inconsiderate jerks (seriously one girl took 30 minutes blowdrying her hair at like midnight every day I was there while I was trying to sleep) and one of them unplugged my phone immediately as I fell asleep since they wanted to charge their phone and computer at the same time and we only had one plug each. Needless to say my phone ran out of battery, my alarm did not go off and the hotel manager had to come wake me up as my tuk tuk driver had been waiting for me for half an hour. Quite angry and utterly embarrassed I threw on clothes, grabbed my bag and ran out of the room. The worst part was my tuk tuk driver had been nice enough to buy me a pho boy for breakfast because it was so early. He kept apologising that it had gotten cold and I felt even more horrible. It was delicious by the way, gotta try the local sandwiches. I managed to get to Angkor Watt just in time to see the sun rise and I met two Singaporean girls about my age so we could all take photos of one another.

But Siem Reap is not just known for its great Khmer temples, it also has a lively town, and this is where I spent most evenings. The town was a ways away from my hostel which was located closer to the tourist attractions like Angkor Watt and the Khmer museum. By the way, for those wondering, the museum is nice, but nothing in comparison to the rest of the trip, so if you are short on time I would skip it. Plus there is a national museum in Phnom Penh which covers a larger range of Cambodia’s history. My tuk tuk driver again proved himself to be a lovely person and was nice enough to drive me there in the afternoons even though it was not part of the set itinerary. He would drop me off before his Chinese class, which he was taking in order to be a better guide.

The town has a number of more modern temples which are fun to check out, but the main attractions are the markets. You can buy everything from fresh fruit to silk scarves to Angkor Watt snowglobes. The strong tourist presence means many Cambodians working in the market can speak French or English which means you can haggle.

For those who would prefer to spend some time off their feet there are dozens of fish tanks where you sit on the edge and put your feet in while fish “massage your feet”. Often this only costs a couple of dollars for half an hour and it includes a canned soft drink. More extensive spa type packages can be found as well for anything from facial masks to manicures to full body massages. Just remember to respect those working there, the staff is made up of many young Cambodian women who have to suffer obnoxious male foreigners who treat them like unregistered prostitutes rather than trained masseuses. I actually had to go up to one man attempting to force an unwilling masseuse back to his hotel and tell him to back off or I’d call the police. He said I didn’t understand and this is just what girls in Cambodia were supposed to do. I subsequently told him that he was a disgusting human being and pointed him out to the nearest police officer. I doubt he got much more than a telling off, but maybe he’ll think twice before disrespecting a woman in that way again.

The gourmands among you will be happy to know that the Siem Reap markets are full of street vendors selling delectable local foods (and yes mango milkshakes). There are also a number of outdoor hawker style areas and some very reasonable sit in restaurants. For a bit of a splash (on your last evening for example when your frugality has paid off and you still have enough dollars for a fancier meal) find a restaurant where they do music and dance performances, especially apsara, considered typical to Cambodia. The temple bar and restaurant has shows every night and they have an extensive cocktail menu for those who would prefer a drink with their dancing.

I actually took a fantastic Cambodian cooking class while in Siem Reap at the Paper Tiger, beyond the pleasure of learning a new dish, the course also took you to a local food market where you learned about the different ingredients that went into your dishes. I made green mango salad and amok. While I think that the cooking ended up being as much my doing as the chef assigned to help us, the food came out amazing and I ate with a great sense of achievement. We even got a fancy certificate at the end.

Finally my trip was at an end. The same evening I was to cook my first Cambodian meal was also my last. I had booked a night bus back to Phnom Penh where my flight would depart around noon the next day. I would have probably missed my bus and my flight had it not been for my amazing tuk tuk driver who yet again saved the day and found out that the bus arrival station was different was where the bus departed. After another uncomfortable bus journey and a few hours drinking juice and uploading photos at my previous hostel (they even let me use one of their showers while I was no longer staying there). It was time to take one final tuk tuk through the crazy streets of Phnom Penh.