We arrive in Siem Reap late at night and then have to wait to get through the lined row of stern uniformed stamping officials (no smiling from these guys when Nat jokes and hands over my passport saying he's looking a bit different these days). I have mostly been in charge of planning and booking the Asian itinerary for this second part of our trip, but Nat insisted on splashing out on a nice hotel ("splashing out" = spending above £5 each for a room, in case you were wondering) so I handed him the reins for Siem Reap bookings. Big mistake, Chania, big mistake. After a long wait watching everyone else from our flight get picked up outside this tiny airport, I begin to wonder whether Nat has forgotten to arrange our free airport pick up. I can tell by Nat's anxious darting eyes and fidgety weight-shifting that he's also starting to wonder the same thing. I think you can imagine for yourselves the argument that ensued alone outside the airport at 12 am on our first night in Siem Reap... (it went along the lines of "YOU HAD ONE JOB").
We do eventually arrive at the 'splash-out' hotel. It is nice; VERY spacious and sparingly minimalist (I am a fan of the modern minimalist look for sure, but it does slightly jarr with me - coming, as I do, from a certified family of hoarders). I am a big fan of Siem Reap. You can tell it's a well-trodden tourist track, but it's quirky and has character and there are PLENTY of cheap veggie options (looking at you, Philippines). We roam around, briefly chat to a local man who tells us his name is Sony "like the TV!!!!" and then hop on a tuk-tuk (unfortunately not with Sony, he is SO chatty that I can only describe him as having verbal diarrhoea, and as you probably know - any type of diarrhoea, especially on a hot sunny day without shade, is not ideal). We arrive at the Angkor Wat office to buy our tickets for the next day and say a reluctant and hard-hitting goodbye to $37 each. On our way back we are involved in a near crash in the tuk-tuk, but luckily the woman on a motorbike collides with us in the most genteel fashion. When we get back to our hotel we swim in the (very green) hotel pool and my eyeballs feel as if they've being liquidated by the time we get out.
Next day we're up at 04:45 for a sunrise start at Angkor Wat. I'm preparing myself for a life-altering, ground-shattering epiphinal moment of existential realisation as I watch the sun rise behind that well known silhouette of ancient temple spires. We'll be alone, or with a few other explorer types dressed in long trousers with lots of pockets and large binoculars, and we'll marvel at this wonder of human creation in silence and awe. That's the vision. I've seen the Google images and it looks like a good enough place for me to figure out what on earth I'm doing in life. I'm all set for it - even put on a headscarf so that when my transformation from un-knowing to all-knowing occurs, I look the chic sophisticated part. Well. It is a bit of a nasty shock when we arrive and there are already LOADS of people waiting to experience the same thing. Not a pair of binoculars in sight! And the racket! They're not marvelling in silence and awe! It's alright, I tell myself as we walk closer to the temples - this can be a collective, shared human epiphinal moment. In fact - that might make it MORE meaningful. That works for me. Except, as we walk closer, I see there is no space for me to have my existential break-through because EVERYONE is jostling for the best angle and picture. And you know how those perfect photos of Angkor Wat against the skyline appear to be taken from a river (how else would that reflection looks so dazzling?). IT'S A POND. IT'S A SCRAPPY, PATCHY POND. Don't trust Google images, folks. Typical luck that the morning we wake up at 04:45 (abominable) there is no spectacular orange glow which lights up the sky. There is only a very dull purple (and the saturation toggle on my phone). No epiphany for me. Just as clueless as I ever was. We start our temple-touring around 6 am and by 08.12 I am officially templed-out. After a little while all of the expertly carved rocks start to look the same. Problem is, there are no placards to tell you about any of the different temples and last night I fell asleep 10 minutes into the National Geographic documentary on Angkor Wat. By the time we're on our fourth temple my interested culture-vulture mask has well and truly slipped, as has my headscarf. I'm hungry, I've tried acting like Lara Croft and the video playback was distressing and soul-crushing and I'm ready to go back to our nice hotel.
Coming back and skipping the final temple is a great idea - the pool is now clear blue (disconcerting compared to yesterday's algae-ic, chemical green, but reassuringly I've still got my eyesight). Next afternoon we leave for Phnom Penh (this is a whistle-stop Cambodian tour, which does make me want to cry a bit when I think about the visa cost). It’s an interesting bus journey; even though all of the Cambodians on our bus have smart phones none of them seem to possess a pair of headphones, so we listen to a range of music all played out loud, top volume, on several different devices at the same time. It’s a mish-mash of Celine Dion, some extremely fast-paced dance techno, and a dramatic Bollywood duet.
On our first day in Phnom Penh we hire a tuk-tuk driver and learn about the awful
Khmer Rouge Regime. I am shocked (and ashamed) that I hardly know anything about
Cambodia’s harrowing history, and it is an incredibly humbling and grounding
experience. We learn so much, and I conquer my unfortunate propensity for muddling
evil dictator Pol Pot with the operatic wonder Paul Potts, winner of Britain's Got Talent
2007. On a serious note, our time in Phnom Penh was one of the most important parts of the trip, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a visit there to anyone wanting to educate themselves on the heart-breaking history.
After spending bonding time with 10+ cats in the nearby cat cafe, the only natural progression is to traipse across Phnom Penh to see the Lion King.
The place is absolutely heaving and I’m VERY excited to see the film, wondering whether Cambodian cinema culture is similar to British cinema culture. The Titanic-techno-Bollywood bus journey has given me reason to think it might be rather different. I am quite traditional in my preferred cinema viewing. I like a quiet atmosphere; NO CRINKLING and NO TALKING.We settle in for the film with our salted popcorn (which turns out to be sweet and dusted in a very fragrant cheese powder - not sure how THAT happened). The film has started and I am looking around anxiously because people haven’t begun using their hushed voices yet. Film opens up with the wailing Circle of Life and people are STILL talking and laughing in their very loud voices. Sacrilege! 25 minutes in and I’m trying to streamline some positive thoughts (like the fact I’ve got a row of empty seats next to me) when a group of 15 breeze into the cinema, laughing and chatting as if they were out on the street. What IS this new devilry?! The girl who plops down next to me is actually talking full-volume on her phone to somebody else (!!!!!!!!) and I am really struggling to focus on Scar’s embittered monologue. A fascinating experience it is indeed; the girl continues her phone call for a good 10 minutes and then spends the rest of the film sending Whatsapp audio notes to her friends (at normal talking volume, might I add). At home I would TOTALLY go for a sharp poke and violent shake of the head, but last time I did that I hurt my neck and I have a sneaking feeling that this may be the norm here.
Early the next morning we catch a bus to Ho Chi Minh, bribe the customs official (as we are advised to do) and glide into Vietnam (on a bus, not like Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest) ready for the last stretch of our Asian escapades...