Tuesday, September 5th

Siem Reap, Cambodia

The alarm went at 5:30 and we quickly made our way to the roof for breakfast by about 6 am. The choices for breakfast were basically the same as yesterday so quite disappointing. It was certainly a lot busier at breakfast today than our late breakfast yesterday. Lots more tourists there. The bus was waiting outside of the hotel at 7 am. Mel and I chose to sit at the front of the bus behind the driver today - It was nice to get a different perspective as so far we have been sitting mid way along on the left (they drive on the right side of the road here).

The (large) water container was just beside where we sitting between the driver and passenger seats so much of the day we spent filling people’s water bottles as they passed them up - The price you pay for the great view, I suppose.

Our day started with a trip to the temple made famous by Angelina Jolie in the original Tomb Raider movie - “Ta Prohm”. Here you can imagine Lara Croft climbing about on the ruins and large stones tumbling everywhere with trees with amazing roots growing out of it all. Quite magical.

The somewhat ironic signs pointing out “unsafe areas” were amusing.

Rous showed us around the ruins and, of course, some of the areas made famous by the movies where several of our group posed for pictures.

This 12th century Buddhist temple is certainly in far rougher shape than the others we have seen. It also has far less carvings but still has some massively impressive architecture. Being here early in the morning was great as there were very few other tourists about so we could really soak up the ambience.

Given a 15-20 minutes to explore on our own Mel and I visited just outside the inner walls to try to grasp the scale and structure of the place - Being in amongst it you can very easily lose this perspective. There were no others where we were and it was quite amazing.

The wide dirt trail leading out of the temple and to where the bus was waiting was lined with massive trees. You had to be careful where you stepped as you ran the risk of stumbling on any of the large roots snaking out of the ground. We followed along the edges hoping to stay out of the hot sun as much as possible.

Marilyn and I figured we would pick up a copy of a book we had seen the ever-present children selling, “Ancient Angkor” which has lots of pictures, maps and information about all of the area’s sites. Eventually we haggled the price down to a reasonable $10 (ish) each. It is quite a good book looking at it now with a lot of the detail that I certainly am not remembering as Rous gives it to us. I think it is a good tactic to be willing to walk away from a price negotiation. This one took a good 10 minutes…As we waited for the group in the bus the hawkers continued to try to sell us things through the open door…

Amusingly I noticed a mobile phone mast near to where the bus was parked disguised to look like a tree. Even here technology interrupts us.

Back on the road we returned to the Elephant Terrace but this time turned right to visit “Preah Khan Temple”. On the way into the temple we spotted a man painting on the side of the path. His work was quite good and Mel eventually bought a picture (Steph ended up running back to get a couple) - A nice black and white drawing of one of the temples.

Leading up to the entrance of the temple on the bridge across the moat were two more large carvings of nagas on either side of us.

Rous stopped to the left of the gate in the shade to give us a bit of an introduction to the temple then showed us around inside. The temple is in much better shape than Ta Prohm with most of the structures here largely intact and far more carvings. One interesting feature is the ever decreasing heights of the doorways the closer you get to the middle of the temple.

There Steph was keen to touch a phallic stone that is supposed to help women get pregnant (having just gotten married she is quite keen…). Mel gave it a try a few minute later…

There were a lot more tourists here. When Rous left us to explore on our own one of the rangers approached us and showed us some of the sights.

Of course, after he did so he expected a bit of money but sadly I did not have much to give so he disappeared, I am sure, in disgust. Many of the stones of the temple are covered with holes that I am told would have been used to hold up bronze plates that previously decorated the interiors. Heading out the north exit we sat beside the path for the rest of the group and the bus to show up.

There are quite a few persistent children selling things. Chris bought some fruit under the impression that it was an orange but found out, to his disgust that it was grapefruit but I accepted it gladly! Not too tart, quite sweet, really.

We stopped at the Bayon temple as we headed south back to Siem Reap for lunch. We stopped for a few minutes people to use the toilet but Steph and I were keen to get some good pictures of the temple, crossing the road and making sure to get the temple reflected in the calm water of the moat.

On the way back to the city Rous explained to us how our homestay tomorrow night would work. She also offered us some choices for the rest of the day including a cooking demonstration (that she would do for us tomorrow) as well as a boat trip to see the “floating village” (for $20/each) at 3pm. Of course, we all agreed to both and also to visiting a local restaurant/charity for lunch that provides training for local youth. Yeah, the restaurant was not cheap but that is not really the point and it was nice that we all agreed this would be a good thing to do to give a little back.

Marum Restaurant is located on the north side of Siem Reap and is a bit of a haven from the busy streets that surround it. They have an attached shop selling rather expensive local handicrafts that Mel and I visited after lunch but did not buy anything.

Our group was given a large table on the ground floor then menus were passed around. As we expected, the prices were not cheap. Mel and I eventually ordered “Red Tree Ants, Beef, Kaffir Lime and Chili Stir Fry” ($6.50) - Very nice though the only way you could tell there were ants is that they were in three small piles on the edge of the plate but they added very little to the taste of the dish which was light and refreshing. So, a bit gimmicky. We also ordered an okra and chicken dish that was quite tasty.

