Thanks to Nithya’s many weeks of consulting on the road, she had accumulated enough Starwood Hotel points to allow us to stay at Le Meridien near Angkor Wat. Best shower of the trip. There was strong pressure, constant hot temperatures, and of course great shampoo. But, I had gotten so used to staying at small guest houses and hostels, that I had begun to take for granted that the staff would recognize me and that all places would be as friendly as a family run guest house. The customer service at Le Meridien surprisingly did not meet up to this standard. They forgot our box breakfasts one morning, and they were unfortunately inflexible in accommodating us. That said, it was still a fabulous place to spend three nights and I couldn’t get enough of that shower. I was using conditioner in my very short hair as an excuse to prolong it.
From Le Meridien, I bussed through a flash flood down to Kampot in the South of Cambodia and stayed at a small guest house called RikiTikiTavi. Although not as fancy, there were only five small rooms, and the staff knew my name when I arrived. The room was clean, nice and had A/C, but more than the room, the staff made the place so welcoming. The following evening, I also had a chance to meet Denise, the owner of RikiTikiTavi, who was very friendly as I enjoyed some spring rolls and other happy hour specials while watching the sunset over the river.
I can’t complain about either place as both were fabulous, but I confirmed the value of customer service as a result of their differences.
Siem Reap is a city easy to travel because of its many tourist amenities. Delicious restaurants full of both Khmer and Western foods, Tuk Tuks ready to take us anywhere for a dollar or two, and English spoken everywhere. But the best example of Siem Reap’s tourist-friendly atmosphere is its Night Market. When I first think of a night market in Southeast Asia, a very specific image comes to mind with crowded stalls, dim lighting, a mixture of smells that individually would be nice but together don’t blend, and people trying to sell you anything and everything. This market was anything but that to the point of there being a night market map, a bar/restaurant in the middle, friendly salespeople, great lighting, and surprising cleanliness.
Pub Street, located in the middle of town, was full of inexpensive and great restaurants. For each dinner, Sangita, Nithya, and I would take turns reading about Khmer history from my Kindle’s Lonely Planet Cambodia so that we could start to understand the Indian, Hindu and French influences all around us. In addition, up and down the street were small pools of cleaner fish. For a small fee, we put our feet in one pool and let the fish, both big and small, nibble at our heels and our toes with the promise that afterwards our feet would be clean and “soft as a baby’s bottom” (their words, not mine). After I moved pass the tickling phase, the sensation wasn’t too unusual and almost nice.
Siem Reap is a great city, even if a bit touristy, that offers opportunities to try traditional food, appreciate Khmer Art, and see temples that were significant in ages past and are still places of pilgrimage for many today.
Cambodian tourism is now synonymous with visiting Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, and that is where our Cambodian adventure properly began. Although Angkor was easily the most breathtaking, it is only one of hundreds of temples in Cambodia. The agenda for the two days that Nithya, Sangita and I stayed in Siem Reap was as follows:
- Angkor Wat
- Bonteay Kdei
- Sunset on Prerup Temple
- Sunrise at Angkor Wat
- Banteay Srei
- Banteay Samre
- East Mebon
- Angkor Thom
- Terrace of Elephant
- Sunset on Phnom Bakheng
Luckily we had a very well-informed and nice guide, Dara Ly, to help us differentiate the above temples and ancient sites, which at first seem more “same, same” than “different”. In addition, Dara along with my travel partners, Nithya and Sangita, were all knowledgeable on the Hindu gods and goddesses that were carved throughout the temples. After my couple days in Siem Reap, I now know more about Shaivism, focusing on Shiva and the lingam, as well as Vaishnayism, focusing on Vishnu. And although most of Cambodia is Buddhist, many of the temples contain elements of both Hinduism and Buddhism as the control of the temples shifted throughout the years. At one temple, because I was wearing my Buddhist beaded bracelet and a red string around my wrist indicating that I had recently paid my respects to a Buddha statue, a monk came up to me, gently grabbed my wrist and said something although not in English seemingly kind and appreciative. Small experiences such as this help me better understand the importance of these historic Cambodian temples.