I strained and stretched on the plane to try and catch a glimpse of the temples as we descended over Tonle Sap but alas I was on the wrong side of the plane and couldn’t see them coming in. What you couldn’t miss flying in however, glancing out of the window, was the West Baray. Its enormous majesty and sheer size is such that I mistook it for the airport runway, indeed it eclipses anything else in the area with its magnitude.
The first thought as I disembarked the Boeing 737 was the heat. Like walking into a sauna, the thick heavy air hit hard, especially after 36 hours of travel and very little sleep. Despite this, during the short walk from plane to terminal I simply couldn’t stop smiling. It’s the archaeology you read about as a child; mysterious temples hidden in the jungle, adventure and romance. Finally that dream was coming true. Despite my Channel Island passport gaining a few strange looks by the woman at the immigration desk, I got through quickly and thankfully discovered my bags had also managed to make the three flights I’d been on since Armidale!
A proud moment in my career followed as, for the first time I was met at the airport by a guy with my name on a sign! The guy was Nell, who had come from my hotel to collect me in his tuk-tuk. He rode a fantastically charming, rickety old contraption that seemed to be either about to fall apart or stand forever as a piece of engineering genius! He was not alone. The streets were filled will all manner of motorcycle drawn carriages from trikes through to cattle carts. Nell and I sped off into my unknown and after I had stopped nervously giggling, he asked if I want to see the temple quickly before the hotel. How could I refuse! It was from afar, and down a busy highway but today my eyes saw one of the truly most impressive structures humanity have ever conceived of.
I longed to go closer but fatigue was seriously setting in so it was on to the hotel for a shower (I stank by this point), some rest, and air conditioning. Mostly the air conditioning! The hotel is boutique in the best kind of way; it is small but perfectly formed. The friendly staff were jokey about my bright yellow tool bag but happily carried it up the 3 flights of stairs to my boutique room. I managed a very brief walk (to the nearest shop for water) before collapsing for a rest.
The dangerous combination of time-zone change, lack of sleep and over load on caffeine had thankfully abated by early evening so I asked Nell (I already want to call him good old Nell!) to drive me to Siem Reap’s famed and correctly named ‘Pub Street’ in order to seek out some traditional Khmer grub. To be honest, anything would have been better than another Air Malaysia ready meal. By that point but I had heard such promise of local food, that I was excited by the prospect of something new. After wandering for a while, I settled at the place that looked most like an ‘English café’, by which I mean the sort of place the locals may go and not just a quasi-chain for tourists. (The 50¢ a beer sign outside might have also had something to do with it!)
After fairly standard spring rolls I was presented with a ‘Khmer Curry’. It sounded authentic and was indeed different from the other Asian curries I had tried in Europe and elsewhere. A sour coconut base with liquorish and clove hints gave an unusual but enjoyable taste. It wasn’t quite as adventurous as I had hoped but for an intro to the local culinary tastes and after all the travel, I could have done a lot worse. The evening was concluded by testing out a few bars on Pub Street and wandering in the night market.
First day in Siem Reap accomplished, time to go and look at some temples tomorrow!