We arrived to a rainy Siem Reap late on Thursday. Our driver was waiting with Cambodia’s version of a Tuk-Tuk: basically, it’s a small stage coach trailer attached to a small motorcycle. Perfectly adequate for two adults; a tight squeeze for a family of four, and downright dangerous for this family with luggage on laps rumbling over dark, wet, muddy roads! We held on to hope as the top-heavy trailer listed right and left, and even stoic Dad gasped as I imagined the cart overturned atop our broken limbs and sewer-sodden luggage. But the adventure ended with our safe arrival at the very comfortable Mango Rain Boutique Hotel, where we found a comfortable room and sleep.
Up early Friday, I slipped out to explore the dawn. My first impression is sad – I know nearby there’s a there’s a verdurous jungle, but it’s fed by filthy streams, buried underneath the casually discarded roadside plastic bags, and concealed behind the haphazard maze of sloppy concrete construction and discarded building materials. The Southeast Asian economies are maturing faster than their governments and behaviors: I expect it takes a generation for well managed communities to build the infrastructure and habits needed to manage such public bads… more thoughts on that in tomorrow’s post.
Delhi belly is slowing the family down this morning so for 4,000 Cambodian Riel (fixed to $1) I tuk-tuk north along the dirty Siem Reap river into town to scout routes, bike shops, scooter rentals, restaurants and spas. A smartphone and downloaded Google Map with saved destinations makes it easy to navigate among preferred spots. A poorly maintained mountain bike rents for $5/day; I overpay $10 for a very well maintained GT front-suspension bike with fenders and am immediately glad I did. The pace is slower and honks fewer here, and it’s a joy to ride a solid fat tire through the mud, bumps and traffic. Looping counterclockwise around the core of town, I get a sense for muddy the back alleys and dead-ends, gritty light industrial alleys, eclectic commercial corridors and the tourist district surrounding the backpacker haven “Pub Street”.
In the quiet of morning Pub Street looks benignly playful – an entire road lined by colorful taverns with names like the Red Piano, Angor What?, Viva, Speakeasy BBQ, Cheers Club, Linga Bar, Gecko Nail Art & Massage, Soup Dragon, Banana Leaf and the Temple Club. I stop at the local ATM and depart with a fistful of dollars; we accumulate and spend Cambodian Riel’s only in lieu of quarters and other small change. Back in the saddle, a cheap poncho and the fenders fend off rain from above and mud from below, and I orienteer 2 miles through the scooters and tuk-tuks back to the Mango Rain to find the family up and ready for lunch.
Sue’s arranged for a driver, who swings us by a lovely French Bakery. Calories stave off the boys’ hanger pains. We motor on to the Angkor National Museum, which holds many of the relics from Angkor Wat and other temples doomed to tomb raiders. It’s cool, comfortable, well-lit and organized, and provides the boys with a constructive template for temple tours. Sue and I keep them focused on the simpler take-aways: early Khmer civilization, snippets of Buddha, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and other key Hindu and Buddhist deities, their mounts and related Mahabharata and Ramayana epics. The context is immediately useful as around town we recognize Nagas, representations of the Ocean of Milk, Vishnu’s turtle incarnation, and Apsara pleasure dancers. No photos allowed, but some of our old antics back home foreshadowed the day.
After a short exploration, we return for a power nap. Mine is short so I rise and bike over to the local Angkor Muscle Gym ($1 fee!) for a short workout among aspiring Cambodyans, then bike up to Jungle Burger to meet the family for dinner. It’s a rugby-themed, Kiwi-run place, with fantastic burgers, free beer, a pool table and a flat screen showing All Blacks rugby highlights in the Men’s room. Then we stumble upon the Night Market with cheap trinkets and foot fish feedings…just look at Sue’s tasty toes. Siem Reap charms.