Just as well I like early morning starts.......my flight from BKK to Siem Reap
was an 8am flight so I was out the door literally at sparrow's circa 5:30am. I was quite excited and a little unsure at the same time - oddly so as it's been quite some time that I've felt unsure about travelling solo somewhere totally different. The flight is only an hour from BKK to Siem Reap and before you know it, we are landing at the international airport.
Getting through immigration took me all of about 10 minutes, including waiting time. I can HIGHLY RECOMMEND that if you travel to Cambodia via the main cities to obtain your visa via the eVisa facility which you can obtain and pay for online.
Viewing platform for the sunset over the Tonele Sap
The process of applying for the visa, having it confirmed and issued took all of about 30 minutes - fantastic service!!! Far less administrative than applying through the local Cambodian embassy and far less time time consuming to wait in the line at immigration to have your visa issued there. The line of people arriving off my flight waiting to apply for their visa upon arrival would have numbered to approx 80 and I would imagine that they would have been pretty frustrated lining up and waiting when they could be starting their holiday.
As soon as I had cleared immigration and customs, I scanned the crowd outside looking for my name as my driver was supposed to be picking me up from the airport. After a few nervous minutes of not finding my name written on a placard I finally spotted my name up in lights as it were.
Typical housing along the river
My driver Mr Lee was there to greet me and I was pleased and surprised to find that his English was very good. It turns out that he works for the government and has worked with many American diplomats over the years, so it appears that I had nothing to worry about.
My first impressions within the 20 minute ride from the airport to the hotel were the following: loads and loads of bicyles on the roads, loads of motobikes, roads are proper sealed tar roads, but the sides of the roads are largely dirt, couldn't believe that there were so many LARGE hotels being built on the sides of the roads (which all looked a bit out of place really, but given tourism is the main industry in Siem Reap, I guess this would not be unusual), everybody looks at you but everybody also smiles at you, and it was hot!
Mr Lee took me to my hotel that I was to stay at, the Casa Angkor (standard level hotel approx 10 minutes away from the main town area).
After completing the check in formalities he drove me to a visit a few tourist places of interest and to a few humanitarian projects. First stop was the Angkor National Museum which is a sprawling new-ish museum. Despite being a "national" museum, it is a privately funded museum and is not government run, and my driver was telling me that it is not widely supported as it is a private venture. I guess this is the benefit of having a driver who is a local to tell you things like this....Anyways, I went in to have a sticky beak as it was a good way for me to learn more about the Cambodian history and culture and to get acclimatised to the heat :-) The museum was pretty easy to walk around and it was laid out in an orderly fashion.
You are not allowed to bring your camera though as the majority of the artifacts in the museum are the originals which have been removed and curated at the museum. On my way out collecting my personal belongings, I met a museum attendant who I chatted with at length. This museum attendant was my first taste of what I would come to find as being the local Khmer personality - very open, friendly and inquisitive about where you are from. After asking him for a few recommendations about where to eat, he kindly offered to meet me later in town to show me around the tourist area. He gave me his mobile phone number - which COMPLETELY floored me as yet another of my pre-concevied notions were all being proven wrong - firstly I was concerned about the language barrier which seemed to be a non-existent problem, and secondly, I guess I assumed the financial hardships of the country would limit the use of mobile phones to a precious few, however, this would prove to be completely wrong as I would soon find out.
Anyways, after a couple of hours at the museum, my driver then took me to a couple of local humanitarian projects to visit. The first was a local privately funded school for poor and disadvantaged children, The Amelio School for Children. There were no kids at school on this particular day, but one of the directors of the school was able to walk me around to show me the facilities and to explain how the school came into being. This particular director is an ex-Intrepid tour guide a local Khmer, who wanted to do something positive for his country and he joined this organisation whose main aim is to educate children whose economic situation and/or family location prevents them from affording any schooling for their children.
The project started around 10 years ago and the first building that had been constructed back then was a hut that was close to the river. 10 years later, and after private funding from an Italian family based in Singapore and various other private donations, the school is now a collection of a few buildings on their own land, complete with a library, a computer room and plenty of room for outdoor play and activities. The director proudly showed me photos of the school's development and it's evident that he has a passion for the children and for helping otherwise disadvantaged children that would have no other chance of an education. If you are interested in this project, please visit this website www.caringforcambodia.
