"Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself." - Charlie Chaplin

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Nut & Itchy in Siem Reap

Day 1

We arrived on a hot and dusty day (gawd, 44' degrees!), and hopped onto a tuk-tuk for a bumpy ride to the hotel. The wind blew off my favourite floppy hat, the one I always take travelling with me. Crap! I had to go look for a new one.

Masked crusaders - best protection against the sun and dust.

After checking in and the usual boring bits of semi-unpacking, we walked to the Old Market next to Bar Street a few minutes away, to see what we could find.

The market was claustrophobic like most, but lacked the charm of Balinese markets (like in Ubud), the life of Thai markets (like Chatuchak in Bangkok) or the character of Vietnamese markets (like Ben Tanh in Ho Chi Minh). It could be that Siem Reap's a small provincial town.

There were the weirdest things at the market. Freshly decapitated pig heads and food stuff to put off even the most resilient of Fear Factor candidates. They made Vietnamese duck foetus eggs look like Belgian chocolates.

Speaking of food, there's no distinct 'flavour' with Khmer cuisine (at least, not the ones we tried anyway). Like Thai is distinctively Thai. Or Vietnamese is distinctively Vietnamese. Our Khmer lunch at the hotel restaurant was uninspiring. Their 'national dish', called Amok, looked and tasted no different from our Malaysian Otak-otak (spicy fish custard). Only a slightly soupy version.

Our first Khmer meal.

But this afternoon we found a little bakery/cafe place called the Blue Pumpkin (it's quite ang-moh, and you'd easily forget you're in Cambodia while you're here). It had the most amazing ice cream flavours. I chose Ginger Nougatine (really spicy, and lovely with black sesame bits), Banana Galangal (nice combination of flavours), and Madras Mango. LY had a Jungle Jewel of Coconut and Mango ice cream.

For dinner, we had our second Khmer meal.
It was really yummy (but still, without a distinct character - yes, I can hear D calling me a food snob, hehe). Amok Chicken, Curry Pork and Lab Salad (not the dog... it's all veges and fresh herbs, I loved this!). And we washed it down with, what else, Angkor beer.

When in Angkor, drink Angkor beer.

We were starving I suppose, after climbing up a VERY steep hill to Phnom Bakheng for a sunset over a lake. It was really pretty up there! But what a workout!

Monk contemplating the universe, or wishing we'd pipe down.

Noisy tourists waiting for sunset.

Star Trek Enterprise!

Day 2

We woke up at an ungodly hour in the morning.
I was at the sink brushing my teeth, still swimming in sleep, when LY sheepishly announced she set her alarm for 4am MALAYSIAN time... meaning we were up an hour too early. After a few grunts I tumbled back into bed, only to be up again an hour later. But it was worth it.

Angkor Wat

We arrived in front of Angkor Wat in darkness, with a hint of sunlight glowing far in the horizon. As we stood at the entrance to the walkway into Angkor Wat, we were in awe. The amazing structure, silhouetted against the growing morning light, was a sight to behold. And to think this architectural wonder was created in 1133AD, in a city of millions when London had only a population of 40,000. To think every piece of sandstone was individually cut and carved by hand. Every wall, pillar, roof, railing and arch was a work of art, depicting scenes from the Mahabhrata and Ramayana. Surrounding the complex was a moat, 7 feet deep, also dug by hand.

In front of the temple were two ponds. One of which was the pond in popular postcard pictures of Angkor Wat, reflection and all. It was a beautiful sunrise. Marred only by the circus of tourists like LY and myself, jostling for the best photo-taking spots. With a subject as beautiful as this, everyone becomes a National Geographic photographer-wannabe.

Angkor Wat's reflection on the pond (photo displayed upside down).

Inside the temple, the shrines literally humble you. The steps up were so steep and high, we were practically on all fours, panting to the top and guzzling water when we got there. The extremely hot sun (even early in the morning) did not help at all. But being up there was quite an experience. It blew my mind how people almost a millenium ago could build something like this. Without tractors or machines, but with sheer will and the strength of men.

Angkor Wat's main tower, over 40 meters up.


After a cut-throat breakfast at a humble looking restaurant in front of Angkor Wat, we moved on to Bayon. It's the famous temple with many smiling Buddha-like faces. This place was magic.

It wasn't as big or as impressive as Angkor Wat, but there was something about the smiling faces at every turn, the broken pillars and archways and the carvings depicting ancient Khmer daily life (people cooking, eating, picking lice from each other's heads).

There were also carvings about war between the Khmers and the Chams (people from what we now know as Vietnam), and about their allies, the Siamese and Chinese. I was hardly surprised when the guide explained a carving describing the Chinese - "they enjoy drinking and gambling in between battles". Hahaha. How true it is, even today.

Another strange thing - all the temples had a special place of worship for the 'linga', or phallic symbol (where god's essence flowed from, apparently). It's usually placed on, er, in, a 'yoni', shaped like the female organ. I kid you not! If you get close enough you'll see how it's carved to resemble private parts.

