Saturday, December 20, 2014

Cambodia - Day 4: Siem Reap

We awoke to the pleasant sound of monks chanting in Wat Kandal, the temple next to our hotel. There were other sounds, as well: bells, birds, bugs, the kitchen staff preparing breakfast. We packed up our things, went down to eat, settled our bill and were on our way to Siem Reap in a private taxi by 9:45AM. Siem Reap, which would be our base of operations for the next leg of our journey, was the climactic destination of our travels, and was where we would be able to see Angkor Wat, and one of the main reason's we had travelled to Cambodia. Our driver, we quickly learned, couldn’t really speak any English, so we couldn’t ask him any questions about what we saw along the road, unfortunately.

We arrived without incident and checked into the Frangipanni Villa Hotel in Siem Reap, which was one block from the Siem Reap River and near the center of the city. Compared to sleepy Battambang, Siem Reap was noticeably more active and, after depositing our belongings in our room , we went out for lunch at the Butterflies Garden Restaurant, which, Angela had read, was a few blocks from our hotel and set in a large garden where many butterflies fluttered around the patrons. Like Jaan Bai, the restaurant in Battambang, our patronage seemed to support unskilled youth who were being trained there, and we had been specifically looking for those kinds of restaurants. Why not? From what we had read and observed, there were, apparently, numerous groups in Cambodia doing similar work. The food wasn’t so impressive, but it satisfied our hunger. On the way back to our hotel, we had noticed a large red-walled temple compound, Wat Preah Prohm Roth, and we stopped there to take a look. It was quite clean and well-painted, but did not, otherwise, appear to be very old.

The water can get quite high during the rainy season.
Our hotel was nothing to write home about, but it would serve its purpose. The room was a little dark due to the vines that had grown over the windows. After resting a bit and freshening up, we hired a tuk-tuk on the street in front of our hotel to take us to Tonle Sap Lake for a sunset river cruise. We followed the river out of town, passing along the streets what looked like wedding parties with loud music blaring out from under white and lavender tents, a man herding cattle, tourists wielding maps in small roving groups, row upon row of tuk-tuks and fruit juice vendors. We weren't sure how long it would take us to get to the lake, but it wasn't far.

The floating village on Tonle Sap Lake.
When we arrived at the mouth of the river, which flowed into the lake, there were many people waiting to board boats, but we didn’t have to wait long after purchasing tickets. There were so many boats that every group seemed to get its own, so the three of us had a boat to ourselves even though we could have shared it two or three other people. The boat was a narrow wooden vessel painted light blue and, after boarding, we were quickly on our way. There were many other boats, both big and small, on the river, and we motored through the water marveling at the tiny floating neighborhoods that housed schools, shops and churches, and comprised the floating village that we had also come to see. The highlight of the trip for Vito was when our guide (the young captain of the boat) let Vito steer. We took obligatory snaps of the sun setting and went back to town. Tuk-tuks were a relatively nice and inepensive way to get around, but there was one major disadvantage. Unhappily, on the way back to the city center, we followed dump truck full of dirt that chuffed up dust when it bumped over every little imperfection in the road, which was following a tour bus that spewed black exhaust into our eyes—we were virtually coated with dust and pollution.

Back in town, Siem Reap had transformed in the dusk. The numerous bridges across the river were decorated with lights, and we wandered around the Night Market and Pub Street areas, which were bulging with tourists in the cooler evening air. Vito wanted a chocolate-banana crepe and ordered one from a street vendor. I bought a little green hand-sewn reindeer ornament for our Christmas tree, and Angela was scammed for some baby formula by an impoverished woman holding a baby in her arms.

Eventually, we settled down to eat at Angkor Palm Restaurant, and, while we were waiting for our meal, a former colleague and his wife—they had moved to Australia eighteen months ago—stepped out of a tuk-tuk right in front of us! Obviously, we were all quite surprised. We exchanged greetings and they joined us for the meal. They were on their way to the airport, and had planned to eat a meal before heading there. We were thrilled to run into each other and spent the better part of an hour catching up. After dinner, we all went to have a drink at the Red Piano Bar, a bar made famous when Angelina Jolie went there during the shooting of Tomb Raider and named a drink after the film. I felt well-informed having watched two of the films before travling to Cambodia! Anyway, we all ordered one of the signature drinks and then parted company. It was an exciting way to begin our adventure in Siem Reap, and we took it as a fortuitous omen.

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