Siem Reap and the Beginning of the End

There are about four days left to our trip, but the Cambodian experiences are basically over. Yesterday we endured a ten hour bus ride from Siem Reap in the north of the country to Sihounoukville in the southwest. It was a little precarious at times – running off the bumpy road always scared me and we would pass two eighteen wheelers on this tiny, two lane country road. There were several times when I grabbed Haley’s arm in a panic, hoping my life would not be ending in the ensuing thirty seconds.
I realize now the only thing I’ve written about Siem Reap is that it felt like heaven after our countryside stay. With Angkor Wat mere miles away, it has become a clean, friendly hub for Asian 75% Asian tourists, 15% Aussies and Brits, and 5% everyone else (imagine that – America doesn’t actually rule the world). For good reason, Siem Reap is a pretty touristy place, but it’s also very safe and friendly. The atmosphere has been westernized a little, making it more comfortable, for better or worse.
As I write and scan through pictures, I’m remembering just how many awesome things have happened to me in the last week. This isn’t going to be my best writing, but it’ll give you a small summary of the Cambodian Experience.
I blew through a lot of my money at the markets here, and my bargaining skills have definitely improved. I’ve also enjoyed the wifi and air conditioned lounge at the Blue Pumpkin, which is still better than the Marble slab, Coldstone, Baskin Robbins, and Hagen Daaz combined. None of those places boast the plethora of ice cream flavors the BP has. Some are bizarre, some plain popular – durian, ginger sesame, peanut, mango, dark chocolate, vanilla with brownie. Yummm. I’m pretty certain ice cream is an imported cuisine, but man is it popular in this heat.

After being rescued from our hike, I visited paradise in the form of a waterfall. It had everything a truly magical waterfall should have- fluttering butterflies, unreal palm fronds, the sound of refreshingly cool rushing water cleansing my sticky, B.O. skin. Ah, it was heaven on earth. 


Paradise. Did I tell you or did I tell you?
Artsy Fruit Stand
I love our guides, Vuttha and Suy Vet. They have eternal patience with our often slow, high maintenance behinds, and they always go beyond the job description. Like inviting us to go to their (very wealthy) friend’s wedding. American weddings go for class and tradition. A big one might have two hundred people in attendance. This wedding was simultaneously tacky and impressive. It’s all glitz, an ostentatious display of one’s wealth. Women wore prom dresses and caked on the makeup, the backs of chairs dawned poofy blue and pink bows, and tables are served full course Khmer meals. And the beer. Bottles and bottles and bottles. My neighbor said he wouldn’t leave until he had at least twenty. At first I thought he was exaggerating, but when I looked at the empty glass bottles underneath the table halfway through the night, I was convinced he could do it. The only way to stop drinking is to nurse one and pretend like you’re working on it.

Our table at the wedding. Duncan was not the one who said he’d drink twenty beers
Hundreds of people at this wedding. If not 1,000. I’m an awful estimator.

We used to joke that the stocked tilapia provided free spa services at Sugah Cain. “Just float. People pay to have fish eat their dead skin!” we would joke. Guilty as charged. For three dollars, I got a chilled Angkor beer and twenty minutes of ticklish fish biting. I went for the big fish. It was not at all enjoyable to begin with, but eventually you adjust. They liked Duncan’s feet the best.
Unsanitary?
Tilapia and my toes!

I also rode an elephant for $15. In Cambodia, that is a butt load of money, but they know they have the tourists. I was considering saving my money, and then I looked at that elephant and thought, “Dang, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I gotta do it.” So, with Haley and Lauren sitting in the box on the elephant’s back with me, we teetered along. I don’t know why I did not anticipate such a thumpy ride, but I was not smoothly cruising along the interstate.

Angkor Wat is incredible, and if you’re ever over in Southeast Asia, these ancient temples are worth checking out. For now, at least, they let you climb all over them, feeling the rock engravings and exploring to an adventurist’s content. Our guide Vuttha just let us go for two hours. “Okay, we meet back at 4:15, as in one-five, and we watch the sunset at another temple.” It was wonderful. There are ancient, intricately carved stones haphazardly laying on the ground. It is so bizarre; I felt like I was disregarding invisible “Please do not touch signs.”

Bayon

The top tower at Angkor Wat

Ancient artifacts laying around haphazardly

Citadel of Women – small and intricate. It reminded me of an ancient  doll house.

Close up at the Citadel of Women
It’s called this because of the detailed carvings. They didn’t think men’s hands could do it.
I heard loud Khmer music playing, and when I followed my ear, I found a huge procession of freshly eye-browless, bald youth wearing the traditional white or orange garb of Buddhist monks. After a little investigation, I discovered that they were becoming monks or nuns. So young! I thought. Do they know what they’re doing? As I continued to ask around, I found the loophole. They were going to live at Angkor Wat monastery style…for one week. I was told it was both to see if they would like this life and to thank their parents. Kind of like Jesus camp for Buddhists, I suppose.

Front of the procession

Nuns for a week

Last major thing: We spent a morning visiting nonprofits, including a top-tier orphanage called Green Gecko. A retired permanent volunteer named Doug showed us around the grounds and told us all about it. He was clearly passionate about this, and could’ve talked all day. Halfway through the tour, I shot Paul a look.  I just want to do this…forever…Please? The library resembled an elementary school classroom, only more cheerful. As I turned around the room, I was surrounded by rows of genre-labeled plastic baskets of Khmer and English language books, children’s art renderings along all of the walls, and colorful educational posters. Founded in 2005, the Green Gecko Project houses, educates, and inspires seventy-four past street youth. Most orphanages, even the reputable ones, kick the youth out at age eighteen. Green Gecko, on the other hand, promises to fund their children’s university education or vocational training.  Unlike an actual orphanage, most Green Gecko kids still have parents, and they are required to visit them regularly. 

Doug

Playground at the Green Gecko.

So here I am, at the beginning of the end. Or the ending before the end. If you ignore the litter and tourists and night clubs, the clear beach water and soft sand in Sihanoukville is pretty nice. But I really don’t like it. It’s a haven for backpackers who refresh their grimy bodies for a few day on its tropical beaches. Plus I’m feeling the stress of our writing assignments. I’m not going to be getting my tan on anytime soon. The work for this course is pretty heavily loaded toward the back end, and I’ve finally had enough experiences to gather my thoughts and go for it. We’ll see how much I can accomplish, but I keep feeling so disheartened. I unintentionally create this “professional writing Jessica” that is so not natural, and everyone knows it. This May term has been phenomenal and has given me tons of practice writing and a taste for many types of travel. Right now, though, the humidity here is so reminiscent of Charleston, and I’m looking forward to reuniting with those I love.
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