Before continuing onto part 3 of our Thai adventures, we first headed to Cambodia for a week of adventures in Siem Reap.
Day 100 (!): All things Angkor
Another Air Asia flight under our belts, we arrived in Siem Reap in the early afternoon and met up with our pre-arranged tuk tuk driver to get to our hotel for the week–Clay D’Angkor Resort & Spa. How the tuk tuk itself managed to make the drive with our collective body weight and huge suitcases is beyond me, but that little motorcycle did it…even on the hot mess dirt road leading up to our hotel! (This dirt road was referred to as the ‘free massage’ road given the many potholes along the way. Every tuk tuk driver made the 😧 face as they drove along it.)
The hotel itself was lovely, with spacious rooms and a fantastic pool for us to thoroughly enjoy throughout the week. I miss that pool already.
We were starved soon after arriving at the hotel so we grabbed a bite to eat at their restaurant rather than going into town–mostly because we were lazy, as usual. A good choice though! We ate at the hotel a few other times throughout the week for simplicity’s sake and everything was really good.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening at the pool lazing about and then working on the week’s plans that evening.
Day 101: Scams are THE WORST
The first half of the day was spent by the pool, so I’ll spare you those boring details. We headed into downtown Siem Reap in the late afternoon, with the hopes of checking out the night market & Pub Street and grabbing a bite to eat. As soon as our tuk tuk stopped downtown, we were swarmed by people trying to sell us stuff. I’d long been working on my “no thanks” speech and it worked on most people except for a young woman carrying an infant who was asking for money. As I was trying to extricate myself from that situation, Ben realized that he didn’t have any small bills to pay the tuk tuk driver (who of course didn’t have change) and so he had to run off to find change somewhere. This of course left me alone with the sad mother and baby staring at me and begging.
People typically have lots of opinions about panhandling and whether or not it actually helps people to give them spare change, etc. I personally have a lot of mixed feelings about it and whether or not I give spare change or buy someone a meal depends on random things like my mood or whether or not a cute pet is involved (yes, I’m a sucker, I once gave a guy on the NYC subway a couple of bucks because he had an adorable black cat in his duffle bag that reminded me of my little Khaleesi). However, given everything I’d heard and read about panhandling in Asia (and given my experiences with panhandling in the DR), my plan was to just avoid it at all costs. Well, you try ignoring a young woman in raggedy clothes and no shoes who’s holding a 3 month old baby and begging for formula for said baby. You may be able to ignore her and walk away but I was held hostage in that same spot for like 5-10 minutes while Ben looked for change and her begging only got more and more insistent, with sadder and sadder eyes, and the longer I looked at the baby, the sadder I felt. Yes, I’m a sucker.
So Ben finally comes back with change for the tuk tuk driver and I end up dragging him to a mini mart down the street that the girl said had formula (she follows along of course), figuring that food for a baby is money well spent. Of course we get there and the formula cans are preposterously expensive and now I’m regretting signing myself up for this because 1) it’s more money than I was prepared to spend and 2) it now was obviously a con because there’s clearly no way this woman could normally afford this formula anyway. But what am I supposed to do? “Sorry, just kidding, it’s too expensive, good luck feeding your kid”? Even though I knew there was some sort of scam involved, I went ahead and bought the cheapest can I could find for $15. I thought: worst case, she sells it to someone else and uses the $15 for actual food or clothing or rent and that’s still of much greater value to her than $15 will ever be to me–right?
After a less than pleasant start to our downtown Siem Reap experience, our first stop was the nearest bar for a beer–good thing they were on sale for $0.50 AND buy one get one free. (Really, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard of.) While we were sitting there, I decided to look up this baby formula scam to see how common it is and ended up finding out way more than I ever would want to. The least bad part? The lady who cons you into buying the milk goes back to resell it to the same store you got it from and they split the profits–so now that same can on milk can be repurchased by some other sucker. Fine, corrupt and annoying but not horrible. The very worst part? The theories around the ‘prop’ babies. While no concrete proof has been found to support this, there’s speculation that the babies used for this scam are drugged to be kept looking mellow and weak. I pray that it’s not true but just the idea makes me ill. I get that poor people in developing nations have to eat, and we all know that tourist scams are real, but using infants and children and potentially harming them along the way is a line that can’t be uncrossed. Ugh. Lessons learned: 1) Always carry change in Cambodia and 2) research common scams for each destination BEFORE going out in public.
ANYWAY. Frustrating and depressing scam aside, we decided to walk around Siem Reap a bit and check out the night market. There were tons of stands and they all sell the same stuff and every single person running a stand eagerly says the same things (“lady, lady, buy something!”)–and eventually you’re over it. We just needed food to get our minds off the previous events of the evening, so we headed to Il Forno Restaurant for some pasta… because duh, pasta fixes everything. This place was definitely pricey for Cambodia but it was oh-so-good. 👌🏽
We circled some more shops after dinner but didn’t find anything to our liking and went home. Like much of the rest of south/southeast Asia so far, we noticed a plethora of adorable geckos out and about EVERYWHERE around the hotel. Of course this meant that one snuck in our room as we opened our door, and there is no catching those little suckers, so I went to bed hoping I didn’t wake up to a gecko in my face. 😳
Day 102: Basically, it’s like we’re in The Jungle Book
When deciding on our plans for Siem Reap, we settled on a 2-day temple tour with a driver and guide because otherwise we’d 1) have no idea what we were looking at and 2) we’d probably die from heat exposure without occasional access to air conditioning and cold water. It’s definitely the froofy way to tour the temples (we did see people taking a DIY approach with tuk tuks, etc) but at USD$178 for both of us + the cost of entry tickets it was a good deal.
