Delightful Cambodia – Siem Reap with Norah
In the pitch-black Cambodian night, our tuktuk approaches a lit-up, airport-like structure. "Are the temples now like that", I ask Norah? But it's only the Angkor Wat ticket terminal. Two uniformed hostesses shove me back and forth in front of a webcam until I am in position to get snapped for my 20 USD one day entry ticket. Norah, my Khmer lover, enters free of charge.
Two miles later, we stop in a jungle of tuktuks near the main Angkor Wat temple. Except for a few snoring tuktuk drivers nobody can be seen.
6 am. The sky shows a bit of grey. We approach the temple over the main stone walkway. The lotus-like towers of Angkor Wat loom ahead, with a few of Cambodia's trademark sugar palm trees joining the air space. It's still a chilling, awe-inspiring view.
As we walk through the outer gate, there they are: hundreds and thousands of tourists hang out on every ancient stone around, everyone swinging at least one camera, eagerly awaiting sunrise over Angkor Wat. Lots have built up tripods. And it's even more crowded at the temple front lake. There plastic chairs await and locals scream around offering breakfast coffee. But noone cares – we all try to get in pole position next to the lake, to snap temple plus temple reflection plus the first sun rays crawling over the temple walls. The gang snapping here feels like a G8 summit or a champions league final.
Or maybe like carnival. The rising sun is welcomed with cheerful applause and some shouting. Everybody asks his neighbor to snap him with temple and sunrise, and we join into the action too.
After lengthy wandering around the Angkok Wat temple the simple snack stalls nearby finally beckon. We sit down on plastic chairs with a first rate Angkor Wat view. The menue quotes very high prices for staples like noodle soup or fruit shake. For example, a takalok, the distinct Cambodian fruit shake, is 50 or 75 cent almost anywhere at street stalls. On the English menue at the Angkor Wat snack stalls, it appears with 2 USD. A small bottle of drinking water goes for 12 cents anywhere, but it's 50 cents here.
Now Norah, my local lover, puts on her Phnom Penh business lady face. "We won't pay stupid tourist prices here", she lectures the snack sellers who look frightened. "We pay Cambodian prices plus 1a location surcharge." Norah gets us good fruit shakes for one USD each and water for 25 cents.
The coffee is grotty. "Is it water from the Barray, the water reservoirs around Angkor Wat ", I ask Norah?
Norah tries the brew and shudders. "You know", she says, "after Pol Pot we had no real coffee. But grandfather needed his coffee fix. So I had to fry rice without oil, grind it and prepare coffee from that for him. Every day. The coffee here at Angkor Wat tastes just like that – like post Pol Pot rice coffee."
Finally we find back to the tuktuk. Of course we had tried to rent our own motorcycle or car, but that's prohibited in Siem Reap. Norah and a few locals had agreed that we still could rent a private vehicle as long as Norah is steering. But then, noone wanted to rent out a moto for less than ten USD per day; a price Norah couldn't accept, because elsewhere motos rent for four USD. And then, a normal tuktuk also charges only 10 USD for a full day around the main temples – including driver. So finally we order a certain sympathetic tuktuk driver to pick us up early next morning.
Of course next morning we are awaited by a tuktuk – but he's not the driver we had selected. In Cambodia this happens all the time: Your prebooked drivers gets a better assignment and sells you to another driver. Actually, it may happen more often to Norah who haggles everybody down to minimum prices. In our pitchblack traffic free side lane we have no choice but accept our new guy, and he's not bad either.
So now we tuktuk from the Angkor Wat temple into the walled city of Angkor Thom and enter the central, bizarre Bayo'an temple. At around 9.30 am, the sun's already too hot on this mid-January morning. But that's not the problem.
It's the crowds. Ever new packs of Koreans stomp into the compound, they clog every stair and passage. They don't look left or right, but trample down anything or anyone in the way. Many have their eyes glued to their camera monitors.
