Elissa and I set out from Manila for Siem Reap not knowing what to expect, and but ready for an adventure. We were greeted in the airport by a large stone elephant with its trunk up – a good sign according to my Bacci! The visa process was chaotic. We filled out forms, waited in line for processing, then were herded into another area where we waited with a large tour group from Japan to receive our passport and visa back. The tour group were dressed so as to be prepared for any and all situations they may possibly encounter; decked out in wind-proof, rain-proof, moisture-wicking, spf-containing, pants-that-turn-into-shorts and shirts that double as parachutes (not 100% sure about that one.) After having our names called out from a barely audible voice, we headed to the immigration officer. Elissa got through with the blink of en eye. I on the other hand was grunted at to place my hand on a fingerprint scanner, then grunted at several more times as I wasn’t doing it properly, all while the officer paid more attention to his phone than to me. Although we were hours delayed at this point, our tuktuk driver was waiting for us, holding a sign with my name on it, ready to bring us two weary travelers to our hotel. Elissa’s driver introduced himself as “Mr. Handsom” and my driver was Mr. Pov, and adorable guy around our age. The airport was in a remote part of the city, and we drove along a street filled with trees and not much else. Slowly, huge temple-like resorts started to appear. Our hotel was nearer to Pub Street and the temples, and at first glance seemed old, but slowly the beauty and character of the place was evident. Wood carvings adorned the walls, our room was simple yet pretty, and a dish of rambutan, bananas, and clementines awaited us. Thankfully there was a restaurant open next door and we had our first taste of Cambodia – warming soup, fried dumplings with a gingery-garlicky pork filling, and an in-edible scallion pancake, then collapsed into bed to rest before a day of temple trekking and exploring.
Our hotel breakfast consisted of muesli, fresh fruit, and instant coffee which smelled strangely of hot chocolate, but it did the job. We had arranged for Mr. Pov to take us to the temples and then the floating village that day, and after being advised to change out of our shorts and tank tops so we would be admitted into the temples, we set off before 9am in dresses, with eager anticipation of all we were going to see. Our tuktuk awaited us and Mr. Pov had come prepared with a cooler full of water. We set off for Angkor Wat, and as we drove over dirt roads, soaking in the clean air and lush, beautiful landscape, we instantly fell in love with the tuktuk and Mr. Pov. Our slogans became #everythingsbetterinatuktuk and #onetuktukforlife. Angkor Wat was so vast, with so many corridors and alleyways, and intricate stone carvings of goddesses and flowers and vines. There was a large buddah-like object, and as a man reverently prayed before it, so did his young daughter for a few minutes until her attention span for such devotion ran out. People were adorning this statue with food, fruit, and intricately woven flowers. The main temple within Angkor Wat had a line to get into it, and we chose not to wait as we had a packed schedule. We saw some beautiful Cambodian women in native costumes of butterflies and peacocks. The colors so vibrant with gold accents. We also tried fresh palm juice, which tasted and smelled like sweet buttered popcorn. Not a good combination. Exiting Angkor Watt we passed through the market area, where we were instantly drawn to the ornate fabrics and elephant patterned princess Jasmine pants #notleavingwithoutelephantpants became another mantra. Searching for Mr. Pov outside the entrance, we saw small shells covered in chili and salt, spread on a metal pan atop a wooden cart and wondered what it was. On our night market tour we found out that the small shells are cooked by the heat of the sun drawn to the metal tray, and these are a popular snack, as we soon saw such peddlers all over the city. Mr. Pov whisked us away to our next stop, the Bayon Temple, and as we drove through the jungles, we spotted a large pig, then a few monkeys, then a man riding an elephant! All in the span of about two minutes! Where were we?! And what was next?! When the Bayon Temple was constructed it had 49 towers, each displaying 4 faces of the gods and king. Needless to say this temple was quite…in your face! I loved climbing through the rubble as much as the in-tact parts. There were so many stairs, passage ways, nooks and crannies. I loved all of the faces. Both in Angor Wat and here at Bayon, the rock had a charred black look in many places, like there had been a fire. Visitors had stacked rocks from the rubble and I felt like I was back in Shutesbury or Wendell. Our last temple stop was to Ta Prohm, and to get there we walked down a long jungle path, where at points we were serenaded by groups of men playing traditional Khmer instruments. I was not prepared to be so amazed by this temple, and the beauty of God’s creation! Whereas