Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Siem Riep: Amazing Hotels, Amazing History

So, we almost cried when we discovered that all of our Siem Riep pictures, minus the cooking class, would be forever lost. OK, I cried a little bit. That meant losing our Angkor Wat pictures and the pictures I was planning to use to boast about the awesome hotel we stayed in! Very sad, indeed, but I have a vivid memory of our time in Siem Riep- it was my favourite place that we visited in Cambodia.

We took a very long bus ride from the South in Sihanoukville to Siem Riep, which is more to the Northwest. We hadn't heard great things about the road to Siem Riep, and sure enough, it was bumpy and I got a bit motion sick. No biggie.

So here's the thing about buses in Cambodia: some of them stop every five minutes for bathroom breaks and refreshments, while some... well... drive for eight hours straight with no such stops. In the defense of our bus driver, there was only one place on the entire way that was decent to stop in, and he did stop- for five minutes. I barely got back from the bathroom in time!

The real issue of the day was the fact that Pat and I, being used to the buses that stop every five minutes, failed to bring any snacks with us. We were ravenous when we arrived in Siem Riep eight hours later. Funny enough, when we switched buses in Phnom Penh (all roads lead to the capital) a nice young man who worked for the travel company helped me with my bag and asked me if I wanted his friend to pick us up in a tuk tuk when we arrived. If this had been two months ago I would have told him to leave me alone (please). However, we had been on the road a long time and we were tired. I said sure. Why not. I know he'll just try to take us to a guest house that will give him a cut of the profits, but I would rather that than have to haggle with a non-English speaking tuk tuk driver. So I gave the guy my name.

Sure enough, when we arrived in Siem Riep, there were two young men holding a sign with my name on it. I forgot to tell Pat I had given the guy in Phnom Penh my name, so he was pretty surprised by the royal treatment we were receiving. We asked them to take us to a place we found in the Lonely Planet, but actually, they were able to really convince us- not because we were tired, but because they knew what they were talking about- to go to a locally owned guest house. It's true! All LP ever recommends are foreign owned businesses! Not fair. We decided to go see what the guys had to offer... and ... oh my God is all I can say. What a beautiful guesthouse.

Our room was pretty much poolside, with a nice little patio, air conditioning, cable, hot shower... mini bar... everything you could want for 20 bucks a night. And since it was our last place before going back to Korea, we splurged and were glad. The pool was surrounded by a beautiful, lush tropical garden and the pool itself was just gorgeous. We were a five minute walk away from the famous night market and "Pub Street", and we liked the look of this touristy, but still Cambodian town.

We arranged with the tuk tuk guys to take us around Angkor the next day... at 5:30 AM, to see the sunrise. We went to Pub Street and had Shepard's Pie and Angkor beer for dinner. Very satisfying.

The next morning, we got up early and our tuk tuk dude was already waiting for us. It was 5 AM but it was already hot. It was rainy season in Cambodia but that just means 23 hours of pure, hot sunlight and 1 hour of torrential downpour- if that.

The temples of Angkor are spread over about 15 kilometres (from the most famous to the most remote). The most famous temples are, of course, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (which is really a bunch of temples and was once the capital city of Angkor) and Ta Prohm- which is famous among travellers as the building that trees started growing around and on top of, and famous among everyone else as the temple in Lara Croft: Tombraider (I think- I've never seen it myself...).

We bought a one day pass for 20 bucks and went to Angkor Wat to see the sun rise. Angkor Wat is considered the largest ever religious building... or something like that. Anyway, you need to cross the moat before you even see it. It's huge. The moat itself is huge! We sat and watched the sunrise and then wandered around the temple. Every boy tourist (Patrick included) kept whistling the Indiana Jones theme song. It was amusing and annoying all at the same time.

