27 January 2006

Siem Reap

I’m screwed!, I said to myself as I stepped off the plane in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was overcast and cold, at least compared to the 98 degrees it was the day before in Ho Chi Minh City. And it was certainly not the 88 degrees CNN weather had predicted. It was in the low-seventy’s, which was not hot enough for the dresses I had planned to wear.

I cruised swiftly through customs, walked out of the tiny airport, which was about the size and noise level of a rural bus stop, and started to search for my ride among the six people holding up signs. I didn’t see either my name or my hotel, The Golden Banana. I talked to a few of the taxi drivers and after twenty minutes, hired one of them to take me into town.

Driving along the road, I started to notice rain drops appearing on the windshield. I tried not to freak and asked the driver, is it raining? “No,” he said, “this isn’t rain.” OK, so it really was just a few sprinkles that soon stopped.

We continued along a two-lane road, past pretty, rural landscapes with oxen and chickens and small houses. A few minutes after that we began to pass enormous, five-star resort hotels that seemed very out of place in this bucolic setting. Along the river we rode, crossing over a bridge, then onto an unpaved road, and left into a narrow, dirt alley.

The B&B was even cuter than the pictures on their website. One enters into a nice sized, tiled patio with a few round, wooden tables and chairs, all engulfed in tropical foliage; bougainvillea, banana tress, orchids, and more. Individual bungalows branch off to the right and towards the back. The reception desk/food order station sits at the far end of the courtyard. I walked over, introduced myself to the young men standing there, told the tale of no airport pick-up, and assured them I did have a reservation.

Pulling out a large ledger, they checked my name and said that I wasn’t due until the next day. Before I had a chance to panic, (I had been told by email that I had booked the last room available), they said that room 14 just happened to also be available that day. They invited me to sit down while they got the paperwork together.

The guy who seemed to be in charge, sat down next to me with the registration forms. The other one brought me an iced tea. A few other young lads appeared. All wore traditional clothing of loose, brightly colored cotton pants and light blue cotton shirts. They were all very cute and very charming. I pulled out my passport and handed it over. “Is this you?” asked the young man. Yes, I said. “But you were so young and beautiful”, he continued, staring at the passport photo and then back to me. Well, that picture is nine years old, I replied. You don’t think it looks like me? He gave it one more look and said, “No.”

Number 14, which I had been forewarned by the owner as being the least desirable of his 17 rooms, wasn’t bad at all except for the thick layer of Raid fog that enveloped the place, and the circulating sub-zero air. I started to choke, located the A/C switch, turned it off, and cranked up the ceiling fan. I quickly noticed that the only windows were tiny slits at the top of the back wall, so thought I would just leave the door open to air it out until I noticed the swarm of skeeters pouring in, and a sign on the wall asking to keep everything shut because of the little varmints. (Malaria/dengue fever/sleepless nights, being three reasons to comply).

In the coming days, I would notice one of the guys entering all the rooms to give them a good dousing of Raid at least once a day. I was eventually able to get them to not spray in my room, or so I thought, even though the room stunk like insecticide the entire time I was there. Back in HCMC, I have had to throw every article of clothing that I took into the washing machine and dump my bag on the balcony as it still reeks of toxins!

I wasn’t planning on hitting Angkor until the next day, so after I left my room, (rather rapidly, I must say), I got a map and walked the short distance to the center of town. I savored walking down dirt roads and paved streets that were incredibly quiet and slow compared to what I had just left. One barely needs to stop before crossing the street. I looked forward to the “quaint French colonial architecture” noted in the guide books. Unfortunately, that entire, five-square block area is currently being refitted with new sewers.

Both sides of most of the central streets had gaping holes where backhoes had dug deep into the earth. The dirt that had been dumped onto the streets turned to mud as a result of the sewer water that now leaked out. I slogged through inches deep sewer mud trying to ignore it and get a sense of the town. I think it really must be cute in an un-dug-up state.

Restaurants, catering to tourists, line the streets, most with wide verandas filled with comfortable chairs and tables. I eventually stumbled on The Red Piano and decided I might as well get something to eat even though the sewer renovation project was in full swing less than half a block away.

Looking at the menu, which had almost every kind of food available save the local fare, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Then I spotted a Cambodian fish soup and ordered it. It arrived with a plate of dried cold rice. I dipped my spoon in, took a sip, and, damn, I had forgotten too ask for no MSG. I went about removing the chunks of fish and put them on the dried out rice. I took a bite. It tasted like soggy styrofoam. I managed to get down two pieces before I had to stop.

With a full bowl of soup sitting in front of me, I asked for the check. It was only $3, so no great loss, but I would never recommend that place, even if it is where Ms.Tomb Raider hung.

I never go to a place for food, but I do go to find local handicrafts, so I walked a block to the Old Market hoping to get a heads up on the arts and crafts available. There didn’t seem to be much. Most of it I had already seen in Vietnam and the prices were crazy-expensive. This was not proving to be a very interesting outing, so I trucked on back to the hotel.

I sat at a table and some of the staff joined me. I enquired about the best way to do the Temples and decided on hiring a tuk-tuk, (pronounced like ‘2’, with a ‘k’ at the end), and a guide for the next day. I had already decided on purchasing a three-day pass. That settled, I ordered a bottle of water and sat there enjoying the calming, peaceful surroundings.

Staff members came and went, joining me at the table to talk. I got a short Khmer lesson from one of them. It turns out the alphabet has something like 33 consonants and 22 vowels. There numbers go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5+1, 5+2, etc. Only later did another guest point out that it was exactly like roman numerals and that really helped to organize it in my brain, not that I really remember any of the numbers I had so diligently repeated and transliterated into my notebook.

After the language teacher left, I noticed another staff member transforming lotus flower buds into decorative objects. I beckoned him over. He showed me how you gently peel back a petal, fold it in half, then bend it at an angle to the right, repeat to the left, again to the right, then tuck it into the base of the bud. You continue doing that to all the petals until you end up with a rose-like creation. I worked on a few of them. Some of my petals kept unfurling, but with enough practice I think I could master it.

By early evening I had also talked to several of the other guests who came to relax in the courtyard, most ordering something to drink or eat. It is the friendliest place I have ever stayed. People who had been there a few days were happy to give recommendations about where to go and what to see; how to avoid the hoards of tour buses; the best times to see which temples; where to buy souvenirs. I felt as though I were among old friends.

I think I finally went to my room around 9pm. I would have to be ready and waiting for my guide and driver at 7am. The room still smelled pretty bad, but I wasn’t too concerned. It had been a good day.