Adventures in Cambodia
Part I: Siem Reap
Our time in Siem Reap was in itself almost two vacations in one. On one hand, we spent our evenings enjoying the lush gardens at our hotel, open-air restaurants (with delicious food and even delicious-er ambiance), and trolling through the various markets. (This is the view from our hotel window. Try and imagine the sound of a little fountain, and a cool breeze along with it.) On the other hand, we spent our days cycling and cycling and cycling, until POOF an ancient temple would emerge from the jungle and need to be explored.
Our first day, the cycling was almost luxurious. We started off early in the morning (with our cycling guide) along broad, flat, tree lined avenues. I settled into my saddle, ready for a long ride when we came to a T-junction, and huge stone walls and faces (and small, very lively monkeys) emerged from behind the trees. That day, I never did feel like we cycled very far. We did tour through Ta Prohm (aka the Tomb Raider Temple) with the huge tree roots enveloping the massive stones, Angkor Thom (with the big stone 4-sided face), and finally, Angkor Wat itself. Our temple guide was very knowledgeable, although we had some trouble tuning our ears to his accent, and deciphering a litany of unfamiliar Hindu, Buddhist, and Khmer names. Eventually, I gave up trying to remember if such-and-such a temple was built by King Jayavarman VII, and dedicated to Vishnu, or if it was built by King Suryavarman II and dedicated to Shiva, or if it was actually dedicated to Buddha, but later had all the Buddha’s chiseled off by a Hindu preferring king. Instead, I turned my attention to the exquisite details of the carving, and the realization that I was actually standing in the jungle temples of Cambodia.
Our second day of cycling took us far from the cool, breezy boulevards of the previous day, and out along the tourist forsaken backroads of Cambodia. It will remain in my memory as one of the most unique bike rides of my life. We cycled for hours along long, flat, dusty, grimy, gritty, hot, unpaved roads. I loved every minute of it. Cars were few and far between, but wooden houses built high on stilts were not. Shade was sparse, but the landscape was stunning. Not a tourist (or tourist shop) was to be seen, but children all along the route would come running out from under their houses to smile shyly, say hello, or even high-five us as we rode past. I was sure that by the end of 20 minutes cycling in that heat and beating sun I would be curled up in the ditch suffering from heat stroke – but after 1 or 2 or even 3 hours ( I didn’t wear my watch, so I really don’t know how long it took us to cycle 30 or 40km) I still felt great, and never once muttered nasty things under my breath about Annelie making me cycle all over Cambodia in the blazing sun. That day, at the end of our journey, we visited Bantay Srei, which displays the most detailed and intricate carvings of all the Angkor temples. That night, I spent hours scrubbing red dusty sunscreen paste out of every wrinkle in my skin, and grinning all the while.
On our third, and final, day of cycling, we set out down Siem Reap’s main thoroughfare. As we kicked off from the curb, our guide said “Stay to the right, keep moving, don’t panic. Let’s go.” Right. Somehow, Jen managed to get a picture of Annelie and I pedaling along surrounded by motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars and buses. I’m so glad I could only see the traffic infront of, and directly beside me. Once we pool all our pictures, I’ll post that one here for you to see. (Mom, maybe you’d better not look.) Honestly, I don’t even remember what temple we saw that day – I think it was Bakong. Later that afternoon, our temple visits complete, we stowed our bikes in the support van and headed for the floating village. We sailed past houses, schools, churches, gas stations, libraries, and even a regulation sized basketball court all bobbing along in the river.
Also while in Siem Reap, I discovered the joys of pepper. I had read that Cambodia was famous for it’s Kampot pepper, but I thought to myself, “Right. Pepper. Black stuff, you sprinkle it on eggs, hangs out next to the salt, makes you sneeze. How exciting can that be?” Well, the first time I bit into a cluster of little green balls tightly crowded onto a thin stem, I was impressed. I’ve never had ‘fresh’ pepper before, and it was delicious. For the rest of the trip, I appreciated the black peppery taste in so many of the dishes I enjoyed in Cambodia. My sad little shaker of dull, generic, has-lived-a-long-shelf life pepper in my kitchen cupboard will never measure up.
That’s it for Siem Reap. In Part II: Shihanoukville, we’ll head to the beach.