Southeast Asia, Day 9: Arrival in Cambodia and a floating village tour

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

I awoke at the crack of dawn, 5:15, to prep my things before heading on a 6am shuttle bus to the airport for my 10am flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap. It was gonna be a long morning.

As soon as I gave the driver my ticket that I’d pre-purchased the day before, I squeezed into the far corner of the bus (despite being the first one on) and then shut my eyes and slept until we arrived at the airport, now with a full bus of people.

Something I learned on the Transsiberian trip and my travels through Asia is to never reveal your carry-on luggage in the check-in process, and usually, no one will ask. No rules of size or weight will be enforced, and you will be on your merry way. I followed the rule to success, taking my small backpack purse and backpack with me to security with no issues at all.

Security was not an issue, and I finally saw the list of regulations of carrying a power bank on the flight (back in Thailand, I was afraid it was going to be confiscated… and that would be a pricey loss), and my battery was in the clear, so I don’t anticipate any issues in the future. I went to the gate and oh my lord was it loud. I am not sure what it was exactly, because in the states, gates are just as crowded. However, here, everyone appeared to be having a conversation at normal volume, leading me to sit and endure a loud roar of voices for two hours.

I used the free airport WiFi, which strangely asks you to enter your passport number and last name to use it. I made up a name and passport number and apparently that’s completely ok, so I would recommend that to any future users so as not to just share your personal information to check email. The flight was uneventful, except for the fact that the hot water on this flight cost 40 baht, leaving me with absolutely no free water source at all. Thankfully it was a short flight!

The Siem Reap airport is gorgeous. It’s undergoing some construction, but the exterior is immaculate, as well as the interior. I got in line for the visa upon arrival, which was not as worrisome as I was anticipating. It is crazy how much good lighting and airport design can lessen the intimidation factor. This wasn’t some whitewalled fluorescent room that makes you think the wrongly shaped photo will get your visa rejected and cause you foreign imprisonment for several years. No, this was a natural-lit room with high ceilings and granite floors that makes you feel like everything is gonna be okay. Or, at least, that maybe the prison won’t be half bad, should you end up there.

And I didn’t. I was concerned because my passport photo, which I took in Vanuatu at a cheap souvenir shop in front of a towel that created a weird grey shadow behind me, may not be up to standards. But the guy beside me submitted a 1.5x1.5cm photo, apologizing for its small size, and the authorities just said, “ok, fine, just have a bigger one next time.”

Thirty dollars and ten minutes later, I had a fresh new visa in my passport, and I was getting stamped, passed through customs and off to my tuktuk to the city center.

Tuesday traffic jams.

The tuktuk was amazing, with wooden spindles and worn leather seats, and I was grinning ear to ear as I always seem to do when arriving in a new country or city. Tuktuks passed by on either side, along with schoolchildren on bicycles, kicking up dust as we passed along rows of vendors, restaurants, temples and hotels.

Then I got to the Mad Monkey hostel. It’s a chain that donates proceeds to local schools and organizations to support ethical tourism. It is also, as they call it, a “party hostel.” The place was pumping house music from its speakers, and young, tanned bodies lined the pool and swam inside it, playing water polo. The nearby bar served up a full menu of drinks to the bikinis and swim trunks as I went to the desk to check in.

Yep, one of those kinds of hostels.

I had two hours before my floating village tour, and I debated getting some sleep in or getting coffee and riding through it. I chose the latter, getting a dollar iced coffee from the restaurant next door, along with a pumpkin chicken stir fry to kill my hunger.

By the time I was done, it was time to get picked up. I was the second to last pickup, and once we got the final guests and were on our way, the woman next to me dramatically said “FINALLY!” before asking the guide if they could be dropped off first, since they were picked up first and it would only be fair. The guide kindly apologized that that would be too difficult, as their hotel was far out of the way, outside of the city center. She then asked if we could later put it up to a vote in the group and it was then that I decided I really did not like this woman and that she would most likely ruin the entire tour.