the elements have left their dark handprint on the other temples we visited, the beauty of Ta Prohm has been enhanced by being left to the devices of the jungle that surrounds it. Monstrous trees grow right out of the temple, their exposed vines weaving and choking the stone structure. As the sun gently streamed through the canopy of leaves, I expected to see fairies and wood nymphs appear. It’s a magical, tranquil place, while at the same time it had a “Temple of Doom” feel, as I could picture Indian Jones marching around, cutting away vines with a machete in search of hidden treasure. I learned from later research that in its peak the temple was home to more than 12,500 residents, 18 high priests, and was maintained by 80,000 Khmers who lived in the surrounding area. Famished by all of this temple trekking, Mr. Pov took us to a local spot where we tasted traditional Khmer (Cambodian) cuisine. Our banana flower salad with chicken was incredible – the banana flower was tender yet crunchy, balanced by local herbs, and dressed with the flavors of nuon chom. This ended up being one of the most memorable dishes of our entire trip! Our fresh spring rolls had pork, herbs, a type of local green, vegetables, and more nuon chom. The Fish Amok Curry, the national dish of Cambodia, was delicate yet immensely flavorful. The fish melted in your mouth, and a chiffonade of a local greens added welcomed texture. The only downside to the meal was our iced coffee that tasted like a coffee milkshake! We were quickly learning that we would not get a good cup of coffee until we reached Hanoi!
Mr. Pov was a doll, periodically giving us more water, asking us if we were doing ok, and how we were liking everything. His English, especially comprehension, was minimal, and our conversations were really comical at times, but we made it work! He told us that he takes an English class for one hour each afternoon. We taught him the word, “cool” and I’ll never forget how he sounded saying it. Our plans for the afternoon were to visit a floating village and Mr. Pov informed us that the more beautiful village was several hours away, so we opted to go to the closer, less beautiful village. Our ride to the boat was so picturesque as we would through neighborhoods, markets, and jungle. The roads were a mix of concrete and reddish soil, and while people certainly live simply, and often poorly – sometimes in makeshift houses, there was nowhere near the poverty or filth that I’ve become so accustomed to in the Philippines. The streets are relatively clean, and I didn’t see anyone begging except a few in the downtown area. Siem Reap is also so much less commercialized, and it was such a welcomed change to drive through neighborhoods and not be bombarded by advertisements. We arrived at the port and the brown canal was lined with boats ready to take us to the village. As we gave our ticket stub to the collector, I noticed a girl snap a picture of me. I wondered why she did this, and thought maybe she also thought I looked like Elsa. On our boat was Mr. Pov, our captain, and his assistant. Elissa and I sat on the bow, soaking in the sun and the view. Along the canal was a tall sand embankment and there were loaders, dump trucks, and Volvo bulldozers doing site work. I didn’t know what to expect of this floating village, and when we finally hit the open ocean, we were told we had arrived (and according to our Captain, were looking at Vietnam!) The village is all boats; many of them houses – all with fishing nets. There were also some restaurants, mostly catering to tourists and boasting many different cuisines, and there was a Catholic church and a Christian church, and a school. We were let off at a souvenir boat where there were also a few crocodiles held in captive display in a hole cut in the center of the boat. In a small canoe next to this boat sat a mother with a baby sleeping peacefully in a tiny hammock strung between the two sides of the canoe. On the opposite end sat a young boy with a boa constrictor wrapped playfully around him! After shrieking, I took a picture of this scene and then quickly walked away. The little boy started asking for money, and then got out of the boat! He wanted me to pay him to pose with his snake, and started chasing me around! I was screaming at him to go away, and our boat captain had to intervene and tell him to leave me alone! Our captain brought us safely back to shore, and as we were leaving the port, a woman appeared holding two small plates, one with my photo on it and one with Elissa’s! That’s why she snapped that shot! What a sneak, and entrepreneur, as we couldn’t say no to purchasing this memory for $5! By now, hopping onto our tuktuk was second nature, and as the sun set we headed back to the hotel to freshen up before a night out on Pub Street. Back at our room, I realized I was and had been completely relaxed all day. Even though we were in an entirely foreign place that I knew so little about, and had spent our day at the mercy of our fearless tuktuk wielding guide, I could not have felt more at ease! What a magical place!
