Day 215: Temple Tales & Veggie Heaven in Siem Reap
The universe has been throwing all kinds of good juju my way. After only two days in Phnom Penh, bearing the heaviness of Cambodia’s Killing Fields and Tuel Sleng Genocide -- this was a much welcome and needed shift. Siem Reap, you came at a good time my friend.
After a seven hour bus ride, I found myself at least 20 minutes away from the hostel I booked. I'm all for a hearty walk after a long bus ride, but you couldn't pay me to do that in armpit hot weather. Diana and I went in on a tuk tuk, as our preferred AC filled uber ride was not an option here. As the ride pulled up to Onederz, I couldn't believe my tired overheated eyes- a giant white building with floor to ceiling walls and glass windows -- you could have mistaken this place for an Apple Store. Was it an Apple Store?
Parting ways with Diana was bittersweet, but (and the joke remains), I was even sadder I hadn't booked a room here. Sad to leave Diana....and even sadder, to leave the hostel. About five minutes later, we pull up to the hostel I booked - a nondescript dark entrance with lots of flashy signs and bad font (details matter). The foyer opened up to an even darker ground floor with a pool (strange choice in placement) and lots of echoing bro laughter. Not to mention there's a two night minimum to stay. I immediately looked up onederz on hostel world to see if there's an open dorm of any kind, and all that's left is a private room for $26. That’s like half my daily budget.
That didn’t stop me. I b-lined over on foot back to the hostel where Diana was just dropped off. After the 15 minute trek from hell, I stumbled in with beads of sweat waterfalling down my desperate face. Not my finest moment, but I could not have imagined staying anywhere but here. If only they had a four bedroom female dorm, or even a cold floor for me to crash on…
The front desk girls helped me right away. After asking me to set my bag down and relax twice, they delivered the news: there was an open bed for me in a four female dorm! YESSSSSSSS.
One of the girls walked me over to the second building and immediately upon walking inside the foyer, I spotted Diana’s all too familiar hiking boots with purple shoelaces. As the key card beeped and door swung open, I see her bundled up on the bottom bunk staring at me with those unmistakable Yang eyes, jaw dropped.
And that’s how Diana came to be my travel buddy, along with a third amigo named Annie – a 47 year old Korean American pharmacist from San Francisco. When I found out her age, I couldn’t believe my ears, to which Annie responded, “No husband, no kids, no mortgage” with her all too quirky smirk. Anything’s possible in any corner of the world, and Annie was no exception.
Three solo Asian ladies from the states, all rooming together in the same hostel? Certainly not the norm, but we were all amused and loving the synchronicity. This was not the experience I imagined having in Cambodia, but I definitely enjoyed riding the wave of getting to know these ladies and experiencing Angkor “world” with them over the course of two days.
Angkor Adventures Day I
Siem Reap has become synonymous with Angkor Wat, especially if you’re a tourist passing through on a one or two-week holiday. But much to my surprise, there are thousands of temples, big and small, that take up something like 390 square miles in what used to be the megacity of the regal Khmer empire; so seeing the temples isn’t a quick in and out excursion. It can take as little as a day up to a whole month, depending on how much you want to nerd out to archeology, architecture and 8th-14th century Khmer history. Mind you, May is low season in Cambodia for a reason – the weather usually hovers around 95-100 degrees but with humidity, feels more like 100-105. For all the tropically inclined people out there, I don’t know HOW you do it, you’ve got serious skills. Anyways, it felt less insane to buy a three-day pass to space it all out and avoid the very real feeling of “getting templed out.” It’s a thing.
Anywho, after much good roommate bonding, Annie graciously invited Diana and I to join her in some tuk tuk temple excursions, raving about this Cambodian tuk tuk driver that she met who spoke perfect English. Free tuk tuk ride to the temple with cool new friends? Yes, please.
That early morning we woke up to 6:30a alarms, I gobbled down some breakfast and met Annie and Diana outside as they had opted for a heartier noodle breakfast down the street. Annie walked us over to her driver and introduced him as “Cambodian Pharrell.” I almost immediately snapped out of my sleeping spell. Was this the same Cambodian Pharrell that a hostel friend in Phnom Penh told me about, or was there two Cambodia Pharrells in Siem Reap? Not gonna assume here.
Turns out, THIS was the one and ONLY Cambodian Pharrell! He also happened to be wearing a shirt with “Draw Luck By Your Own Power” written in big block letters across the back. Can you make this shizz up? He really does look like Pharrell though, (his real name is Tola):
Getting an early start for the big circuit of Angkor (big circuit = smaller temples on the outskirts of Angkor Wat and Thom, the two most recognizable UNESCO awarded temples) was a GOOD choice. By 7:30a, I was already dripping in all the sweat. Sweat absolutely everywhere. Lots of unnecessarily small steps leading up to impressive stupas. Lots of mandatory yoga photo shoot moments. Even more awe dropping moments and cool historical facts to take in about the Hindu “god kings” creatively responsible for the construction thousands of years ago.
Highlight of the day was hands down the Bayon Temple, the one famous for its faces inscribed in stone stupas.
Angkor Adventures Day II
By the end of day one, I already felt the early onset of “templed out” symptoms, AND I hadn’t even seen Angkor Wat yet. I must be getting old.
