Entry #39 of our travel diary. Our first week in Cambodia. We started and ended our week in Siem Reap, with some time in between for great birdwatching in the NE of the country.
28-30 November 2016 – First days in Siem Reap
As soon as we crossed the border, I instantly noticed the chaos, pollution and poverty. Chaos related to the extensive “offers” for tourists from huge casinos to transportation options. Pollution – from dust on the roads and construction works to plastic rubbish on the sides of the road. And poverty – lots of poor-looking people and beggars (including small children or mothers with small babies in their hands). Despite of common knowledge, I wasn’t prepared for it. And although I feel Thailand is too sanitised for my taste, it is something one learns to appreciate at times.
We followed the guide book from two years ago thinking we’d be clever and won’t get into sort of a ‘scam’ when they take us to a tourist bus station with overpriced bus tickets. They are as clever as we are. They’d moved the ‘international’ bus station to the one from where the local buses used to depart. And no-one disclosed where the local buses are.
Anyway, we eventually arrived to Siem Reap by the private ‘taxi’ who wanted to drop us at the entrance of the city saying that the tuk-tuk will take us farther and we don’t need to pay. The tuk-tuk driver immediately requested us to take a tour with him the following day. We refused and he (fair enough) refused to take us for free. Soon after we realised we couldn’t walk 10 meters without someone shouting “Tuk-tuk!?”
We took it easy in Siem Reap for the first days. Walked around, had some food, arranged further plans, etc. We were warned not to support any begging and not to buy any items (including baby milk-powder!) upon request from someone. Only once, though, someone approached offering to visit an orphanage and asking to ‘donate’ some books. For that we also have been warned.
For me it was a big confusion when I got to know that the US dollar is used extensively in the country. And although there is a local currency riel we could withdraw only US dollars and the prices in most of the places are indicated in dollars. The most confusing is when for the first time you get a change partially in dollars and partially in riel. The prices were another unpleasant surprise. Most of drinks and food cost almost as it would cost, for example, in Latvia. And we couldn’t find a single ‘local’ place. It seems there is none.
I also experienced the worst massage in my whole life, and suffered from back pain for the next two days. Once an ayurvedic doctor told me not to allow anyone to touch my back, if he/she doesn’t have a clue what is doing. I should have listened to him. Every second establishment down the street is a massage parlour. I chose one that looked somewhat professional. But the massage was simply unprofessional and harsh, and on top of that the woman was watching a soap-opera on her smartphone. As soon as she would need to change the position, she would first place her phone in the best position. In any case, it was my own stupidity that I didn’t stop this nonsense as soon as I felt it is wrong. I somehow felt pity for the girl. Now I’m avoiding massages.
Crossing the border was easier than I expected. No queues on both sides, almost no crooks trying to scam us, no questions asked about accommodation, return tickets, or other nonsense. On the Cambodian side a free bus took us to a bus station. An empty bus station, something hard to imagine in SE Asia. Then we got it. This was the “International Tourist Bus Station”, meaning over-priced transportation for westerners. “Where is the local bus station?” No one knew or wanted to tell us. Prices were high and not enough tourists meant that we had to wait until the minivan was full. So I went out to the main street and tried to get a local transport. Without much success, again people didn’t know or wanted to tell me. Finally I managed to get a taxi that took us to Siem Reap for the same price we would pay for the minivan.
Since our friend Jacques only arrives in a few days, we decided not to visit Angkor Wat in the first days. We took our time to plan our stuff and relax. My first impressions of Siem Reap: Massive tourist hub, with all kinds of tourists, from backpackers to big Chinese groups; Expensive, both accommodation and food, with many businesses run by westerners; Difficult to find local markets and food at “normal” Asian prices. Constant tourist harassment, particularly from tuk-tuk drivers.
On the second day we went for a birdwatching day to ATT, a reservoir surrounded by rice fields, great for wintering storks and waders. Good birds but very hot day, and a bit boring birdwatching with plenty of field scoping.
1-3 December 2016 – Birdwatching in Tmatboey
Once you have a birdwatcher boyfriend you have no other choice as to put up with it, especially when you’re in such a long trip together. Luis found this one company that does amazing job in both nature and bird conservation projects, by educating and raising awareness of the locals at the same time giving them job opportunities. Still, the price for the three-day tour was without any doubts very high. Luis convinced me to take it, giving it as a gift to my upcoming birthday. Although I’m far from being a birdwatcher the two and a half days we spent in nature and off-the-beaten-track gave me a totally different perspective of Cambodia. And I will cherish it as the best memory from Cambodia (so far).
The forest we spent most of time walking and trying to spot the birds was also somewhat different from any other forests, with less dense tree vegetation, lots of open space, different flora. And there is a certain thrill to wake up at night and walk in the forest in complete darkness hoping there are no snakes or leeches. And all this just to see a bird! But what a bird it was! Only later I found out that there are about 300 birds of this species left in the world and 90% are in Cambodia.