The guide, Paren, asked us to all introduce ourselves, which I just hate in any setting, let alone a tour where I will spend five hours with these people and then never see them again. The annoying woman asked a thousand questions of her young son so he would provide everyone with his detailed backstory of the seven years of his life, until her husband told her to stop. Upon my turn, I said “Melissa from Chicago,” and the woman said, “That’s it? We won’t ask your age! HAHAHA!” I shook my head and was like, “I am not ashamed of my age, it’s just irrelevant. I am 29.”

We went through everyone else fairly quickly, then eventually stopped off at our first destination, along an area designated the “Bamboo Sticky Rice village” because many family clans make bamboo sticky rice, which we were here to try.

Steaming the bamboo over fire.

Peeled and ready to eat!

They remove layers of the bamboo to thin it out, then stuff the tube with a mixture of sticky rice, coconut milk and an add-in (in our case, black beans) like mung beans. Then they shove some grass from the rice paddies into the top before tossing the whole thing onto a fire to steam it. To eat, you peel off the bamboo, exposing a chewy stick of “pancake.”

Rice donuts...MMM

Sreyneang opens up our mini cone treat

Our next stop was a place where they make cookies and such. Here, we tried little cookie cones similar to ice cream cones but made with sesame seeds and coconut milk. We also had some mini donuts made from a sticky rice dough, and some sweet potato chips. We watched a woman making some cookies in the back, beside some industrial coconut scratchers that would make the Vanuatu mamas jealous. The woman cooking had her sleeve hanging over the fire as she stirred the pot, sending that annoying lady into a panic and just making her panic and be annoying even more.

Such clean coconuts.

Then we were off to the floating village. It was currently low tide, so the water was well below the houses which were built on stilts.

The school classroom.

Prayer hand etiquette

Traditional color-coded dress for days of the week

We pulled over and looked at the Bridge of Life school, which is benefited from these tours. The tours are performed in the afternoon, so as not to disturb the classes, which are kindergarten and first grade, and take place in the mornings. The school, to a westerner, is underdeveloped, but after being in the Peace Corps, I can say this school has tons of resources, from supplies to classroom posters and even a whiteboard. The kids learn Thai letters (over 60 consonants) and numbers, so all the beautiful characters on the white board were actually math problems.

The village!

Villagers clean some freshly-caught fish

Being in the Peace Corps and being familiar with a more village-like setting made me look at the village with different eyes than, say, the annoying lady. She asked what was burning, learned it was a trash fire, and was aghast, and disgusted that they were polluting. Well, lady, when a village doesn’t have a trash pickup or infrastructure to dispose of waste, this is the best option. She also didn’t understand who the village stores were selling to, if tourists don’t come by often. Well, they sell to each other, because everyone here needs matches and juice and other goods.

I asked Paren, our guide, if there were chiefs or some sort of local hierarchy of rulers. He said they did have chiefs at different levels, and while they have all been male, the advisors to the chiefs are almost always female. He also explained that in Cambodian culture in general, once married, women control the money of both partners.

Paren told us we were free to take pictures, but he requests we don’t take pictures of the children, for privacy reasons and also because many young children are only semi-clothed, so they don’t want pictures of their naked toddlers floating around, understandably. Because of this, I don’t have an accompanying photo or video of the cutest little group of kids playing around in the road. One girl fashioned a cape from a scarf tied around her neck, and had a grass crown wrapped around her head as she chased her friends around. They all burst into the most infectious little giggles and screams, proving that kids everywhere are amusing and adorable.

We walked around the village until we came to a rickety wooden port, where we boarded a small boat to take us to the nearby lake. There, we saw some actual floating homes, which were anchored in the water. They stay out here during low water season, and at high water, they move closer to the on-shore villages. These floating homes are mostly Vietnamese people, as we’re informed. They have a bit of conflict with the on-shore village, which is why they keep their distance.