Pub street was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel, and involved walking past all sorts of shops, restaurants, spas, and hotels. We met a woman who had just opened up a sidewalk bar 2 days prior, and she lured us in with her signature pina colada. She used fresh pineapple juice, coconut cream, and dark rum. Too bad I hate rum, but Elissa loved it! I was happy with the sweet spicy peanuts, until I ate a large piece of a small red chili and got violet hiccups! Elissa also tried jackfruit from a peddler, and we both agree it tastes like bubblegum and garbage. The scene on Pub Street was vibrant, and architecturally had a New Orleans feel. Picture Bourbon Street, minus the drunkenness, debauchery, and slutty women. Difficult, I know! We found Red Piano, Angelina Jolie’s hangout during the filming of Tomb Raider, which was positioned on a corner. Next to it were a few restaurants, than a large open-ended massage parlor, a nightclub, and then more restaurants. Most of the people around us were tourists, but of all sorts – families, couples, friends, singles. It was actually really nice to be surrounded by such a mix of people, rather than standing out as the lone white blonde! And this mix also contributed to the tame yet vibrant vibe. Lining every major street were fleets of tuktuks! We couldn’t take two steps without being asked, “tuktuk?” I decided our theme song for Siem Reap should be “a tuktuk her and a tuktuk there…” Loving the atmosphere of Pub Street, we didn’t really feel like sitting down to a Khmer meal, but rather a “Tomb Raider” cocktail from Red Piano – Angelina’s signature drink of Cointreau, lime, and tonic. I now know she has no taste in drinks, as this tasted like a Smirnoff. We ordered a beef dish with egg and rice, and while underwhelmed, we got to taste the fresh green peppercorn, kampot, only found fresh in Cambodia! Again in search of a decent cup of coffee, we went into the famed Blue Pumpkin ice-cream shop, where our coffee with Baileys was spoiled! Strike 3! We ended the night with an hour of foot, head, neck, and shoulder massages for $4, seated in an open-ended parlor, and enjoyed some great people watching!
Tuesday was market day, as we planned to explore the old markets during the day, and then had booked a night market tour that night. Our hotel breakfast routinely became coffee, fruit and muesli (like a couple of old women) and then for lunch we sampled several Khmer dishes from a stall at the edge of the market. The lotus flour salad was pretty tasty but lacked the complexity of the previous day’s banana flower salad. We also tried what ended up being pork intestine casserole topped with egg…and by tried I mean one-bite, simultaneously on-the-count-of-three, with water and a napkin standing by! What we thought was fresh bamboo shoots with a bit of chicken ended up being all fresh ginger! Talk about overwhelming! Elissa got to try the ubiquitous Asian morning glory greens; underwhelming in how they were prepared here, yet hard to find outside of Asia. The highlight of our meal were fried dilli fish, so fresh and crunchy, like the perfect bite of fish and chips in a tiny little package. The market was a bit overwhelming, with lots of stalls selling the same items…spices and dried fruit, silk scarves and coverings, t-shirts, bags, and elephant pants! We found some great deals on Cambodian pashminas, and I found a stunning silk bedspread with images of Angkor and elephants embroidered in rich gold. The outskirts of the market had smaller boutiques selling artisan versions of what was within – silk, spices, and woodwork. A river runs along the back of the old market, and along this street we found the coolest cafe, with real coffee! It’s called Sister Srey, and its mission is to raise money to help local Cambodians receive an education. The menu was healthy and eclectic, sourcing locally and adding a twist. The menu was presented inside an old children’s book, which was adorable! In addition to our iced coffee we got a “tavocado” sandwich – toasted bread spread with guacamole, topped with roasted grape tomatoes and local feta, and served with pesto. We also had the most amazing coconut banana bread, toasted and served with local honey and butter. We liked this place so much we ended up going back the next day for breakfast, where we again had iced coffee and the coconut banana bread, but subbed the tavocado for a deconstructed egg sandwich of brown bread, pesto, feta, roasted tomatoes, guacamole…basically the tavocado with a fried egg on it!
