It was only a quick pit stop back in Phnom Penh before we got on another bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The 7 hour ride is taking it’s toll and this road is much bumpier than the one we took to Vietnam. I’m trying to focus on the fact that I have more leg room than last time and that’s enough for me to be thankful for!
Arriving in Siem Reap, our host, Chris, is waiting for us — Angkor beer in hand, what a guy. Chris is Luke’s friend from college and I’ve met him a few times, so he’s no stranger. Chris and his wife, Miesha, moved to Cambodia a couple of years ago to teach. Miesha is still teaching while Chris has moved into the restaurant business and is helping open the Hard Rock Angkor location.
Driving through Siem Reap brings back a few memories from last year when I was here. Coming from Ho Chi Minh, or even Phnom Penh, Siem Reap feels small, quaint, and more focused on tourism. Rightfully so as it is home to the famous Angkor Wat, along with tons of other temples scattered across the area.
The temples are overrun with tourists (such as myself) but cannot be passed up. Walking through the temples and ruins, it’s hard to not be overwhelmed with the thought of how magnificent these structures looked in their prime. Or what it would have been like to traverse the land in the 13th century on an elephant, making the rounds from one temple to the next. For now, though, Luke and I will stick to our tuk tuk and trusty driver named So. So is actually Chris’ neighbor and saved up to buy his own tuk tuk not too long ago. Its been fun chatting with him on the ride to the next attraction, asking questions about his life and what it was like to grow up here…or just sneaking up on him when he falls asleep waiting on us.
While we’re talking, So mentions that he actually helped restore one of the temples. He worked there for 3 years with his Uncle and told us he would show us around. The temple he worked on is off the beaten path a bit but near the larger, more popular Angkor Thom. Approaching the massive build, So points out how the whole right side had essentially crumbled and that’s what they had spent a lot of time on. I’m quickly realizing that this isn’t the type of tour a normal traveler will experience but that Luke and I are quite lucky to get a rare look at the rebuilding process of this temple almost a century after it’s original construction. Instead of explaining the history of different figures carved into a stone doorway, So tells us that it took a worker 3 months just to complete the restoration. We pause while strolling through a small hallway when So points down and tell us with a big smile on his face, “This is where I used to take naps.” This sort of thing continues each corner we turn or new area we enter. So is full of little stories of working and then heading to the pond out back to go fishing. Even though I still don’t know when the original temple was built, why people stopped using them, or what the names of each figure carved on the wall are, this exclusive tour is giving me a different picture of this sacred place.
When we arrived in Siem Reap, our host Chris teased us with the idea of piling on a few scooters and heading up to a big waterfall in the hills outside of the city. We haven’t been able to shake the idea, so today we’re making it a reality. Chris, Luke, and me, along with So and his friend…and I think two of their siblings (its hard for me to follow who’s related!) form a 3-scooter crew and hit the road out of town around noon.
Phnom Kulen is considered a sacred mountain in Cambodia and for many reasons a very religious one too. There is a small village at the top with a massive temple that will serve as our first stop of the day. Approaching the temple, sounds of Khmer instruments flow out of buildings adorned in gold painted trim and down a huge staircase to where we’re standing. Following the music, we come across gold Buddhist statues and figures, then eventually to a balcony with a view of the entire valley below where miles of thick forest and details in the temple rooftops can be seen. As the rain starts back up, we take cover next to the river under a wooden pavilion with a tin roof. A few hundred feet away, the sound of a waterfall beckons us. It has been an adventurous day, though, so no one is in a rush and we decide to get lunch along the way. We picked it up at a local market and dive into styrofoam containers of chicken, rice, and frog legs. And, of course, there is a bounty of Angkor beer. Some of the food is a bit mysterious, but I’m not hesitating to fill up after a long time riding in the wet mountain roads.
A few short naps and card games later and it’s time to make our decent down to the falls. Climbing through the slick forest, the roar of the approaching gush grows louder. Once in view, the falls are larger than I had imagined. Catching up with the rest of the group as they peered down into the plummeting water, I wonder if anyone will actually get in the water. From where I’m standing, it doesn’t seem like a safe idea. Before I could ask if it was wise, I see So jumping in still fully clothed in slacks and a polo shirt. His excitement is contagious and one by one we plop into the opaque brown rapids. Surprisingly, the water isn’t too cold and the rush is invigorating. Blocking out my inability to see below the surface, I jump off the rocks and splash the water around. The germaphobe side of me wants to get out, but this is a moment I’m sure to savor.
The sun has begun its decent and we know it’s time to get back on the road. Since Luke did most of the driving on the way up, I take the reins first on the way down. Only a few small maneuvers into my ride, I realize the ground is a bit wetter than I thought. After trying to navigate around a pot hole, I completely lay the scooter on it’s side! Luckily, I’m the only one injured but everyone seems shocked. A few strangers tend to my small wounds, dabbing napkins on my arm and ankle while I try to collect myself. Unlike in America, the local Khmer people are practically born on scooters. A huge number of the population uses them for every day transportation so crashes are infrequent and not a welcomed sight. I found out firsthand a local’s agility and control as I was replaced by a “good driver” and demoted to riding the “cupcake” position on the back. My shaken hands could not argue, it was best for all. Perhaps I’ve had enough excitement for one day.
Almost every night in Siem Reap,we find ourselves back at Hard Rock Café to visit our friend Chris who’s been working some pretty long hours. It seems like an odd place for someone like Luke and me to frequent, being travelers who want a local vibe and all, but after all, this is technically local. So, we made a little home away from home and even felt like regulars - something I’m not too familiar with! It’s our last night and after having dinner with the whole crew, we asked So to take us to the airport in his tuk tuk. Only a few moments after piling in, So is pulling over. He hops off the scooter and into a store emerging with three beers. I could have almost teared up! We made a real local friend who’s buying us beer! So explains that he waited around for us all day but couldn’t find us and that he wanted us to come play basketball. Now I’m really trying to hold back the water works. I try to change subjects and give a big cheers. We talk about all the adventures we had and take a few photos before getting back in the tuk tuk.
At the airport So insists on a few more photos so we take them, gladly. Saying our last goodbyes it’s actually a bit sad to leave. So brought a lot of adventure to our trip and now it’s time for us to carry the torch. We make our way to the ticket counter. Next stop: Thailand.