The flight to Siem Reap with Air Asia was at the very insensible time of 5:30am. Woke after a 2 hour sleep and wearily stuffed a change of clothes into a rucksac, then headed out to get a taxi to the airport. Paul looked bewlidered – for a while I think he thought he was in England, and the last 36 hours had been a dream. His bodyclock must have been all over the place – damaged a little now, and by the end of the week almost irreversibly! I shut my eyes on the way to the airport, trying to cram as much sleep in as possible, as it was going to be a long day in Cambodia.
The flight was smooth enough, taking around 2 hours, some of which I managed to sleep. Paul sat, eyes open throughout, still on UK time, unable to sleep. We arrived at 7:30am in Siem Reap, and stepped off the plane to be hit with a 35 degree heatwave, which felt a bit like standing too close to a bonfire and unable to step away. Immigration was quick and painless, and we hopped into a taxi to take us to the Phlauv Sivatha area of town, where a number of mid-range guesthouses areas are located. The driver was friendly enough to begin with, then came the expected pitch of wanting to be our friendly guide around the temples of Angkor. He was desperate for business, and the smile began to fade as I repeatedly turned down his offers. He began lying to us, telling us that no tuk-tuks were allowed around the temples, and that it’s impossible to see the best sights without a car. As I had been here twice before, I knew he was telling porkie pies, and dismissed him instantly. He’d done well – it had taken him only 10 minutes to make me completely lose respect for him and to realise he was lying and untrustworthy scam artist. He didn’t get a tip, despite his pathetic begging.
We walked into Red Piano guesthouse and had a look. Not bad, clean, but stuffy rooms. We decided to check out other places. We wandered around a number of establishments, none of them particularly inspiring. Perhaps we’ve moved away from ‘budget backpackers now – valuing comfort more than cheapness. This was compounded by us almost taking 2 ridiculously opulant rooms at the centrally-located Terrace de Elephants – which featured elaborate water features in each huge room. Sensibly, we opted to walk around some more. We were both suffering in the heat now. It was 8:30am, and it was almost 40 degrees. The streets were still fairly quiet, but any vehicle that did cluck by left a blanket of choking yellow dust hanginh in the air. Little urchins ran around, monks strolled down the street with their umbrellas shielding them from the sun, schoolgirls on ancient bicycles navigated the potholes and stones littering the road…..Paul had never seen anything ‘third world’ before, and this was a good introduction for him – though not particularly appreciated after 2 hours sleep and in the extreme heat.
Eventually, we chanced upon a delightful new place called Encore Angkor Guesthouse, on Sok San street. Clean rooms, very friendly staff, quiet and a snip at $25 a night. We checked in – Paul in the room with a lovely view of a crocodile farm, me in a room overlooking a bus depot. Exhausted, we agreed on a short sleep before reconvening later to go and explore. Paul went off to his room, and I went for a wander outside, and to find out what one could do on an afternoon in Siem Reap that didn’t involve temples. I got talking to a friendly chap on the corner of Sok San and the main Sivatha street. He was sat on his tuk-tuk looking bored, and I asked him where he could take me later in the afternoon. He suggested the Vietnamese floating village. The manager of our guesthouse had said the same, but claimed it had dried up due to the extreme heat. The tuk-tuk driver assured me there was still enough water for the village to sustain the ‘floating’ title. I agreed with him. We struck a deal – there and back for $10, setting off at 3pm. I bought some bottled water from the shop, and wandered down Pub Street and onto the market, in a bid to familiarise myself with the place again so that there’d be no traipsing around when Paul joined me later. Homework done, I went to bed for an hour myself to recharge the batteries.
Woke at 1:30, and woke Paul up. Time for lunch We went down Pub Street to the Red Piano bar and restaurant. Paul ordered a chicken with cashew nut dish, and I went for a khmer curry. Pauls came with a glass of icy Angkor beer, which sat there until it became warm. A beer at this time in this heat would have been a mistake of course. All the while tuk-tuk drivers loitered around outside hoping to get a fare, and little street urchins came selling postcards. Our tuk-tuk driver was also there, casting a wary eye lest a rival snare us for a cheaper price. He needn’t have worried. We finished the meal and hopped into the back of the tuk-tuk. We were off! The ride to the floating village offered some fantastic and insightful views of village life. Families sat around copper pots making broth, children chased chickens with sticks, people waved from their little wooden huts built on stilts to keep away from snakes or other dangers on the ground. Other villages were nestled on river banks, and were colourful scenes of day-to-day village life. Many hardhips were apparent, yet still people smiled. The Cambodian people are friendly yet shy by nature, softly spoken, with many families still picking up the pieces after the Khmer Rouge genocide. They are a warm and wonderful people here in Siem Reap…..though I couldn’t say the same for Phnom Penh. There is something about the energy in Phnom Penh – it’s a dark energy, not reflected in Siem Reap.