Next up was our night market tour, and I had already been mentally preparing myself. I new that the Siem Reap markets are home to many exotic local delicacies, including all sorts of critters, which for the sake of broadening my culinary scope I wanted to try, and this tour promised to expose us to them all! A tuktuk drove us from our hotel to the hotel/cooking school where the tour was run out of. There were about 10 of us in our group – everyone else was part of a larger group from New Zealand who had been traveling together in Indonesia for the past few weeks. The one other participant was Matt from San Diego, who quit his job working in aeronautical engineering and has been traveling across Asia for over 2 months! Our guide told us loosely how this tour was going to work…we were first going to look at the food at different markets and then eat later on. We were still a bit confused about what we were supposed to eat verses just look at, but we just went with it. We first stopped at an open-air market where we tried a fertilized chicken egg, that had been scrambled and seasoned, then stuffed back into the shell and steamed. Not bad, not great. We saw vast fruit stalls and got some to eat later on at the end of our meal. There was a woman cooking fish over an open flame, and was serving it with a sauce made of tree ants, fish sauce, and spices, and topped with an abundance of fresh herbs. There was a man grilling an assortment of meat, including quail with the egg still attached. The next market was enclosed and we didn’t venture in, but outside of it were women frying patties made of glutinous rice and stuffed with chives and bean sprouts. We added this to our collection for later, as well as fresh taro chips and sesame rice wafers. Our tuktuk took us to a more major highway, and after exiting a rotary, we saw vendors scattering the road and the grassy area dividing the lanes. We got out of our tuktuks and realized this was yet another market! We walked past stalls selling clothes and toys, fruit, fertilized eggs, and then came to the stall of fried critters. Mounds of fried crickets, silk worms, water beetles, and cockroaches! I first tasted the cricket – it was crunchy and didn’t taste like much. That was a good thing! The silk worm’s leathery skin gave way to an interior like creamy peanut butter in taste and texture. So not a fan. I didn’t think I could stomach the cockroach…I mean, I freak out when they’re on my toothbrush! But after seeing Elissa prepare to eat it, as our guide instructed her to remove the wings and the legs, it didn’t seem quite so daunting. Besides, I looked at eating them as getting my ultimate revenge on the pests!! So I peeled off the wings and legs, and took a bite from the butt end. It was again very crunchy, and again didn’t have a whole lot of taste. Thank God for the deep fryer! I figured water beetle was the same old story after the others and was just fine not trying that. We had a refreshing palate cleanser of an assortment of local fruit seasoned with salt, sugar, and chili. Green mango, olive fruit, grapes, cherries, and a host of others that I don’t know the names of. As we continued to walk along the road – which in itself was a bit surreal as we were eating such strange, foreign, exotic foods, next to a highway surrounded by locals and tuktuks – we came to an old woman crouching next to an open flame, methodically grilling rice flour pitas. I watched in amazement as she took the paper thin flat dough, balanced it on a stick over the flame, and flipped it just as it began to puff, separate, and brown. We added a bag of the pitas to our stash, and next came to a stand of grilled meat galore. Long bamboo skewers held fish, beef, pork, chicken, chicken butts, quail, frogs, assorted intestine, and much more. We bought some chicken, quail, and frogs, and then our guide led us to our “picnic” area. On the grassy side of the road were large mats woven from coconut branches. Families were seated around, happily dining. We removed our shoes and then sat indian style in a circle, as our guide set our feast in the middle. The fried rice cakes with chili sauce were delicious. Elissa and I shared the part of the quail with the attached grilled egg, which we ate shell and all. So unique and tasty. My favorite was the frog. It was skinned whole, leaving only the leg meat attached to the skin, and then stuffed back with a sausage made of frog, pork, and curry spices. I ate it with a bit of cool tamarind paste, and it was amazing! We washed down the meal with Cambodian beer (simultaneously sterilizing our insides from the critters we ingested) and then capped it off with an assortment of glutinous rice-based Cambodian desserts and local fruit. It was a meal I will never forget – between our array of food, surreal surroundings, and interesting dining companions. As we were packing up, some young kids came asking for our empty bottles, which we gladly gave them. Then they started eating our scraps, and when we realized how hungry they were, we started giving them everything else we had left over – mostly chips and fruit. The last stop of our tour was to a fair in a parking lot just off the highway where we had dined, where there were rides and games. Elissa bought 10 shots with a dart at a wall of balloons, wanting to give anything she won to the kids. After taking turns and watching everyone else miss, I hit a balloon! Thinking I had good aim she gave me the last dart as well, and this time I hit a bottle of coke that was supposed to be a prize. Coke came shooting out everywhere! Good thing the motto, “you break it you buy it” didn’t hold here!