Day 1 involved the following stops/sights, in order: Angkor Wat, Ta Promh (aka Tomb Raider), Ta Nei, Angkor Thom (Bayon, Baphuon, Terrace of the Elephants), and Phnom Krom mountain for sunset. The day was hot as hell so it was beyond nice to have an AC’d car to get us between major stops–but even better were the cold & fragranced washcloths they kept in a cooler for us to wipe off the puddles of dirt and sweat. I swear those towels alone were worth the $178. We have like 5 million pictures of temples from this tour…here are some favorites from day 1:
Ta Promh (aka Tomb Raider):
Sunset from Phnom Krom mountain:
We were dead tired by the time we got back to the hotel that night, so we had a quick dinner at the hotel, binge watched some Stranger Things, and passed out.
Day 103: From a 4:30am wake up call to a late Halloween night
Day 2 of temple touring was slightly less exhausting despite starting at sunrise (pick up was at 5am 😳 ) and having more stops–probably because each stop was much shorter and involved less climbing than the day before. Here was the schedule, in order: Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Prah Khan, Neak Poan, Ta Som, East Mebon, Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, Pre Rup, Banteay Kdei, and Krovan. Again, way too many pictures from all of this, so just posting some favorites.
The tour ended earlier than expected so we went back to the hotel to relax a bit before venturing out for a classic American tradition: Halloween, Siem Reap-style. But first, a little din-din. We took a tuk tuk back downtown from the hotel and made our way to Joe To Go Restaurant. I had a delicious BLAT (that I forgot to picture, whoops) and Ben had a more traditional meal. (Don’t worry guys, I ate proper Cambodian food at lunch on both temple days, we just sucked at picture taking.)
After stuffing our faces, we ventured out into the streets of Siem Reap to make our way towards all of the Halloween fun–specifically Pub Street. There is no more classic place to grab a drink in Siem Reap (as a tourist) than The Angkor What? Bar, and the pun alone had us reeled in. Fortunately, they were also right in the center of the craziness so we got to enjoy $0.75 beers and ~$5 Patron shots while we watched all of the fun. After experiencing it, I’ve decided that Siem Reap is officially the best place to celebrate Halloween in the whole world–yes, way better than NYC. I wish I could experience this every October 31st.
Day 104: A sober reminder of the things we should be grateful for
We spent the morning relaxing at the hotel before the start of our last proper tour in Siem Reap, this time a tour of Kompong Khleang (KK), one of a few floating villages in the Siem Reap area. We chose this village specifically because tours of the other villages (which are closer to downtown Siem Reap) are notorious for being tourist traps and none of the money goes to the actual community. Tours of KK are relatively new and only available through Community First; reviews were great and the money goes to a great cause (The Bridge of Life School), so it was an easy choice.
After all of the guests were picked up for the tour, we started off with a stop along the road for a kralan, aka rice bamboo cake. The word ‘cake’ here is deceiving because this snack isn’t nearly as sweet as a dessert, but there is a hint of sweetness coming from the coconut milk used to make it. It was pretty tasty, though I probably could have done without the beans–but that’s only because I love rice while I only tolerate most beans 😏
Next up, another snack stop, this time for tiny Cambodian donuts, banana chips, and sweet potato chips. So. Freaking. Delicious. Not only did we get a chance to taste these yummy snacks, we also had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at the shop and see how different snacks are made. Watching the ladies make those little donuts was kind of amazing–they were so fast I could barely track what they were doing with their hands. Ben loved the donuts so much that we bought a small bag of them (BTW 0.5kg of donuts was only $1 so basically I can give myself diabetes in a day for $5).
After stuffing our faces, we continued the drive out to the river so we could get on the boat to KK village. It was maybe a 20-30 minute boat ride out there, specifically to where the Bridge of Life School is. Along the way, we got to take a look at what life is like when you live in a house on stilts…i.e. boats all day every day.
Once we got to the village, we got to visit the school and learn a little bit more about how the organization works and how they help the community. It was here that we learned about the difficulties that children from KK village face in gaining an education, as the village is far away from the formal primary and secondary schools–and this becomes especially difficult during rainy season when the only way to get to school is by boat and the family can’t spare a boat to get a child to school when they also need to get to work. The Bridge of Life School was put in place right in KK village to help children in the community learn the very basics–how to spell their name, basic counting and math, etc–with the hopes that it motivates them to attend primary school thereafter. The school also runs a boat to make sure the kids get there (though secondary school is a separate issue).