We reached the floating village, and I noticed an organisation about the place not evident in my previous visit here in 2004. Now, instead of being able to walk around the boats docked and negotiate a price for a tour, you pay a set $15 per person at a front desk, and are issued a ticket. You then proceed down the boardwalk to be greeted by your boat captain. We had a friendly chap, and a young guide who was knowledgeable and keen to practise his English. The captains 5 year old daughter was also on the boat, a really cute grubby little girl, with dirty touselled hair and a big cheeky smile. She really made the trip more enjoyable, and I spent most of the boat ride playing a game of hide and seek with her. The boat chugged softly along the narrow strait. The water was really low, exposing some of the mountains of rubbish that had been dumped into it. Children were swimming in the muddy murks, and women were washing themselves and their clothes. This was the Discovery Channel brought to life. The people living here are all proficient boatspeople, even children as young as 5 or 6 were paddling around in home-made boats – some little more than washing up bowls. Occasionally, a wooden motorboat would pull up alongside and a girl would jump on selling beer or coke, before jumping back on the boat and speeding away. After a time, we came to a wider area, a vast body of water where most people lived in their rickety wooden shacks floating in the water. There was a floating school, where an English lesson was taking place, a floating basketball court, a floating church, and a floating hospital. Some shacks even had dogs, who howled relentessly. Many small boats were out fishing, catching dinner. It was a truly incredible experience, and left me wondering just how people could live in these conditons – some for their whole lives.
After a look around, the boat stopped at a small floating cafe. Paul and I had a look around the ‘aquarium’ which was a very sorry place indeed. In prison terms, this would be like a prison in Bangladesh, Laos, or Bangkok. Terrible conditions. They had a huge leatherback turtle, stuffed into a tank barely the length of its body, standing in 1 inch deep filthy water that hadn’t been cleaned for about 5 years. It had gone mad in its horrendous captivity, and repetitively scraped its feet against the glass, and knocked its head in the same place time and again, so much that its head was wearing down. Slightly disturbed by this, I went back upstairs, and Paul and I had a coke, whilst the little girl kept appearing and disappearing with a cheeky smile from behind the cap I’d lent her.
Soon we were back on the boat and heading back to land. The guide got a couple of dollars for his excellent commentary, and I gave the little girl one of my bracelets, much to her delight. Paul and I got back in the tuk-tuk, and set off back towards Siem Reap. On the way back we took a few photos over the rice fields. Rice fields are completely flat here – Cambodia has no mountains – or even hills. Farmers were busy planting rice. We visited a couple of temples, and saw a lot of monks wandering the grounds in their brilliant burnt orange robes. We took more photos, the temples and streets around bathed in the soft yellows of a late afternoon. Siem Reap certainly has a kind of rustic charm to it, especially around the river. It’s a pleasant place. The tuk-tuk driver had done well. Keeping promises and telling the truth will always guarantee good returns. For his efforts, we decided to use him to take us around Angkor Wat and the other temples the next day. He agreed to a fee of $15 for the day, with a 5:30am start. Deal done!
We went back to the hotel, got showered, changed, and headed out for a walk around the market, an overpowering place of pungent smells, loud noises, and lots of people milling around. We then went for a foot massage, which was just the tonic. After this, we were certainly in the mood for liquid refeshment. We found a place selling Ankor beer, which is Angkor beers poor cousin, for 50cents a glass. We got stuck in to the beer here, and it went down a treat. We had dinner in a place nearby, then headed to Angkor Wat? bar for a drink, followed by Temple Bar. Backpackers were everywhere, drinking heavily and soaking up the Asian atmosphere in their tie-dye clothes and dreadlocked hair. It was a nice evening, and we managed to avoid drinking too heavily, as the next day was going to be a punishing one! After an Irish coffee in Red Piano, we headed back to get around 3 hours of sleep before another full day!