I sit cross-legged on a comfortable wooden seat sipping green tea in a small coffee house in downtown Siem Reap and I realise that we are three weeks almost exactly into our Cambodian exploration. This means I’m also three weeks behind on blogging about it!
Better get to it! May I start by saying that by ‘Cambodian exploration’ I really mean exploration of Siem Reap and Siem Reap only. Sure, we have ventured further afield here and there (as we shall see) but Siem Reap is just so darn difficult to say goodbye to. Every time we muster the confidence to wave adieu to this gorgeous little city we buckle and end up extending our stay by another few days.. Another week.. Four more days. It has now reached the stage where Paul (Pavel), the trusty Russian owner of our guest house, responds with “how many more days this time?” In his thick accent before I can even assemble my first word. Usually it’s when I am about to ask for a can of Angkor Beer to cool myself off from the 34 degrees sun. The truth is that the city and all its humble inhabitants suck you in unknowingly until you find yourself completely ensnared by its charm, gusto and oddities. It truly wears its heart on its sleeve, and like many cities it has its problems but unlike many cities its problems are on a very modest human scale. Children walk the streets, their hands extended and clutching bunches of bracelets to sell while they accost tourists tucking into their lunch in the little cafes. With a sharp dismissive wave many are dealt with swiftly and clinically – a nuisance. It is not the kids fault that they find themselves on the streets, nor is it the responsibility of John, Dick and Susan from Kent to ensure they are fed and schooled. And this is where the problems that there are stem from; responsibility and action. (Something to discuss in my other blog I think!) But despite this the kids are smiling. Infact everyone is smiling – It’s both infectious and exhausting. Never have I been graced with smiles from all angles simultaneously and with so much sincerity.. It seems to be the default setting for Cambodians. As a local barista said to me when I questioned it “now is the time to smile”. Deep, eh?
In our three weeks we have befriended so many Cambodians from all walks of life and in so many different establishments around the city. One of our favourite places for a bite on a warm afternoon is ‘Sister Srey’, a coffee house started two years back by two young Australian sisters who suffered the same problem that we are experiencing (I.e, not being able to leave!). Their priority is the wellbeing of their staff, which they have adopted from all manor of heinous and troubled backgrounds. They pay for the housing, medical care and even the education costs for all their wonderful staff and all they ask in return is optimism and a drive to want to re-build their lives. The foundation they have started is truly touching and we have become very fond of all the employees, full of life and smiles as they are! One of the team, a spritely young chap called Jan, of only about 5 foot, greets me with a hug and a huge smile every time we arrive and insists that I am only allowed to speak Khmer there to practice! Siem Reap is not a puzzle to navigate. It’s streets were systemised by the colonial French into grids and still reflect the European names and facades of the period to this day. To the East of the compact centre is the Siem Reap River which divides the older from the newer and which creates a natural boundary to the city. To the South and West the city center itself is linked by a few earthy main roads and stretches out to meet lush green pastures and forest while to its north the concrete roads are interrupted, first by sections of dirt road, before being replaced entirely by deep red earth tracks and lanes. Even in the city centre itself it is common to find totally unpaved roads, dusty and red like the surface of Mars. This ‘work in progress’ attitude is what gives Siem Reap so much of its charm.
The buildings, while low lying, are a conglomeration of classical French colonial, red brick and modern glass and white wash, and at the very centre of it all sits the grand ‘Old Market’ proud and reasurring like a superintending grandparent. Tuk tuk drivers dot the sides of every road while mopeds wheezing under the weight of two, three or even four people negotiate themselves around crowds of tourists. The shops are as modest as the people, reflecting their culture very well through handmade wooden sculptures, textiles and local paintings. There is a real sense of national pride and a keen awareness of their heritage here which is demonstrated at its most colourful and potent through the arts and crafts. People will sell everything and anything on these street corners; small food bars on wheels line the streets after dark selling local cuisine for a pittance, retired soldiers, some missing limbs, walk around selling books to earn a living, while hardware stores are everywhere and sell everything from bike locks to stuffed baby crocodiles and fake watches.
The real fun is to be had in the markets. Similar to their Thai counterparts and not too unlike dusty Arabic Medinas, they are a treasure trove of human imagination. You think of it, they probably sell it! I couldn’t help myself and bought a Rolex watch in our second week for a painless $20, while other tourists and shop owners around me haggle over American dollars. In the cramped walkways of the bustling market the scent of incense hangs heavilly in the air while flies take their picking of the piles of fruit and slabs of raw meat. Oil lamps and modern electric lights gently light the walls and make the colours of the fabrics and paintings glow. The stall owners (often sat on small rugs or stools) address each ambling customer one by one and get your attention with “hey you Sir’madame, you want to buy something yes?”. Likewise the hoards of onlooking tuk tuk drivers outside will usually address every passerby with an open ended question or just a simple “can I help you with anything”. One apparently watched Abbi go into a shop the other day and when she came back out he grunted to her “oh my god what I would do to have you in the back of my tuk tuk”. She reassures me that she gets more spontaneous “I love you” ‘s than rehearsed sexual advances. Meanwhile I find it all quite entertaining.
