Tuesday, July 18, 2017

July 16 – Siem Reap, Cambodia

Now that we’re fully adjusted to the time, getting up at 3:30 am was a real pain in the ass. I think we may have misjudged how much time we would need, because when we arrived at 4:15 the Air Asia counter had just opened and we were the only ones in line, and the check in lady told us that security didn’t even open until 5. A few of the shops in the departure lounge were open, but nearly all of the employees had their heads down at their counters, sound asleep.

The Henriques arrived shortly after us and we lounged around until security opened and then we went through and got settled near our gate. I met a nice couple there – the wife was from France and the husband from Germany and we had a great chat about the current political situation in their respective countries and what the effects of the Syrian migration had had on each. Those damn Europeans always make us look bad – both of them spoke perfect French, German and English, and probably a couple more languages besides that.

The Air Asia flight departed on time and the hour and twenty minute flight felt like nothing, especially since filling out all of the required Cambodian arrival documents took up half of that time. We arrived in Siem Reap, paid US$30 each for our visas, hired a mini-bus, and were headed for our hotel – the Indra Porak. Getting to the hotel was a bit tricky, as it is very close to a busy local market, so the driver could only inch his way along the too-narrow road, which was also congested with motorbikes, tuk-tuks, vendors, pedestrians, dogs, chickens, and surely rodents, as there was an awful lot of discarded food laying around.

We did eventually get to the hotel, but he had to take a back way around that led us across a shaky wooden bridge which spanned a small creek, and may have doubled as a sewage canal. It’s funny how these small, quaint, serene, boutique hotels are located right in the middle of crazy, congested areas, but once you add in a brick wall and a lot of greenery, you are perfectly shielded from the chaos, but the chaos is only steps away if you feel inclined to participate.

The Cambodian staff members who greeted us were the kindest and gentlest people you could imagine. If you have ever read anything about the history of Cambodia in the 20th century, you would know that these people have been to hell and back, a couple of times, so the fact that they are so incredibly hospitable and friendly is a real testament to their spirit, their nature, and their ability to somehow move on from tragedy and despair. I read that the book, “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung is being released as a movie or documentary soon. I hope it does justice to the book, as it is one of the saddest and most powerful I have ever read.

The rooms were not yet ready for us, as we arrived well before the normal check-in time, so we took seats in the restaurant and ordered breakfast. The breakfast was okay, except for the croissants, which were reported as the best anybody in the group has ever eaten. I had to agree.

The staff announced that our rooms were ready and we hauled all our gear up the staircase to the second floor where they were located. They were large, roomy, had a massive bathroom and shower area, and the beds felt fantastic. While we were waiting the ladies were perusing the spa menu and were oh so pleased to discover that a 60 minute massage could be had for 8 dollars, so they booked the four parents in for an early afternoon rub-down. Actually, Ana went for the facial, which was an extravagant 14 dollars, but we’re big spenders here in the Holrique gang.

The spa girls arrived at our rooms and we sent the kiddies away to entertain themselves for an hour. One of them started lathering up Ana’s face with green stuff while the other jumped on top of me and started kneading, rubbing and stretching my body into all sorts of unrecognizable shapes and contortions. It was awesome. Somehow, during one of the less intensive phases of the therapy, I fell asleep and cranked out one big snore which caused the two Cambodian girls to break out in laughter, which woke me up and kept me awake for the remainder of the massage.

For our first day in Siem Reap we decided to chill out by the pool and relax until closer to dinner time, at which point we’d head into town. Our hotel was a two-dollar tuk-tuk ride from the centre so around 6 pm we grabbed two of them and were dropped off on Pub Street within ten minutes. The standard Cambodian tuk-tuk is a small motorcycle towing a buggy which holds four passengers. The buggy itself has a cover on top for the rain, but no sides so you can hang your arms and legs out as the driver whips you around corners, threads you through traffic, speeds you through intersections, drags you through puddles, winds you round round-a-bouts, and finally screeches you to a halt at your final destination, which is usually either a restaurant or a market.

