05.04.2016 - 08.04.2016 40 °C
Knowing our bus to Siem Reap from Battambang was at 7:30am, we got up nice and early. We hung around in the massive hostel foyer for almost an hour before anyone showed up to check us out. Luckily the bus company hadn't come to collect us yet. The American man who bought the hostel 4 months ago who we'd had friendly conversations with throughout our stay, eventually came over to deal with us. He was in a terrible mood and barely made eye contact with us, sighing away at the inconvenience of us checking out. He eventually got the paperwork together and took our payment and checked us out. We then tried to give him back the towels we'd loaned in order to have our $10 deposit returned. Upon looking at the towels he said "these aren't our towels, I don't recognise them". Obviously we asserted that we'd been given them by one of his employees when we checked in. It took a bit of tugging for him to hand over the money but we got there in the end. As we left with our bus driver we saw the little puppy pooing on the floor. We were glad to be gone.
We climbed onto our mini bus and the German lady who had been on our sick-drenched journey from Phnom Penh to Battambang looked up and smiled at us. Lauren immediately felt the need to assert "I'm much better now!" just in case the woman thought she was in for another projectile show.
The ride was only 4 hours or so, which felt like a mere eyelash flutter compared to some of our recent journeys. We were dropped very close to our guesthouse so found a nice tuk tuk man (Mr. Lin) who took us the few blocks to Siem Reap Holiday Garden for only $1.
The owner, Pia, gave us a very warm welcome, along with her 3 incredibly cuddly cats. The hotel is an old fashioned colonial building with some interesting replica Italian renaissance furniture. After our hostel experience in Battambang we were hugely relieved and excited to have our own double bedroom, with en suite AND its very own key! The guesthouse is in a quiet Muslim community and a short walk to the hotspots with plenty of restaurants and shops around.
For dinner we walked through the town to Artillery; another wholefood healthy hippie joint. We both remarked on how much the town reminded us of both Chiang Mai and Hội An. I think it's the mixture of the canals, trees, sprawling markets and decorative lights.
We booked our Angkor temples 'mini tour' through our hostel which meant we were up at 4am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Mr. Yon, our tuk tuk driver dropped us at the ticket office first which was already teeming with tourists desperate to get a sniff of the largest religious monument in the world. We arrived at the site, had our tickets checked and entered, joined by thousands of travelling contemporaries.
We weren't blown away at first; it was still dark and we hadn't woken up yet. We were also nosing on the other tourists and pitying the Cambodian children trying to sell tat to us while obviously still half asleep. Due to a lack of chairs (pffffft) we sat on the dusty ground beside a large pond, watching the sun rise over the tower. Steadily more and more people gathered in front of us taking selfies with the Wat and obscuring our view. We didn't mind too much; we couldn't be bothered getting up and we enjoy people-watching anyway.
There's no denying that the Wat is damn impressive to look at, especially against the azure twilight. The interior of the complex is just as, if not more astounding than the exterior. Endless labyrinths covered in intricate carvings, a wealth of towers, galleries and impossibly steep stone staircases. We opted to not pay for a guide (we're most definitely on the penny pinch wagon now) so we didn't spend an awfully long time wandering around. We were both a little underwhelmed by the whole experience; we're not sure whether this is down to tiredness, ignorance, tourists or too much hype. However we did really enjoy ourselves and were glad we did it. Perhaps a bit of time will solidify the greatness better.
Mr. Yon took us through the south gateway to Angkor Thom (the ancient capital city of Angkor). Along either side of the gateway bridge are old stone sculptures of Khmer gods, all with very different, incredibly expressive faces. We then moved onto the Bayon temple. We were glad to find that because it was still very early in the morning there were hardly any other tourists there; in fact we only saw a handful in the hour we were there. Within the complex are many temples covered in large, softly smiling faces that radiate serenity. There are plenty of other carvings too throughout the site. We even managed to find the resident kitty, who we of course bestowed with many strokes.
The next stop was Ta Prohm; another temple site but one that hasn't been painstakingly renovated or rebuilt over the hundreds of years since it was neglected. This means that nature has reclaimed much of the area; there are gigantic trees growing in and around the ruins, with huge twirling roots making the biggest impact. The other fact I find very interesting is portions of the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were shot here. This means that my footprint could have stood on Angelina Jolie's footprint; the closest I'll ever get to having sex with her.
