Monday, December 27, 2010

First Impressions of Cambodia

I've been in Cambodia now for about six days and I'm still not sure what to think. If Nepal and Thailand had a love child it might come out something like Cambodia. Much of the landscape is flat rice fields as far as the eye can see interrupted with the occasional palm tree or small herd of water buffalo. Siem Reap, where I have spent most of my time thus far, is a strange eruption of five star hotels to small shacks that clusters near the Angkor ruins. This almost surreal city has a really interesting strip of good restaurants and shops that are mostly congregated around the old market. Although spending time in Siem Reap and saying you've experienced Cambodia is probably like spending a weekend in Vegas and thinking you understand America.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, reflected in a lily pond.

I'll write an entry on the ruins of Angkor, which were awesome, but I just haven't had time to sort through the pictures to select photos yet. I spent two full days exploring the ruins of various temple sites there, and it was quite impressive. As cool as it was though, because the architecture and layout is quite similar and two days was certainly enough, and even as someone who loves visiting ruins I can say a certain amount of ruin fatigue set in by the end of the second day. I also went out to Kbal Spean, a river north of Angkor that has lots of carvings and a waterfall. Honestly this was a bit of a let down, and not worth the price to get out here and back in my opinion.  The best part was getting out into the jungle a bit and seeing some of the flora and fauna.

Who wants turtle?

While the food here is better than what you get in Nepal,it is far behind Thailand. Most street vendor food is concoctions that I'm not even comfortable eating, and though there are some very good Khmer dishes, they are on average not as interesting as their Thai cousins. I've seen boiled turtles with the bottom of the shell cut off and ready to eat, fried tarantulas as a salty snack, and the normal collection of bugs that you get for this part of the world. There is also a very large collection of not very appealing fish that is prepared in a number of ways. The highlight so far has actually been some of the foreign run restaurants serving good western food, something I have been without for the better part of a year.

Note to the girls of the "Pussy Cat" hollering across the road to a male and calling him "daddy" isn't getting him in the's kind of creepy.

I arrived in Phnom Penh yesterday and it's not a city that really has a whole lot of appeal to me. There are some very interesting stretches along the river, and the area around the royal palace is quite nice, but so far I'm not seeing anything that really makes it stand out to me. The sleaziness that seemed to have left Bangkok is very much still here in Phnom Penh and just the street I'm staying on, which is in a decent part of town...although aimed at tourists, has bars named; Pussy Cat, Dream Bar 2, 69, and other fairly suggestive names. For those unfamiliar with south east Asian bars of this sort, they employ many girls who's job it is to get male patrons in the door and then get them to buy drinks for all the girls as well as other 'favors'from the girls themselves. I also managed to have some money stolen from me, something that hasn't happened to me in the 34 some odd countries I've been to. I'm not even sure how it happened either, as it was taken from my wallet and my wallet has been with me the whole time, all I can think is that someone was quite quick when some begging kid was pestering me while I was paying a bill at a restaurant, and I had turned to kind of show him away while I left my wallet on the table.

Downtown Siem Reap

All the negatives aside, the people are very charming and friendly, obnoxious tuk-tuk drivers aside, and even the people that get on your nerves trying to sell you something you don't need meet you with a smile. It's a place I'm very glad I visited, but I'm not sure I'll be putting it on my itinerary again any time soon. I spent today touring the royal palace area and the Silver Pagoda, and tomorrow I plan on visiting S21, the former security prison of the Pol Pot regime that is now a museum dedicated to the 17,000 people that were tortured and killed there. Depending on how that experience goes I may visit the Killing Fields where they brought the people for execution, and is also preserved as a mass grave in their memory. As depressing as that all might sound, it's uplifting to see how quickly Cambodia seems to be moving on and recovering from those old wounds. After this it's back  to Thailand and a little time on the beach.

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