We also passed by the villages and took a glimpse of a daily life of the locals. In search of birds we marched through the rice fields while the farmers with a sickle in the hand would point towards the direction the wanted bird just flew. This is how the awareness is raised. If we, tourists, come here, the money also comes to their village. To preserve it, they should not harm the birds or destroy their habitat. Sometimes the farmers even get paid not to cut down the tree the birds particularly happen to ‘like’.
And for these three days I enjoyed a great deal the company of our funny guide and the Australian couple in their early seventies. I just wish to be as fit as they are when I reach that age. Not a single objection when we had to climb a shabby-looking ladder to get to the wooden platform located on the treetop in the middle of the lake.
After lots of thought and discussion we went for a 3-day birding trip to Tmatboey. This open-forest area is the best place on earth to see two of the most endangered birds in the world, the Giant Ibis and the White-Shouldered Ibis. To protect these birds from extinction there is a comprehensive conservation programme, involving (and paying) the local communities to protect the animals (and the nests) as well as training them as local guides.
We joined a couple from Australia for the 3-day trip. We actually started with a visit to Prek Toal lake, the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia. There is a bird sanctuary and when the water levels are low, thousands of cormorants, storks, egrets and other congregate here. We were a bit early in the season and the numbers were not that impressive, but we managed to see the target species (for me was the Greater Adjutant, a very ugly and big stork). We also visited the local communities living in floating villages, which was interesting and not as touristy as in Myanmar.
After a long drive we arrived to Tmatboey and immediately walked to the roosting site for the White-Shouldered Ibis. In the evening around 30 birds fly to the same dead tree where they spend the night. Next day our target was the Giant Ibis, and we had to wake up at 3:40am, drive for 10min and walk more than 1km through dark forest. When the local guides spotted the birds we waited quietly hiding in the chest-high grass until the day got clear. These are very shy birds and if they are disturbed on their roosting sites they will fly away and would be very difficult to find them. Short after sunrise they flew from the tree and they will spend the whole day in deep forest, most of the time eating eels and frogs. The rest of the day we spent birding for other beautiful birds. Next day a bit more birding before going back to Siem Reap, with a stop in Koh Ker.
It was an expensive but worthwhile birding trip. Sam Veasna guides are very knowledgeable and do a great work with the communities. On top of that, it is virtually impossible to find these birds without local help, so I’m pleased for these 3 days.
4-5 December 2016 – Again in Siem Reap
We returned from the birdwatching tour on the same day as our friend Jacques arrived from Thailand, so we had some more days to explore Siem Ream and the famous Angkor. As for Siem Reap, it is one of most touristy place I’ve seen in a long time. And it is preferred by both backpackers and solo-travellers and groups (the most obvious are those from China). The city centre is always busy but it gets especially flashy and loud during the night – so many lights, music in each bar, the famous night market, massage parlours convincing every passer-by to become a client, and dozens of restaurants offering variety from traditional Khmer dishes to pizza and burger.
One cannot be in Siem Ream (or Cambodia) and skip the visit of one of ‘the world wonders’. We dedicated one full day to it. It seemed everyone goes to the main temple for the sunrise. We chose to sleep longer and go there an hour later. It was a good decision. When we arrived there was a stream of people flowing out of the temple compound.
I wanted to take a guide who explained everything. And we got one. The guy was quite ok, sometimes going into circles repeating things. Luis seemed to be bored and kept quiet most of the times. The only time he spoke was when the guide explained the wall murals of the temple. He recited a myth about a great fight between an army of soldiers and an army of monkeys. He repeatedly said it was just a myth, thus not a true story. And here Luis stepped in and with a serious face announced: I think it is true. The guide exclaimed: What? It cannot be true! Monkeys cannot fight!
By the end of the tour all three of us felt exhausted. It is a really big compound. A lot to walk and explore. And the heat of the day hits hard.
Even though we managed to escape the biggest crowds, it was still a tiring day for us. We saw only the three main temples, the Bayon temple being my favourite. In between we had a lunch in an overly expensive eatery near the temples. In each of places there would be dozens of people offering refreshments and souvenirs. Overall it is a ‘must see’ but one should take it easy, gather a lot of patience and be ready to cope with the heat.
Jacques arrived previous night and we met in the morning. Everyone was a bit tired so we left the temples for the next day. In the evening we went to a traditional dances show, called Apsara dances. I was not really prepared for the venue. A giant restaurant with a buffet-style dinner. Around 2000 people, 95% of them Chinese. Most of them went there to eat and drink like pigs, not even caring about the dances. Half way through the show, most of them were gone. Busy scheduled holidays, no time to loose. The same kind of tourism we experienced (and hated) in China. The dances were ok but I could not enjoy them in such a place.
Next day we finally visited Angkor. People call the place Angkor Wat but that is actually just the main temple of a huge complex of buildings and ruins in the old city of Angkor. There are way too many temples to see in one day so we focused on the main areas (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm). My favourite was Angkor Thom. We planned carefully our schedule to avoid the Chinese groups and we partially managed to arrive to the places when there was not so many people around.
People compare Angkor with Bagan in Myanmar. I find both places impressive and beautiful. Maybe Angkor is more splendid and varied, but the experience of Bagan, driving our scooters through the small roads, was the best. Angkor, with all the tourist madness, felt more like ticking a box.