Our last stop on the 'mini tour' was Banteay Kdei aka The Citadel. Not much to note about this one; it's built in the same style as the Bayon and Ta Prohm and from around the same time, it's just a little smaller.
Opposite Banteay Kdei is Srah Srang reservoir; a huge body of water with an ancient stone platform and staircase. There we saw water buffalo, cows, children, and a group of workers chopping seaweed underwater with machete type tools. There were stood knee-deep in the water, bent awkwardly over, swinging their knifes over and over. Certainly not easy work; especially in the 40° heat. Here they are;
We got back on Mr. Yon's tuk tuk ready to return to our guesthouse at around 9:30am. Apparently the 'mini tour' normally takes a minimum of 6 hours. We were finished in 3 and a half. We got the feeling that Mr. Yon was a little disheartened by our rapid touring of Angkor city, but we were actually very pleased with ourselves that we'd largely avoided the crowds AND the midday sun! Obviously every traveller is different but there's only so much ancient stone you can take in before it all becomes a bit of a blur. But again perhaps this is emblematic of our ignorance or 'Generation X' desensitisation.
We fit in a cheeky cat nap back at 'home' and then spent a few hours trying desperately to find a travel agent that sells Nattakan bus tickets. We'd read that the only bus company that goes straight through from Cambodia into Thailand without having to change buses and carry your bags for a mile or two. However after giving up and speaking to Pia on our reception we discovered that Nattakan don't sell to third parties and so you can only buy online. We weren't too trusting of this option so we instead decided to be brave and booked the cheapest bus option we could.
We then had a rushed lunch where I had the most delicious char sui pork soup I've ever had and popped into the cinema to watch the sci-fi horror 10 Cloverfield Lane.
The film was pretty good and we enjoyed the feeling of dryness for a couple of hours.
That night we walked to the famous Pub street to have a nose and get some cheap street food. We got some tasty $1 noodles and treated ourselves to some Nom Kruok; crispy little spherical shells with sweet glutinous coconut rice and sweetcorn inside.
Pub street isn't one street but an area; filled with, as expected, lots of pubs and bars, along with loads of street food vendors, clothes shops, newsagents and restaurants. Naturally, tourists flock to this area for cheap food and drinks and familiar music. The vibe was actually quite cool; not too crazy, aggro or seedy, but an infectious buzz.
For our final day in Siem Reap we visited Artisans D'Angkor which was only a short walk from our guesthouse. It's an arts and crafts centre with lot of workshops and of course a gift shop, set in picturesque leafy surroundings set back from the town. We were given a tour around the centre and were shown all of the different crafts in-process including wood, ceramic and stone carving, lacquerware, silk and tile painting. We met with the artists, many of whom are profoundly or partially deaf and come from poor backgrounds. It was fascinating to see the work behind the sorts of things we would always overlook in shops. A lot of hard work, time and skill goes into the creation of small and big souvenirs, art pieces and furniture.
I did try out a bit of British Sign Language with some of the girls but it turns out Khmer Sign Language is actually very different. Who'd've guessed it!?
After our tour we then hopped on our free shuttle bus to the Angkor silk farm 10km away. There we were shown exactly how silk is harvested, processed and turned into all sorts of items. We saw the mulberry farm where the silk worms feed, the flat, circular baskets where they form their silky cocoons and the whole factory where the silk is refined. On this site there were only women workers, again from underprivileged backgrounds.
The experience actually made us feel ok about silk as an animal by-product. Neither of us knew how silk was produced, we knew it came from silk worms but we'd both guessed that they just shoot thread out of their bums. We were happy to hear that the silk actually comes from the empty cocoon of the worms and that they themselves aren't hurt or killed of messed with at all.
Later on in the afternoon we sat in our guesthouse's communal area and watched a counterfeit copy of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. We really are living the dream. The sounds of uzis and big boobs bouncing around clearly vibrated through the guesthouse as soon enough, 2 other British backpackers joined us on the sofas. While occasionally ogling Angelina, we all swapped travelling stories and tips and Lauren and I picked up some good ideas for South Thailand, our next destination.
That's it for Cambodia; we've loved every bit of it (except for the prevalence of the American dollar) and can't believe we're already halfway through our trip. Onto our third and final sojourn in bastard Bangkok.