Okay, approximately two weeks later, I guess we have a spare moment to tell you about our most recent trip to Cambodia. We apologize for the delay, I know everyone's been waiting with bated breath, but things have been busy.

We took a 4 day, 3 night trip to Siem Reap right at the end of January. Siem Reap is the closest town to the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Stretching over some 400 square kilometers, including forested area, the park contains the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire of the 9th to the 15th centuries, including the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Most of the Angkor buildings were built of wood, so nothing remains. What is left are the brick and stone temples built by the Khmer kings. There are over 100 Angkorian monuments around Siem Reap, the most famous being Angkor Wat.

We left first thing in the morning on a Thursday. We arrived at our hotel/guesthouse at 8 a.m., and were impressed to learn we could go ahead and check into our room and drop bags before we met our highly recommended tour guide Soluy for the first day's adventure.

She took us to lots of really neat temples. I have largely forgotten the order of events, but we went to Angkor Thom, Bayon temple, Baphoun temple, Elephant terrace, Leper king terrace, Preah Palay temple, Phnom Bakheng, Preah Khan temple, Neak Pean, the Rolous group, and Preah Ko. (Here's a good temple-by-temple guide.) We did also see Angkor Wat of course, but not until Friday. Those temples range in age from sometime in the 9th century to the late 1100's. I don't feel I need to say a whole lot about them, the photos speak more loudly.
They are definitely some pretty neat structures and decorations.

There's lots of history lessons, about how they often went back and forth from Hindu to Buddhist temples, and back, as the leadership changed. Some depict scenes of wars with neighboring Vietnamese or Thai, others scenes from everyday life. By the way I did not realize before arriving that there were more temples than just Angkor Wat.

Some of the temples are dramatically overrun by trees that seem to have sprouted directly from the stone:

And more temple pictures...

All travel was done by tuk-tuk. You can see us enjoying this open-air ride here:
We'd done some tuk-tuk riding before (basically a motorcycle with a little carriage on back, enough for 2 to ride quite comfortably, or several more potentially) in Bangkok, but it was vastly different. In Thailand, the name of the game was avoiding scams. Tuk-tuks were a means of taking you to a cousin's jewelry shop, it was no-holds barred with attempted ripoff on the price, the air quality was terrible, and all driving in Thailand involves multiple brushes with death, so we only took one during our vacation there. However, in Cambodia we were pleasantly surprised to find tuk-tuk an excellent mode of transportation. The air was clean, the temperature was very pleasant for our entire stay, the driving was quite reasonable, and if you got "ripped off" because you forgot to negotiate a price before getting in, you paid $1.50 instead of $1. Our only recommendation related to this is that you bring some sunglasses, as not having the wind and dust in your eyes is welcome (we both fortuitously brought ours).
We also enjoyed our guide, just being able to ask her any and all questions about her life (she is about our age), giving, I think, a lot more insight into Cambodia. Her grandfather, for instance, was killed by Pol Pot's armies during our lifetime. We also learned that she has contracted malaria on multiple occasions, and lost a friend to it. But she was ridiculously overmotivated if even 50% honest about all of the things she is involved in. She was a camera expert and her pay rate would have been worth it just for the photography lessons, for instance. She was also passionate about the history of her country, about its food, etc.

Speaking of food, we loved it. Somewhat reminiscent of Thai food, but I think we enjoyed it even more. There is one dish called amok, I believe it's standard basic fare, but it is really good-- just a coconut based curry sauce with chicken or fish and rice, but, well, you'd just have to taste it. Complex flavors, slightly sweet, yum yum yum. Most of the dishes we had involved complex flavors, vegetables, and herbs. Another memorable dish was beef lok lak. Here's one photo we remembered to take of some food:
I was a bit surprised to find Siem Reap a small, but decent-sized little city, with lots of options for food, even including Mexican and Italian and pizza, not to mention crocodile burgers and kangaroo steaks. There was also a bustling little nightlife, centered appropriately on pub street, where many bars advertised 50 cent draft beer and $1.50 cocktails. Mojitos weren't bad either.
Friday morning we woke up fairly early again and took a 1+ hour tuk-tuk ride to a small fishing village on the enormous Tonlé Sap lake. The village is a bit odd because it has to deal with the fact that the water level rises some 25 feet in wet season. A river actually reverses its direction of flow twice a year related to the season changes. Anyway this means people build their houses way up on stilts, and what are roads in the dry season are rivers come monsoon.

Once arriving in the village, we got into a boat and took a ride down what is actually a small river and out into the main lake. Along the way we saw other floating houses, families traveling by boat, kidlets waving to get our attention:

dogs standing guard:

and boats loaded with goods for sale.

