(Note: Thanks to uh… current events I’m writing this post nearly 3 weeks after leaving Asia. Can’t be helped but hopefully my recollections are clear.)
It wasn’t until I was back in Hanoi a couple days later and I went back to seeing the wizened old ladies running a vegetable stand or a couple of old men playing cards by the lake that it finally struck me what had seemed mildly weird when I was in Cambodia… The sheer youth of the population. I guess it’s something I subconciously noticed but didn’t quite process until the comparison was stark. Intellectually of course I knew Cambodia’s population was one of the youngest in the world, that’s what happens when a madman does his best to kill off an entire generation of a country, but it still took a while to really hit me. Between the Americans, the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge the Cambodian people have been through hell the past fifty years which makes their open friendliness all the more enjoyable. Unfortunately even today their government is among the most corrupt in the world with a strong authoritarian streak. As a traveller on a more grassroots level I try to take heart in the fact that most of my money is going directly to small businesses and people themselves.
Day two started early (but not pre-dawn early) as I joined my trusty tuk tuk friend to head out to some of the further temple and wow, travelling out into the more rural area was a different experience. Most of the cars you see are relatively new (it’s only been in recent years that importing cars for personal use has been a thing again) and even motorbikes don’t reach anywhere close to Vietnam levels. Dangerously overloaded miniature trucks are definitely a thing though… like the minicab I saw carrying a twenty foot by twenty food cube of plastic barrels down the road and crowding everything else. The further you get out of town the more you see the odd cart/tractor combos as well. Most of these are essentially a hay wagon style cart of varying sizes connected via a long yoke to the front wheel and engine of a tractor. Thankfully these are mostly slow because they seem very unwieldy to control.
The homes and countryside itself reminded me much more of Thailand than of my recent times in Vietnam as well. More buddhist style architecture, lots of gates of the thai style and once again having a mostly indecipherable alphabet to a western eye all contribute to that. It’s also noticeably waiting for the rainy season to green up a bit, much as when I was in south of Thailand. At the same time it’s nowhere near as modern looking as Thailand anywhere. The occasional newly built house sticks out along these rural roads especially as the modern Cambodian appears to be moving back to the cities, yet there are also some modern (often western built and signed) schools as well. At points this contrast becomes very pronounced, nowhere more so than the multiple gas stations we passed with an awning and sign that wouldn’t be out of place on a corner here but sheltering pumps as old as I am and a payment shack made of salvaged lumber and plastic. Low quality scooter/bike gas is available almost everywhere roadside in water bottles and jugs, probably a good thing given how many bikes I saw there completely missing fuel gauges. Travelling fairly early in the morning we passed a number of families sharing one motorcycle, frequently getting a smiling little boy giving me a wave as he sat sandwiched between his sister and mom behind dad.
The first actual stop for the day was Banteay Srei which means Citadel of Women and was supposedly so named because the carvings were so intricate they showed the hand of women in their creation. It’s fairly different from the main complexes for a couple of reasons. First it was built not by a King but by a senior civil servant/philanthropist and secondly it’s build primarily of a red sandstone that makes it look starkly different. The carvings themselves are absolutely beautiful. The pediments and doorway lintels are particularly breathtaking with intricate designs still beautifully preserved. The site is fairly small (perhaps not surprising given it wasn’t royally built) but was one of my favourite visits of the trip.
On the way back to the main site my driver asked me if I wanted to stop at the Cambodian Landmine Museum, I decided to not subject myself to the depression (in fact I’d already made a donation to a landmine charity) and spend more time at the temples given my limited time in Cambodia but it’s supposedly a well done exhibit.
Once back at the main park we proceeded to do the ‘outer circuit’ of very slightly less visited temples including East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Prasat Kro Ko and Preah Khan.
Ta Som had the same sort of ‘only barely cleared’ vibe as Ta Prohm the day before. Strangler vines and tall trees were everywhere. It was blessedly cooler as a result after baking in the sun at East Mebon earlier.
Preah Neak Poan was one of the more different sites of my visit. It was apparently originally a healing site with a central tower in a pool surrounded by four smaller pools, each one having the power of one of the base elements..