Whereever you want to sit down in the shadow of a benevolantly smiling Angkorian stone head – a pack of middle-aged Koreans, the ladies in pink and the men under baseball caps, will kick you to the side, yapping in a hard language, inspecting the scenery with hard yet distant looks. And if you try to sit one hour, still a new Korean group of will emerge every minute or so.
And then there's the old rulers. "Please feel free to move on", barks a voice with a French accent. For some reason the French behave especially arrogant and bossy in Cambodia. This guy needs a tourist free snap of one certain beleaguered stone head and he tries to bark all and sundry out of the way. I announce to him that now I will snap my local lover Norah in front of this certain head (her wish) and he gets furious, snapping ten last shots or so. Then he shoves his camera under my nose to prove his artistic results. But I only have eyes for Norah's cute posing in this ultra-Khmer environment (which may mean more to her than she reveals).
It doesn't get any better in downtown Siem Reap, the lively tourist town seven kilometer from the temples. The colonial French quarter next to the Old Market could be charming indeed, but it is crammed and crammed and then more crammed with restaurants, tour shops, internet shops, spas, tourists, rude taxi drivers, rude beggars and rude touts. There is no relaxed promenading because you are constantly hassled by beggars, taxi drivers and restaurant touts and the elegant buildings and arcades disappear behind billboards and signs advertising cheap bus rates, free Apsara dance or ADSL internet. We had promising restaurant recommendations for downtown Siem Reap but neither Norah nor I could relax in this craze. All the images of elegant post-colonial Siem Reap refinery fade to dust here, and it is actually no cleaner than dirty, dusty, dinghy, drab Phnom Penh.
Finally we take dinner at a basic street stall which even sports an English overpriced menu. Norah of course announces up front that we will pay "only Khmer prices". The vendor accepts with a grin.
Strolling back, we run into a wine tasting next to an elegant street café. But it's wine from the Khmer sugar palm tree. This is usually sold by little boys in dusty villages upcountry, you drink it from nice bamboo poles. Around Cambodia, I already tried this wine in various stages of fermentation, it can be quite refreshing. The degustation reveals quite a nice taste, and actually they sell sugar palm juice blended with pineapple juice. We say we would buy a bottle for four USD if we can drink it here in the café. That's another USD, but we get a bucket full of ice, wine glasses and a plate of dried banana chips. There we sit on the "boulevard" under arcades and serve us sugar palm wine from the ice bucket as if it was champagne – but it's only the local poor man's booze in an upmarket incarnation.
After that, no more Old Market area., we are both out of breath just from watching the herds. Next night we tuktuk to the edge of town and eat in the garden of the upper midrange L'Oasi Italiana. This is truly an oasis, even though in the fashion of her genre the Italian owneress jitters from table to table to make really sure everything is fine and every ingredient is fully understood – and appreciated – by every customer. If she is busy, her very attentive and friendly Khmer staff steps in and asks again if everything was fine indeed?
"Such an attentive staff here", I remark to Norah.
"The boss must be a real tiger ", Norah replies. For Khmers, 'Tiger' means 'nasty bitch'. "Otherwise staff would never work so hard."
For another dinner we visit the Apsara Theatre, again an oasis of calm and friendly service compared to the frentic Old Market. The theatre belongs to the atmospheric Angkor Village hotel on the other side of the road. Traditional Apsara dance plus set dinner are 22 USD. The very elegant hall all decked out in dark wood is worth the trip alone.
There is low floor seating at long tables. This looks a bit inconvenient at first. But then, the floor opens under the tables, so you can hang down your legs as you please, no need to fold legs to the side. In true Indochina fashion the menu signals this an upmarket place for the discerning traveler: The items are *first* written in French – and bold type – and only then follows English for the plebeians.
The show is quite nice, certainly better than the charity-powered shows in Phnom Penh's Souvannaphum Theatre and Apsara Arts Foundation. They chose easy to follow dances, like a fisherman desperately wooing a hesitating maid, or Hanuman the monkey god frolicking about. But nothing compares to the spectacular classic dances I saw in the mid-nineties around Ubud, Bali, staged open air in real palaces.
