An early start = 6:15. We were downstairs at 6:30, expecting breakfast before we got picked up at 7 to go to the boat departure point to catch our ride to Siem Reap. Of course, the guy we had placed our breakfast order with the night before (so we wouldn’t have to wait in the morning), had forgotten to tell the chef, so we had to wait until 7 to get our pancakes, and of course the tuk-tuk driver came as soon as the pancakes arrive. We wolfed them down. It was to be the last meal of the day, and we would only eat again at 8:30pm.
We got to the boat departure point and stepped into a boat that surprisingly looked like the one on all the brochures. It was full at the back, full of smug-looking backpackers with sunglasses on. They weren’t so smug when the engines started. The motor coughed, spluttered, and growled like a Harley Davidson firing up. Comfy-ish seats inside provided some respite, but the ‘secret’ front part of the boat, where all the luggage was haphazardly stacked, provided the real relief. I sat up here alone for much of the morning – the best part of three hours. It was chilly, being early morning, and then warm as the sun heated up. I’d pay dearly for both the chill and the heat the next day, but at that moment, hatless and foolishly carefree, it was wonderful. Me, the Mekong, the morning air.
After three hours the boat chugged into a landing area – a spit of land in the middle of the great expanse of water, and we were hurriedly transferred into a narrow boat with no windows so we were open to the elements, small wooden benches, and an even louder motor. The journey continued for almost five hours from this point. It was hell on a boat. A tiny, over-loaded, near-capsizing vessel with a spluttering motor, no lifejackets, and a Mekong as big as the sea – no life nor land in sight.
When we eventually reached the outskirts of Siem Reap after what seemed like an eternity, we passed through the ‘floating village’ – a tourist attraction I’ve seen three times before in various stages of ‘development’. Now, it was an organised tourist circus – boats crammed full of Chinese and Koreans waving at us chugged past. Nobody on our boat waved back. The air was choked full of dust – it was the middle of the dry season. We spluttered up the river, past scenes of unbelievable poverty – remarkable in a province earning millions a year from tourism. Then again, corrupt Cambodia has never been good at distributing its wealth. Siem Reap, for all it’s ancient treasures, remains one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia.
Here, at the banks of the river, it seemed more poverty-stricken than I’d ever remembered, and tourists were busy snapping ‘poverty porn’ to show off on facebook or instagram later.
The boat made a landing. A crude wooden plank, no wider than a shoe, was thrown down onto the boggy, muddy shore for people to walk down. Before anyone had got off, tuk-tuk drivers were on the boat trying to win a fare into town. It’s a place where only the strongest, the first in line, the baddest perhaps, survive. And so, we got a ride back with a young chap in a tuk-tuk, down the dirt road lined with life eking out a living, then onto the slightly better off outskirts of town and paved roads. We crossed the dirty green Siem Reap river and got lost. Eventually, we found the way to the hotel I had booked whilst passing time in Phnom Penh. It was not easy to find – a few minutes off the main drag and down a narrow dirt alley.
The Cockatoo Hotel Resort and Spa is a green oasis at the edge of the maddening, dusty chaos. Just a 15 minute walk from Pub Street, it’s got a decent, if not amazing, location. We were put in room 15, nearest the dirt road. I was later to discover it was also next to the mad barking dog whose ceaseless yelping through the thin walls made it seem as though it were right there in the room with us, as I discovered later during the first horrible, sleepless night. Such is the trick of hotels – they generally stick you in the least favoured, the hardest to sell room, first. And they get away with it too. They got away with it that night. The room didn’t even have a curtain. All and sundry could look in.
Vero and I headed out for Pub Street. 12 years ago, I remembered it as just one street, pretty chilled….now it is as big, brash, bold, and bad tasting as Soi Bangla in Patong, minus the lady shows. The Siem Rep pub crawl was in full swing in Bar X. A ‘down the Angkor beer’ game had been organised by the young lad from London who looked sick to be here and wishing he was in Ibeefa. He was, in a way.
Todd from Detroit was the winner, sculling his beer in just 3 seconds. He was single too – as were most of the revellers on the crawl (obviously, judging by the look of some of them). Todd then proceeded to prowl the pub menacingly in his Angkor vest, cap and shorts, looking for drunken English girls. But it was too early to be hunting prey, and Todd stood alone – a champion and a loser at the same time.
Vero and I ate at one of the may carbon copy restaurants on Pub Street offering Angkor for 50cents a glass. We hit a couple of other places, before heading back.
The night was hot and sleepless. I had a cracking headache and a fever that was getting worse, and underneath all that a bad case of flu. The dog howled. It was going to be a long night.