Siem Reap: Eat it

We love “new country day” – the day we arrive on the plane/train/bus/boat/minivan in a new country and get started exploring.  Our first day in Cambodia was no exception.  After a long day in transit we finally made it to Siem Reap on Sunday afternoon.  Siem Reap is a lot more rugged than where we had been in Thailand – there’s no 7/11s on every corner, no chain stores, it’s dusty and hot and there’s that distinctive fruity tang of rubbish on every corner.  There’s also no footpaths, so walking the streets is more chaotic here than anywhere we’ve been before (Campbell almost got taken out by a scooter on our first night).  It’s also an incredibly vibrant city, with a great buzz and a lot going on.  Three days spent here was easy peasy.

In typical fashion, after settling into our hotel we got ourselves all excited and immediately set about making plans to do a whole lot of things we couldn’t really afford; like a food tour.  We topped our first afternoon off with a traditional Khmer meal and a visit to famous “Pub Street”.  You’ve gotta love a place that clusters the vast majority of its watering holes in one handy location, and then slaps an enormous neon sign saying “Pub Street” above it, so even the most weary and parched traveller can’t miss it.  It’s an undeniable tourist trap, but there’s also a lot to love about Pub Street – like 50 cent beers and $1 margaritas.

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Yesterday, our first full day, was dedicated to a few key jobs.  Our beloved camera was on the edge of sucking the kumara so the first job of the day was to get it to a photo shop and get it repaired.  We didn’t want to tackle Angkor Wat, or any of the other famous sights without it, so while we waited for it to be fixed, we tackled all of the other niggly jobs we’d been putting off.  I desperately needed a mop chop, so was off to the local “salon”.  Haircuts in SE Asia have proven to be pretty average, but it is worth going to the hairdresser for the pure joy of getting your hair washed.  There are no salon products or fancy shampoos, but what you do get is an obscene amount of Palmolive shampoo (or maybe dishwashing liquid) and the best head massage of your life.  The whole shampooing process takes about 30 minutes, during which you can drift off to the sounds of the hairdressers cackling and shamelessly gossiping (I obviously couldn’t understand a word, but I know gossip when I hear it).  After that, you’re so relaxed that ending up with bowl cut or a mullet (if things got seriously lost in translation) doesn’t seem like such a big deal after all.

Campbell meanwhile took to the shops for some much-needed new clothes.  His board shorts were threadbare to the point of really only being suitable for swimming after dark, and they had to go.  Siem Reap proved to be a bit of a winner for shopping for him, because there are a huge number of brand outlet stores where clothes made in Cambodia for big chains like Zara, Calvin Klein etc are sold really cheap.  I haven’t fared quite so well on the shopping front and have found most things to be too tight, too short, and way too Hello Kitty for my tastes.  Having managed to rip, split, or otherwise put holes in every pair of shorts I own, I was left to find a tailor to do a bit of mending.  The tailors didn’t speak a word of English, but were in hysterics when I held up my shorts with split from front to back and pleaded with them to fix them.  I’m pretty sure they were laughing at me, not with me, but I couldn’t have cared less when I got my shorts back, immaculately sewn back together for the sum of $2.00.

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We set off in the early evening for our food tour with our guide, Stephen, and fellow foodies, Cory and Eric from New York.  We sampled all sorts of different things – green papaya salad with smoked fish, fish amok, sour fish soup, Khmer noodles, BBQ frog, steamed fish with pork, BBQ chicken bums, BBQ beef with fermented fish dipping sauce and fresh veges, and some sort of icy, sweet, creamy, custardy, cakey dessert creation.  Stephen is a chef so, as well as taking us to some of the best local eateries, he was also able to teach us loads about Cambodian cuisine and cooking techniques.  Finding out that Eric is a Judge on the bench of the Supreme Court of New York also provided one of the few law geek moments that I’ve had on the trip.  There was no buyers’ remorse about forking out for the tour – it was awesome.

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Today we tackled Siem Reap’s most notable tourist attraction – the temples at Angkor Wat.  The Angkor Wat Archeological Park covers a massive 400 square kilometres and is home to hundreds of temples.  Some tourists choose to spend days exploring the various temples in the Park, but we elected for a quick half day tuk tuk tour to see six of the key sites (it would be fair to say that we have almost reached saturation point with temples).  We also opted out of a sunrise or sunset tour, which is when the majority of tourists visit the Park hoping to get that one amazing photo.  I’m sure it can be a really magical experience, but having to push and shove to find a place to sit, or share the moment with hundreds of other people, didn’t really appeal.  We saw everything we needed to during our tour, and were home in time for a nap.  Bonus!

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We visited:

  • Angkor Wat – The largest religious monument in the world.  Impressive, but not my favourite.
  • Bayon – A temple with 50 towers covered with beautiful carved faces.  This was my favourite.

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  • Ta Phrom – Great big trees grow up and through this temple, which was used in the Tomb Raider movie.

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  • Phnom Bakhen – A temple tower with multiple layers of stairs that you had to climb up with hands and feet.   Not a very flattering experience, as you can see!

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  • Banteay Khdei – A large monastic complex, with lots of crumbling pathways and a little old lady who had to be pushing 200 years old.

Tomorrow we hit the road for Battambang, the arts capital of Cambodia.  A visit here will be win-win – I love going to artsy places, and Campbell loves complaining about going to artsy places.

A&C

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