Putting it all in perspective

Day 69
Siem Reap, Cambodia

The FCC is a beautiful hotel and the dinner we had at Hotel de la Paix was one of the best I’ve had this entire trip. But $135USD rooms and $70USD prix-fix meals are not the norm in Siem Reap. This morning, we set out to see the real Cambodia, and it was an eye-opener unlike any other.

After a breakfast of toasted granola with a baked Nashi pear, house-made yogurt and a cup of Illy coffee, we met our driver for the short ride to Chong Khneas, a floating village about 20 minutes from Siem Reap that sits at the mouth of Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Every year during the wet season, the Mekong River backs up and reverses it flow; as a result, Tonle Sap — or simply, Great Lake — floods, swelling from 2 meters deep and 2,500 sq kilometers to 10 meters deep and 13,000 sq kilometers.

The people who live on the banks of this flood plain have adapted their lives accordingly: homes sit on stilts, although most everything — from schools to basketball courts to stores — have been placed on boats.

Cruising down the river and guided by a 17-year-old boy with broken English, we witnessed the daily life of the 300 families who call this area home.

There was a woman gutting a fish while a hungry cat looked on and a young girl carrying her infant sister. An older man swung in a hammock while his wife cleaned the dishes.

Watching boats of gawking tourists pass, it all felt a little voyeuristic. At the same time, it was fascinating to see how these Cambodians live, how little they have — and yet how much dignity and self-respect they maintain. These people are poor, but they do not beg. You can see in their eyes that they are proud of who they are.

A rain started falling and our guide told us that we had to return to the launch point as there was a possibility that our car might get stuck in the mud. Back inside the air conditioning, we passed smiling kids sitting in ramshackle huts who waved goodbye.

We were back at the hotel by 11 a.m. and realized that we likely could have spent just one full day here in Siem Reap — a morning at Angkor Wat and afternoon at Tonlé Sap. While we were tempted to switch our flight to Luang Prabang from tomorrow, the hassle didn’t seem worth it. So, after Andy left for Hoi Ann, we reentered the tourist bubble and got complimentary foot massages at the spa, had cheeseburgers for lunch and relaxed at the pool.

Still, it was hard to escape the images of poverty and squalor that we saw this morning. You never fully appreciate how much you have until you see the way in which much of the world lives.

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The magnificent temples of Angkor

Day 68
Siem Reap, Cambodia

With some of the world’s most significant sights — the Great Wall of China, the Aya Sofya and the Pyramids of Giza — already under my belt, my expectations for the Temples of Angkor, not only the symbol of Cambodia but also what many consider the eighth wonder of the world, were high. But our sunrise tour of this astounding architectural feat did not disappoint.

We met our guide a little after 5 a.m. and made the short drive to Angkor Wat, commissioned by the powerful King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as the holy capital city. The overcast skies didn’t take away from the dramatic picture of this temple reflecting off its moat.

Our next stop was Angkor Thom, a walled compound built by King Jayavarman VII (1181 – 1219) as his royal palace. Not having to battle the crowds, we found the Bayon, the King’s state temple, even more impressive than Angkor Wat. There are 54 towers here with 216 carved faces.

We walked past the Terrace of Elephants, an intricately carved wall, en route to Ta Keow, a half-completed 10th century temple that was abandoned after it was struck by lighting. We climbed the well-worn stairs up a very steep incline and then slowly made our way back down.

Ta Prohm was coined the Tomb Raider temple after Angelina filmed a portion of her movie of the same name here. Built in the 12th century, it has been taken hostage by tremendous spung trees whose gigantic roots grasp its pillars and walls.

For us, it was the most dramatic and amazing spot, and therefore warranted an obligatory prom photo.

By 11 a.m., the sun had burned off the morning fog and our shirts were drenched. We had the car bring us back to the hotel where we ordered a couple of club sandwiches for lunch, napped and hung out at the pool.

Later, we made our way back into town to visit the Psar Chaa, an old market, as well as Psar Kandal, the central market. Both had goods for sale that ran the gamut — from mini Angkor Wats to live eels. We passed on both before having some dinner at our favorite spot on Pub Street, the Red Piano. Our motivation for a post-dinner beer was sapped after a rain started, so we grabbed a tuk-tuk and headed back for bed.

In the home stretch: country #12

Day 67
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Appropriately enough, there was a light rain falling as my 14th flight (Silk Air 633) on this trip around the world passed over flooded fields on its approach to Siem Reap. It has been about two weeks since my last flight, and besides the captain’s warning that visibility on the ground was limited, the two-hour ride from Singapore’s gleaming Changi airport was uneventful.

We touched down at 3:55 p.m. local time, having gained an hour en route. As most passengers queued up to purchase their visa, I’d bought an e-Visa online (recommended) and breezed through immigration, where my transfer was waiting.

We’re staying at the FCC Angkor, a luxurious art deco boutique hotel overlooking the Siem Reap River, with fantastic and courteous service. After three weeks of complete garbage, can you imagine my happiness after arriving and seeing a rain shower and infinity-edge pool? Finally.

Derek and Andy got here from Bangkok about a half hour later and we caught up in our room (#9, “Aloe Vera”) before heading into town. Siem Reap feels like one big dollar store — everything, from rides in a tuk-tuk to a bottle of water or a massage, is a buck. With a 4,000 riel to $1USD exchange rate, the U.S. dollar is basically the official currency here; even the ATM’s spit them out!

While walking around, we spotted the Hotel de la Paix, a brand-new hotel that Andy had read about. It was a super trendy spot and we returned later for dinner at Meric, whose 7-course set traditional Khmer menu and wine pairing was matched only by the setting (served on a swinging bed overlooking a beautiful courtyard).

Beat from a long day of travel and dreading our 4:45 a.m. wake up call, we grabbed a tuk-tuk back to the hotel and hit the sack.