According to the bill, our caring Khmer waitress goes by the name of "Heidi". Her food is a mixed bag: Spring rolls great, pork ok, flan ok, but fruit salad soapy.
And the traditional Khmer sour soup with chicken and lemon grass tastes like water. "Even our maid does it better", shrugs Norah.
After the dance show we take a fruit juice in the NGO-run "Singing Tree" garden restaurant next door. I'd like to get Norah to a bicycle trip through the villages. My planned destination is written Chong Khneas on the English Gecko map, and I am proud that now I can pronounce such words in a way that Khmers actually get my point.
"How about a bicycle trip to Chong Khnee'ah", I ask?
"WHAT?" From her comfy lounge chair, Norah jumps one meter up and falls down again.
"Hu", I say? "I just asked if you'd like to bicycle to Chong Khnee'ah?"
If you speak "Chong Khnee'ah" (like I did), it means "I need someone (to make love)". Only if you speak "Chong Khnee's", it is an innocent place name. Here in my writing this looks like a difference. But when Norah articulates the two expressions for me they are nearly undistinguishable.
Anyway, at the Shadow of Angkor guesthouse we secure usable bicycles for two USD/day. At sunrise, we cycle down towards the lake but not on the main asphalt road that's used by all the travelers touring the overrun floating village there. We stay on the quieter east side of slimey Siem Reap river (really just a green brown cloak) and bump over a dirt road through lively village area. On the first five kilometers we see two weddings. It's so close to the hubbub of Siem Reap, but still kids smile at me like in love and one little boy blows me a kiss. "Hello byebye" they scream, or "Whatyouname, myname".
An old lady does waffles on wood fire, so we stop and sample some for 15 cents. They are ok, but too sweet. "They are made from cheap rice flour", explains Norah. "If they use better quality, the waffles look better."
This is decidedly not a poor village. The houses look very orderly, some have cars parking out front. Still it's a dirt road, three kids share a bicycle to get to school and the odd oxcart rumbles along. We sit down at a noodle shack to watch village life passing by. The coffee tastes grotty again, but the delightful free hot tea makes up for it.
A dirty guy on motorcycle stops and drinks coffee from a plastic bag. He looks like a hired worker to me.
"Is he a hired worker", I ask Norah?
"No. You see, he already has a moto. We buy *land* first, and a moto only after that. This guy already possesses his own rice field."
The noodles lady can't believe we traveled the seven kilometers by bicycle. She talks as if the sight of our bicycles was an assault on her wellness. "My", she says, "I go to town by motorcycle. If I only had a bicycle, I'd rather walk."
And indeed, instead of bouncing along on Chinese one-speed-bikes we could cruise rural Cambodia in the comfort of an airconditioned Lexus 4WD. Instead of sitting here in the dust and exposing us to all and curious sundry we could lounge downtown on all-white daybeds in The Blue Pumpkin and skype away on free wifi. So the noodles lady might think. And so Norah, my faithful Khmer lover, might think too?
"No, bicycling on a cool morning is fun", Norah replies convincedly.
Otherwise, the ladies be-yakk what they always be-yakk: land prices around the neighborhood (awfully high). The noodles lady concedes I have a "beautifully sharp nose" and that's the only compliment I ever get in these parts.
On the way back it heats up. Norah does a full stop at another snack stall and I almost crash into her back wheel. Here they sell crushed ice in a plastic cup with syrup poored over it. The gentle family looks honored, even shy that we sit down on their rotten plastic stools.
Says Norah: "Crushed ice with syrup was my favorite snack when I went to school in Phnom Penh. But we didn't have plastic cups then – we held the crushed ice just in one hand. One time I ordered a big helping and brought it to school to impress my friends. At school, the ice was much smaller already. I went back to the vendor to complain about the shrinking ice."