A floating home

Floating houses

During some down time while floating in the lake on the boat, I chat with the assistant guide, Sreyneang, who is a 22-year-old woman who is hoping to host her own tours like Paren. We get on the topic of courtship and dating. Much like Vanuatu, the first person to be your boyfriend/girlfriend will be your husband/wife. People here don’t have children before marriage, and if a woman has multiple boyfriends before marriage, she’s tainted, in a way. It’s the same for men, but Sreyneang explains to me that many men lie. It reminded me of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, wherein the main character despises a lover because he lied that he was “pure” when he really wasn’t, and that the standard for woman was much more strict. She tells me that her dream man is a white Aussie, so she can have mixed-race babies.

Sreyneang and I talk about culture and food, and she tells me her favorite cake in Cambodia is chocolate…but it isn’t local as she’s pretty sure cocoa isn’t in Cambodia. She is very bubbly and fun to chat with, and I like going on tours solo so that I can enjoy these asides with the guides, where I feel they can truly open up.

We head out after the sun is down, coming to the five-hour mark since we began. We drove in the dark past the houses which were lit by exposed lightbulbs and the glow of televisions seeping through the wooden boarded walls.

The annoying lady pushed her way, not taking a group vote, so we’re forced to drop off their family first (“Mom, that makes no sense,” says the 7 year old son) because “the kids are so tired.” Yet the kids are not complaining, just the mom is. And thus we drive about 45 minutes out of the city center where all of our accommodations are located, just to drop them off. By the time we get to the city center, we ask the guide to just drop us at an intersection so we can walk the rest of the way. It is now 8:40, over an hour after we were supposed to have been back in our respective hotels. Paren wanted to offer us the ride, but that one family set us back dramatically, so we were desperate to leave the bus.

I look at the map and use my compass to guide me to the main road, where there are no signs indicating its name. I ask some locals for directions, as they are sitting in front of their home. They end up telling me the wrong road, and I wonder to myself how people are so bad at directions. This is their home street and they don’t know the name of it? Even people with smart phones are awful with maps, despite looking at them all the time. Thank god I have this compass.

I get back to the hostel and the pool is no longer what it was before, with the lights and music off and a mere three people quietly checking their phones while sitting at the closed bar.

I go to my room as the clock draws to nearly 9pm, disappointed that I’ve seemed to miss the social outing of the night. I go to my room and meet my young redheaded British roommate, Scarlett, who has been texting with her tour guide to meet her at the hostel bar. I was confused as I saw the bar was closed. Apparently there’s another on the rooftop. She was getting ready to sleep but figured she’d get one drink in before bed. I change my shirt and head up to the rooftop bar with her.

And THIS is where the party is. It’s contained in the rooftop bar where the floor is covered in five inches of sand, and shoes are not required. There’s a beer pong table at the entrance, several tables and high tops scattered about, and a bar along the side serving food til 9:30pm and drinks til midnight. Every hour, on the hour, a loud banging on the beer keg and Jasmine’s (one expat bartender) British voice announces that it’s time for free shots. Drink prices are comparable to those on pub street, with $3 cocktails and $1 beers.

Well, Scarlett’s and my early night turned into far more, after two rounds of free shots and after Jasmine started us up on a Mad Monkey drinking card game similar to King’s Cup. When the bar closed (how did time fly so quickly) we shrugged our shoulders with a “why not” as Jasmine and the other expat staff led the patrons on a migration to pub street with promises of free shots.

We walked over, and the free shots were actually just hard liquor poured directly into our mouths. I’d hit my four drink limit for the evening so I asked Scarlett if she’d like to grab food. She happily obliged and we went next door to CafĂ© Latino, where I got some beef and mushroom empanadas. It’s been far too long since I’ve had my share of South American food.

After eating and sharing our regret for having gone out way past our bed time, we decided to head back to the hostel.

Two other girls had moved into the room, but weren’t home when we got back. However, one of them had left her stuff on my bed, so I happily slept in the bottom bunk instead.

I zonked out at nearly 1am, but Scarlett would recap to me the remainder of the night tomorrow morning.