In which we discover there is somewhere even hotter than Hanoi
03/13/2010 - 03/13/2010 95 °F
What a delightful surprise Cambodia is! We arrived in Siem Reap's very modern and easily navigated airport (compared to Luang Prabang's which was something like a Greyhound bus terminal with fewer amenities). Thankfully we had not needed a visa to travel through Laos on our way here. I was very happy that we had gotten our Cambodian visas ahead of time (even if I did lose some stomach lining over the time it took to get my passport back) as we were able to skip the mob of people applying for visas on arrival. We were whisked right through the crowd by our Cambodian guide, Soluy (www.soluybesttour.com), who was the best guide we have had on this trip full of really outstanding guides. She speaks excellent English, has a master's degree in Cambodian history, and a background in photography as well so she knows all the good spots and angles for pictures. The depth of information that we got was astounding. Plus we cannot understand how she made any money off our tour since it was so inexpensive. Okay, commercial over, but I'm just saying that if you're thinking about going to Siem Reap, you must hire Soluy!
Siem Reap reminded me a lot of Tucson, only hotter! It was super sunny and bright and blessedly calm. The refreshing sanity of Cambodian traffic was like those cool wet cloths that Vietnam Airlines is forever handing out. Everyone drives on the correct side of the road (I'm not being provincial here; I don't care whether you drive on the left or the right, but in Vietnam, people drive in ALL directions, including perpendicular to traffic and on the sidewalk) at reasonable speeds and actually stop at stoplights, honking only while passing. So pleasant! Even though we have found Vietnamese people to be super friendly, Cambodians seem to be even more so, smiling and saying "hello" or "sua s'dei" when they see us, even calling across the street to us. Also people were really tickled whenever we attempted to use the two words of Khmer language (Cambodian) with them ("sua s'dei" being "hello" and "ahr coon" being "thank you") that Soluy taught us on the short drive to our hotel.
After getting us settled in our hotel, Stueng Siem Reap, Soluy took us on a bike tour around town. She had gotten us actual mountain bikes with suspensions and even matched them to our heights (she'd asked when we booked the tour), plus bike helmets! Soluy is a competitive cyclist so she knew what she was doing. I was a little skittish about riding in the street after the craziness of Vietnamese traffic, but once we were out of the main part of town it was very peaceful. She took us on a loop through the countryside immediately surrounding Siem Reap so we got to see local Cambodian's houses, farms, and schools.
Everywhere people were waving and calling hello to us, adults and children alike. She took us to a little gallery with amazing photos of the Angkor temples we would be visiting so we could see historical photos of the sites before they were filled with tourists and then to a Buddhist monastery. The colors and scenery were unlike anything we have at home and we should have taken more pictures as we passed through.
Soluy had planned to send us to a restaurant called Khmer Kitchen for dinner but we persuaded her that we were trying to make this a tour of "real" local foods and didn't want tourist food (we did eventually eat there and it was good as well). After verifying that we REALLY meant this, she said she'd take us to have street food after we got some air conditioned rest (she was always concerned with our health and hydration; our friend Kelly Larkin, who is forever questioning her field employees about the color of their pee, would be proud). We took her out to dinner at some food stalls and tried a selection of local Khmer foods. Everything was really good and flavorful. She even brought her favorite food to share with us from wherever she gets it outside of Siem Reap: pig intestines with a kind of spicy peanut sauce. It was delicious!
So was the fried morning glory. We really struggled to finish all our food though. And we discovered our new favorite beer: Angkor Beer. After dinner Soluy showed us the night market, a labyrinth of stalls selling silk scarves, woven grass bags and place mats, carved Angkor-style statues, spices, and t-shirts and we browsed a little while she watched who was buying what at the two sections of the market that she is considering opening a stall in. Part of the proceeds from her business go to support a local orphanage. The stall will be used in part to provide a location for the sale of artwork produced by the orphans. Sound too good to be true? No, in fact, she is that awesome.
Next we attempted to go to a bar to watch a local band but after about an hour of sound checks, the sleepiness and heat combo hit me hard and I had to go back to the hotel. It was great to spend an evening with Soluy though, talking about Cambodian life and history. I really hope she didn't have other plans for the night. She's the best!