Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cambodia – Phnom Penh and Siem Riep

It has been a really long time since my last post, but the reason is that the Diplomat and I decided to take a little trip on the wild side and visit Cambodia and Laos. So, we called my Mom, bought her a ticket and dragged her to play with Son for 12 days while we gallivanted through the exotic and less traveled paths of South Asia. She happily obliged and we left for our little solo adventure filled with the usual doses of excitement and trepidation parents feel when they are leaving their fragile progeny behind.

Our first stop was Phnom Penh, where we had booked the posh Raffles Hotel Le Royal. And Le Royal it was! One of the few fine examples of French colonial architecture left in the city, the hotel is resplendent with its two outdoor swimming pools surrounded by stunning frangipani trees, extensive bar and a multitude of frisky Nordic college students ostensibly there for an obscure research assignment. Unless their goal was to research each other, I don’t think they got much done because none of them left the poolside within the 3 days we were there. The hotel houses curious relics like a champagne glass with the lipstick imprint of Jackie O.’s beloved lips – apparently, she expressed a burning desire to see Angkor Wat, and while in Cambodia, stayed in the regal hotel. The one thing that sort of spoiled the gentile atmosphere was the fact that I was sick and kept coughing my brains out. My chest was very congested so I was hacking left and right to the utter horror of the hotel staff and the Diplomat, who throughout the trip reacted every time to my maniacal coughing as if I was killing small kittens with a blunt fork. Sadly, there wasn’t much I could so cough I did. My congestion was over the day we left. Of course.

The city itself is quite cute and becoming rapidly rather touristy to accommodate the scores of western bearded backpackers in search of an exotic adventure. It still remains a calm haven compared to the happy mayhem of Bangkok, and so we spent 4 hazy, hot days dragging ourselves slowly through the cultural attractions (think a royal palace, an impressive wat and a Russian market filled with super authentic Cambodian knick-knacks), dined in the cute riverside restaurants, swam in the gorgeous hotel pool and slept to our hearts’ content. I must be honest – I did spend a considerable amount of time on this trip sleeping. I reasoned that no matter how cultural and interesting those countries were, this was still MY VACATION and, as every working parent of toddlers out there will undoubtedly understand, I needed to catch up on some sleep and relaxation. After a nice Phnom Penh soak, we climbed a scary and puny looking propeller plane and flew on the expert wings of Cambodia Angkor Air to Siem Riep. 45 minutes of Diplomat’s hyperventilating later and we arrived in the famed ancient town.

Siem Riep boasts 2 main things – copious amounts of remarkably well-preserved ancient temples (called wats) and a rather astonishingly active night life downtown. We arrived ready and excited to tackle both. After leaving our bags, we ran to the center of the city and to our utter shock discovered a scene quite like downtown French Quarter in New Orleans. There were a million restaurants and bars, loud music, horrendous live bands and excellent food and drinks, mixed with massage parlors and a bunch of water tanks filled with grisly looking kind of fish, ready to nibble on your unsuspecting feet. A sign above all of them reassured the apprehensive tourist, “No piranhas!” You don’t say – you’d think that’s presumed? While we had copious, practically indecent amounts of massages on this trip, we never succumbed to the fish exfoliation scheme – there was something rather ominous in the way all hungry fish would converge and try to jump out of the water whenever I approached the fish tank. My feet remain calloused but safe.

One thing I have to say about Cambodia – there is free wi-fi everywhere, including the airport, road shacks and hotel bathrooms. It was so ubiquitous and common that I started half-expecting it in the ruins of Angor. It was a really amazing thing, you have to admit – we would sit in a nice restaurant for dinner, I’d pull out my Android phone, dial Skype and voila, hear the screeching voice of a very pixelized version of Son from Bangladesh, who’d invariably ask about his impending gifts from our trip. I know this is a rather banal statement by now, but, really, technology is pretty shocking these days.

We spent the next 3 days cavorting around the ruins of Angkor under the blazing sun. After 2-3 hours, the Diplomat would start getting cranky and sit down more and more around the centuries-old stones, patiently waiting to be photographed from various angles as I experimented with some newly discovered settings of my camera. Soon even that patience would wear off and he’d start giving me some truly incinerating looks, which would signal the need to go back to the hotel and chill out (literally). To see the wats in relative coolness, we woke up every day at 6.30ish, and were done for the day by 12ish. Except for the day when we foolishly decided to do the tourist thing and see the sunset from a wat called Phnom Bakheng. After climbing a steep hill in the 5 pm heat for about 10 mins, we reached a somewhat underwhelming wat, popular mostly because of its good location for viewing sunsets. The line to climb on it was rather lengthy and moved at a snail’s pace – I figured that by the time it was out turn to go on the top, the sun not only would have set, but it might already be rising on the following day. Irritated, I went to ask the languid girl manning the line what the deal was and she brightly informed me that they are closing the line in 4 minutes and only those who have made it past her by then, would go up for the coveted sunset. I did the math and there was no way we could make it. Then suddenly, they started letting people up rather briskly. The languid ticket lady motioned me and the Diplomat in, and then suddenly roped off the precious ruin and said crisply to the frenzied, sweaty, sunset-loving queue behind us, “No more!” Well, we certainly were lucky on THAT one. So, we climbed the steps of the wat, expecting the sunset of our lives, romance, butterflies, music, mist, magic, anything really. What we got was a temple top filled to the brim with loud tourists and their cameras. Every which way you look, every corner you’d stick your head into, there would be a tourist with a camera. Then the wait for the sunset began. But the damn sun would just not set fast enough. After taking about 245 mediocre pictures of dusk, I picked up the utterly bored Diplomat and we decided to go back to the hotel, have a swim and go for a nice, long street food dinner. Best decision ever taken.

One unfortunate side-effect of the now-booming Angkor tourist is the incredible amount of peddlers inhabiting the various wats. The second we’d get off from our tuk-tuk (a motorized rickshaw) in front of a gorgeous ancient temple, just as we are about to be enveloped in images of past Khmer empires and transport ourselves some 1000 years ago, an incredibly persistent crowd of women would jump us, asking whether we are interested in chilled water, mangos, pineapple, coconut, beer, food, hats, guides, pins, wooden elephants, ANYTHING at all. So much for that romantic ancient feeling.

All in all, Angkor and its wats is a truly astonishing place. From Angkor Wat itself and its impressive 5 towers, to Ta Prohm where giant trees engulf the ruins and Angelina Jolie immortalized in Tomb Raider, to smaller but no less fascinating temples, it is a must see in one’s life.

On day 6 of our journey, we were ready to board the next propeller that would takes us to the less traveled roads of Laos.


  1. Dear Diplomatic Mama, I just wanted to tell you that I absolutely love your blog and I fervently await each new post! :)