We decided to do Angkor Wat in proper form – super early for sunrise to beat the insane heat that would inevitably make things more miserable. Unlike the other temples, Angkor Wat is not sheltered by trees and shade, and we had been given FAIR warning about what we were stepping into.
Alarms went off at 4:45a and by 5am, we were off to the temple. Darkness and the most loveliest of breezes cushioned my sleepy body. As we pulled up the temple, I realized I had forgotten my fancy DSLR. Of all the days! We walked down to the lake in front of the temple as mother sun began to rise. As that sunrise moment slowly hit, I felt the tiniest of burns start to eat my whole foot alive. I looked down, and realized I had accidentally stepped into a giant ant farm -- the ants were racing around my foot and multiplied by the second. I started blurting out profanities while Annie, standing nearby, splashed bottled water all over my feet. Hobbling around and distressed, I removed myself from the enormous crowd behind me, embarrassed that I had ruined their Angkor Wat sunrise. I’ve killed many an ant in my life, so this must have been my karma. Angkor Wat sunrise karma.
But to be totally honest, I was a bit underwhelmed, though the photo opps may indiate otherwise. Two of the four main stupas were under construction, and unlike the other temples, this one felt overly conserved and had that Capital Hill DC vibe (where every building feels out of touch, distant and a bit cold). Plus, there were huge crowds already forming at the impossibly early hour of 5:30a. Was this the templed out Tiff talking? Probably. The steps to a few structures inside made for a real solid early morning workout, and some rowdy monkeys made for great entertainment. As a place of historical worship, I couldn’t imagine myself finding spiritual refuge here, but as an architectural masterpiece, I can understand and appreciate the passion and hard work of conservationists. A whole life’s work can be dedicated to putting together the ruined pieces of one temple wall or room, that’s serious dedication. Also, you have to think about these temples, the religion behind it, and what they endured during Pol Pot's time: destruction. The fact that conservationists the world over (France, Germany, India, US, etc) are here and devoted to reconstruction speaks volumes.
Post Angkor Wat, Tola drove us over to the final temple of the day, Ta Prohm, also the temple where they filmed the movie, Tomb Raider: Lara Croft. Imagine Angelina Jolie swinging from giant sweeping old growth trees as she battles bad guys (I haven’t watched the movie, but I assume I’m not far off). Before entering the temple, I manifested spotting a whole row of hammocks under shade and sprinted in that direction for a mandatory 8:30a nap. It was glorious.
After chowing down a whole mango, I was ready to go for round two, and SO happy I did. As you weave in and out and around giant blocks of limestone with skyscraping trees sprouting from all the most unusual nooks and crannies, you marvel at the power and majestic grace of jungle overgrowth and decay. It was a walk through the 12th and 13th century, almost as if untouched by the intelligent technological tools that make conservation and polished monuments like Angkor Wat possible today. Ta Prohm was the absolute antidote to “getting templed out.” Just epic all around.
Templed Out? You’re Not Alone
Though I only used 2 out of my 3 day pass, I opted out of seeing more temples. Did I feel pangs of guilt? Most certainly. But as always in the 7 months I’ve been travelling, the dust of guilt usually settles, and the wisdom of less is more kicks in with bright-eyed clarity – which brings me to one of my favorite things about this town,
Siem Reap Wins for Best Vegetarian Food
Hands down, I feel reunited with FLAVOR and vegetarian variety. There’s something about the vegetarian fare here that feels skewed towards Western taste buds (and prices too). Every restaurant I’ve loved was opened by an Australian or Brit roughly 5-7 years ago, which seems like the time when most expats started settling in Siem Reap. Almost all of them play similar soundtracks (some combo of Jack Johnson, Edward Sharpe, Alt J…) and have similar looking plotted plants and décor. Siem Reap-landia?
I went a little crazy documenting all this food porn:
Despite all of this, there’s no hiding the stark reality that this place is still one of the poorest provinces of Cambodia with some staggering statistic that over 40% of children under five are malnourished. Landmine victims are a common sight to see. College students work as tuk tuk drivers by day or night, trying to pay their annual tuition of $550. Social enterprises have a big presence here, and posters span the city warning tourists against “powdered milk scams” and “orphanage tourism.” One of the city's most popular nighttime activities is the Cambodian circus, whose profits send 1500 youth in poverty to train in the performing and circus arts. A hearty chat with Alix informed me that even seven years ago, there were maybe one or two hostels for travelers and development was nowhere what it looks like today.
There’s a lot of bubbling energy happening around town, and I am curious to see what this town will look like in another few years. Also, side note, but next time you’re in Siem Reap, make sure to treat yourself to as many veggie GRUBS and Khmer RUBS (in that order) from De Kampuchea Spa. Take a stroll across the river to Footprints Cafe (first ever global social enterprise cafe) for a refreshing cappuccino and check out their upstairs photo gallery, nurturing the creative writing talents of 14-19 year old Cambodian youth in response to photography of post-Pol Pot Cambodia, Then, bring yourself 15 minutes up the street to Peace Cafe to catch an intro to Buddhism talk by a Cambodian monk. Yes, you guessed it -- final hours of Siem Reap have been the highlight of Cambodia so far <3