We have iced syrup and bottled water and are charged 25 cents; Norah pays 35 cents.
We do another late afternoon bicycle trip into the woods to catch sunset around Wat Chetdey and Wat Atvea. On sandcrusted dirt roads, we cycle through a prosperous settlement of wooden houses that may never have seen a westerner, or even a Phnom Penhoise, and at least not on bicycles.
"Tow na", ask friendly curious people from their front porches. Where do you go?
"Tow dah laeyng", is the friendly reply from Norah, lit. go walk play, just wandering around. This must be hard to believe for the locals.
Finally we find an open rice field just for sunset. It looks somewhat Khmer, with just one sad sugar palm tree sticking lonely into the dusty red sky.
I bring the cam into position but just like on the Bassac river road. Norah has no eyes for the sunset show. She discovered a farmer lady on a vegetable field and interviews her about how to cultivate a certain vegetable that won't thrive on Norah's balcony farm in the capital.
Only after the sun is down I join the ladies in their veggie growing discussion and suggest we make it back to town before nightfall. Now this farming lady is probably a few years older than me. Like so many times I don't know if I should say goodbye with the more respectful "jom reh'ap lee'ah" or the casual "lee'ah hoay". And like so many times, I simply opt for an English greeting without its class distinctions, because that much English everybody understands:
"Byebye", I smile to the farmer lady.
"Haha, 'byebye'", she smiles back in Khmer – "sounds funny, but I have no idea what it means".
I had been to Siem Reap only one time before, in 2000, Cambodia's first Khmers-Rouges-free year (they defected to the national army). Then it had been a nice tourist town, the old buildings still visible, the beggar-tout-taxidriver-overkill only slowly building up. I had spent a day a the temples exactly at Chinese New Year. Many elated, polite and well dressed Asians had wandered around the compound back then, and just couples or families together – so different from the packed Korean gangs today. I had spent four more – and more interesting – days with dusty upcountry pothole research on rented bicycles and with a friendly moto driver. He took me for lunch to his parents' village and to the floating village of Kompong Phluk; it had not been on the tourist map back then (today I'd recommend Kompong Luong or Kompong Chnang). All in all a great time, and in 2000 Siem Reap was the only Khmer town sporting public trash bins.
Norah had spent the rainy season of 1998 in downtown Siem Reap with some family. Coming back in 2008, she is completely shocked about the change. Back then, she says "we sometimes saw no westerners for some days". Every so often, she and relatives would ride the Honda to the temples, lounge on some old stones and eat home-made snacks under Jayavarman VII's intricate bas-reliefs.
And guess what, on our last morning in Siem Reap Norah goes to the Old Market to buy dried fish for her family in Phnom Penh (Siem Reap next to huge Tonle Sap lake is known for good fish) – and she meets her old landlord by chance. The landlord says life has gotten so expensive in town, it had been easier in the olden days. But the landlord also informs that Siem Reap has none of all the drive-by robberies in Phnom Penh. The landlord assures Norah that law enforcement in Siem Reap was much better than in Phnom Penh.
This sounds reasonable. All moto drivers in Siem Reap wear helmets, and even in 2000 my moto taxi driver had refused to go one-way lanes in the wrong direction, "police will charge me 50 cents for that, sir!" By comparison, in Phnom Penh police themselves drive up one-way lanes in the wrong direction, and of course without helmet.
Still Norah wouldn't consider Siem Reap as a base: "Too full, too dirty." That's harsh judging from a Phnom Penhoise, but it might hold a relative truth.
Green Village Palace Guesthouse
It is owned by an elderly Australian-Thai couple (25 USD per day per room, very bare and worn, quite clean, aircon, hot tub, friendly local staff, small pool). After our sunrise trip to the temples, we return to the guesthouse at 2 pm. The receptionist has been waiting for us: "Sorry, we have not yet cleaned your room because we didn't know if you are there or not. You did not give us your key in the morning." They don't provide "Make up room" signs. And knocking on the door to see if we're in had been beyond their imagination.
