Cambodia has been the biggest surprise of the trip so far! Siem Reap, which I had pretty low expectations for, is fantastic! The city itself is pretty modern, with lots of parks and open space, including nice greenway-style landscapes all along the rivers. Prices are reasonable, US Dollars are the preferred currency, people are very friendly, and the pace of life is generally just slower than in Thailand. What surprised me most, though, was the very large and vibrant tourist area of town.
Around the area called “Pub Street” it’s like a mashup of Bangkok, Cancun, and Paris, if that makes any sense. It’s got tight, narrow streets and alleyways lined with great restaurants and bars from around the world (local Khmer places, Irish pubs, Mexican restaurants, etc). The area also a ton of massage places and cooking schools. With every place having sidewalk and/or balcony seating, it’s a perfect spot to sit, enjoy the beautiful weather, and have a drink.
When we arrived, Kim and I wandered around a bit, reserved a cooking class for tomorrow, had a snack, then went and got massages.
The massages were not your typical American style massage. Instead of using oil and rubbing/kneading the muscles, it was a combination of stretches and pressures that wound up feeling great. After an hour of that ($6 per person), Kim and I were feeling the best we had so far!
We topped the night off with a meal of Khmer curry and soup at the Kmher House restaurant. The food was delicious – flavorful, sweet, lots of fresh veggies, and just the right amount of spice. Funny moment, though, when Kim learned to beware of carrots! Sh e ate what she thought was a mini carrot out of the soup. Turns out it was an extremely hot pepper. I discovered this as I watched her face turn bright red, start sweating. and her eyes start watering like crazy. Turns out that little “carrot” was in there to add some flavor and spice to the soup, not to actually be eaten.
On a last Pub Street note, “Fish Foot Massage” is everywhere. Every block has a big tank with a padded bench around it. The idea is that the fish come and eat the dead skin off your feet, and that it’s supposed to feel good. To me, it felt a combination of severely ticklish and just plain weird. I was squirming around like a little kid through most of it. Kim had no such problems, however, and appeared to enjoy both the “massage” and my anguish thoroughly.
The ruins at Angkor Wat are a world heritage site and were what drew us to the area in the first place. Though there is the Angkor Wat temple itself, there’s also a larger set of other temples scattered throughout the area.
We mistakenly (in hindsight) visited Angkor Wat and only Angkor Wat. I say mistakenly because it was expensive ($20/day plus a supersized tuk-tuk fee), not that much more impressive than the surrounding ruins, and can be seen from the road without paying for entry. The surrounding sites are free and offer a similar experience.
As for Angkor Wat itself, the ruins were built in the 11th and 12th century out of sandstone. The upside to the soft rock is that it allowed for the absolutely beautiful relief carvings covering almost every inch of everything. The downside is that the soft rock doesn’t hold up well over time, so the ruins are in somewhat rough shape. There are numerous UNESCO restoration projects on various parts of the site to help bring it back to its former glory.
Because of the high admission price, it seems they have a problem with people selling second-hand tickets, so now they put your photo right on the ticket. If you’re caught at the ruins without a ticket, it’s a $100 fine.
The day was made more expensive courtesy of my inability to do simple math. As we were walking into the Wat, we were swarmed by the usual peddlers selling everything from water to cowboy hats. One kid, however, was selling guide books. There were no guides around, and not much for information posted around the site, so this didn’t seem like a bad idea. The price of the book that was printed by the UPC was $27.98. I managed to talk the kid down to $4, which had me thinking pretty highly of myself. After he agreed to the price, he asked if I could pay in Thai Baht, rather than dollars. This was fine, as I still had a bunch of it. The problem was that I confused the conversion rate of Baht and handed him a 1,000 baht ($32) note, thinking I was giving him $3.20 and started walking away. I have a feeling this happens to lots of people and was why the kid asked for Baht. About ten steps later I realized my mistake, but the kid had wisely vanished. So, I now have a very expensive guide book if anyone wants to borrow it.
The next day, Kim and I rented bikes and went back to town to explore more. We checked out the markets and more around pub street before the beginning of our lesson in local Khmer cooking. The class was a ton of fun spread out over about 4 hours. We started by choosing the dishes we wanted to make, then headed over to the local market, where we got a good explanation of what all of the ingredients we would use are and how to pick them out. After that, we headed back to the restaurant, whose open-air top floor is setup as a mini cooking school.
The class consisted of an instructor, Kim and I, and a very friendly couple from the Baltic region. I made chicken Amok (traditional Khmer dish) with a mango salad and Kim made spring rolls and green curry. We also made sweet sticky rice with Mangos for dessert. As a garnish, we leaned how to make roses out of tomato peelings!
The class went great and we wound up with more food than 10 people could eat. It was all delicious, but we wound up giving a bunch of it to the other couple in our group who had a fridge and microwave.
I got to drive a Tuk-Tuk!
After cooking, we found Mr. Happy. Nope, not kidding. He’s a tuk-tuk driver that speaks excellent English and has a demeanor to match his name. He’ll take you pretty much anywhere you want to go from countryside tours and temples to shooting ranges, all with a big grin and plenty of shenanigans along the way. If you’re in Siem Reap, definitely recommend him!
We decided to take a countryside tour to see some other wats and check out what the area looked like outside of the city. It was a great ride and that was how we came to realize that we’d have been better off just exploring other ruins and skipping Angkor Wat itself.
Along the way, two interesting things happened. First, we decided to check out the shooting range. This was definitely a unique adventure, where you get to shoot your choice of military weaponry in a cinderblock tunnel. We figured that we’d never get a chance to try something like this again, so why not? The guns are all old (Vietnam or Khmer Rouge leftovers) and in less-than perfect condition, but it was pretty cool anyway. We got to try shooting a 7.62mm K-50 automatic rifle, which is amazing in that it has absolutely no recoil. Kim and I went through 30 rounds shooting at some old tires in a brick enclosed area and decided that was good enough.
So, back to the tuk-tuk. We got about 1/3 of the way back to town, chattering with Mr. Happy all the way, when he looked over his shoulder and said “You want to drive?” I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Sooooo, up to the front I went. In Cambodia, the tuk-tuks are different from Thailand. They are basically a normal motor scooter that tows a carriage instead of the one-piece Thai machines. I was a bit wobbly for the first hundred feet or so, but then got the hang of it and was soon happily zipping along at about 30mph. All of the locals we passed would instantly crack asmile when they saw me driving with Mr. Happy and Kim riding along in the back.
Along the way we learned that Mr. Happy has a very interesting back story. In the mornings he works as an English teacher in a Siem Reap orphanage. He was an orphan himself when he was young and volunteers as a show of gratitude for those who taught him years ago. We wanted to visit the orphanage, but it was now getting pretty late. He offered to take us early in the morning, but we didn’t want to risk being late for our flight out. We wound up donating a 50kg sack of rice to the orphanage instead, which we went and bought from a local market.