The cycle from our lodgings ‘Snow River Guest House’ is wonderful. It only takes about five minutes and it takes us from 1km North of the city and along the length of the green river. Stern looking ceiba trees line the river amid well-maintained grass and white French lampposts which still light the way after dark. The buildings here are mostly traditional with a modern finish (white wash, large open drives, landscaping and flattering lighting) and the place is, for the most part, spotlessly clean. It makes bangkok look like a confused car boot (or yaaard sale for the Americans among you!). We have been very lucky once more with the weather here and we have had unbroken crisp blue skies and 30+ degrees now for almost a whole month. Our tans dont reflect this much though as we haven’t really been sunbathing as we did down in Southern Thailand a few weeks before. It doesn’t take long for your skin to shake off a tan these days! Following our first visit to Angkor Wat (as per my last blog) we settled on the idea of getting a three day pass to explore the complex in a little more detail and at a more stately pace. Suffice to say these three days were as wonderful for us both as our first day spent in the park.
On our first day we cycled through the gorgeous Bayon and past Angkor Wat once more towards the North-East of the park. We stopped at several small temple sites, trying to crowd-dodge, and found ourselves at a lesser known temple complex called Preah Kahn hidden deep in the jungle. The temple is approached by a causeway from the north and is bigger, grander and far more natural than the more publicised Ta Phrom (more commonly called the Tomb Raider Temple). Like Ta Phrom ten kilometres to the south this series of temples has been devoured over hundreds of years by the encroaching jungle. Massive Cebia trees launch out from between and within structures like twisted church spires while the grey stone blocks have a fine dusting of moss which give them an organic green hue. The whole place looks as if it were animated in its mangled state of organic orchestration, seemingly pulsing with life and history. The air is warm and floral and the light breeze and cooler shaded corridors make for a great respite from the hot sun. Abbi and I find a small corridor deep in the complex with a low set windowsill. After a crouch and scuffle we are through and into what appears to be a large secret courtyard. At one end to our left is a massive tree much like the others, it’s huge exposed roots spilling out and over a partially collapsed wall resembling the tentacles of a mysterious creature from the depths of the ocean, while at the other is a small pavilion which appears to have sunk into the earth. All around and infront of us are piles of collapsed building stone and I am soon scaling these in true antiquarian explorer style and looking out over the whole complex from my vantage point. What a treat it was to be the only two souls in this mysterious little area. Abbi looks at me with a concerned expression after five minutes and tells me that I’ve been bitten by something on my face. It is at this point that I realise that the right side of my jaw and face is numb and I ponder for the next thirty minutes that I’ve been bitten by a poisonous creature and will probably not make it out of these ancient ruins. Oh well, cool place to croak I guess!.
We woke the next day, still very much alive, at 5am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The cycle from Snow River and into the park seven miles north was much chillier, the moon being our main light source for the journey. After a coffee at a little street vender outside the complex we walked through the massive park and found a hidden spot towards the rear where we watched the remainder of the sunrise (the first portion was somewhat less romantic than we expected as thousands of other people had the same idea as us!). The rest of the day we spend in our lovely guesthouse and the day after this we undertook an epic 45 kilometre cycle around the ‘big circuit’ of the park. This took us to a previously un-mapped portion of the archaeological park and we ooh’d and ahh’d the afternoon away as we came across new temple after new temple.
During the following week we flexed our culinary skills in an evening Khmer cookery class in the heart of the city, Abbi enjoyed yoga classes at a wonderful little coffee shop in the outskirts of the city center called ‘Peace Cafe’, and we punched each others lights out in a kickboxing class. We sipped wine during a traditional Khmer Aspara dance show two nights later which was really special. It is a very minimalist and intimate form of dance; slow movements in the wrists, arms and legs while the hands are often held statically in positions to represent a Buddhist God or symbol.
Our evenings have been traditionally spent at the guesthouse with the wonderful team; Paul, Rith (pronounced Rit – he is essentially the front of house and multi-tasker employee and we have become very close), Gin (pronounced G for golf) Paul’s Cambodian wife and co-owner of the guesthouse, and her brother Goh who is a 34 and very quirky and very Cambodian. Over the last few weeks Rit has been helping me learn Khmer (very patiently I may add!) and in turn I have been helping him with his English pronunciation. I have also been enjoying extra Khmer lessons at peace cafe with a large group of expats and NGO members to improve my own pronunciation. In the late afternoons we have been gathering the other guest house staff in the large open drive and playing an Asian form of hacki’sack (played with a springy shuttlecock with feathers) religiously pretty much on a daily basis. The idea is to keep the thing in the air as long as possible by kicking, arming, kneeing and even heading it to one another. It is great fun and a perfect way to spend time under the bright blue skies with a cold beer.
A truly great memory so far has been driving in an open tuk tuk out of the city with Abbi, Rit and his Wife and 5 month year old girl Nina and into the countryside to his family village. He kindly took us to his family farm where we spent the evening drinking with his dad, brothers and sisters in the large open space under their stilted wooden house and enjoying a platter of local foods (smoked fish, spices, duck) they prepared especially for Abbi and I. They are gorgeous people, so very humble and giving and the evening we spent getting to know them and observing traditional Khmer life, culture and hardships will stay with me forever. Rit, in true humble Khmer fashion, was delighted for days after that we had wanted to go with him to see how traditions Cambodians lived – almost surprised that we said yes so quickly and eagerly! He has taken to referring to me as ‘Bong’ which translates to brother and I shall miss him and the whole family at Snow River very much when we leave to head to the beaches of South Cambodia next week.
We have one week left in this beautiful part of the country and have two volunteering projects to take part in before we even consider moving south. One is building new wooden houses for rural Cambodians struggling in their current uninhabitable dwellings (poverty takes on a whole new meaning here), and the other involves the construction of a new school for underprivileged Cambodian children. A far cry from relaxing on the beach, the next week should be one to remember. We might even catch some sun!