We have a large window and look down into two – crocodile ponds. At least 20 huge beasts hang out there on mud, slime and concrete, waiting with a deadly grin to be reincarnated into shoes, bags and wallets. Siem Reap even has a shop specialising in croc leather wares. I read that the Khmers Rouges used crocodiles for executing people, so seeing one of northern Cambodia's numerous crocodile farms always make me swallow.
A stone bridge leads over crocoland, obviously a maintenance trail to feed the animals or to clean the grounds. This bridge has no balustrade. Over the days, we never see the crocs being fed. Some hang out for hours with the jaw wide open. "When enough flies have assembled in their mouths, they snap", believes Norah.
Our room has good moscito screening for the large window. So we sleep with a breeze, and a soundtrack: The splashes sound like people in a pool – but it's the crocs taking to the water. "'Big Daddy' takes a dip", says Norah upon hearing an especially loud splash, referring to the fattest member of the croco crowd. Before they dive, they hiss profusely. Oh, and compliments, no smells rise up.
One late morning all crocs line up very orderly around mud the pond, all looking towards the water. Thinks Norah, "they look like westerners around a swimming pool".
Bus trips from PP to Siem Reap can be had from four to ten USD oneway (320 kilometers, 6 hours, good sealed road). The alternative would be Bangkok Airways for 75 USD oneway, plus taxi costs and departure tax costs. Bangkok Airways does operate overpriced monopoly routes from Bangkok and Chiang Mai into Siem Reap, but the stretch from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap had not been a monopoly. Only after some Cambodian carrieres crashed physically and/or financially, Bangkok Airways came to enjoy PP->SR as another monopoly route they didn't even dream of.
My cost-conscious Norah of course insists on bus, but choses the pricy Mekong Express company for 10 USD: "They have a good aircondition and no bad smell inside – if we sit far from the toilet." Before she calls for reservation I dream up the map and instruct her to demand seats on the right side, where we are protected from the low afternoon sun.
Mekong Express even hands out baggage tags and upon arrival checks them. There's free water, free vomit bags, a free (and edible) snack and a stewardess explains the sights along the road via microphone. They stop only exactly one time, in downtown Kompong Thom near market and various restaurants (not, like others, in the desert at a lone monopoly restaurant).
Upon arrival in Siem Reap the stewardess does one last blurb, spoken as if reciting from memory: "This time the aircondition didn't work properly ((it didn't work much at all, HM)). This was not our purpose and I apologize profusely." Maybe she says this every time? Great at least: Unlike other companies, Mekong Express does not stop at the public bus park but uses a private, fenced parking. This keeps the mad crowd of local tuktuk drivers at bay, while our guesthouse pickup awaits us inside the compound.
Mekong Express practices a nice bit of racism. The tickets for foreigners are red, contain the handwritten letter "F" and cost 10 USD. Khmers get green tickets with the letter "K" – and pay only 7 USD. You come to my country once.
The popular Mekong Express bus has to be reserved two days in advance. This we forget for the return trip. When we finally call them, they offer only seats in the back, near the toilet. Says Norah: "Better stay in Siem Reap one more day than sitting near the toilet." Instead, we take the Mailinh bus for only 5 USD. The vehicle itself looks decent, but moscito infested. They don't hand out baggage tags, but write your seat number straight onto your checked luggage with a ball pen. Upon arrival, this number is not checked against your ticket with the seat number.
The Mailinh bus does many short stops to pick up passengers in the outbacks, plus two restaurant stops. In the end we are no slower than Mekong Express because the Mailinh driver is much more reckless.
The second food stop is in Skuon, famous for one certain roadside snack.
And there they are, black and oily with a tempting yellow-brownish sauce on the side – fried spiders.
"These are not real *spiders*", insists Norah. "They live *under* the land. They just *look* like spiders."
Fried cockroaches and other yummy crawlies are in no short supply either.