Another project that the organization is working on is to bring clean water to KK. With the village being so far from the city, most homes don’t have any plumbing or running water, and so they use river water for everything–bathing, brushing their teeth, drinking, cooking, cleaning, and yes, even for using the toilet. While the water isn’t stagnant, it’s not a gushing and quickly flowing river, so the reality is that the water is very dirty and contaminated, which of course can lead to the spread of water-borne illnesses. Hearing about this and then seeing it with my own eyes legitimately broke my heart. So many of us–especially those of us living in Western countries–take clean, running water and proper plumbing for granted; I know that I do, basically every day. Being reminded that so much of the world’s population doesn’t have these luxuries was a sobering moment. We have so many simple things to be grateful for and we must never take them for granted.
Unfortunately, the organization is having a hard time with their clean water project because despite purchasing a few dozen water filters that could be provided to homes throughout KK, the filters are unusable. They work perfectly BUT the problem is that they’re made of cement and weigh approximately 100kgs…and you can’t bring something that heavy into a home in KK because it will break right through the thin wooden floor boards. And of course, you can’t keep the filters outside on the ground because there is no ground to speak of for half the year. So, they have about 50 working water filters sitting around as they try to figure out how on earth to make them work. A conundrum so insane that I just found myself shaking my head with my hands over my face. It goes without saying–if you or anyone you know has any brilliant ideas on how to make these filters work OR where to get equally good but lightweight filters (at a reasonable price), I have a feeling that Community First is all ears.
We also had the opportunity to leave the school and walk around the ‘tiny island’ that’s right by the school building to interact with the local residents and get a chance to look around a bit. This ‘island’ is all that’s left in this area as dry land above the water line during rainy season; otherwise, you need to get around by boat. I’m still sort of baffled by the concept of how this transition between dry season and rainy season even happens!
Eventually we made our way back to the boat to head back to Siem Reap. All in all, this was a truly fantastic tour, and I cannot rave about this experience enough. Every minute of it was an authentic look into the life of a Cambodian, especially those who reside in the floating villages and in some ways experience difficulties that Cambodians in cities like Siem Reap probably don’t. I would be lying if I didn’t say that in some ways the tour made me quite sad, but this kind of sadness is good because it’s motivating and has made me want to figure out a way to help this community and others like them. If hearing about all of this makes you want to help too, you can always consider donating directly to the Bridge of Life School. (If you work for a company that matches donations, please consider submitting the required paperwork to them so KK can receive all of the help possible.) If you’d prefer something more wide-reaching but still focused on clean water efforts, there’s also water.org, and there are plenty of organizations focused on education for young children as well. Either way, every dollar helps.
Day 105: All massages should be 4 hand massages
Our last day in Siem Reap happened to be the same day as the Water Festival, an occasion that marks the end of monsoon season and the start of fishing season. In Siem Reap, they celebrate with tons of stands selling food, drinks, and miscellaneous ‘stuff’ along the main streets in the center of town as well as boat races in the river. We didn’t get to see the real action but we walked around downtown during the late morning prep for a glimpse of the festivities.
After we got our fill of festival sight-seeing, we made our way to one of the downtown markets to do a little shopping. I managed to snag 3 new t-shirts for maybe $10? Ben got himself 2 t-shirts for about $15 (he got fancy designs while I obviously went for factory elephant prints 😂). All in all, a good shopping day! Then we stopped at Cafe Central for a little lunch, where I couldn’t stop myself from getting a club sandwich just so I could eat some more crispy bacon. Of course Ben got a salad. 🙄
Afterwards, Ben and I parted ways. I had a spa appointment to get to and Ben was going to take a long leisurely walk back to the hotel (clearly only one of us has figured out how to properly vacation). I chose Lemongrass Garden Beauty & Massage for my relaxation & grooming (mani/pedi) treats based off 1) reviews and 2) the availability of 4 hand massages–something I’d never tried before but sounded great. Well, I can tell you now with confidence that a 4 hand massage is one of the greatest things ever and I wish I could have one every week. Extra hands means extra knots and kinks worked out in half the time, and it was perfect. The only thing that marred the experience is that I developed this strange skin rash afterwards that I was convinced was due to the aromatherapy oils, but in retrospect, I think I was developing a reaction to my clothing (we had just gotten a load of laundry back from the hotel and my skin often reacts poorly to new detergents)–especially since I developed the rash of a lifetime just a couple days later in Phuket (more on this hilarious and traumatizing story later). Anyway, my massage and mani/pedi were great. Fully recommend!
I eventually headed back to the hotel in a tuk tuk and Ben and I got ready to have dinner at the hotel so we could pack without hassle but fate had other plans. We hadn’t realized that our hotel’s restaurant closed early that day due to the Water Festival, so no food to be had! A perfect excuse to go back out to downtown Siem Reap. The streets were a little nuts and we weren’t sure where to eat but we ended up stumbling on a place called 55 Kitchen & Bar with good reviews (and more importantly, not totally crowded). Another yummy meal in the books.
And so ends our time in Siem Reap! Despite the emotional trauma & distress of that damn baby formula scam, I really loved it here and would definitely come back. Next up, our final leg in Thailand: Phuket!