Surrounded by a moat and reached by floating bridge Preah Khan is the largest complex on the outer circuit and one of the largest of the whole park. It’s also where I got, for lack of a better word, abducted by a tourist police officer. Don’t get me wrong, he was a very nice man but his insistence that I take a photo from all of his favourite spots as he showed me through Preah Khan was beyond intense. No sooner had I taken a shot that he’d grab my elbow and pull me over three more feet to show me how the tree looked at this new angle. At times he’d practically snatch the camera out of my hands to make sure I was taking the photo he wanted. He did provide some great information though and when he unsurprisingly asked for a ‘donation’ when I said goodbye I was happy to oblige. By the time I escaped his clutches my camera was actually almost out of power.
As gorgeous and awe inspiring as Angkor is, I admit between the heat and the volume I was getting kind of templed out. After I crossed back over the moat and braved the varying groups of sellers we made a couple more stops at smaller sites but it was with a fairly satisfied heart that I made my way back to the hotel again for a shower. There are further outer temples and some really interesting sounding sites that would draw me back again for sure, but I was ready for a change of pace for sure.
Unfortunately I’d also somewhat cheaped out and had not sprung for a phone sim for Cambodia. Originally I’d tried to buy one in the airport that (based on an internet post from a year ago) should have worked for Cambodia as well but hadn’t noticed until a day or so later that he’d sold me the one for a competing company. It didn’t matter a whole ton except for the fact that it was only as I got back to the hotel around 2 that I got the message that my cooking class choice was full after all and could I come Tuesday… since I was leaving monday afternoon, not so much. Shower forgotten I went back to my research from the night before and dashed off a bunch of messages and emails, somewhat resigning myself to either missing out or having to get up first thing the next morning to check out then rushing off to do one hurriedly before my flight. When I’d originally tried to book the night before I’d been more picky, several of the classes were only doing things that were very close to the thai/viet classes I’d done and I was hoping to do things more unique to Khmer cuisine but at this point it was try to get whatever I could.
When I got no response I gave up and had a shower. After relaxing and watching something for a while I got a delayed email alert on my phone that said “yes we have a spot for 5pm, you are booked” and as I checked the time I saw: 4:52. I threw on some clothes, got out the door and hopped on the tuk tuk only to get to the end of the alley and find it blocked by a delivery truck. Some truculent honking later I managed to get to the class restaurant at only 5 after and they were thankfully waiting for one other person so I didn’t look like the only asshole (especially when he/she never showed.)
I enjoyed the class at the Paper Tiger but it was probably the worst of the trip cooking classes I’ve taken so far, that said it was also the cheapest. They didn’t have the recipes printed (and in fact this reminds me that I have to email them to remind them to send them) so you couldn’t easily follow along and the chef/teacher woman had a tendency to either give you too little or too much information. Given I was really looking forward to it this was a bit disappointing but it was still a fun time making some tasty dishes with a couple from France. If I went back I’d for sure try to book with the class I’d originally tried to take, my fault for not booking further ahead, I just didn’t expect it to be an issue with the current lack of tourist traffic.
My new French friends and I devoured our creations afterwards along with several $0.50 cent beers before they excused themselves as they were doing the 4AM wakeup call the next morning. I transferred a bit further down the street and had a couple ciders while listening a fairly terrible trio of women singing cover songs and just enjoyed the people watching. In the end I was pretty beat from the heat and the climbing and headed back to the guesthouse where I watched soccer with the desk manager and a brit guy for about an hour before turning in.
The next morning I enjoyed a leisurely sleep in to 8:30AM (oh the decadence,) packed, checked out and spent most of the day walking around and discovering the city in the daytime for the first time really. I checked out some craft markets, bought myself a pretty woven blanket and a few gifts and had another phenomenal meal at a place called Cafe Pou. It was Deboned fried chicken wings with spicy sauce, salt & pepper lime sauce, minced prohok, turmeric rice. Just a fantastic meal packed with flavour and a great way to say goodbye to Cambodia.
Sadly it was indeed time to say goodbye, I was glad I’d made the choice to spend the extra day in Siem Reap and I would definitely happily return someday. There was lots more to see out of town, investigating some of the upper mekong would have been interesting as well. Please friends, if one of you goes in the coming years I’d be really interested in knowing how things have changed.
In any case that just about does it for this adventure, I’m just going to write a brief tale of my return to Hanoi and the ridiculous journey home in a burgeoning pandemic, but that will have to wait for next time.