After a pretty spectacular two-week stay in Laos, we headed southeast to Cambodia. Ultimately, we opted to drop back down into Thailand to cross into Cambodia, rather than our initial plan to take a bus through the long, southern portion of Laos. While ground transportation throughout southeast Asia really hadn’t been too bad (aside from time-consuming), we were feeling a little worn out from the last couple trips. Our most recent Luang Prabang to Vientiane bus ride – a 212-mile journey that took just under 12 interminable hours – really tested our sanity. Thus, for about $50 per person total, we hopped on a comfy, overnight train to Bangkok (seriously, we are going there again?!), and then took a snazzy, air-conditioned bus the rest of the way to Siem Reap.
We’d ridden an overnight train in Thailand earlier in our journey and, aside from a slight misunderstanding that resulted in Stephan taking a continental breakfast to the head from a disgruntled stewardess, we found it to be surprisingly comfortable and enjoyable. This train was equally relaxing, and (bonus) this time we had the sweetest attendant who was interested in checking out some of our Laos photos as we worked to assemble a blog entry in my cozy, bottom bunk. After the more docile train trip, and a seemingly luxurious bus ride – with real air-conditioning and seats that were both upright and unbroken – we hopped off the bus at the Thai-Cambodian border. We received our Thai exit stamps and chuckled as we followed a huge sign instructing us to, ‘Go to Cambodia.’ The door at the back of immigration dumped us out onto an absolutely chaotic street, swarming with street vendors, tuk tuk drivers, a few international buses, and a number of backpackers also attempting to “go to Cambodia” via the muddled immigration point. We eventually stumbled our way through the correct visa-on-arrival and entry checkpoints, paid our ambiguous 100 ฿ ($3 USD) fees to the Cambodian officers, and met our bus on the other side of the border to close out the last couple hours to Siem Reap.
A medium-sized city in northwestern Cambodia, Siem Reap serves as the gateway to the ancient Khmer ruins of Angkor. Stephan found us a guesthouse online that was even cheaper than the few we stayed at in Laos, and we were eager to see what $17 a night (including breakfast) would buy. Apparently in Siem Reap, it’ll get you what feels like a posh resort – a palatial, private room, a breakfast of freshly-baked baguettes, fruit, and eggs, and a salt-water swimming pool. The price even included the company of two loveable dogs, Patch & Snowy. Patch in particular had quite the restless personality, and had to constantly be gnawing on something, be it the wooden patio furniture, cloth doormats, jackfruit husk, any stick or leaf that was vaguely interesting, or the shiny, chrome trim of a parked motorcycle. He took a special liking to Stephan, who allowed him to clamp onto his forearm and would proceed to drag him around the terrace by his teeth. Consequently, anytime we returned to our room Patch would follow, either pawing anxiously at the door for his buddy to come out and play, or depositing a gift of a ragged doormat just outside the entryway.
As we poked around the numerous restaurants, we were surprised to find that food here was even cheaper than we’d found in Laos. We discovered a great little hole in the wall, Lillipop, where a plate piled high with freshly-sautéed ginger fried rice or tasty rice noodles cooked with (amazingly delicious) Siem Reap basil cost a mere $1.50. One night for dinner we ordered two fresh fruit smoothies, two entrées, two desserts, and one 75-cent Angkor beer. The grand total? $10.75. Although not quite as unique as the cuisine in Luang Prabang, we thoroughly enjoyed our first foray into Cambodian food. As I was able to find a vegetarian version, Stephan and I both tried amok, a traditional curry dish made with galangal and coconut milk. Some of our other favorites included a Khmer cardamom curry, a lemongrass and vermicelli ‘stir pot,’ stir-fried morning glory, and some delicious desserts – freshly-picked bananas smeared with passion fruit, ginger & black sesame ice cream, and Khmer fruit ice cream. We also discovered a vegetarian/vegan restaurant, Chamkar House, just around the corner from our guesthouse that was nothing short of amazing; Stephan was particularly pleased with his basil-lime sorbet served sandwiched between two crispy rice wafers.
Additionally, I was able to explore some of the local fruit. At one of the small, roadside stands we picked up some sugar palm fruit, an early summer treat from the palmyra palm, Cambodia’s national tree. Although I always enjoy the experience of trying a new fruit, I was definitely not a fan of the sugar palm. The inner fruit is unappealingly referred to as a ‘jelly seed socket,’ and bears a striking resemblance to either a small jellyfish or a breast implant. While I’ve never eaten either of those, I would imagine they’d be both be remarkably similar to the sugar palm – a slimy, gelatinous flesh from which a flavorless liquid explodes when you sink your teeth in. While I’d certainly drink the sugar palm as a juice if you threw it into a blender, it’s most definitely a texture that I can’t easily handle.
Outside of the vibrant, local food scene, we thought Siem Reap was a cute little city overall. Due to Angkor’s popularity, we found some parts to be a bit touristy and overwhelming, namely the part of downtown encompassing Pub Street and the night market. Several blocks were absolutely jammed with bars offering 50-cent beers or cocktails for about $1.50, and the surrounding streets were swarming with tuk tuk drivers, salivating at the thought of picking up the throngs of tourists indulging in the inexpensive nightlife. If you avoid this area in the evening, though, the rest of the town is pretty laid back. Some nicely-manicured gardens and a small walkway line the quiet river, and the Old Market is a nice place to take a short walk and check out some of local crafts and foods. Walking around the town, everyone is exceptionally friendly and outgoing, habitually offering a glowing smile and warm hello. It was reminiscent of our recent stay in Luang Prabang – everyone was just so wonderful, and they made us feel like we were right at home.