Once upon a time there were two people called Paul & Karen and they decided to live their dreams and here is one of their tales……..
We left Battambang to go to Siem Reap by river boat. It was a great 9 hour journey through rural Cambodia. We passed floating villages which I loved as I have never seen anything like that before. There was also loads of bird life which Karen got really into as she was sitting next to a keen birdwatcher.
Siem Reap is a lovely town. It is full of old colonial buildings that have been converted into lovely restaurants, bars and boutiques. We had been warned that there are lots of beggars and that we'd be constantly hassled by people trying to sell us stuff but we never came across that at all. Of course the main reason for being in Siem Reap was to see the temples of Angkor. We had been given great advice to go to the Angkor museum before setting out to see the temples as we would appreciate what we were seeing. We totally loved the museum and would strongly advise you to do the same when you are here.
We booked a tuk tuk driver for 3 days to see the temples. That’s right 3 days! There are that many temples to see. Hiring a tuk tuk driver is the best way to see the temples. It is quite a distance to cycle from Siem Reap and once you get to the temples you have a lot of walking to do as they are huge. Also by 10:00 its scorching hot and the distances between some of the sites are long. We felt quite sorry for the cyclists that we whizzed past.
Our first temple was the world famous Angkor Wat. I will say that again “WE WENT TO ANGKOR WAT!!!!“ All those editions of Wanderlust magazine raving about the place had me dreaming about the place for years...and we finally made it there! It’s the world’s largest religious building and probably one of the prettiest. Pretty is a strange word to use for ruins but they really are. It is so hard to describe the place. First of all it is in a beautiful location. It is surrounded by a moat and lush jungle. On almost every part of the buildings there are an infinite amount of mind boggling intricate carvings that all mean something and finally it’s bloody huge! And that;s just one of the ruins! There are over 20 archaeological sites and ruins scattered about different areas. At its height, the area of Angkor had a population of over 1 million whilst London, at the same time, had just 60000 people. In fact it was the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
Yes, there are lots of tours that come to view the place but the place is so huge that there were many times where we found ourselves alone. We saw so many different ruins that I will never remember all their names but they all had something special. For example the Bayon temple had stone faces all over it and another temple had trees and vegetation growing into the actual rock. It was like the jungle was trying to reclaim the land. On one of the days we trekked up a mountain (well hill) to watch sunset over the surrounding areas...as did another 1000 people! Luckily we got there early and had a great view.
On our last day visiting the temples we went to see the sun rising over Angkor Wat. Sunrise over these majestic ruins was awe inspiring and well worth the 5am wake up call. Paul and I took breakfast with us and after most people had left we had a little picnic on the grounds with Angkor Wat in the background. What an idyllic spot. It was quiet and peaceful and very very beautiful.
When I was about 10 years old, my parents used to take us on a picnic every Sunday.We'd meet other families and set off towards the Maltese countryside for a day of eating and playing. Adults and kids alike loved this Sunday ritual and looked forward to it all week. One of my favourite spots was a place called Selmun simply because it had abandoned soldier barracks that we could explore. That sense of excitement and anticipation I got before entering any of the derelict buildings made me feel like I was one of the Famous Five on an Enid Blyton adventure.
Walking around the temples of Angkor made me feel like I was 10 again. Although this time the buildings were far grander and much more exciting than Selmun barracks. An adventurous kids' dream! I loved discovering underground passages, tiny prayer rooms or just marvelling at the intricate carvings on the walls. What a great place!
On one of the days we decided to have lunch at a nearby shack close to one of the ruins. As we sat down at a table this little girl who couldn't have been more than 6 came and sat next to us. 'Where you from?' she asked. Once she'd established we were from the UK she opened her little purse and fished out a small grubby plastic bag full of coins. She searched around and pulled out a few British coins telling us 'you change for me. You give me Cambodian money'. What an enterprising little girl! She'd probably told other tourists that she collected foreign coins. Paul and I were very amused and impressed. Soon her older sister came over and tried to sell us some key chains. After a while she got bored of that and decided to just sit and chat. At one point she asked 'when I say lovely juvely tourist laugh, why?' P and I had a hard time explaining the humour of hearing a little Cambodian girl use British slang. The two sisters really made our afternoon. Instead of giving them money we let them play with our cameras and they got so excited taking photos of each other, I really wished I had a Polaroid so I could give them their pics. It was great seeing them play and act like children, a far cry from the begging kids we were told about.
Whenever I thought about Cambodia I always got this image of orange dusty roads with wooden shacks on either side. Clearly I wasn't imagining Siem Reap. It's got some gorgeous streets with pretty restaurants and arty shops and not one Mac D's in sight. Paul and I spent our evenings trying out some fantastic restaurants with divine food and cheap cheap prices. One restaurant in particular was called the Blue Pumpkin. It's decked all in white and has beds you can chill on or eat on. Uber cool place. That night I was wearing my 'traveller's trousers'. These very wide trousers that are held up by a piece of string. As we got up to leave, the unthinkable happened. I jumped off the bed and while I went up my trousers went down. I actually managed to flash every other diner in the restaurant. Cringe cringe cringe! I moved faster than Flash picking up my trousers and vanishing out of the restaurants leaving a trail of dust behind me. Mortified!!! (But highly entertaining).
Since we'd lowered the tone at the nice restaurants, the next evening we decided to go somewhere a little bit more authentic. Cambodians love a good bar-b-q and in Siem Reap there's a street of bar-b-q shacks full of Cambodians eating, drinking and being merry. We studiously ignored the hygiene standards, grabbed a plastic chair and pointed to what another group was eating to show what we wanted to eat. The food turned out to be lovely and the atmosphere was great. Whilst a decent restaurant will always go down a treat, the places where the locals eat gives a truer flavour of a town. It's great that Siem Reap can offer both.
And so with the temples explored and restaurants sampled we headed off to our next destination. The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
More when we get there!
Lots of love
Karen and Paul