There were other more exotic dishes but we decided just the one was ok for us. I had a fresh lime juice that was…quite zingy!

After lunch we arrived back at the hotel at about 1 pm. We were told to meet in the lobby at 3 pm to head out for the boat trip so Mel and I had a bit of a snooze until 2:30. We have had several long days now.

Back in the coach we headed east out of the city. A number of ladies were selling things on the side of the road so Rous decided to give us another cultural experience. Each of the stalls was a small barbecue with small lengths of bamboo cooking above. The hollow bamboo was stuffed with sticky rice - Raw rice cooked with coconut milk. You buy a hunk of bamboo, peeling off the outside and snacking on the delicious rice inside. Yum.

Turning off of the main road we followed a small road alongside a small canal for quite some ways before pulling into a car park. This was where we were to catch our boat to “Kampong Kheang”. A small hut on the water had a number of tour boats tethered up alongside. I was, as always interested in what was in the water but there was not much to see though there were several posters of fish we MIGHT see.

The boats are all painted blue and come in various sizes. Ours comfortably seated all of us with seats that was tight for two people on either side of the aisle (Mel and I sat on opposite sides with cameras at the ready).

When the boat got up to speed the engine was very noisy so we were left to our own thoughts. Initially there was not much to see on either side of the narrow tree-lined channel. Very lush and verdant looking though. As we approached the village the wooden houses were up on stilts out into the water. Some were very large and all of them very sturdy looking.

We were told that in the dry season, of course, the canal turns into a big mud pit so it is much more difficult to get around. In the rainy season now there are boats moving people around everywhere, much more so even now as we were told it was the full moon festival. Most of the long thin boats were fitted with a large outboard motor with propeller at the end of a very long prop sticking out of the back being driven far to fast by young children though there were a few boats without motors looking like they were being used for fishing.

The further into the village we got the closer and more elaborate the houses got. I say “houses” but in fact we also saw temples, schools and shops. Some buildings were on the land but most were on the stilts and only accessible by water. Generally they are all rusty brown coloured with large unglazed windows having large awnings to keep out heat of the sun. The stilts are at least 20-30 feet high so they are quite a distance above the water. It was amazing to see the very young children using the boats to get around - This is just the way they live. As we got closer to the lake the buildings quickly lost their stilts and became truly floating houses. Quite incredible. At one point we could see where, in the dry season, an elevated road passes over the channel but it is now well below the waters.

There was also the evidence of fishing which must be one of the main industries here other than income from tourists such as ourselves. Quite a peaceful looking life free of the vehicles and people that clog the cities. Rous had the boat stop for a few minutes when we were out on the lake to talk to us about what we had seen and for us to take in the quiet free of the noise of the engine. Regrettably this time was short and we had to set off again when we started to drift too close to the weeds and fishing nets.

The trip out and back took about an hour and a half which we all thoroughly enjoyed just soaking in the scenery. Back at the boat launch it was now close to 6 pm and there was a bit of a rush on a local drink seller…

The return to Siem Reap was quiet though we agreed to all head out for dinner later and a $35 tip for our driver.

We had dinner at the “Naga Ankhor Hotel” near the night market. I had the beef with rice (which was a bit sweet) and Mel had the “Khmer Noodle with chicken”.

It was happy hour which made a lot of our group very…happy. “3 for 2” and $0.75 draft beer.

We all had a good time sitting and chatting after a fairly relaxing day. We gave Mel a bit of stick as she “borrowed” a book from the bookcase in the restaurant (“I am Pilgrim”, sadly, missing a number of pages which we would only find out later). She did benefit from a brief back massage from Rous though…$10.25 for dinner for the two of us (including drinks - Mel stuck to the beer again tonight). Oh. Joy. More change in riels. (sigh)

The group of us left the restaurant and headed south. Several people wanted to visit the “lady boys” in the market but this was not of interest to Mel and myself so we decided to head back to the hotel. The streets were just crawling at 9 pm. It looks like the place comes to life at night perhaps because of the heat during the day never mind all the tourists looking for drink and food in the evening after spending all their time in Angkor Wat during the day.

We finally found a great place for ice cream in a small shopping complex near the river, an American chain, Swensen's. They even gave us, without asking, ice water. It was nice to sit in the air conditioning for a few minutes enjoying some very nice ice cream and at $7.10 it was not really that expensive…Mel had some mint chocolate chip ice cream ($3.20) while I had a rather nice sundae with lots of caramel and whipped cream (“Nutty Crispy Tower”; $3.90).

The streets do smell a bit here. Generally there is not a lot of garbage about but there is a bit. The canal, surprisingly, does not smell at all as, though not very wide it must have a good flow to it. Hard to tell by looking at it as it is just brown and muddy looking.

I may have already said it, but I am nervous about the homestay after my experience in Africa. I hope it is a bit more relaxing and not so traumatic. We are all going to be staying as one group with a family so it should be fairly easy to take. Oh well, onwards, ever onwards.

>> Wednesday, September 6th