Before leaving for downtown, Magnus and I took a stroll through the local market that was close to our hotel. The dirt roads had turned to muddy pits in the lower spots and the constant flow of motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and pedestrians spread the muddy mixture throughout. The majority of the vendors were selling food and household items. Fruit vendors had large bowls with dragon fruits, bananas, rambutans, pineapples, mangosteens, papayas and many others I couldn’t identify. One vendor had a table with the parts from a single butchered chicken, which she fanned constantly to thwart the flies attempting to land and snack. The air was heavy with so many smells; sometimes a strong whiff of gasoline exhaust, then a burst of turned meat, then a penetrating sniff of incense and, always, the ever present odour of durian, even though we couldn’t see a damn durian anywhere. Magnus found a vendor selling bundles of incense sticks and asked how much it was for a bundle of about 50. She gave us the price in Cambodian reals, and if I remembered the conversion correctly it was about 50 cents, so I gave her an American one-dollar bill and she gave me back 2000 reals. We then stopped at a fruit vendor, I pointed at the rambutans, held out a 1000 note bill and she gave me a bag of six of them. With the remaining 1000 bill I stopped at another vendor, pointed at the bananas, and was given a full bunch. This was enough fruit to snack on for two days and enough incense for a year. Not bad for a buck.

The tuk-tuks dropped us off on Pub Street, which is the heart of the action in Siem Reap. It was only about 5pm, so the place was hours away from its peak, yet already full of people walking around and exploring the many shops, restaurants, bars, massage parlours, and exotic bug snack vendors. I picked up a one dollar bag of fried crickets, which gave me about 50 or 60 of them. Did I get any takers? Magnus tried one, Stella tried one, and Tony and I popped them like peanuts. I couldn’t convince the others to, but I would continue to try unsuccessfully until the end of the evening. You simply cannot visit Cambodia without sampling insects. I think I was being easy on everybody with my choice of crickets, considering they were also selling tarantulas on a stick, fried frogs, roasted snakes, and steam cooked cockroaches – all of which had a higher brain and guts content then our easily snackable dried cricket treats.

Tony and I got seated in comfy chairs at the Temple bar while the rest of the group went to explore the market. The sign out front said “50 cent draft” and sure enough they served us tall glasses of Angkor lager for the low, low price of fifty cents, which paired perfectly with the crickets. We met an Aussie couple whom we chatted with for a long while, and before long Mackenzie turned up, bored by the shopping experience, but still not prepared to eat a cricket.

The girls arrived, proudly showing off their purchased treasures, which included scarves, dresses, purses, and a three-headed elephant figure that Magnus negotiated the vendor down from five bucks to a dollar-fifty. We all had a drink together and then set off in search of a feesh spa (yes, it should be spelled “fish spa” but I can’t help but to spell it the way they say it when they are asking you to buy one– feeeesh spa? The number of “e’s” depends on their level of enthusiasm while asking.). Siam Reap simply has the best feesh spas anywhere as they are located right on the street edge and they serve you beer while you sit there having your feet sucked and nibbled on by fish of all shapes, sizes and varieties. During our previous visit, the feesh spas usually had only small fish, but the one we found had much larger ones and immediately after submerging my feet, two largish, bottom feeding catfish-type creatures each took hold of a pinky toe and started sucking away. It felt strange, but wonderful, and soon a dozen other hungry fish had joined their companions in scouring the goodies off my feet, as well as the feet of my companions, except Stella who, although brave enough to sign up, just couldn’t handle the ticklish sensation, so she just sat beside us on the tank, hovering her feet over the water, cautiously dipping her feet in, then then yanking them out the moment a toe sucker got too close.

We settled on an Italian place for dinner and the servers set us up with a table for eight, right on the street, but we didn’t stay long out there for long as it started to pour rain so we moved inside to a large, comfortable booth. The food was decent, but Ana had been feeling progressively worse and worse and by the end of the meal she could barely keep her eyes open so we grabbed a pair of tuk-tuks and tucked it back to the hotel, putting the wraps on another big day.

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