Following this, we went to visit a particular project that I specifically had been interested in supporting, the Angkor Assocaiation for the Disabled. This is an NGO set up by a truly inspirational man, a land-mine vicitim, who has made it is mission to help many other land mine victims to become self sufficient and to assist in their rehabilitation. Sem Sovantha is every bit the inspirational man with such a positive spirit and unbridled enthusiasm that comes across in reading other travellers observations (from Lonely Planet, and shock horror, other travel websites such as Trip Advisor) and from his website www.angkorad.org I met with Sem who happily showed me around the facilities and to meet some of the current members who he is housing there.
All of them were varied in their ages from young children to much older men and women. All of them were afflicted with some injury from land mines, some were obvious and others were less obvious. I have not been in a situation where I would be literally surrounded by so many personally affected people of such a tragic war - and it was quite confronting at first. But surprisingly enough, each of these people were so welcoming and had big smiles on their faces that outside visitors would take an interest in their stories, and it was the people that you see and their personalities and not their physical disabilities. Whilst there, I met a guy there named Garry who volunteers there 6 months each year and is from Chicago. He told me about how he came to meet Sem (Garry works for an American company who build and install septic tanks) whilst he was working in Siem Reap.
And he just decided to stay for 6 months to try and help Sem and his organisation, and now he does this each year. Another inspirational person I met on my travels - I marvel at how some people can give up everything that they have for the greater good.......Sem then offered for some of the members to play some traditional Khmer music for me to listen to which was very pleasant. Some of the members are trained to play and perform traditional Khmer music for the tourists, others are taught wood-working/other crafting skills etc in order to be able to sustain an income. After this, I left to go on my boat trip down the Tonle Sap river. Sem excitedly saw me off waving goodbye with his infectious smile and thanked me for visiting - I plan to come back again before I leave.
The drive to the Tonle Sap river took me through many roadside villages and it was here that I really saw the poverty of families who literally live in shacks by the side of the road or by the river. Families with many children - haven't seen so many children around everywhere, I was really quite surprised. I mentioned this to my driver and he said that it was very common to have large families and pretty much the poorer you are, the more children you would possibly have. The area where the boats dock and make the trip along the Tonle Sap river is inundated by tourist buses and the number of children roaming about selling souvenirs and begging for money reminded me of street hawkers selling fake goods, except for the fact that it's difficult to just ignore kids who are looking so obviously needy.
Would strongly suggest that travellers bring loads of single USD bills so if you want to give to a few kids you can. But beware that if you give to one kid, you will more than likely have another bunch of them descend on you. Just be aware as most people are not able to help everyone, as heart breaking as it may be.
The boat ride to view the sunset over the river was via a long motor boat. I was the only person on the 40 seater boat so I had it all to myself. Felt like I was the queen with a personal driver almost! We passed by so many houses made from banana/palm leaves woven together and sticks. They looked so flimsy and they didn't have proper doors/windows. I did notice though that lots of people had mobile phones.
........I found it to be quite an irony that given the obvious poverty of this country, there seemed to be so many people wandering with mobile phones. I asked Mr Lee about this afterwards and he said that it was very cheap to have a mobile phone and that yes, most people have them. The boat ride showcased many floating homes, a church and a few vendors selling goods on their boats. When we arrived at the viewing platform to see the sunset, there were a number of tourists already jostling for space on the wooden platform to take the sunset photos. Stayed here for about 40 minutes and was then on my way back to the land. I actually found the trip back on the boat with the changing colours of the sky at dusk to be more picturesque than the sunset itself. Driving back into the town now that it was dark, highlighted the poverty of the families that lived by the Tonle Sap river. Most of the houses appeared to have no lighting, but then, in another irony, every now and then, I could see the glow of a TV in some of the houses - yet it appeared that there was no lighting. Go figure....
Having completed my first day as a tourist in Siem Reap, I decided to head off into town and to the famous Pub Street where many bars and cafes and tourists hang out. I walked approx 10-15 minutes from my hotel to the town centre and felt quite safe doing so. I ate at a sidewalk cafe Amok and was pleasantly surprised to see that the Lonely Planet again was right that a meal was going to cost me the princely sum of around $3-4 USD. I then went to a bar called The Red Piano, which apparently was made famous by Angelina Jolie when she visited it during the filming of Tomb Raider. It had a great outdoor area at the street level where I parked myself for a couple of hours relaxing with a drink and people watching. Little did I know that this bar would be where I would spend each evening, with the same drink and getting to know the bar staff!!! My friend I had met earlier in the day at the museum came to meet for a drink which was great and we chatted about life in Cambodia. He also took me to a local eatery which afforded me my first tuk tuk trip.