Ta Phrom and other temples in Angkor Thom

Ta Phrom was where Tomb Raider was filmed. The one where temple ruins were swallowed by the forest, with trees growing on and over the temple buildings. It's a typical case of man conquering nature, and then nature returns the favour.

Angelina Jolie was here!

Nice butt and legs.

There were a few other spots within the Angkor Thom area, some of which were under restoration or reconstruction, sponsored by countries like Japan, France, India, China and Switzerland. The whole Angkor region needs all the help it can get. Decades of civil war had wiped out restoration records. It'd be a long time before many temples would be brought back to their former glory.

We did ALOT of walking for a good 7 hours. By the time we stopped for lunch, LY and I were dead exhausted and parched from the heat. Today we managed to cover most of the 'big circuit' (the red one in the map you can get from all hotels) and the main temples. We decided to call it a day and headed back to the Blue Pumpkin for lunch. Air conditioning never felt so good.

We went back for some rest and it was dinner at a quaint fancy-ish place, called the FCC. The Foreign Correspondence Club was where journalists would congregrate during the civil war. It was located in a colonial style building with very nice landscaping. The food was food (albeit pricey). And the ambience, lovely. However, there wasn't any air conditioning. We didn't stay very long before LY's eczema made her itch again. So we went back to the hotel to get some much needed sleep.

Day 3

Banteay Srei and other temples

Old lady in temple; Smiling Khmer kid.

We got on our tuktuk early this morning and headed off to Banteay Srei, which was about an hour away. It was quite an interesting ride but the temple was worth the trip. Such intricate carvings. You'd be in awe if they were carved on wood. But people, these carvings were done on stone, and completed before the year 1000AD in breathtaking detail. En route, we stopped at Pre Rup, a small but peaceful temple. Then we passed a vast countryside and saw a de-mining team at work.

Demining, so poor farmers can work the land without fear of losing life or limb.

On the way back, we saw how palm sugar was made. And when we got back to the main Angkor Thom area, we went on to visit the other temples in the 'grand circuit' (the green one on the map) like Ta Som, Neap Pean and Preah Khan. By the time we finished, we covered all the must-see temples, and most of the nice-to-see ones.

Lunch was at the Angkor Cafe in front of Angkor Wat (a branch of Blue Pumpkin, it seems, yummy!). It was raining heavily at that point, so it was quite nice to sit indoors and watch the rain outside the glass window. It was quite magical to see people scurrying about for cover outside, and the Angkor Wat in front of us, standing against the elements as it had done for a thousand years.

Today was our last day in Siem Reap, so we went back to Bayon and Angkor Wat for an evening perspective. The rain moistened the sandstone and cast a different light on the temples. As the sun set, its rays reflected on the many rain puddles left in rock crevices. We left the temples for the last time with a heavy heart.

Our last dinner in Siem Reap was at the Red Piano.
It's a place where Angelina Jolie herself had been to. In fact, she created and named a drink after her movie, the Tomb Raider. I ordered that and it was lime juice, tonic and cointreau. Nice. The breezy, pleasant night was a nice change from the hot, balmy weather of the past few days, and we had a simple Khmer-style rice and dish meal, finished off with coffee. By then we made friends with the waitresses and other travellers, so we chit-chatted for quite a while before leaving the place.

We had to take a 7am river ferry to Phnom Penh the next day (check out at 6am!), so we had an early night. By some good luck, our guide in Siem Reap said he's going to be in the capital for his niece's wedding. LY and I kinda invited ourselves, much to his, and our delight.

Some random bites:

1. We saw a pig, yes, a real pink huge PIG (and it's not Snowie) riding pillion on its back on a motorbike, all four trotters in the air. The bike zoomed by us before I could get a shot with my camera, dammit! But never mind. LY caught a picture of another motorbike with a basket of piglets strapped on.

2. Prices can vary from USD 5 to USD 15 for the exact same thing. Sometimes we were good with our bargaining skills. But sometimes we let our guard down. And boy, were we HAD!

3. There were saffron-clad monks strategically placed at the most strategic times. I wonder if they were real monks, or 'props' hired by the tourism board.

4. The children touts selling postcards and other stuff were very persistent. I must have S.U.C.K.E.R tatooed on my forehead.


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6 wandered by:

Blogger Erin Hsieh said...



Keep updating us, k? :)

1:03 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Food...Food...Food..I'm starting to get pasta flowing out from my ears!

7:12 am  
Anonymous Cyn said...

Mmm.. can holiday vicariously by reading your blog, since I haven't been to Cambodia... Is the lab salad anything like the Thai Laarb with the minced meat and all?

10:29 am  
Anonymous sil said...

Nice updates!! Keep them coming! Would absolutely love to travel to Cambodia one day after reading this!

1:02 pm  
Blogger Mint Chutney said...

More more more..please.

11:00 am  
Blogger Wandernut said...

Rin: It's quite a tiring, demanding trip though. But very interesting. Climb and walk temples like gila.

Geek: In Oz how not to put on weight?

Cyn: Not sure if it's the same Lab/Laarb... no mince meat in it though.

Sil: Please do! It's a lovely place. More expensive than thailand but it's good...

Mint: More coming! More coming! With pictures soon as well!

6:16 pm  

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