Siem Reap, Cambodia // 12 hours in.

  • Siem Reap, Cambodia
  • 15,480 miles flown
  • 13°21′44″N 103°51′35″E
  • Temp: 93 deg
  • Day 8

I’ve lost track of the hours I’ve flown, but three legs AKL >> MEL >> BKK >> REP to Cambodia and feeling rather good. I’m told by Leslie, the owner at Santa Clara where I’m staying, that when you fly with the sun you don’t get jet leg. Sticking with the unplanned theme, I’ll take it.

It didn’t take long to fall in love with Cambodia, in fact it was rather immediate when I was met at the airport by Mr. Lin, my tuk tuk driver. If I could drive tuk tuks in NYC I would, they are quite possibly the most delightful mode of transportation invented. Immediately off the plane you’re awoken with the hit of fresh air in your hair while inhaling the scent of Cambodia, which I can only describe as a perfume of roasting charcoal (every 5 feet on every single road is a roadside food stand), tropical vegetation, and a hint (ok maybe more) of exhaust.

It’s hard to know where to look as you pass monks on one side of the road in their vibrant burnt orange robes, and a family of four on a single moped on the other. Looking forward will remind you that traffic signals are non-existent and it’s an artful jockeying for position between pedestrians, bikes, mopeds, tuk tuks and cars all sharing a path where the right and wrong side of the road are merely suggestions. This comedy is set to the sounds of regular muppet-like “meep meep” horns that are more enjoyable than annoying.

Arriving at the Santa Clara is a bit like a modern oasis, set apart from the fray. It’s run by an Aussie husband-wife team, Leslie and Mary, who greet you with smiles and a refreshing welcome drink upon arrival. Quite wonderfully, they also arrange all your bookings for you so you don’t have care in the world as you plan to navigate Siem Reap. And when you return back each day they’re there for a chat to soak in the stories of your adventures and offer warm conversation at the open air bar or while you lounge, poolside. The rooms are exceptional with a rain shower as large as the bedroom. If you visit Siem Reap, I wouldn’t think of staying anywhere else.

As soon as I arrived I dropped my bags at my small oasis, brushed my teeth, washed my face and promptly turned right back around with Mr. Lin to go explore the Old Market in the heart of the city. Where to begin. The market is a covered open air building with a combination of rows and rows of vendors all selling the same thing (dried fruit, nuts, spices) and farmers selling, well, see for yourself…

This, of course, was a food-lovers dream (although slightly concerned about the lack of refrigeration.) I grabbed some lunch at a nearby restaurant that was packed with locals (a good sign to any traveler) and happily sucked down a fresh banana smoothie and beef lok lok (fried egg atop stir fried DELICIOUS beef). The best thing about Cambodia? Everything is a dollar. Want a Khmer coffee? $1. Any fresh fruit smoothie? $1. Bartering for a beach wrap? Starts at $8, ends at $1.

Jet leg started to set in, but that was quickly overcome by my afternoon bike tour through the back roads of Cambodia with an organization called KKO, an NGO that teaches Khmer children from the countryside English and other vocational skills to set them up for a better life. The bike ride was not a leisurely excursion, but a grinding 4-hour ride through the red-dirt farmland with stops at the school, rice paddies, a local mushroom farm, a pagoda and finally a lotus farm. It was every bit amazing and exhausting with a true view into what life is like for most Cambodians.

The KKO School

The mushroom farm operation was truly impressive. A slurry of sawdust, rice porridge and limestone are mixed and filled into plastic bags, which are then steamed for 12 hours to create an environment ripe for growing the oyster mushrooms. The bag’s slurry begin to turn white, at which point a hole in the top is cut to leave room for the shroom to grow, the bag is set horizontally in a web of string to hang, out of which mushrooms will be harvested every two weeks for four months and then the cycle will begin again.

A visit to the cooling, shaded Buddhist pagoda was a much needed break after several hours under the Cambodian sun. With our blood sugar running a little low, I shared a bag of peanut M&Ms with my guide Lyna (who does this ride 5 days a week) — his first exposure to our candy-coated gems. While we took refuge out of the sun he explained the history of what was once a Hindu country and is now 90% Buddhist. These two religions often come together in combined symbols on many buildings, which you can see by the four-sided elephant outside the Buddhist pagoda, a largely Hindu icon. The red and gold stupas are family graves, the size of which varies depending on wealth. And the pig, well he has 5 toes, so is considered lucky and destined to live a life of comfort at the pagoda.

Last stop, Lotus farm. The lotus flower is a symbol of purity in Cambodian culture and often found depicted in art and at important cultural events such as weddings. As the sun was starting to set, we approached the water-bogged farm and roadside huts at quite possibly the most instagrammable hour. I made friends with the children from the farm who shared a bouquet to open and snack on the seeds inside, which are often used in Cambodian desserts. The best way to describe them is nutty, and at the end of this ride a welcomed delight.

Day 1 in the books. The only way to end such an epic first 12 hours in Cambodia is with a $14 90-minute massage back at the Santa Clara. Is there any reason not to love this country? I’m struggling to find one.

Xo, xt

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