Siem Reap, Cambodia

Our tour broke up on the tenth day. It was difficult to say goodbye to our travel mates, with whom we’d formed a close bond over the previous week and a half. The night before, we’d all shared an exceptional meal together, and ended up visiting an “expat” bar for a couple of drinks. It had a US Western theme and a live band, probably from the Philipines, provided background to a young crowd eager to perform some live karaoke. I vaguely recognized most of the songs as contemporary American hits. A couple of good singers, and some interesting graphics on the wall. Other than that it was sort of boring. Did I mention the graphics? That's my kind of dude ranch.

Our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia (the city nearest the ruins of Angkor) was on Vietnam Airlines. It was fine, with plenty of room. The flight from Hanoi was about $200 each.

After the last few days of gray drizzle in Vietnam, it was wonderful to step from the plane into the warm, hazy, humid heat of Cambodia. I felt myself start to dry immediately.

Siem Reap’s airport is really beautiful, airy, and even well manicured outside. Actually, all the airports we saw—Narita, Japan; Saigon/Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi in Vietnam, and now Cambodia—were beautiful, clean, and well-maintained, with helpful and accommodating staff. It was much more pleasant than our experiences anywhere in Europe or in the U.S.

We did not have a visa for Cambodia but they are easily obtained at the airport. They are $25 each. It took about 15 minutes to get the visa, clear immigration, and pick up our bags. (It costs a further $30 or $40 to leave Cambodia, a mandatory “departure tax.”) A driver met us and took us to our resort, the Borann, about a 20 minute drive.

Our first reaction was that Cambodia is poorer than Vietnam. Later, we realized that Siem Reap (with its pretty airport) caters to quick visiting tourists like us, who drop in, spend money, and then leave. I can’t really claim to have visited Cambodia as a result. I suspect its capital, Phnom Pen, is crowded and poverty stricken, probably much more so than Hanoi and Saigon, and the smaller towns throughout this tropical, war-ravaged land must be wanting. However, Siem Reap is not short of luxury hotels for those tourists eager to explore the ruins at Angkor.

Our resort was French owned, a couple of steps above backpacker hotels and quite a few steps below more luxurious lodgings. The manager was a local man who’d lost a leg to a land mine—the country is still well-mined. It offered a series of two-story cabins, all placed around a lush garden and a small, refreshing pool. We had a ground floor cabin. The room was simple and attractive, with a fan and Cambodian artwork on the walls. The bathroom had a cool tile floor a free-standing shower with no enclosure and also a 4-foot high clay pot filled with cool water—a Thai bath. Dip in a basin and dump over your head. It was fun, once.

It was a pleasant resort and I’d recommend it. It’s about a mile from Siem Reap’s touristy old town; a tuc-tuc will drive you down for $2 in a couple of minutes. (The average Cambodian salary is $20 a month. Some lucky Siem Reap denizens can make that in a day.) With taxes, the resort was about $50 per night. After a busy 10 days in VN, we were looking forward to staying in once space for a while, so we spent four nights there. It was pleasant to laze by the pool with an iced coffee or beer, watching the odd gecko dart around. They sprayed for mosquitoes in the late afternoon, so they weren’t really a problem. We did however take anti-malarial pills as a precaution.

We stopped at an ATM en route to town, and were surprised that it dispensed US dollars. Imagine going to an ATM in the US and getting yen, or Euros. As in VN, everyone in Cambodia takes dollars and will give you change in either dollars or Cambodian money.

Siem Reap was thriving and exciting. The old quarter is charming, filled with businesses that cater to us tourists. There’s no shortage of restaurants and shops, massage parlors ($5/hr) and tuc-tuc drivers eager to speed you on your way home, with the possibility of a full day hire the next day to whisk you around the ruins of Angkor, of course.

Winter is a good time to visit, before the rains and truly hot season, so it was busy with folks of all ages and races dispensing dollars to the grateful. In the evening a couple of streets are closed off and become pedestrian districts. I love sitting over a beer and watching people walk by.

We dined well. In general I preferred the food of VN. The food in Cambodia leans more to Thai and Indian. Again, it was good, but I felt the flavors were less well defined than the clean flavors we’d enjoyed in VN. The beer was good, and overall dining was inexpensive, as in VN.

Beer goggles? No, beer ears.

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