Khmer (Nils Petter Molvaer)

The ‘Land of Smiles’ title should rightfully be handed to Cambodia instead of Thailand, as we came to realise throughout our 6-day trip to Siem Reap starting 10th June. Be it the welcoming staff of the hotels or the many ordinary folks we encountered daily, wealthy or poor; the latter more frequently. Tara Angkor Hotel was deemed a suitable base to start our explorations of the temple grounds, especially the majestic Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Rated #1 by Tripadvisor but with surprisingly modest room rates, we weren’t expecting much as we would be out often throughout our 2-night stay. It was alright with competent staff nonetheless.

Same, the driver whom we had engaged to bring us around for most of the time, proved reliable with his knowledge of the various temples and assisted with whatever information I had gathered prior to our trip, particularly with regards to restaurants serving Halal food, like D’Wau and Muslim Family Restaurant. He was always on time, even when called upon to bring me to Angkor Wat for a sunrise shoot at 5 in the morning. Not early enough it seems as daylight was already rampant by the time I reached the favourite photography spot. Having visited Borobudur, Angkor Wat is miles ahead in terms of scale and grandeur, the intricate carvings throughout the complex would take years to appreciate and decipher. So equipped with just a 3-day pass, it was somewhat of a rush trying to visit as many temples as possible, especially those in the outskirts of Siem Reap, like Banteay Srei.

Templed-out by the third day, we headed to Hôtel de la Paix for our next 3-night stay, a contemporary hotel decked out with Art Déco elements, housing some of Siem Reap’s world-class restaurants under its roof. Apart from being visually stunning with its many architectural details, it’s also a socially-responsible hotel, judging by its support for the less-privileged community. With staff remembering you by name, it’s hard not to be repeat guests.

Trips out of the town area are what Cambodia is all about, as French colonial-inspired buildings give way to acres of paddy fields interspersed with water buffaloes and the locals going about their daily lives. Along the way one will also see many non-governmental organisations, with the typical foreigner sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the Cambodian kids; volunteering as teachers throughout their stay in Siem Reap.

We visited Puok Silk Farm to learn about the process of making silk, where Ooyah valiantly held a chunky silk worm, and Artisans d’Angkor, where the Cambodians’ excellent craftsmanship was put on display for sale. We also managed to catch an Apsara dance performance at Sophea Angkor Pich Restaurant, not exactly a great venue to appreciate one of the prides of Cambodian culture, with its bustling surrounding of people making beelines for the buffet tables.

The fourth day was set aside for some horse-riding at The Happy Ranch Horse Farm, with stables of well-groomed horses and managed by the hands-on and friendly Mr Sary Pann, who also entertained Ooyah’s love for horses by letting her feed and bath Geronimo. An hour’s worth of ride through the scenic countryside affording close encounters with the local villagers, that cost as much as the 15-minute ride Ooyah had in Langkawi. Needless to say I had to join in.

The highlight of our trip was the almost 2-hour boat ride at Tonlé Sap, a massive freshwater lake where many Vietnamese and Cham communities live on floating villages around it. It was indeed an eye-opener for us to see their living conditions first hand. We stopped for a while at a school for the poor and also a floating platform where a restaurant was located next to a few seemingly hungry crocodiles. We were making our return trip from there when dark clouds loomed above and a storm took place. Caught in a storm with the boat stuck among thick water hyacinths is hardly much to call a holiday, but having seen the faces of those around us trying to live normally amidst such conditions was mesmerising. One image that’s forever etched in our minds is that of the drenched young boy above trying with all his might to help his family push their sampan through the water hyacinths. Whatever hardship we may face in our lives back in Singapore don’t even come close.

We spent the following 2 days just relaxing in our hotel and enjoying the Cambodian people’s friendliness and hospitality. Same sent us back to the airport on the final day and we promised to use his services again when we return. How could we not?

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~ by blackcadillac73 on July 6, 2011.

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