Backpacking Cambodia: Day 01 (12-Feb-2019)
They say that travel sets you free. Of course it does, in a certain way, but, in today's world, that freedom itself does not come for free. This so called freedom came at a cost of couple of thousand rupees for the flight ticket and visa charges and I knew that there was going to be more expenses. Anyways, when I set out on this journey, I wondered if this really is freedom. Can one be truly free when one travels? Can we be free of our thoughts? Can we be free of our prejudices that drives comparisons and judgements? However, I have often observed that travel allows one to unlearn some of these traits that our upbringing and our influences has embedded in us. Hence, I know now for sure that staying within the four walls of a house or a city or even a country for that matter would only harness ignorance at different degrees. If I have to choose between ignorance and knowledge or awareness, I would gladly pick the latter. Thus travel sets me free from my ignorance!
I picked Cambodia this year simply because, I needed to visit a country that allowed visa on arrival for Indians and was small enough to be covered in two weeks. My exam dates were not finalised till the nth moment so, I could not plan this trip in advance. Apart from its location and the famous Angkor Wat temple, I knew nothing about this country or its culture. I bought my lonely planet book, that I never got time to read before my trip. On the 11th of Feb, soon after my last exam was done, I packed my 10KG bag and made my way to the airport. The flight to Bangkok was uneventful. I dozed off almost immediately and woke up only when the flight was about to land. I had no co-passengers to chat with either. I found the cheap air Asia flight absolutely fine for such a short trip of 3h30m.
After a few hours at crowded Bangkok airport that included witnessing a loud and animated quarrel between an airport authority and a passenger, which some Western tourists felt like capturing on their cell phone, I boarded my next flight to Siem reap. The flight time was just one hour.
It was interesting to notice that the aeroplane parked close to the airport, that looked like a mangalore style tiled house. I felt like we were parking our plane on a front yard of a house and walking towards it. I think it was somewhere here that I felt the excitement of being on a voyage. Though I had an e-visa, my immigration prcoess took a long time as I was on the slowest line. The officer had some technical issue and hence he took double the time that others took.
At the exit, I bought a ticket of US$9 for a remork (tuk-tuk) ride to the city. As it seems to be a norm here, the rider wanted to know if he could also guide me to the temples of Angkor thom the following day. I told him that I have not yet decided about it. I had booked "The Hideout Hostel" through Hostelworld app. Most hostels in Cambodia have a swimming pool. It suits the climate there. Even at around noon, the hostel seemed to have a party vibe. I normally dislike such ambience but I have now learnt to ignore them and stay to myself. In a hostel, there are always true backpackers and some who just come there just to have fun. The native staff was very friendly and helped me with a local sim card (Smart) and gave me basic information about the place. Since I had arrived early, I decided to leave my bag at the common area and head to the town.
I walked to a shop and got US$100 exchanged to local currency - 400,000 Riel. Many shops provide exchange and they are standard rate. It's better to get money exchanged in these shops than at the airport. However the lady who made a math error while rendering the change. The exchange she provided was less by 90000 Riel. With such a high exchange rate, it is difficult to calculate the amount and it took me a while to figure that out. With so much of cash in hand, I felt rich!
At the shop, I refilled my water bottle for 1000 Riel. This is probably the only country I have visited thus far where water is not available for free. Earlier, the hostel too had refused to refill my bottle and suggested that I buy a bottle of water. I learnt later that this was the case in the entire country. I found that to be weird. Even the poorest of poor in India would never refuse a glass of water to anyone who requests. Anyways, that's how this country functions. At the junction where I was, a few remork and motor taxi (You ride on a motor bike as a pinion rider) drivers asked me if they could take me somewhere. I smilingly denied and took one of the streets that diverged from the junction.
Almost all streets were filled with restaurants catering to the needs of the tourists. Every restaurant seemed to serve almost similar food. They had Cambodian cuisine, some pasta or pizza and burger but always had cheap draft beer. I picked one that was less crowded. The lady at the entrance got up and greeted me. Her young son came to me with a menu and a notepad to jot down my order. I picked the most famous local cuisine - A vegetarian Amok. I was also tempted to order sticky rice with mango for dessert as it sounded good and looked delicious in the picture. I must tell you that both these dishes were amazing. Amok is a traditional Cambodian gravy made with coconut milk cooked in cups made of banana leaf. Sticky rice with mango was delicious and was served to me with a bit of condensed milk that seemed to enrich the taste further.
I was surprised to note that all transactions happened in Dollars and Riel. US dollar is widely accepted or rather preferred. That meal cost me around $4.5.
Extremely satisfied with my meal, I returned back to my hostel to check-in. In my dorm, I was welcomed by a girl from Holland. It is always nice to have friendly inmates in your dorm, specially when you have just arrived in a country. It helps set the mood and create a lively atmosphere. She has been backpacking in SE Asia for about a month now. She was planning to head to Thailand next and then to Delhi to meet a friend. She gave me a lot of tips about the place. She told me where the scooter rental was the cheapest and how I could travel around the temples of Angkor Thom. My second inmate was a British national. He had just arrived a couple of days ago and was lazing around here. He had not gone anywhere yet. People who have enough time often do that. They relax in a hostel for days and explore the city in a relaxed phase. However, it wasn’t the case with me. I was travelling on a limited time.
I freshened up and took off on a stroll to explore Siem Reap. I went the Artisan d’Angkor that houses art workshops and trains several local artists. It was interesting to see the stone and wood carving, paintings and metal work.
I next walked to the market area. It was quite impressive. I found some banana candy that I thought was unique to Manglorean cuisine. This place is a foodies paradise - All kinds of dried tropical fruits, Cashew nuts, Palm sugar and more. I thought of buying things from my last destination in the country but I was wrong. The markets of Siem Reap had the most diverse collection and at a best price.
I liked the food courts inside the market. The seller cooked in front of his customers on a small table as they sat around it instructing sometimes on the ingredients they preferred.
I had some crêpes. The french would refuse to call it so and I would agree. It is no comparison to those of France. But, I enjoyed it.
I also found a dish called Nom Khrouk that resembled a South Indian dish called Paddu. Though this is an added ingredient - Coconut milk filling inside rice batter.
I walked past a monastery and the famous pub street that is flooded with pubs and bars and of course travellers and tourists.
By the end of it all, I was extremely tired, so I called it a day and returned to the hostel after a quick dinner at a local restaurant. I had booked for a sunrise tour at the temples of Angkor Thom the following morning and had to be ready to leave by 4:30 AM.