Once in the lake, we briefly docked with a small group of boats that had completed some fishing, and now had set up a little assembly line of cleaning, cutting, and packing fish in ice (ice blocks are packed in sawdust on the boat and the guy in the red hat is shaving ice) and into containers for export.
Regarding the houses and living conditions we saw, it's a little bit strange to me-- at a glance you think these people are probably pretty poor, but actually the houses are quite large, though in general only a single room, the structures seem well built, some even on concrete stilts, many are colorful, etc. There just seems to be no fight for land, but then, the government owns it all. On our way into the village, we passed a "shop" which had a generator running, connected to several car batteries. Our guide informed us this was a recharging station, and households would use these car batteries to power a few small things in their houses, including battery-powered TVs. Additionally, most of the people living there had cell phones. In some ways that makes perfect sense, as I don't imagine there were any land lines available. But there's a sort of paradox in my mind considering people that don't have a whole lot and live a basic life of fishing, yet have cell phones.
Kids playing at the local monastery/school that's built on land near the lake.

It was also interesting that we saw a number of naked or bottomless young children-- however all of them were boys, the girls were all covered. From what I could tell there was not a clear reason why some wore no clothes, you would see a group of children playing together, and perhaps only one would be naked. I'm not sure if it had anything to do with a lack of owning clothes or more to do with kids being kids and parents letting them do what they want.

You've already seen that we crashed a wedding here in the village-- basically we heard the music while floating down the river, and Soluy told us it was a wedding, asked if we'd be interested in going to see. We declined, saying how we obviously were not invited, weren't appropriately dressed, and didn't want to crash anyone's wedding, but she insisted that they'd be happy to have us... so we went. What we saw was just the party portion-- not actually sure if the couple was already married and this was the after-ceremony or if the order was different (it's a multiple day event).

The bride, as you can see, was very done up, and melting in the heat. We tried to just observe, but the groom's mother (the formal hostess) quickly insisted that we pose for pictures. Soluy told us this was so they could show pictures to their friends and say how their wedding was so good, foreigners came to see it. Pretty much everyone at the wedding was very kind and hospitable, even inviting us to stay and eat with them. Soluy declined on our behalf, telling us later that they wash the food in the river and we wouldn't have fared well. It was pretty neat. Oh and for the record, yes the guy next to me is holding my hand. I don't know why, but I look more uncomfortable with it than I actually was.

On our return trip to Siem Reap, we stopped for a snack on the side of the road. I never learned the appropriate name for these, but they are sticks of bamboo, and inside is placed rice, red beans, coconut milk, and sugar. They are then sealed and cooked over a fire. The bamboo browns and adds some woody flavor, and the rice comes out a little crunchy at the edges, but all stuck together so you can break a bit off. You just peel the bamboo back: see photos. They were dirt cheap and quite a filling little snack. We had them again on Saturday.

So speaking of Saturday, Soluy talked Alli into waking up at 4 a.m. in order to photograph Angkor Wat at sunrise. I'd decided prior to the trip that I wasn't up for this, since we got up at 4 (3 once you consider the time change) on Thursday to make our flight to Siem Reap, and didn't sleep in any other day. But Soluy was persuasive, at least for Alli. She tried to wear me down, but I stayed strong. Be sure to comment on how lovely Alli's sunrise photos are so she won't regret this missed sleep. (You can see the stars in the first one.)

When Alli returned, we had breakfast, rented bikes from our hotel ($2 for the whole day), and then spent the majority of the day riding over to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, just around and all over. Again, this is something we wouldn't have signed up for based on expectations, but it was quite relaxing and easy, no motorcycles or tuk-tuks tried to run us over anywhere. Near Angkor Thom, we stopped to have a look at the local monkeys. Of course we're old hat at this now (monkeys, no big deal!)-- but we decided we should stop and be in awe just the same. We pulled up along side a small family with 2 small boys, who were having a snack of rice cakes, and then sharing every other bite with the local population. It was quite entertaining. The little boys were very brave and the parents were just laughing. Every once in a while one of the monkeys would try to climb on one of the children or make sort of gestures as if to bite, but the monkeys seemed quite tame (brazen but tame), and we just sat and watched for a solid 20 minutes or so as the game continued. Nobody was injured during our viewing.

We chose personally not to feed or pet any of the monkeys, but I can't imagine how excited I would have been as a child to feed and play with real live monkeys. Back on the topic of biking, it almost goes without saying, but Alli is really living up to her medium tough labeling.
Saturday night we went to a Khmer dance show at a restaurant. Fairly entertaining, food again was excellent.
And Sunday we headed back home. So in summary, we really liked Siem Reap a lot. I'm not sure how it would be on a return visit-- the only things that weren't that cheap were the temple passes, so a return might not include much temple-viewing-- but again, the atmosphere, food, people-- we were very pleased with all of that. I think it might be our favorite travel destination yet.