Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Cambodia - Day 8: Siem Reap / Sihanoukville

Angkor Wat at sunrise.
In the morning, our alarm went off at 4AM. We quickly dressed and caught a tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat, again, to see the obligatory sunrise there. As we sat near a pond on the lawn with the hundreds of other tourists in front of the temple getting torn apart by the clouds of mosquitoes, it turned out to be an overcast or hazy day, so the view wasn’t particularly amazing but, as often happens when traveling, we don’t always get what we want. It was still spectacular, wandering around the grounds of the temple taking pictures in the cool morning. There's something special about waking up at sunrise, even though we were surrounded by throngs of tourists. There was even something special in being part of that collective observation. We bartered with a vendor and purchased a large rice paper rubbing of a scene from Angkor Wat that we had seen on our first day here, but put off purchasing.

We returned to the hotel, ate, packed, and took our luggage down to the lobby to checkout. The power went out briefly and we were told to have a seat, but things were soon back to normal and we cleared our tab without further delay. We left everything and, as we had a few hours to spare before our flight, checked out the Angkor National Museum, which housed numerous carvings from the various temples around Siem Reap and, among other things, featured a room containing “1,000 Buddhas”. After our visit to the museum, we ate an early lunch at Chamkar, returned to the hotel to gather our belongings, and drove to the airport, which was quite small. Despite the longish line, we had, perhaps, the fastest check-in ever and were soon boarding. Thusfar, we had traveled to the northern part of Cambodia, and we were taking a one-hour domestic hop from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. Driving back south would have taken all day. We had to reach the sourthern coast so that we could catch our ferry to Koh Rong Island in the morning.

The flight was over before we knew it. We retrieved our luggage and were quickly on the road. On our way into town from the airport, we drove through a roundabout that featured two gigantic golden lions but, otherwise, Sihanoukville had an unimpressive appearance, especially our hotel—Nice Beach Hotel. It was neither nice nor on the beach but, for one night, we would survive. It was only a couple blocks from the beach, all told. After depositing our luggage in our room, and arguing with Vito about whether or not we would be renting bicycles, we walked up the road to pick up our tickets for the ferry that we would take to Koh Rong Island in the morning. Then, with the day’s business completed, we walked down to Serendipity Beach to relax.

Angela reads on the beach at dusk.
The sun was setting and people were starting to come out. Music blared from the bars along the beach, and there was a vibrant festive atmosphere. It was nice to be going to the beach, and, aside from seeing the temples in Siem Reap, we were really looking forward to almost one full week on the beach. The wide beach was lined with bars and there was ample seating in the sand all down the beach. Signs like ‘Christmas Eve Beer Bucket Challenge’ and ‘Sign Up Here Bitch’ made it clear what would be happening in a couple hours. It looked like a frat-boy’s dream, and there, in fact, were many young tattooed college-types with no shirts on muscling around in the dusk. Cambodian women and young girls were selling various items on the beach: long bamboo tubes that—when lit—launched little firecrackers into the sky, massages, paper lanterns that, after igniting the burner, could be released into the night sky like little illuminate hot air balloons, skewers of seafood, sunglasses. Angela and I ordered a couple cans of Agkor Beer, while Vito went swimming and tried out his new mask and snorkel tube. I hailed a woman who was carrying two pots of coals, and ordered five skewers of baby squid, which were grilled right in front of me.

Launching a lantern.
Aim for the water!

It was getting darker and darker and fireworks, big and small, were bursting over the sea and all along the beach. Bright pink, red and white lanterns with their glowing souls seemed to multiply furiously and floated up into the evening sky. We finished our beer and went to The Gypsies for dinner, a little restaurant and guesthouse operated by a Swiss and Vietnamese couple and his parents. Angela had read about it on TripAdvisor, and the restaurant had advertised a Christmas menu so it seemed perfect. We arrived around 7PM and, after learning that the restaurant wouldn’t be able to serve us until 7:30PM, we ordered drinks and sat on the balcony to watch the holiday revelers, dressed in red and white and wearing santa hats, passing by in the street below on their way to one of the beach bars. After a few drinks and Christmas carols, we still hadn’t been served. We befriended a little girl who was playing on the balcony and was clearly the daughter of the proprietors. By 8:30PM, we finally received our first course. We weren’t so happy about the long wait, and it’s difficult to keep a seven-year-old occupied for so long without purpose, but the food was worth the wait. We had really been hoping for a quicker meal, however, planning to catch our early ferry to Koh Rong Island in the morning. The rest of the meal progressed without more than Vito dropping a fork and, as a way to apologize for the long wait, the owner invited us to come back in the morning for a complimentary cup of coffee. We paid him for the meal, wished him a "Merry Christmas," thanked him for his generosity, and grabbed a tuk-tuk back to the hotel to get some sleep.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to sleep immediately. We could hear the fireworks and loud music from the beach, which kept us awake. Sometime in the early morning, I was awakened by the sound of our neighbors slamming doors and arguing. It also woke Angela and we exchanged worrisome glances in the dark, but our neighbors eventually left the room and all was quiet again. I don’t remember anything else after that.

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