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Siem Reap and the time Cambodia poisoned us

Two manual wheels instead of motorbikes!

Once more beleaguered by Tuk-tuks, but this time twice the price of Phnom Penh, we searched desperately for a mode of transport which wouldn’t ruin us in 5 days. We read in many forums that foreigners were banned from hiring scooters, put off we looked instead at bicycles. Finding a hotel which rented them for $2 per day we went to check it out. Proudly displayed at the White Elephant were a fleet of rusty town bikes. Simon approached one and tried the brake hesitantly. It immediately sprung out of its housing with a rusty grunt. He tried the next bike to the same effect, all of them were crumbling! Alex picked the best bike as the brakes didn’t come apart but they protested when activated and slowed the bike piecemeal rather than the sudden stop one might expect from an efficient bike.

On the way to Siem Reap, the bus had stopped at various food stalls. Intrigued by the mounds of shiny bugs we checked out what was on offer. Not quite feeling brave enough for deep fried Cicada we opted for plain pineapple, served chopped in a sandwich bag. The pineapple came back to haunt us the next day when Alex suffered a touch of food poisoning. Deciding not to eat all day was a good idea. What was not a good idea was deciding to walk all the way to Angkor Wat where we’d heard Angelina Jolie’s new film was premiering (First They Killed my Father) and being shown on the Elephant terrace for free. We couldn’t get any proper information on the premiere- i.e. if tickets were available, if it was only free for locals, if it was invitation only, if you needed tickets to Angkor Wat to get in and no-one we asked in Siem Reap had any idea about the premiere. In fact, the only person who knew anything about the whole thing was a mean looking surly man who sat drinking beer with his mates at a local joint. When we told him (after the event) that we’d tried to go, he laughed and said he was employed as a driver for the premier but he’d rather

South Gate Angkor Wat

be dead than go and see it.

We asked why and he said he knew enough about the Khmer Rouge, that he didn’t need to see a silly film to learn more. Then he laughed raucously with his mates when he translated what we’d asked (i.e. if the film was advertised to people) and they turned to us and said “Cheers!” raising their glasses.


We were baffled by the response, maybe Angelina Jolie is not accepted as openly in some circles as others. Anyway, the night of the premiere, Alex had bravely tried to walk all the way to Angkor Wat, making it as far as 10km on foot with crippling abdominal pain before dramatically fainting 1km away from the screening.


Coming to four minutes later, she could only hear Simon shouting for help and a monk at her feet trying to ask if she was OK. Feeling pretty clammy and seriously unwell, the only plan was to take a dreaded Tuk-Tuk back to the hotel and miss the premiere. One came past and agreed with the Monks that $10 was a reasonable rescue fee (on the way to Angkor Wat the fare was $15).


Holed up in the hotel for the next four days, eating only bread and crackers, Simon also fell ill. Whether it was transferred from Alex or from the raw vegetables Cambodian’s serve their grilled steak with, will remain unknown. Either way, the only cure was antibiotics as food poisoning for 4 days straight is pretty weakening!

Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat was crowded with people. We purchased our tickets 3km before the entrance. The bicycles were a great idea until we realised that 3km to the ticket counter meant another 3km back to the entrance on top of the 10km we’d cycled from town. Exercise is all well and good unless you are recovering from Cambodian stomach storms! We limped into Angkor Wat and visited at the bicycle’s maximum break-neck speed of 10 km/h the whole temple complex.

A stupa within the temple











We saw the last remaining Linga on the site (representing the male in Hindu or symbolic of Shiva) nestled in its corresponding female cradle. We saw Stupas and sculptures, reliefs in the stone and symbology from both Hinduism and Buddhism.  Just as sunset was coming in, we saw monks filing out of Angkor Wat, closely followed by the guards- poised and ready to throw out all tourists who dared to tread in the temple past 5:25pm.  The whole area is heavily policed and is unpleasantly filled with fast scooters, noisy tuk-tuks, speeding tourist buses all spewing fumes and noise. We both agreed the place would benefit hugely from a ban on exhaust fumes by moving to solely electric bikes, buses and bicycles.

The moat of Angkor Wat

Carved reliefs of the wall of Angkor Thom

Outside the temple complex, there are a million food stalls jostling for space, touts trying to convince you to hire a chair or listen to their loud cheesy-techno rave music. A thousand people crowd in the shoreline or in the shops, others cry “Mrs, Mrs- cold water? Coconut? Juice? Mr, Mr – Coca-Cola? Cold Water?”

Cycling gamely through the barrage, Alex found herself cycling in cadence with a young boy on a big bike. “Hello, how are you?” He gave a huge grin and cycled faster, she cycled faster and grinned back. “You are SO FAST!” He laughed and agreed. Cycling together for a little longer, he soon peeled off to join a raucous group of small children by the waterfront. The kids were so much friendlier than their parents.

Sunset in Angkor wat

Boat trips in Tonle Sap lake



Tonle Sap Lake near Siem Reap was only an hour’s cycle away. We set off, expecting a beautiful lake or the possibility of taking a boat. The latter was indeed possible, for the cost of $20 you could share a tiny boat with 20 others for an hour’s tour and see a floating market.

We opted not to take the boat trips as depressingly, all these places were relatively expensive but none of them showed any signs of the money reaching the people or the country on a basic level.


Sunset across the lotus fields

We were getting irritated by the high prices not being reflected in the upkeep or in the welfare of the people and wondered where all the money was going. Thousands of tourists visit Angkor Wat daily at a minimum of $37 each, hundreds take the boats at $20 each, some even take tuk-tuks at $10-20 each but everyone is still visibly struggling. We passed a lotus flower field and gladly handed money to see the flowers as it was clearly going straight to the family who tended the flowers. We walked along the dykes shoring the fields and saw so many pink flowers at all stages of growth. A young girl came up lotus holding a lotus flower and running her fingers across the petals made it open and close as if by magic!

Lotus fields

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