The tuktuk dropped us off at Pub Street, and Elissa and I were enjoying our conversation with Matt about all he had seen in Asia so far, and we decided to stick together for the night. I had read about the “fish spa” experience and the night before had seen many people – men, women, and children, causally sitting down with there feet in large glass fish tanks. It was on my must try list, and we headed back to the same spot where the night before we had gotten foot massages by people (verses by fish). I sat on the bench and slowly, apprehensively, lowered my feet into the tank. The fish attacked my poor feet, and I started shrieking! This was in no way relaxing, nor was it a massage! It simultaneously tickled and pinched, and I couldn’t stand to have my feet in the water for longer than five to ten seconds at a time! How did those other people make it look like they weren’t feeling a thing! Sometimes the fish would straight up bite me, and upon examination later on, I realized they had eaten off some of my nail polish! Not only did I pay for this torture, but now I’d have to pay for a new pedicure! I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time though, and the whole experience was hysterical and so much fun! Our next mission was to try tarantula because we didn’t find any during the tour, but I had seen it on a street cart on Pub Street the night before. Matt and Elissa were equally as excited/freaked out, and we set out to find the suckers. We found a vendor in the heart of Pub Street, who in addition to tarantulas and the bugs we had already sampled, was also selling skewered grilled baby snake. I could barely even look at it, and some had eggs erupting from their stomachs! We bought 3 deep fried tarantulas, and then had a full on tarantula photo shoot with them. I was the first to reach into our plastic baggie of arachnids, and I swear I felt one move and grab my finger! We each tried a bite, mine was a few of the legs, and then quickly headed to Angkor What? bar for a pitcher of Angkor beer to celebrate/sterilize. The tarantula was also crunchy and pretty tasteless, but it had a woodier quality that made it a bit hard to swallow. Angkor beer is actually really good! We spent the night swapping travel stories, getting Matt’s tips on Hanoi, and then wandered through more of the night markets. There are open-aired massage parlors everywhere, some of them with 30 massage chairs! We capped off the night with more fresh spring rolls, needing something in our stomachs after so many fried critters. I think I dreamt of tarantulas that night.
We had learned from Matt that there was a whole other part of the Old Market that we had somehow missed – the part with the food! We discovered it Wednesday morning, and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Rather than stalls divided into categories, there were mounds of items everywhere. Women were sitting on the ground filleting fish, with a pile of bok choy next to them. Tables held piles of vegetables, fresh fish, dried fish, curry and fish pastes, seafood, fruit, fresh noodles, and more women, sitting indian-style amidst it all. It was hard to get a picture of ingredients without also capturing a random foot in the shot! The meat area was impressive, and huge cuts of meat down to small strips were expertly broken down. That afternoon, we had asked Mr. Pov to take us around to see more of Siem Reap before bringing us to the airport. On our comfortable tuktuk, with our favorite driver, we drove through the farmlands and neighborhoods, down dirt roads where at one point we had to stop to let a heard of cows go by. Some of them were marked down their back with a red line, and Mr. Pov told us they were heading to be slaughtered. Cambodia is a beautiful, tranquil place. The people are endearing and welcoming. When they speak English, they add an “s” to the end of many words, like “thank yous.” I loved every minute of our time there, and was really sad when Mr. Pov dropped us off at the airport. While there are so many other places in Asia I want to visit, I hope and pray to return to Cambodia some day!