After Angkor Wat we were supposed to go to Angkor Thom, but we couldn't find our tuk tuk driver. Eventually we found him napping in a corner. Tuk tuks, or at least, bikes, are necessary in order to see the different temples. I think I read somewhere that Angkor was the biggest pre-industrial city ever discovered, so the temples are very spread out. Ankgor Thom was cool. We had to pass through the city gates and then, everywhere you look, there are piles of stones, ruins and well preserved buildings of the old city. We found out that Angkor flourished until the Thais sacked it and whoever was left fled and re-established a new capital in Phnom Penh. No one remembered Angkor until it was discovered in the 1900's by a Frenchman. Then they started trying to put everything back together. Then the Khmer Rouge came into power and destroyed all historical records and documents, so after they fell no one could remember where the stones were supposed to go. Also, they mined the area really heavily, so that had to be taken care of.

After Angkor Thom we went to the famous Ta Prohm temple, which was really a monestary! It's funny, Angkor started out as, I believe, a polytheistic society. Then they turned Hindu, and finally they were Buddhist. The artwork carved into the buildings is a mixture. It tells stories of great wars, of bare breasted dancers (they say the Thais took the dancers with them and that's where Thai dance has it's roots) and then there are Buddha's and Krishnas everywhere. It's great. Ta Prohm was amazing. It's crazy how the trees are holding the building together!

There was much more to see, but we were exhausted and all templed out. It was getting very hot and I could hear the pool calling my name, so we went back happily to our hotel where we swam, relaxed and had lunch. Lovely.

The next day we took a Khmer cooking class at a restaurant on Pub Street. It was fun, as our cooking classes always are! We cooked alongside an American Philippino couple who actually live in Korea and work as nurses on the American base in Yongsan (Seoul). Too wierd! They were really nice and we enjoyed a nice lunch together afterward. The four of us all made different dishes and shared. I made Amok, which is sort of like a curry, but with a different, more Cambodian paste. Sarah made a curry, her boyfriend made a stir fry, and Patrick made LocLac- Cambodian steak (very yummy). We all made salads- I made mango, Pat made banana flower and the couple made a papaya salad and spring rolls. Great lunch!

After lunch I thought I would treat myself to a mani-pedi. My first one, ever. And it cost me 12 bucks (for both). Very relaxing. After that, a swim and a smoothie and some BBC Newsworld, we hit the town!

Back on Pub Street we had a nice dinner and several glasses of wine and beer. Then we hit the night market. I loved it! The stuff wasn't as nice as the night market in Luang Prabang, but there lots of great dresses and we got a hammock and some scarves and some little ornaments. And then we found Dr. Fish! Yet another Korean installment! Of course we had a go, and I asked if the fish came from China (I knew that would be the first question asked by my Korean friends- no dirty Chinese fish, please! For whatever reason...). Of course the man running the pool said no! These are clean fish from Europe! A fish is a fish if you ask me, but I have fun teasing my Korean friends about their inherent racism towards China... and Japan... and almost everywhere else...

We didn't want to leave, and I certainly didn't want to go to Bangkok because I hate flying and the closer we got to Bangkok the closer we got to flying... but we were up bright and early the next day, ready for anything. We would be in Bangkok later that afternoon...

After we cooked our meals they were brought out so we could dine al fresco.

Pat, concentrating on making the perfect LocLac.

Ready to plate it up.

Us, our cooking companions and our teacher with our works of art.

Stirring up my Amok. I made this one with chicken, but it can also be made with fresh water fish.

Pat's banana flower salad in the foreground and my mango salad in the background. Both delicious!
Ingredients for Banana Flower Salad. After shredding the banana flower, Pat had to soak it in lemon for about 15 minutes. On the plate you can see sweet basil and shredded carrot.

Getting ready to pound up my curry paste.

Curry Paste ingredientsL lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, fresh root turmeric, small red chillis, galangal ginger, garlic and shrimp paste.

Mango salad ingredients: sweet basil (ribboned), shredded carrot and shredded mango. Easy!

For my Amok? Onion, oyster mushrooms, chicken and tamarind leaf (I think?).

LocLac ingredients: zucchini, tomato, beef and onion. And chillies.


The first thing we saw when we came in. Glorious!

Fresh produce at the market.

The fishmongers just sat on their tables.

Hard at work.

Of course, we had to try some crickets. They tasted really nutty, and actually yummy, but I gagged when I tried to swallow their legs and my throat got tickled.

Plenty of stuff for sale.

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