Our little six row aircraft (massive by Kamandu domestic standards I know) glided in over the jungles of Cambodia and bounced to a stop in Siem Reap, very near Phnom Pen, the Capitol. (GMT +7). The terminal, a lot like those in the outskirts of Nepal, was a small affair, but we could tell right away that it was a tourist destination, with real web cams to take my pic upon entry, as I presented the eVISAs I’d procured online. There were also artifacts of Khmer culture in the lobby where the single luggage pickup belt spat peoples suitcases onto the ground. The fellow with whom I got stuck was not happy about having to process five VISAs, passports, etc, stamping away lime mad and grumbling a bit, but we got through it, he and I. Our pre-arranged ride to the hotel was waiting outside and took us the 20 minutes from the airport to Tara Angkor Hotel, a place that had decent prices and above all, free wifi!
Now this feels more like home! Auto-rickshaws, called “tuk tuks” here, ferried people around, bicycles and motorbikes seem like the main mode of transport, and yet all the while, the town has that sleepy beach town feeling. KTM natives and transients, imagine for a moment KTM having 1/5th it’s population, or even 1/10th, flat ground, massive trees, wide streets, and a hotel on every block with no shops, dwellings, or anything else in between. And no dogs, livestock, or anything walking out in front of you. And not much dust at all. Yes, I’d move here. Not excited about Jean learning (and me muddling through) another boutique language to be sure, but fun none-the-less. No potholes though. Ok, nevermind, it’s not at all like Kathmandu! Definitely some money going through here for tourism, though.
We checked in to our hotel and nearly namasted our hosts, it has become so rote. We ascended the elevator to our room on the fourth floor and shortly went down to dinner at the outside restaurant, and the kiddos ran around the courtyard finding “secret jungle hideouts” while we waited for our pad thai, chicken and curried dishes. A Bordeaux with some Cab franc in there made the evening.
The next morning we graced the hotel breakfast buffet, which had many fresh local fruit varieties, including one that was like a massive white kiwi with pink skin, American pancakes, bacon, an omelette station, and fresh breads and cheeses. Eleanor’s eye was nearly mended, excellent! We commanded one of the motorized tuk tuk’s (here in Sam Riep, a motorbike hooked up to a covered chariot capable of seating four adults comfortably on two benches, optimistically for a full day tour, and set off on the long straightaway to Angkor Wat and the other various temples in the complex. The tree canopy soared above us, made up of Chheula, Kalanh, Koki, Trasek, Trabek Prey, Chambak, and other trees whose names I cannot remember. We dismounted, purchased two three-day passes for Jean and me, then remounted the chariot and got them validated a few meters beyond purchasing them. We continued on, passing long-dreded spiritualistic seekers and cute crunchy granola chicks on rented bikes and locals alike, and got passed in turn by fancy SUVs and sedans, and vans full of other tourists. There were even small electric trams, looking like rogue cars from Disney World’s parking lot that got away from Goofy lot. As we neared the main temple entrance (we would pass it and continue on to other temples, to see it in the afternoon light better), we could hear the tropical bird-like calls of the vendor ladies selling straw hats, guidebooks, postcards, and other touristy wares.
Our Tuk Tuk driver took us from one temple to the next, dropping us off on one side of the temple and letting us tour the temple for pickup on the other side. The kids ate it up, but tired themselves out quickly, and of course we forgot the ergo kid carrier, so were reduced to holding or shouldering old school style. The various temples were amazing! Some of these temples must have been over a thousand years old (Angkor Wat itself was built sometime in the 12th century), and were crumbling into the jungle. Some temples were definitely stored, and others in process. Others still, were simply there for the climbing, which the children did with relish. Up, over and through, stone block steps, massive windows, hallways and crevices. We peeked in at incense-burning, sash-decorated images of Buddha (the temple complex was originally Hindu, but later buddhist), politely refusing purchase of sticks of incense for good luck. Some steps they could only manage with a helping hand, they were so steep a climb.
By noon, granola bar lunches devoured, they were spent, and with the whining commencing, so were we. Our driver, making half a day’s profit for nothing, happily drove us back to the hotel. We decided to really tire the kids out and take them to the pool. I jumped in with them, braving the overcast skies and breezy wind to help the girls “swim”, while Lucas swam around us and jumped in, Jean looking on over her book while “sunning.” Finally shivering, we exited and dried off for a nap before dinner.
This evening we braved the “Lucky Sashimi” restaurant a few doors down for a semi-frozen fish dinner, while the kids ate some dumplings and fried pork chops.
Our second morning we had much more of an idea what to expect, and only asked for half a days ride, direct to Angkor Wat and then on to some other temples we’d not yet seen. Angkor Wat was indeed huge. Apparently no modern buildings can be taller than the 65 meters height of the temple. Still, we hadn’t seen the temple that made up so many of the iconic images in our minds, that of stone temples being devoured and strangled by massive trees and vines. The last temple of the day gave us that, the roots digging and grasping at the stone walls, seemingly digging them up out of the ground, like some vegetable octopus crawling over the roofs and walls, the trunks of the trees massive and reaching like some diplodocus neck arching up out of the jungle.
Our last temple seen, we exited the grounds and tuk-tuk’d back to the hotel for a nap (Eleanor fell asleep on the ride back) and then some more pool time. It was quite breezy and cloudy, and with the imminent beach visit to Phuket I felt I could skip it, but the children devoured each minute as only they can. We had dinner again at the hotel restaurant and Skyped with Kathy and Bob at the table, although the poolside waterfall made it a bit hard to hear. The pizza for the kids took long enough to make us wonder wether the dough needed to rise beforehand, it arriving after Jean and I had finished our meals! The curries fish balls (not what it sounds like, folks) were excellent, and Jean yummed up the pad thai.
We made for the bar afterwards to use up our dart coupons (“5 darts thrown per coupon”) in order to try to win a drink. We only managed to come away with three soft drinks for the kids. We struck up a conversation with some Aussies who were quite adept with the darts, and so found ourselves sharing some well won Angkor beers and conversation about Tom Burlinson (Jean spurring on this particular topic) and rugby.
The last morning of our stay at Tara Angkor I borrowed one of the free bikes from the hotel and rode up to Angkor Wat’s temple entrance, some 6 k away. No wonder it was free, this cycle of mine, a Frankenstein and former glory had full suspension, but such a short front fork that it was quite squirrely to ride and refused to shift any of it’s 21 speeds except to hop the chain off the rear gears at inopportune moments. I returned in time for our last breakfast buffet, and then we shuttled off to the airport.
We flew to Bangkok in the afternoon, bidding farewell to Cambodia and saying hello to Thailand!
Casualties: one water glass broken, several knees skinned, nothing else of significance.